Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Auguring Armageddon

By now, the panic quotes are flying in thick and fast. You can see a sample of them here. Big investors, and big capital, are saying that this could be the big one, a collapse of a kind we haven't seen since - well, take your pick between World War II, or 1929. The federal reserve has slashed interest rates as it always does when recession starts to bite, and organised a huge bailout operation to save Bear Sterns, but no one is kidding themselves that this is going to solve the problem. There is talk about the financial crisis spilling over into the 'real economy', as if this was a problem that started with some bad loans. Will Hutton told Observer readers on Sunday that American industry was doing perfectly swell, thanks in part to something he chose to call 'free trade' (doesn't exist, never will), and was being put at risk by a greedy and arrogant financial class. It's a tempting idea, and it's an analysis that I suspect much of the soft Labour left and many union leaders support, since the upshot is that we should rein in finance capital and invest heavily in manufacturing: quite the opposite of the strategy adopted by Brown and Darling, who have based their recent bland budget and broader economic strategy on the most benign possible forecast. In fact, their only recent intervention of any kind was the horribly belated nationalisation of Northern Rock, and they are now taking the opportunity to shed jobs rather than protect them, so that it can be returned to the private sector on profitable terms. That's a measure of the cravenness of our government's pursuit of neoliberalism: at all costs, the City must be appeased, because it is Gordon Brown's most cherished source of growth. Of course it is right that the running down of manufacturing and the financialisation of the economy has done us no favours, producing some of the lowest growth in post-war history. And it has certainly weakened the bargaining power of labour, while bringing immense rewards to the ascendant rentiers, not just in Britain but globally - Fortune's recent ecstatic fawning over the accomplishments of a tiny billionaire class making the point. However, bad loans are an artefact of deeper structural problems in the global economy, and the problem isn't reducible to the 'subprime' market either.

Take a sojourn, if you will, in that mad, hedonistic, irresponsible decade known as the 1990s, in that mad, hedonistic, irresponsible, incontinent continent known as North America. How louche we all were, how flush with cash and ebullient with it. Well, not all of us. Not the majority who actually weren't flush with cash and netting big rewards on the stock market. Not those whose incomes froze for most of the period laughably known as the 'new economic paradigm' or just the 'New Economy' (a marketing gimmick as sickly sweet as New Coke, and every bit as durable). Not those for whom benefit cuts and welfare-to-work programmes left them poorer and more exploited than ever before. And not those who had to work three or four jobs to keep the family eating. But if the 1980s saw Wall Street assume a commanding position in the US economy, by the 1990s it was a major cultural fetish as well. Everybody who was anybody came to know the thrill of combining technophilia with the bull market swagger: you could not only buy shares, but do so online. In fact, approximately 80% of the increase in financial net worth was accounted for by the top 20% of the population. Most who tried dabbling in shares lost money, but they weren't the ones on the news or selling books. Dude, made a cool two mil: easy bucks, money coming from nowhere, now I got a botox smile and rims. Anyone can do it. It was as if God had blessed America (by the way, I'm surprised that Obama doesn't see the virtues of a slogan like "God damn America"). The Clinton administration, having abandoned its reformist programme, was bigging up the bond market. With wages low, and labour conditions deteriorating, some profitability was restored to capital. The stock market was flooded with cash, and IPOs (in which investors plough money into an upstart entity in exchange for a share of future profits) were bankrolling a wave of flimsy new ventures that would mostly go under by the turn of the millenium. Take a look at Doug Henwood's The New Economy - the ratio of financial assets to GDP shot up in the mid-1990s to close to 950%. The Bubba bubble was only briefly interrupted by the threat of the South-East Asian financial crisis spreading, but with the bailout of Long Term Capital Management, the survival of the US economy compounded the consensus: the American model was working, while the old corporatist dinosaurs of Asia and the Rhineland were floundering.

However, one consequence of basing a boom on low wage growth and poor productivity growth is that consumption had to be supported by debt. So, by 2000, households' outstanding debt as a proportion of personal disposable income reached 97%: an all-time high, and higher than the 80% during the second half of the 1980s (see Brenner's The Boom and the Bubble). By 2000, over 40% of new-home mortgages were financed with down payments of less than 10% of the value of the home, while it was estimated that a quarter of new mortgages were being issued to people who were broke. (Robert Brenner's The Economics of Global Turbulence). Household savings also declined drastically in the US during the 1980s and the 1990s. From 1950-1980, household savings were at a ratio of 8-9%. In the 1990s, they averaged 5.2%, and in the years 2000-3, 1.9%. People have been spending more and more of their available income, and without this change, it is estimated that household consumption would have grown 1% slower in the years 1992-2000. In other words, to even get the modest rates of growth attained through the 1990s, which averaged 3.4% per year, the American economy had to be systematically leveraged so that the effects of upswings and downswings were magnified. (Henwood's After the New Economy; Andrew Glyn's Capitalism Unleashed).

Corporate debt also soared, so that interest payments actually wiped out a great deal of the profits that were being made: between 1997 and 2001, the ratio of manufacturing net interest to manufacturing net profits rose to 40.5%, a postwar record (Brenner's The Economics of Global Turbulence). Even after a slump in 2000-1, the credit bubble continued to swell. More intricate forms of structured credit were devised to spin out more value from less 'real' input. Investors sought to maximise returns through high-risk derivatives, the credit default swap market (in which more secure institutions such as hedge funds are paid to guarantee a creditor against losses in the event that the debtor defaults), total return swaps (in which investors accept the costs of holding an asset, such as depreciation, but gets the full return from it), and collateralised debt obligations (a form of mortgage securitisation). With techniques of labyrinthine complexity, they sliced, diced and tranched debts, distributing risks and rewards across portfolios, with the effect of increasing the chances of both gains and losses given any credit event. When the market booms, all seems to be going splendidly. Debts seem to be being paid - and if individuals or companies lack the funds to make the payments, they can always borrow more money to keep up the payments in the existing debt, on the assumption that future growth will sustain them. Amazingly, it did not. Manufacturing died on its arse, wages froze, job growth was slow, and eventually both individuals and corporations were defaulting on their debts. The underlying structural imbalances in the US economy brought this about. The crisis of profitability that struck all advanced capitalist countries in the 1970s was managed in the US by financial liberalisation, which gave the US ruling class wider opportunities for extraction across the world, but which also led to slower growth rates; busted labour unions, which reduced labour costs for employers, but also led to higher borrowing, with the savings and loans crisis prefiguring the current credit crunch; reduced taxes for corporations and profits, which meant both a transfer of the tax burden to the poorest, and also a reduction in welfare as a supporter of consumption. The financialisation policy put a premium on shareholder value, adding pressure to the drive for short-term profits rather than sustainable growth. It also exaggerated the value of executives who could deliver such profits, so executive pay soared, especially in the form of stock options in which executives were encouraged to share in the value created under their management. This partially accounts for the wave of corporate scandals - fictitious accounting, rigging information, concealing operating expenses. It wasn't just a boon for executives: companies that succeeded in inflating their value could acquire competitors and run them into the ground. (Glyn, Capitalism Unleashed). Huge costs are incurred, of course, but mainly by employees and customers. The criminal justice system doesn't take corporate crime very seriously, and well-placed executives and owners can usually protect themselves from the worst effects of a crisis. Concurrent with all this is the growing centralisation and concentration of capital. Mergers and acquisitions followed by rationalisation and downsizing has meant that most Americans are employed not by the biggest owners, but by small employers who are themselves highly leveraged and exposed to the deep insecurity built into a neoliberal economy.

In short, it will not do to speak of a small class of arrogant financiers causing all these problems. If it really was as simple as that, then the rest of the capitalist class would be beating down the doors of power to demand reform, and plead for restraints to be applied to the ostentatious upstarts. And they would get it.

Coda: One of the major global banks to have suffered least so far from this collapse has been HSBC, one of Britain's 'big five'. It did have substantial exposure in the 'subprime' market. It did experience considerable losses. Yet, its profits increased quite substantially on last year: know why? Because they had shifted a huge amount of their investment from the United States to Asia, particularly China. After recent losses, they seem to have cut investments in the US drastically. Although those economies are hardly insulated from any crash in the US, consumer spending has been rising for years in China, and the country is about to open up its financial sector even further. Further, it looks set to invest more overseas. So far Chinese growth has been a huge boost to US capitalism, but it seems clear that any major crisis in the US will redound to the benefit of China in particular. China is the fourth largest economy in the world by nominal GDP, just above the United Kingdom. It is the second largest economy in the world by the arguably more accurate measure of purchasing power parity, just below the United States, and not very far below either (see the IMF's figures). China is one of the few countries in the world, alongside India, to have experienced a higher growth in capital accumulation during the 1990s than in previous decades - almost everywhere else, capital accumulation was much slower, including in the United States. (Glyn, Capitalism Unleashed). Of course, what China doesn't have, and can't possibly compete in, is an empire. To be sure, it does occupy Tibet - as we see, in a quite repressive fashion - and Taiwan would like its independence. Yet, compared to America's awesome global dominion, this is a handful of beans. Parenthetically, one has always hoped for a more radical Tibetan liberation movement to emerge, something with enough blood in it to put Richard Gere off his soy beans. Yet, one can't help but marvel at the hypocrisy of liberal critics such as Steven Spielberg and Mia Farrow banging on about the fucking 'genocide Olympics', as if they didn't live in a country that was not merely investing in another country whose elite is waging a vicious counterinsurgency war but actually prosecuting a far more vicious one in several countries that they don't even own yet. The main point I would make, however, is that while policymakers will attempt various means including protectionist ones to defend the economy, this whole situation is likely to make the US ruling class far more reliant on its military power. The grab for Iraq was a crucial part of the intense competition with China, and winning that competition - frustrating the rise of a major geopolitical rival, as the PNACers insist - is probably going to involve more assertiveness in South Asia. They'll need to control Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. They'll want their military bases back in Uzbekistan. They'll want to control as much of the oil and gas reserves near the Caspian sea as they can keep out of Russia's hands. And they'll have to do something about Latin America, where growing moves toward independence are undermining US capitalist interests and letting China in on the action. A crisis doesn't just mean economic turmoil; it means a more deadly and fraught world system.