It is wrong to blame China for the global economy’s woes

Chinese workers in Guangzhou clearing the sludge. Photo by Jeremy Smith (PRIME)

Chinese workers in Guangzhou clearing the sludge. Photo by Jeremy Smith (PRIME)

The year 2015 began with the Chancellor, George Osborne ‘welcoming’ the news that inflation had fallen in December 2014 to 0.5% – more than 1% below the official target. The FT declared that “this is almost certainly ‘good deflation’“.

In his subsequent letter to the Chancellor the governor of the Bank of England attributed the fall to “unusually low contributions from movements in energy, food and other goods prices.”  In other words he described the symptoms – falling prices – and neglected to analyse or explain the cause of such falls. Understanding the cause of falling energy, food and goods prices is fundamental to effective policy-making and to decision-making by investors.  So by simply offering descriptions of events, the Bank of England – guardian of the nation’s finances – does society no favours.

In our view the cause of deflationary pressures lies with the ongoing Global Financial Crisis (GFC), which has not as yet been resolved. On the contrary the economic model that fostered the crisis remains intact, with only some tinkering at the margins of the banking system. As a result the GFC continues, rolling around from the core (the Anglo-American economies) to first the Eurozone, and now hitting emerging markets, including China.   The GFC, as we now know, was caused by the bursting of excessive and unpayable private debt bubbles: bubbles that were punctured from 2006 onwards by high real rates of interest. (Think of high rates as daggers pointed at, for example, a bubble of sub-prime debt).

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Knee-Jerk Toryism: inflating asset and property bubbles and then crashes

The Financial Times reminds us today that 2015 has been a vintage year for the finance sector and lists twelve of the “choicest gifts” bestowed on the sector, including “the unexpected Conservative party election win… a win for the numerous hedge funds and financiers who donated to the campaign in the hope of pro-business policies”.  Chancellor Osborne gifted the sector by calling  “time on the era of heavy fines following financial scandals that had blighted the City’s reputation, such as the Libor and foreign-exchange rigging scandals”. Another “choice gift” was George Osborne’s decision to cut the bank levy.

Before euphoria engulfs the City, it might do to remind the sector that while Conservative governments may periodically enrich the already-rich by inflating the value of their assets, and bestow upon them the choicest gift of tax breaks – they have also regularly adopted policies “with terminal consequences” for British banks.

I’m reading Duncan Needham’s excellent book: UK Monetary Policy from  Devaluation to Thatcher, 1967 – 1982 (Palgrave Studies in the History of Finance).  Its difficult not to be struck by the parallels between the 1970 Conservative government of Edward Heath and his Chancellor, Anthony Barber and today’s Cameron government.

The book is about how flawed monetarist and ‘free’ market economic dogma – as dictated by both the IMF, Tim Congdon and others – influenced changes made to Credit rationing by the Bank of England, and led to the introduction of Competition and Credit Control (CCC). The result was that in 1971 rationing credit creation by Bank of England control was replaced by rationing by cost –  in other words by higher expected market rates of interest.

Unfortunately for the Bank of England’s monetary theorists, neither the then Chancellor Anthony Barber nor his Prime Minister, Ted Heath, fully understood the implications of targeting the money supply and rationing credit by cost. Unfortunately too, the Conservative manifesto for the 1970 election had called for an ‘end to the tax nonsense…[that] disallowed the interest on many loans as a deduction from income for tax purposes’.  John Nott (remember him?) insisted that tax relief for interest was a manifesto pledge and was therefore ‘inescapable’. So it was included in the 1972 Budget.

Needham: “This could hardly have come at a worse time for monetary policy. Just six months after predicating monetary control on the interest rate weapon, that weapon was blunted by making interest payments deductible against tax. For a basic rate taxpayer, the cost of servicing a loan was immediately reduced by 30%. For the highest rate taxpayers it was reduced by 90%. (My emphasis).  This measure alone meant it would take much higher interest rates to control bank lending to the private-sector and therefore, M3. It also meant that, far from generating the investment boom the PM was looking for, the dash for growth would produce an asset and property boom that would crash in 1973 with terminal consequences for a number of British banks.”

British bankers cannot say they have not been warned.


Incorrect speech, the Ku Klux Klan and Cecil John Rhodes

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From: South African history online.

I am South African born. My father was an Afrikaner Theodorus Potgieter,  and my mother, Olive Grace Smart, of English descent. As a child I was often witness to arguments between my more progressive father and my grandfather, Edward Nelson Smart (b.Hunt – an ‘illegitimate’ child)  as the latter was an English nationalist and royalist.  My father, unemployed after playing a heroic role in the Second World War as a captain in the RAF, moved his family to a small town, Odendaalsrus, in the ‘outback’ of South Africa – the Orange Free State, where gold had recently been discovered.

All through my childhood in these backwoods we referred to African male adults encountered at for example petrol stations, as “boys”. Africans were widely known as “kaffirs”. So I have extensive experience of the application of what the Financial Times bewails as “incorrect speech”. While I have no doubt that such language is still in use in South Africa, it is now no longer acceptable to use such speech in polite company. Indeed it has been “banned” – thanks to the struggle and sacrifices made by progressive, black-led liberation movements in Southern Africa. I have no doubt that such terms are even “banned” in right-wing publications such as the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times.

The idea that a British so-called Liberal, Nick Clegg should argue in the Financial Times “this trend of banning people whose views you don’t like is getting seriously out of hand” in relation to Cecil John Rhodes is but a reflection of how reactionary British politics has become.

Rhodes was not only a racist, but a white supremacist. As a British imperialist he can correctly be compared to members of the Ku Klux Klan.  Like the Ku Klux Klan he advocated white supremacy, white nationalism and racism, as the following well-known excerpt from his writings testifies:

“I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”

Cecil John Rhodes regarded black people as “despicable specimens of human beings.”  His role in setting black workers “apart” in “compounds” from white diamond diggers in Kimberley marks him out as one of the first architects of “apartheid”. He upheld the abhorrent idea that black people were natural thieves that had to be imprisoned to prevent them obtaining diamonds. By contrast, white imperialists, guilty of thieving these valuable African assets by the use of force, were of the “finest race in the world”. Afrikaner nationalists were to learn a great deal from their imperialist overlords, as they built on the racist foundations laid at Rhodes’s Kimberley diamond mine.

The profits made from apartheid enabled Rhodes to dictate the legacy made concrete at Oriel College. By raising a statue to him the Oxford college was not just celebrating the donation of his wealth, but also his role in entrenching apartheid. If Harvard’s establishment had erected a statue in the grounds of the University to a wealthy donor member of the Ku Klux Klan one can only imagine the furore – the stink – that would have caused.

So the Oxford students are right. They must be supported. Rhodes must fall from the elevated status he tried vainly to guarantee for himself, and wrongly accorded today by the British political and media establishment.

Central bank policy rates and the real economy

A version of this letter was published in the Financial Times today. 

Dear Sir,

Larry Summers is right to point out how few tools central bankers have to “delay and ultimately contain the next recession”. (FT, 6 December, 2015). We share his pessimism. However his analysis of the so-called “neutral rate of interest” being lower in the future than in the past” is based on the flawed notion of a “growing relative abundance of savings relative to investment”.

As Keynes explained and understood, in an economy based on credit, investment is not constrained by savings (and vice versa). Many of those who lay claim to his theories still do not accept this basic principle of a credit-based economy – applied in the UK since the founding of the Bank of England in 1694.

This flawed analysis leads Summers to misunderstand the direction of interest rates for those active in the real economy – rates often distinctly higher than prevailing central bank policy rates.

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Thatcher: should we pay out all that money for Trident?

There is a fascinating review by David Runciman in the LRB of Charles Moore’s: Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume ll: Everything She Wants.

In it Runciman recites the tale of Mrs T, the Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s support for nuclear disarmament, and President Reagan’s sudden conversion (in 1986) to nuclear disarmament. It turns out that at a meeting in Reykjavik in the autumn of 1986 Reagan and President Gorbachev, backed by George Shultz Reagan’s Secretary of State, agreed to eliminate nuclear weapons. The implications of this sudden meeting of minds were… ‘cosmic’ writes Runciman.

Mrs Thatcher was not happy. Suddenly the Labour Party’s position on nuclear disarmament appeared credible…”in line with the unfolding logic of superpower politics and….(where) the Tories would be the ones out on a limb.”

So Mrs Thatcher began to work to change Reagan’s mind, and “bring him back into line.” A note was written to the American President, with the emphases made by Mrs T herself:

“You will cause me very real political difficulties if you pursue your proposal for eliminating ballistic missiles too actively. In our people’s mind it will raise two questions: isn’t Labour right after all in wanting to get rid of nuclear weapons….? And why on earth should we pay out all that money for Trident, if its going to be abolished in 10 years? The next British general election could ‘turn’ on these points, so you must help me deal with these arguments.”

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The Autumn Statement: a comment

Has George Osborne stopped beating up the economy? Certainly many are nervously relieved at having evaded the big stick he waved earlier. Others have noted that he was helped in his more benevolent approach by optimistic forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR).

Despite this apparent benevolence, the Chancellor still plans to cut public spending and increase taxes. The OBR forecasts that “fiscal consolidation (will) continue to depress the level of GDP, while acting as less of a drag on growth over the past four years.” (OBR)

However even this bit of cheer is predicated on the global economy expanding, and inflation rising. While we can speculate that the additional stimulus applied to the private property sector may cause asset prices to rise (if house builders are confident of selling new properties at a profit, and do build) the fall in CPI has far more to do with weak domestic and global demand.

The OBR would have us believe that falls in consumer prices mainly reflect “falls in commodity prices”. But falling commodity prices reflect weak global demand or spare capacity, and take the form of gluts and rises in inventories.

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“What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?”


Kings College, Cambridge, David Loggan, 1690

Kings College, Cambridge, David Loggan, 1690

Notes for a speech given by Ann Pettifor at an event commemorating Keynes and the completion of Kings College Chapel, at Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, on the 16th November 2015. The full version of the paper, co written with Geoff Tily, is available on PRIME.

Ideas and Power

It is a great honour to speak at this celebration of Kings and Keynes. The greatest honour I can do to both Keynes and Kings College is to get down to business and speak frankly.

The world desperately needs to recover Keynes, but to do so it also needs to confront some deeply uncomfortable truths about the nature of power and the acceptance or otherwise of ideas.

In his 1902 Imperialism, John Hobson observed:

“No one can follow the history of political and economic theory during the last century without recognizing that the selection and rejection of ideas, hypothesis, and formulae, the moulding of them into schools or tendencies of thought, and the propagation of them in the intellectual world, have been plainly directed by the pressure of class interests. In political economy…….we find the most incontestable example.” (Hobson, 1902, pp. 218-19)

Given the pressure of class interests on today’s economic ideas and on the economics profession, the long-standing neglect of Keynes’s ideas, most significantly here in Cambridge, comes as no surprise.

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On brilliant, neglected women economists – for Woman’s Hour.


Joan Robinson

Yesterday I was invited on to Woman’s Hour to talk about outstanding women in economics that have never properly been recognized and acclaimed for their contributions.

The context is the Virago/New Statesman women’s prize for new, young writing on politics and economics. The prize was launched in late October to address the underrepresentation of women in non-fiction publishing  “and most particularly in the vital, society-shaping fields of economics and politics”.

At first, the producer of Woman’s Hour (Helen Fitzhenry) had asked if I wished to put forward a list of women economists and writers. I did so with alacrity. At the top was Emeritus Professor Victoria Chick, a formidable and outstanding monetary theorist and macroeconomist. She is best known for the integrity and rigour with which she evaluated both Keynesian and monetarist traditions in her book, The Theory of Monetary Policy (1973). And for her magnum opus: Macroeconomics after Keynes, published in 1983. (Listen to her here on the subject of “why economists don’t understand money.”)

Then there was Susan Strange (no longer with us sadly) one of the architects of the field of political economy and author of the prescient Mad Money – when markets outgrow governments in 1998 and Casino Capitalism in 1997. Cheryl Payer’s The Debt Trap: the international monetary fund and the third world – had a significant impact on many economists working in the field of sovereign debt – but her work and insights go largely unrecognized. Then there is the wonderful Yves Smith, editor of the website naked capitalism, and author of Econned: how unenlightened self interest undermined democracy and corrupted capitalism. Yves’s fearless commentary on finance, economics, politics and power makes her a proper and courageous role model for any young women writers on economics. Finally, I was very keen to promote the outstanding work and writing of Professor Mariana Mazzucato and her book, The Entrepreneurial State.

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Is capitalism "mutating" into an infotech utopia?

Photo by Graham Lacdao St. Paul's Cathedral

Photo by Graham Lacdao St. Paul’s Cathedral

I was privileged to be invited by the St. Paul’s Institute to discuss (on the 3rd November, 2015) the thesis in Paul Mason’s recent book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future with a keynote speech from the author.

Mason’s book is both a riveting and intellectually exhilarating read. It challenged me at a range of levels, and has added considerably to my list of must-read books. However, I have strong disagreements with Mason, and these are outlined in my review, published here as a PRIME e-publication.

I disagree primarily with his assumption that capitalism is subject to Kondratieff waves or “mutations”. The implication is that these waves are “natural” and unavoidable – beyond human agency. I strongly disagree. We have subordinated capitalism to the interests of society before – during the Golden Age of Economics from 1945 – 1971 – and can do so again.

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Fiscal Charter Hoopla* obscured big concessions to the City

Gareth Harfoot, September 2, 2006

Gareth Harfoot, September 2, 2006

* Hoopla: “speech or writing intended to mislead or to obscure an issue.”

October has been an eventful month. In Britain, politics is back in fashion. After years of Blairite vacuity, the media have juicy political red meat to plunge their teeth into.  The new Labour leader’s announcement that he would not press the nuclear button led to a veritable feeding frenzy. This was exceeded only by alarm verging on hysteria at the Labour Shadow Chancellor’s U-turn on the Fiscal Charter.

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