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The Weaponization of Finance

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23rd Jan 2015

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On the heels of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, an emerging subtext in the financial world is drawn into sharp relief by a rocketing Swiss franc and Russians playing it cool.

Over the last ten years or so, business has had the rock star treatment at Davos, where CEOs and heads of state mingle with entrepreneurs and NGOs out to help fix the world. Its a good mix, and for 2015 has drawn record numbers of C-suite executives, their senior level staff, and their boards to Europe's highest city by elevation. While the air is pure and the weather this year is beautiful, its not difficult to notice a shift in the breeze around financial institutions and the roles they play relative to governments.

Previously, one might assume that machinations about interest rates, currency fluctuations and naughty-corner efforts have been conducted behind closed doors, in the boardrooms of central banks, private banks and governments around the world, with opaque success. Since the early 2000's, our global culture has been tought to expect that conflict is done via military operations and missle guided bombs, or more recently perhaps a drone and a peacekeeper troop.

But the events of 2014, with Russia's steady annexation attempts at the Ukraine, capped by the disastrous Malaysia Airlines situation - can now be seen in their full, or at least first iteration - of impact. Since that time a steady increase in US oil capacity, a convenient continuation of oil production in OPEC states, and reducing demand in China, have colluded to crash the price of oil by up to 60%, effectively stripping Russia and other producers from a key source of economic power.

Combine this with a tightening noose around FATCA (the US regulation now coming into effect involving Know-you-customer and other rules for banks) and the tools of finance are looking more and more like levers, which are controlled less by markets than by governments keen to deploy a softer, more sophisticated form of response "at a time and place of our choosing" than has previously been apparent.

For things like this, business is suddenly relegated to the passenger seat, where they become observers as much as anyone else. A week ago, and anticipating the moves expected soon by the European Central Bank to begin printing Euros in a kind of quantitave briezing, the Swiss central bank announced they are abandoning the peg 1.2/1 peg they've maintained to the Euro since the financial crisis in 2011, signalling an implicit support back toward the USD, which has also been gaining on cheap oil prices and a host of other factors. The result? An overnight 25% readjustment in the value of the Franc, moving upwards, and instantly making Switzerland an even more expensive place to hang your ski hat.

It's funny how a master plan all comes together. Without lifting a single destroyer or deploying a single troop, the US has managed to show the world what can be done when it wants to achieve an objective. One might be left hoping the Chinese aren't taking too many notes.