Crisis? What crisis?

Apropos the last post: we dissidents are not alone. Have belatedly come across David Malone’s  excellent post (written earlier but somehow missed by me) on the same theme –  the airbrushing of the financial crisis from all political discourse. David goes further and highlights the implications for democracy and the rule of law.  I hope he does not mind if I reproduce a few paragraphs for the benefit of those that have not already read it.

It really is very good.

“The official narrative today is that the plan of recovery is working. The narrative focuses on the rise of the stock markets to almost pre-crash heights. The failure of housing or commercial property markets to recover and the fact that unemployment is hideously high is simply no longer part of the recovery narrative. These things have been dropped. What has been added has been the ‘shocking’ level of public, national debt. In the new narrative the cause of the ballooning of public debt has been steered away from facts about the cost of the bail outs or how the disintegration of the speculative bubble caused a subsequent collapse of real economic activity. The new story is that the debts we have now are nothing to do with the banks and their temporary difficulties. They are due to a deeper incontinence in public spending.

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Coming soon: another global financial crash? Capital mobility and the commodity mania

Tin produced at a Glencore plant in Vinto, Bolivia

“Experience shows that when policies falter in managing capital flows, there is no limit to the damage that international finance can inflict on an economy.”

Yilmaz Akyüz, “Capital Flows to Developing Countries in a Historical Perspective: Will the current Boom End with a Bust?”

Today, as speculation and leverage in global, financialised commodity markets reach manic levels; as we witness an ‘epic rout’ (FT 5 May, 2011) in commodity prices, and as the boom in capital flows peaks, is another crash inevitable? And is it coming soon?

I know from experience that while it may be possible to analyse fundamentals, it is always difficult to predict precisely what dynamic will trigger the next crisis, and when it will happen. Back in 2003, together with colleagues at the new economics foundation in London, and with very little funding, I assembled and edited a series of essays on the ‘outlook’ for the global economy. We titled it: ‘Real world economic outlook’, and added a subtitle, ‘the legacy of globalization: debt and deflation’. We intended the report to be annual, and to act as a counter to the IMF’s annual World Economic Outlook, which in our view was irrationally optimistic about developments in the global economy.

We were pretty pessimistic about global imbalances, and predicted a crash. Sadly, our timing was way out: the crash was four years away. It does not always help to be right on the fundamentals. Given the inevitability of the then forthcoming crash, we argued that there was once more a need for a ‘great transformation’ of the global economy. The starting point we wrote ‘will be to reverse the most pernicious elements of the ‘globalization’ experiment’ by the ‘taming of financial markets through the re-introduction of capital controls; restraints in the growth of credit; the establishment of an International Clearing Agency; and a Tobin Tax’.

Back then it was hard to talk/write about these matters – and be heard. Our cheerfully-titled report and predictions did not hit the best-seller lists. Funding for the project was withdrawn, and the project wound down. It’s major flaw? We had breached areas of economic debate that at the time were carefully circumscribed. It took the financial crisis of 2007-9 to loosen the intellectual chains to which orthodox economics had so heavily tied economic debate.   Today the Tobin Tax, or Robin Hood Tax is a high-profile issue, with some signs that EU governments are considering implementation of such a tax. (See point 8 of Euro leaders’ statement, March 11, 2011). So that taboo has been broken.

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'Debtonation' - why it's still relevant

Welcome readers, to my newly refreshed blog, and thanks to Georgia Lee and Maz Kessler for making it look so good, and work so well. I had thought that the title needed refreshing too. After all, I am fond of defining 9th August, 2007 as ‘debtonation day’, and that is now long past.

To refresh your memory: it was on that day that the world’s banks woke up to the scale of their debts, and to the simple truth that they may not all be repaid. On that day, the French investment bank BNP Paribas suspended three investment funds due to a “complete evaporation of liquidity” in the market. BNP’s announcement compelled the intervention of the US’s Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, which both pumped $90billion into the global banking system. As Larry Elliott notes, 9 August, 2007 ” has all the resonance of August 4 1914. It marks the cut-off point between “an Edwardian summer” of prosperity and tranquillity and the trench warfare of the credit crunch – the failed banks, the petrified markets, the property markets blown to pieces by a shortage of credit. ”

So ‘debtonation’ stands as a reminder of that day. However, we also know that the private debts of the individuals, households but also more importantly the corporate sector have not ‘debtonated’. They are still on the books, and in the case of the private sector in the UK, but also wider Europe, look set to rise further. As Douglas Coe and I have pointed out in a paper we have written for PRIME, “Private debt has risen relentlessly since the early 1980s. Most commentators focus on the extent of household debt, which rose from around 40 per cent of GDP before the 1980s to a peak of 110 per cent in 2009. But corporate debt is even more elevated, rising from 50-60 per cent to a peak of 130 per cent in 2009. The latest National Accounts show that both measures fell back in 2010, but only by a very small margin: households to 105 per cent of GDP and corporates to 125 per cent.”

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Is George Osborne a radical Chancellor? - far from it

I was on Newsnight last week, to comment on the Budget. (You can watch it with the BBC’s iPlayer..our slot is about 35 minutes into the show.)

Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman posed a question to the panel, which included Lord Lamont, ex-Chancellor, and Irwin Steltzer. He asked: is George Osborne a radical Chancellor?”

Radical, according to the dictionary definition means: “desiring or advocating fundamental or drastic reforms”.

I argued that George Osborne is not a radical. Far from it.  His imposition of austerity, in my view, punishes the weak and rewards the strong. No change or reform in that. Instead the government’s central economic strategy is aimed at appeasing the financial markets, in particular the international bond markets and ratings agencies, irrespective of the implications for an already severe unemployment situation, or for the wishes of the British people. In doing so, George Osborne follows a long line of predecessors in putting the interests of finance before the interests of society as a whole. In this respect, he is no radical.

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Why the EU’s leaked document has got me in a rage

By Ann Pettifor – Posted March 16th on Labour List

Together with the Prime Minister of Greece, Mr. George Papandreou, I am going to give evidence to the EU’s Special Committee on the Financial Crisis in Brussels this Thursday, March 18th.

So today’s leaked report from the EU, arguing that Labour’s plans for cuts to public spending are not “ambitious enough”, has got me really het up.

Labour, it appears, is just not ambitious enough about its goals for cutting investment and exacerbating unemployment. It does not have punitive enough targets for cutting benefits to the poor and services for the mentally ill and frail.

In the “imbecile idiom” (to quote Keynes) of today’s financial fashion, the EU, it seems, would prefer for unemployment to rise, for people to live in hovels, and for government “to shut out the sun and the stars” – so that we conform to an arbitrary number set in Frankfurt by a group of bankers, under a pact unwisely signed by an earlier British government.

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Why I want to be a Labour candidate

17th January, 2009.

This was posted on the Compass site on the 16th January.

I am shortlisted for the North West Durham Parliamentary Selection. A less likely candidate you would be hard pressed to find. I am not a local big wig and did not grow up in the constituency. I don’t have the backing of big hitters – either in the party, or in the unions. Nor am I a youthful 25-year-old, ambitious for power. No, I am far more ambitious than that.

I want the people (especially the young people) of North West Durham to have a sound and stable future. I want Britain to learn from the catastrophic debacle of the financial crisis, and ensure it never happens again. The hopes, aspirations, health, jobs, businesses and climate of Britain must not be sacrificed to pay for economic failure engineered by a small elite in the City of London.

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Are the bond markets and rating agencies to be feared?

5th January, 2010

There has been much sturm and drang generated by the Guardian and others on the threat posed to government finances by the flawed and often irrational rating agencies, and by the supposedly despotic, vengeful and greedy bond markets.

Methinks they protest too much.

We at the Green New Deal group have long argued that there is no reason why governments should rely for their financing on the capricious private bond markets. Instead, we write in ‘The Cuts Won’t Work’ -  finance ministers should oblige the banks in which taxpayers have a substantial stake to lend to the Treasury at very low rates of interest.

That’s how World War II was largely financed in Britain – and no one was the worse for it. The loans were given a title: Treasury Deposit Receipts.  These TDRs – bless them – financed a war that saved Britain from the threat Nazism posed to its very existence. Today they could be used to finance the public investment needed to substitute for the collapse in private investment – and to stave off the threat posed by climate change.

Analysts on the Financial Times Lex column (FT 1st January, 2010) have obviously read our latest report, and describe our proposal as “an intriguing alternative” . Governments they write “may lean on the commercial banks in which they hold large stakes to take up the strain instead. Forcing them to purchase government bonds would help replace the market heft of central banks.”

Quite so. You read it first in the Green New Deal.

Wishing readers a stable and peaceful New Year in 2010

31st December, 2009

Dear Readers.

First, thank you for the support you have given this blog, and for your helpful and insightful comments over this eventful year. I have much appreciated our conversations, and your loyalty. May 2010 bring you all peace of mind and economic stability. And may we together begin to grow a new political climate and a new political class, that will finally detach itself from the financial elite, and respond to democratically-determined priorities for peace, stability and social justice.

Second, apologies for this period of hibernation over the holiday season. I blame Andrew Ross Sorkin (of the New York Times) whose 540 page blow-by-blow account of the events leading up to the failure of Lehman Brothers and the massive TARP bail-out of October, 2008 is a must-read. “Too Big to Fail” was a constant companion over the holidays, interrupted only by my periodic, but lame attempts to prove that I too can bake mince pies, stuff chickens and light log fires.

Finally, a gift from the Financial Times, which yesterday published a poem illustrated here – The bankers who wouldn’t say sorry: a cautionary tale”.   Martin Dickson, the paper’s deputy editor speaks for all of us through this light-hearted ditty, but does more: he warns in the last verse of what is to come as a result of financial greed and political ennui. Sadly, I, and many others, share his gloomy forecast.

It would be good to end this story
In a nice blaze of moral glory,
Like Hilaire Belloc’s clever tales
Where evil-doing always fails.
Alas, the only moral here
Is bankers just themselves hold dear.
But there’s a price we all will pay
If politicians won’t display
A little courage and crack down
Upon these unsafe, grasping clowns:
Another bomb is being built,
By bankers with no sense of guilt.
It’s ticking now, will louder tick
Unless we stop it, fast and quick.
For mark my words, believe this rhyme,
It will go off in five years’ time.
You’ll hear no end of sturm and drang.
When it explodes with a loud BANG.

York Minster EBOR lecture

12th December 2009

At the end of last month I delivered the prestigious EBOR lecture at York. My address was entitled:

“Credit, usury and political power: chasing the moneylenders from the temple that is our democracy”

Click on the link below to read a PDF version of the full lecture:

EBOR Lecture November 25th (PDF)

Debts and deficits: stocks and flows

6th December, 2009.

Most economists (who should know better) confuse the government’s budget deficit with total government debt.

The distinction really is important.

Mixing them up is a little like confusing stocks and flows.  Or confusing your outstanding mortgage – say £200,000 – with your monthly debt repayments. They are quite different things, and if you were to lose your job, the flows (paid with your salary) come to a halt, and then it’s the stock – the £200,000 – that really matters.

Furthermore it is quite possible to increase your mortgage – and lower your monthly payments.  Many did this in the boom years of mortgage re-financing. Or even to decrease your mortgage and increase your monthly payments.

So, just as the movements in regular mortgage payments tell us little about the outstanding stock of debt, so government deficits tell us little about the stock of debt invested and the stock of debt outstanding.

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