Hawthorn Advisors Holdings is pleased to announce the expansion of its Hawthorn Advisors global franchise into North America with the launch of its New York office. Liz Bruce will join Hawthorn Strategic Communications and Reputation Management Inc (Hawthorn) as a Partner and Head of North America and will lead the firm’s strategy, growth and client relationships in the region.
Liz joins Hawthorn from the global investment firm Strategic Value Partners where she was Head of Communications and Brand. She began her career in Investment Banking at Goldman Sachs and later became the firm’s first Global Chief of Staff of Corporate Communications during the global financial crisis. Following her time at Goldman, Liz co-founded a financial communications firm, which was ultimately sold to Teneo. Prior to joining Strategic Value Partners, Liz was Head of Communications at the venture capital firm Greycroft.
Founded in 2013, Hawthorn is one of London’s fastest growing, independent strategic communications consultancies, representing clients across Europe, North America, South America, the Middle East and Asia. The firm has grown organically over the past decade, expanding its offering into political advisory, digital strategy, employee engagement, and sustainability. Today, Hawthorn comprises a team of over 65 consultants with diverse professional experience from the worlds of business, media, politics, NGO and research. Its global client base includes NatWest, Forbes, Kering, ION Group, YOOX NET-A-PORTER, Saxavord Spaceport, Suzano, Zilch, Equistone and LaSalle Investment Management.
I am delighted to join the extremely talented Hawthorn team and work with the firm’s impressive roster of international clients. There is significant opportunity to leverage Hawthorn’s expertise and unique perspectives to build a truly differentiated advisory firm in the US. We are already off to the races with new business in the US, and I’m excited to bring together best-in-class talent to support our clients’ increasingly complex needs.
John Evans, CEO and Co-Founder of Hawthorn said: “We are thrilled to have Liz on board for this new chapter. She has outstanding experience, an incredible network, and entrepreneurial spirit in spades. Hawthorn has always been a globally minded firm, with particularly strong connections in New York and across North America. We’re already seeing how having established, on-the-ground presence in the region can help us better serve our existing clients and to deepen relationships in this exciting market.”
Dollars and sense: charging growth “Lithium is common. (The) hard part is turning Lithium salt or clay into extremely pure LiOH”. Elon Musk
Far from the headline news around Brexit and its aftermath – so centred on the Northern Ireland protocol, governance and rules for the financial services industry, customs declaration (or the lack thereof) and British-EU travel as the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be waning – Brussels and Westminster have been competing fiercely on an issue less headline-grabbing but likely at least as important to their economic futures: the development of a European battery industry.
This importance of this competition can be best summed up in Nissan Motor’s 1 July announcement that it would spend some £1 billion pounds developing a new battery plant at its hub in Sunderland alongside Chinese partner Envision AESC. It will also produce a new all-electric crossover vehicle, the details of which have yet to be announced, at the plant, where its legacy Qashqai crossover and its all-electric LEAF are already produced.
The announcement marks a stark reversal from electric car industry stalwart Tesla’s 2019 announcement that it would invest US$4.4 billion in a battery production plant outside Berlin, a cost that has since risen to closer to US$7 billion. It also marks a stark turnaround from 2016, when Tesla first announced it was exploring such an investment, and when Nissan warned it could pull out from the UK entirely if voters backed Brexit.
Nissan’s investment is being generously supported by subsidies; at least €100 million from the government, plus further support from Sunderland City Council. However, the ultimate difference between producing new electric car batteries in the UK versus on the Continent comes down to refining lithium, a matter that may prove familiar to long-term readers of Hawthorn Horizons as in November we covered the challenge facing the Portuguese government in the first-half of 2021, namely whether and how to push ahead with a Lithium mining and refining project in its far north that had attracted considerable local opposition.
Lisbon proved unwilling to do so, and in April scrapped plans to develop the site. In contrast, the UK’s British Lithium has made strides towards launching a lithium mine in Cornwall, as has Cornish Lithium, by securing UK government backing. In a sign of growing confidence, start-up Green Lithium announced last week that it had secured seed funding for a lithium refinery (on the back of a government-backed investment in April).
As things stand, lithium appears set to charge British growth – while a lack thereof could seriously damage Europe’s auto industry.
Policy preview: a red herring between the Pacific and Atlantic “I’m a big fan of bitcoin…regulation of money supply needs to be depoliticised” Al Gore, former US vice president
El Salvador recently became the first country that set to accept Bitcoin, with President Nayib Bukele approving legislation in early June that mandated that businesses and individuals accept Bitcoin as payment effective 7 September. Just days earlier, he had announced the move at a conference in Miami that more closely resembled the ongoing of a nearby nightclub than the IMF summits in Washington D.C. or central bank summits in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where monetary policy announcements are more frequently made.
Bukele’s new law unsurprisingly contains a major loophole, namely that all El Salvadorean firms and individuals who lack the technology to process Bitcoin transactions – well over 99% of each – will be automatically exempt from the regulation requiring they accept it. Nonetheless, the move has been hailed by many crypto-advocates as the first example of Bitcoin supplanting the US dollar – El Salvador does not have its own currency, and has been dollarised for quite some time. Bitcoin’s most ardent believers also argue that the move therefore helps restore some of El Salvador’s sovereignty, though the reality is that were Bitcoin ever to become the country’s de facto currency, El Salvador would still lack the ability to set an independent interest rate.
El Salvador’s central bank nonetheless has a significant role to play in the new crypto-friendly country, namely Bukele has tasked it with overseeing a fund that is responsible for ensuring convertibility between the dollar and Bitcoin. This effectively forces it to take on price risk, and as bitcoin’s significant volatility this year has shown, that may well prove to be quite the daunting task. It is made all the more concerning by the fact that El Salvador is currently in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for US$1 billion in desperately-needed hard currency funding.
The IMF has suspended negotiations as a result of El Salvador’s decision, concerned that El Salvador’s bitcoin regulations could see it effectively become a hub for those seeking to convert Bitcoin to dollars, and it is unwilling to see disbursed funds go to this market. For all the fanfare that El Salvador has received, the move is likely to be dashed, at least in practice by the IMF’s demands and US opposition.
It would not be the first time such an experiment has failed – then-Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel announced in 2018 that the state would accept bitcoin to pay state taxes. His successor, Robert Sprague, shut the programme down in October 2019 citing procurement irregularities. It processed fewer than 10 transactions during its 11-month lifespan.
Cryptocurrency may be here to stay, but it will not be displacing the dollar anytime soon, even in El Salvador.
Power play: a one-tax world
“With deregulation, one sector of the economy after another is liberated to capital’s unominotred authority”
Economist Herbert Schiller
The G7’s June embrace of a global minimum tax proposal advocated by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen brought the campaign out of the shadows and into global headlines. We first discussed the issue in Horizons in March and noted that Washington was likely to use the Federal Reserve’s currency swap lines instituted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as a sweetener to bring +EU nations on board. It has indeed done so, announcing just after the Carbis Bay meeting that it would extend the lines until the end of the year.
The Federal Reserve also concurrently extended swap lines to other central banks – including Brazil, Mexico and Australia’s. At the start of July, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) announced that its members too had backed the proposal, a far more significant move than the G7’s endorsement as the OECD has the ability to shape policy not just among the G7 but far beyond, even if it has long been reticent to use its legally-enforceable decisions to pressure member states.
So far only nine states have opted out – most notably Ireland but also Barbados, Estonia, Hungary, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, Saint Vincent & The Grenadines, and Sri Lanka. Dublin’s reticence will remain a major sticking point, but the OECD, unlike the G7, has notably already agreed to exempt most financial services from the tax, which may ultimately be extended in a manner that allows Ireland to remain an attractive base for multinationals.
The global minimum tax is still a far way, likely at least a couple of years, away from becoming a reality. But as it appears on the horizon, it is important to consider how states will look to compete, and who may be poised to gain. One potential beneficiary is Canada, and its model may soon be adopted by others.
Canada has long made itself an attractive destination for corporates, particularly in the commodities sector. While its regulatory environment was shaped by its own mining sector, miners from Kyrgyzstan to Brazil to Indonesia have long seen Toronto and its stock exchange as their preferred destination.
The Canadian model leaves securities regulation and oversight to its Provincial governments, meaning it does not have a federal equivalent of the US’ Security and Exchange commission or the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. They do have an umbrella organisation, the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA), which aims to harmonise regulation.
In late May, the CSA announced a series of proposed amendments on continuous disclosure obligations, effectively reducing them by combining a set of three disclosure and filing requirements into one annual disclosure statement.
The institution of a global minimum tax will spur further such moves, as regulatory competition will supplant tax-rate competition for attracting multinationals.
Policy preview: Washington’s weapons in tax treaty fight “If the U.S. came down on tax havens in the same way they come down on countries that trade with Iran and Cuba, we’d have no tax havens in the world.” Professor Ha-Joon Chang, University of Cambridge.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is looking to work with finance ministers from around the world to agree on a global minimum tax rate for multinational corporations. This quiet effort has only just begun, but if successful it could prove among the most significant foreign policy and regulatory moves since the end of the Cold War.
This move is not without its challenges, and comes on the back of a round of recent competition by states to lower their corporate tax rates, which surprisingly saw France cut such levies under President Emmanuel Macron. Yet Britain has announced plans to buck this trend. The European Union has sought to restrict its own internal tax havens, and ensuring that technological multinationals pay their ‘fair share’ is a policy popular with all flavours of government from Canberra to Ottawa.
Perhaps the most underappreciated feature of the discussion thus far, however, is the carrots that the US can offer to other countries for their support for such an effort. The potential sticks – sanctions, tariffs and regulatory restrictions – are far better known, though at least until recently Washington has been hesitant to use these tools to target those it accuses of violating international business norms. It is unlikely that the Biden Administration will use such threats at this stage, though the precedent set by Trump’s actions on China means it cannot be ruled out that Washington will eventually use these tools for such purposes.
The key carrot also results from the US’ central role in international trade and financial markets. More significantly, Washington has already made ample, but quiet, use of the carrot over the last year. Specifically, the US Federal Reserve has offered ‘swap lines’ to key allies since last April, initially an effort to mitigate against the risk that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause a global debt crisis.
Historically, only very few countries – such as the UK – had access to such swap lines and they were only used to respond to the 2008 financial crisis. Today South Korea, Mexico, Singapore, and Brazil are among the biggest beneficiaries. If the US were to withdraw these lines, which would essentially mean that the Fed would treat local currency state debts as fungible with US debts, it would risk prompting a debt crisis. As a former Fed chair herself, Yellen is keenly aware of this.
Expect the US to offer making such swap lines permanent, in exchange for a global tax treaty.
Dollars and sense: Tobin tax’s latest turn “This idea (of a financial transaction tax) has been around for a long time…I think frankly the experiences are mixed”. Former US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, 2009
Discussions of so-called Tobin taxes once dominated considerations of how states should respond to the Global Financial Crisis and Eurozone Crisis. A few years later, they again turned heads in response to the rise of high-frequency traders, which entered the mainstream with Michael Lewis’ 2014 book Flash Boys. The Tobin tax is also known as a financial transactions tax (FTT) and is essentially a levy charged on a securities trade, either a fixed charge or as a percent of the value of the security. The debate appears to be returning again.
Although France did enact such a tax in 2012 – charging 0.3% of the value of certain stock trades, and some high-frequency trades at the lower 0.01% rate – Europe has not followed suit, with only Finland instituting a similar tax. The United States continued to oppose such a policy as well, under both the Obama and Trump Administrations.
However, the Tobin tax has recently received some attention once again, due to the high-profile Game Stop market madness. This saw a small US video games’ retailer’s stock become among the most volatile financial assets in recent months, driven by day-trading users on increasingly popular share trading applications and platforms. These in turn are dependent on selling their order flow to high-frequency traders, who some blamed for causing massive losses for small retail investors when trading in Game Stop shares was first suspended in late January.
In February, the Chair of the Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters (D-CA), said she was willing to consider such a move. The Congressional Budget Office’s prediction that a 0.1% securities transactions tax could raise as much as $777 billion over 10 years has helped it garner further support. House Democrats are now expected to propose exactly such a tax.
However, such a proposal has little-to-no-chance of advancing in the Senate. The Biden Administration is unlikely to spend political capital on such proposals. Coverage of the tax will only grow through the rest of this year as budget debates and structural economic reforms dominate in Washington. But as with previous proposals, this game too will soon peter out and stop.
Power play: Madrid’s Diaz Ayuso
“It bothers me enormously to lose, I can’t stand it. And I’ve spent many years, with some friends, devoting almost all of our political activity to thinking about how we can win”
Pablo Iglesias, Head of Podemos
Isabel Diaz Ayuso was little heralded when she assumed the presidency of the community of Madrid, the governorship of the greater capital region, in August 2019. She had to hobble together a coalition between her centre-right Popular Party (PP), and the then-rising centrist Ciudadanos faction, as well as the nationalist Vox party. In the election held that May, she led PP to win just 30 of 132 seats in the Chamber, finishing behind the Socialist Party (PSOE), and with Ciudadanos securing 26 seats. The result was the PP’s worst performance in Madrid’s regional elections since the fall of the Franco dictatorship.
A little over 18 months later, Diaz Ayuso has called snap elections that will now be held on 4 May. Nearly 35% of voters plan on backing her PP in the vote, up from 22.23% in 2019. She said she called the vote to prevent Ciudadanos from switching to an alliance with the PSOE. Meanwhile Ciudadanos, which won 19.46% last time around, is polling on the verge of falling below the 5% electoral threshold.
Diaz Ayuso’s likely success tells the story not just of her masterful management of Madrid’s politics, but also of her prominent public opposition to the national minority government of PSOE leader Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Sanchez ousted the PP government in 2018 in a series of parliamentary no-confidence votes and won the most votes in the two general elections held in 2019. However, the PP has never been able to form a majority coalition and remains dependent on left-leaning Catalan independence parties for support.
With pro-independence parties winning a majority of votes in Catalonia’s 11 February elections this year, but chafing at the PSOE’s first-place finish, it is more-likely-than-not that that another election will have to be called before December 2023. Pablo Casado, PP’s national leader, has failed to capitalise on Sanchez’s troubles, particularly his regular spats with his leftist coalition ally, Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias of the Podemos party.
Iglesias announced this week he will step down to lead Podemos in the Madrid elections, vowing to challenge Diaz Ayuso. He may be able to lift Podemos above the 5% threshold it appears at risk of falling below, but it will be Diaz Ayuso who uses the election as a platform to raise her national profile. She may well lead the PP ticket by the time the next general election is called.
Policy preview: net neutrality and the internet regulation fight Perhaps the greatest US regulatory battle of the last decade – even more significant than the political fights around emissions targets or banking regulations – has been the fight over so-called ‘net neutrality.’ The term refers to the principle that internet service providers (ISPs such as AT&T and Comcast) treat all data fairly and do not throttle or accelerate speed for certain upstream or downstream actions. President Joe Biden pledged to restore the policy, but the path will not be as clear as he hopes. Net neutrality falls under the provisions of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – which also oversees the implementation of other increasingly controversial regulations such as the Section 230 rules on whether social media companies bear responsibility for the content they share. The fight over the FCC and net neutrality has only begun.
The Obama administration’s FCC put net neutrality at the core of its tech agenda. Proponents have credited it with enabling the growth of the tech giants Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, collectively known, alongside Apple, as FAANG. Republicans opposed the policy as limiting market options and raising costs for consumers, and Trump’s appointee to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, moved to unwind net neutrality from the outset of the Trump administration. Pai surprisingly announced last November that he would resign at the end of Trump’s term. He duly did so and Biden appointed Pai’s fiercest critic, Jessica Rosenworcel, as acting chair.
The FCC is overseen by five commissioners. Following Pai’s resignation, the body is evenly divided, with two Republicans and two Democrats, including Rosenworcel, with a drawn-out appointment fight all-but-certain over the fifth. Biden’s supporters, and allies in the tech sector, have already called for the resumption of net neutrality. ISPs have largely opposed it. But issues around Section 230 and internet regulation more broadly have come to the fore of the political debate in light of ex-president Donald Trump’s criticism of social media companies, the 6 January attempt by to storm Congress, and the role of tech platforms in the election and in spreading misinformation.
The Republican party can use the debate around FCC nominations to wrest control over the narrative of these issues, at least on their side of the aisle, from Trump himself. The narrow Democratic control of the Senate enables them even to hope for political victory on the appointments and to stymie Democratic attempts to shrine net neutrality into law. The battle over internet regulation has only just begun.
Dollars and sense: a tin coup On 1 February, global tin prices surged to a new high, reaching levels not seen since early 2014. Tin has surged on the back of the global commodities boom witnessed over the last half-year, with the COVID-19 pandemic proving little challenge to metals’ best performance in years. Prices in numerous metals have already topped market expectations for the year, though there are concerns that headwinds will emerge if Beijing dials down spending later this year – a rather widely-held assumption.
In particular, there is the potential for major further volatility in tin markets. China is the world’s largest refiner as well as the largest miner of tin ore. If China does rebalance expenditures, the commodity may be particularly affected by declining demand. China’s 2019 shift to emphasize production of higher-value goods and the trade war helped see Indonesia’s PT Timah replace China’s Yunnan Tin as the world’s largest refined tin producer.
But while Beijing is the driving force of global tin production, it is only one of the Asian countries with sizable stores of tin ore, with Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar also major mining hubs. Data on tin production in Myanmar is particularly difficult to pin down, given the fact that many of the country’s largest mines are in territory along the Chinese border under the effective control of local militaries who frequently clash with the Myanmar military. Nevertheless, the US Geological Survey estimates it to be the third largest producer of tin ore, responsible for just over 14% of global production.
The 1 February coup in Myanmar threatens to recast the domestic environment in the country. The Western response is likely to include sanctions and a push away from businesses linked to the military, with Myanmar moving closer to China – which holds no qualms over the anti-democratic nature of the coup. Beijing could pressure the forces along its border back into talks with the Burmese military, should it so desire, including by using tin sales as leverage. In the early days it appears as if the Burmese military has already consolidated power but this is by no means guaranteed. Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the country’s democratic forces have already held some degree power for five years, and they will be loathe to give it up entirely – a statement attributed to Suu Kyi leaked in the aftermath of the coup called on the people to defend their nascent democracy.
While 2021 is already being seen by many as a boon year for commodities across the world, events in Myanmar risk superseding global market dynamics when it comes to tin prices.
Power play: ambassadorial ambitions The announcement of Sir George Hollingbery as the incoming ambassador to Cuba has raised eyebrows, least of all because while the move was announced on 22 January, he will only take up the post in 2022. The move is even more of radical departure from standard practice at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in that Hollingbery is not a career diplomat, but rather a former Conservative MP, having represented the Meon Valley from 2010 until he stood down ahead of the 2019 general election. His appointment has set aflutter rumours about plans to change the nature of the UK’s diplomatic core.
The move was criticised by the civil servants’ union, the FCA, and in response the FCDO pointed out that Hollingbery is my no means the first such appointment. Indeed, many politicians swapped roles as ambassadors in the 19th century, even if such appointments have been relatively uncommon in the United Kingdom over the last seventy years.
While the diplomatic core and civil service are resistant to such moves, there is evidence that political appointments can be effective. This has particularly been the case with Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Washington, D.C., where political appointees have been relatively common, from ex-Labour MP John Freeman, later an editor of the New Statesman before being named ambassador, to Peter Jay, the son-in-law of then-prime minister James Callaghan. Both were perceived to have managed.
Another recent political appointment has been received with aplomb, that of Edward Llewellyn, named as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to France in 2016. He too came from outside the diplomatic core, having held a number of political roles including Chief of Staff to David Cameron. Hollingbery was in government under both Cameron and his successor, Theresa May, for whom he served as Parliamentary Private Secretary. While there has been significant criticism domestically and abroad of the US practice of appointing political (donor) ambassadors, these appointments are very much not in the same light.
It is unlikely that the appointment of political ambassadors will become de rigueur. But there is an argument to be made that delicate relationships can at times best be handled by those who have the ear of decision makers in their own capital, to whom their competence is known. We may just see a handful more appointments that put this thesis to the test.
Policy preview: the forthcoming filibuster fight The US Senate’s ability to only corral 57 votes to convict Donald Trump on impeachment charges on 13 February highlights the incredibly high bar needed to pass major legislation, with 60 votes in the Senate required to end the filibuster. There have been repeated tweaks to Senate rules over the last two presidencies – with Democrats doing away with the filibuster for most judicial appointments when Barack Obama was president and Republicans expanding this to include Supreme Court nominees under Donald Trump. The legislative filibuster, however, has remained in place, despite attracting far more controversy than all others combined, with both parties fearing that the other will ram through legislation as soon as it retakes narrow control of Congress and the White House.
Now that Democrats have precisely that narrow control, the Biden administration has been muted on calls to end the filibuster. Moderate Senate Democrats such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and even California’s Dianne Feinstein have pledged to retain the filibuster, so although the Democrats could technically jettison the rule with just a majority vote, there is not yet a path to do so.
Progressive activists, many of whom have long campaigned for the filibuster’s abolition, have remained surprisingly quiet over the matter to date. But that belies the strategy they have adopted to seek to push the change through. Amongst left-leaning and Democratic activist circles in Washington D.C., efforts are underway to revive a bill first introduced to the previous Congress – dubbed House Resolution 1, or HR1 – and to use its passage as a cri de cœur to abolish the filibuster once and for all.
Democrats easily passed HR1 in 2020, but Republicans who still held the majority barred it from even being considered in the Senate. The bill is essentially a wish list of Democratic party goals: regularised mail balloting, expanded voter registration, campaign finance reform and reforming the uber-partisan and increasingly controversial congressional redistricting process. After the dust settles on Trump’s impeachment, and once Biden’s administration is in place, Democrats will reintroduce the bill. It may be packed with even more radical – but broadly popular – sweeteners, such as authorising a pathway to statehood for Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, in an effort to show that while such legislation polls extremely well, it cannot get through the Senate while the filibuster remains.
Later this year – either in the summer or, more likely, the autumn – Democrats will push the package, not in an effort to bring Republicans on board, but to convince the aforementioned Senate holdouts to abandon the filibuster. If they succeed, it will radically reshape US politics forever. If – as is more likely than not – they fail, the opening of a rift within the Democratic Party may finally create room for moderate Republicans to emerge as leaders of the opposition after four years of being stifled by Donald Trump.
Dollars and sense: leasehold and cladding challenges The lockdowns and government policies announced in the wake of COVID-19 make clear that real estate and housing remain at the core of Britain’s economy. Estate agents’ offices have been one of the only non-healthcare or essential service industries to remain open throughout the latest lockdown, and the stamp duty holiday announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak has helped drive transaction volume to a 13-year high, despite the pandemic. Two key pillars of housing policy, however, have proven politically contentious and vexing to the government, though by tackling them together it may just find a pathway forward.
First is the issue of cladding, which has become something of a national scandal as thousands of buildings were found to contain hazardous or non-standard material in the investigations launched after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017, which left 72 dead. Second is the issue of leasehold reform, something the Conservate Party has dabbled with since even before Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy reforms were launched in 1980. Proving it can be done, Scotland has effectively eliminated leaseholds over the last two decades.
The government has set in motion processes to address both issues over the last few weeks. On 11 February, the government announced £3.5 billion in funds to remove unsafe cladding from buildings over 18 metres high, and a loan programme for flat-owners in shorter buildings aimed at capping the cost of refurbishment work at no more than £50 per flat per month. On 7 January, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced a plan to allow leaseholders to extend their leaseholds by 990 years, up from 90 for flats, and 50 for houses, at zero ground rent.
The overwhelming majority of flat-owners, and particularly those in multi-family houses, i.e. those affected by the issues with cladding, are leaseholders, not freeholders. Aiming to smooth the process, the government’s leasehold reform also includes a policy of abolishing calculations of ‘marriage value’, which had aimed to reflect the greater combined value of a freehold held with a leasehold. The right to extend without ground rents aims to counter the recent trebling of many such charges at recently developed leasehold properties and incentivises leaseholders to extend by lowering their annual costs.
The millions living in properties affected by cladding issues have argued the government’s new repair fund is insufficient, and that it fails to reflect higher insurance costs they have had and will continue to bear as repair work is underway. There are already quiet rumblings of what more can be done.
One suggestion that appears to be gaining traction is for the government to buy out freeholds and transfer them to non-profit companies, allowing leaseholders to obtain a proportionate interest in them when they extend their lease. Taking on the cost of doing so for properties affected by cladding, or at least those uncovered by the current fund, may just provide the government with an opportunity to make major progress on leasehold reform and mitigate the cladding issue’s ability to further disrupt real estate markets, particularly for new builds.
Power play: Israel’s once-and-future kingmaker Israelis go to the polls on 23 March, the country’s fourth election in two years. The vote is widely seen as yet another referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has narrowly held on through the last three votes by forming ever-shifting coalitions, most recently with the Blue and White Party of Benny Gantz, who had vowed before the last election never to countenance such a government and lost most of his own allies in agreeing to the coalition.
Netanyahu has received plaudits for his management of relations with Israel’s Arab neighbours and getting the Trump Administration to recognise the annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He heads into the vote on the back of arguably the world’s most successful COVID-19 vaccination programme to date. However, he is also embroiled in a long-running corruption scandal and has faced allegations of putting his interests before the nation’s. Netanyahu’s Likud Party is expected to win the most seats, but current predictions show the conservative parties he has traditionally aligned with well short of a parliamentary majority. Gideon Saar, who unsuccessfully challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in 2019, quit the party last year and his New Hope party goes into the elections as one of Netanyahu’s strongest challengers. Yet even if the Saar-Netanyahu split can be healed, seat predictions suggest they will be short of a majority.
Netanyahu’s fate may therefore very well be determined by another jilted former coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman. A Russian immigrant and former nightclub bouncer, the populist Lieberman has often been dubbed ‘Israel’s Trump’. He has vowed never to sit in a government backed by the Arab Joint List, but also bitterly opposes the military service exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and has arguably become Netanyahu’s fiercest public foe despite previously serving as his deputy prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister, among other posts.
Lieberman’s refusal after the March 2020 election to join a coalition led by Netanyahu or back the only other viable alternative – a Blue and White-led government backed by the Joint List – forced the brief and tempestuous marriage between Netanyahu and Gantz. Burned by the experience, Gantz’s party is at risk of falling out of the Israeli legislature altogether in the next vote and certain not to countenance renewed support for Netanyahu.
Although Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party is expected to only win seven or so of the Knesset’s 120 seats, expect Lieberman to dominate coalition discussions. His positions may just prove sufficiently intransigent as to force yet another election.
Policy preview: the rock in a hard place The UK’s transition period out of the EU formally ended on 31 December, just a week after the EU-UK agreement on their post-Brexit trading relationship was struck. Although Parliament has already signed off on the package, the new year does not mark the end of negotiations between Brussels and London. Much will still be haggled over and adjusted.
Another UK-EU agreement has indeed already been struck: on 31 December Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya and her British counterpart Dominic Raab announced an agreement in principle for maintaining trading relations and open borders between Gibraltar and Spain. The deal will see the territory become part of the Schengen Zone, enabling visa-free travel, policed by EU border guards from the bloc’s Frontex agency for four years. After that, further negotiations will be required. Picardo and Raab both hailed the agreement as upholding UK sovereignty over Gibraltar, and claimed the territory will still control access to its borders, with Frontex guards at the territory’s airport to oversee just approval for onward travel. The likely requirement that British nationals be subject to passport controls on arrival in Gibraltar will surely prompt some opposition in Parliament.
However, no agreement was published and all sides said none would be until a formal treaty on the matter between the UK and EU was written up and ready to be presented in 2021. While Spain and Britain have spared over Gibraltar’s sovereignty for decades, other issues are sure to arise from any such treaty that do not appear likely to have been settled by the last-minute agreement – and which could prove difficult to manage in setting out a formal treaty.
Gibraltar’s unique tax status has long made it an attractive hub for businesses. With a legal system based on English law, investors have long felt secure basing operations in the territory and non-resident businesses do not pay income tax on income earned outside the territory. Furthermore, there is no capital gains tax or VAT. It is also famed for its beneficial tax rates for gambling firms. Even if Spain is happy with the information sharing agreement to avoid Gibraltar outlined as part of the deal, other EU countries are likely to push for more stringent oversight. The debate over the future of Gibraltar’s regulatory regime has only just begun.
Dollars and sense: offshore national security The US Senate overrode President Donald Trump’s Veto of the National Defense Authoritzation Act (NDAA) of 2021 on 1 January, the first time it has done so since Trump became president. The House of Representatives also voted to override Trump’s veto three days prior, meaning the NDAA is now law. The annual NDAA legislation has for some time been the only bill on which regular bipartisanship could be expected, perhaps unsurprisingly given its centrality to funding the military. Yet this year’s NDAA includes provisions that have the potential to reshape the US financial and real estate landscape.
In recent years the NDAA has also become something of a catch-all bill for other legislative priorities, including ones that may be too politically awkward or challenging for legislators from either party to vote for in stand-alone legislation. For example, the 2017 NDAA included provisions mandating sanctions against Russia that Republican Senators had refused to back as a standalone bill amid Trump’s public opposition. Despite the increased partisanship around the recent election, the 2021 NDAA likewise saw legislators unite to pass reforms, but this time with a far more wide-reaching impact. This NDAA includes over 200 pages of amendments to the US’ Bank Secrecy Act and other anti-money laundering laws.
Foremost among these is a requirement that corporations, limited liability companies and other similar entities disclose their beneficial owner to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Most strikingly it requires such disclosure from non-US entities that do business in the US. Though a number of financial services companies are exempt, as are large corporations that already report such data in other forms, the amendments mark a remarkable reversal of the US’ recent turn towards corporate anonymity, whether it be through Delaware corporations or in Nevada or South Dakota, which the Financial Times dubbed the ‘new Switzerland’ in 2016.
Another section of the NDAA aims to combat the use of US real estate as a haven for offshore capital – a status that has long benefited ultra high-end development in New York City and around Florida.
The Treasury will be required to consider a new national register and to institute new customer due diligence requirements for real estate firms and law firms, which have long been broadly exempt from anti-money laundering provisions.
President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he will take further action to ensure those considerations become requirements. There appears to be the political will for passing such reforms, though they may have to wait until the next NDAA to find an opportunity for similar bipartisanship.
Power play: sense of the census The US Census Bureau is responsible not only for overseeing the US’ decennial population count, but also the distribution of seats in the House of Representatives to the states. That makes it a highly politicised agency, even if it has received less attention than in previous decades due to the widespread tumult that marked US politics in 2020. Yet despite the quiet, it is arguably the most important political issue ahead of the presidential transition on 20 January after yesterday’s Georgia Senate runoffs.
The Census Bureau, for the first time in its history, missed its 31 December deadline for completing the population count and distributing Congressional seats. It has since said it aims to complete the process by 9 January, although employees have quietly been saying they doubt this is possible even as the political leadership Department of Commerce, of which the Bureau is a part, has pushed for weeks for the process to be ramped up. Whether or not the process is completed before or after Joe Bide takes up the presidency will have significant ramifications for how seats are distributed.
Donald Trump’s outgoing administration raised the stakes by moving for the first time to exclude undocumented residents from the official population count, a move that could see New York and California’s representation in Congress decline, as well as Texas’, likely granting those seats to midwestern and Mountain states. Furthermore, given that undocumented migrants overwhelmingly reside in urban areas, it could benefit the apportioning of seats within those states to more rural areas, which are more likely to vote Republican.
In early December, the Supreme Court balked at ruling on the legality of the effort ruling, stating that a “judicial resolution of this dispute is premature” as it is not yet clear how the Trump administration planned to ensure the exclusion of undocumented migrants. The ruling was a 6-3 split along partisan lines, however, and Democrats have expressed concern the conservative-majority court would uphold whatever action the Trump Administration takes.
Biden’s campaign has refused to publicly comment on how it would approach the Census if the deadline fails to be met, though it has quietly intimated that it shares concerns about how the data was collected, and could even seek to order a redo of significant portions of census data collection. Any such move would also be sure to face a legal challenge from conservatives.
The Trump Administration will likely do all it can to get the census over the line before 20 January, a move that could even tip the balance of the House – where Democrats currently hold just an 11-seat majority – in the Republicans’ favour in the 2022 mid-term election.
Policy Preview: The UK’s other transition deal On 14 December, the UK Government released its much-awaited Energy White Paper, laying out a simultaneous pledge to seek a net-zero basin for the UK Continental Shelf by 2050 and the pioneering of “a new British industry dedicated to (carbon) capture and return under the North Sea”. No mean feat by any measure, and the debates on how to achieve this remains very much under wraps. Yet, the paper did give the Government one deadline, agreeing a ‘North Sea Transition Deal’ in the first half of 2021.
A more bankable date arguably is 1 November 2021, when the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow kicks off – a key event that Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, believes can be used to recast his global image. Regardless of timing, however, what the White Paper and other recent government statements have made clear is that the transition – deal or no deal – will be painful.
One area of hope has been the Government’s spending plans, particularly the £1 billion fund Johnson announced last month for establishing carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) facilities in four “SuperPlaces” (the Government’s term). However, only one will be in Scotland, the hub of the UK’s existing offshore energy industry. The outlook for support for legacy industries there is poor. The White Paper explicitly states that, “Government support is in the context of our net zero target”. The only policy directly tied to the offshore fields is Government’s commitment to seeking the North Sea Transition Deal include an end all routine flaring by 2030.
The sole opportunity it discusses in depth, is making the UK oilfield services sector a leader in the decommissioning of offshore facilities, positively spinning the expectation the UK will “become the largest decommissioning market globally over the next decade”. Greenfield development is not on the cards, and just two days prior to the paper’s launch Johnson laid out plans to end state export financing for new crude oil developments. Nonetheless, the paper claims to recognise that any North Sea Transition deal will be a ‘quid pro quo’ between industry and Government.
Previous Conservative governments have already cut oil and gas taxes, including effectively eliminating the petroleum revenue tax and slashing the supplementary charge (SR) in 2015 and 2016, but there is little room to go. Cutting the SR would be ineffective at stimulating investment in the current environment. The white paper indicates that only non-fiscal support will be on offer, and that this will only be for those transitioning heavily away from their previous area of business. Whether the Government can extract such a hefty quo for such a potentially meagre quid, remains to be seen, however.
Dollars and sense: stage set for surge of sovereign lawsuits The difficulty of pursuing foreign governments in domestic courts has long been a major hindrance to developing hard currency capital markets for emerging markets. But the idea of sovereign immunity in such spats has been steadily eroded – while over the last eight years, ever-riskier countries have been able to borrow dollars, euros and pounds out of London and New York. Infamously recalcitrant Argentina even issued a 100-year dollar bond in 2017, only to default again earlier this year. Sovereign credit markets have nonetheless remained frothy, with investors scouring opportunities for any real yield as Western interest rates are expected to remain at or near zero.
Advances in the enforceability of funds owed by uncooperative government creditors are rare, but often quite meaningful. The intervention of the late Judge Thomas Griesa in a group of hedge funds attempts to secure payment from Argentina following a previous dispute kept Buenos Aires frozen out of Western markets for years.
Many bond investors argued that the ruling strengthened emerging country debt markets. However, for non-bond investors, the ability to recover funds from governments when financing agreements go awry is more limited. Such investment disputes are typically heard by arbitration panels rather than by New York State and UK judges, as is the case with most bond spats.
Yet a recent legal settlement involving Guatemala has likely shifted matters slightly in such investors’ favour. On 3 November Guatemala missed a payment on a US$700m bond. Although it transferred funds for the payment to its custodian, Bank of New York Mellon, the bank told bondholders it was barred from making payment due to a restraining notice issued by the New York State Supreme Court. The court issued the order in response to a request from Florida-based firm TECO Energy, which secured a US$35.5 million judgement in its favour from the World Bank’s arbitration institute.
Guatemala protested the court’s order but by 24 November agreed to pay TECO, although it has not exhausted all appeals, even with the spat in its eleventh year. Put simply, Guatemala wished to avoid any blot on its heretofore spotless bond payment record lest it affect its ability to tap capital markets in the future. The process TECO took was rather simple by the standards of sovereign litigation. It secured an order from a D.C. court upholding its arbitral victory, then registering that with New York State Supreme Court, resulting in the restraining notice.
While there are very few countries in default on their foreign bonds at present, Guatemala is one of many countries entangled in lengthy arbitration disputes. We expect the New York State Supreme Court will soon face a barrage of applications for restraining notices from investors hoping to mimic TECO’s success.
Power play: the man reshaping Treasury’s tools US President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Adewale ‘Wally’ Adeyemo as Deputy Treasury Secretary signals the agency’s international role is only likely to grow more activist. Adeyemo has a low public profile, but is a stalwart of the Democratic elite. He most recently served as the first President of the Obama Foundation. Before that as Deputy Chief of Staff to Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, before concurrently serving as Elizabeth Warren’s Chief of Staff at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and as Deputy National Security Advisor, holding the International Economics Brief. Towards the end of the Obama Administration, he also served as lead negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and as presidential representative to the G7 and G20.
Adeyemo is tasked with overseeing a review of sanctions policy and will oversee the elements of the US Treasury that relate to its role in international affairs. If confirmed by the Senate, Adeyemo will essentially be the Biden Administration’s point man for ‘geo-economic’ policies, or the use of economic policies to affect geopolitical goals.
Adeyemo’s experience and writings provide an indication of the course he is likely to take. In the negotiations for the TPP, it was Adeyemo who focused on the inclusion of currency manipulation rules, though this was largely abandoned even before US President, Donald Trump withdrew the US from the negotiations. He was a key figure in shaping sanctions both while serving under Lew at the Treasury and in liaising the effort to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 in his dealings with the G7 and G20.
Both in and out of the White House, he has also focused on China, and been an advocate of the argument that the biggest threat to Beijing’s rise is its still-maturing financial market. During his 2016 Senate confirmation hearing, he took a relatively soft line on China when asked about his view on the role of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). But the Trump Administration has since thrown up far more barriers to Chinese investment, and it is unlikely the Biden Administration will reverse many of these, if any. Biden’s nominee for US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, further supports the belief that the Biden Administration will continue to take a hard line on Chinese investment. Adeyemo will ultimately determine how the Treasury supports such policies.
Do not expect any major surprises from Adeyemo’s sanctions review. The new Administration is not going to reverse the Trump Administration’s acceleration of sanctions. It will instead adjust its focus, from unilaterally blacklisting individual firms to working with allies to target China’s relations with the global financial system. Policy will be slow to emerge, and measured, but Adeyemo’s focus will be on limiting China’s ability to become a lynchpin of the global financial system. Given Beijing’s expansive lending abroad in recent years, however, the effort will prove extremely challenging.
Policy Preview: Batteries for Britain Batteries are the new diesel, or so the proponents of electric vehicles would have us believe. Governments across the world – from Australia to China to Germany – appear to have embraced this mantra as well. Britain has attempted such a strategy for over three years now, with then-Business Secretary Greg Clark launching the £246m Faraday Challenge and QUANGO Faraday Institution in 2017.The government seeks the development of a domestic battery industry as part of its promised Brexit dividend. Among the many areas of dispute in the ongoing EU-UK trade negotiations talks are ‘rule of origin’ requirements around the battery industry and electric cars. Rules of origin often depend on the value of components, and EU and UK negotiators have apparently acknowledged the reality that neither has sufficient battery-producing capacity at present for the lion’s share of the value of electronic vehicles to be the result of production from either bloc. But leaked documents indicate that the rules would tighten from 2027, when only some 35 per cent of the value could originate outside the EU or UK to qualify for tariff-free trade between the two.
While neither the EU or UK has sufficient capacity at present, both are already in a race to ramp up such production, deal or no deal. Elon Musk’s Tesla has pledged to build batteries at its planned ‘Gigafactory’ in Brandenburg, outside Berlin, while in in May AMTE Power and British Volt signed a memorandum of understanding to build a roughly equivalent battery-producing factory in the UK. Yet no significant progress has followed the MoU, and the government has also faced criticism for failing to join up its policies, for example with the seemingly counterproductive move of raising VAT on home batteries from 5 to 20 percent this October.
The government may, however, have ideas in mind to jump start the sector related to another more prominent area of the Brexit negotiations, namely state aid. Brussels is reportedly willing to make concessions here if media reports are to be believed, in return for Britain’s reported concession that it will include its terms for such support in the final agreement. There is precedent from Brussels for allowing state aid in the sector, with the European Commission having approved last December a joint research effort by Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Sweden, authorising them to spend €3.2bln in supporting such efforts. In 2021, expect a similar package from Westminster.
Dollars and Sense: Deal with Japan hints at Data Plan On 22 October, Trade Secretary Liz Truss inked Britain’s first post-Brexit trade deal, flying to Tokyo for the occasion. Truss dubbed the deal historic and a sign of the benefits that will finally begin to flow from the years-long process of exiting the European Union. The new Japan-United Kingdom trade deal has unsurprisingly become a lightning rod of debate amongst erstwhile Remainers and Brexiteers, with significant debate over the extent to which it is different from the recent EU-Japan Trade Agreement to which Britain would have been party had it not left the bloc. Critics have noted that Britain has already signed agreements with some smaller Eastern European nations to continue trading under the free trade terms they secured from Brussels in years past, and that the minor differences Truss secured from Tokyo in relation to the EU deal will benefit Japanese manufacturers far more than it will benefit UK exporters.
But there is one key element of Truss’ deal that is noteworthy, even if it is perhaps while perhaps a small victory for now. Unlike the EU-Japan deal, British firms operating in Japan will not face data localisation requirements. Such rules are certainly a technical matter but, suffice to say, data is already a key commodity in modern economies, and is only set to grow more significant. In layman’s terms, British firms will be able to sell services, and software-as-a-service subscriptions, without the need to invest in expensive local servers and related staffing and infrastructure in Japan. If this technical detail of the UK-Japan trade deal can be repeated in others, it could set Britain on a path to become a larger tech and startup powerhouse.
Such data localisation rules require other foreign firms to store data locally in Japan. Japan is not the only country to have instituted such requirements. Russia prominently introduced extremely stringent rules on data localisation in 2016, and the global protectionist wave – combined with the realisation of how valuable data has become – means more countries are likely to implement them in the coming years. Brazil has recently advanced legislation imposing such requirements. Yet while Truss’ talk of the deal promoting a ‘Singapore-on-Tyne’ in relation to the video game industry is primarily aimed at garnering positive headlines from friendly media and the concession may not be enough to significantly impact GDP projections, it sets a significant precedent for other talks. If Britain secures similar provisions in other future trade deals, it will secure a key advantage in the data industry and make it a more attractive hub for tech start-ups.
Power Play: The Keys to US Trade Agenda Markets have welcomed the simultaneous election of Joe Biden as the next President the United States and Republicans’ apparent continued hold on the Senate, where they hold 50 seats. Divided government makes it highly unlikely Democrats will be able to reverse the Trump tax cuts, but the partisan split throws up other challenges. Among the most immediate of these is whether Congress will renew the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that allows president to negotiate trade deals and for Congress to review them in a straight yes-or-no vote, without amendments. The current authority expires 1 July 2021.
Also known as fast-track trade, the authority requires the President to present a new trade deal to Congress 30 days before it votes on the pact. For Britain, which has seen a bilateral trade deal with Washington as key to its post-Brexit economic regime, that leaves a realistic deadline of 1 June – just 132 days into the Biden Administration to negotiate such a pact without an extension of the TPA. Such a tight deadline is highly unlikely to be met. Although talks with the outgoing Trump Administration formally began this May, the Biden Administration will have different demands – and Biden has said he does not envisage seeking trade deals in his first year in office.
The TPA was last re-authorised in 2015, albeit narrowly in the House, where Democrats initially refused to co-sponsor relevant legislation. Ultimately the move had to be included as part of a bill addressing issues with pensions for federal law enforcement and firefighters – an issue neither party was keen to obstruct. It also preceded the rise of Donald Trump and his challenges to free trade orthodoxy.
Whether the TPA is renewed could come down to the fight for the final two Senate seats, both in Georgia, to be determined in a runoff election to be held on 5 January. Incumbent Republican Senator David Perdue supported the 2015 extension and has expressed some, muted, support for renewed trade deals during the latest campaign. However, the other Republican candidate, Kelly Loeffler, has taken a more Trumpian approach, though this was likely motivated by her need to see off a challenge from her right. Democratic opponents Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively, have little public track record on where they stand on the matter – highlighting just how absent discussion of trade has been in the US election thus far.
Victory for either Perdue or Loeffler would allow Mitch McConnell to retain the bully pulpit of the chamber’s chair. Trade is among the few areas on which he was occasionally willing to rebuke the Trump Administration and the previous TPA one of the few areas he was willing to work with the Obama administration. His stance on the TPA and trade negotiation with Britain will shape the direction of the Republican party on trade for at least the next four years.