21 July, 2019

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The Economy: Darkening Skies Or Dire Straits?

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

This time last year, the global economy was on the path to recovery. Commodity prices were picking up, particularly in the emerging economies, investor confidence was growing, financing conditions were rapidly improving, and the prediction was that the momentum would be carried forward to the next year, even decade. But bigger growth did not mean bigger potential growth, and the momentum, which investors and economists had banked on, collapsed within less than a year. The reasons adduced for this collapse are almost always the same: total factor productivity has weakened, and the rise of commodity prices and exports has decelerated.

That was not the bigger picture, however. The tariffs between the US and China, which had an impact on about 2.5% of global trade (a significant amount), the interest rate hikes in the US (against the wishes of no less a figure than the President), and the capital flight from emerging and developing economies that led to steep depreciations of their currencies (a trend that has slowed down now, and, according to financial publications like Forbes Magazine, might slow down even more from the second half of this year) were factors that obviously loomed over if not trivialised the problem of weakening factor productivity.

Investors are scaling back on the kind of investments they are making. As of early December last year, the S&P 500 fell by more than 8% and this despite the usual positivity associated with the festive season (in December 2017 it grew by almost 1% and in December in the previous year it grew by almost 2%). Investors were obviously hoping for sunny skies throughout 2018, which was at one level an year of false hopes. In this scheme of things, people are thinking twice about risk, and they are moving away from high risk investments to safer assets.

A survey conducted by BlackRock Inc indicates this shift quite clearly: while participants said they would increase their share of real assets, private equity, and real estate by 54%, 47% , and 40% respectively, they said they would reduce their share of equities and fixed income by 51% and 27% respectively. The shift is to safer and more short-term investments, a trend that, if unchecked, might lead to recession in the form of inverted bond yields (higher short-term yields over long-term bond yields). While an inversion is nowhere around the corner, the gap between 10-year Treasury bonds and 2-year bonds has been falling steadily since 2017. This, naturally, is seen as a cause for concern, since “major downturns” in the US and other advanced economies have been preceded by around six to 24 months by a bond yield inversion.

Overly optimistic expectations from “high-flying” stocks in Facebook and Amazon quickly soured owing to the scandals these companies faced, from Cambridge Analytica to minimum wage fiascos. With slowing growth rates in China (6% this year as opposed to the 10% witnessed more than five years ago), budget crises in Italy, and a never-ending Brexit, the skies haven’t just darkened; they’re growing darker. Trade disputes, budget crises, and conflicts between national and regional politics are not, to be sure, permanent. But the overall result is depressing: growth for 2019 is expected to be a mere 2.9%.

At least, according to the World Bank, whose Global Economic Prospects Report for January 2019 has been titled “Darkening Skies.” Not that the Bank saw blue skies before: its Report one year ago (January 2018) was titled “Broad-based upturn, but for how long?” As noted in the latter document, while major regions of the world experienced higher growth, investment and total factor productivity growth has been declining over the last few years. As is typical of World Bank rhetoric, the solution is to turn away from cyclical policies aimed at bringing up aggregate demand to structural policies aimed, apparently, at boosting living standards.

This, of course, has been the prescribed medicine ever since the Bank was founded. While one may disagree with it, however, one can’t escape the fact that a solution – cohesive, broad-based, and free of political partisanship – needs to be looked into. At the same time, though, the Bank singles out Trump for the problems of the economy, forgetting that the decision to raise interest rates – which led to massive capital outflows from emerging economies and facilitated an equally massive appreciation of the dollar – was implemented against his desire to lower them. (Trump’s tweets against the Federal Reserve – “I’m not happy with the Fed” – seem to have been missed by commentators who attribute the upward pressures in the US economy – which grew by 3.5% last year – to the man at the top and his tax cuts.)

According to Professor Howard Nicholas, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Rotterdam, the problem isn’t one of cyclical pressures: it has to do with a “gigantic financial bubble” caused by banks from seven or eight of the world’s advanced economies printing vast sums of money and injecting them to the markets in such a way as to drive up property prices and equities “to unprecedented levels.” This has led to the edge of a precipice: almost certainly, “there will be financial fallout” to the tune of steep falls in the stock market.

In Nicholas’s view, the recession that the stock market situation should normally have resulted in by now has been delayed inexorably by the decision of the Federal Reserve to print more money and that of banks in certain other advanced economies to expand their quantitative easing. The pressure this has exerted on the global economy will, because of this, become so unstable that, for Nicholas at least, it will lead to a new growth process that will “no longer be centred on the advanced economies.” The focus, presumably and as always, will turn to China. 

When America sneezes, the whole world catches cold – except, perhaps, China and Russia and, to a lesser extent, the emerging economies like Brazil and India. Even the latter have witnessed a sharp downturn, although prospects for 2019, according to the World Bank, seem better. Not so much for developing economies, however: low income countries, as per the Report, have seen their government debt levels rise from 30% to 50% of GDP. The debate over this continues to be fanned by unfounded reports of a sell-out of economies in South Asia and Africa to China, with US Vice President Mike Pence predicting that Sri Lanka, the subject of a controversial piece last year in the New York Times on Chinese debts accumulated during the Rajapaksa regime, will soon become a “forward military base China’s growing blue-water navy.”

But then, all is not gloom and doom. With regard to the advanced economies, the solution is clear: move from high risk to low risk investments in a way that does not facilitate a bond yield inversion. With regard to emerging economies, the solution is as clear: ensure that investments in education and health services are in tune with the needs of a well performing economy. Solutions for economies like ours are not so clear-cut, but even here there’s no reason to fret: while all major credit rating agencies have downgraded Sri Lanka, for instance, strides and improvements have made in such spheres as the rule of law. The world isn’t going down, and even the least developed regions are improving in crucial economic and social indicators.

Sri Lanka presents an interesting conundrum, however. Politics and economics have never come together here, at least not in the post-independence era. The previous year was tumultuous for all the obvious and wrong reasons, in that regard: lopsided policies aimed at curtailing expenditure which were founded on rather disjointed premises (such as a Minister’s plea for people to think twice about “that trip to Alaska” when the vast majority couldn’t afford to even think of leisurely activities like that) were propounded as gospel truths, leading to electoral discontent against what was perceived to be the indifference of the government.

The voter backlash against in the form of the local government election results was, in that sense, inevitable, and it indicated quite clearly that the proposed programs for the upliftment of the economy, though laudable in terms of envisioned outcomes, did not interest the people. The constitutional coup in October was, outside the parameters of legality, a sequel of sorts to the voter backlash of February. While it had everything to do with politics, economics figured in as well: depreciating exchange rates, depleting foreign reserves, and huge investment outflows to the tune of USD 640 million in the first 10 months of 2018 alone.

The main problem shedding away the political infighting remains the same as ever, in the meantime: the lack of a proper manufacturing base, a problem economists seem to have missed. While economists like former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank W. A. Wijewardena do contend that Sri Lanka is spending heavily on imports, these diagnoses fail to touch the heart of the matter: we don’t have a manufacturing sector despite, or because of, our dependence on the garment sector (where we don’t produce a single needle), worker remittances (which are seeing a contraction at present), and manual labour (a shortage of which has ailed all our industries). It’s a paradox at one level – structural unemployment levels of up to 30% on the one hand and major shortages of labour in the industrial sector on the other – and it stems from one major cause: the apathy of the State towards the revival of what were once promising sectors, from textiles to chemicals to refrigeration technology.

This is essentially the point that has been made by the economists you don’t read about in your textbooks, most prominently, perhaps, S. B. D. de Silva, whose classic work on this theme, The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, explores in detail what has been pointed out in an interview with Professor Howard Nicholas as “the underdevelopment of the peasant sector.” Lack of industrialisation has been a problem ever since independence, so much so that barring the first decade in the post-independence era our balance of payments has consistently recorded a deficit owing to our national tendency to spend more than what we as a collective earn.

Professor Nicholas, of course, is in full agreement with the thinking of what he calls the “older Marxists”, of whom de Silva was one. In that aforementioned interview for instance, he implores Sri Lankans to “industrialise and go for manufacturing.” Contrary to the thinking of the pundits who prescribe fiscal consolidation, privatisation, and extensive liberalisation in the State sector (useless in the context of an economy in a recession), Nicholas contends that if the country goes after an aggressive industrialisation strategy and uses its connections with China, it can achieve massive growth. Otherwise, we as a country will be doomed to pursue strategies that promote extraction of primary products on the one hand and manufacture of certain cosmetic industrial products on the other in the name of specialisation, a strategy advocated by many development economists from here and abroad.

Certainly, it’s not all gloom and doom. Provided that political tussles don’t marginalise economic imperatives, the Fed Reserve’s current policy on interest rate hikes changes at least somewhat in the near future, inflation continues to be contained here and elsewhere, and exports pick up after a lacklustre year of deficits and discontent, Sri Lanka can move ahead with the rest of the world. The darkening skies may brighten, even if, as Wijewardena points out, the country will require a sustained annual growth rate of 9% in the next 15 years to beat that other major problem of the economy, the middle income trap. All is not well, but all is not down in the well either.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 6
    0

    There is a reason the Lanka Rupee is in free fall. The country is not competitive in services or manufacturing. It has a bloated public sector, poor governance (i.e. law and order for businesses to thrive) and corruption is rife.
    Remember a country’s competitiveness and currency are linked and relative to other countries. India for example is improving its governance and so are China, Thailand, Malaysia, et al. I.e. Sri Lanka is actually falling behind at quite a rapid rate.
    The LKRUSD will be at 300 in the next couple of years (and may keep going too).

    • 2
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      …bloated public sector……

      Surely you cannot be referring to the 12,000 scruffy clock-watchers who spend their time posing and scratching their scrotal sacs, to whom productivity is an alien word never to uttered – even in jest.

  • 5
    1

    Dear Uditha,
    Looks like you are jumping from Education to Politics, to Music, to History, to Cinema etc etc and now to Economics and want to write like a pandithaya. Please stick to one or two fields and try to master these fields and acquire an in-depth knowledge before embarking on writing on that subject after gaining mastery of that subject. Otherwise you will look a fool as evident from the responses you got from the CT readers for your previous articles.
    What do you do to live apart from harassing the CT readership?
    Johnny

    • 4
      0

      Uditha my man,

      When it comes to economics I’m a true Lankan ………. I simply don’t know. And more importantly I know I don’t know, and that’s the part that’s not Lankan.

      Try to be a one-handed economist. …….. economists are always hedging their bets saying “on the other hand” …….. Truman or some dude asked for a one-handed economist. That’s my kinda guy!

      btw …….. get rid of the beared; you don’t have to take after ol’ Dayan in everything! ……..It’s too late to hide. :))

      P.S.

      “our dependence on the garment sector”

      Taiwan (and many other former emerging-nations) started out with garment-manufacture and with experience converted/moved into other areas. Check out Quanta Computer Inc they manufacture 30% of all the computers – including for Apple, Dell, HP, Toshiba …….. and Taiwan Semiconductor.

      Lanka is a different kettle of fish ………. ol’ Mahinda builds non-productive carp all over Hambanthota with high-interest Chinese loans just to stick his name on them ……… and ol’ Ranil is trying to build Volkswagens without Volkswagen.

      Uditha, I think you should go and camp inside the economic ministry with all ye books ……….. and teach the buggers a thing or two ……… give them a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry!

      • 4
        2

        nimal fernando

        I find myself agreeing with you.

        “Uditha, I think you should go and camp inside the economic ministry with all ye books ……….. and teach the buggers a thing or two ……… give them a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry!”
        .
        Most of the senior functionaries at the “Economic Ministry” are Pali Graduates with some postgraduate degrees in Pali. The wonder kid Uditha Devapriya is fluent in Finance while ” Economic Ministry” is fluent in Pali, therefore communication/conversation between them may become bit of a problem.

    • 5
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      Johnny

      “What do you do to live apart from harassing the CT readership?”

      Have you ever dared ask Dayan the public racist the same question?

      • 2
        5

        Johnny, Native
        Occational haresment by Dayan or Uditha is tolerable compared to uninterrupted scattering of excreta all over the website by Tamil racist donkeys who are toilet trained across the Palk Straight.

        Soma

    • 5
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      Dear Johnny,
      .
      Yes, remarkable as Uditha is, I was rather hoping that he would complete his magnum opus on Education.
      .
      I know Economics is beyond me.

    • 3
      0

      Well, he seems to have graduated to wearing tie and coat and replaced his ‘mukatiya’ like photo with a new one!

  • 5
    5

    Uditha, thanks for this. Keep writing, keep reading!
    52% of Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt is owned by US-Euro sovereign bond traders and private hedge funds, whose names the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) will not release. 25 % of SL govt. debt, in the form of concessionary loans is held by Japan’s JICA and Asian Dev. Bank (ADB), which is also primarily owned and operated by Japan and USA. World Bank has 12 percent of Lanka’s sovereign debt and China about 14% , India around 4%.
    US VP Mike Pence story that Lanka is in a Chinese debt trap is Fake News. Sri Lanka’s debt trap is in fact due to US bond traders and its Asian proxy Japan. Of course, IMF “advice” to successive corrupt govts in Sri Lanka to borrow from private capital markets is also a reason for the debt trap and crashing rupee
    But debt is a global problem of Inequality because of the neoliberal project: today the super-rich 8.6 percent own 86% of global wealth according to report OXFAM at Davos. Before the global economic crash the IMF was almost out of business with few clients, but since then it has put lots of countries into debt – Argentina, Greece, Ecuador, Venezuvela, Egypt etc and IMF bail out business is booming.
    Please read the reports of the Jubilee Debt Project in London and the report by Transnational Institute in Amstadam on the “Bailout Business”. Global financial institutions, IMF, WB and the big banks they work with to benefit America First and the Global 1 percent with their “economic hit men” (see Confessions of an Economic Hitman by Perkins), are the REAL cause of the global debt crisis.

    • 3
      1

      Johnny, don’t dispense free advice. Charge a small fee.

      Soma

  • 3
    0

    Oh Uditha, in this photo you are looking a bit more mature. How old are you?

    Jester

  • 3
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    KARL MARX said the same in the 19th century and became stateless. Lived and died in the UK.
    ,
    He knew the issue is in the capitalist system. I agree with him.
    ,
    In my opinion, democracy was designed by the capitalist system to naturally diminish community leaders.
    ,
    This way the top can easily manage the pressure due to economic disparity.
    ,
    All they will require is media, banks and politicians to work with them.
    ,
    All 3 of them can be easily influenced by money.
    ,
    Politicians make laws to empower protection and control for the businesses.
    ,
    Banks control the value of money through loans. They design inflation and recession at the correct times.
    ,
    Media use fear tactics to help the system to grow and shape for their benefit.
    ,
    Only way forward is to strengthen the middle class and small businesses based in Sri Lanka

  • 0
    4

    Johnny, Native
    Occational haresment by Dayan or Uditha is tolerable compared to uninterrupted scattering of excreta all over the website by Tamil racist donkeys who are toilet trained across the Palk Straight.

    Soma

    • 5
      1

      somass

      I am surprised to know you are highly trained toilet watcher. Keep up your good work. By the way are you a certified toilet watcher or bum watcher?
      Many believe you are mentally constipated.

      • 0
        3

        NV
        A few months back there was an article about your abode across the Palk Straight in ‘The Economist” titled ” It is Easy to Build Toilets than Getting People to Use Them. “
        I was reminded of Tamil racist donkeys on CT.

        Soma

  • 0
    5

    NV
    A few months back there was an article about your abode across the Palk Straight in ‘The Economist” titled ” It is Easy to Build Toilets than Getting People to Use Them. “
    I was reminded of Tamil racist donkeys on CT.

    Soma

    • 3
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      somass

      “It is Easy to Build Toilets than Getting People to Use Them. “
      “I was reminded of Tamil racist donkeys on CT.”

      Brilliant.
      You are indeed a certified toilet and bum watcher?

      Keep it up.
      Did you know according to 2011 census there were about 95,000 people in this island did not have access to toilets? While you are watching your sisters bum in India the census department has been watching yours.

  • 3
    0

    Oh buddies, so far all those comments wouldn’t make any thing better for the people. What we want is people should be wean out of their negative minds and look at things in their positive mind set. When Pepsi Co was considering to start their juice and water bottling plant in SL for the Indian market, there was a social media post which said – Pepsi Co has the tech to suck water from 7Km deep down in the earth, above and from four directions. See this cane-red, fear mongering- if they had that kind of tech, they would have been the number one sought after company in the plant for right now, water so vital commodity for human beings. Everyday, if one sit on the Kalaniya bridge, and take count of the amount of water is being washed away as colossal waste to the sea, and on other hand, by bottling and exporting it, country could have earned huge pail of foreign exchange which is at present real oxygen for the ailing economy and also got few thousand high paying jobs. When Pepsi put roots that spurs the other top firms in the world to follow suit, and then the rest follows. This how China, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand etc are getting billions as investment from scores of foriegn companies, and their economies and people are thriving. Buddies stop the nonsense and think in sensible ways, if we are to raise our heads, prosper and lead happy life.

  • 1
    0

    “if the country goes after an aggressive industrialisation strategy and uses its connections with China, it can achieve massive growth” The current main line contenders for power here – Ranil, the Rajapakses, or the Mahanayakas-backed Sinhala Army would love to see the coming of this reality. Why not? It will help most of the people in the country who have suffered far too much for too long. India, naturally, will have its own thoughts in the matter. Not times of good for tune for Sri Lanka but a future dominated by China. Let us be pragmatic for starters. China has invested heavily for the present and future in Sri Lanka (Port City, tens of thousands of luxury apartments, 5-star hotel rooms etc) for a future in which the Chinese will enjoy not only the cream of the Cake but much of the cake as well. Is this why the doomsday predictors
    have stopped speculating on a crash of the SL economy. The Rupee value of the US$ which they predicted will hit Rs.200 by now stays around Rs.178 for weeks now.

    For God’s sake, give some credit to Ranil and Governor Coomaraswamy.

    Kettikaran

    The doo

  • 0
    0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2

  • 0
    0

    Hey, brilliant article Uditha!…..learned a lot……had to read it 3 time and underline key phrases to glean its content.

    Part 1
    _
    Let’s face it: the world is sick of products upon products…..the dopamine factor is in anxiety, and the world is yet to come up with the next generation of dopamine additivities. Hence the deceleration of commodity prices and exports.
    _
    Now this is a key point: ….the capital flight from emerging and developing economies that led to steep depreciations of their currencies……OMG! Why put it is formal economic terms? The crux of the matter is in developing economies like SL, Lankans are taking country money and running to the West to show off their success-story amongst the diaspora!
    _
    Safer assets is the way to go. For Sri Lanka, the obvious safe assets are the traditional industries like farming and fishing. These two will boost up the tourist industry also. But for the Lankan 1% and the rest of the 9% aspiring to be like the 1%, aping the Western capitalistic system is imperative to their sustenance and to act like Suddhas.
    _
    Even the West is aware of the high risk investment, as economies such as ours have given a no-show in actually producing the industrial small parts for them to build the big device they can sell back to us. Let’s face it: the whole world wants to just lay back in their homes and their communities and preserve their food-supply. (Let the West who destroyed their farmland for industrialization eat the GMO I say……We go back to our fresh and ancient produce).

    • 0
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      Correction : dopamine “addictivities”

  • 0
    0

    Part 2.
    _
    Inverted bond yields are therefore a Western “developed-country” problem. We are an emerging economy (what are we supposed to emerge to? Them?!!!). Let Them crack their heads how to solve the inverted bond problem where wholesome Real Assets are short-term, and speculatory investment equities are long-term. It should be the other way round where good tangible assets are the main long-term dish and short-term equities are pie-in-the-sky. And Lanka is in the forefront of using our traditional livelihood laong-term assets to sustain us for a good few centuries.

    Our aggregate demand can be equivalent to our structural policy as long as we don’t sit aping and gaping at the West. They are the ones who lack a structural livelihood policy and rely of the speculatory investments equities (speculating on how far the rest of the underdeveloped world can work for them).
    _
    Boy, I can’t exactly understand how this one works: //At the same time, though, the Bank singles out Trump for the problems of the economy, forgetting that the decision to raise interest rates – which led to massive capital outflows from emerging economies and facilitated an equally massive appreciation of the dollar – was implemented against his desire to lower them.\\ I will guess that emerging economies like Lanka decided to place a hell of a lot of money of the hardworking masses in Western Banks for 25-35 year periods so they would get the returns from the high-investment rate in that amount of time (a whole generation gone by then).

    And Quantitative Easing: The Banks (of the developed world) printing money and injecting it into markets. Now that sounds like pie-in-the sky existence, and gone beyond human reality of which the underdeveloped world has to suffer direly for.

  • 0
    0

    Part 3.

    You have some solution like advanced economies moving from high-risk to low-risk investments. For the West, what exactly are the low-risk investments? Well, that means in the end, the inverted bond-yield (there just isn’t any other low-risk investment for them, is there). For emerging economies, it is and always has been a catch-22 situation in ensuring that education and health matched up with the performance of the economy. In other words, if the economy is bad, education and health will have to also suffer. Well, rule of law is a good thing. But yet when the 1-5% indulge in capitalism over the masses, the rule of law has a whole different meaning.

    The reason for Lankan polity voting for the other side in the last local elections was actually little to do with the economy- it was more to do with the current GoSL intending to break us up into 8 provinces, merge us with India, and build the land bridge to India. As per the economy, ah well, Lanka are used to having it so bad, that they forgot what the economy is about. Only the Colomboites will know the value of a good Colombo economy by merging our masses to the Indian masses – “fellows will know their place when under the caste-systemed thumb of India.”

  • 0
    0

    //While it had everything to do with politics, economics figured in as well: depreciating exchange rates, depleting foreign reserves, and huge investment outflows to the tune of USD 640 million in the first 10 months of 2018 alone.\\
    _
    OMG! You mean USD 640 Million went out of the country? I’d bet you its current GoSL placing hardworking money of the masses into US mutual funds (and not on our traditional farming sector)….possible payment and investment for the India merge too). This also means that the apathy of the State towards the revival of industries was because the Lankan 1% preferred to place country-money-of-the-hardworking-masses in US stocks and bonds, and come to all kinds of agreements to feather their nests (like the India merge and the student scholarship programs in the West that will come with it). Nothing much has been placed on our own people. Anyway farming and fishing would have been preferable to small-time industries.

    Of course we can achieve massive growth with China as P. Nicholas says, but it is going against the West that needs to sustain themselves? So we have to be mindful. Don’t even listen to economist de silva- that Marxist is following the old Russian model for industrialization because Russia was a cold, miserable place to farm in. Industrialization meant a warmer place for them to endure.

    Na, we don’t need to move ahead with the rest of the world. They are going in all kinds of directions to keep steady. We have our own ancient tradition, and that will sustain us for the next millennia.

  • 0
    0

    You want more industrialization. And yet I read the eco-gurus like Dr. Ranil Senanayake and technologists like DR. Dharmawardena arguing about traditional farming versus technological farming .
    The Eco gurus want as to avoid all industrialization and return to traditional agriculture with no chemicals, no machines, no hybrid seeds, no fertilizers.
    I have seen Ramona Theresa Fdo and various people whole heartily agreeing with that, support Organic farming, and now the same people are also for industrialization with all the pollution that industry breeds!
    The more profitable the industry, the more polluting it is. If you want clean industries, it becomes expensive – so you set up your factories in poor countries. That is why China which was poor, is now a polluted hell although it has become economically successful.
    The solution: Send all our industry oriented people to China and keep the country for a handful of wealthy elite farmers who can keep a small number of workers to run their farms. Then the country will be clean and because the population has gone back to what it was in 1900 (having sent all the yokels to china!) everything will be fine.
    The IMF solution is to kill off all the yokels so that the local elite can join hands with the IMF (i.e., USA and allies) and run the country for their benefit.

    • 0
      0

      Bodin,

      Never quite as yokelish as the 1900’s. No, this will be a neo-form of traditional employment. Ok, ok,…..let’s thank the West for taking our equations and formulas and creating cyber-technology (after they colonized and destroyed us of course). That with traditional industry will involve a brand-new era of things…..together with plenty of employment opportunities.

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