December 26, 2018 / 6:00 PM / 6 months ago

COLUMN-Harold Evans: From stocks to politics, what to expect in 2019

(Sir Harold Evans is Editor at Large of Reuters. A former editor of The Times and the Sunday Times of London, Evans was knighted for services to journalism in 2004. The opinions expressed here are his own.)

By Harold Evans

Dec 26 (Reuters) - We have a year and seven fretful months before the Democratic Party’s national convention decides its nominee for president in July 2020. In the last race, the Republicans fielded 17 major candidates. The smart money was on Florida Governor Jeb Bush. He dropped out in February 2016, too choked up to mention Donald Trump, who emerged as the clear nominee that May. Tricky business, this forecasting, but here’s a pick of some air-worthy kites.

WILL A SEAL DEBATE A SHARK?

The first question, as important as whether candidates have eaten pork belly in Iowa, is how they match up on a debate stage with Trump. The Democrats need someone who can command him to back off, or freeze him with a smile when he repeats the “Jaws” trick of circling his opponent, as he did with the much shorter Hillary Clinton while she took her turn.

So in 2019, look for Retired Admiral William McRaven. He’s not running as of yet, but he has a memoir coming out in May that’s going to remind everyone what a hero he is. The SEAL commander surely has the best resumé entry on the planet: he planned and commanded the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, although according to Trump it would have happened a “lot sooner if he’d been in charge.” Sure.

In person the brave, brainy and eloquent former University of Texas System chancellor is cool enough to repel any fusillade from a president who doesn’t let a clean fact stand in the way of a crude insult. Trump tested the customary restraint of military brass when, seemingly out of sheer cussed pique, he stripped former CIA Director John Brennan of his security clearance. Remove mine, too, said McRaven, addressing the president in the Washington Post: “Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”

His steadfast character and impeccable national chops may be just what Americans want after the traumatic resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California is the rising star who could step in as the Atticus Finch candidate. Never has there been a more timely need for an unequivocal exponent of justice. Schiff will come into his own in election year as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, rational and unblinking in his analysis of the legal swamp that’s immersed the president in at least half a dozen investigations. As Schiff puts it in the New Yorker, “Trump has created a constituency for people who are not running around with their hair on fire.”

Howard Schultz is the man who made you addicted to your Caffé Americano or cold foam cappuccino. He is big and brash enough not to be fazed by Trump at full steam. As the former CEO of Starbucks, he’s a genius marketer and a genuine job creator — 277,000 at last count — and the release of a new book in February will be the likely opening shot of his presidential campaign.

Oprah Winfrey has said she’s not running, but her Nov. 1 performance on the stump for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams was so emotionally powerful it showed she could be a female Obama on steroids. The “Draft Oprah” movement could be too deafening for her to resist.

WHAT CLIMATE CHANGE?

The World Meteorological Organization forecasters are ahead of us in giving names to hurricanes and storms that will arrive in 2019. Start with Andrea, who may be a friendly type, and end with Wendy and who-knows-what. Climate change deniers will observe the usual rule: the more extreme the weather, the more quickly they will change the subject. No matter that dried-out California saw its deadliest and most destructive fire season on record this year, killing at least 86 people, burning nearly 1.9 million acres and reducing a town of 26,000 to ash. Nor that hurricanes Florence and Michael pounded the East Coast, killing scores and causing $33 billion in damages.

Public opinion has veered toward acceptance of the underlying science. In August, a scientific paper warning that earth was barreling toward a permanent “hothouse” state went viral, notching an unprecedented 270,000 downloads in just days. In the following months, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and U.S. government published their most dire climate assessments to date, their warnings underscored by deadly heat waves and headline-grabbing temperature records. Meantime, global carbon emissions picked up like a “speeding freight train” after a three-year plateau.

But short of an early flood at Trump’s Mar-a-Largo resort, crusaders for action in 2019 and beyond will have to challenge the entrenched power of fossil fuel companies if they ever want to move the needle. Global warming denial did not spring into being organically; it was conceived of and nurtured by the extractive industries who block or slow change to stay in business.

As investigations by the Los Angeles Times and others have revealed, Exxon privately acknowledged a “general scientific agreement” on anthropogenic climate change as far back as the 1970s but resolved to muddy the waters, lest the revelations threaten its business model. It found eager allies in the Republican Party. Frank Luntz, a consultant for George W. Bush, put it bluntly in a private memo: “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

All this supposed uncertainty has made an impression on Trump. His synthesis of the science of climate change boils down to this: “I believe there is weather. I believe there’s change and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again. And it changes depending on years and centuries, but I am not a believer and we have much bigger problems.”

UNFRIENDING FACEBOOK

Facebook has a brilliant business model for making billions, but it will go through 2019 reaping the whirlwind of the behavior of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. The continuous record exposed since June 2014, right to the edge of 2019, is sneaky exploitations of privacy; selling advertising to Russian agents, who used it for their election meddling; and acting as a platform for the Myanmar military to incite violence against the country’s minority Rohingya Muslims. The company began more aggressive policing of its content only after journalists and human rights activists raised the alarm. Zuckerberg and Sandberg are reported to have ignored warning signs of Russian operations, and the company shamefully hired a Republican-linked public relations firm to do research on philanthropist George Soros after he attacked Facebook and Google as a “menace” to society. And as a climax to the record of greed and negligence, emails published by a British parliamentary committee in December showed that Facebook’s executives were, in the words of the New York Times’ Kevin Roose, “ruthless and unsparing in their ambition to collect more data from users, extract concessions from developers and stamp out possible competitors.”

In the United States, Congress is blindingly ignorant about how this sector of the economy works. The Europeans have shown more of a spine. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) this year gave EU citizens more control over what data is harvested from them, though the reform has been under-reported in the United States. Expect multimillion-dollar fines in 2019, but with the onus for compliance mostly on brands and advertisers, not social media sites.

Facebook has an impressive board, including the internet genius Mark Andreessen. Will they at last rouse themselves in 2019? Or wait until the regulators bite?

FUNNY MONEY

Remember the golfer who made a hole-in-one to collect a million-dollar prize in a charity golf event at the Trump National Golf Club? Except that he didn’t collect. He was stiffed out of the prize and settled for $158,000 to his chosen charity from the Trump Foundation. Cash from this same foundation was also used to buy items at charity auctions, including a football helmet signed by former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow ($12,000), a six-foot-tall portrait of Trump ($20,000) and a four-foot portrait of Trump ($10,000) that was hung at the Trump National Doral Miami.

These are fragments from the Trump Foundation’s litany of misdeeds, revealed by David A. Farenthold in the Washington Post. The New York Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, accused Trump of dipping into charity money for his political and personal interests, engaging in a “a shocking pattern of illegality.” Trump blasts that he is facing a “double standard of ‘justice,’” but Underwood’s successor, Letitia James, presses on into 2019 with the dissolution of the dodgy charity. Expect Trump and his children to be barred from serving on nonprofits, and several probes into Trump family dealings in New York.

AND THE STOCK MARKET?

After the roller-coaster year of 2018, investors will be preoccupied trying to look round corners.

A simpler way to certainty and avoiding a crick in the neck is to consult the great banker John Pierpont Morgan. You can’t get him on the phone – never could – but here is his advice, proved effective through innumerable crises: Investor: “What will happen to the stock market?” Mr. Morgan, reflectively, after a long pause: “It will fluctuate.” (With additional research by Jack Queen) (Reporting by Harold Evans)

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