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R&R Weekly Column

Trump’s Never-Ending Trade Wars: Germany Is Next In Line


by Brunello Rosa

18 February 2019  


On March 1th, the truce between US and China that was agreed to regarding their bilateral trade war will officially end, as will the time available to reach an agreement to avoid increasing tariffs from 10% to 25% on USD200bn of Chinese exports to the US. Officials from both sides seem to suggest that a deal might be in sight, nevertheless a number of issues will remain open. Most important of these is that any agreement will be temporary, as the underlying cold war between the US and China will continue to be waged on different battlefields, as we have discussed in previous columns and research papers. In particular, the two countries will continue to compete intensely over technology (as the ongoing Huawei case proves). 

In addition, the implementation of any plan to reduce the bilateral trade imbalance between China and the US will not be frictionless. Regardless of whether China agrees to import more from the US, or export less to the US, there might be severe consequences on global trade flows, technological transfers, CNY and USD valuations, the level of Chinese reserves of US Treasuries, long-term US Treasury yields and, ultimately, global price and financial stability. The optimal strategy of pursuing global free trade with flexible exchange rates on a multilateral basis (for example by continuing to push China towards greater openness of its capital account) does not seem at hand in an increasingly protectionist world dominated by strongmen.   

 However, let us assume for the time being that some sort of deal between US and China is achieved by March 1st. Will this mean peace at last in the global economy? 

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To the contrary, it will probably mean that, with one front temporarily closed, Trump will instead start devoting its full attention to another “trade war” close to his heart: the international auto sector, the most notable victims of which would be European and Asian producers, were the US to raise tariffs. In fact, President Trump will soon receive a report from the US Department of Commerce addressing his question of whether imports of cars pose a threat to national security. It is not yet known what the report, expected to be sent by February 17th, will recommend the president to do, but it is very likely that it will offer a range of options, including imposing quotas or voluntary export restrictions, or tariffs. The one thing that Trump managed to obtain with the transformation of NAFTA into USMCA is less favourable conditions for producers to export cars to the US. He is likely to want to adopt a similar stance towards other car producers, particularly German ones. 

In fact, it is almost certain that among the biggest losers of the upcoming round of trade wars will be Germany, the economy of which – as we discuss in our recent trip report – is already suffering from a deteriorated external environment. The slowdown in Germany is affecting the entire Eurozone economy, with the more fragile countries, such as Italy, having already entered a recession. At the Munich Security Conference just concluded, the US and Germany have further exposed the fact that they have opposing views regarding global security, as expressed by Chancellor Merkel and Vice-President Pence. We would not be surprised if a US trade war with Germany over the auto sector become just another example of geopolitical diplomacy, fought with different weapons.   

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The Geopolitical Corner by John Hulsman

Venezuela and the Iron Laws of Revolution


1 February 2019


“You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves.”- Joseph Stalin

Introduction: The Old Monster’s Wisdom


In December 2014, my good friend and colleague Teun Van Dongen and I wrote a piece in which, we systematized what crucial factors determined whether a revolution succeeded or failed. This current piece will draw heavily on our ground-breaking work*, in assessing the chances for successful revolution in Venezuela. 

We wrote, “We began with a story about Joseph Stalin at the height of World War II. In December 1942, the Red Army was finally turning the tables on the Wehrmacht. After a seemingly endless series of debilitating defeats, the Soviets brought the German war machine to a halt at Stalingrad, where the Wehrmacht’s notorious Sixth Army found itself surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned. Back in the Kremlin, Stalin was planning the offensive that would put an end to the battle in his namesake city and seal the fate of the German army. He decided that General Konstantin Rokossovsky should lead the operation rather than General Andrey Yeremenko, who had been responsible for the defense of Stalingrad until then.” 

“The Soviet dictator could tell, however, that Marshall Georgi Zhukov had his reservations. “Why don’t you say anything?” he asked, to which Zhukov replied: “Yeremenko will be very hurt.” Understandably nonplussed by this sudden display of concern for other people’s emotions from a commander who had never had any qualms about using his men as mere cannon fodder, Stalin shot back: “It’s not a time for feeling hurt. We’re not schoolgirls, we’re Bolsheviks!”” 

“In the early, heady, irrational days of the Arab Spring, for our sins both of us were forced to attend foreign policy events where we were breathlessly told in no uncertain terms that the political rules of the road had been entirely upended; history no longer mattered. The telecommunications revolution allowed people to organize so quickly, efficiently, and differently--to share information at the speed of the click of a computer key--that the days of tyrants everywhere were surely numbered. Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and the rest had definitively changed the world beyond all recognition. Power was out, communicating was in.” 

“Just a few years on, surveying the ruins of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and especially Syria, these callow utopian claims look more than a little silly. But beneath this colossal analytical failure a far more important point needs making. There are iron laws governing revolutionary outcomes, outputs that have been tested and proven by history. The place to start is with Stalin’s quotation—people living alone in their basements with their parents are unlikely to be latter day Robespierres, Castros, Lenins, or Maos. But if it is easy (and necessary) to mock the ridiculous pretensions to world-historical change CNN and the others made in the first flush of the Arab Spring, it is far more important to look at what actually makes for successful revolutions, in order to underline the real reasons for the failure of Revolution 2.0.” 

The First Law: Organize (And not online)

We wrote, “A gloomy but almost infallible rule of revolutions is that the most organized group almost always wins. The pro-independence American colonists may (just) have amounted to a plurality—and never more than that--but they were far better organized than the pro-English colonists ever were. Likewise, the Bolsheviks in Russia never had anything close to majority popular support, any more than the French Jacobins did. What all three revolutionary groups did possess however was a relatively disciplined, centralized leadership, capable of quickly and decisively taking decisions, that crucially would be followed by their supporters in the field. 

“In other words, there was praxis, a Greek notion meaning the unity of thought and action. This decisive advantage allowed all three to overcome vast popular opposition to their revolutionary goals, as despite the impressive numbers opposing them, the enemies of all three were ultimately unable to coherently turn numerical superiority to their advantage, given their disorganized nature.”

For a long while, this has been the Venezuelan opposition’s besetting sin. Despite having an opponent in President Nicolas Maduro who is as deeply uncharismatic and he is an economic illiterate—Chavez without the charisma—has has managed to rather easily maintain power as the opposition has been deeply fragmented, bickering constantly. A major reason for this is that its putative head, Leopoldo Lopez, is as divisive as he is popular, as envied as he is admired. 

Lopez, in promoting the claims of his protégée Juan Guaido, the Head of the National Assembly and now declared interim president, appears to be cleverly turning attention away from himself and toward a fresh face unscarred by years of internecine battles. This clever approach has made it quite possible that at long last the Venezuelan opposition has sufficiently organized to challenge the Maduro regime for supremacy.

The Second Law: Have a winning narrative

We wrote, “Revolutions, for all the giddy slogans and millennial promises, are very practical things when it comes to assuming power…In revolutions it is never enough to state the obvious—that the entrenched leadership is corrupt, incompetent, and unfeeling. Better to have a goal and then revolt, rather than to rise up and then try to figure out the reasons why…Something better must be offered as a governing program (however unrealistic) that binds revolutionary supporters together as it energizes them, an ultimate reward for the revolutionary risks being taken that is fervently believed in.”

“The best two single revolutionary examples regarding controlling the narrative come from the two extremes of the American and Russian Revolutions. Indeed, the whole point of Jefferson’s magisterial Declaration of Independence was to lay before mankind the reasons for the colonists’ revolt—what their ill-treatment at the hands of the English Crown amounted to—and then to offer a very attractive way forward, based on the principles of life, liberty, and property, individual freedoms leading to democratic self-governance. Even today, it is hard to think of a more persuasive and seductive document for advertising a cause than Jefferson’s masterpiece.” 

“Ironically, about the only other narrative in contention would have to be Lenin’s invocation of ‘Peace, Bread, and Land’ at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Peace was shorthand for ending the Tsar’s hated and calamitous entry into World War I, a folly the weak Kerensky government perpetuated to its great cost. Bread meant a focus on the internal chaotic conditions within the Russian Empire itself would be the new priority. And Land signified that at last the deeply unpopular nobility would be forced to share the bounties of the country with the vast majority of its citizens. Incredibly timely, the slogan was startlingly on point as to an articulated revolutionary program, one that secured wide popularity. It is a prime example of the fundamental benefit of working out the reasons for revolution, ahead of having one.” 

Here again, the Venezuelan opposition has had time to do some real thinking. Refusing to be drawn into the great power machinations buffeting their proposed revolt—with the US, and regional powers Brazil and Argentina on their side, even as long-term Maduro backers Cuba, China and Russia oppose them—Guaido has consistently seen events in terms of the nationalistic hopes of native Venezuelans; that to stand tall again, the country must not only displace the thuggish, corrupt, crooks now running it, but install Social Democratic nationalists who have the country, and not either their selfish interests or foreign bakers, at the center of their thinking. Such an old-fashioned nationalist revolution as a narrative ought to play well with both the people in the street, as well as the crucial armed forces.

Read Previous Geopolitical Comments by John Hulsman

The Third Law: Shoot

We wrote, “Revolutions may be carried out in the name of hopes, dreams and ideals, but their outcomes are decided by force. In revolutions, much like in love and war, everything is fair, and revolutions are often literally matters of life and death for the parties involved. Consequently, rules, rights and institutional norms mean little to nothing in revolutionary situations. This being the case, it is unsurprising that many successful revolutionary organizations and movements put much effort into building or gaining control over the armed forces.” 

“For instance, even in the days preceding the October Revolution, Leon Trotsky, at the time the Bolsheviks’ second in command after Lenin, was already bringing the Russian army under Bolshevik control, aware of the need to protect the revolution against its many enemies. In the same vein, Trotsky later played a major role in the build-up of the Red Army, which was instrumental in saving the Bolshevik regime from being crushed by a group of rogue counter-revolutionary generals from the Imperial Russian Army.”

“Other obvious examples of the importance of military clout for the survival of a revolution include China, Cuba and the US. In Cuba and China, the revolution marked the end of a protracted military struggle, and the American Revolution was only saved from defeat by a military force that was hastily cobbled together to fend off the attempts of the British Crown to restore order in the colonies.” 

“If these examples tell us anything, it’s that revolutions are often the beginning (Russia, America) or the end (Cuba, China) of a fierce armed struggle for control. Revolutions are challenges against very powerful groups and institutions, which are highly unlikely to abandon their position without a fight.” 

While Guaido is to be lauded for immediately offering an amnesty to the armed forces—long in thrall at the senior levels to both Chavez and now Maduro—if they come over to his side, this has yet to happen in a meaningful way. While the army has not yet crushed the Venezuelan opposition’s bid for power, neither has it turned against the clueless Maduro regime. 

At a senior level it may be too much to hope this will happen. The Maduro government has long had a military hue, where senior officers have shared in plundering the state; it is hard to see them easily betraying a president who has allowed their corruption to flourish. However, mid-level officers--the Majors and Colonels who have not been enriched and who may well have family members amongst the demonstrators--may just be able to be reached. For at present, despite his best efforts, Guaido has been unable to swing the army around to his cause. Without it, it is impossible to see how the opposition can ultimately win.

The Fourth Law: Find Your Useful Idiots

We wrote, “It is true that revolutionaries are often driven by a fanatical belief in the correctness and righteousness of their own view and display an equally vehement hostility towards the views of others, but that has not kept them from building coalitions to achieve their political goals. Short-lived as such alliances may be they are crucial to the fulfillment of the revolutionary project.” 

“One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the importance of building coalitions in revolutionary campaigns concerns the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Tse-tung, one of the most cold-blooded, calculating practitioners of realpolitik on the radical left. In 1927, the CCP was suddenly attacked by the Guomindang, a nationalist movement that had joined forces with the communists to fight the warlords who ruled China at the time.”

“The Guomindang killed thousands of communists in this surprise attack, but for Mao this was no reason not to restore the alliance a decade later, when he needed more manpower to rid China of the colonial reign of the Japanese emperor. Afterwards, of course, the communists turned against the nationalists again, and defeated them in a guerrilla war that would end with the Chinese revolution of 1949.” 

“Another revolutionary leader who displayed tactical acumen in dealing with other parties in the revolutionary struggle is Fidel Castro, who managed to draw on very different sources of support for his guerrilla campaign against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. 

When it served his purposes, Castro explicitly sought to unite the anti-Batista opposition around a common strategy, knowing full well that his guerrilla forces would stand a better chance if they wouldn’t have to go it alone. The Bolsheviks and the Shia firebrand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Iran’s head of state after the toppling of the Persian shah in 1979, found their useful idiots as well, making and breaking all the coalitions they needed to in order to achieve their goals.” 

“In order to be a credible partner to other parties in a conflict, an organization must have someone who can speak on its behalf. One of the main disadvantages of the decentralized, networked organizational structure of the protest movements in the Arab Spring is that they lacked this ability to act as an interlocutor that other parties can count on.” 

“Few revolutionary movements and organizations achieve success entirely on their own, and especially since in the Arab Spring the protest movements found themselves in a situation where other players were holding the guns, they made a grave error by not putting more effort into winning over some useful idiots.” 

The Venezuelan opposition has tried to encourage this coalition-building process, both with the military and by encouraging disaffected segments of the Venezuelan elite to join it. So far, despite being analytically on target in seeing the value of such (temporary) alliance building, this necessary coalition has yet to form.


We wrote, “there are these fundamental lessons to be learned from successful revolutions, iron laws that apply from Castro’s Cuba to Adams’s America. Just as they applied in the past, these iron laws can be an invaluable analytical guide for the future, pointing out the likely success of future insurrections…As Stalin terribly but accurately observed, ruthless men who understand the cold but enduring lessons of power win revolutions, not those involved in a Children’s Crusade.”

By looking in detail at the iron laws of revolution, it is clear that the efforts to unseat the Maduro regime have come a good way, but are not there yet in terms of ultimate success. While the opposition is now more united than ever before, and while a coherent nationalist narrative for why demonstrators must take the risk of rebelling has been put forward, without force behind their project and without alliances with mid-ranking officers in the Venezuelan army and disaffected members of Maduro’s elite, at present the revolt amounts to a tantalizing near miss. 

However, the analytical metric ahead is clear. If Guaido and his supporters can ally with the men with the guns, his success is almost certain, just as a failure to do so will lead to his demise. The iron laws of revolution tell us everything in Venezuela now sits on a knife’s edge.

This article was originally published on the  Author's LinkedIn Page. John Hulsman's new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April 2018.'

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Looking Ahead

The Week Ahead


Week 18 - 24 February 2019

Global growth slowdown to continue


In the US, consumers might be less willing to spend, as signaled by the decline in December’s retail sales (Retail sales Dec. a: -1.2% m-o-m; c: 0.2%; p: 0.1%). 

In the EZ, February’s manufacturing PMI is expected to remain flat (EZ Markit manuf. PMI Feb., c: 50.3; p: 50.5). Inflation is expected to remain stable at 1.4% (p: 1.4%).

In Germany, as investor confidence declines, the economic sentiment is expected to deteriorate (ZEW survey Feb. c: -18.4; p: -15.0). 

The Quarter Ahead


Brexit and China-US Trade Talks At the Forefront  

On March 1st, the US-China trade-war truce will officially end. After high-level talks, both governments signaled that they may be approaching a deal. President Xi Jinping stated: “the meetings achieved important progress”. If no deal is reached, tariffs on USD200bn of Chinese imports will increase to 25% (p: 10%).

In the UK, the probability of no-deal Brexit is rising. By rejecting (303 votes to 258 — a majority of 45) a motion to support PM May’s Brexit strategy, lawmakers weakened the PM’s negotiating position with the EU. Large manufacturers urged the EU to: i) delay Brexit by six to 12 months, or ii)make a clean break from Britain on March 29”, supporting the PM’s proposal to ensure an orderly UK departure. 

Last week's Summary (11 - 17 February 2019)

Real Economy: Global Slowdown Ongoing, Geopolitical Risks Remain High

In the US, bipartisan lawmakers agreed to a spending deal of USD1.4bn, including physical barriers along the US-Mexico border - less than the USD5.7bn President Trump had demanded. To secure additional funding, President Trump declared “national emergency” - a move likely to spark controversies. The impact of the tax cuts passed in 2017 resulted in a higher-than-expected deficit, as reported in December’s monthly budget statement (a: USD -14bn; c: USD -11bn; p: USD -205bn). January CPI fell to 1.6% (c: 1.5% y-o-y; p: 1.9%) given low energy prices; by remaining below the Fed’s 2% target, it provided support to the Fed’s “patience on potential rate hikes.”

In the US, the probability of no Fed hikes in 2019 is at 98% (p: 97%); the probability of a rate cut declined to 10% (p: 18%).

In the EZ, data keep signalling a growth deceleration. Industrial production fell by 4.2% in December (c: -3.2% y-o-y; p: -3.0%).

In Germany, the economy stalled, falling short of entering a technical recession (a: 0.0%; c: 0.1%; p: -0.25). 

In the UK, growth and production disappointed (GDP Q4 a: 1.3% y-o-y; c: 1.4%; p: 1.6%; Industrial Production December a: -0.9% y-o-y; c: -0.4%; p: -1.3%). Inflation declined below the BoE’s target for the first time in 2 years (January CPI a: 1.8% y-o-y; c: 1.9%; p: 2.1%).

In China, trade data showed stronger-than-expected exports (a: 9.1% y-o-y; c: -3.2%; p: -4.4%). Inflation fell to 1.7% (CPI January c: 1.9% y-o-y; p: 1.9%).  

Financial Markets: Lower Risks And CB Liquidity Are Supporting Asset Performance 

Global stocks ticked higher as fears over global trade and the possibility of another US government shutdown receded. 

Global stocks rose w-o-w (MSCI ACWI, 1.9%) driven by the US (S&P 500, ­+2.5%) and the EZ (Euro Stoxx 50, 3.4%). EM indices declined (MSCI EMs, -0.5%). Volatility fell below historical averages (VIX S&P 500, 1.2 points to 14.9, 52w avg.: 17.0; 10y avg.: 18.1).

Fixed-income indices remained flat (BAML Global bond index, +0.0%). In DMs, German bunds have fallen 14 bps y-t-d to near-zero rates (10Y Bund yield, a: 0.10). In EM fixed income markets, the issuance volume declined w-o-w (a: USD 3.6bn; p: USD10.9bn). In Turkey, the Ministry of Finance hired banks to issue three-year Sukuk bonds.

Currencies: the USD rose (DXY, X+0.3%) the EUR fell (EUR/USD, 0.3% to 1.129). The GBP fell against the USD (GBP/USD, 0.4% to 1.289).

Commodities: EIA data showed US oil imports declining by nearly 1 mb/d w-o-w to 6.2 mb/d, increasing confidence in upcoming OPEC production cuts and driving oil prices (Brent) up by 6.7%, to 66.3 USD/bn. 

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