Category Archives: Markets

Favorite of the West: Niger as Police State

Niger Soluxe hotel

Niger, a poverty-stricken nation perched on the southern belt of the Sahara, is rapidly being transformed into one of the world’s most strategic security hubs….“This place is a nest of spies,” said one contractor … “Below the radar, it’s become a key country for the West.”  A surge in financial assistance from European nations seeking to stem the flow of African migrants has made Niger the world’s largest per capita recipient of European Union aid…Western military forces operate from at least nine bases in Niger, government officials said…. The U.S. is finishing a large air base in Agadez, while the Central Intelligence Agency has begun flying armed drones from an airstrip outside the northern town of Dirkou, Nigerien officials said.

U.S. and European policy makers praise the government as a good partner that has welcomed foreign military personnel and slashed the migrant flow by almost 90% from 2015 highs. …Locals, nongovernmental organizations and opposition activists say the government is using international backing to neutralize dissent and embezzle millions of dollars in aid, charges the government denies. The opposition—backed by rights group Amnesty International—says President Mahamadou Idriss Issoufou, in power since 2011, is arbitrarily jailing activists and spending Western aid on bolstering his elite Presidential Guard…

Swaths of the nation’s centuries-old transportation economy—the movement of people and goods from West Africa through the Sahara—has essentially been criminalized by the EU crackdown on migration.  Some of the desert-dwelling Tuareg people, who have transported goods for centuries, are now smuggling weapons, men and money for cash-rich jihadist insurgencies. Migrants are dying in the desert in failed attempts to find new routes.

“The West is pleased because Niger’s government is a willing partner,but as Niger’s security chief, Mohammed Bazoum, says “We have become a hinge country, a geostrategic hub, but it is a disaster for us. We are known as a land of terrorism and migrant traffic.”

Across Niger’s western border with Mali, jihadist groups including Islamic State and al Qaeda franchises control stretches of territory around the northern city of Gao. Along the southern frontier with Nigeria, a rejuvenated Boko Haram is mounting intensifying attacks against security forces, including around the city of Diffa, where the U.S. has dozens of troops stationed. To the north lies Libya, which has become a hotbed of instability, weapons and radicalization.

The European Development Fund last year awarded $1 billion to Niger through 2020, and unusually for a country governance watchdogs deem chronically corrupt, 75% is now infused directly into the Nigerien budget instead of through nongovernmental organizations.The money funds hundreds of off-road vehicles, motorcycles and satellite phones for Nigerien security forces as well as new infrastructure and technology along the borders and countrywide development programs.

In Niamey’s central Plateau district, tall black screens block the soaring new U.S. Embassy headquarters, which will be one of the largest in West Africa. Saudi Arabia has broken ground on its own huge mission, while buildings belonging to EU agencies occupy whole city blocks. Hotels and conference centers are rising in tandem, reconfiguring the economic and political landscape of a nation ranked the world’s second-poorest behind the Central African Republic.

The government says the building boom is creating jobs. Locals say it has stoked runaway inflation and priced them out of their neighborhoods. In the past year, the cost of a kilogram of rice has risen 29%, sending shock waves through homes where the average wage is $2.66 a day.

“The cost to live here rises with each new European coming,” lamented Abdulraham Mamoudou, repairing his motor scooter on a dusty corner near the expanding U.S. Embassy compound.

A similar pattern is playing out further north in the smuggling hub of Agadez, where the EU-coordinated migration crackdown has transformed a boomtown into a simmering bust.  The city’s jails are bursting with men who have been convicted of smuggling. Vast depots on the town’s outskirts house hundreds of trucks confiscated by authorities…“This place is now for the Americans and French,” said Sadiq, a former migrant smuggler who evaded arrest and is now unemployed. “They took our livelihood and don’t give us anything in return.”

Excerpts from ‘A Nest of Spies’: Niger’s Deserts Become Front Line of Fight Against Jihadis, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2018

One Player, Many Pawns: the thirst for nuclear technology

The Hanhikivi plant in Finland will use Russian nuclear technology. model of the plant from wikipedia

The nuclear power industry, which had been in the doldrums since the 1980s, suffered a devastating blow in 2011 when a tsunami engulfed the Fukushima power plant in Japan, ultimately causing a meltdown. The amount of electricity generated by nuclear power worldwide plunged 11% in two years, and has not recovered since. Within this declining industry, one country now dominates the market for design and export of nuclear plants: Russia.

Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company,  is focused on what some call the “great grand middle”: countries that are close allies of neither the United States nor Russia. In April Russia started building Turkey’s first nuclear plant, worth $20bn. Its first reactor is due for completion in 2023. Rosatom says it has 33 new plants on its order book, worth some $130bn. A dozen are under construction, including in Bangladesh, India and Hungary…. Once completed the plants offer an obvious diplomatic lever in the form of sway over a large portion of a country’s electricty generation… The relationship betweeen exporter and customer is particularly close in a nuclear plant’s early years, when local employees are still being trained and the exporting country is direclty involved in the plant’s operation….

Russia’s nuclear programme has endured for two main reasons. Its designs are cheap, and Rosatom enjoys the backing of the state, which helps it absorb hard-to-insure risks like nuclear meltdowns. Its competitors trail hopelessly: France’s Areva (now Orano) has started building only two plants in the past ten years, in Finland and China; both are delayed and over budget. KEPCO, South Korea’s energy company, is facing a domestic backlash against nuclear power, while Westinghouse, in America, is only now emerging from bankruptcy.

Russia’s only real competitor is China..Yet although China will surely catch up, for now Russia has no serious rivals in the export of nuclear technology. In a world that needs to generate much more electricity from nuclear power if it is to take decarbonisation seriously, that is a sobering though

Excerpts from  Atoms for Peace: Russia and Nuclear Power, Economist, Aug. 4, 2018, at 43

How Many Uranium Mines Do We Need?

Retired well heads used for ISL at Uranium One's operations in Johnson County., Wyoming

At the height of activity in 1980, U.S. companies produced nearly 44 million pounds of uranium concentrate and provided most of the supplies purchased by nuclear power plants. In 2017, American miners produced 2.4 million pounds and supplied just 7 percent of the uranium bought by domestic plants.  The industry, which once supported nearly 22,000 jobs, now employs just a few hundred people each year…

In July 2018, the U.S. Commerce Department opened an investigation to determine whether the nation’s growing dependence on foreign uranium supplies poses a risk to national security….The two miners that petitioned Commerce to conduct the review, Energy Fuels and UR-Energy, want the United States to take steps to ensure U.S. producers control 25 percent of the market. They say they can’t compete with subsidized supplies from places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

To be sure, nearly half of the uranium used in the United States comes from allies like Canada and Australia. From the moment they lost trade protections, U.S. miners had trouble competing with these foreign supplies.
“It’s been government-sponsored, government-subsidized just since the beginning. Trying to sort that out and find where there’s a free market in uranium — I find that very questionable.”-Luke Danielson, Sustainable Development Strategies Group president

The U.S. uranium mining industry is relatively young. It went through a brief golden age between about 1955 and 1980, beginning when the United States offered generous incentives to shore up its stockpiles of the nuclear weapons fuel during the Cold War….By the 1960s, the program had packed U.S. storehouses so full of uranium stockpiles that the government stopped paying the incentives. However, it left in place rules barring the use of foreign uranium until 1975, when it began to allow a growing percentage of overseas supplies into the market.  That opened the door to high-quality, low-cost supplies from Canada and Australia. By 1987, the United States was importing nearly 15 million pounds of uranium, and domestic output fell by about a third to roughly 13 million pounds.

While competition weighed on U.S. uranium production, the excitement around nuclear energy in the 1970s kept mines busy. However, the American love affair with atomic power proved short-lived. The 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania sparked fierce backlash against nuclear energy. Seven years later, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster turned a Ukrainian city into a ghost town…

By the early 2000s, U.S. uranium production was at its lowest in a half century.  Around that time, the former Soviet state Kazakhstan was ramping up uranium mining. In just a few short years, it would become the world’s top uranium producer and the second biggest supplier to the United States.
The Central Asian nation accomplished that feat in large part by exploiting a process called “in situ leaching” (ISL) or in situ recovery  (ISR)*** increasingly being used to extract uranium.  Along with countries like Niger, Mali and Mongolia, Kazakhstan has an advantage: lax regulations that allow it to process uranium cheaply from in situ leaching, which involves pumping chemicals into uranium reserves and carries serious risks to the environment if it’s not carried out responsibly…

And then in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan created a backlash unlike anything seen since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the aftermath, Japan shut down all of its nuclear reactors, and Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022.  The U.S. nuclear renaissance has also fizzled as flagship projects have turned into costly boondoggles. The venerable Westinghouse Electric Company filed for bankruptcy last year under the weight of billions of dollars in losses tied to its troubled nuclear power plant projects in Georgia and South Carolina. “There’s such a glut of inventory in the market that it’s just not profitable for some of the mines to produce, so the price has just really plummeted as a result of that,” said Sean Davis, a research analyst at IHS Markit who tracks the chemicals used in uranium mining.

Since their peak in 2007, uranium prices have crashed from nearly $140 per pound to $20-$25.

Excerpts from Nuclear wasteland: The explosive boom and long, painful bust of American uranium mining, CNBC, Aug. 4, 2018

***”No remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions.”

Mini-Green Grids

image from http://www.nigeriaelectricityhub.com/2017/12/11/legal-framework-for-mini-grids-power-generation-and-distribution-in-nigeria/

A forested village in Jharkhand state, eastern India, Narotoli is home mainly to adherents of Sarna, a nature-worshipping tribal religion. In more ways than one, it has long been off-grid… In 2018, it became one of the last in India to benefit from a push by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to supply electricity to all the country’s villages. But the national power lines are so “reliably unreliable”, says an Indian executive, that they might as well be washing lines.

In 2016, before the national grid arrived, however, Mlinda, a social enterprise, had set up a “mini-grid”, a bank of batteries charged by solar panels and hooked up to homes, to guarantee round-the-clock power independent of the national network.  The power generated by the plant is expensive (though it costs less than villagers often pay for alternatives such as kerosene for lighting and diesel for irrigation pumps). The worry is that demand for electricity may not be enough to justify the installation cost. …But Mlinda and other mini-grid installers see them as more than a way to satisfy existing demand for electricity: they are a way to catalyse development. The installers advise villagers on irrigation, farming and marketing to help them develop businesses that require reliable electricity, which in turn justifies the expense of installation.

Vijay Bhaskar of Mlinda says a big mistake in development has been to assume that, once people are hooked up to electricity, businesses will automatically flourish. People have to be taught how to make the most of power, he says. “Bringing energy is the easy part. The hard part is finding productive ways to make use of it.”  According to one British expert, “mini-grid operators are not sellers of kilowatt-hours; they are stimulators of rural development.” Jaideep Mukherjee, the boss of Smart Power India, an NGO supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, says their job is to “demonstrate the benefits, train and then propagate”.

An independent study for Mlinda found that GDP per person in eight villages with mini-grids rose by 10.6% on average over the first 13 months, compared with 4.6% in a group of similar villages without them.  Mini-grids are being set up at the rate of just 100 or so a year, from Myanmar to Mozambique. But the International Energy Agency (IEA), a forecaster, says hundreds of thousands of them could connect 440m people by 2030, with the right policies and about $300bn of investment.

African countries used to focus almost exclusively on expanding national electricity networks. Now some, including Nigeria and Togo, have started to prioritise mini-grids. ..

Most mini-grids are green, unlike diesel, kerosene and coal- and gas-fired electricity. That is a welcome feature, though not the main aim, since the contribution of places like Narotoli to global warming is minuscule.

Excerpts from Mini-girds and development: Empowering Villages, Economist, July 14, 2018, at 61

Can’t Touch This! America FANG v. China BATX

The Economist magazine has considered four measures of Chinese corporate unfairness, using data from Morgan Stanley and Bloomberg. The first is the weight of China in the foreign sales that American firms bring in. It stands at 15%; if it was in line with China’s share of world GDP, it would be 20%. This shortfall amounts to a small 1% of American firms’ global sales (both foreign and domestic). America Inc is similarly underweight in the rest of Asia, but there is much less fighting talk about South Korea or Japan.

The second test is whether there is parity in the commercial relationship. Firms based in China make sales to America almost exclusively through goods exports, which were worth $506bn last year. American companies make their sales to China both through exports and through their subsidiaries there, which together delivered about $450bn-500bn in revenue. Again, there is not much of a gap. American firms’ aggregate market share in China, of 6%, is almost double Chinese firms’ share in America, based on the sales of all listed firms.

The third yardstick is whether American firms underperform other multinationals and local firms. In some cases failure is not China-specific. Walmart has had a tough time in China, but has also struggled in Brazil and Britain. Uber sold out to a competitor in China, but has done the same in South-East Asia. American consumer and industrial blue chips are typically of a similar scale in China to their nearest rivals. Thus the sales of Boeing and Airbus, Nike and Adidas, and General Electric and Siemens are all broadly in line with each other. Where America has a comparative advantage—tech—it leads (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google (FANG)). Over half of USA Inc’s sales in China are from tech firms, led by Apple, Intel and Qualcomm. Overall, American firms outperform. For the top 50 that reveal data, sales in China have risen at a compound annual rate of 12% since 2012. That is higher than local firms (9%) and European ones (5%).

The final measure is whether American firms are shut out of some sectors. This is important as China shifts towards services and as the smartphone market, a goldmine, matures. The answer is clearly “yes”. Alphabet, Facebook and Netflix are nowhere, and Wall Street firms are all but excluded from the mainland. Chinese firms, however, can make a similar complaint. The market share of all foreign firms (incuding China’s Baidu, Alibaba,Tencent and Xiaomi popularly called BATX) in Silicon Valley’s software and internet activities, and on Wall Street, is probably below 20%. America’s national-security rules, thickets of regulation, lobbying culture and political climate make it inconceivable that a Chinese firm could play a big role in the internet or in finance there.

Far-sighted bosses know their stance on China must reflect a balanced assessment, not a delusional vision of globalisation in which anything less than a triumph is considered a travesty. But their voices are being drowned out. The shift of the business establishment to hawkishness on China has probably emboldened the White House and also led the Treasury and Department of Commerce to be more combative. Most big firms are blasé about tariffs; they can pass on the cost to clients. Few export lots to China. But soon China will run out of American imports to subject to retaliatory tariffs; in a tit-for-tar war, beating up American firms’ Chinese subsidiaries is a logical next step. USA Inc’s Sino-strop would then end up enabling the opposite of what it wants.

Excerpts from Raging Against Beijing, Economist,  June 30, 2018, at 58

Slyly Conquering East Africa

The rulers of United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of whose components, Dubai, own a majority stake in DP World, one of the world’s largest maritime firms with perations in 40 countries.It is one of several Gulf states trying to gain a strategic foothold in east Africa through ports. Controlling these offers commercial and military advantages but risks exacerbating tensions in the region…

DP World thinks the region from Sudan to Somalia needs 10-12 ports. It has just half that. The firm’s first foray was on Djibouti’s coast. When DP World won its first concessions there in the 1990s, the Emiratis were among the few investors interested in the small and poor former French colony. DP World built and operated a new container terminal, Doraleh,and helped finance roads and other infrastructure. Doraleh is now the country’s largest employer and the government’s biggest source of revenue. It runs at nearly full capacity, handling 800,000 containers a year. Much of its cargo travels along a Chinese-built railway from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

Djibouti’s profile rose further after the terrorist attacks on America of September 11th, 2001, when America opened a military base there. France and China also have bases; other navies patrol off its coast to deter Somali pirates. But when the Emiratis wanted to open their own naval base they were rebuffed, partly because of their close ties to Djibouti’s rival, Eritrea (the two states had a bloody border dispute in 2008). In 2015 the UAE started building a naval base in Assab, in southern Eritrea. The base has been used in the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen….In 2016 DP World won a 30-year concession to operate the port of Berbera in Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991 (though no foreign government recognises it). Critics said the deal would hasten the break-up of Somalia.

The Horn ports all sit near the Bab al-Mandab strait, a vital choke-point at the mouth of the Red Sea: 4.8m barrels of oil passed through it every day in 2016. Competition is getting fierce, though. Qatar and its ally, Turkey, are building ports in Sudan. Saudi Arabia is in talks to set up a naval base in Djibouti. All three Gulf states are trying to snap up farmland in east Africa, part of a broader effort to secure food supplies for their arid countries. Emirati-built ports could one day export crops from Emirati-owned farms…

Gulf states could also find themselves in competition with China…In February 2018 Djibouti seized the Doraleh port, a concession to the UAE… Shippers believe it took Doraleh as a sop to China, to which it is heavily indebted. In July 2018, Djibouti opened the first phase of a new $3.5bn free-trade zone, set to be the largest in Africa when it is finished. Built mostly by state-owned Chinese firms, it sits next to Doraleh. DP World says the project violates the terms of its concession and is threatening to sue.

Excerpts from Red Sea Scamble: Ports on the Horn, Economist, July 21, 2018, at 33

Drones for Renewable Energy

BVLOS drone, precision hawk

Utilities in Europe are looking to long-distance drones to scour thousands of miles of grids for damage and leaks in an attempt to avoid network failures that cost them billions of dollars a year. w altitudes over pipelines and power lines….Italy’s Snam, Europe’s biggest gas utility, told Reuters it is trialing one of these machines – known as BVLOS drones (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) because they fly ‘beyond the visual line of sight’ of operators – in the Apennine hills around Genoa. It hopes to have it scouting a 20 km stretch of pipeline soon.

France’s RTE has also tested a long-distance drone, which flew about 50 km inspecting transmission lines and sent back data that allowed technicians to virtually model a section of the grid. The company said it would invest 4.8 million euros ($5.6 million) on drone technology over the next two years.

At present, power companies largely use helicopters equipped with cameras to inspect their networks. They have also recently started occasionally using more basic drones that stay within sight of controllers and have a range of only about 500 meters.  However an industry-wide shift toward renewable energy, and the need to monitor the myriad extra connections needed to link solar and wind parks to grids, is forcing utilities to look at the advanced technology.  “It’s a real game changer,” Michal Mazur, partner at consultancy PwC, said of drones. “They’re 100 times faster than manual measurement, more accurate than helicopters and, with AI devices on board, could soon be able to fix problems.”

In-sight drones cost around 20,000 euros each and BVLOS ones will cost significantly more, according to executives at tech companies that make the machines for utilities, and a fleet of dozens if not hundreds would be needed to monitor a network.

Power grid companies are expected to spend over $13 billion a year on drones and robotics by 2026 globally, from about $2 billion now, according to Navigant Research.  But that is still dwarfed by the amount of money the sector loses every year because of network failures and forced shutdowns – about $170 billion, according to PwC…

BVLOS drone flights are largely prohibited because of safety concerns. However over the past year European watchdogs have for the first time granted special permits to allow utilities – namely RTE and Snam – to test prototypes. it…Xcel Energy (XEL.O) in April  2018 became the first American utility to gain approval for BVLOS flights.

Excerpts from Power to the drones: utilities place bets on robots, Reuters, July 16, 2018