Mongolia to Minegolia: A nation’s struggle to develop amidst sudden economic expansion

A nomadic herder rides past a traditional ger in Northern Mongolia.

A nomadic herder rides past a traditional ger in Northern Mongolia.

Traveling outside of Mongolia’s only major city, Ulaanbaatar, can seem like traveling back in time 800 years. Among the hundreds of miles of rolling hills, I was hard-pressed to find any permanent, man-made structure. It was a natural landscape so untouched by modern man that I half expected to see Genghis Khan’s enormous army thunder down a hill aboard hardy little ponies.

Nomadic herding culture has been a part of Mongolia for thousands of years and it remains a major part of Mongolian life. However, Mongolia’s economy is undergoing massive transformation that could change both the cultural and natural landscape forever.

From 2009 to 2013, the Mongolian GDP nearly tripled in size from a scant $4.584 billion (US) to $12.582 billion, according to the World Bank.


Mongolia’s explosive rise in the Asian sphere began in the late 1990s when Mongolia found itself to be, quite literally, sitting on top of a gold mine. More important than the gold mine, however, was a copper mine, one of the largest in the world, that was buried underground, just north of the Gobi Desert.

Combining lush national resources and its location just north of resource-hungry China, Mongolia was set to launch itself from rural nomadic countryside to industrialized nation within a span of a few years.

Throughout its expedited transition from a largely agricultural economy to an economy in which one fifth of GDP relies on the mining sector, Mongolia has struggled to strike a balance between rapid growth and growth that is sustainable, fair, and environmentally responsible.

Today, the mining industry makes up 20 percent of Monglia’s GDP. This makes the Mongolian economy somewhat reliant on fluctuating commodity pricing as it sells its copper, gold, and other earth minerals to China. It is possible, however, that mining’s share of the GDP is much higher but the Mongolian government is presenting its nation as a well diversified and therefore more stable economy for investment.

Even at 20 percent of the economy, if metal and earth mineral prices plummet, as they did in the second quarter of 2012, GDP growth can halt or even contract without other industries to offset decreased revenue.

Since the beginning of development at the Oyu Tolgoi mine, a major contributor to GDP growth, GDP per capita has grown over 800 percent. However, the Gini Coefficient, a measure of income distributions in which a value of 0 represents perfect equality and 100 represents absolute inequality, Mongolia is rated a 36.5.

This rating ranks Mongolia 70th in terms of equality among nations worldwide. To put this in perspective, the most equal country is Ukraine with a score of 24.8 and the second most unequal country is South Africa, a nation that is still suffering great disparity along racial lines as an aftereffect of apartheid, with a score of 65.

While not nearly as bas as South Africa, nowhere is the disparity of development in Mongolia better illustrated than in Ulanbataar. In the center of downtown lies the massive Chinggis Square, named after the nation’s hero, Genghis Khan. On one end of the square sits the Blue Sky Building. This $200 million project is a glass and steel office building and hotel reaching 344 ft. high which would not look out of place in London, New York, or Shanghai. From this vantage point, the city skyline is dominated with towering cranes building offices, apartments, and shopping centers.

Construction on the Blue Sky Building in Ulaanbataar before the hotel and office building opened in 2009.

A mere 15-minute drive away from the downtown area is a very different sight. On the outskirts of the city an estimated 800,000 former nomads have settled in their gers, traditional felt tents that have been used by nomads for centuries. Here, there is no plumbing, running water, or civil services like trash collection. Some estimates place unemployment in these ger districts as high as 60% and without their herds to support them, many are likely living in poverty.

The story of Mongolia’s rise from uniform underdevelopment to the state of Ulanbataar today began in 1997, when the democratic government, established after the fall of the Soviet Union, which maintained Mongolia as a buffer against China, passed the Minerals Law of Mongolia. This law established the state’s ownership of all mineral resources within its borders and reserved the right to sell mining and exploration licenses.

The goal of this law was to grow Mongolia’s economy after a dip that left their GDP below the billion-dollar mark from 1993 to 1994. If the government could sell its mining and mineral exploration rights to international mining corporations, it could, in theory, increase levels of foreign direct investment, lower unemployment, and raise GDP.

Investors found abundant Mongolian reserves of copper, gold, fluorspar, and uranium highly attractive. In addition to owning natural resources, Mongolia shares a border with China, the world’s largest importer of raw materials. This presents a lucrative opportunity to sell materials to China at a lower price by minimizing transportation costs that make metals and minerals from South America more expensive.

Combining natural resources with its proximity to China, a country that imported $25.1 billion in refined copper and $63.9 billion in gold in 2014, Mongolia looked like the world’s premier destination for mining operations.

Turquoise Hill Resources Ltd., a subsidiary of the Canadian Ivanhoe Mines, found a massive copper reserve in southern Mongolia. It announced a $4.4 billion investment in underground development at its mining sight Oyu Tolgoi on December 14, 2015. Estimated to be the world’s third largest reserve of copper, Turquoise Hill originally invested $6.2 billion in 2013, after years of exploration and analysis, to begin production.

Turquoise Hill Resources has invested over $10 billion so far in the Oyu Tolgoi mine and surrounding infrastructure.

These investments were massive in communities where wealth was generally measured by herd population rather than hard currency. The influx of capital and demand for labor encouraged many nomads to abandon traditional herding practices in order to work for mining companies or construction companies which were needed to build infrastructure like roads and bridges virtually from the ground up.

In order to include Mongolian interests in mining decision-making, the Mongolian government and Turquoise Hill spent five years negotiating the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement. The agreement states that the Mongolian nation has a 34 percent equity stake in the mine with the ability to renegotiate their ownership to 50 percent as soon as initial investments have been recuperated. This clause is very favorable for mining companies which are essentially guaranteed the recuperation of their investments.

Additionally, the agreement holds the investor accountable for regional economic development, adhering to national and international environmental standards, contributing to national infrastructure, maintaining a workforce that employs mostly Mongolians, and investment in the education of the Mongolian people.

While these terms are written into the official contracts, there is little evidence to support the clauses did anything more than pay lip service to ideas of sustainable development.

With the volatility of commodity pricing, those who have sold all of their herds and bet on Mongolia’s industrialized future by settling in cities are facing just as much if not more uncertainty than their countrymen and women who remain herders. Over the past five years, copper prices have fallen over 50 percent affecting both wages and unemployment.

After a severe dip in prices following the global economic crash in 2008,  copper prices rose. Since 2012, prices have been decreasing.

After a severe dip in prices following the global economic crash in 2008, copper prices rose. Since 2012, prices have been decreasing.

Dwindling copper prices have slowed economic growth to a crawl, the World Bank predicts 0.8 percent growth rate in 2016, and the Mongolian currency, the togrog, has plummeted in value.

Many economists blame Mongolia’s economic downturn on changes in the slowing Chinese economy. China, which is the destination of 80 percent of Mongolia’s exports, has decreased its demand for commodities like copper and coal, which has driven down international commodity prices significantly. This serves as a double blow to the Mongolian economy because China is not buying as much and prices are falling in the international marketplace.

Despite contractions in copper prices and resulting economic uncertainty, many nomads continue to settle in cities either to seek economic opportunity or escape the uncertainty of harsh winters that can wipe out an entire family’s herd, a Mongolian’s source of wealth and survival. The increasing frequency of these unusually cold winters are intensifying movement to urban areas, as herds die off on the ice covered steppes. These extreme weather conditions have been attributed to pollution and its affects on climate change.

Just like in Ulanbataar, families who renounce their nomadic lifestyles settle in gers on the outskirts of mining towns. During the winter months, when low temperatures average around -28 degrees Fahrenheit, former nomads burn massive amounts coal to keep warm and cook. Air pollution is so bad in the colder months that it exceeds the World Health Organization’s most lenient standards by 600 to 700 percent.

This creates a spiral of urbanization. As more nomadic families leave the countryside and gather in mining towns and cities, pollution increases thereby worsening and increasing the frequency of hard winters, forcing more families to trade their herds for mining or manufacturing jobs.

Former nomads settle in their gers near mines to find work.

What were once seen as beacons of opportunity are now more like poverty traps. Those who work in the mines are either susceptible to injury or the arduous labor prevents many miners from being hired past age 40. Even people who have moved to cities to support the growth of mining towns by opening shops and restaurants are feeling the strain of dwindling copper prices as miners become unemployed and have less to spend. And without the herds of sheep, goats, yaks, and horses that used to sustain Mongolians through the harsh winters, those who can no longer find work will find an economic landscape almost as barren as the Gobi Desert.

When Trade Goes Wrong: The Economics of Cargo Theft


In 2015, 8.2 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, a standardized maritime industry measurement for counting cargo containers) passed through the Port of Los Angeles (Port of Los Angeles). Few people consider the economic impact when a trade supply chain this large is disrupted. However, cargo theft is a growing problem that can have major effects on local, national and even global economies.

The FBI defines cargo theft as, “the criminal taking of any cargo including, but not limited to, goods, chattels, money, or baggage that constitutes, in whole or in part, a commercial shipment of freight moving in commerce.” (FBI) Cargo theft can happen at any point on a supply chain from origin to final destination. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways such as stealing containers from a warehouse, hijacking a truck or even attacking a container ship at sea as Somalian pirates have done.


Cargo theft has both direct and indirect economic effects. In 2014, 29 U.S. states reported 547 incidents of cargo theft to law enforcement with losses from the stolen goods totaling $32.5 million. (FBI) However, losses go far deeper than the goods stolen. Manufacturers who have goods stolen lose customers to competitors as they cannot keep up with demand, potentially long-term due to lack of trust. Owners of the affected part of the supply chain also risk losing business. Insurance premiums also rise after cargo theft incidents, forcing companies to either spend more on security or run the risk of paying high insurance.

Brazil’s recession has led to an increase in cargo theft, as organized criminals capitalize on a weakened police force and residents who cannot afford mainstream goods in the face of 11% unemployment and 8% inflation (Bloomberg). Brazil’s mountainous regions, such as Rio de Janerio, are being hit particularly hard as trucks are more susceptible to theft in such unprotected areas. In June 2016, a truck 25 miles outside of Rio carrying $440,000 in goods was swarmed by a rifle-toting gang and forced to drive to a local favela (Bloomberg). The goods were unloaded onto another truck and sold to locals at much lower costs than conventional retailers. According to Brazilian police, the state of Rio alone is on track for more than 8000 cargo thefts this year that could total anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion, depending on estimates (Bloomberg). These are significant losses, especially in a struggling economy.


Cargo theft is a difficult issue to deal with because goods can pass through many different countries with different regulations and law enforcement capabilities. For example, a container originating in the United States can be stolen with less effort in Brazil. This could potentially deter manufacturers from selling their goods in Brazil. Companies and supply chain managers should take initiative and invest in security measures. This takes away responsibility from federal governments, who may not have the resources or willingness to fight cargo theft.


Burberry, Brexit & Trade

With the click of a button, a classic Burberry trench coat can be delivered to your doorstep within days. As an iconic British brand, Burberry has over 498 locations around the world and countless products traveling between national borders every day. Consumer demand and international markets that make the item seasonless while it remains a symbol of British fashion and production around the world. As winter creeps closer, you get your hands on a classic Burberry trench coat and discover the larger story of how it got to you through the process of international trade.



Burberry was founded over 160 years ago in 1856 in Basingstoke, England as a high-fashion brand. Unlike other luxury brands, Burberry has prided itself on producing its clothing in England. When the brand announced that they would open a manufacturing in China in 2012, they were met with staunch negativity. Because the trench coat is a symbol of British manufacturing and England in general, Chief Executive Officer Christopher Bailey thought that the brand should stay loyal to the heritage of the textile industry that would provide the timeless quality of the coat and opened a factory in Leeds in 2015. Although China’s production would have a comparative advantage and possibly make more money for the brand, the products would lose their history and sentiment. Using the original method that includes over 100 processes, it takes three weeks to complete a single Burberry coat. The site in Castleford manufactures 5,000 trench coats a week and has a capacity of 240,000 a year. With an average price point of $1,500, that’s $360 million a year in trench coats produced at this site. When Brexit occurred, people and brands were on edge of how trade barriers would change and impact British brands and products throughout Europe and if trade agreements would also change with the United States.


The Telegraph

With consumer prices on the rise in the U.K., the pound has fallen by a fifth to the U.S. dollar since the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. This is caused the price raw materials to increase, causing the price of consumer products to climb as well, which means the cost of that trench coat would rise as well. Since the U.K. will be leaving the EU, borders that were once open and had few restrictions will all change. The uncertainty of the U.K.’s trade could make labor market conditions tighter and cause even higher inflation. This type of monetary affect would curtail consumer spending, which is a main driver of the British economy. In addition, it may be harder for other Europeans to get their trench coat delivered from digital, which outperformed in this half according to Burberry’s “First Half Trading Update.” In fact, digital saw growth on a global scale in Asia, EMEIA (Europe, Middle East, India and Africa) and the Americas since the redesign and launch of this past September. Knowing this, the delivery methods of European market segment may change in the future based on trade rules, barriers and even tariffs. The price of a coat could rise based on these factors and it is uncertain if shipping will be a different

For America, Brexit gave the United States a chance to get closer as trade partners. Obama previously said that Brexit would put the U.K., “at the back of the queue” when it came to free trade deals. The United States is the U.K.’s second largest trading partner while the U.K. falls behind as the U.S.’s seventh largest trading partner. Exporting goods is a huge boost to the British economy, in fact 10% of British exports came to the United States last year, which I can only assume included numerous Burberry coats. If the U.S. and the U.K. were able to form the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it would cover 800 million people and facilitate closer trade with two of the largest economies in the world. However, like almost every trade deal, it has been disputed by Brits because of worries that large corporations that could take over the market, movement of jobs and softening on food safety and regulation.

You may not have realized it, but before your coat arrives to you via digital or if you pick it up in-store, all these factors have impacted that single coat. Raw materials makes your trench more expensive, the fall of the British pound has created inflation in women’s clothing. The landscape of the economy for England is in a transitional period and how it will change within Europe and America is yet to be seen at its full capacity. Your trench coat’s price is always changed based on these factors and more and how it will be delivered to customers may change and further impact this price. Perhaps it is in your best interest to go to England and purchase it straight from the source because it will be at the cheapest cost. However, next time you buy a Burberry coat, pay attention to what’s happening in the world of trade and Brexit, because the story of that coat might have changed.



Hanjin: A Wake Up Call for South Korea

Trade: the transfer of ownership of goods and/or services from one entity to another.

A slow-down in trade seems improbable at a time when the United States seems to rely more and more each year on cheaper Asian and European manufacturing processes; however, this is no longer the case.

What happened?

Back in late-August/early-September, the Hanjin Shipping Company filed for bankruptcy in South Korea, forcing many of their ships to be stuck at sea. To show how much damage this filing can make, Hanjin Shipping Company is one of the world’s top ten largest shipping container carriers in respect to capacity. The company transports over 100 million tons of cargo every year across the globe.hanjin_container_ship

In order to show the extent to which Hanjin’s influence on world trade exists, the total value of the United States’ imports and exports fell by more than $200 billion last year. According to Binyamin Appelbaum’s article in The New York Times, this marks “the first time since World War II that trade with other nations had declined during a period of economic growth.”

Interestingly enough, Hanjin filed for bankruptcy in the U.S.’s bankruptcy court in Newark, New Jersey. By doing so, Hanjin would be allowed to dock its boats, without any cargo and equipment being taken as collateral by creditors.

Other Impacts on World Trade

The downfall of China in the ranks of world trade has created an incredible loss in supply of goods coming overseas. As opposed to the 1990s when seemingly everything that was bought said, “Made in China”, today there is a decrease of 25% of these goods. China has begun to produce more of what its people consume, and they are consuming more of what they make. This has forced a shrinkage in the number of exports they are shelling out and the number of imports they are bringing in. With smaller trade volume in and out of China, the entire world will feel the lingering effects.american-flag-made-in-china

What Hanjin Means to South Korea

Most recently, as reflected by Hanjin Shipping Company’s stock price, South Korea’s government has created an industry rescue plan. As a result, the stock closed up 24.8% from the end of the weekend. This is all speculation and reports that ever since the company’s financial collapse in late August, Seoul, the nation’s capital, has tried to get the shipping company back on track at an earlier time than expected. Also on October 31, 2016, Hanjin received five bids for its United States-Asia business. The shipping industry is so important to South Korea that the government’s goal is to create a state-backed ship financing company, that will help to improve the health of the current situation. There is a need for shipping in and out of Asia, and South Korea sees a promising future as long as there are new vessels, upgraded machinery, and intelligent executives at the helm of these firms.

The Shipping Industry and the Market

As of December 30, 2015, Hanjin has
amassed a 73.95% loss in its shares, compared to the industry’s loss of 19.23% year-to-date (YTD). Hanjin was responsible for seven percent market share on the Asia-U.S. trade in the first six months of 2016. Although a 7% market share may not seem like a lot, trade between the United States and Asian continent has exported $286 Billion and imported $641.4 Billion.1x-1-201-copy

With hopes to turn things around, we should see a buyout of some of Hanjin’s shipping duties and equipment within the next couple of months.