In discussion with Erin Ade on Boom Bust for Russia Today, on the Federal Reserve and the Greek situation.

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Watch the interview on Boom Bust here.

On the FED:

‘I don’t believe the FED has the role of global stabiliser… I believe that role ought to be played by an institution over and above the central banks but there is no such thing, so the FED is rightly focusing on its mandate and audience which is the people of the United States and its economy. We can’t blame them for that, but we can blame the politicians who are very deliberately leaving currencies and interest rates up to something called ‘the market’ instead of taking responsibility for stabilising the global economy.’

And on Greece, in response to Varoufakis’s statement that Greece should have defaulted on its debts in 2010 before European taxpayers became liable…

‘I have thought all along that Greece should never have been in the eurozone. Secondly, banks should not have thrown money at the Greek private sector – recklessly – which is what they did on the assumption that Greece’s debts would always be backed up by the German taxpayers… The European Commission should not have allowed that to happen and should not have turned a blind eye to that kind of crazy lending. Thirdly, Greece should really accept that the Euro is not sustainable.’

Greece did not default because the IMF exists to defend the interests of international creditors!

Murnaghan Budget Debate

Taken from the Murnaghan Budget Debate with me; Luke Johnson, businessman; John Longworth, British Chambers of Commerce 15.03.15 courtesy of MURNAGHAN, SKY NEWS

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: More on next week’s budget now and what it could mean for business in the United Kingdom.  I am joined by the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth; by the economist and author Ann Pettifor and the businessman Luke Johnson who is Chairman of Risk Capital Partners which owns a number of high street restaurant and café chains.  A very good morning to you all and as I was discussing there with the former Chancellor, Ken Clarke, Luke Johnson it is a pre-election budget, can the Chancellor dare make this a budget for business and will there be any votes in it if he does?

LUKE JOHNSON: Well I think what he needs to demonstrate and remind people is that this government has generally speaking done a damned good job over the last five years.  They inherited an economy in a shambles and we are now a rapidly growing economy with falling unemployment, good investment, rising confidence and I think actually from the point of view of business, which is how we create jobs in the private sector, it’s been a good performance.

DM: Would you pick out a measure or couple of measures, specific measures you would like to see?

LUKE JOHNSON: Well I think the biggest single measure is that he has maintained low interest rates and a stable currency which has meant that mortgages haven’t become unaffordable and business that can borrow has been able to borrow at competitive rates and I think that set a general tone which means that we have been able to deliver growth and create these jobs.

DM: So steady as she goes really.  Ann Pettifor, what Luke Johnson is  saying there is that the general economic climate is a pretty fair wind for business at the moment.

ANN PETTIFOR: Well I just have to say that Luke is wrong on several things.  First of all the Chancellor choked off a recovery that was already in place in 2010 and austerity really has not helped, it hasn’t helped productivity, it hasn’t helped incomes, people’s incomes have been falling in real terms over seven years and this in turn doesn’t help the rest of the economy and as for investment, Luke, it’s been pretty, pretty bad and the reason for that is partly because government investment  has collapsed but also because the banks are not lending.  There is a real problem and I think one of the big things he has to do in this budget is to do more than give the banks the funding.  The Funding for Lending scheme has become the Funding for Not Lending scheme and he has got to do more in terms of making the banks shift lending from property where there is a bubble, into real investment for real businesses for real firms.

DM: Well let’s talk to a man who represents a lot of businesses.  So we’ve got a clear dichotomy here, is it generally steady as she goes or is it a lot of work to do?

JOHN LONGWORTH: Well we have got good growth predictions.  Our forecast that we published last week showed good growth over the next three years, 2.7, 2.6% growth.  It’s based on consumption, that’s not good, we need more business investment, we need to shift the economy more towards exports, it needs to be a long-term sustainable growth but it’s growth nonetheless.  If I were the Chancellor I would probably be looking to give something away immediately that would help voters and I would be looking to promise quite a lot of stuff for after the next election, given he’s got …

DM: That’s the facts but we are asking what for business?

JOHN LONGWORTH: But on business we’ve been very specific in this particular budget proposal, we said that we want the investment allowances to continue at the very high level they are at the moment rather than being cut back because this allows business to plan for investment in the medium to long term and that would be something that is very affordable, something that businesses can focus on.  In the Autumn Statement of course we also asked for the Chancellor to increase the amount of compensation people receive for infrastructure disruption which will enable infrastructure projects to go ahead because people will be less inclined to say no if they are getting 150% of the value of their property for example.

DM: Okay, Ann?

ANN PETTIFOR: The real problem for businesses I think is deflation, prices are falling.  Prices of products they are pushing out the door are falling and that means that profits will fall.  I don’t think that the Chancellor, or indeed most economic commentators, have put enough focus on the threat of deflation because Britain is a highly indebted country.  Our personal and corporate debt is very high and is, the OBR predict it to be even higher in a few years’ time.  The Chancellor I think and the Bank of England have been astonishingly complacent about something that would really affect small businesses, the way in which their prices are falling.   Now input prices are falling, oil prices are falling but that is not the real reason why prices are falling across the board, the real reason prices are falling across the board is because of a lack of demand, because of austerity essentially.

DM: Which has affected consumers?

ANN PETTIFOR: There is both a lack of consumer demand and investment demand and the Chancellor has to address demand.

DM: I have got to bring Luke Johnson back in this because there are several points that Ann Pettifor has refuted and you can re-refute them, if that is a word, on investment.  So deflation, okay, it in particular it is evidenced in the eurozone but is there much a government can do about that?

LUKE JOHNSON: I don’t think so.  If you look at job creation, if you look at new business creation which is at record levels, if you look at the fact that 85% of the population work in the private sector and are not that affected by government investment, I think it is frankly political the idea that we have really suffered austerity.  You can’t have it both ways, if we are very highly indebted then to run prudent budgets is surely correct isn’t it?

ANN PETTIFOR: Well it isn’t Luke because what’s happened is we had a big financial crisis and the private sector contracted massively as a result of that through no fault of their own, investment collapsed and this is because of the banking crisis and in that circumstance the government has to intervene.  We have seen the fall in GDP and growth is a function of the fall in government spending and government investment.  Normally the government shouldn’t do this but …

LUKE JOHNSON: I don’t agree, I don’t agree.

ANN PETTIFOR: … the point is that the government’s investment stimulates the private sector, think about …

LUKE JOHNSON: So what happened in France?  Unemployment is almost twice ours, they’ve had no growth in recent years and that is because they have continued to spend more than they can afford, they have an unsustainable public sector and what this government is actually done is say we need a bigger and more healthy private sector, we need to attract investment and we need to …

DM: All right, hold on, let me bring in John Longworth because there is a philosophical divide here about how much, what the government can do about providing not just a stable business environment but by encouraging growth and Ann Pettifor was very clear that the government could spend and invest a lot more and that would stimulate the economy.

JOHN LONGWORTH: Well the speed at which the government invests or spends money of course is a matter of debate, the fact of the matter is that we do need to get the deficit down because we have to have a cushion against potential world shocks that come forward, you never know what’s going to happen next and at the moment we are in a very fragile situation with the deficit being as high as it is.  There is no question in my mind that in the last four or five years the Chancellor has actually played a blinder.  What he’s done is persuade the world markets that he has applied austerity which has given confidence in the UK …

DM: And then not actually applied it.

JOHN LONGWORTH: Exactly, which is a good thing in these circumstances.

DM: So in effect pulling the wool over the eyes of the …

JOHN LONGWORTH: Then of course is what happens next which is the really important thing because in the next parliament whoever comes into government is going to have to cut the deficit much more strongly.

DM: Okay, I want to ask you, don’t sit on the fence for me now, we are looking beyond the budget, beyond the election, you fear a Miliband led government don’t you, especially if they are in coalition with the SNP.

JOHN LONGWORTH: We never comment on parties or people, we only comment on policies and actions so we’ll be looking at all the party’s policies over the next few weeks and commenting on whether we think they are good for business.  There is no question that whoever comes into office is going to have to cut the deficit, it is all a question of at what speed and how they do it, whether it’s by tax or cuts.

DM: So do you accept that, whoever gets into power does have to continue dealing with both the deficit and the overall debt?

ANN PETTIFOR: You know, I think this obsession with the deficit is bizarre actually because it’s really not the issue but the other really interesting thing is that the deficit is at about 5% which is higher than it is allowed to be across the eurozone which is why we’re doing better slightly.  The Chancellor cut very substantially until 2012 when he realised the error of his ways and he started to increase spending and then the recovery began.  He did that and then he boosted – the Bank of England has lent £55 billion to the banks in order to stimulate basically investment and lending for small businesses, that’s all gone into property and we’ve got a massive property boom.  Call that a blinder?  I would call that a blinder when people see property …

DM: That analysis is persuasive isn’t it, Luke Johnson, in terms of what we’re doing again, are we beginning to repeat the mistakes of past, consumer led, money going into housing, inflated prices certainly in the metropolitan area?

LUKE JOHNSON: I don’t think we need to be too London centric, I think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s all gone into property.  There is no doubt that there is…

ANN PETTIFOR: Excuse me, banks have stopped lending to businesses, they are only lending to property.

LUKE JOHNSON: If you let me speak then at least I can respond to your remarks.  I do believe that there is investment going into business, these things don’t happen quickly.  As we’ve heard I think actually to maintain low interest rates and to produce the growth we’ve had or to help produce the growth we’ve had or to help produce the growth, which other countries have achieved that?  To cut unemployment and thereby save money, that’s a great achievement and I think that to think that what we need to do is far more government spending is naïve at best.

DM: When you talk, you’ve said it twice now about low interest rates, hasn’t the Chancellor just got lucky with the overall prevailing global environment and now we’re seeing falling commodity prices, in particular oil and the inflationary outlook, as Ann Pettifor was saying, it’s not inflationary it’s deflationary so interest rates can stay low.

LUKE JOHNSON:  Yes, well sure he’s been lucky and I think it’s useful to have people in charge who are lucky.

ANN PETTIFOR: But talk to the people whose incomes have been falling in real terms over this period, they don’t feel this has been a blinder of a Chancellor basically, they are feeling really hard done by and as I think John said, think of the young people, oh no it was Ken Clarke who was saying that, think of all the young people who have really lost out and are going to be pretty bitter about it.  Pensioners have done rather well.

DM: Just one last word from you John Longworth, we’re nearly out of time, your feelings on what Ann’s just said?

JOHN LONGWORTH: Well there are big challenges, we have still got over half a million young people out of work under 24 and it is very important that we actually  give them skills to make them employable so the education system needs to be reformed for example.  There is an issue about businesses getting access to finance, we still have a substantial number of businesses in our network saying they can’t grow to be the mid-sized businesses of the future, the home grown businesses of the future, because they can’t get access to finance so we have still got a big issue to solve there but we’re making progress.

DM: Okay, well listen, thank you all for your thoughts, all will be revealed of course on Wednesday and I’m sure a lot more of you will be tramping in and out of the studios during the course of Wednesday.  Luke Johnson, thank you very much indeed, John Longworth and Ann Pettifor, very good to see you.

‘Growth’ as flawed concept, and inherent to case for globalisation

In the latest PRIME publication by Dr. Geoff Tily “On Prosperity, Growth and Finance” the author elaborates on an earlier theme: the development of the economic concept of ‘growth’ in the 1960s by orthodox economists.  Tily points out that growth is not just a relatively recent and post-World War II preoccupation, it must also be understood as “inherent to the case for a globalized system.”

Tily notes that Keynes was concerned with the level of economic activity – output and employment. Before the Second World War “there was no sense of a systematic, and to some extent uniform, rate of change of the level at which an economy operated.” As orthodox economists struggled to build a rival system to Keynes’s, they set the world “a systematic and improbable target: to chase growth.  Nobody seems to have paused to consider whether growth derived as the rate of change of a continuous function was a meaningful or valid way to interpret changes in the size of economies over time” writes Tily.

...

Prof. Steve Keen at a meeting addressed by European and US central bankers wears the new uniform set by Yannis Vanoufakis – finance minister of Greece… a leather jacket with shirt!

From Left: Steve Keen, Yours Truly, Frances Coppola of Pieria and Ross Ashcroft of Renegade Economist

Frances, Ann, Steve & Ross-001

 

The ECB Has Shaken The Eurozone’s Utopian Foundations

European_Central_Bank_-_building_under_construction_-_Frankfurt_-_Germany_-_14New building of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt Main, Germany by Norbert Nagel, 2014

The 4th February late-night decision by the European Central Bank to reject Greek bank collateral for monetary policy operations will, I confidently predict, precipitate not just a run on Greek banks; not just greater price instability across the Eurozone – but ultimately, the collapse of the fantastic machinery that is the ‘self-regulating’ economy of the Eurozone.

As is well known, the primary duty of the ECB is to promote price stability. Subject to price stability it has a duty to promote the union’s Treaty objectives that include:

balanced economic growth… full employment, social progress and solidarity amongst member states.

Before the decision of 4th February, the ECB had failed lamentably in its primary duty: to maintain price stability and to do so at a self-imposed target, at or close to 2%. In December, eleven out of eighteen Eurozone countries were in annual deflation. This is not just lamentable monetary policy failure, it is technocratic misconduct on a grand scale. The Spanish economy has recorded months of negative inflation. Italy registered -0.1% deflation in December, 2014; Ireland -0.3%; Portugal -0.3%; Belgium -0.4%; Greece -2.5%. Greece has been in annual deflation every month since February, 2013.

While failing in their primary mandate, ECB technocrats bypassed their European political masters and last night flouted wider EU Treaty objectives for social and political stability and for solidarity amongst member states.

But this arrogance, this disregard for the governments and the political will of the Greek people in particular and the peoples of Europe in general – is wholly in line with the Maastricht Treaty’s utopian vision for the Eurozone. As Wynne Godley argued way back in 1992, the architecture of the Eurozone is premised on the notion that economies are

self-righting organisms which never under any circumstances need management at all.

This machinery was made to fit a financier-friendly ideology based on contempt for democratic government. According to this ideology governments are ‘rent-seeking’ and should be marginalized. Economic policy (monetary and fiscal) must be privatized in the hands of financial markets that, surprisingly, are regarded as having no such ‘rent-seeking’ instincts.

The ECB’s mandate, as Godley argued, is premised on a belief that

governments are unable, and therefore should not try, to achieve any of the traditional goals of economic policy, such as growth and full employment.

Instead the fantastic machinery of invisible, unaccountable capital markets is entrusted with the task of managing and above all, disciplining Eurozone economies, governments and peoples.

This enhanced Treaty-embedded role for the private finance sector led to the profligate financing of speculative activities in Greece, Spain and Ireland by German, French and British bankers before 2007. It led to the immense enrichment of the financier class; and to the sector’s co-responsibility for the inevitable financial and economic crises of 2007-15. The crisis in turn demolished the mythology of the free market. Instead financiers socialized losses and extracted government and taxpayer guarantees to protect them from risk.

But just as in the 1930s, the ideologues that laid the foundations of the Eurozone, and those that have against all odds upheld it, were not prepared for the Greek election result. They were not prepared for the fact that, as Karl Polanyi once argued, society would take measures to protect itself from the fantastic, unaccountable and ruthless machinery of capital markets.

For on 25th January 2015 the people of Greece took a second, bold step at reversing austerity and restoring some form of social and political stability. They did so by electing a Syriza government dedicated to resolving the debt crisis and reversing the “fiscal waterboarding” policies of the Troika.

This followed an earlier attempt by Greek society to restore some accountable form of government. In October 2011 an angry reaction to the terms of a Troika-imposed economic programme led to social upheaval. According to the Finanical Times:

thousands of anti-austerity protesters, including rightwing radicals and anarchists, stormed (the President’s) parade route, forcing Karolos Papoulias, to flee.” In a panic, Prime Minister Papandreou called a national referendum.

The capital markets immediately sprang into action and proceeded to discipline not just Greek but other European governments, their firms and their peoples. The Financial Timesagain:

Eurozone bond markets, which had briefly rallied after the Greek debt restructuring was agreed, sold off in a panic. Yields on Greece’s benchmark 10-year bond spiked by 16.2 per cent in a single day. More worryingly, borrowing costs for bigger eurozone governments began to approach levels where others had been forced into bailouts: yields on Italy’s 10-year bond jumped to more than 6.2 per cent.

European leaders, including President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel rallied behind the capital markets and forced the Greek Prime Minister into a humiliating climb-down.

Today’s Eurozone’s architecture and associated economic policies are not different in intent from the “fetters” or “corset” that was the Gold Standard, and that regarded the role of governments with the same contempt. They are the same policies that led 1930s Europe into unbearable degradation, poverty, and misery. Today these policies once again threaten to unleash dangerous tensions. Society – locally, nationally, and internationally – is making ‘concerted efforts to protect itself from the market’. History is repeating itself. Current resistance to market liberalism echoes past resistance. As Karl Polanyi argued in his great, and increasingly relevant, work, The Great Transformation, the second ‘great transformation’ of the 20th century, the rise of fascism, was a direct result of the first ‘great transformation’ – the rise of market liberalism.

Adherence to this utopian vision of how economies work explains the ECB’s crude and inept handling of the democratically elected Greek government’s attempt to resolve its debt crisis. Their actions will shake the foundations of the Eurozone.

Just as the collapse of the Gold Standard in Britain and the United States led to a dramatic pre-war recovery in those countries, so the collapse of the utopian blueprint that is the Eurozone may herald good news for Europe’s economies, for its thousands of firms and for its millions of unemployed. Above all it may revive popular faith in a united, peaceful European Union based on collaboration, shared responsibility and solidarity.

Indeed we may yet come to thank ECB technocrats for shaking the very foundations of the current, ill-constructed Eurozone.

No, Chancellor, 0.5% inflation is not

… “welcome news”

What is deflation? What has caused inflation to fall? And why is there no such thing as ‘good deflation’?

Introduction

On Monday the Office of National Statistics (ONS) announced that inflation at 0.5% was lower than the 1% rise that had been predicted by the Bank of England as recently as November. And it was lower than the prediction of most economists who believed prices would rise by to 0.7%.

We at PRIME are not surprised, as we have tracked Britain’s disinflation (falling prices) for some time. And we warned as far back as 2003, and again in 2006, 2010, and e.g. inOctober, 2014 of the threat of global debt-deflation. Because policy-makers lack the tools to correct a deflationary spiral, the prospect of deflation is frightening.  

We therefore find ourselves at odds with the British Chancellor, George Osborne who announced that the fall in inflation to 0.5% was “welcome news”; with the Bundesbank President, Jens Weidmann, who argued recently that “an inflation rate that for a few months lies below zero, for me, doesn’t represent deflation”; and finally with the Financial Times which ran the following headline on the news of Britain’s low inflation rate: ‘Good deflation’ seen as spur to growth”. (Note: this headline appeared in the paper edition of 14 January, 2015, and not in the digital edition.)

For ordinary consumers, workers, farmers and for the owners of firms and shops – especially those with debts – there is no such thing as “good deflation”.

What is deflation?

Deflation occurs when prices (not necessarily all prices, but the average price level) fall below the costs of production – i.e. when prices become negative. So in a deflationary environment producers will sell a good or service at below the level of profitability or below the cost of making that product. They will do this just simply to get products off the shelves and out of the warehouse – before prices fall even further.

Deflating prices may appeal to the consumer, and may boost consumption in the short-term, but they are associated with savage costs that will quickly catch up with British and European, and potentially even American consumers.

The reason is as follows: if producers or retailers sell their wares below cost, then they will invariably make a loss on those sales. Their business will become less profitable. The sensible response when a firm is not able to price its goods to make a profit, or to cover costs, is to produce less of what it is unprofitable. In other words: to shrink productive activity. This is done by cutting production, trimming wages and inevitably, laying off staff. Thus the fall in prices, leads to a fall in profits, which leads to falls in wages and to a rise in unemployment. Unemployment means that workers lack disposable income, and find it harder to buy products and services on offer. As a result producers sell even fewer of their already low- priced products or services. Bankruptcies and unemployment rise, while wages and prices fall further, and so the deflationary spiral takes hold.

Furthermore, the price indices managed by government –in particular the Consumer Price Index (CPI  – are used to fix wages in private and public sector wage negotiations. Benefits received by disabled people and pensioners increase (or decrease) in line with CPI inflation. So when the CPI falls, be sure wages and benefits will fall too. (And with a political consensus in the British Parliament promising savage spending cuts in the next Parliament, pensions and other benefits will have to be cut in line with the falling level of CPI, if the proposed extreme spending targets are to be met.)

For whom is deflation good?

Deflation is good for those on fixed incomes, as these will rise in real terms as prices fall.

Deflation is good for creditors/money-lenders or the rentier class. This is because while prices can fall below zero, interest rates cannot. So while wages or incomes may fall below zero, interest rates (at what is known as the ‘zero-bound’) will rise relative to these falls. If prices fall below zero, say to minus 2% but the interest rate remains at plus 2%, then the real rate of interest rises to 4% in a deflationary environment.

And while prices, wages and incomes can fall below zero, debts remain fixed, and in relation to falling wages and incomes – rise in value.

This is why creditors encourage, and even pressure politicians and policy-makers (central bankers and officials) to apply deflationary policies – because deflationary policies protect and even increase the value of their most important asset – debt.

To repeat: whereas inflation erodes the value of debt, deflation increases the real value of debt.

So in a deflationary environment, creditors (effortlessly) grow richer as the value of debts owed to them rises (until their debtors default); and debtors with falling incomes find their debts become unpayable.

Keynes once wrote that:

“Deflation…involves a transference of wealth from the rest of the community to the rentier class and to all holders of titles to money; just as inflation involves the opposite. In particular it involves a transference from all borrowers, that is to say from traders,   manufacturers, and farmers, to lenders, from the active to the inactive…Modern business, being carried on largely with borrowed money, must necessarily be brought to a standstill by such a process.” [1]

So no, Chancellor, 0.5% inflation is not “welcome news”.

What causes deflation?

Continue reading… ›

2015: The Threat of Deflation

Taken from: What lies ahead: Ten predictions for 2015, first published by the IPPR on 6 January 2015

Europeans have no experience or memory of deflation. This is a worry. Britain and the EU will likely experience deflation in 2015. Disinflation – a slowing in the rise of price inflation – is already a feature of our economies. To understand disinflation and deflation, it helps to view both through the lens of debt.

Lending to the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sectors far outweighs lending to the real, productive economy. Some estimates have put lending to the FIRE sector at 80 per cent of the total. Borrowing to finance the purchase of pre-existing assets rather than new, productive activity invariably inflates the prices of assets. Before the crisis, central bankers ignored inflated asset prices, but applied downward pressure on wages and prices.

Rises in asset prices oblige new commercial and household borrowers to borrow higher sums. But the larger the share of total income aimed at debt payments (even with low rates), the smaller the share of income that is aimed at investment and the purchase of goods and services. This places further downward pressure on both consumer prices and wages.

This disturbing phenomenon was a feature of the UK economy before the crisis. All three are linked, and conspire to contract activity in the real, productive sectors of the economy. UK bank lending to the real estate sector has started to decline, and house price rises have slowed. Falling asset prices will likely only exacerbate both the debt overhang and falls in consumer prices and wages.

It is doubtful whether central banks and finance ministries have sufficient policy tools to arrest a generalised, downward spiral of prices, which will lead to declines in profits, further falls in real wages, rising unemployment and ever-sharper falls in prices. Which is why deflation is such a terrifying prospect.

The shaking of the foundations

In 2007 a remarkable thing happened: the poorest households in the United States – defined as sub-prime – defaulted on their mortgages and very nearly brought down the global capitalist system. Powerful banks (including Goldman Sachs) dependent on the high rates associated with risky ‘sub-prime’ loans, were on the brink of failure. Lehman’s collapsed. This was probably the first time in history that the poor had exercised such power.

In 2015 the poorest country in Europe is shaking the foundations of globalization – by threatening to democratically elect a moderate political party that wants to restructure the country’s debts.

 The very hint of such an intention by the impoverished and weakened Greeks has the European political establishment and global stock markets severely rattled.

Why should this be so? Greece’s economy is tiny and almost irrelevant to the European economy, not to mention the global economy. Second, the global economy appears to be recovering. The price of a key commodity, oil, is falling and many economists regard this as welcome in that it raises global disposable income. Third, the ECB promises to soon channel a generous dose of QE to the private finance sector. Fourth, deflation, while forcing down prices, wages and incomes, effortlessly raises the value of the finance sector’s most prized asset – debt.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the globalized economic model of de-regulated, offshore capitalism, rising private debt, shrinking public sector services, deflating wages and prices, coupled with the privatization of public assets, remains intact.

What’s not for global financial markets to like?

After all, and from the point of view of financial markets, politicians and central bankers have done nothing to re-structure, re-balance or manage the existing economic model more effectively. Indeed the economic model that caused the gravest financial crisis in history has been strengthened since 2009. European (and notably British) politicians from across the political spectrum do not challenge the merits or weaknesses of the model. They turn a blind eye to offshore capitalism and instead have chosen to make a fetish of domestic budget deficits.

Misled by their politicians, taxpayers are similarly focused on domestic issues: budget deficits, immigration and scandals. They are not on the streets protesting at the guarantees, subsidies and other forms of financial ballast their governments generously provide to offshore finance.

Coupled with this, central bankers dish out largesse in the form of low rates and QE to global financiers.  The result is that business for bankers is better-than-usual. Now, with deflation taking hold in Europe as well as Japan, the sector can sit idly by as its biggest and most valuable asset – the vast European private debt overhang – rises effortlessly in value, relative to both incomes and prices.

This confidence is most manifest in the City of London, which is on a roll. Recruitment is expanding; the British Chancellor is working hard to defend bankers’ bonuses from attack by the EU; and financiers are pushing up rents in the City as the sector once again expands, sure of political protection.[1]

Given that so little has changed since 2007; given that capital mobility for the super-rich oligarchs remains unchallenged; and given that financial elites can expect more central bank largesse – why the latest stock market jitters over Greece’s threatened revolt?

The answer is that while the model might be dominant, the system is weighed down by costly, unpayable debt, and is therefore fragile and volatile. A poor, sovereign debtor could easily bring it tumbling down.

 American sub-primers were punished for their “revolt” with brutal evictions from homes. Politicians, lawyers, economists and central bankers did not rise to their defence, but aligned with bankers.  Now the global financial system is set to punish Greece, and is bolstered in that aim by heavyweight politicians and commentators from across the European Union.

They will probably succeed. The odds against Greece being treated fairly, or even humanely by European financial institutions and markets are very low indeed.

But for now, the poorest of the world are once again at the centre of the vortex – shaking the foundations of freewheeling, reckless, offshore capitalism.

End.

1. London financial sector’s revival fuels office rental cost fears by Kate Allen, property correspondent, Financial Times, January 02, 2015.

Labour views economy through the wrong end of a telescope

“There is no path to growth and prosperity for working people which does not tackle the deficit”. Ed Milliband, 11th December, 2014.

The Labour leader has finally succumbed to a baying media pack that insisted he commit himself to an economic goal set by Labour’s opposition: namely “tackling the deficit.”

I am no politician, but such capitulation to  economically illiterate commentators, is surely both politically unwise as well as economically nonsensical. The reason it is politically unwise is that Mr. Milliband is succumbing to the Chancellor’s flawed and frankly dishonest framing of the public deficit as the biggest challenge facing Britain’s economy. But while Mr Osborne must be delighted at luring his opponents into a debate that cannot be won, he is plainly very, very wrong.

The biggest threats facing the people of Britain, and therefore the economic issues upon which they will decide their votes, are as follows. First, the broken banking system – still not fixed seven years after ‘credit crunched’ in 2007, and still not lending at low rates to the real economy, in particular SMEs. Simmering public anger at a greedy and fraudulent banking sector has not diminished.   Second, a vast overhang of private debt, and the threat to the solvency of households, SMEs and corporates posed by a rise in interest rates. The “Alice in Wongaland” economy is not sustainable, and we all know it. Third the threat posed to all British voters by falling wages and spiralling deflation. Few of us understand deflation, but be sure it poses a very grave threat.  Fourth, the threat posed by climate change.

By overlooking these threats, and focusing on the public deficit, Labour  is not economically credible, and will fail to win the confidence of voters.

This is particularly so because Chancellor Osborne has proved beyond doubt that governments  – even his ruthlessly focused Treasury – cannot control the budget deficit. We argued as much back in July, 2010, when Professor Victoria Chick and I published “The economic consequences of Mr. Osborne”.  We wrote then that: “the public sector finances are not analogous to household finances. A household can reduce its deficit by cutting its spending, but the public sector is too important for that. What happens to the public deficit depends on the reaction of the economy as a whole.” By focusing on the deficit, Labour emulates the Coalition in viewing the economy through the wrong end of a telescope.

The plain fact is that the deficit is a function of the health of the economy (its share falls when the economy (i.e. employment) is expanding, and rises when the economy is failing). Because it is a function of the expanding or contracting”cake” that is the economy,  government is not able to control  its size – as George Osborne has found to his cost. Why would his opponents want to repeat his errors and failures?

Instead of promising to cut the deficit, Labour should be promising the people of Britain policies for investment in e.g. green infrastructure and nationwide high-speed broadband – investment that will generate skilled, well-paid employment, for all, including the millions of under- or part-time or zero-hours employed. Furthermore, because all expenditure  (both public and private) is income for someone else – both those in the public and the private sectors will gain from such public investment.  The investment to boost current private and public incomes can be financed by borrowed or printed money. Because the investment will generate income for both the private and public sectors -and tax revenues for government – the investment will pay for itself. Its not rocket science!

By raising wages, Labour could turn back the threat of deflation.  And by tackling both the broken banking system and the overhang of private debt – Mr. Milliband could offer the electorate a credible exit from the chronic, ongoing crisis of globalised capital.

If Labour were to do that, the deficit would take care of itself. ”

Capital, Wealth and Cannibalism

I am exasperated by John Kay in the FT today. His column The capitalists sold the mills and bought all our futures, is superb and for that reason deeply annoying.  Its really aggravating when someone can cogently express points that have gnawed away at one for weeks, and yet rendered one incoherently  inchoate.

Kay deals elegantly in his column with a flaw in Thomas Piketty’s analysis. It is to do with the definition and calculation of wealth, or patrimoine as defined in the French edition of his book, Capital.  I have felt convinced that Piketty, like a good accountant, has conscientiously (“heroically” writes Kay) totted up all the tangible wealth that there is to count.  But wealth, surely, is more than just the ownership of tangible assets.

It sure is, explains Kay. “If you want to measure the capital possessed by a nation, there are two ways of doing it. One is to travel the length and breadth of the country counting the houses, the bridges, the factories, shops and offices, and adding up their total value. The other is to knock on doors and ask people how rich they are. ….So there are two different concepts of national capital: physical assets and household wealth.”

Kay then explains that Apple, for example, has tangible wealth made up of “physical assets worth only about $15billion (and.. ahem… a $150 billion mountain of cash).” (Is Apples’scash tangible?) However it has a market capitalisation of $500 billion – a value based on “the anticipation of future profits.”  In other words, its worth, its wealth, is not just those measly, tangible $15 billion worth of computers, phones, stores, tables, Apple t-shirts etc.  The company’s real worth is the anticipation of future rents that Apple (and Microsoft)will extract from customers, by virtue of their oligopolistic position in the computer operating system market. And that position has been obtained not just by technological advances or skilful entrepreneurealism, but by virtue of great political power.

But the saving grace (if there is grace to be saved here) of both Apple and Microsoft is this: they make tangible things that can be bought and sold from stores, and are useful (on the whole). What of the men and women that sell debt? Or insurance? Or any other asset that is based on what is known in polite circles as ‘financial engineering’ . These are intangible ‘assets’ that can be created without engagement with either the Land or Labour (in the broadest senses); whose creation is virtually effortless, but which are assets that guarantee a stream of revenue many decades into the future?

The individuals and corporations that own these assets do not just enjoy historically unprecedented levels of wealth. They exercise vast power – political, economic, social and market power.

But like the slave-owners of old they face challenges too. By effectively cannibalising the body that is the real economy – that space where people work, make or grow products, provide services, and generate income with which debts and premiums can be paid; by cannibalising the real economy, avaricious oligopolists threaten to kill it too. Like slave-owners tempted to subjugate and starve their slaves almost to death, there comes a day when the logic of the capitalist system breaks down.

The question John Kay does not address in his column is this: when will that day come?