The World˙s Capitalists, Bankers and the State of Capitalism

From Jackson Hole to the Teton Heights?

August 24, 2017

At the end of every August, the central bankers of the world meet in the ski resort of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA to discuss the state of the world economy and the role of monetary policy in improving it.  These central bankers hear presentations from top mainstream academic economists and make speeches on how they see things.  This year, the symposium starts today with both Janet Yellen, head of the US Federal Reserve (to be replaced by Trump next year) and Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank delivering an address.

In previous years, the main theme has been on how to ease monetary policy (ie lower interest rates and print more money) in order to save the banking system and stimulate the capitalist economy into recovery from the Great Recession.

In 2013, the cry was for ‘quantitative easing’ (QE).  This was the policy idea that central banks, as the ‘last lender of resort’, would pump money into the economy by buying all sorts of financial assets from the commercial banks and other financial institutions (mainly government bonds, but also corporate bonds, mortgage bonds and even stocks and shares).  In this way, they would fill the coffers of the banks with funds to lend on to households and corporations.

This ’unconventional monetary policy’ was adopted by the Fed, the ECB and the Bank of Japan big time. The balance sheets of these central banks rocketed.  The US Fed now has $4trn worth of bonds and other assets on its books, funded by the creation of more dollars.  The ECB is heading for over $3trn too after it launched another QE program in 2015.

And the BoJ’s QE plans have taken its balance sheet up to 75% of the equivalent of Japan’s GDP!

But has it worked?  The answer is no.  Back in 2013, the Jackson Hole attendees were told by Vasco Curdia and Andrea Ferrero at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (Efficacy of QE) that the Fed’s QE measures from 2010 had helped to boost real GDP growth by just 0.13 percentage points and the bulk of this ‘boost’ was thanks to ‘forward guidance’, namely convincing investors that interest rates were not going to rise.  If that factor had been left out, the US real GDP would have risen only 0.04 per cent as a result of QE.

Two years later, Stephen Williamson,vice-president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis,  issued a study in which he concluded : “There is no work, to my knowledge, that establishes a link from QE to the ultimate goals of the Fed – inflation and real economic activity. Indeed casual evidence suggests that QE has been ineffective.”

This ought to have been no surprise because back in the 1930s during the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes also concluded after a few years that quantitative easing was a failure.  Pumping money into the banks did not boost the post-1929 US economy.  Eventually, Keynes opted for fiscal spending and government investment as the only policy to get out of the 1930s depression.

Indeed, all QE has done is to create a huge bubble in the stock markets of the world, while economic growth has remained sluggish at average rates less than half before the Great Recession and real incomes for the average household (who had no stocks) flat or falling.

Nevertheless, under the influence of the monetarist school of mainstream economics founded by ‘free market monetarist’ Milton Friedman and expounded by his follower, former Fed chief Ben Bernanke, the central banks continued with QE.

At the beginning of 2016, the fear was that the major capitalist economies were slipping into a debt deflation slump and something new had to be done. Indeed, some central banks resorted to even more desperate measures of not just reducing the ‘policy’ (base) interest rates to zero (ZIRP) but further into negative interest rates (NIRP).  In other words, central banks were paying commercial banks to take their new money!

But by the end of 2015, the US Fed, with an economy that was doing slightly better than elsewhere, decided to reverse the easy money policy.  The Fed hiked its policy rate in December 2015 for the first time in nine years.  Yellen explained that the US economy “is on a path of sustainable improvement.” and “we are confident in the US economy”.

This year’s discussion at Jackson Hole will not be about ‘unconventional monetary policy’ and the efficacy of QE. That has been forgotten and the debate has moved onto how to ‘normalise’ interest rates (raising them) in order to establish control over potentially rising inflation in an environment of ‘full employment’, without provoking a new recession.  The title of this year’s symposium is Fostering a Dynamic Economy – apparently the world economy is now ‘dynamic’.

Indeed, all the talk is about how for the first time in ten years since the global financial crash, a broad-based economic upswing is at last under way. In America, Europe, Asia and the emerging markets, for the first time since a brief rebound in 2010, all the burners are firing at once.” All 45 countries tracked by the OECD are on track to grow this year and 33 of them are poised to accelerate from a year ago.

Neverthless, mainstream economics remains divided about whether it is a good idea for the Fed to continue to hike rates and sell off its QE purchased bonds, as it eventually plans.  Keynesians like Larry Summers and Paul Krugman reckon such credit tightening would seriously damage consumer spending and investment and cause another credit crunch.  They would prefer to keep the credit bubble going with cheap money, along with some more government spending on infrastructure etc, to avoid ‘secular stagnation’.  Summers wrote that “a reasonable assessment of current conditions suggest that raising rates in the near future would be a serious error”.

On the other hand, the Austrian school of economics as represented by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), reckons that to keep fuelling the credit bubble with cheap money and QE is presaging yet another financial crash down the road as debt in all the major economies is still too high.  Credit bubbles lead to ‘malinvestment’ and low productivity.  It is better to keep government spending curbed and to hike rates so that money is not spent on useless projects and the credit and stock market bubble is ‘pricked’.

Yellen cites full employment and potentially rising inflation as reasons for hiking interest rates now.   But there is little sign of any pick-up in inflation.  The so-called Phillips curve, namely the trade-off between low unemployment and higher inflation, beloved by Yellen and the Keynesians alike, is not in operation.  It is flatter than eve (see graph below).  Phillips was proved wrong in the 1970s when economies experienced, low growth, high unemployment and inflation (‘stagflation’).  Now there is high employment (at least on official figure) but low inflation, low growth and low wages – stagnation.

The reality is that cutting or hiking interest rates has little effect on capitalist economies compared to the level of profitability in the capitalist sectors of the world economy. If profitability is improving, then interest rates could rise with little impact on the ‘real economy’, even if the stock market falls back.  It is the profitability of capital that matters and from there to investment and growth.

In a recent post, I pointed out that both US and global corporate profits has staged something of small recovery in the last few quarters.  But US domestic corporate profits have grown at an annualized rate of just 0.97% over the last five years. Prior to this period, five-year annualized profit growth was 7.95%.   And profitability (profit as a percentage of capital invested) in the US is some 6% below its peak in 2006 before the Great Recession and after recovering to that peak by 2014, has been falling for the last two years (according to my calculations from AMECO data).

Moreover, at $8.6 trillion, US corporate debt levels are 30% higher today than at their prior peak in September 2008.  At 45.3%, the ratio of corporate debt to GDP is at historic highs, having recently surpassed levels preceding the last two recessions.  That suggests that increased costs of debt servicing from rising interest rates driven by the Fed’s ‘normalisation’ policy could tip things over, unless profitability recover for the wider corporate sector.

Jackson Hole was so named because it was set in a deep valley between the peaks of the massive Teton mountains. Will the central bankers there be right that the world economy is finally getting out of its hole and heading to the heights of the Tetons? We shall see.

 

Picking up?

August 17, 2017

The latest economic data are showing that economic growth in the major capitalist countries has been picking up in the first half of 2017.

Japan’s economy expanded at the fastest pace for more than two years in the three months to June, with domestic spending accelerating as the country prepares for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In the Eurozone, real GDP growth rose at annualised rate of 2.5%, with the Visegrad countries of Czech, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia rising at 5.8% in the second quarter of this year.

With the US economy continuing to trundle along at just over a 2% a year growth, the major economies are looking a little brighter in growth terms, it seems – at least compared to the falling growth rates of 2015-6.

What has been the key reason for this slight improvement?  In my view, it is the relative recovery in the Chinese economy, considered by most observers and the evidence as the driver of world economic growth (at the margin) since 2007. As the IMF put it in its latest survey of the Chinese economy, “With many of the advanced economies of the west struggling in the years since the financial crisis of 2007-09, China has acted as the growth engine of the global economy, accounting for more than half the increase in world GDP in recent years.”

Manufacturing output in China increased 6.7% yoy in July, continuing a slight recovery in 2017 after reaching a low in 2016 from a peak of over 11% a year in 2013.  As a result, Eurozone manufacturing output has picked up, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy as they export more to China.  The US manufacturing sector has also reversed its actual decline in 2016.  Japan’s manufacturing sector leaped up 6.7% compared to 2016, led by construction demand for the Olympics.

This all looks much better.  But remember most of these major economies are still growing at only around 2% a year, still well below pre-2007 rates or even the average in the post-1945 period.  The ‘developed’ capitalist economies are growing at their slowest rate in decades.  Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist and head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, noted in a recent essay in the magazine Foreign Affairs that “no region of the world is currently growing as fast as it was before 2008, and none should expect to. In 2007, at the peak of the pre-crisis boom, the economies of 65 countries – including a number of large ones, such as Argentina, China, India, Nigeria, Russia and Vietnam – grew at annual rates of 7% or more. Today, just six economies are growing at that rate, and most of those are in small countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Laos.”

Nevertheless, all the purchasing managers indexes (PMIs) that provide the best ‘high frequency’ guide to the attitude and confidence of the capitalist sector in each country all show expansion is still taking place – if not at the pace of 2013-14.  Again the key seems to be a recovery in China’s PMI.

 

What does all this tell us about the likelihood of a new global economic recession in the next year or two?  That is something that I have been forecasting or expecting.  The latest data would seem to point away from that.

The mainstream forecasters remain optimistic about growth with the only proviso being that it is China that might collapse.  The IMF survey makes the familiar argument of the mainstream that overall debt is so high that it will eventualy collapse in bankruptcies and defaults, causing a slump and weakening the world economy.  Total debt has quadrupled since the financial crisis to stand at $28tn (£22tn) at the end of last year.

I disagree: for two reasons.  First, when China’s growth slowed sharply at the beginning of 2016, the mainstream observers argued that China could bring the world economy down.  My view was that, important as the Chinese economy was, it was not large enough to take the US and Europe down.  Those advanced economies remained the key to whether there would be a world slump.  And so it has proved.

Second, the size of China’s debt is large but the Chinese economy is different from the advanced capitalist economies.  Most of that debt is owed by the Chinese state banks and state enterprises.  The Chinese government can bail these entities out using its reserves and forced savings of Chinese households.  The state has the economic power to ensure that, unlike governments in the US and Europe during the credit crunch of 2007.  Governments then were beholden to the capitalist banks and companies, not vice versa.  So any credit crisis in China will be dealt with without producing a major collapse in the economy, in my view.

So does this mean that a new world slump is off the agenda?  No, in short.  One of my key indicators of the health of capitalist economies, as the readers of this blog well know, is the movement of profits in the capitalist sector.  Global corporate profits (a weighted average of the major economies) have also made a significant recovery from their collapse at the end of 2015. Indeed corporate profits overall seem to rising at the fastest rate since the immediate bounce-back after the end of the Great Recession.

But this overall figure is driven by the Chinese recovery and the pickup in Japan (due to the Olympics construction?).  Corporate profit growth in the US, Germany and the UK is slowing again after a brief pick-up in late 2016.

For me, the key remains the state of US economy and in particular, profits and investment levels there.  The booming US stock market is now way out of line with corporate earnings levels.  The S&P 500 cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) valuation has only been higher on one occasion, in the late 1990s. It is currently on par with levels preceding the Great Depression.

US corporate profits have recovered in the last few quarters after declining (although now slowing again) and, along with that, business investment has picked up.  Watch this space over the rest of 2017 to see if this is sustained.

Total domestic corporate profits have grown at an annualized rate of just 0.97% over the last five years. Prior to this period five-year annualized profit growth was 7.95%. At $8.6 trillion, corporate debt levels are 30% higher today than at their prior peak in September 2008.  At 45.3%, the ratio of corporate debt to GDP is at historic highs, having recently surpassed levels preceding the last two recessions.  If there is an issue with the level of debt, it is in the US, not in China.

Ten years on

August 8, 2017

It’s ten years on to the day since the global financial crash began with the news that the French bank, BNP had suspended its sub-prime mortgage funds because of “an evaporation of liquidity”.

Within six months, credit tightened and inter-bank interest rates rocketed (see graph above).  Banks across the globe began to experience huge losses on the derivative funds that they had set up to profit from the housing boom that had taken off in the US, but had started to falter.  And the US and the world entered what was later called The Great Recession, the worst slump in world production and trade since the 1930s.

Ten years later, it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the lessons and implications of that economic earthquake.

First, the official institutions and mainstream economists never saw it coming.  In 2002, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, Alan Greenspan, then dubbed as the great maestro for apparently engineering a substantial economic boom, announced that ‘financial innovations’ i.e. derivatives of mortgage funds etc, had ‘diversified risk’ so that “shocks to overall economic will be better absorbed and less likely to create cascading failures that could threaten financial stability”.  Ben Bernanke, who eventually presided at the Fed over the global financial crash, remarked in 2004 that “the past two decades had seen a marked reduction in economic volatility” that he dubbed as the Great Moderation. And as late as October 2007, the IMF concluded that “in advanced economies, economic recessions had virtually disappeared in the post-war period”.

Once the depth of the crisis was revealed in 2008, Greenspan told the US Congress, “I am in a state of shocked disbelief”.  He was questioned “in other words, you found that your view of the world , your ideology, was not right, it was not working” (House Oversight Committee Chair, Henry Waxman). “Absolutely, precisely, you know that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well”.

The great mainstream economists were no better.  When asked what caused the Great Recession if it was not a credit bubble that burst, Nobel Prize winner and top Chicago neoclassical economist Eugene Fama responded: “We don’t know what causes recessions. I’m not a macroeconomist, so I don’t feel bad about that. We’ve never known. Debates go on to this day about what caused the Great Depression. Economics is not very good at explaining swings in economic activity… If I could have predicted the crisis, I would have. I don’t see it.  I’d love to know more what causes business cycles.”

Soon to be IMF chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, commented in hindsight that “The financial crisis raises a potentially existential crisis for macroeconomics.” … some fundamental [neoclassical] assumptions are being challenged, for example the clean separation between cycles and trends” or “econometric tools, based on a vision of the world as being stationary around a trend, are being challenged.”

But then most of the so-called heterodox economists, including Marxists, did not see the crash and the ensuing Great Recession coming either.  There were a few exceptions:  Steve Keen, the Australian economist forecast a credit crash based on his theory that “the essential element giving rise to Depression is the accumulation of private debt” and that had never been higher in 2007 in the major economies.  In 2003, Anwar Shaikh reckoned the downturn in the profitability of capital and the downwave in investment was leading to a new depression. And yours truly in 2005  said: “There has not been such a coincidence of cycles since 1991. And this time (unlike 1991), it will be accompanied by the downwave in profitability within the downwave in Kondratiev prices cycle. It is all at the bottom of the hill in 2009-2010! That suggests we can expect a very severe economic slump of a degree not seen since 1980-2 or more”  (The Great Recession).

As for the causes of the global financial crash and the ensuing Great Recession, they have been analysed ad nauseam since.  Mainstream economics did not see the crash coming and were totally perplexed to explain it afterwards. The crash was clearly financial in form: with collapse of banks and other financial institutions and the weapons of mass financial destruction, to use the now famous phrase of Warren Buffett, the world’s most successful stock market investor.  But many fell back on the theory of chance, an event that was one in a billion; ‘a black swan’ as Nassim Taleb claimed.

Alternatively, capitalism was inherently unstable and occasional slumps were unavoidable.  Greenspan took this view: “I know of no form of economic organisation based on the division of labour (he refers to the Smithian view of a capitalist economy), from unfettered laisser-faire to oppressive central planning that has succeeded in achieving both maximum sustainable economic growth and permanent stability.  Central planning certainly failed and I strongly doubt that stability is achievable in capitalist economies, given the always turbulent competitive markets continuously being drawn toward but never quite achieving equilibrium”.  He went on, “unless there is a societal choice to abandon dynamic markets and leverage for some form of central planning, I fear that preventing bubbles will in the end turn out to be infeasible.  Assuaging the aftermath is all we can hope for.”

Most official economic leaders like Blanchard and Bernanke saw only the surface phenomena of the financial crash and concluded that the Great Recession was the result of financial recklessness by unregulated banks or a ‘financial panic’.  This coincided with some heterodox views based on the theories of Hyman Minsky, radical Keynesian economist of the 1980s, that the finance sector was inherently unstable because “the financial system necessary for capitalist vitality and vigour, which translates entrepreneurial animal spirits into effective demand investment, contains the potential for runaway expansion, powered by an investment boom.  Steve Keen, a follower of Minsky put it thus: “capitalism is inherently flawed, being prone to booms, crises and depressions.  This instability, in my view, is due to characteristics that the financial system must possess if it is to be consistent with full-blown capitalism.”   Most Marxists accepted something similar to the Minskyite view, seeing the Great Recession as a result of ‘financialisation’ creating a new form of fragility in capitalism.

Of the mainstream Keynesians, Paul Krugman railed against the neoclassical school’s failings but offered no explanation himself except that it was a ‘technical malfunction’ that needed and could be corrected by restoring ‘effective demand’.  

Very few Marxist economists looked to the original view of Marx on the causes of commercial and financial crashes and ensuing slumps in production.  One such was G Carchedi, who summed that view up in his excellent, but often ignored Behind the Crisis with: ““The basic point is that financial crises are caused by the shrinking productive base of the economy. A point is thus reached at which there has to be a sudden and massive deflation in the financial and speculative sectors. Even though it looks as though the crisis has been generated in these sectors, the ultimate cause resides in the productive sphere and the attendant falling rate of profit in this sphere.”  Agreeing with that explanation, the best book on the crash remains that by Paul Mattick Jnr, Business as usual. 

And indeed, profitability in the productive sectors of the capitalist major economies was low historically in 2007, as several studies have shown.  In the US, profitability peaked in 1997 and the rise in profitability in the credit boom of 2002-6 was overwhelmingly in the financial and property sectors.  This encouraged a huge rise in fictitious capital (stocks and debt) that could not be justifies by sufficient improvement in profits from productive investment.

The mass of profit began to fall in the US in 2006, more than a year before the credit crunch struck in August 2007.  Falling profits meant over-accumulation of capital and thus a sharp cutback in investment.  A slump in production, employment and incomes followed i.e. The Great Recession.

Since the end of that recession in mid-2009, most capitalist economies have experienced a very weak recovery, much weaker than after previous post-war recessions and in some ways even weaker than in the 1930s.  A recent Roosevelt Institute report by JW Mason found that “there is no precedent for the weakness of investment in the current cycle. Nearly ten years later, real investment spending remains less than 10 percent above its 2007 peak. This is slow even relative to the anemic pace of GDP growth, and extremely low by historical standards.”

So the Great Recession became the Long Depression, as I described it, a term also adopted by many others, including Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis.  Why did the Great Recession not lead to a ‘normal’ economic recovery to previous investment and production rates?  The mainstream economists of the monetarist school argue that governments and central banks were slow in cutting interest rates and adopting ‘unconventional’ monetary tools like quantitative easing.  But when they did, such policies appeared to have failed in reviving the economy and merely fuelled a new stock market and debt boom.

The neoclassical school reckons that debt should be cut back as it weighs on the ability of companies to invest while governments ‘crowd out’ credit because of their high levels of borrowing.  This ignored the reason for high government debt, namely the huge cost of bailing out banks globally and the slump in tax revenues from the recession.  In opposition, the Keynesians say the Long Depression was all due to ‘austerity’ ie governments trying to reduce government spending and balance budgets.  But the evidence for that conclusion is not compelling.

What the neoclassical, Keynesian and heterodox views have in common is a denial for any role for profit and profitability in booms and slumps in capitalism!  As a result, none look for an explanation for low investment in low profitability.  And yet the correlation between profit and investment is high and continually confirmed and profitability in most capitalist economies is still lower than in 2007.  

After ten years and a decidedly long, if very weak, economic recovery phase in the ‘business cycle’, are we due for another slump soon?  History would suggest so.  It won’t be triggered by another property slump, in my view.  Real estate prices in most countries have still not recovered to 2007 levels and even though interest rates are low, housing transaction levels are modest.

The new trigger is likely to be in the corporate sector itself.  Corporate debt has continued to rise globally, especially in the so-called emerging economies.  Despite low interest rates, a significant section of weaker companies are barely able to service their debts.  S&P Capital IQ noted that a record stash of $1.84trn in cash held by US non-financial companies masked a $6.6trn debt burden. The concentration of cash of the top 25 holders, representing 1% of companies, now accounts for over half the overall cash pile. That is up from 38% five years ago.  The big talk about the hegemoths like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon having mega cash reserves hides the real picture for most companies. 

Profit margins overall are slipping and in the US non-financial corporate profits have been falling.

And now central banks, starting with the US Federal Reserve, have started to reverse ‘quantitative easing’ and hike policy interest rates.  The cost of borrowing and existing debt servicing will rise, just at a time when profitability is flagging.

That’s a recipe for a new slump – ten years after the last one in 2008?

Reblogged from thenextrecession.wordpress.com/

About ivarjordre

painter, activist, writer, revolutionary, human
Dette innlegget vart posta under Capitalism, Marxism, Our global world, Politic&Society og merkt , , , , , , , , , , . Bokmerk permalenkja.

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