May 6th, 2011
11:11 AM GMT
Astana, Kazakhstan: Being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia provided a vantage point to analyze the response to the death of Osama Bin Laden by Nobel Laureates, global investors and leaders from the largest country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan.
Astana, the relatively new capital of this vast land, is home to a sizable annual economic forum which brings together a handful of Nobel Prize winners and a full range of top economists, central bankers and investors who have a yearning for frontier markets.
Kazakhstan is part of what many like to call a circle of influence in a region which includes some tough neighbours: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like everywhere else, the meeting rooms and coffee bars of the giant Independence Hall in Astana were filled with side-bar conversations about the death of Osama Bin Laden and the chain reaction it may set off.
Nobel Prize winner and the man known as the “Father of the Euro” Robert Mundell says a long-term risk has been removed for the West, but that near-term risk is not reduced following immediate calls for retaliation. After discussions with two dozen global players at the forum, it was abundantly clear that the 24 hour rally in the dollar and the subsequent fall in commodity prices would be short lived.
Miranda Xafa, global strategist with IJ Partners in Geneva, said the elimination of OBL will only embolden Al Qaeda even if it takes months if not longer for a major restructuring of its operations. More important to her and others I spoke with is the near-term outcome of the Arab uprisings, which is keeping a 10-15% premium on the price of crude.
Many expressed their deep concerns about Iran’s next moves after party unity in the Palestinian Territories between Fatah and Hamas – a deal brokered by Egypt no less. The simple translation for investors: More pressure will be applied against Israel, which will only ratchet up tensions in the Persian Gulf.
This scenario does not bode well for lower energy prices and the timing is precarious at best for the U.S. economy, which is sputtering as the Federal Reserve prepares to withdraw the record stimulus. I asked Sir James Mirless, another Nobel winner, if we are in the midst of structural change in America, with youth unemployment that rivals that of the Arab region. A recent U.S. study points to nearly a quarter of all 16-25 year olds as not working. Sir James, with his decades of hindsight, did not think so. Good old fashioned budget management and tax policy were the choices de jour for those in Astana.
Beyond the obvious security concerns sweeping the MENASA region at this juncture, the greatest worry was reserved for the ever-increasing mountains of debt in the U.S. and Europe. A $14 trillion U. S. federal debt pile is a steep hill to climb in a low growth, high unemployment climate. They chided lawmakers for thinking only in election cycles and not addressing the largest budget obligations, long-term pension and health care entitlements which continue to spiral out of control.
One potential net plus out of the “Business after Bin Laden” world is the possibility for a more unified approach in Washington D.C. After the elimination of one threat to security, could it be possible to chip away at a record debt which threatens the role of the U.S. dollar as the premiere reserve currency? The answer from the crossroads of East and West was a resounding no.
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