Monthly Archives: December 2014

… the Inter-Oceanic Canal

Ometepe Island, in Lake Nicaragua

Ometepe Island, in Lake Nicaragua

Today marks the day that Nicaragua and her Chinese backers are breaking ground on the grand inter-oceanic canal that in five years will bisect the Central American isthmus and allow super-tankers too large for the Panama Canal to make the Pacific-Atlantic journey with ease.

Except it is never going to happen.

The history of Nicaragua is basically the history of failed canal attempts, and the foreign manipulation and betrayal, as well as the domestic anguish and languish that this brings. This is no less than the 72nd official proposal for a Nicaraguan canal. This won’t even be the first time that construction has begun. The first plans for a canal across Nicaragua were hatched by the conquistadors way back in the 1500’s, and Cornelius Vanderbilt nearly secured the financing he needed to construct the canal before the Civil War scuttled his attempts. But he did manage to incite a war and build a railroad through Nicaragua in the meantime.

Anyone who looks at a map of Central America may be puzzled by the proposal for a canal through Nicaragua. Costa Rica and Panama are far less wide. Nicaragua is the largest country, by area, in Central America. However, Nicaragua also has the largest lake in the region, Lake Nicaragua. At its closest, it is only 17 km from the Pacific Ocean. And Lake Nicaragua drains all the way to to the Caribbean Sea by way of the Rio San Juan (San Juan, or Saint John River). The vast majority of Nicaragua is an Atlantic, not a Pacific watershed. The Rio San Juan is rocky, shallow, and fraught with rapids at spots, but that has not stopped pirates from sneaking all the way up the river, as well as steam ships from being towed up the river. It is the most logical path for a successful canal through Central America.

As treacherous as the terrain of the river, the geopolitics of the river are far more rocky. The Rio San Juan is the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. However, it is the only riparian border in the world that is wholly owned by one country – in this case Nicaragua. And that has created endless problems and disputes with Costa Rica. So many, in fact, that the proposed route of the canal is completely bypassing the river and being cut straight through the interior of Nicaragua (and even so Costa Rica still has watershed issues that they claim Nicaragua is not responding to, in regards to the canal).

I don’t see why this time around should be any different from the 71 other attempts.

The main, insurmountable obstacle this time is the estimated price of the canal. Panama started with a good ‘ole American-made canal. Let’s say a Ford. And they have made a series of upgrades through the years. Let’s say right now they have a nice BMW model. To compete with Panama, Nicaragua is trying to acquire a Buggati. A $50 billion Bugatti, super-wide, super-deep, complete with access roads and highways, two deep-water ports, an airport, electric generation, pipelines, free-trade zones, a railroad, and a number of other necessary supply and infrastructure projects! They estimate it will take 50,000 workers and only take five years to complete.

So how is Nicaragua going to secure investors willing to provide nearly 4.5x its annual GDP ($11.26 billion, 2013 estimate, according to the World Bank)? I’ve put together a small list of possible backers and will go through my thoughts on each:

  • China
  • Nordic Sovereign Wealth Funds
  • Middle Eastern Sovereign Wealth Funds
  • Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund
  • Big Banks, the Backers of the Many Engineering Marvels of the Past
  • Venezuela and ALBA

China

If you ask a Nicaraguan where the money is going to come from they always say “China.” I don’t think so. Sure, the main investor at this point is a Chinese telecom mogul. And he is a multi-billionaire. But no one in the world has $50 billion to throw around, and our man in China is quick to point out that he has absolutely no backing from the Chinese government with regards to the canal. No one believes him, but it makes it very unlikely that he can muster $50 billion from his own domestic sources. Besides, between 2010 and 2012 China invested $101 billion, in total, in the entire continent of Africa (source: Business Insider). To think that they would even put half of that into one small country is irrational.

Nordic Sovereign Wealth Funds

I’ll make this one easy. Nordic countries, primarily Norway, have a lot of oil money that they are saving. But they are not going to invest it in Nicaragua. These countries have already pulled back on diplomatic channels and foreign aid to Nicaragua because of transparency concerns. They’re not going to pull a 180 and start pumping billions into a project fraught with questions and uncertainty.

Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund

Same story as Norway. They’re saving their oil money, and they’re not going to give it to Nicaragua. Unfortunately, this year, Malaysian Airlines, owned partially by the fund, had a rough one, losing two 777’s in their tragic entirety. The fund had to bail out the airline.  The price of oil is tumbling, which is probably helping to prop up Malaysian Airlines, on the one hand, but it is stunting the funds cash flow, on the other hand. I doubt they will be announcing a non-stop to Managua from KL anytime soon.

Middle East Sovereign Wealth Funds

And that leaves the Arabs. This is where I see the miracle coming from, if it comes from anywhere. Everyone knows that the Arabs have lots of oil wealth. And they’re known for the audacious. For one, Dubai. For seconds, it was the Arabs who bailed out some of the banks and hedge funds in the early days of the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis, long before Lehman Brothers became all too well known. So maybe, just maybe, a jet-setting Chinese man and Ortega’s outdated mustache can convince the right mix of petrocrats to throw in a good chunk of the $50 billion and really get the show on the road.

The Big Banks

No way Josue. Big banks in America, Europe, and elsewhere, are under immense pressure to demonstrate the viability of their investments. American regulators would pounce on any bankers working on this less-than transparent project, and European banks are already very bearish on shipping, since Northern European banks with shipping exposure were under extra scrutiny during the recently completed European banking stress tests, since global shipping has been very weak since the global recession.

Venezuela and ALBA

For years Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela was the standard-bearer for Latin-American Leftist opposition to America. When Chavez died last year his followers all started pounding their chest to become his heir. This included Correa in Ecuador, Ortega here in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and of course Maduro in Venezuela. For years Venezuela, and its leftist sphere of influence, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA in Spanish), have been financing cheap oil for member states as well as other social development projects. However, this all comes from Venezuelan stability and a steady stream of oil dollars into her state coffers. But with oil prices tumbling and Venezuela simmering in social unrest, it’s another no way Josue.

It is serenely ironic that the same trends, the rise of US oil and gas production, are giving rise to the need for an American super-canal, while at the same time driving the nail into the coffin of possible financing options, by driving down the price of oil.

The Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute has a nice map showing the size of sovereign wealth funds around the world. Click on the map for the link:

Red circles represent oil wealth, and blue circles represent other wealth (often mineral)

Red circles represent oil wealth, and blue circles represent other wealth (often mineral)

So it is never going to happen. But that does not mean I do not want it to happen. No one doubts that Nicaragua is starved for development. It is tied for being the second-poorest country in the Americas. Haiti takes the unfortunate crown, with Bolivia tied for second with Nicaragua.

The largest concern, after the obvious financing issues, is environmental. First and foremost, there is a 20-foot tide differential between the east and west coasts. And plans for the canal have not addressed this engineering obstacle yet. But furthermore, the canal will drive through protected wetlands, productive agricultural communities, and protected indigenous communities on the Caribbean coast. This is all not to mention that the route will go straight through and require the dredging of Lake Nicaragua, which is the largest source of freshwater in Central America. It is already an extremely fragile freshwater ecosystem due to agricultural and other pollutants streaming into the lake. Everyone from locals to parties interested in the fledgling tourism industry are in extreme opposition to the canal.

But lastly, I doubt that Nicaraguans will reap the benefits of the canal, which is how Ortega is selling the whole scheme to his people. The Chinese development corporation has a 50-year concession on profits, with another 50-year option to extend. Ortega is promising 250,000 jobs that will be born as a result of the canal, plus the need for 50,000 laborers on the construction. But of course I have my doubts. The canal will drive through some of the most sparsely populated and least developed departments of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people will have to relocate in order to realize those 250,000 jobs, which will lead to a lot of social strains on the country. Plus, given the under-education of the Nicaraguan people, the best-paying of the 50,000 construction jobs will mostly go to foreigners, not Nicaraguans. And I think it also bears mentioning that the highest HIV rates in Nicaragua are often in mobile populations, much like the worker camps will be. Has anyone put any thought into the epidemiological and public health effects of this project?

Nicaragua and the Chinese development company hired McKinsey to conduct a feasibility study. Officials refuse to release the results, but they are quick to point out the stellar economic projections. In 2013 GDP growth paced along at 4.6%. Official projections for the canal show that in the first year of construction GDP growth will skyrocket to above 14% and stay there for the foreseeable future. I just finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hitman. I hated the book. It was poorly written and not believable. But I can’t fail to mention that the author emphasized that the main tool of an economic hitman is inflated growth projections. It is guaranteed that the construction of a canal would attract a ton of foreign direct investment in Nicaragua, but sustained rates above 10% are preposterous and only part of the Chinese boondoggle to attract investment in the first place.

If the project ever truly gets off the drawing board (the groundbreaking today is ceremonial, nothing more) I will be in opposition. I fear that Nicaragua will bear many negative externalities while reaping few benefits.

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… the Lima Climate Change Conference

IMG_4416

Lima, January 2009

Today is the last day of the Lima Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru. I’ve become fairly convinced that climate change is the most important issue confronting human beings, so I figured I would follow-up on my post a week ago with a wrap-up of the summit.

It seems that the end result of the summit is a commitment by each of the 195 countries in attendance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The kicker is that each country will draw up its own commitments. There is no grand total that needs to be reached or higher benchmarks for developed countries to hit. Each country will have until March to submit its plan.

The problem with this is a classic in economics, the Prisoners’ Dilemma:

Two members of a gang are arrested for committing a crime together and are held separately from one another. They are going to be sent to jail for one year for their crime. However, they are both offered a deal. They can testify at the trial of their accomplice, betraying her, with the following possible outcomes:

  • If they both betray each other, they will both serve two years in jail
  • If only one betrays the other, the one convicted of the crime will serve three years, while the betrayer will be set free and not serve jail time
  • If neither of them betray the other they will serve the one year

Rationally, you would expect that neither of them betray each other. By cooperating they effectively minimize their likely jail time. However, given the fear that the other will betray you while you remain quiet, most people in this situation would themselves betray, setting them both up for two years in jail. This is the dilemma. Rationally, we should take one action, but behaviorally we are likely to take another which is not the ideal choice.

In the case of international climate change, the countries of the world are our prisoners. And since each country has to draw up their own greenhouse gas reduction commitments, they can either “cooperate” by reducing proportionally to their share of emissions and warming, or they can “betray,” letting the other countries do all of the heavy lifting. Rationally, all countries should cooperate, but behaviorally we expect them to betray each other, dooming the international climate change treaty to ineffectiveness.

Again, I feel like the key to success is a money transfer from developed to lesser developed countries (LDC’s). Of course, the money transfer would be under the condition that LDC’s do their proportional part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the money being used to offset the change in their growth trajectories by converting to more expensive technologies. The problem is, the amount of money to transfer is hard to pin down. In 2009 at the climate accords in Copenhagen developed countries committed $100 billion annually, starting in 2020, to offsetting transfers. However, the United Nations Environmental Program is now estimating that costs may rise to $300 billion a year.

Since each country is now going to be drawing up its own commitments to emission reduction, pinpointing a global, annual transfer amount is all but impossible. If LDC’s fall into the prisoners’ dilemma $300 billion will not be necessary, but they could use the developed world’s refusal to give $300 billion as a reason for not cutting their emissions enough in the first place. On the contrary, if LDC’s are convinced to cut their emissions proportionally, they may want more than $300 billion, which developed countries may not be able to muster.

To me, the clearest way out of this dilemma is to concretely pinpoint how much money will need to be transferred if the global emission reduction benchmark is reached. This will give developed countries leverage in negotiations and can convince LDC’s to cooperate.

… an International Climate Change Treaty

This post is apologetically months and months overdue, but I am glad that I am now completing it and posting it because I am passionate about this subject, and with all eyes on Lima now and Paris next year, it remains vitally important.

Back in October 2010 I wrote a writing sample for a job application called, “The Economics of International Climate Change.” I didn’t get the job, not even an interview, but ironically, I had to drive past the Company every day for my job at Ernst & Young in Tysons Corner that I did wind up taking. Given the attention on climate change in New York this week, I have resurrected the writing sample from the bowels of my external hard drive (an indispensable item for a Peace Corps Volunteer, I assure you) and re-tooled it here for this blog.

Western world leaders have placed great emphasis on climate change. Their contention: if the current accumulation of greenhouses gasses is not allayed then climate change is sure to wreak havoc upon vulnerable populations around the world. However, stemming the accumulation of greenhouse gasses requires a trade off with economic output that many people around the world are not willing to part with. This opposition is led by emerging nations, particularly India, Brazil, and China.

Technically, there is a rather simple solution to preventing climate change. Once environmental scientists reach consensus on what the acceptable level of greenhouse gasses like carbon in the atmosphere is (a consensus which surveys of the relevant literature reveals has been quite elusive) then governments must simply charge a price – either by taxing emitters or issuing tradable emission permits – so that the quantity of emissions is reduced to levels scientists deem appropriate. The economics of this solution is elegant in its simplicity. Sources of greenhouses gasses (electric generation, automobiles, etc.) will “pay the price” until it is cheaper for them to abate the deleterious emission than paying the tax or buying permits. They can achieve this abatement by either decreasing output or producing their products in a way that emits less greenhouse gas. These methods will increase the price of the products, so demand will re-equilibrate to a lower quantity, ensuring that the markets remain efficient while still preventing the advance of climate change.

Clearly the citizens of the world will have to pay for this protection of the environment. High gas mileage vehicles, alternative energy, and other abatement methods are costly for an economy. The institution of a comprehensive international environmental treaty would certainly decrease global output for years to come. Herein lays the heart of the opposition to such an arrangement. Low-income countries which are rapidly expanding their economies towards prosperity would have to languish in poverty for years to come, while high-income countries already enjoy relative prosperity even though they caused the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gas accumulation.

On one hand, the appeal to fairness by countries led by China seems valid [and given recent developments, no one can argue that China is not at least pretending to search for a solution]. Every person in the world has the right to economic prosperity, so countries that already enjoy high standards of living should bear the burden of global environmental stewardship while the rest of the world catches up. But there is something unsatisfying about this approach. It is arguable that knowingly damaging the environment is just morally wrong, so emerging market countries do not have any legitimate base to pollute their way to prosperity no matter the prosperity of others. It is simply unfortunate that developed countries did not know about the harms of greenhouse gas during the Industrial Revolution, because then they would have altered their behavior decades ago and prevented this crisis in the first place.

Despite these fundamental ethical dilemmas, a solution to the international deadlock on a climate change treaty is still feasible from an economic point of view. It would be prohibitively expensive for developed countries to abate all of the environmentally required greenhouse gasses on their own. It is in the economic best interest of the developed world to recruit the support of emerging nations. Therefore, developed nations should offer transfer assistance to developing nations in exchange for abating emissions. Developing nations should be willing to accept aid which exceeds their economic costs of reducing emissions, while developed nations should be willing to pay to the developing world anything less than the cost they would have to bare in order to assuage climate change all on their own. Coming to the terms of this agreement will surely take intense deliberation between nations, but there is nothing fundamentally barring its fruition.

Just to make you feel like I posted this article back when all eyes were on the UN in New York, here are some great pictures I gathered from the climate march that was held concurrently in Manhattan:

Just to take things from 2010 pseudo-academic Eric to nearly 2015 blogger Eric, I want to really quickly boil down my point here. If we want to strike an international global climate change treaty the rich countries will need to pay the poor countries. Just like water, countries take the path of least resistance to prosperity. We did back during the Industrial Revolution, not knowing the harms of the chemicals we were emitting. Now developing countries are doing it to, but they can’t afford to stop. They are poor, and their people need economic growth to achieve quality of life. So the only way to get their leaders to agree to enforce greenhouse gas emission limits is by compensating them for the economic growth that we are asking them to deliberately pare down. How is this deliberate, you may ask? If they want their prosperity to not follow the path of least resistance, they are going to have to go slower and use more expensive technologies.

 

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