Posts Tagged ‘finance’

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Special mention

112817ChipBok_Creators  112817DanWasserman_Tribune

Sometimes we just have to sit back and laugh. Or, we would, if the consequences were not so serious.

I’ve been reading and watching the presentations (and ensuing discussions) at the Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy conference recently organized by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Quite a spectacle it appears to have been, with an opening paper by famous mainstream macroeconomists Olivier Blanchard and Larry Summers and a closing session—a “fireside chat” without the fire—with the very same doyens of the field.

The basic question of the conference was: does contemporary macroeconomics, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, require a few reforms or does it need a wholesale revolution? Blanchard lined up in the reform camp, with Summers calling for a revolution—with the added spice of Adam Posen referring to himself as Trotsky to Summers’s Lenin.

Most people would think it’s about time. They know that mainstream macroeconomics failed spectacularly in recent years: It wasn’t able to predict the onset of the crash of 2007-08. It didn’t even include the possibility of such a crash occurring. And it certainly hasn’t been a reliable guide to getting out of the crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

So what are the problems according to Blanchard and Summers? In their view, “the events of the last ten years have put into question the presumption that economies are self stabilizing, have raised again the issue of whether temporary shocks can have permanent effects, and have shown the importance of non linearities.”

Only mainstream macroeconomists could possibly have thought that capitalism is self stabilizing. The rest of us—who have read Marx and Keynes as well as the work of Robert Clower, Hyman Minsky, and Axel Leijonhufvud—actually knew something about the roots of capitalist instability: the various ways a monetary commodity-producing economy might (but not necessarily) generate imbalances and instabilities based on the normal workings of the system.

Yes, of course, temporary shocks can have permanent effects. How could they not, when tens of millions of people are thrown out of work and, especially in the wake of the most recent crash, inequality has soared to new heights?

And then there are those “non linearities,” the idea that financial crises are characterized by feedback effects such that shocks, even small ones, “are strongly amplified rather than damped as they propagate.” Bank runs are the quintessential example—whether customers demanding their deposits in the first Great Depression or the run on financial institutions (including insurance companies that issued credit default swaps) that occurred in the midst of the second Great Depression. But that’s not all: when corporations, facing a declining profit rate, choose to sell but not purchase, they make individually rational decisions that can have large-scale social ramifications—for workers, indebted households, and other corporations (on both Main Street and Wall Street).

So mainstream macroeconomists appear to be waking up from their slumber and seeing capitalism as it is—and as it has functioned for 150 years or so.

You’d think, then, with all the rhetoric of reform and revolution, they’d be in favor of questioning the entire edifice of their theories and models. What we get instead is a bit of tinkering, along the lines of the following: (a) monetary policy is limited because of low interest-rates (although it’s still expected to provide generous liquidity in the even of another shock); (b) more active financial regulation, which still may not be able to keep up with the quickly changing and complex structure of the financial sector and actually prevent financial risks; thus (c) fiscal policy should once again be important, both because of the limits on monetary policy and financial regulation and because, with low interest-rates, government debt is less significant.

No, you’re not mistaken, it sounds a lot like a mainstream version of Keynesian macroeconomic policy, which is consistent with the subtitle of the Blanchard and Summers paper: “Back to the Future.”

That’s it? That’s all we’ve learned in the last ten years? Not a word in their paper about the international dimensions of macroeconomics—nothing about international contagion (e.g., the fact that the crisis started in the United States and then engulfed the rest of the world) or cross-border capital flows. And, perhaps even more important, there’s no discussion of inequality and the role it played both in creating the conditions for the crisis or the way it has characterized the nature of the recovery.*

There’s no reform being proposed here, let alone a revolution. It’s just business as usual, which is exactly the way the recovery itself has been treated.

In the end, Blanchard, Summers, and the other participants in the conference are the macroeconomists who developed the current models and policies. Thus, for all they might venture some mild criticisms of the pre-crisis orthodoxy and call for some new ideas, they are so invested in the status quo, no one should expect a truly radical rethinking from them.

To expect otherwise is just laughable.

 

*Yes, there was one paper in the conference on inequality, by Jason Furman, but it was about growth, not macroeconomic policy. The theme of inequality was not taken up in the rest of the conference—and it was even ridiculed (e.g., in terms of the research currently being conducted in the IMF) by Summers in the final session.

 

adamsmith03

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations makes for uncomfortable reading these days. That’s because, as my students this semester have learned, the father of modern mainstream economics—who has become so closely (and mistakenly) identified with the invisible hand—held a narrow theory of money and advocated extensive regulation of the banking sector.

This is contrast to the obscene growth of banking in recent decades, which Rana Foroohar observes “isn’t serving us, we’re serving it.”

According to Smith, the “judicious operations of banking” did nothing more than convert dead stock into active and productive stock—”into stock which produces something to the country.”

The gold and silver money which circulates in any country may very properly be compared to a highway, which, while it circulates and carries to market all the grass and corn of the country, produces itself not a single pile of either. The judicious operations of banking, by providing, if I may be allowed so violent a metaphor, a sort of waggon-way through the air, enable the country to convert, as it were, a great part of its highways into good pastures and corn-fields, and thereby to increase very considerably the annual produce of its land and labour.

Moreover, Smith also argued, banks were susceptible to speculative crises. Thus, even in his system of “natural liberty,” the banking sector needed to be regulated, in order to lessen the likelihood of such crises and to minimize the suffering of the poor when they did happen.

To restrain private people, it may be said, from receiving in payment the promissory notes of a banker, for any sum whether great or small, when they themselves are willing to receive them, or to restrain a banker from issuing such notes, when all his neighbours are willing to accept of them, is a manifest violation of that natural liberty which it is the proper business of law not to infringe, but to support. Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respects a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments, of the most free as well as of the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed.

Those warnings and regulations, of course, disappeared from contemporary mainstream economics—even as the financial sector continued to increase in size and significance within the U.S. economy.

finance-profits workers

Today, financial profits (the blue line in the chart above) represent more than a quarter of total corporate profits in the United States, although the financial sector provides only 4.3 percent of American jobs (the red line in the chart).

finance-profits inequality

Moreover, as the profits of the financial sector (the purple line in the chart above) have grown—reaching still another record high of more than $500 billion in 2016—the distribution of wealth has become more and more unequal—such that, in 2016, the share of total wealth owned by the top 1 percent (the green line in the chart) was more than 37 percent.

And it’s not just the financial sector. As Forohoor explains, corporations outside the banking sector are copying the spectacularly successful model:

Nonfinancial firms as a whole now get five times the revenue from purely financial activities as they did in the 1980s. Stock buybacks artificially drive up the price of corporate shares, enriching the C-suite. Airlines can make more hedging oil prices than selling coach seats. Drug companies spend as much time tax optimizing as they do worrying about which new compound to research. The largest Silicon Valley firms now use a good chunk of their spare cash to underwrite bond offerings the same way Goldman Sachs might.

The fact is, financial wheeling and dealing has—after a brief interlude—returned as the tail that wags the economic dog in the United States. It manages to capture an outsized share of profits, even as it creates increased instability and obscene levels of inequality.

It should be clear to all that finance has been fundamentally transformed since Smith’s day, from a highway that was supposed to serve us into a master that we serve.

crisis_timeline

The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thoughtRudi Dornbusch

Last week, a wide variety of U.S. media (including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today) marked what they considered to be the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of the global economic crisis—from which we still haven’t recovered.

The event in question, which occurred on 9 August 2007, was the announcement by international banking group BNP Paribas that, because their fund managers could not calculate a reliable net asset value of three mutual funds, they were suspending redemptions.

But, as I explain to my students, “Beware the appearance of precision!” For example, the more numbers after the decimal point (2.9, 2.93, 2.926, etc.), the more real and precise the number appears to be. But such a number is only ever an estimate, a best guess, about what is going on (whether it be the growth of output or the increase in new home sales).

The same holds for dates. It would be odd to choose a particular day ten years ago that, among all the possible causes and precipitating events, put the U.S. and world economies on the road to the Second Great Depression. That would be like saying World War I was caused on 28 June 1914, when Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Or that the first Great Depression began on Black Thursday, 24 October 1929.

fredgraph

Given the centrality of housing sales, mortgages, and mortgage-backed securities in creating the fragility of the financial sector, we could just as easily choose July 2005 (when, as in the green line in the chart above, new one-family house sales peaked), January 2006 (when, as in the blue line, new privately owned housing units starts peaked), or February 2007 (when the Case-Shiller home price index, the red line, started its slide).

fredgraph (1)

Or, alternatively, we could choose the third quarter of 2006, when the U.S. corporate profit share (before taxes and without adjustments) reached its peak, at almost 12 percent of national income. After that, it began to fall, and the decisions of capitalists dragged the entire economy to the brink of disaster.

fredgraph (2)

Or the year 2005, when the profits of the financial and insurance sector were at their highest level—at $158.3 trillion—and then began to decline. Then, of course, it was bailed out after falling into negative territory in 2008.

graph_dl

Or, given the centrality of inequality in creating the conditions for the crash, we can go all the way back to 1980, when the share of income going to the top 1 percent was “only” 10.7 percent—since after that it started to rise, reaching an astounding 20.6 percent in 2006.

Those are all possible dates, some of course more precise than others.

What is important is each one of those indicators gives us a sense of how the normal workings of capitalism—in housing, finance and insurance, corporate profits, and the distribution of income—created, together and over time, the conditions for the most severe set of crises since the first Great Depression. And now, as a result of the crash and the nature of the recovery, all of them have been restored.

Thus creating the conditions for the next crash to occur, ten years after the last one.

VanishingMiddleClass2

Both Peter Temin and I are concerned about the vanishing middle-class and the desperate plight of most American workers. We even use similar statistics, such as the growing gap between productivity and workers’ wages and the share of income captured by the top 1 percent.

productivity top1

And, as it turns out, both of us have invoked Arthur Lewis’s “dual economy” model to make sense of that growing gap. However, we present very different interpretations of the Lewis model and how it might help to shed light on what is wrong in the U.S. economy—with, of course, radically different policy implications.

It is ironic that both Temin and I have turned to the Lewis model, which was originally intended to make sense of “dual economies” in the Third World, in which peasant workers trapped by “disguised unemployment” and receiving a “subsistence” wage (equal to the average product of labor) in the “backward,” noncapitalist rural/agricultural sector could be induced via a higher “industrial” wage rate (equal to the marginal product of labor) to move to the “modern,” capitalist urban/manufacturing sector, which would absorb them as long as capital accumulation increased the demand for labor.

That’s clearly not what we’re talking about today, certainly not in the United States and other advanced economies where agriculture employs a tiny fraction of the work force—and where much of agriculture, like the manufacturing and service sectors, is organized along capitalist lines. But Lewis, like Adam Smith before him, did worry about the parasitical role of the landlord class and the way it might serve, via increasing rents, to drag down the rest of the economy—much as today we refer to finance and the above-normal profits captured by oligopolies.

So, our returning to Lewis may not be so far-fetched. But there the similarity ends.

Temin (in a 2015 paper, before his current book was published) divided the economy into two sectors: a high-wage finance, technology, and electronics sector, which includes about thirty percent of the population, and a low-wage sector, which contains the other seventy percent. In his view, the only link between the two sectors is education, which “provides a possible path that the children of low-wage workers can take to move into the FTE sector.”

The reinterpretation of the Lewis model I presented back in 2014 is quite different:

What I have in mind is redefining the subsistence wage as the federally mandated minimum wage, which regulates compensation to workers in the so-called service sector (especially retail and food services). That low wage-rate serves a couple of different functions: it’s a condition of high profitability in the service sector while keeping service-sector prices low, thereby cheapening both the value of labor power (for all workers who rely on the consumption of those goods and services) and making it possible for those at the top of the distribution of income to engage in conspicuous consumption (in the restaurants where they dine as well as in their homes). In turn, the higher average wage-rate of nonsupervisory workers is regulated in part by the minimum wage and in part by the Reserve Army of unemployed and underemployed workers. The threat to currently employed workers is that they might find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or working at a minimum-wage job.

In addition, the profits captured from both groups of workers are distributed to a wide variety of other activities, not just capital accumulation as presumed by Lewis. These include high CEO salaries, stock buybacks, idle cash, and financial-sector profits (with a declining share going to taxes). And, if the remaining portion that does flow into capital accumulation takes the form of labor-saving investments, we can have an economic recovery based on private investment and production with high unemployment, stagnant wages, and rising corporate profits.

For Temin, the goal of economic policy is to reduce the barriers (conditioned and created by an increasingly segregated educational system) so that low-wage workers can adopt to the forces of technological change and globalization, which can eventually “reunify the American economy.”

My view is radically different: the “normal” operation of the contemporary version of the dual economy is precisely what is keeping workers’ wages low and profits high across the U.S. economy. The problem does not stem from the high educational barrier between the two sectors, as Temin would have it, but from the control exercised by the small group that appropriates and distributes the surplus within both sectors.

And the only way to solve that problem is by eliminating the barriers that prevent workers as a class—both black and white, in finance, technology, and electronics as well as retail and food services, regardless of educational level—from participating in the appropriation and distribution of the surplus they create.

fig1

It comes as no surprise, at least to most of us, that corporations are getting larger and increasing their share in many different industries. We see it everyday—when we buy plane tickets or try to take out a loan or just make a purchase at a retail store.

We know it. And now, it seems, economists and the business press have finally taken notice.

According to recent research by Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely,

More than 75% of US industries have experienced an increase in concentration levels over the last two decades. Firms in industries with the largest increases in product market concentration have enjoyed higher profit margins, positive abnormal stock returns, and more profitable M&A deals, which suggests that market power is becoming an important source of value. In real terms, the average publicly-traded firm is three times larger today than it was twenty years ago.

That’s right. As Figures 1-A and 1-B above show, the level of concentration (measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index) has been steadily increasing over the course of the past twenty years, together with a decrease in the number of public firms.

fig1-c

And the average size of firms, as shown in Figure 1-C, has also been growing.

The business press may have changed the language—they like to refer to such corporations as “superstar firms”—but the problem remains the same: corporations are growing larger, both absolutely and relative to the industries in which they operate.

What mainstream economists and the business press won’t acknowledge is those tendencies have existed since capitalism began. The neoclassical fantasy of perfect competition was only ever that, a fantasy.

Certainly one mid-nineteenth-century critic of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism understood that:

Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. With the increasing mass of wealth which functions as capital, accumulation increases the concentration of that wealth in the hands of individual capitalists, and thereby widens the basis of production on a large scale and of the specific methods of capitalist production. The growth of social capital is effected by the growth of many individual capitals. All other circumstances remaining the same, individual capitals, and with them the concentration of the means of production, increase in such proportion as they form aliquot parts of the total social capital. At the same time portions of the original capitals disengage themselves and function as new independent capitals. Besides other causes, the division of property, within capitalist families, plays a great part in this. With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent. Two points characterise this kind of concentration which grows directly out of, or rather is identical with, accumulation. First: The increasing concentration of the social means of production in the hands of individual capitalists is, other things remaining equal, limited by the degree of increase of social wealth. Second: The part of social capital domiciled in each particular sphere of production is divided among many capitalists who face one another as independent commodity-producers competing with each other. Accumulation and the concentration accompanying it are, therefore, not only scattered over many points, but the increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the sub-division of old capitals. Accumulation, therefore, presents itself on the one hand as increasing concentration of the means of production, and of the command over labour; on the other, as repulsion of many individual capitals one from another.

This splitting-up of the total social capital into many individual capitals or the repulsion of its fractions one from another, is counteracted by their attraction. This last does not mean that simple concentration of the means of production and of the command over labour, which is identical with accumulation. It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals. This process differs from the former in this, that it only presupposes a change in the distribution of capital already to hand, and functioning; its field of action is therefore not limited by the absolute growth of social wealth, by the absolute limits of accumulation. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many. This is centralisation proper, as distinct from accumulation and concentration.

Those of us who have actually read that text are not at all surprised by the contemporary reemergence of the concentration and centralization of capital. We have long understood that the forces of competition within capitalism create both the incentive and the means for individual firms to grow in size and to drive out other firms, thus leading to the concentration of capital. The availability of large amounts of credit and finance only makes those tendencies stronger.

And the limit?

In a given society the limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.

makers-and-takers

Like many liberal economic nationalists, who are concerned about both inequality and economic growth, Michael Lind attempts to make a distinction between “takers” and “makers.”

As against conservative economic nationalists, who blame immigrants and the welfare-dependent poor, Lind focuses his attention on the “rent-extracting, unproductive rich” for undermining the dynamism and fairness of contemporary capitalism.

The term “rent” in this context refers to more than payments to your landlords. . . “Profits” from the sale of goods or services in a free market are different from “rents” extracted from the public by monopolists in various kinds. Unlike profits, rents tend to be based on recurrent fees rather than sales to ever-changing consumers. While productive capitalists — “industrialists,” to use the old-fashioned term — need to be active and entrepreneurial in order to keep ahead of the competition, “rentiers” (the term for people whose income comes from rents, rather than profits) can enjoy a perpetual stream of income even if they are completely passive.

This is a familiar trope within economic discourse. As I’ve explained before (e.g., here and here), it relies on a distinction between productive and unproductive economic activities, which is then overlain with other dichotomies: active vs. passive, doing vs. owning, and so on. The idea is that one group—the passive, owning, recipients of rent—increasingly serve as a drag on the other group—the active, doing, recipients of profits.

If one or more of the sectors providing inputs or infrastructure to productive industry charges excessive rents, then industry can be strangled.  Industry cannot flourish if too much rent is paid to landlords, if credit is too expensive, if excessive copyright protections stifle the diffusion of technology. . .

All of this suggests that, if we want a technology-driven, highly productive economy, we should encourage profit-making productive enterprises while cracking down on rent-extracting monopolies, whether they are natural products of geography and geology (real estate and energy and energy and mineral deposits) or artificial (chartered banks, professional licensing associations, labor unions, patents and copyrights). This is a valid distinction between “makers” and “takers.”

fredgraph

Basically, Lind is privileging the profits that are received by productive capitalists from their supposed doing activities (the blue line in the chart above) and calling into question the profits that are received through the rent-seeking activities of financial capitalists (the red line in the chart above).

It’s a powerful idea, and one that—after the spectacular crash of 2007-08, the subsequent bailout of Wall Street, and the uneven recovery since then—stands to garner a great deal of attention and sympathy.

There are, however, two fundamental problems with Lind’s distinction between profit-oriented makers and rent-seeking takers.

First, Lind presumes that industrial capitalists would do more—more investing, and thus more job creating, more growth, and so on—if they had to pay lower rents to others, including rent-taking financial capitalists. While it is certainly the case that “industrialists” would have higher retained earnings if they distributed less of their profits in the form of rents (not only financial charges but also, as Lind explains, taxes, union wages, oil rents, healthcare premia, and so on), there’s no guarantee they would actually invest or accumulate more capital with those profits.

That is precisely the specter that is created when, as I explained the other day, the capitalist machine is broken. In recent decades, investment has increased much less than profits, thus calling into question the pact with the devil that historically has stood at the center of capitalism. Lind may be an economic nationalist but the industrialists he champions are not, and never have been.

The second problem is that Lind never offers an adequate explanation of where the profits of those industrial capitalists come from. He merely presumes they are the fair return to entrepreneurial, making activities.

But who is doing all that making—and who are the ones getting the profits? Non-financial corporate profits represent the extra value workers create during the course of producing commodities (both goods and services). The workers receive wages (more or less equal to the value of their labor power) and their employers receive the extra or surplus value those workers create (above and beyond the value of labor power). In other words, the profits of industrial capitalists stem from the exploitation of productive workers.

The surplus appropriated by the boards of directors of industrial capitalist enterprises is, in turn, distributed. One portion remains within those enterprises (in the form of retained earnings, executive and supervisory salaries, expenditures on new equipment and software, the hiring of additional workers, and so on), while another portion is distributed outside them (to shareholders, finance capitalists, merchants, the government, and so on). All of those payments—some of which Lind characterizes as profits, others as rents—represent distributions of the surplus.

In the end, then, there is no valid distinction between makers and takers. The appropriators of the surplus make nothing—and everyone who gets a cut of the surplus, in both industrial and financial enterprises, is a taker.

They are all, in Lind’s language, rich moochers who hurt America.