CLICK HERE FOR PRINTABLE VERSION

Since 2008, the world’s biggest risks have been economic. None of the feared crises was as likely to take place as expected (because of underlying political stability!), but from eurozone meltdown to fears of Chinese soft/medium/hard landings to the US debt crisis, analysts have spent the past five years worrying about how to stave off financial implosion.

That’s over. In 2014, big-picture economics are stable if not yet comforting. The EU has clawed its way out of recession. Japan has, improbably, discovered economic leadership. The economic performance of China’s new government is strong. And the US re- bound is sufficiently robust for the markets to shrug off New Year’s tapering resolutions.

But geopolitics is very much in play. The realities of a G-Zero order, a world of geo- political creative destruction without global leadership, are evident. There are tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea, elite-level executions in North Korea, Russia flexing its muscles in neighboring Ukraine and beyond, and everyone fighting with everyone else in the Middle East (some things don’t change).  All of which is changing the geopolitical map quite aside from the role of the world’s only superpower.

Above all, we foresee two essential questions about the world’s two largest economies this year. For the US, it’s externally focused: How will policymakers (re)define the role that the US should play in the world. For the “international community,” a term that has well outlived its use, much depends on the answer. For China, the challenge is internal: How will the country change now that real reforms are at hand? Superpower status isn’t on the table, but for the first time in decades, political leadership is altering the way the Chinese system functions. That will affect political risk in China, as well as Beijing’s behavior both domestically and internationally.

The other big focus this year is emerging—or more aptly diverging—markets. A healthy percentage of the major emerging markets that could have elections will hold them this year (China doesn’t, and Russia doesn’t count): Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey. Not one of those countries enters its electoral cycle with strong, popular leadership. Then add empowered middle classes that demand greater accountability from their governments. The stakes are rising, and some of the world’s key economies are in for a rough ride.

It’s another troubled year for the Middle East and beyond, though the impact of the war in Syria is receding. After years of sanctions vs nuclear buildup, it’s the moment of truth in the Iranian nuclear talks, with either a deal or a collapse in negotiations that will have far-reaching regional implications. None of the hotspots in the extended region—North Africa, the Gulf, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan/Pakistan—will avoid major conflict. Radicalism (Al Qaeda, in particular) is changing. It poses a less direct threat to the US but ignites more instability across the region.          And to add fuel to the fire: In past decades, geopolitical conflict has pushed oil prices higher; this year, lower oil prices will put the squeeze on regional producers and others further afield.

Beyond that, the implications of the fight over cyber-security and the fallout from the broad, deep, and ongoing National Security Agency (NSA) scandal are making strategic data a core global political risk. The last two risks involve Russia and Turkey, and their leaders’ increasingly capricious behavior.

1 - America’s troubled alliances

The US is not in economic decline. Despite Washington’s many challenges, investors continue to bet heavily on the US economy.

In fact, the country’s economic growth story is one of the most exciting in the world, driven by energy and food production revolutions; game-changing technologies in diverse sectors such as manufacturing, wearable computing, genomics, nanotech, and advanced military hardware (with plenty of crossovers among them); favorable demographics; and strong underlying political and social stability. A diminished middle class, poor public secondary education, and a badly functioning new healthcare system are embarrassing political leaders but will do little to undermine corporate investment and international support for the dollar.

There is, however, a notable decline in US foreign policy. Some of this is structural—too many increasingly influential countries with which to coordinate effectively; a distracted Europe led by Germany (with geo-economic and bilateral sensibilities) rather than a more geopolitically aligned  UK and France; and emerging markets, particularly Russia and China, more willing to challenge US preferences abroad. Some of it reflects changes in the US domestic landscape: Voters now offer less support for an ambitious foreign policy, and growing income inequality persuades large numbers of Americans that they don’t benefit from US engagement abroad. Some of the issue is specific to the Obama administration, with a tactical and risk-averse approach to foreign policy along with a weak (and not well-trusted) second-term foreign policy team. Add in a handful of significant missteps—regarding Syria, the response to the NSA/Snowden affair, and the need for domestic focus on congressional infighting and the Obamacare rollout fiasco—and you have the makings of a perfect US foreign policy storm.

US allies perceive a poorly defined and vastly reduced US role in the world. They question old assumptions about US commitments and worry about Washington’s reluctance to deploy military, economic, and diplomatic capital.

This will affect US relations with countries around the world, but not equally. The US’s closest allies have few options. Mexico and Canada are far too economically integrated with the US to effectively hedge that relationship with other major powers. For Japan, Israel, and the UK, the same is true strategically. They have to make the best of a more worrisome geopolitical environment.

That’s not the case, though, for the US’s second-tier allies (who increasingly feel like second-tier allies). That’s a much larger group, including Germany, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Brazil, and Indonesia. All have governments that consider it unwise to align too closely with the US, and they are preparing to shift their international orientation accordingly.

The implications will be clearest, and most costly, in four different areas. First, US corporations will face a more challenging landscape. This includes US telecommunications firms, banks, and credit card companies doing business in France, Germany, and Brazil when the regulatory environment becomes more hostile for those sharing information (knowingly or unknowingly) with the NSA. Or US defense companies selling into countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states, which want to diversify defense purchases away from the US (and, for the more price sensitive, away from NATO).

Second, expect less effective US efforts at multilateralism, which will lead to the weakening of US-led “coalitions of the willing” both on the collaborative side (the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and the punitive (international support for new sanctions regimes). Third, confusion over US commitments will complicate choices for countries balancing political and economic interests between the US and China—particularly in Asia, where Chinese economic influence is expanding quickly. Some governments will align diplomatic and economic agendas more closely with Beijing. Fourth, expect a weakening of international standards as the US is no longer seen as a credible driver of a single global market. This new globalization will include faster fragmentation of the internet, greater disunity in financial regulation and oversight, the weakening of NATO, and the formation of more unilateral and bilateral security arrangements.

2 - Diverging markets

Voters in six of the largest emerging markets—Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey— will go to the polls in 2014 to choose lawmakers and presidents. In all six countries, the incumbent party will have ruled for a decade or more.

But since coming to power, few incumbents will have faced an electoral cycle as bruising as this. The emerging market world is lurching into a new cycle of political challenges as slowing growth, sputtering economic models, and rising demands from newly enfranchised middle classes create heightened uncertainty. And as recent protests in Brazil, Turkey, Colombia, and even Russia have shown, frustrated expectations among new middle classes can quickly find expression in the streets.

Political, social, and economic dynamics in each of the seven countries differ widely, but elections raise the risk of pre-vote populist policymaking in all of them. As emerging market growth slows, many of these countries need a fresh wave of economic reforms to enhance productivity, avoid the “middle income trap,” and generate higher potential GDP growth. After the US Federal Reserve’s hint at tapering caused a massive emerging market selloff last year, policymakers pledged to undertake new measures in this direction. That said, as elections loom, the fears of politicians trump the best intentions of technocrats, and substantive reform of pensions, privatization, labor markets, and taxation will stall at least until the votes are counted, creating a troubled year for emerging markets.

These major emerging markets will then diverge substantially after elections. Eurasia Group’s outlook is most positive for Colombia, where President Juan Manuel Santos should win a second term despite a sharp drop in his approval ratings after widespread protests last fall. His reelection will sustain progress in the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and a deal is likely early in Santos’s second term. He will then probably ad- dress high labor costs, infrastructure bottlenecks, and regulatory delays in extractive industries. In Brazil, reelection will help heavily favored President Dilma Rousseff revitalize her economic team, which has lost credibility in the markets. Policymakers will remain complacent on big-bang reforms, but incremental progress on fiscal consolidation and constructive changes to the pre-salt energy investment framework are likely.

In South Africa, a more onerous mining code, heated rhetoric over redistribution, and continued labor instability will dominate the run-up to the elections. Along with growing discontent over corruption and unemployment, divisions among the African National Congress’s trade union allies will reduce the ruling party’s majority. They will, however, also weaken the country’s most entrenched opponents of reform, opening up space for more constructive policies after the vote, especially with Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president.

In India, the prime ministerial prospects of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi, who has led a strongly pro-business government as chief minister in Gujarat, has buoyed market and business sentiment. Yet we remain skeptical. Far more than any of the world’s major democracies, governing   at the national level in India is fundamentally different from doing so at the state level. Modi will have to contend with a highly fractious coalition, and while many party leaders and senior technocrats support economic reform, the bureaucracy (and much of the public) remains resistant.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will become the first popularly elected president but without the constitutional changes he hoped would enhance the powers of the presidency. The election will intensify both competition between Erdogan and other leaders within the ruling party and institutional uncertainty over the division of powers between president and prime minister. That’s bad news for hopes of a return to more stable and constructive policies in 2014.

In Indonesia, electoral dynamics are not yet clear. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is stepping down, and populist and nationalist sentiments are on the rise. Market pressure on the rupiah, though, has already encouraged policymakers to protect the country’s ability to attract foreign investment. By the end of the year, we’ll see a particularly wide spectrum in trajectory of the countries fueling the majority of the world’s economic growth.

3 - The new China

China has crossed the threshold. The new leadership has embraced far-reaching reform to a greater degree over President Xi Jinping’s first year than we’ve seen in the past two decades.

It’s long overdue and essential to ensure the ultimate sustainability of the government. But it also reduces the power of the Communist Party. That’s why it comes with consolidation at the top.

Among the most obvious failed intellectual enterprises of the past two decades have been various predictions of China’s coming implosion. Whether by social explosion, elite fragmentation, or hard landing, the assumption was that the existing system would have to break. Now, the Chinese government is no longer kicking the can down the road on reform. They’re making changes, and so there’s much more uncertainty within China—and more potential for both upside and downside.

Reforms might prove to be very successful, improving China’s investment climate and opportunities for integration into the world economy. Still, the government is loosening its hold on key reins of the domestic economy on an historic scale, and that could have serious unforeseen consequences.

There are three pieces in play. First, there is a broad policy to rebalance the economy, easing state dominance of the financial system and increasing the transparency and coordination of state-owned enterprises to make the system more efficient and less dependent on state-directed investment.  Second, there’s an effort to rebuild the Communist Party’s legitimacy, particularly at the top, through savvier public messaging and progress on addressing issues of deepening public concern, such as environmental protection and social welfare. Third, there’s consolidation of power and the creation of new party institutions and mechanisms to ensure the first two sets of reforms will work as intended.

One major concern is that party leaders are convinced that only by recentralizing political power can they move forward with reform. To avoid public and bureaucratic pushback, the leadership is using anticorruption and reeducation efforts to intimidate reform opponents within the party while using new technologies to stifle public dissent. But this new leadership will face political tests, because they’re doing this in the context of a fundamentally changed information environment, and because there will be losers in the reform process: industries that go out of business, purged officials, and firms that come under heavy regulatory scrutiny. Missteps could undermine the broader reform process and the leadership itself.

The biggest risks economically are in the financial sector, where the leadership recognizes significant problems with bank solvency and is likely to proceed with removing moral hazard in the banking system to lay the foundation for tougher liberalizations over the coming years. To do that, they must make clear what is guaranteed by the government and what isn’t, which requires more tolerance for outright defaults on bad loans. Beijing hopes it can smoothly navigate a transition to a normalized banking sector, but that will be difficult without triggering a larger credit event. Yet politicians are becoming more tolerant of these risks, and with key officials involved in financial reform such as Wang Qishan and Zhou Xiaochuan set to retire in 2017, these changes will be among the regime’s most front-loaded.

In addition, the leadership has never been more serious about environmental concerns and will accelerate efforts to reduce overcapacity and inefficiency in the state sector. Beijing will likely reduce policy and funding support for underperforming enterprises in state sectors and raise regulatory burdens for private and state-owned firms in sectors with heavy overcapacities. Heavier pressure on banks to avoid defaults and some potential progress on interest rate liberalization will mean less capital available to fund ill-advised investment projects.

If they proceed smoothly, these changes will weigh on growth. If, however, industrial consolidation coincides with a credit event, China’s industrial machine would face a direct challenge. Job loss would loom larger, and the government’s ability to stop the bleeding would erode.

Hedging strategies create their own risks. There will be an effort domestically to reduce the impact of challenges as they occur, through tighter control of domestic and foreign media, by more closely monitoring dissidents and other opinion leaders with uncertain political views and affiliations, and with institutional mechanisms to ensure party discipline as hardline responses become necessary. That’s true both in the new committee created to help Xi more easily force through difficult reforms, as well as the new national security council, with a dual internal and external focus, that allows for a top-down response to any domestic security threats.

The party, meanwhile, will try to divert public anger toward foreign targets. The Xi government’s first big foreign policy move was to announce an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea. That’s useful for domestic purposes, given that anti-Japanese sentiment runs broader and deeper in China than does any similar sentiment. It also reflects changing security efforts in the region. Should trouble emerge domestically, the Xi government will be much more willing to play up this antagonism—by far the most important source of geopolitical tension in the world today.

In other words, China is starting something big, dangerous, and all about China. This year, potential knock-on effects from that turning point, internally and externally, are of great importance.

4 - Iran

The dynamics surrounding the Iran nuclear issue have changed dramatically in the past 12 months.

Driven by the interaction of the continued progress of Iran’s nuclear program, the impact of sanctions that took more than half of the country’s oil exports off the market, and the dramatic electoral victory of President Hassan Rouhani last June, the possibility of a comprehensive negotiated settlement between Iran and the West has become real for the first time.

We believe that the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran will probably reach a final deal (60% chance). Iran’s economy is in dire straits, and November’s interim agreement offered scant sanctions relief. Tehran is incentivized to remain flexible and agree to an end-state deal that would provide a real economic boost. The probability of a deal creates significant risks in itself, especially given sharper tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the expanding proxy war in Iraq, and the negative impact of a steep decline in oil prices on petrostates (more on that with risk #5). But that other 40% is still a very big number, and it’s worth looking at   what happens if diplomacy fails.

The path to a final settlement involves far more formidable obstacles than did the talks leading to the interim agreement. The sides will tackle very tough issues, including rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, deciding the duration and extent of constraints on the program, and devising  a sequence of steps to be taken after an agreement, when sanctions are lifted as Iran accepts a credible monitoring regime.

Opposition to a final deal will come from many quarters. In Iran, hardliners will emerge from the sidelines and criticize a pending agreement, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could balk at the severe constraints that any final settlement would have to include. The balance of power in Iran could shift; Rouhani is currently strong, but that could change during the six- to eight-month duration of coming talks.

Threats from the West and its allies are also daunting. The US Congress will be very wary of any deal that Iran finds acceptable. Congress this year may pass legislation implementing new sanctions after a specified period, which would embolden and empower hardliners in Iran. Israel will pressure the US administration to demand measures that Iran won’t accept. The Saudis will be strongest in their direct opposition to any deal, with Saudi fears of a stronger post-deal Iran doubling down in Syria and Iraq, all of which undermines prospects for a nuclear agreement.

If diplomacy fails, the world would face a greater threat of Israeli and/or US military strikes, though immediate military action would remain improbable. Iran’s breakout time—how long it would take for   it to build a bomb—would stand at roughly two months. Under the ascendance of hardliners, Tehran would likely return to “pedal-to-the-metal” development of the nuclear program and adopt a belligerent foreign policy, increasing the likelihood of strikes. Should strikes not occur, Iran would be on a direct path toward becoming a nuclear-weapons-capable power, though one under severe sanctions and with a sclerotic economy. In response, Saudi Arabia would probably obtain nuclear weapons  itself, and/or lead the world to believe it had them.

In the longer term, the potential for maintaining broad-based sanctions could be undermined by efforts by China and Russia to blame the US and its allies for a breakdown of talks, creating an erosion of the US-led coalition and ultimately strengthening Iran. But in the nearer term, a pronounced spike in the oil price would result, with investors fearing military strikes and Saudi proliferation adding to geopolitical tensions—leading to a spike in the “Iran premium.”

5 - Petrostates

The unconventional energy revolution has already had important geopolitical implications. It created supply space that allowed sanctions to take half of Iran’s oil exports off the market without an economically damaging increase in prices, and it made deepened engagement with the US look more attractive to China’s new leaders than it did to their predecessors.

Over the past few years, though, disruption events have offset much of the effect of volume growth, limiting the impact on producers. In 2014, this will change, with an acceleration of spare capacity growth, bearish price pressures, and heightened competition among producers more generally.

A favorable regulatory environment and rapidly improving extractive technologies will enable production in the western hemisphere (a million additional barrels of oil per day from the US alone) to continue   to outstrip expectations. Meanwhile, despite security challenges in Iraq, which could negatively affect the country’s longer-term trajectory as an oil exporter, the outlook for 2014 exports (including from both Kurdistan and southern Iraq) is for a likely uptick of around a half million barrels per day (bpd). In Libya, where severe governance challenges will persist, virtually all of the competing factions have been careful not to kill the “golden goose” by damaging infrastructure, and so export volumes should climb from virtually zero to an average of 500,000 bpd or higher in the first half of 2014.

Even with reasonably robust global economic growth, therefore, increased supply will be the key driver of energy markets this year. There’s no prospect of cooperation among the economically strapped and politically fragmented OPEC producers, forcing Saudi Arabia into unilaterally (and acrimoniously) scaling back production to defend price by the end of the first quarter.

The fork in the road comes in mid-year, when negotiations between the West and Iran on a comprehensive nuclear agreement come to a head. A failure would stem price slippage, given the elevated geopolitical risk and the likely deepening of sanctions. But if, as  we believe is the more likely scenario, an agreement is reached, the gradual restoration of Iran’s export volume would almost certainly cause a selloff in an already increasingly bearish market.

That translates into petrostates around the world facing serious budgetary squeezes at a time when many are already in difficult economic shape, with mismanaged economies stemming from a legacy of easy energy money and no perceived need to build improved governance/diversify economies. Venezuela and Russia are likely to experience the most acute troubles, given a combination of institutional weak- ness and sinking popularity of their leaderships. Saudi Arabia, for its part, would have to take substantial volumes of its exports off the market to create a price floor.

More broadly, any kind of notable downshift in oil prices would further sharpen competition for investment, as the global oil industry becomes warier of some of the highest-cost projects and is able to demand better fiscal terms from host country governments. Countries such as Nigeria that have failed to create a stable and positive climate for energy investment will see the industry’s capital flows go elsewhere.

6 - Strategic data

The information revolution is in the people-empowering business. Around the world, citizens in expanding middle classes are better informed and can make greater demands of their governments. The data revolution, by contrast, has been in the company-empowering business.

Multinational corporations learn to monitor, aggregate, and analyze consumer preferences, thereby maximizing profitability. The biggest change in 2014 is that governments are quickly outstripping corporations as the most powerful players in the data revolution. How effective data-empowered states will become at channeling and/or constraining the political influence of their citizens is a critical de- bate that is only starting to play out around the world. But what’s most clear this year is that strategic data is changing the way that politics and markets interact.

The most important structural change in the global economy since the financial crisis has been the growing role of the state in the marketplace. That’s partially the result of bailing out the financial markets and responding to the eurozone crisis; without immediate and far-reaching government intervention, the world would have experienced a great depression and the end of the eurozone, just for starters. This trend is also the result of emerging markets becoming more vital as economic actors, since the state plays a more significant role in their economies and is the primary actor in the largest of the emerging markets, China. And it’s the result of a changing security environment, where reacting to cyber-threats means largely US unilateral defense (through the NSA) rather than through the collective security umbrella of NATO.

It’s a sea change in a world where globalization generated assumptions that the state was becoming less important in a global marketplace and that multi- national corporations would become dominant. Many sectors that used to be driven primarily by economics are now driven more by politics in many countries around the world. Depending on the country, that can be said of banking, pharmaceuticals, media, retail, and many other sectors. But by far the biggest change has been state involvement in the internet and industries principally involved in the aggregation and sale of data, both for purposes of domestic and international security as well as to support strategic economic priorities.

This is a core aspect of what has become a US military industrial technological complex. It’s a principal way that China intends to maintain its political stability and expand its economy. And it’s rapidly becoming a central national interest for countries as diverse as Brazil, France, Germany, the UK, India, Iran, and Russia. Authoritarian and democratic governments alike know that attempting to control access to data is a losing fight, yet they consider it increasingly critical to reserve the unique ability to engage in surveillance of their populations, to ensure they have the tools to defend national security, and, for some, to maintain order. Many will require relevant companies that invest in their economies to help them; those companies that can’t show they can provide governments with the tools they need (and aren’t also cooperating with strategic competitors) will be at a distinct disadvantage.

That’s why the internet and its governance are shifting suddenly and dramatically from being a bottom-up open source sector to a top-down strategic sector. The internet will fragment even more   in 2014, national champions will become more dominant actors in data-driven sectors in many of the world’s key economies, and costs of doing business for competitors that are, or hope to be, global will increase. As cyber-security becomes a bigger vulnerability, and cyber-mastery a greater economic opportunity, these inefficiencies are set to grow.

It’s said that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Governments now know what kind of dog you are, when you go for a walk, and your favorite kibble. Strategic data in the G-Zero is a dog- eat-dog world.

7 - Al Qaeda 2.0

In the early days of (what we used to call) the Arab Spring, it appeared that the ideas motivating political action in the Middle East were largely free of Al Qaeda and other jihadist ideologies. That, along with the killing of Osama bin Laden, led to the expectation that Al Qaeda–style jihadism and terrorism were receding. That outlook has changed.

In the past two years, as the center of gravity of political mobilization shifted from North Africa into the Gulf and the Levant, we have witnessed a powerful resurgence of Sunni extremism and the Al Qaeda brand. The failure of democratic transitions across the region is reinforcing Al Qaeda’s narrative that Western-style democracy is not suitable for the Muslim world. More importantly, the Syrian conflict has turned into a powerful magnet for jihadist recruitment, not unlike Afghanistan in the 1980s and Iraq following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The extremist message is gaining traction across the Levant and in North Africa as well.

The Al Qaeda resurgence is creating a threat quite different from the one driven by bin Laden. His Al Qaeda combined a highly centralized core that drove operations and strategy with highly decentralized and discrete “action cells.” He focused the organization’s efforts on attacking the US and other Western states (the “far enemy”) in their homelands or in allied outposts around the world, and argued that local politics was a distraction. This view was never fully accepted by Al Qaeda supporters, but it dominated the organization’s strategic thinking until bin Laden’s demise.

A key sign of the emergence of Al Qaeda 2.0 was the decision by bin Laden’s successor, the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, to declare jihad against the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria, the first such declaration against a regime that was not a close ally of the US. While Zawahiri and others in the old Afghanistan/Pakistan-based Al Qaeda leadership are working to revive the organization’s anti-Western targeting, the political turmoil across the Middle East makes local political action much more attractive for Al Qaeda affiliates. The notion that all politics is local is reasserting itself among extremist groups.

The US homeland, where local counter-extremism policies have gained substantial successes, remains much safer than it was in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001. Nonetheless, Western interests, especially across the Middle East and North Africa, are at greater risk, as are Western-oriented governments in the region. Jihadists are gaining valuable paramilitary experience as groups shift away from the more clandestine purely “terrorist” models.

More broadly, as Al Qaeda goes local, it creates the potential for broad extremist alliances with increased likelihood of outmaneuvering more moderate factions. This is what has happened in recent months in Syria, where the jihadists have been fighting a power (Assad) also opposed by the US, limiting the ability of the US and Western allies to counter their influence. The loss of influence by Islamists in both Egypt and Tunisia, and the continued lack of any coherent governing power in Libya, creates the potential for this dynamic across North Africa as well, which will have ramifications in the Sahel, possibly in Nigeria, and elsewhere in Africa.

Al Qaeda 2.0 poses much more danger to Europe than to the US, given geographical proximity, the presence in Europe of large Middle Eastern and North African diasporas, and ongoing instability in the Middle East. But the underlying Al Qaeda ideology has not really changed, and the ultimate enemy remains the US. Ironically, should conditions stabilize a bit in the Middle East, it could lead Al Qaeda 2.0 back to its longer-term “far enemy” focus.

8 - The Middle East’s expanding unrest

That said, stabilization in the Middle East is highly unlikely in 2014. The Russian-brokered deal that imposes international control over Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile has removed the war in Syria from Western headlines, and the restoration of baseline stability in Egypt by military head Abdelfattah el Sisi has shifted focus from that arena as well. However, the Middle East, gripped by instability for the past three years, has yet to reach bottom.

This year, weapons, despair, and recruiting will continue to cross the border from Syria into neigh- boring countries, especially Iraq. If current trends of regime reconsolidation in Syria continue, which looks increasingly likely, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), Al Qaeda’s fast-growing franchise operating in Syria and neighboring countries, will shift its resources this spring toward weakening the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. ISIS will reinforce the myriad local Sunni groups marginalized by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s authoritarian policies, who are more willing to join forces and take up arms against the central government in Baghdad.

Key elites in the Gulf Cooperation Council also support the rise of armed Sunni factions against Baghdad as part of their effort to weaken Iran’s allies in the region. Money, arms, and training for Sunni insurgents will increase through informal networks and deepen security challenges for Iraq, thereby weakening the government’s grip on power and gradually undermining FDI. Saudi Arabia’s anxiety over Iranian influence in Iraq will be reinforced by its fear of Baghdad’s rise as a major oil exporter, while Iran, especially if it’s closer to returning to oil markets, will not go all out to defend its Shia neighbor.

In North Africa, Egypt and Tunisia look to have both constitutions and elected governments in place by mid- to late 2014. The conventional wisdom is   that having achieved these benchmarks, they will make progress toward economic growth and political stabilization, but a closer look suggests that challenges will likely deepen in the aftermath of these transitions, and the path to restoring economic expansion and stability will remain elusive.

Neither Egypt nor Tunisia has the resources to create jobs or the vision and institutional capacity to reform their economies and facilitate investment. The two countries depend on tourism, but unless they—and particularly Egypt—find a political formula for dealing with large Islamist political factions, continued polarization, violence, and security challenges will persist, keeping tourists away. Both states could become even more dependent on foreign assistance, further distorting their economies and deepening their long-term challenges.

9 - The capricious Kremlin

President Vladimir Putin is still, by far, the single most powerful individual in the world. In fact, the only more powerful person we can think of is the Putin from a few years ago. Nevertheless, two worrying trends are converging in Russia: First, his popularity has steadily slipped to its lowest level since he came to power in 2000; second, Russia’s economy is stagnating.

After a decade in which Putin’s dominance was underpinned by rapidly rising economic expectations, that’s a problem.

This makes Russia under Putin, a leader unusually capable of getting big things done quickly, far less predictable—internally, along his country’s borders, and beyond. Expect more surprises in 2014. Some will be positive for markets, others quite negative. But Russia’s president has clearly developed a taste for the “bolt from the blue.” He certainly closed out 2013 with a bang, unleashing the financial equivalent of shock and awe to secure Kyiv’s loyalty while Brussels balked. Days later, he suddenly freed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once his most formidable nemesis, from prison.

The implications of an all-powerful leader with a shrinking support base and a flair for the unpredictable are worrisome. Policy has already become more erratic and lacking in strategic vision. Disciplined monetary and fiscal policies are offset by other more retrograde moves: the recent decision to merge Russia’s best business-oriented court with the heavily politicized supreme court, for example. Or Putin’s bid to grant the investigative committee, run by a loyalist, freedom to pursue tax cases against businesses. Or the sudden dismemberment of Russia’s state-owned (but reasonably professional) news organization Ria Novosti to be replaced by a more tightly controlled outfit run by an ultra-nationalist friend of the president. And though the technocratic elites are grumbling, Putin isn’t yet listening. During 2014, as the economic picture remains grim, Russia’s investment climate will suffer from greater policy unpredictability.

As things get tougher at home this year, Putin will play an outsized role internationally, and an increasingly unpredictable and assertive Russian foreign policy will generate risk. Putin’s last-minute deal on Syria was not without controversy, but it elevated his standing on the world stage, which he is prepared to use to his advantage on global issues. That will include playing hardball as necessary to maintain Russia’s geopolitical influence—particularly over neighbors such as economically stressed Ukraine.

At the same time, the Sochi Olympic games will be a key Kremlin focus, as much for the politics as for the sport. Key Western governments have decided to send their junior varsity delegations to the opening ceremony to signal displeasure with Russia’s human rights policies. For Putin, that’s a personal affront, and he’ll find a chance to hammer that point home. Taken together with the heightened security risk surrounding the games, Sochi will be the most geopolitically significant Olympics since 1980 (and those were in Moscow).

Look for brash geopolitical behavior from Russia in 2014. Putin’s Kremlin might lurch toward China, pull even harder on Ukraine, or take a more defiant position with the EU on human rights or energy issues. Whatever it does will merit close attention.

10 - Turkey

Important economic, security, and social risks will intensify and converge in Turkey in 2014, promoting greater volatility for business and markets. We’ve already included Turkey among our diverging markets because of the risks surrounding the upcoming electoral cycle.


But among emerging markets, stability in Turkey is especially vulnerable from a range of directions. In particular, Turkey is facing serious spillover effects from the ongoing civil war in Syria and a reemergence of the Kurdish insurgency; and Erdogan’s increasingly emotional and aggressive behavior threatens to further unhinge market and investor confidence.

In the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests last year, Erdogan refocused on mobilizing his political base and has stepped back from his earlier forward-leaning outreach to the Kurds, pushing the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) toward collapse. There is a very high chance that the PKK cease-fire will break down after March’s local elections. If so, sustained guerrilla activity will resume over the summer.

In addition, Turkey, like Iraq, is increasingly vulnerable to a spillover of violence from Syria, in particular to potential Al Qaeda–linked attacks in border towns as Turkey continues to wind down its support for militant Sunni groups as they come under heavier extremist domination. More broadly, the intensification of sectarian identities in the region is entering Turkey’s politics. There are already mounting sectarian tensions between Sunni and Alevi populations, and Erdogan will work to shore up his nationalist/conservative base on the eve of elections, further deepening societal divisions.

Amid this setting, the risk from Erdogan’s increasingly polarizing populist rhetoric has worsened. Under pressure, he will be inclined to become aggressive, attacking foreign businesses and raising foreign conspiracy theories against the West and Israel. The coming battle over the chairmanship of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in September will only intensify this trend, as Erdogan is likely to try to block President Abdullah Gul from taking on party leadership. While Erdogan and the AKP are set to win the upcoming elections, intensifying fights within the party will be the real political story to watch, and the business and policy environment  will become even more unpredictable. Against a challenging economic backdrop of a large current account deficit, poor-quality financing, and the private sector’s large net foreign exchange position, Turkey will be particularly vulnerable to political and policy uncertainty this year.

Red Herrings

1 - US domestic politics

Last year was an “annus horribilis” for US politics, especially for President Barack Obama, who saw his post-election popularity head south following a series of battles over fiscal issues, the Obamacare rollout disaster, and serious misplays on senior appointments. Politics was a partisan “negative sum” game, with Republican approval ratings plummeting on the government shutdown and the inability of the leadership to manage the tea-party challenge. Yet despite all this turmoil, the US economy has been much more resilient than most predicted.

This year will be much less politically volatile, with further upside market implications. The Ryan- Murray budget deal, while not significant in economic terms, takes budget issues off the agenda until 2015. And despite some talk, it makes it virtually impossible to hold a debt ceiling increase hostage. The timing of the surprise appointment of Senator Max Baucus to serve as US ambassador to China suggests that we won’t see a big push either on tax reform or on Trade Promotion Authority before the midterm elections.

Both parties are gearing up for the biggest fight of the 2014 elections—over the seven Senate seats held by Democrats in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012. The combination of the negative impact of the government shutdown on public opinion and Obama’s steep decline in popular ratings has reenergized mainstream Republican efforts to prevent tea party candidates from winning nomination for those seats. And that Baucus decision had more to do with the 2014 elections than with relations with China, boosting Democrats’ chances to hold onto Montana and probably allowing Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu to take over the Energy Committee, which will bolster her chances of reelection as well. Slightly less dysfunctional politics in Washington will be the result—all to the upside for the US economy.

2 - Europe

We have long argued that the common framework for debates about Europe’s trajectory—collapse of the eurozone vs reform and recovery—is misplaced. The general thinking is that, given continued low rates of economic growth, especially in Europe’s periphery,

France’s ability to dilute and slow progress on any major structural reforms, ongoing uncertainty about the UK’s role in Europe, and rising right-wing populism taking an explicitly anti-EU direction, the Europe “doom and gloomers” are again making noise.

We don’t see it that way. At the financial level, the continued convergence in thinking between Mario Draghi and the European Central Bank, on the one hand, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other, on “any measures necessary” to defend the euro puts an effective floor under Europe’s finances in 2014. Although anti-European parties are gaining traction politically, they are still not in a position to challenge for power or even determine ruling coalitions except in a couple   of countries. They’ve gotten increased representation in the European Parliament, but nationalist agendas and mistrust of others in the space make it virtually impossible for them to pool their political weight. From our vantage point, Europe remains very much in the “muddled middle,” with neither reform/recovery nor crisis and eurozone collapse at all likely in the near future.

3 - Syria

Its neighbors will have bigger problems in 2014, but Syria itself is becoming much more predictable. The country’s nearly three-year civil war will persist, but there’s not a chance that Syria will become a larger global security or market risk this year. The broader significance of the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons was never really about the future of Syria so much as the credibility of US “red- lines” and a prelude to endgame negotiations with Iran over the status of its nuclear program. Both of those issues have moved on: US credibility is now in play both in the Iran negotiations and in the complex regional diplomacy/military standoff in Asia.

As Obama learned, talking in strategic terms about places that are not strategically crucial creates a slippery slope. He got caught out. As it turned out, the impact of the chemical weapons crisis on the country itself was minimal. There remains no prospect for a decisive breakthrough by either the Assad regime or the opposition, and hopes that the Russian chemical weapons removal gambit might create some momentum for diplomacy have slipped away. Al Qaeda–related groups inside Syria are likely to focus on the “bigger fish to fry” in neighboring Iraq. If anything, violence in Syria is likely to subside as the rebels begin to accept that no international support is coming and to cut deals with the Syrian military.

And finally…

? - North Korea

We could include North Korea on our list of top risks every year, given the stakes for the Korean peninsula, East Asia, and the world of any armed East Asia conflict or a chaotic North Korean implosion. We haven’t because it’s so hard to know what’s really going on inside that still-opaque country and how quickly things are changing.

That said, here’s what we can say: The execution of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and the second-most powerful man in the regime, has no precedent. It’s the first time in North Korea’s 65-year history that a high-level member of the Kim family has been executed, and it raises the risk that the country will become less stable at home and more aggressive abroad. Some form of direct provocation of South Korea, Japan, and/or the US appears more likely in 2014, and the prospect of outright destabilization of the regime has likewise risen.

The execution also calls into question the stability of Pyongyang’s relationship with Beijing. Jang was a key contact point in the China-North Korea relationship, and Chinese concerns about the out- look for the north under Kim were already intensifying in the past year. These concerns are likely to have been heightened significantly by Jang’s execution, which may in turn make China more inclined to increase unilateral pressure on North Korea to curb its brinkmanship. Paradoxically, more pressure from Beijing could make aggressive moves from Pyongyang more likely, by both threatening to accelerate instability in the north and by motivating Kim to raise the costs to Beijing of taking a harder line.

The odds of all-out conflagration on the Korean peninsula remain low-ish for 2014. Kim and the remaining elites around him are aware that a major conflict would destroy their country. And his recently erratic behavior is forcing more alignment among the US, South Korea, Japan, and even China on how to manage the north. If Kim does decide to lash out, the growing alignment among major powers will help limit the risk that a conflict progresses beyond anyone’s control. We all wish we had a better handle on this one.

* * *