10 Questions For 2018

1- What happens when Mueller calls that news conference?

President Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller are on a collision course. Latest reports indicate the investigation may continue well into next year, but that depends mainly on the willingness of witnesses to cooperate. At some point, Mueller will issue a public statement on what his team has found. That will trigger the most dramatic confrontation in US politics since Richard Nixon waved goodbye in 1974.


2- Will Democrats gain control of Congress?

The Senate remains a longshot for Democrats, despite their shock win last month in Alabama. The Dems need a net gain of just two seats in November, but they must defend 26, including 10 seats in states Trump won in 2016, while Republicans will defend just eight. Dems have a better shot at the House. The bottom line: A big Democratic wave is much more likely in 2020 than in 2018, but the current Republican margin is slim enough, and Trump has antagonized enough Republican senators, that he won’t have a post-tax cut working majority anyway.

3- Has North Korea changed the game?

Pyongyang has now tested a missile that some experts think can reach most of the US. Carrots and sticks, US or Chinese, have made no difference. US warnings of military action aren’t credible. We open 2018 with an uneasy new status quo.

4- How bad will US-Chinese relations get?

President Trump has discovered that China can’t/won’t lift him to victory over North Korea, and his administration will turn up pressure on Beijing in 2018. We got a preview of that this week with the unveiling of Trump’s new National Security Strategy, which asserts that China and Russia want to “challenge American power, influence and interests, [and] to erode American security and prosperity.” A full-on trade war is unlikely, but expect an early frost in US-China relations in 2018.

5-What will next generation fake news look like?

In December 2016, a rifle-toting North Carolina man, tipped off by reports on the Internet, marched into a pizzeria in Washington in search of evidence that the restaurant was hosting an underground pedophile ring run by Hillary Clinton. Advances in video fakery will ensure the fake news problem gets worse in 2018. The most egregious lies will fool only the weakest minds, but the more sophisticated the tech gets, the more likely that even discerning people will mistakenly throw out true stories with the false ones.

6- Will Europe face an East-West divide this year?

Yes, but there’s a limit to how much damage it will inflict on an otherwise (surprisingly) healthy EU. This week, the EU launched unprecedented disciplinary measures against Poland in response to judicial “reforms” that appear designed to pack Poland’s highest courts with judges friendly to the ruling party. Poland’s government has responded with defiance. The EU has limited leverage here, because the toughest punishments, including a suspension of Poland’s EU voting rights, require a unanimous vote of EU members. Hungary’s government, also angry at Brussels, will veto any such move. And there’s little public demand in Poland (or Hungary) for withdrawal from the EU.

7- Is Mexico headed left?

Who will become Mexico’s next president? Leftist populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO)? Technocrat Jose Antonio Meade? Upstart Ricardo Anaya? NAFTA negotiations will play in the background, but this will be a battle over which candidate can persuade voters that he’s the man to kickstart the economy, fight crime, and clean up government. AMLO looks to have the edge as July 1 approaches.

8- How crazy will Brazil’s election get?

Here’s the country most likely to elect an outsider president. After years of economic pain and political scandal, voters are likely to clear the deck in October. Will courts allow former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to run? That’s the question that will hang over the election.

9- Can Jeremy Corbyn become UK prime minister?

That’s not as improbable as some think. If pro-European Conservatives join with the opposition to defeat whatever Brexit deal Theresa May brings home, there will be an early election, and Jeremy Corbyn will probably win it. It’s not likely, but entirely possible.

10- Can Vladimir Putin beat back a fierce electoral challenge from Ksenia Sobchak to win re-election as Russia’s president?

I like his chances.

Facebook unveiled plans for a new cryptocurrency and payment system on Tuesday. It's called the Libra, and it's not-so-modest goal is to "reinvent money," and "transform the global economy" so that "people everywhere can live better lives." Ambitious much, Zuck?

This is a huge political gamble, but the rewards could be enormous. Here's a quick look at the tradeoffs:

The risks: Facebook is asking its 2.5 billion users — and government regulators — to entrust it with something that's vitally important to people everywhere and a power that governments jealously protect: access to money. And it's doing so at a time when trust in Facebook and other big Silicon Valley companies is at a low ebb.

Whether it's a concern that Big Tech has become too powerful or that it's not doing enough to protect privacy or put a stop to fake news, it's a heck of a time to launch a new techno-utopian project that could give Silicon Valley much more power — including the ability to track not just what people say they like but how they spend their money.

Mark Zuckerberg understands this — the Facebook founder is setting up Libra as a Swiss-based non-profit that will be governed by an "association" of 28 tech and financial companies and non-profits of which Facebook is just one member. He's also promising that Facebook will not mix personal data with payment information, and to cooperate with regulators.

But this will always be Zuckerberg's baby, and by launching Libra, he's painting a big new political bullseye on his own back.

The payoff: If Libra can survive the inevitable political and regulatory storm (and convince its billions of users that they can trust the underlying technology and financial stability of the new cryptocurrency) the upside could be enormous.

How enormous? The Libra website claims that more than 30 percent of the world's population — about 1.7 billion people — currently lack access to traditional bank accounts. Many more pay steep fees to transfer money using traditional payment services. Libra, by contrast, promises access to anyone in the world with a simple smartphone — and to make payments as inexpensive as sending a text message.

Plug those capabilities into a social network whose user base is roughly double the population of the biggest country in the world, and the results could be revolutionary — not just for billions of people who would gain new access to financial resources, but for Facebook's business model, and for central banks and governments that have traditionally sought to control the flow of money through their economies.

That would be a techno-utopian dream come true, but it's a power that governments won't willingly surrender.

If Willis's story on Tuesday about Argentina being plunged into darkness after a nationwide power failure didn't get you packing a flashlight and checking that your car has a full tank of gas, this one should. Over the weekend, the New York Times said anonymous US officials had revealed a US campaign to plant "potentially crippling malware" inside Russia's power grid "at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before."

Quick thoughts:

This is a big provocation. It's the cyber equivalent of mining a harbor — an aggressive move that falls short of actual conflict but sends an unmistakable message: mess with us, and we'll mess you up.

The leak was probably intentional. The campaign fits with the new US strategy, launched under the Trump administration, of trying to deter cyber adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran from hacking its critical infrastructure. By disclosing the US campaign, US officials are effectively telling Russia (and by extension China and Iran), that they've got a loaded gun cocked and pointed at their economies.

That's dangerous. People — and governments — may not always behave rationally when a gun is pointed at their heads. Russia might be even more inclined to lash out. And unlike more conventional forms of conflict, cyber isn't a domain where the US can be sure it has an overwhelming advantage if push comes to shove.

It gets worse. The Times said US cyber officials described a "broad hesitation" to go into details of cyber operations against Russia with President Donald Trump because they feared he might cancel it or tell other governments about it. Among other things that are disturbing about this story, a lack of communication between the President and US cyber warriors could send mixed signals that further embolden US adversaries.

It's no secret that cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace. But where do most of them originate and what countries do they target most? The graphic above shows the most significant offenders and victims since 2006. Hackers in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea account for three-quarters of all major attacks. Nearly a fifth of attacks, meanwhile, have targeted institutions or companies in the United States.

(At least that we know of: this chart highlights known attacks on government agencies, tech companies, and other operations that caused more than $1 million in economic damage. But many cyberattacks are never disclosed, and some countries are more transparent than others, so consider this a cross-section of a much bigger — and more disturbing — picture.)

China's outrage against Swiss bankers – Paul Donovan, an economist at UBS and a former colleague of your Wednesday Signal author, ended up in hot water last week after he wrote that an outbreak of swine fever that had pushed up pork prices in China, "matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world." The Swiss bank put Donovan on leave after a nationalist tabloid picked up the story, unleashing a torrent of invective from angry Chinese citizens, industry groups, and clients. Although we're a bit puzzled at the intensity of the outrage, we're following this story closely. The anger of 1.4 billion people is a powerful thing, and if the US-China standoff over tech and trade continues to escalate, US firms could soon find themselves on the receiving end.

What we are ignoring: Trump on ICE

Trump's Deportation Threats – As Donald Trump revved up his official reelection campaign in Florida on Tuesday, he took to Twitter to vow mass deportations of "millions of illegal aliens" starting next week. We are ignoring this for two reasons: First, it looks more like a campaign trail stunt than a well-thought-out plan — the scale of deportations Trump envisions would require massive logistical coordination, and it's not clear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can deliver it — even if the federal force got help from local police, who may be reluctant to participate in mass arrests in their communities. Second, while this type of rhetoric may play directly to Trump's base, images of crying children torn from their parents will galvanize the president's opponents — and, in particular, the suburban women crucial to his 2016 victory. We're not ignoring the pain and trauma that mass deportations would inflict on immigrant communities if Trump delivers on this threat. We're ignoring a boast that's likely to prove a political bust.