Recent media reports of an avocado shortage have hipsters and foodies horrified the world over. Prices are at a record high as a result of a classic supply and demand situation. Harvests from major producers in Mexico, Peru and California, have been poor, which has reduced supply. Meanwhile, demand has surged. And not just in the affluent West, Chinese consumers are developing an insatiable taste for them too.
The sheer number of people in China has long made the Chinese market a dream for exporters to crack. And it seems that China’s aspirational middle class has a lot in common with its Western counterparts. Especially when it comes to food fads.
I remember, as a teenager, the first time I ever heard about avocados. It was 1977 and I was watching Abigail’s Party, a Mike Leigh play on the BBC. It was a wicked and rather tragic comedy of manners, which poked fun at the insecurities of the aspirational lower middle classes.
The central character, Beverly, wanted to impress her guests by insisting that they try her avocados, olives and various other international delicacies, which were considered new and exotic at the time. The sound of romantic Demis Roussos songs on the stereo, added to the “sophisticated” ambience that Beverly thought she was creating. Upstairs, she probably also had an avocado bathroom suite. We all laughed at Beverly, even if many of us recognised something of ourselves in her attitudes and behaviour.
Abigail’s Party satirised the early symptoms of a trend that would be accelerated during the Thatcher years of the 1980s: conspicuous consumption. New and affordable luxuries made it possible for everyone to extend their self-image through what they bought and express their dreams of upward mobility. The academic Russell Belk wrote about this phenomenon in 1988 in his landmark marketing article, Possessions and the Extended Self.
Now avocados are in fashion again, but this time mainly for their supposed health benefits. Some regard it as a “super food” and it is included in various fad diets. Thousands of blogs, Facebook posts and Instagram pictures of smashed avocado on toast also diffuse around the world, sating our narcissistic desire to tell everyone how healthy we are or hope to be. Beverly could only impress a handful of guests in the 1970s. Now we can try to impress thousands. Belk has even updated his original article to consider the “extended self in a digital world”.
These displays of conspicuous consumption are just as prevalent in China, which has a rapidly growing middle class of more than 100m people. Avocados – or “butter fruit” as they are known – are also relatively new there, having only been available in exclusive outlets for a few years. So avocado demand there is being doubly driven, not only by their promised health benefits, but equally by their newness, exclusivity and symbolic, aspirational value to the burgeoning middle class.
Of course, the sheer size and potential of the Chinese market means that when their consumers get a taste for something, it can have a really big impact on supplies and prices around the rest of the world. A market that took 40 years to evolve in the West is being replicated in a fraction of the time in China.
Suppliers have tried to ramp up production to meet the demand. China itself is looking to establish its own domestic production in the south of the country. The problem is that avocados are difficult to grow, requiring deep aerated soil, warm conditions and huge amounts of water. Where new crops can be grown, this is leading to deforestation and pressure on water supplies.
So a super food it may be, but a huge increase in avocado production is not very good for the environment. If the current growth in demand proves to be a relatively short-term fad, then a lot of long-term damage will have been done to satisfy it. There are probably more sustainable ways of eating healthy food and achieving social one-upmanship.
However, as the West has led the way in creating consumer desires based on aspiration and status anxiety, it is a bit rich to then criticise the Chinese middle class consumer for doing the same. There are more things that unite us than divide us – not least a love of avocados.
The U.S. stopped short of branding China a currency manipulator, but urged the world’s second-largest economy to let the yuan rise with market forces and embrace more trade.
No major trading partner is manipulating its currency for an unfair trade advantage, according to the first foreign-currency report released by the Treasury Department under President Donald Trump. It kept China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Germany and Switzerland on its foreign-exchange monitoring list.
“China currently has an extremely large and persistent bilateral trade surplus with the United States, which underscores the need for further opening of the Chinese economy to American goods and services,” as well as quicker reforms to boost household consumption, according to the Treasury report.
Trump declared that he’ll back away from a campaign promise to name China a currency manipulator, a move that would have created friction between the world’s largest economies as they try to boost trade cooperation and address North Korea’s nuclear threat. Trump, in a Wall Street Journal interview, said China hasn’t manipulated the yuan for months, while accusing nations that he didn’t identify of devaluing their currencies and saying the dollar is getting too strong.
The report contains an implicit threat that unless China gives U.S. exporters greater market access and further rebalances the economy, the U.S. could act to rectify the trade imbalance, according to Eswar Prasad, former head of the IMF’s China division and author of “Gaining Currency: The Rise of the Renminbi.”
“While China now meets only one of the three criteria for currency manipulation listed in the report, the text makes clear that China’s large bilateral trade surplus with the U.S. is by itself enough to warrant careful scrutiny of China’s trade and currency practices,” said Prasad, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The Treasury report said that for a decade China engaged in one-way, large-scale interventions to hold down the currency, and then only allowed it to strengthen gradually -- a practice that imposed “significant and long-lasting hardship on American workers and companies.” While China has been intervening to prevent a depreciation of the yuan, its selling of foreign currency reserves abated early this year, Treasury said.
Now, China needs to show that its lack of intervention in the currency markets “to resist appreciation” over the past three years is a “durable” policy by allowing the yuan to strengthen “once appreciation pressures resume,” the Treasury said.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t immediately respond to an email Saturday seeking comment on the report.
Treasury avoiding the manipulator label reflects that China’s current-account surplus as a share of output is much reduced, and currency intervention now supports yuan strength, according to Bloomberg Intelligence economists Tom Orlik and Justin Jimenez. China has burned through almost $1 trillion of its foreign reserves, or about a quarter of the total stockpile, since mid-2014 to help support the currency.
“After much hoopla, and with a few extra bells and whistles, the Treasury’s position is completely unchanged,” Orlik and Jimenez wrote in a report. “Treasury does have some choice words for China, accusing it of causing ‘long-lasting hardship’ to American workers. And there’s what looks like a change in the criteria, opening the possibility that China’s outsize trade surplus alone will be enough to keep it on the watch list.”
Like the last report by the Obama administration in October, China met only one of the three criteria -- for having a large trade deficit -- that’s used by the Treasury as a threshold for manipulation. China’s $347 billion goods trade surplus with the U.S. was the largest of major trading partners last year, according to the report.
Taiwan also met one condition, while the other four met two.
The Treasury said Germany has a “responsibility” to help balance global demand and trade flows. Europe’s biggest economy should use fiscal policy to encourage strong domestic demand, which would put “upward pressure” on the euro. Switzerland “could increase reliance on policy rates in order to limit the need for foreign-exchange interventions, which should be made more transparent.”
In Asia, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea were urged to keep interventions to a minimum, and aspire to have flexible and transparent exchange rate policies.
“The United States cannot and will not bear the burden of an international trading system that unfairly disadvantages our exports and unfairly advantages the exports of our trading partners through artificially distorted exchange rates,” the report stated. “Treasury is committed to aggressively and vigilantly monitoring and combating unfair currency practices.’’
The department is required by law to report to Congress twice a year on whether America’s major trading partners are gaming their currencies. The report is the government’s formal channel to impose the manipulator designation, leading to a year of negotiations for a solution and penalties if the practice continues.
The U.S. hasn’t branded any country a manipulator since 1994.
A senior Bank of Korea official said South Korean foreign-exchange authorities maintain their stance that the exchange rate is to be determined by the market as the report emphasized fair competition. The official asked not to be identified because the central bank hasn’t issued a statement the report.
A spokesman for Taiwan’s presidential office referred a request for comment to the central bank. An official at the monetary authority, who asked not to be identified, said Saturday that the central bank is in continued contact with the U.S. and has good communication channels with Washington.
The Treasury left the criteria for manipulation unchanged at having a trade surplus with the U.S. above $20 billion; having a current-account surplus amounting to more than 3 percent of gross domestic product; repeated currency depreciating by buying foreign assets equivalent to 2 percent of output over the year.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said that the issue of “currency misalignment” -- which could also include unintentional devaluations -- will be addressed in a study of trade abuses by nations that run large surpluses with the U.S., which is due to be ready in June.
The African Union (AU) held its 28th Summit in Addis Ababa recently. The meeting was markedly different to previous ones because the organisation showed it was serious about finding practical, lasting solutions to contemporary continental problems.
Specifically the decision to “deeply” reform the continental body was given new life and uniquely, a report to bring this about was drafted by Rwandan President Paul Kagame. This formed part of a process that kicked off at the mid-2016 summit. Then Kagame – supported by a pan-African advisory team – was given the task of coming up with reform proposals. Importantly, it was recognised that previous attempts at institutional reform had been ineffective.
The report’s recommendations can be summed up as “less is more”. They include the need for fewer strategic priorities and addressing bureaucratic bottlenecks. They also call for a better division of labour between the AU and member states, regional economic organisations and continental organs and institutions. The need to lessen the AU’s dependence on external funding also featured prominently.
In relation to Africa’s external relations – and in the interest of political and operational efficiency – it was recommended that partnership summits such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and Japan’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development convened by external parties should be reviewed “with a view to providing an effective framework” for AU relations.
Besides partnership summits, external engagement in Africa is mainly carried out at the country level. To make sure that the African agenda isn’t externally driven, the report recommended that a central body be created to map, monitor and implement projects. And it recommends a change to Africa’s bilateral engagements.
What remains to be seen are whether the factors that prompted the reform of Africa’s partnerships have been addressed and how and when the changes will be implemented.
Changes to forum meetings
Normally partnership summits are attended by a host of African leaders. At the sixth China-Africa forum meeting in South Africa in December 2015, 48 African leaders were in attendance.
The Kagame report proposes a much smaller delegation made up of the troika (the current, former and incoming AU chairs), the chairperson of the AU Commission and the chairperson of the regional economic communities.
These changes may have implications for Africa’s relations with China. Since 2000 China and African state representatives have been meeting on a triennial basis through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Importantly in 2018 the seventh forum is expected to take place in Beijing.
A handful of representatives meeting China on behalf of the continent is a commendable approach. For years commentators have been advocating for a more unified African voice in engaging external partners, who were at an advantage, as the African side scrambled to forge a common position. Arguably, more can be achieved with fewer voices and with greater consistency and continuity.
The AU and China have already been collaborating more closely. The former became a full forum member in 2011 and China deployed a permanent mission to the AU in early 2015. China also built the impressive new headquarters for the AU in Addis Ababa and has also committed to supporting the body’s Agenda 2063.
It’s still not entirely clear what the impact of the new format on the actual forum ministerial meetings and summits will be. Will it replace the consultation with the African ambassadors in Beijing and host country of the forum ministerial or summit, who together with the Chinese forum secretariat have traditionally managed the forum process?
If so, would this effectively create joint secretariat based in Addis Ababa? This might be a much more appropriate forum given that the city is also the seat of Africa’s key summits and meetings. Consultations with heads of state – or internal African canvassing of views on what Africa wants from China – would also be much easier.
But to realise any of this the chronic failures of the lack of capacity, poor accountability, fragmentation and low levels of trust need to be addressed urgently. Whether this proposal will be ready for 2018 is another issue. For now, forum activities and projects remain funded – and thus largely driven – by China.
Until the details of how this new type of partnership would operate are known, some outstanding nuances should be considered.
First is the symbolic use of summitry. Platforms like the forum are stages where actors showcase their identities, affiliations and role in the world. The symbolism of the long-standing China-Africa friendship, reflected by images of China’s President Xi Jinping brushing shoulders with several African heads of state at the sixth forum, could be potentially scrapped.
Second are China’s bilateral relations with African states. Some nations hold a longer history of relations with China, than the AU. Summits also double up as a reason to make bilateral visits where an impressive laundry list of agreements are often signed. It remains to be seen how bilateral relations (the level at which forum agreements are actually implemented), will be affected by such a new arrangement.
Certainly a better organised AU would fill an important gap in the region’s relations with China. The question is whether the changes will be put into effect. In Kagame’s words:
to fail Africa again would be unforgivable.
Chinese industry called on Saturday for talks with the United States to seek an end to anti-dumping duties imposed on its exports of large washing machines, state news agency Xinhua reported.
The U.S. International Trade Commission last month made a final finding of harm to a U.S. manufacturer after a Commerce Department probe found some large residential washers were being imported from China at below fair value.
"The move hurts not only Chinese manufacturers, but also the interests of U.S. consumers," the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Machinery and Electronic Products (CCCME) said, according to Xinhua. "The chamber is concerned about the U.S. use of trade remedy measures to protect its own market, and hopes to solve the issue through negotiations to gain win-win results."
The investigation followed a petition by Whirlpool Corp over imports of washers manufactured in China by two South Korean companies, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and LG Electronics Inc. The ITC decision imposed of final duties of up to 52.5 percent.
In 2015, U.S. imports of such washers from China were valued at an estimated $1.1 billion (£880.8 million).
Debt levels in China are high now, and the country could be drowning in debt by 2018, Goldman Sachs wealth manager Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani says.
A major risk to U.S. markets is looming, and it's bigger than headlines and President Donald Trump's tweets, Goldman Sachs' Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani told CNBC. The threat is the Chinese economy, the Goldman Sachs Private Wealth Management chief investment officer told " Squawk on the Street ."
"We use the term that China could 'submerge' under the burden of its own debt," Mossavar-Rahmani said. "If you look at any of the debt measures in China, they're tremendously high." Mossavar-Rahmani focused on the credit-to-GDP number from the Bank of International Settlements as a key measure of China's accumulating debt. As of the second quarter of 2016, China's ratio was 28.8 percent.
"China is about 30, the U.S. was at 12.4 percent just before the crisis. And if the U.S. didn't avoid a financial crisis with all its strength, how can we assume that China will?" the wealth manager asked.
China is still awaiting its 19th gathering of the National Congress of the Communist Party in the fall, which Mossavar-Rahmani said would weigh on the country's economic position in 2018. The meeting will determine 370 of China's Central Committee members for the next five years.
"Then we have to see, in 2018, will they put structural reforms on the front burner or does it stay on the back burner?" Mossavar-Rahmani asked.