Grubby greenbacks, dear credit, full shops and empty factories … Inflation reached an absurd 231,000,000% in the summer of 2008. Output measured in dollars had halved in barely a decade. A hundred-trillion-dollar note was made ready for circulation, but no sane tradesman would accept local banknotes. A ban on foreign-currency trading was lifted in January 2009. By then the American dollar had become Zimbabwe’s main currency, a position it still holds today. … Zimbabwe’s dollar had been too liberally printed: a swollen stock of local banknotes was chasing a diminished supply of goods. Now the American banknotes the economy relies on have to be begged, borrowed or earned. Even so, the monetary system works surprisingly well. A scarcity of greenbacks keeps inflation in the low single digits. The economy has made up much lost ground.
The West thought it was winning the battle against jihadist terrorism. It should think again … It all looked different two years ago. Even before the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, al-Qaeda’s central leadership, holed up near the Afghan border in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, was on the ropes, hollowed out by drone attacks and able to communicate with the rest of the network only with difficulty and at great risk. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), its most capable franchise as far as mounting attacks on the West is concerned, was being hit hard by drone strikes and harried by Yemeni troops. The Shabab was under similar pressure in Somalia, as Western-backed African Union forces chased them out of the main cities. Above all, the Arab spring had derailed al-Qaeda’s central claim that corrupt regimes supported by the West could be overthrown only through violence. ... All those gains are now in question. The Shabab is recruiting more foreign fighters than ever (some of whom appear to have been involved in the attack on the Westgate). AQAP was responsible for the panic that led to the closure of 19 American embassies across the region and a global travel alert in early August. Meanwhile al-Qaeda’s core, anticipating the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan after 2014, is already moving back into the country’s wild east. ... Above all, the poisoning of the Arab spring has given al-Qaeda and its allies an unprecedented opening.
For a long time, smug worked pretty well for Chipotle Mexican Grill. It’s grown into a chain of more than 1,900 locations, thanks in part to marketing—including short animated films about the evils of industrial agriculture—that reminds customers that its fresh ingredients and naturally raised meat are better than rivals’ and better for the world. The implication: If you eat Chipotle, you’re doing the right thing, and maybe you’re better, too. It helped the company, charging about $7 for a burrito, reach a market valuation of nearly $24 billion. Its executives seemed to have done the impossible and made a national fast-food chain feel healthy. ... Almost 500 people around the country have become sick from Chipotle food since July, according to public-health officials. And those are just the ones who went to a doctor, gave a stool sample, and were properly diagnosed. Food-safety experts say they believe with any outbreak the total number of people affected is at least 10 times the reported number. The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans get sick from contaminated food every year. ... Whatever its provenance, if food is contaminated it can still make us sick—or even kill. Millennials may discriminate when they eat, but bacteria are agnostic. ... Chipotle has said it will shift more food preparation out of restaurants and into centralized kitchens—that is, it will do things more like the fast-food chains it’s long mocked. Ells’s company has always urged customers to think about its supply chain. Well, now they are. ... It has about 100 suppliers for its 64 ingredients. That doesn’t include local farms—those within 350 miles of a restaurant—which at peak season supply only 10 percent of its produce.
1. The Hollow Alliance: The trans-Atlantic partnership has been the world’s most important alliance for nearly seventy years, but it’s now weaker, and less relevant, than at any point in decades. It no longer plays a decisive role in addressing any of Europe’s top priorities. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and the conflict in Syria will expose US-European divisions. As US and European paths diverge, there will be no more international fireman—and conflicts particularly in the Middle East will be left to rage.
2. Closed Europe: In 2016, divisions in Europe will reach a critical point as a core conflict emerges between Open Europe and Closed Europe—and a combination of inequality, refugees, terrorism, and grassroots political pressures pose an unprecedented challenge to the principles on which the new Europe was founded. Europe’s open borders will face particular pressure. The risk of Brexit is underestimated. Europe’s economics will hold together in 2016, but its broader meaning and its social fabric will not.
3. The China Footprint: Never has a country at China’s modest level of economic and political development produced such a powerful global footprint. China is the only country of scale today with a global economic strategy. The recognition in 2016 that China is both the most important and most uncertain driver of a series of global outcomes will increasingly unnerve other international players who aren’t ready for it, don’t understand or agree with Chinese priorities, and won’t know how to respond to it.
4. ISIS and “Friends”: ISIS is the world’s most powerful terrorist organization, it has attracted followers and imitators from Nigeria to the Philippines, and the international response to its rise is inadequate, misdirected, and at cross purposes. For 2016, this problem will prove unfixable, and ISIS (and other terrorist organizations) will take advantage of that. The most vulnerable states will remain those with explicit reasons for ISIS to target them (France, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States), and those with the largest numbers of unintegrated Sunni Muslims (Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and across Europe).
5. Saudi Arabia: The Saudi Kingdom faces a growing risk of destabilizing discord within the royal family this year, and its increasingly isolated status will lead it to act more aggressively across the Middle East this year. The threat of intra-royal family strife is on the rise, and a scenario of open conflict, unimaginable prior to King Salman’s January 2015 ascension, has now become entirely realistic. The key source of external Saudi anxiety is Iran, soon to be free of sanctions.
6. The rise of technologists: A variety of highly influential non-state actors from the world of technology are entering the realm of politics with unprecedented assertiveness. These newly politically ambitious technologists are numerous and diverse, with profiles ranging from Silicon Valley corporations to hacker groups and retired tech philanthropists. The political rise of these actors will generate pushback from governments and citizens, generating both policy and market volatility.
7. Unpredictable Leaders: An unusually wide constellation of leaders known for their erratic behavior will make international politics exceptionally volatile this year. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan are leaders of an unruly pack that includes Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and – to a lesser but important extent – Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko. These unpredictable leaders make our list for 2016 because their interventions overlap and conflict. One powerful, erratic leader spells trouble; four spell volatility with major international implications.
8. Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff is fighting for her political survival, and the country’s political and economic crisis is set to worsen in 2016. Contrary to hopes among pundits and many market players, the battle over Rousseff’s impeachment is unlikely to end the current political stalemate. Should the president survive, her government won’t gain the political boost necessary to move on the economic reforms needed to tackle the country’s growing fiscal deficit. If Rousseff is ousted, an administration led by Vice President Michel Temer won’t fare much better.
9. Not enough elections: Emerging markets underwent a historic cycle of national elections in 2014-2015, but this year there are relatively few opportunities for EM voters to make themselves heard at the ballot box. As slower growth and stagnating living standards stoke popular discontent, governance and stability will suffer. Historically, markets have been less volatile in non-election years, but this time will be different. By raising popular expectations, the massive income growth that most EMs enjoyed over the past 10 years has created conditions for a rude awakening.
10. Turkey: After a decisive victory for his AK party in late-2015, President Erdogan will now push to replace the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential one. He’s unlikely to reach his goal in 2016, but his aggressive electioneering will further damage an already battered Turkish business and investment climate. On the security front, there is little prospect of an imminent end to PKK violence, and unrelenting US pressure on Ankara to clamp down on the Islamic State will produce only modest results while making Turkey more vulnerable to new attacks by ISIS.
* Red Herrings: US voters aren't going to elect a president who will close the country to Muslims. China’s economy isn’t headed for a hard landing, and its politics will remain stable. Continued strong leadership from Japan's Shinzo Abe, India's Narendra Modi, and especially China's Xi Jinping will keep Asia's three most important players focused on economic reform and longer-term strategy, reducing the risk of conflict in Asia’s geopolitics.
Thursday. My one chance in the week to buy staples—cooking oil, rice, laundry detergent—at state-set prices. All Venezuelan adults are assigned days of the week to shop for regulated goods based on the numbers on our national ID cards. My days are Sundays and Thursdays. Sundays are useless, though. Stores stopped selling regulated goods over the weekend a long time ago. Thursdays are only marginally more useful. For the past several months, the lines at the two supermarkets near my house in eastern Caracas have been so long, stretching out for two blocks, that it’d take hours to get a chance to shop. And then there’s no guarantee I’ll find anything once inside. ... Still, I drive by the supermarkets in the morning to give them a quick look. No chance. They’re so jam-packed, there isn’t even a spot to park. I keep going. My reporting assignment on this day will take me to several parts of the city, so, of course, I’ll be on the prowl for something, anything I can take back to my two kids—an eight-year-old boy and ten-year-old girl—and husband Isaac.
Wall Street in the late 1860s was a bare-knuckles affair plagued by robber barons, political patronage, and stock manipulation. In perhaps the most scandalous instance of manipulation ever, a cabal led by Jay Gould, a successful but ruthless railroad executive and speculator, and several highly placed political contacts, conspired to corner the gold market. Although ultimately foiled, they succeeded in bankrupting several venerable brokerage houses and crashing the stock market, causing America’s first Black Friday.
With greater oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela should be at least moderately prosperous. Instead, it has the world’s fastest contracting economy, the second highest murder rate, inflation heading towards 1,000% and shortages of food and medicine that have pushed the poorest members of its 30 million population to the edge of a humanitarian abyss. ... It takes just five minutes to cross from the porous border at Pacaraima. Locals say the government in Caracas lifted food import tariffs from Brazil two months ago in a sign both of its desperation to ease shortages and its weakening control over the economy. There is now a steady stream of traders buying sacks of rice, sugar, wheat and spaghetti for resale in Venezuela. ... Life could be made easier if the authorities printed notes with higher denominations than 100 Bolivars, which is worth less than 8p, or 10 cents. But the central bank appears reluctant to make a move that would confirm a level of hyperinflation not seen in Latin America since the crises in Brazil and Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, locals have to pay for everything in the equivalent of dimes. Even when made of paper, that can be cumbersome and heavy. ... The government’s tendency to subsidise many products below the cost of production is a major reason why the economy is in such a mess. ... Even in the midst of crisis, the government still hands out free or massively discounted homes, cars, DVD players and microwave ovens.
The medical student told me to use his name. He said he didn’t care. “Maduro is a donkey,” he said. “An a**hole.” He meant Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela. We were passing through the wards of a large public hospital in Valencia, a city of roughly a million people, a hundred miles west of Caracas. The hallways were dim and stifling, thick with a frightening stench. ... Why were hospitals so heavily guarded? Nobody threatened to invade them. The guards had orders, it was said, to keep out journalists. Exposés had embarrassed the government. ... For decades, the country had been ruled by two centrist parties that took turns winning elections but were increasingly out of touch with voters. A move to impose fiscal austerity was rejected, in 1989, with a mass revolt and countrywide looting—a paroxysm known as the Caracazo—which was put down by the Army at a cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. Chávez was an Army lieutenant colonel, from a humble background—his parents were village schoolteachers. He crashed the national stage in 1992, by leading a military-coup attempt. The coup failed, and Chávez went to jail, but his televised declarations of noble intent caught the imaginations of many Venezuelans. He offered a charismatic alternative to the corrupt, sclerotic status quo. After his release, he headed a small leftist party and easily won the Presidency. ... He soon rewrote the constitution, concentrating power in the executive. ... After Chávez barely survived a 2002 coup attempt, the Cubans also sent teams of military and intelligence advisers who taught their Venezuelan counterparts how to surveil and disrupt the political opposition Cuban-style, with close monitoring, harassment, and strategic arrests. ... Polar employs about thirty thousand workers (it is the country’s largest private employer) and is responsible for more than three per cent of Venezuela’s non-oil gross domestic product. Besides corn flour and the country’s top-selling beer, Polar produces pasta, rice, tuna fish, wine, ice cream, yogurt, margarine, ketchup, mayonnaise, and detergent. Yet it operates in an atmosphere of continual uncertainty, its planners and logistics mavens never sure what roadblock or subterfuge the government will toss up next. ... The crisis has a small but crucial constituency, starting with the generals and other high government officials who are thriving financially, mainly through smuggling, graft, and import fraud.