Friday, January 30, 2015

The World in 2014

2014 was marked by elections. India had the largest election in the world. But it was China which boasted of having the largest erections in the world - 72 skyscrapers of 250 meters or more on last count, . Even the bastion of freedom and democracy and the potent superpower, the United States, can only boast of 43 erections. The Chinese President, Xi Jin Ping, intrigued at the idea of universal suffrage, visited India to have a firsthand experience of the phenomenon, but complained that he only saw universal suffering. Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, is planning a visit to China to investigate whether the Viagra the Chinese use to produce so many majestic erections, can also be used to treat the India electile dysfunction.

While China towered over the world from its erections, the issue of elections also haunted it in Hong Kong. The citizens of the territory took umbrage at the concept of universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics, which matches the idea of one person-one vote with one seat-one person, as only candidates nominated and approved by Beijing can stand for the election.

US also had Senate and House elections, giving landslide wins to the Republicans who now control both the houses, and vociferously air their grouses against the Democrats and President Obama.

Economics in general played a stellar role in the year, starting with Abenomics in Japan. Named after, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, Abenomics consists of three arrows of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and a series of structural reforms. In India Manmohan economics or Manomics was relaced by Modinomics, which comprises many more arrows than Abenomics but so far lacks a strong bow to shoot them. France was in news for Economics this year, producing the Nobel Prize winner and Thomas Picketty, who in his  tome titled  'Capital in the Twenty-First Century', clearly established that the key to future prosperity is current prosperity, which in turn is determined by past prosperity. Such clarity of thinking and analysis is indeed rare among economists and was widely applauded among the practitioners of the "dismal science".

2014 was a good year for space exploration. While China landed a probe on the moon, India shot a rocket at Mars, at the same cost it takes to send its Prime Minister to Mauritius. Explaining the achievement, the head of the Indian Space Research Organization said, "It was our intention to reach for the moon. But with a fortuitous mix up of the literal with the figurative, and a scarcity of funds to provide adequate speed dampeners on the device, it overshot the destination by some distance and landed in an orbit around the Mars." The Chinese on the other hand hit the target and landed a rover on the moon. Typical in the fashion of the Chinese tourists, the vehicle furiously shot some pictures on arrival,  but disappointed at the lack of shopping opportunities, shut itself down and went off to sleep.

It was a good year for financial markets too. The somnolent Shanghai stock market revived after it was decided to connect the Shanghai and Hong Kong markets and allow a certain amount of easy mutual investment. China also demonstrated how to raise money through pulling off the largest ever IPO in the world, when Alibaba, a local e-commerce firm debuted on the New York Stock exchange, making its founder Jack Ma, the richest man in Asia. Alibaba's innovations include converting all religious holidays into shopping holidays, including creating totally new shopping excuses such as the Single's day on November 11 of every year, on which day the sales in 2014 topped US$ 9.2 billion, as singles sought solace in retail therapy.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came under strong Chinese influence, learnt Chinese and bought profitless WhatsApp for $ 16 billion (which he could have "downloaded for free", as the critics chastised). Zuckerberg himself described it as a "Face saving move".  New ground was broken in valuation of start-ups, as Snapchat, a free mobile app with no profit and no revenues, was valued at more than $10 billion. It has been a common practice in the market to look rather disdainfully at profit, but this was perhaps the first multi-billion dollar valuation which dismissed the idea of revenue itself. This ground breaking paradigm shift unshackles corporations from slavery to revenue and profit, paving a way for a new vibrant, P&L free corporate model.

China put up an extraordinary example of long term planning by declaring that the country will have blue skies by 2030. The goal was temporarily achieved in 2014 during the meeting of APEC leaders in Beijing, when all factories around the city were shut down, government employees given a week off and all residents asked to abstain from exhaling, resulting in a brilliant albeit transitory "APEC Blue". The phrase "APEC Blue" has begun to stand for any transitory phenomenon and skeptical Chinese women are now asking their boy friends whether their ardent love for them will just turn out to be an "APEC Blue".

Korea, despite its relatively modest size, found itself in the news again in 2014, when the North Korean supremo - Kim Jong -Un's portrayal in the movie 'The Interview' from Sony Pictures led to the hacking of the studio's website. Pyongyang said while it did it, it was not responsible. South Korea was not to be left out of the news, when the daughter of Korea Airlines' Chairman, flew into a "nut rage", as the macadamia nuts served to her in the First Class cabin of the airline came in a bag and not on a plate. The lady, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, with the help of which she merrily scooped from the world served to her on a plate, was singularly ill-equipped to extract the nuts from their sturdy packaging and ordered the plane back to the gate to ground the offending flight attendant who served her.

The prize for the piece of scientific research of 2014 which can potentially have the greatest impact on the quality of life, perhaps needs to go to the investigation which proved that beer can reduce the carcinogenic effects of barbecued meat. Currently the evidence suggests that it is the meat which has to imbibe the beer (or to describe it more accurately, be marinated in it) and not the humans who feast on it.  But it is a good start and I will raise my glass to it and wish for a happy new year for all!

Written by Ashok Sethi

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