Returning to Gordon

August 22, 2016

This time last year I did a post on why productivity growth in all the major economies has slowed down.

As I explained in that post, the productivity of labour, as measured by output per worker or output per hour of worker, is a very good measure of the productive potential of capitalism.  Economies can increase their national outputs by employing more people to work (from a rising population of working age) or they can do so by increasing the productivity of each worker.  With population growth slowing in most major economies and globally, productivity growth is the main method of raising global output and – given the huge caveats of inequality or income and wealth and the lack of production for the majority’s needs) – the living standards of the world’s population.

Capitalism is a mode of production that aimed specifically at raising the productivity of labour to new heights, compared to previous modes of production like slavery, feudalism or absolutism.  That’s because capitalists, in competing to obtain and control more profit (or surplus value) from the labour power of workers, were driven to mechanise and introduce labour-saving technologies. So if capitalism is no longer delivering increasing productivity through investment in technology then its raison d’etre for human social organisation comes under serious question.  Capitalism would be past its ‘use-by date’.

Growth per capita

And as last year’s post said, global productivity growth has fallen back, particularly since the Great Recession began in 2008 and shows no signs yet of recovering to previous levels.  This is vexing and worrying the ruling economic strategists, particularly as mainstream economics has no clear explanation of why this is happening.

Global labour productivity remains below its pre-crisis average of 2.6% (1999-2006)

productivity growth

Only this week, the vice-chair of the US Federal Reserve, Stanley Fischer, looked at the state of US economy.  He started by claiming the success of Fed monetary policies in achieving virtually full employment again in the US: “I believe it is a remarkable, and perhaps underappreciated, achievement that the economy has returned to near-full employment in a relatively short time after the Great Recession, given the historical experience following a financial crisis.”

However, Fischer noted that growth in output had not been so impressive.  And this is clearly due to the slowdown in productivity growth.  Most recently, business-sector productivity is reported to have declined for the past three quarters, its worst performance since 1979. Granted, productivity growth is often quite volatile from quarter to quarter, both because of difficulties in measuring output and hours and because other transitory factors may affect productivity. But looking at the past decade, productivity growth has been lackluster by post-World War II standards. Output per hour increased only 1-1/4 percent per year on average from 2006 to 2015, compared with its long-run average of 2-1/2 percent from 1949 to 2005. A 1-1/4 percentage point slowdown in productivity growth is a massive change, one that, if it were to persist, would have wide-ranging consequences for employment, wage growth, and economic policy more broadly. For example, the frustratingly slow pace of real wage gains seen during the recent expansion likely partly reflects the slow growth in productivity.”

Why is this?  Fischer presents various explanations: the mismeasurement of GDP growth; low business investment; a slowdown in new technology that could boost productivity; and/or the failure any new technology to spread to wider sections of the economy.

The first explanation has a lot of support.  The argument is that the traditional measure of output, the Gross Domestic Product, is a very poor measure of ‘welfare’ or the production of people’s needs.  This argument has been most well presented in a book by Diane Coyle. (http://www.enlightenmenteconomics.com.) called GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History .  Coyle argues that GDP is an ‘abstract’ idea (as it clearly is) that leaves out important services and benefits and puts in unnecessary additions.  Here is one example offered by John Mauldin: “If I purchase a solar energy system for my home, that purchase immediately adds its cost to GDP. But if I then remove myself from the power grid I am no longer sending the electric company $1000 a month and that reduces GDP by that amount. Yet I am consuming the exact same amount of electricity! My lifestyle hasn’t changed and yet my disposable income has risen.”

Yes, but what Coyle’s critique fails to recognise is that GDP is not designed to measure ‘benefits’ to people but productive gains for the capitalist mode of production.  Electricity on the grid is part of the market, electricity made at home is not; cleaning houses and office for money is part of the market and is included in GDP; cleaning your home yourself is not marketable and so is not in GDP.  That makes perfect sense from the point of capitalism, if not from people’s welfare.  As Mauldin says “GDP is a financial construct at its heart, a political and philosophical abstraction. It is a necessary part of the management of the country, because, as with any enterprise, if you can’t measure it you can’t determine if what you are doing is productive”.

Many have argued recently that many new technological developments are not measured in the GDP figures: “because the official statistics have failed to capture new and better products or properly account for changes in prices over time” (Fischer).  But as Fischer comments, most recent research suggests that mismeasurement of output cannot account for much of the productivity slowdown.”

That brings me to the main argument offered by mainstream economist, Robert J Gordon, in his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil WarI have discussed Gordon’s thesis before in this blog ever since he first presented it back in 2012. Gordon reckons that the evidence shows productivity growth is currently low because that it is where it is usually.  There have been periods of fast-growing productivity when technical advances spread widely across economies, as in the early 1930s and in the immediate post-war period.  Productivity growth rose from the late nineteenth century and peaked in the 1950s, but has slowed to a crawl since 1970. In designating 1870–1970 as the ‘special century’, Gordon emphasizes that the period since 1970 has been less special. He argues that the pace of innovation has slowed since 1970 and furthermore that the gains from technological improvement have been shared less broadly.

In Marxist terms, this suggests that capitalism is now exhibiting exhaustion as a mode of production that can expand to lower labour time and meet people’s needs.  The current technical innovations of the internet, computers smart phones and algorithms etc are nowhere near as pervasive in their impact as electricity, autos, medical advances and public health etc were in previous periods.  So globally, capitalism cannot be expected to raise productivity growth from here.  Indeed, there are many ‘headwinds’ likely to keep it lower, says Gordon.

So why has productivity growth slowed and will it continue?  Mainstream economics offers all sorts of explanations. The first, as we have seen, is to argue that productivity growth has not really slowed because it is not being measured properly in the modern age of services and the internet.

The second is to argue that the slowdown is temporary and caused by the global financial crash and the subsequent Great Recession.  The legacy of crash is still very high levels of debt, both private and public, and this is weighing down on the capacity and willingness of the capitalist sector to invest and expand new technologies. Noah Smith, the Keynesian blogger struggled with debt as the main cause of recessions and slowdowns.   Robert Shiller, the Nobel prize winning ‘behavioural’ economist, on the other hand, reckons that the slowdown is due to “hesitation.” “Economic slowdowns can often be characterised as periods of hesitation. Consumers hesitate to buy a new house or car, thinking that the old house or car will do just fine for a while longer. Managers hesitate to expand their workforce, buy a new office building, or build a new factory, waiting for news that will make them stop worrying about committing to new ideas.”

There is no doubt that the global financial crash has driven growth rates in the major economies down – indeed that is part of the definition of what I call The Long Depression that capitalism is now suffering (and all of us, of course, as a result).

Growth slows

And one key factor in that slowdown has certainly been the huge rise in debt, particularly corporate debt, since the end of the Great Recession.  As a recent analysis by JP Morgan economists pointed out: Corporate business, in particular, has borrowed aggressively in recent years, often using the proceeds to buy back shares. Ratios of corporate debt to GDP or income are starting to look rather high'”  Indeed US corporate debt is now at a post-war high.

And there is no doubt that capitalist companies are ‘hesitating’ about investing in new technology in a big way.  But why?  Shiller reckons that “loss of economic confidence is one possible cause.”  But that is merely stating the question again.  Why has there been a loss of economic confidence?  Shiller’s response is to suggest that nobody is willing to invest because of fears about “growing nationalism; immigration and terrorism”  So it’s all due to political and cultural fears – hardly a convincing economic thesis.

Yes, high debt and low ‘confidence’ are factors that will lead to low and even falling investment in technology and therefore in generating low productivity growth.  But they are only factors triggered, Marxist economics would argue, because the profitability of capital remains low, particularly in the productive sectors. Yes, profit rates in most economies rose from the early 1980s up to the end of the 20th century while investment growth and real GDP growth slowed.  But most of that profitability gain was in unproductive sectors like real estate and finance.  Manufacturing and industrial profitability stayed low, as several Marxist analyses have shown. 

Even mainstream economics, using marginal productivity categories, reveal something similar.  Using marginalist mainstream categories, Dietz Vollrath found that the ‘marginal productivity of capital’ fell consistently from the late 1960s.  Capitalism has become less productive ‘at the margin’.  Marxist economics can explain this as due to a rising organic composition of capital (more technology replacing labour) leading to a fall in the rate of profit (return on capital).  Post the Great Recession, the marginal productivity of capital rose because the share going to profit rose.  In Marxist terms, the rate of surplus value rose to compensate for the rise in the organic composition of capital.  Here’s Vollrath’s chart showing the time path in capital productivity from 1960 to 2013.  If you remove the effect of rising profit share, the falling productivity of capital continued (dotted line).

MPK

So the conclusion of last year’s post still holds; “Productivity growth still depends on capital investment being large enough.  And that depends on the profitability of investment.  There is still relatively low profitability and a continued overhang of debt, particularly corporate debt, in not just the major economies, but also in the emerging capitalist economies.  Under capitalism, until profitability is restored sufficiently and debt reduced (and both work together), the productivity benefits of the new ‘disruptive technologies’ (as the jargon goes) of robots, AI, ‘big data’ 3D printing etc will not deliver a sustained revival in productivity growth and thus real GDP.”

Don’t expect any help from Japan or Europe

August 15, 2016

US economic data gave somewhat conflicting outcomes in August.  First, we found that the US economy grew far less than expected in the second quarter of 2016. Real GDP (that’s after inflation is removed) increased at only a 1.2% yoy rate. And business investment fell at a 9.7% annual rate, the third straight quarterly fall. On the other hand, in July, the US economy added 255,000 more jobs, while wages (before inflation and taxes) climbed 2.6% compared to July 2015.

US earning

It is this strongish labour market plus rising nominal wages that made the Goldman Sachs economists conclude that things are looking up for the US economy.  “As a result, the US economy is now much more “normal” than widely perceived, in our view. By this we mean that the usual features of a mid-to-late expansion economy—full employment and even a somewhat hot labor market, inflation near or perhaps even above the target—are likely to eventually emerge in the years ahead.”  However, the GS economists, unlike those at JP Morgan, ignore the sharp fall in corporate profits and business investment that suggests the US economy is not about to turn ‘hot’ – on the contrary.

US corporate profits

 

Also, US retail sales figures for July do not show a pick-up in consumer demand that GS expects.  Retail sales growth has been slowing throughout 2016.  Sales in the shops and online are only 40% of American household’s expenditure – the rest is on housing, health, education, utilities etc.  So the jury is out on whether American consumers are not accelerating their spending or not.

US retail sales

Anyway, what is clear is that, even if the US economy is pretty much okay and has made a reasonable recovery from the 2008 Great Recession, according to the GS economists, that cannot be said for the other major capitalist economic areas, Japan and Europe.

I have pointed out before that Japan continues to struggle with little or no economic growth despite four years of Abenomics (monetary injections, fiscal stimulus and neo-liberal labour reforms); and despite the advice of monetarist guru, Ben Bernanke, ex-chief of the US Federal Reserve and Keynesian fiscal guru, Paul Krugman, both of whom have called on Japan’s conservative prime minister Shinzo Abe to continue with yet more monetary stimulus (helicopter money) and fiscal spending (budget deficit).

But nothing seems to be working.  Japan failed to grow at all in Q2 2016, a sharp slowdown from 2% growth in Q1.  And it was business investment that collapsed as corporate profits have fallen since the beginning of the year.  The purchasing managers’ index came in at 49.3 in July from 48.1 in June.  Any figure below 50 is meant to indicate a contraction.

Japan PMI

Again, like the US, the Japanese labour market has been reasonably strong with the unemployment rate at its lowest in 21 years.  Abe makes much of this but the decline in unemployment is much more to do with Japan’s ageing and declining population.  The number of people of working age looking for work is just falling.  Moreover, most of those who got work got temporary contracts not regular work.

Japan jobs

The attempt to hike sales taxes in 2014 in order to bring the government spending deficit and debt under control only caused a collapse in spending by Japanese households which has not recovered (see graph below).  So the Abe government postponed any further tax hikes and reversed policy by announcing a large fiscal spending package.  Thus the government swings from neo-liberal measures to Keynesian ones with little success.

Japan growth

Indeed, the main target for the Japanese government is to get inflation rising at around 2% a year. This supposedly would engender more consumer spending and get the economy going. Such is the view of Keynesians advising Abe.  But monetary and fiscal policy have signally failed to achieve that.  Now that the effect of the sales tax hike has fallen out of the figures, Japan has returned to deflation.

Japan inflation

Average wages are growing at less than 1% a year, so it is just as well prices in the shops are falling or Japanese households would be suffering a major fall in living standards.  The reason monetarism and Keynesianism have failed in Japan is because the capitalist sector will only grow if more investment takes place and investment only takes place if corporate profits are rising, not falling as now.  This leading economic index shows which way the Japanese capitalist sector is going.

Japan leading index

The situation is no better in Europe.  The UK economy had been the best performer in economic growth last year, matching that of the US at just over 2% a year.  Now all the signs are that UK businesses have stopped investment plans and foreigners are also holding on back on investing in UK Inc until the issue of the new terms for the UK-EU trade and investment is clear and that could take years.

In the Eurozone, things are much worse.  Joseph Stiglitz, the American Nobel prize winner in economics, has a new book out in which he argues that the crisis and slump in the Eurozone is due to the euro itself.  He reckons  that “the eurozone was flawed at birth” and that “the euro created the euro crisis”.  That’s not my view. I have argued that the euro debt crisis is part of the crisis of capitalism in 2008-9, the Great Recession. The euro did not “create” the euro crisis, even though the EU project and the euro has fundamental flaws.

Even if the euro had collapsed and EMU states had returned to running their own monetary and currency policies, the crisis would not have gone away and may even have been worse. That’s because the euro crisis was the product of the failure of the capitalist mode of production globally. The crisis was only partly a result of the policies of austerity being pursued, not only by the EU institutions, but also by states outside the Eurozone like the UK. Alternative Keynesian policies of fiscal stimulus and/or devaluation would have done little to end the slump.

But what the single currency area has done is to increase divergence between the weaker capitalist states within the Eurozone like Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain and the stronger ‘core’ states, in particular, Germany.  The global capitalist crisis has hit the weaker periphery really hard while Germany has recovered better.

Europe growth

Indeed, it is only German capitalism that has made any sort of recovery since the end of the Great Recession.  Only German investment is above pre-crisis levels in Europe (including the UK).

German investment

In contrast the condition of Greek capitalism has never been worse in its short history. The collapse of the Greek economy is almost without precedent. Real household consumption has dropped by 27 per cent since the peak.

Greek living standards

Greece’s capital stock has been shrinking by about 6 to 7 per cent of output since 2012.  The nonfinancial corporate sector, which shifted the bulk of its liquid assets outside Greece in 2009-2011, has nevertheless experienced a decline in its deposits by more than 35 per cent since the peak in 2012:

Now despite three ‘bailouts’ by the IMF and the Euro leaders (in reality bailouts for foreign banks and then funds in order to reduce debt through austerity measures), the Greek economy remains in a dire despond.

Close to half a million Greeks are believed to have migrated since the crisis begun, thanks to the searing effect of persistent unemployment (at just under 24%, the highest in Europe) and an economy that has shed more than a third of its total output over the past six years.  And still consumption and exports fell by 6.4% and 7.2%, in the second quarter of this year.  The duration and depth of the recession is such that the World Bank now compares it to the slumps seen in eastern European countries in the early 1990s. The poorest 20% of Greece’s 11 million people have suffered a 42% drop in disposable income since 2009.

Italy’s economy may not be in a deep depression like Greece but it is not growing at all.  And as a result, its banks have built up a huge potential loss on the loans they have made to Italian companies – it is estimated that there are €360bn ‘non-performing loans’ on their books.

One bank Monte Dei Pasche is so weak and has so much ‘bad debt’ that is basically bankrupt. The Italian government wanted to bail it out with state funds but the new EU banking rules do not allow that unless all the bank bond holders first take a hit.  Unfortunately, most of these bond holders are ordinary Italians who were persuaded to put their savings into these bank bonds by the banks in the biggest piece of misselling in Italian history.  Hundreds of thousands would lose their life savings if their bonds were written off.

So now the government is desperately trying to get more secure Italian banks and foreign hedge funds and investment banks to invest in to save the day – on very sweet terms, of course. The Italian bank crisis is yet another indicator of the failure of Italy’s economy to recover and of what could happen across Europe in banking if growth continues to stutter.

And Eurozone growth is stuttering still.  The Eurozone as a whole started to recover after its huge debt crisis in 2012-14, but annual growth just does not rise above 1.5% or so – and nearly all the growth is in Germany and the Netherlands.

It is my view that the US economy remains the most important in levering global growth.  I did not agree that China, for example, would pull the world down.  If US economic growth starts accelerating as Goldman Sachs economists suggest, then that will spill over into Europe and Japan – and even help China.  On the other hand, the US will get no help from Europe and Japan in restoring a healthy global capitalist economy.,

The Great Financial Meltdown

August 9, 2016

The Great Financial Meltdown: systemic, conjunctural or policy created? edited by Turan Subasat.

This book started from a seminar on the causes of crises hosted by the University of Izmir, Turkey back in October 2014.  Many of the top radical and Marxist economists were present.

At that seminar, distinguished Marxist, David Harvey delivered a paper criticising those Marxist economists who support the view that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (LTRPF) is the underlying or main cause of crises in the capitalist mode of production.  In particular, Harvey singled out my work to attack.  I replied to his critique on my blog and he kindly posted that reply on his popular website.  After that, there was a further exchange of views, including a strong intervention by Andrew Kliman in support of Marx’s law.

Turan Subasat has superbly brought together all the papers submitted by leading Marxist and radical scholars at that seminar nearly two years ago in this book.  He kindly invited me to present my reply to Harvey which now also appears in the book.  But there are many other interesting and relevant papers in the book by leading Marxist economists (contributors: E. Bakir, R. Bellofiore, A. Campbell, R. Desai, B. Fine, D. Fouskas, A. Freeman, D. Harvey, A. Kaltenbrunner, E. Karacimen, D. Kotz, S. Mavroudeas, S. Mohun, O. Orhangazi, M. Roberts, T. Subasat, J. Toporowski, J. Weeks.)

Unfortunately, the book is very expensive, as is the wont of academic publishers, so that only the rich and those able to get a good library will be able to read it, so I thought I would give a flavour of the ideas presented in the book by various authors, of course, through my own particular taste buds.

Turan provides an excellent introduction and summary of the combined views of these top Marxist scholars.  He argues that the causes of crises under capitalism and, in particular, the recent global financial crash and subsequent Great Recession, can be considered from three angles: is there a systemic underlying cause of crises (the falling rate of profit or underconsumption); or is it conjunctural (each crisis has a different cause); or is it the result of policy decisions (eg the neoliberal agenda, financial deregulation etc)?

On the first theme, apart from my own paper, Alan Freeman, a longstanding supporter of the LTRPF, offers a “vigorous defence” (Subasat) of Marx’s law.  Like me, Freeman reckons that we must separate the underlying cause of crises (falling profitability) from the immediate causes (financial crash).  Some conjunctural phenomena like ‘financialisation’ in the last 30 years or neoliberal policy regimes may seem to be the cause of crises but they are not alternative causes but are “themselves explained by the LTRPF.”

In contrast, John Weeks, in his paper, reckons that the LTRPF “fails to get out to the starting gate as a candidate for generating cross-country crises”.  Weeks reckons that the organic composition of capital (OCC), argued by Marx as the main driver of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, has not risen to critical levels to justify the LTRPF as the main cause and, anyway, falling profitability does not lead to crises but just to a slowdown in the rate of accumulation (investment).

Now I have looked at Week’s arguments before.  But actually Marx himself dealt with that argument.  For him, the fall in the rate of profit eventually leads to a fall in the mass of profit.  At that point, capitalist investment will not just slow, it will start to contract sharply, leading to job losses and income falls and the start of a slump.  The causal connection between the falling rate of profit, the mass of profit and investment has been outlined and investigated empirically by several authors, including G Carchedi, Jose Tapia and Peter Jones.

In his paper, Weeks argues that there is no precise separation by Marxist economists between mild downturns in economic growth and full-blown crises under capitalism.  For him, there have been only three crises under capitalism: in the late 19th century, the 1930s and now.  Now I agree that there is an important difference between regular and recurrent recessions every 8-10 years under capitalism and what I have called ‘depressions’ that last longer and go deeper.  Indeed, that has been the main theme of my new book, The Long Depression, now belatedly available to readers.

It’s true that many financial crises are not accompanied by a slump or economic recession, as in the stock market crash of 1987, cited by Weeks as an example. But in that case, profitability in the major economies including the US was on the rise. So the crash was short-lived and quickly reversed. But that was not the case in 1974-5, the first worldwide simultaneous slump, triggered by the oil price jump, but after a decade or more of a profitability slide; or in 1980-2, again triggered by energy prices, but again after another decline in profitability.

In another paper, Simon Mohun argues that when profits are measured properly according to ‘class’ i.e. profits from ownership of capital, and not by official measures, then profitability, at least in the US, did not fall until just before the Great Recession, and so the LTRPF cannot be the cause.  Again I have looked Mohun’s thesis of several occasions and I found that, even on Mohun’s own measures, corporate profitability peaked in the late 1990s and then fell.  .

Both Weeks and Mohun look for other explanations than the LTRPF.  Weeks argues that it was the breakdown in the circuit of capital and the realisation of money that was the problem and had nothing to do with the accumulation of value in the production process, as advocated by the ‘falling rate of profit’ theorists.  Similarly, Mohun in his paper concentrates on the financial aspects of the crisis, arguing that crises are the result of breakdowns in the money circuit.

Other authors in the book also downplay the role of the LTRPF because they see a rise in profitability and little or no rise in the organic composition of capital due to the devaluation effects of technical innovation in the 1990s during the neoliberal period and, in the case of Ricardo Bellofiore, argue that we should instead look for crises in the private sector explosion of debt (‘privatised Keynesianism’), similar to the position of post-Keynesian economist, Steve Keen.

Radhika Desai, in her paper, goes even further and argues that the current crisis (and all crises) is really the result of chronic underconsumption, Keynesian style.  See John Weeks for a formidable refutation of that view (http://marx2mao.com/PDFs/JW82.pdf).

Both Subasat and Desai seem to move towards the post-Keynesian view that cause of crises is to be found in the distribution of wages and profits, Ricardo-style, and not in the production for profit, Marxist style.  Similarly, Mohun concludes that reducing the inequality of incomes and the grotesque levels of top incomes would begin to solve recurrent crises: “unless the issue of soaring top incomes is addressed, the neoliberal financial system remains crisis prone”.

As for financialisation, however defined, that was a response to the falling rate of profit in the major economies in the 1970s; a counteracting factor, as Al Campbell and Erdogan Bakir show in their paper, and also expanded on by Freeman in his. Campbell and Bakir argue that the Great Recession was not caused by Marx’s law of profitability but was caused by the collapse of the neoliberal response to the profitability crisis of the 1970s. The policies of the ruling class in the major economies to hold down wages, allow deregulation, promote privatisation and introduce financialisation, eventually turned profitability round, but only at the expense of opening up a new underconsumption or financial crisis with a falling wage share in income and reckless credit-fuelled bubbles in housing that eventually burst.  This approach is similar to the paper by David Kotz. 

In another paper, Turan Subasat himself is keen to emphasise that the actual policies adopted under the neoliberal era were an important factor in creating the financial crash of 2008 – in effect the third strand of possible causes beyond the systemic and conjunctural.  So we have alternative explanations of the Great Recession offered in the book:  from financial deregulation (Toporowski), financialisation (Orhangazi) and overaccumulation of financial assets, to neoliberal policies (Subasat, Ben Fine).

Yet, also in the book, we have the case study of Greece, the biggest victim of the current capitalist crisis.  And here Stavros Mavroudeas, convincingly in my view, shows how the LTRPF is the best explanation of the Greek tragedy. Mavroudeas: “First, it is argued that 2007-8 economic crisis is a crisis a-laM arx (i.e. stemming from the tendency of the profit rate to fall – TRPF) and not a primarily financial crisis and this represents the ‘internal’ cause of the Greek crisis. Second, it is shown that there is also an ‘external’ cause. This comes from the relations of imperialist exploitation (i.e. unequal exchange) that exist within the EU and which divide it between North (euro-core) and South (euro-periphery) economies.”

John Weeks sums up the papers in the book.  He makes the point that, while there are substantial differences about the causes and the nature of the current crisis among the authors (the LTRPF versus poor demand or low wages; neoliberal policies; instability of finance), the most common factor among the papers was an attempt to analyse theory with empirical evidence and not just quote Marx etc.

It is interesting to compare the collection of radical economic explanations of the current crisis in this book with the explanations on the causes of the Great Recession offered by leading mainstream economists at an IMF conference more or less at the same time.

Back in 2013, at the IMF conference on the crisis, Christine Romer, head of Obama’s economic council, concluded that I think the right conclusion to draw is that financial shocks are likely to be both frequent and hard to predict – not just in their timing but in their form.”  Very little empirical evidence at the IMF conference was presented to explain the global financial crash and the subsequent slump.  It apparently remained a mystery.

Later this year, G Carchedi and I will publish a book (The World in Crisis) similar to Subasat’s, a collection of papers by young Marxist economists internationally, that will provide more comprehensive evidence to back the view that Marx’s LTRPF remains, as Alan Freeman says, “the only credible competitor left in the contest to explain what is going wrong with capitalism”.

Stalling or escaping?

August 4, 2016

As I reported in a recent post, global economic growth has been slowing from its already below-average level.  US economic growth has dropped away in the first half of 2016, along with weak growth in Japan and Europe, slowing growth in China, impending recession in post-Brexit vote Britain and continued recessions in Brazil and Russia, with South Africa and Turkey about to join them.  Indeed, the US is growing at its weakest rate since 2010.  Worse, everything unrelated to consumer spending is suffering an outright contraction for the first time since the recession ended in 2009, according to Deutsche Bank.

US consumer

US business investment is dying.  Expenditures on new equipment fell 3.5% in the second quarter and is down nearly 2% over the last year. Spending on structures was down 7.9% in the quarter and 7% over the past year.  Labour productivity is stalling.  Even home purchases are falling, with residential investment down 6.1% in Q2 2016.

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, US business investment is responding to a fall in corporate profits, down for five consecutive quarters.  The latest estimates from FactSet suggest that earnings for the top 500 US companies will decline on a year-over-year basis in the third quarter as well, which would mark the six straight quarter of declining profits. With sales falling, executives are doing what they can to protect margins by slashing spending and cutting inventories.

According to the economists of investment bank JP Morgan, global growth was just 2.2% annualised in Q2 2016, well below the forecasts for this year made by the IMF.  The IMF expects 3.1% growth this year and 3.4% growth next year.  JPM and the World Bank are closer in their estimates, with the latter now expecting just 2.4% global real GDP growth this year.  Most economists reckon that when global growth is at 2.5%, the world economy is at ‘stall speed’, meaning that it would drop into recession from that level because investment and consumption growth would collapse.

But all is not lost, it seems.  In the month of July, there seems to have been some slightly better data.  Business activity surveys called purchasing managers indexes (PMIs) for July rose.  JPM estimates that the global PMI rose to 51.4 in July from a low of 51.2 in May.  That is supposed to mean that global growth has stopped slowing because actual real GDP growth closely follows the global PMI.  And the closely followed Atlanta Fed growth forecasting model currently reckons US economic growth will rebound in the current quarter ending at end-September.

Atlanta fed

Former chief economist for Goldman Sachs, Gavyn Davies now runs an economic forecasting firm, called Fulcrum.  Fulcrum also claims that things are looking up with global activity expanding at an annualised rate of 4.1 per cent, a marked improvement compared to the low point of 2.2 per cent recorded in March.  So far from ‘stall speed’, the world economy could be “achieving escape velocity, in which the recovery becomes self-propelled, without needing repeated doses of monetary and fiscal policy support to prevent a renewed slowdown”.

Fulcrum forecast

Davies admits that “the global economy has been growing at below its trend rate of 3.8 per cent per annum on an almost continuous basis since 2012, with only a few brief periods of slightly better performance”, but things could be about to change.

And JP Morgan, having shown that global economic growth has slowed in Q2, also reckons things are about to improve.  Their economists commented that “The long-awaited rebound in global manufacturing appears to be in the offing. Global consumer goods demand accelerated sharply last quarter while the latest data suggest that a contraction in capital spending is about to end.”  JPM reckons the great investment downturn could be ending, “after slipping in the four quarters through 1Q16, business capex will just stabilize in the year through 4Q16 before strengthening by 3%-4% in 2017.”

Why should this happen? Well, JP Morgan economists reckon that business investment and profits are closely correlated “both business confidence and profit growth are highly statistically significant in explaining capital spending.”  JP Morgan reckons that business spending “is less a function of borrowing costs than of an assessment of the outlook and profitability. On balance, this model explains 70-85% of the variation in business equipment spending growth”.

So once again, mainstream economics confirms what Marxist economics has always argued: business investment is driven by profitability. For example, mainstream economists Kothari, Lewellen and Warner from three American business schools, recently published a paper called The behavior of corporate investment and found a close causal correlation between the movement in US business investment and business profitability. Like JP Morgan, they found that “at least three-quarters of the investment decline can be thought of as a historically typical drop given the behaviour of profits and GDP at the end of 2008. Problems in the credit markets may have played a role, but the impact on corporate investment is arguably small.”  

JP Morgan admits that business investment and profits growth are “currently quite depressed” but if GDP growth picks up and commodity prices do also, then there could be a “turn-up in the profits cycle”.  And that would lead to an investment recovery, and with it, faster economic growth. But wait a minute.  Economic growth is going to speed up because investment is going to speed up, because profits are going to rise, because economic growth is going to speed up. There appears to be a circular argument here.

While JP Morgan’s economists have recognised the high correlation between business investment and profits, they have failed to identify the causal direction. As I have argued before, the Keynesian-Kalecki view is from spending (consumer and investment) to profits and wages, while Marxist view is that it is from profits (and exploitation) to investment and then income, employment and spending.  Getting that direction right is essential to understanding the trajectory of the capitalist economy.  Corporate profits are falling in the US, Japan and Europe – and so follows business investment.  Unless that changes, the major economies are more likely to contract, not speed up. Optimism could be dashed again.

The Long Depression – an interview

August 2, 2016

Mark Kilian from de Socialist, a Dutch socialist journal, talked to me about my new book, the current economic stagnation, the prospects for another recession and the way out for capitalism.  Here is the English translation of the interview kindly provided by Mark and edited by me.

MK: Our government says the economy recovers. At the same time, we see that Greece continuously needs ‘rescue packages’ and there are now problems in Italy. What is the state of the world economy?

MR: The development of the world economy since 1945 has not been harmonious, not gone in a straight line upwards. There has been a series of booms and recessions. By that, I mean a decline in national income or the national output of a country for at least six months or longer, before recovery and growth resumes.

But what is different about the recent period, is that we had a very big slump in 2008-9 after the international banking crash. The Great Recession, which lasted for 18 months, was the biggest since the 1930s.  As a result, all the major economies in the world, including the Netherlands, saw a sharp decline in their national income and national output.  Every time that happens millions of people have their lives ruined, they lose their jobs and possibly their homes because they cannot pay the rent or mortgage. On top of that, governments introduced whole ranges of measures, of cuts in welfare and public services, which damaged population as well.  Also, all that period of decline is a permanent loss. If there had been no slump, output and income would have been higher, jobs would have been better. That can never be recovered.

And the difference this time compared to other crises is that the recovery from the Great Recession has been incredibly weak. It is the weakest economic recovery in these since the 1930s. From the end of the Great Recession, after seven years, most economies have hardly recovered to the level they were in 2007. That shows how slow it’s been.

Take Italy: the IMF has presented a report that is truly shocking. Not only does Italy have a major banking crisis which could come crashing around the banks’ ears fairly soon unless the government bails them out, but the IMF reckoned that Italy’s GDP and output would not get back to the level of 2007 until 2025! That’s two lost decades of output, income, jobs and better conditions for the Italian people. That’s how bad the recovery has been in Italy.

Output, employment, and people’s incomes in most economies and for most people have not recovered to the 2007 level.  According to a new report by McKinsey, the management consultants, two-thirds of households in the 26 OECD economies have lower living standards in 2015 compared to 2005!

So this is a really weak recovery and, in my view, there is every danger before we get back to the levels we have seen before, if we ever do, that the world economy will slip into yet another slump in the next year or two.

MK: In your new book you describe three depressions: that of the years 1873-1897, 1929-39 and the present one.  Is there anything we can learn from this?

MR:  In my view, this is not a normal recession, but a depression. That’s different from the normal slumps. That does not happen very often. In the history of modern capitalism, of the 19th century until now, there have only been three major depressions. In a depression, recovery is so weak that economies do not return to the same growth rates or even the level of output that previously existed, except for a very long time.

There was a big slump in 1873 in Britain, Germany and the US, the major capitalist economies then. There was no real strong recovery after that. There were a series of slumps which went on for the next 20 years.  That was a depression: a low level of growth and a series of slumps. It took a really long time before sustained recovery was possible.

The second depression is called the Great Depression. This began with the collapse of the stock markets in the US in 1929, similar to the collapse of the housing market in the US in 2007. After the crash in 1929 the US, the largest capitalist economy in the world, went into the most severe depression. There was prolonged mass unemployment, and there was no real recovery during the 1930s.  The only thing that turned it around was that the US entered the Second World War, alongside Britain, against the so-called Axis powers. Government production was increased, which led to the economic growth and recovery. So only war brought recovery in the 1930s. In my view, we are in a similar period. It’s going to take some drastic changes in order for capitalism to recover at all.

MK: Your choice of words suggests that state-led production can be different from  capitalist production?

I think there’s a distinction to be made here. Keynesian economists reckon the solution to these slumps is that the government should spend more money on welfare, or give money to business to invest, or carry out its own programs of production itself and thus get people into work. This will boost the capitalist economy and get it going again. That’s the Keynesian solution to these crises.

It was tried briefly and half-heartedly in the 1930s by Roosevelt in the US under the so-called New Deal. It wasn’t really tried in this current recovery. Most governments have operated on cutting government spending.  I am not advocating the Keynesian solution. It might help for a while, but it would also eventually cut into the profitability of the business sector and actually could, under certain circumstances, make things worse.

When I’m talking about government production, I mean government taking over control of the major part of the investment program of the economy. So the big companies would become part of a state-led, ideally state owned, operation. In World War II, in effect, that’s what happened. The big companies were told: ‘You cannot produce cars any more, you’ve now got to build tanks.’  That was direct government control for the war effort. In a way, it ended capitalist production for profit and replaced it with government-led production. The capitalists still made money and profits, but they were completely controlled and directed by the military state in order to carry out a war.  The analogy here is that capitalism no longer operates on the basis of the interests of the capitalist sector, but what was regarded as in the interests of society at that time.

Now a socialist answer, rather than a Keynesian one, is that we need governments to take over the major sectors of the economy to produce for social needs rather that for profit. That means controlling the investment and ownership of all the major banks and other big companies. That is drastically different from what the Keynesians propose now and goes even further than in wartime.

MK: Many people see the long boom after 1945 as a ‘normal’ situation. But how do we explain the boom?

That is an important part of my book; why there are booms and slumps. The period from 1945 to the mid-60s was an exceptional period; it is called the ‘golden age’ of capitalism. There was quite good growth, more or less full employment, many countries developed a better welfare state, free education even to university level, free health services, state housing programs; better pensions etc.

But that was an exceptional period. Why? What drives growth under capitalism is the ability to make profits. The health of the capitalist economy depends on what happens to the profitability of capital, the rate of profit on every investment made by capitalists.  At the end of World War II, as the result of the physical destruction in Europe, of most of the machinery, factories, etc., and a massive amount of labour available at cheap rates, profitability rocketed in Europe for the capitalist combines as they restarted. And they got cheap (even free) credit from the US.  In the US there had been a devaluation of old capital, so new capital came up with new technology that was extremely profitable, and there was a huge expansion of labour force. The same applied to Japan. Across the board world capitalism had a high level of profitability for investment.

But in the mid-60s profitability began to fall quite sharply up to the early 1980s. This period is called the profitability crisis. Marx’s theory of crises under capitalism is that, if profitability is the driving force behind growth, it can’t keep on rising. As capitalism expands and accumulates capital, there is a tendency for profitability to fall. This is a key law in the political economy that Marx discerned. And in that process of the falling rate of profit capitalism gets into in trouble and crises develop more frequently.

The ‘golden age’ of the 1950s and 1960s gave way to crises. I was young then and I remember that this time was a period of big struggles by the labour movement as profitability fell and capitalism tried to drive the workers down. Workers fought because they had a lot of gains that they did not want to give up and trade unions were relatively strong.  Eventually the unions were crushed in the recessions of the early 1980s and the labour movement was shackled and defeated in many battles. Capitalism then tried to raise profitability through cuts in public spending, privatizations, the exploitation of the labour force, removing all the protections of the labour force, globalisation etc. This neoliberal period was the last 20 years of the 20th century.

So the ‘golden age’, was a special period when profitability was very high because of a world war, then followed by a large decline in profitability, and then up to the end of the century big efforts of capitalism – with some success – to increase profit rates again.

MK: So what you’re actually saying is that the crisis of the mid-60s validated Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit and then neoliberalism mobilized some of the counteracting tendencies that Marx also described, in order to restore profit rates?

That’s a good way to put it. Marx’s law of profitability says that as capitalism expands, there is a tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But there are ways to counteract that, for a time. Under a capitalist society value comes only from the exploitation of labour, people who work under the control of capitalist owners so that they can sell the commodities on the market, and they can make a profit. They will use more machinery and plant, and new technology to keep the down the cost of labour, but in so doing they reduce the amount of profit per investment. Profit, and value in general, according to Marx comes only from people working, it does not come from machines. Machines produce no value unless you put them to work. That requires human labour unless you have a society with only robots – but that’s another story.

So there is a contradiction between raising productivity of labour through more investment in technology and sustaining profitability. This can be overcome for a while by exploiting workers harder, for longer hours, making them work more intensely, introducing new technology, expanding trade, trying to occupy poorer countries, and use their resources – there are various ways in which the counteraction can take place. These counteracting factors operated strongly during the 1980s and 1990s, to reverse the very low rate of profit that capitalism had reached.

Profitability did recover, but not anywhere near to the level of the ‘golden age’. From the late 1990s the Marxist law of profitability began to operate again, and despite all attempts of the capitalists, it began to slip back in the major economies. That created the conditions for further crises and slumps of the 21st century. The capitalists tried to avoid that by a huge credit boom, by pumping loads of credit, inventing new ways to speculate in the financial markets and keeping profits up for a section of the capitalists. But underlying profitability did not recover. You can speculate on stock markets but you don’t create anything. You just try to pinch money off others, so to speak, and create an apparent improvement.

Take today. The US stock market has reached an all-time high (in nominal terms). At yet we look at the state of growth and production in the major economies and that’s really slowing down. Profits are stagnating and yet the stock market is booming. That shows the division between what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’ and what is really going on in the capitalist process.  That division reached an extreme in 2007, a gap between stock market prices, house prices, speculation in financial markets and what was actually happening with the profitability of capital.  Then came the crash.

This is the process that I try to describe in the book. The book tries to provide some indicators for readers to look at.  Some economists focus on the financialisation: the increase in that sector relative to the productive sectors. A popular argument is that the financial sector and the banks should be regulated or curtailed.  But that’s not enough, that’s a bit like trying to control a tiger in a cage with only a piece of paper. There is no surety that the banks will behave with regulation. Only recently, the US financial regulators investigated the activities of HSBC, the big UK bank, which laundered money for Mexican drug cartels for years. They made billions of pounds out of this. It was discovered, but the authorities were told not to intervene and not to fine HSBC because it might bring the banking system down. That shows that regulating the banks is totally useless. It changes nothing, so they will continue in the same way.

The only way to deal with that is to take over the banks, to bring them into public ownership through control by the bank workers and by wider democratic control of society as a whole, so that banks become a service: providing people loans for what they need, for small businesses, and to lend to improve the productive potential of the economy, not to speculate in financial markets and assets, or to engage in tax haven scandals and money laundering, as they have been doing in recent decades – and will continue to do, even with regulators around.

The other point about this is that the financial crash wasn’t just a banking crisis. A financial crisis is not isolated from what is happening in the productive sector of the economy: manufacturing, technology, places actually making things that circulate, on which banks then speculate. Banks do not make money except between themselves, value must come from somewhere else. The banking crash was really a symptom of the fact that the productive sectors of the capitalist economy were no longer profitable enough to support this house of cards. Those who argue that it was only a financial crisis and that the solution lies in controlling the financial sector, ignore the true nature of the crisis and so can’t actually solve it.

MK: Can you say that the financial sector adds to the instability of the system?

Clearly, for it has become larger and more important. As profitability fell in the 1960s and 1970s and remained relatively low in the productive sectors in the neoliberal period, one of the counteracting factors was to shift investment into the financial sector, banks and other institutions, to make profits at the expense of investment in the productive sector. Productive investment as a percentage of output declined in most economies in the 1980s and 1990s. That is an indication of the weakness of the capitalist economy towards the end of the 20th century, the need to divert to finance and elsewhere. So yes, it is an important part of the process of the crisis. But at the same time, it’s a symptom of the inability to get profitability up.

MK: The Great Recession of 2007-2009 was not foreseen by economists?

The book has a section that would be funny if it were not so tragic. The economics profession, the economic institutions and other ‘experts’ did not see the Great Recession coming, quite the reverse. Central banks and governments were convinced that everything was fine, and if there was a problem that could be solved easily.

When the crash came, they were unable to explain why it had happened. They remained in denial and thought it would end quickly, which it did not. They were unable to explain why that was, and even now they cannot really know what to do to get things going again. The institutions, central banks and governments are still struggling to get this recovery up above the weak level where it is, because they do not understand what happened and what to do about it.

There were one or two people who did recognise the dangers in the early 2000s. They saw the huge housing bubble in the US and that that could not possibly last; some who saw a huge increase in private credits, a financial sector which they also saw as dangerous. So one or two radical economists outside the consensus, recognised the real dangers.  And a one or two Marxists, raised the idea that, despite the huge boom in house prices and credit, beneath it the profitability situation was worsening and there were contradictions that would produce a crash.

One of those was Anwar Shaikh. He predicted a big crash and a depression as a result. I made a similar forecast in 2005-6. I argued that there was a conjunction of cycles coming together: declining profits, a peak of the housing market, and a general depressionary cycle which was named after the Russian economist Kondratieff.  All those cycles were coming together in a depressive downturn. That suggested to me that there could be a quite serious slump, I thought in 2009-10. I was a little late because it came earlier. So a handful of people saw this crisis coming, 99 percent of the economists did not.

MK: You compare the position of the US today to that of Great Britain during the last crisis of the 1930s: holding on to hegemony while simultaneously being undermined economically. How does that work out for the coming period, for example could China take over that role?

The US, the biggest economy, has had a slightly better recovery than Europe or Japan, which have been struggling, and many of the emerging economies like Brazil, Russia, South Africa. They are in recession and have not recovered at all. The US is doing slightly better, but still growing only at about 2 percent per year since 2009. It used to be 3.5 percent on average in the period since 1945, and sometimes faster in the golden age.

This is a very weak recovery and it seems to be petering out. While the depression continues, rivals which do better get into in a position to challenge the hegemony that the US has had economically. The US economy has declined relatively economically anyway over the last 30 years.  It no longer has the same share of manufacturing output in the world, compared to Germany or Japan, and of course China, which has been the fastest growing economy for the last 20 years, and what has become a great economic power now.

Even in other parts of the economic spectrum – services, technology – the US has got rivals as well. The US is still superior because it has a massive financial sector, which controls and supplies capital around the world. That gives it, along with Britain – another big finance capital centre – control, despite its weaker productive position, through the expansion of the credit realm.  And it is by far the biggest military power, bigger than all the other military powers put together, which gives it, again, a strong position. You can use the analogy of the Roman Empire, which also began a relative decline compared to its rivals outside the empire, but continued to have hegemony for hundreds of years because it had a Roman army and huge financial resources. America is in a similar position, but it is getting rivals.

Capitalism faces some key challenges over the next 20 years. The first is climate change and global warming, which is a serious problem which capitalism is not doing anything about. This really threatens the future of the human race and the planet, unless something is done.

Also there are huge inequalities in wealth and income in the world which create enormous social tensions. Over the past 25 years, the inequality in income and wealth globally has reached a level that we have not seen for probably 150 years.

And there is also the slowdown in productivity: the failure of capitalism to expand the productive forces to provide what people need. Technology has not expanded to the level of what is possible, and productivity growth is very weak.

All these factors threaten the future of capitalism to meet the needs of people and the ability of the US to maintain its hegemonic position. So the rivalries between the big capitalist powers will increase and also between the US and China, because China is a major threat in trade and production, and probably in finance and technology in the future. These are the increasing contradictions that exist in capitalism, even threatening the existence of the planet.

MK: You devote a separate chapter to the eurozone. That is particularly relevant since the Brexit. Over the past 15 years we saw a sharpening of the contradiction between North and South, in particular Germany on the one hand and Greece, Spain and Ireland on the other. How would you extrapolate that?

The project of the European Union was a plan of the leading strategists of the European capital after 1945. They did not want another war, no more division of Europe. They wanted to develop the capitalist base within Europe, as one united force that could rival on a world scale with the US and Asia, particularly Japan at that time.  They wanted to end petty wars between nations that became world wars, and to unite, to use the resources of labour and capital across Europe and develop a European-wide capital to rival the rest of the world. That was the plan.

They first introduced the customs union, breaking down the tariffs between the three or four biggest economies, including the Netherlands, later developed the Common Market (EEC),, so that trade was expanded in all other areas, not only tariffs but common regulations, rates and conditions for trade within Europe. And then the European Union itself, which meant political institutions were set up to integrate Europe into one force.

The biggest step forward was to introduce a single currency for at least those core parts of the EU prepared and able to join. The Germans agreed that the powerful D-Mark would be integrated into a euro currency, with France, Italy and other economies, including the Netherlands. It was seen as a necessary step to integrate Europe further as a force in the world.

But it is very difficult to develop one currency under capitalism, one union, when capitalism, while it expands its productive forces, also drives things apart. So the weaker economies in a capitalist union actually get weaker relative to the stronger ones. That’s how capitalism works. It doesn’t actually help the weak to come towards the strong. So the weaker economies within that bloc, especially in the euro bloc, were even worse off relatively after the formation of the euro than before. They went backwards relatively while the main gainer of the euro was the core, Germany in particular.

The Great Recession exposed these fissures in the eurozone.  The euro project was like a train that is shoved off the track by the economic crisis.  It’s very difficult to put the train back on the track again because so many of the weaker countries fell off and the stronger countries were not prepared to bail them out.

The euro project would only work if you had a full fiscal union, a full federal union, as in the US. But remember, the US achieved that only after a terrible civil war that crushed opposition in the slave-owning South. The idea of a full fiscal union where everyone pays the same taxes, where there is one government, one currency applied across the board: that is not possible in Europe at the moment, particularly after the Great Recession. In fact, the opposite is the case: the risk is that the euro project and the EU project could break up, particularly if there is another slump in the future.

Brexit is an example of that tension. British capitalist strategists had never been fully keen on the idea of European integration. It still had illusions that Britain was powerful enough to go on its own, or it could be a junior partner of American capitalism and so didn’t need to be integrated in Europe to progress. The British ruling class was divided between those who thought that Europe was the answer and those who thought it was better to be on their own or with the US.

That division came to a head with the Great Recession, when Europe had a huge euro debt crisis, Greece, Spain and Italy fell into deep depression and the Franco-German leadership failed to provide support for these countries as part of the EU project. So some British capitalists said: ‘Well, Europe’s not really where we can make a profit; we’re better off on our own.’ This political split came to a head with the referendum.  In many ways, this will be a complete disaster for British capitalism; with its strategists not knowing which way it’s going to go.

MK: In the book you suggest that no depression is permanent. So is there a way out for capitalism?

Some Marxists say that we are in a permanent stagnation or depression. I don’t agree. In the past, capitalism has shown it can find a way out, if it can restore the conditions for a higher rate of profit, as it did after World War II and at the end of the 19th century depression.

How do you do that?  The only way is to restore profitability.  That means destroying the value of old capital which is no longer productive. It means getting ‘lean and mean’, cutting off the old bad plants in your garden and allowing new ones to grow. Of course, this will be at the expense of everybody’s jobs and livelihoods, because we’re talking about human beings losing their jobs as a result of closing down factories and businesses, mergers, selling off the assets, displacing workers and reducing the overall level of production to reach higher profitability. A slump, maybe a series of slumps, can do that.  Until then we’ll continue with this depression. The system needs to get rid of a lot of debt, smash a lot of banks, close a lot of old industries and companies. That’s horrible, but that’s what capitalism does to revive itself.

Then capitalism could get a new lease of life and use all the new technologies that everyone is talking about – robots, automation, the Internet of things; all these kinds of technology that can be expanded – and also exploit new areas of the world which still have large amounts of cheap labour which can be used in conjunction with this technology.

Maybe the political and economic conditions for such a new lease of life for capitalism could happen in, say, the next decade as a result of further slumps, but only if working people in the countries which will suffer from this, are unable to change the situation in any way, and the capitalists and their strategists and political representatives remain in power.

But even if that happens, capitalism is not going to solve its problems indefinitely. In fact, it is getting more and more difficult for them to have a new lease of life and expand, with global warming, low productivity, rising inequality, and with less and less areas in the world to exploit that aren’t already proletarianised, urbanized and part of the global capitalist system. There’s less room for capitalism to expand. It is getting close to its use-by date in historical terms.  But it could have another period of expansion in the next 20 years even so.

Michael Roberts’ new book, The Long Depression, is available

on Amazon US at:

https://www.amazon.com/Long-Depression-Marxism-Global-Capitalism/dp/1608464687/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1470050664&sr=8-1&keywords=the+long+depression

And on Amazon UK at:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Depression-Michael-Roberts/dp/1608464687/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1470050707&sr=8-1&keywords=the+long+depression

And if you don’t want to buy it from Amazon, then you can get it from Haymarket Books, the publisher, direct at:

http://www.haymarketbooks.org/pb/The-Long-Depression

Shopping for growth

July 29, 2016

This week, at its July meeting, the US Federal Reserve Bank decided not to alter its current policy rate of interest – a rate that sets the floor for all interest rates for borrowing in the US and across the major economies.  Last December, the Fed hiked its policy rate from all-time lows because Fed chair Janet Yellen reckoned the US economy was “on a path of sustainable improvement”and she was “confident in the US economy”.

It was expected that the Fed would continue to raise its interest rate towards ‘normal’ levels this year.  However, contrary to Yellen’s prediction, US economic growth slumped in the first quarter, while the Chinese manufacturing powerhouse seemed to be in trouble (with growth slowing, debt rising and the yuan falling).  The world looked in a bad place; so the Fed baulked at further hikes.

After signs of slightly better economic data in the last month; and relief that China had not had a meltdown, the Fed’s July meeting talked of an improving situation that might merit a hike in its policy rate by the year-end.  But if the preliminary figures out today for US real GDP growth are anything to go by, then even that may not materialise.

The US economy grew far less than expected in the second quarter. GDP increased at only a 1.2% yoy rate.  Growth is being driven by consumer spending, which increased at a 4.2% rate – the fastest since the fourth quarter of 2014. That in turn is driven by cheap borrowing and rising house prices.  But business investment continued to plunge, down at a 9.7% annual rate, the third straight quarterly fall.

US investment

Indeed, outside the US, things may have not reached meltdown, but the major economies continue to stagnate.  One the fastest growing economies in Europe in the last year is Spain, but second quarter figures showed a slowdown in real GDP growth to 3.2% from 3.4%.  And Sweden also slipped back from 4.2% yoy in Q1 to 3.1% in Q2, with the slowest quarterly growth rate in three years.  Austria’s growth rate also slowed to 1.2% yoy.  Only the UK has seen a pick-up to 2.2% in Q2 to 2.0% in Q1 (but expect that to be revised down after the investment data comes in) – and the impact of Brexit has yet to be calculated.  France stagnated in Q2.

Three EZ growth

Overall, growth in the Eurozone cooled in Q2.  And the European Commission recently trimmed its growth forecasts for the next two years following the UK referendum. The well-regarded purchasing managers’ index for the eurozone fell to an 18-month low in July.  It’s worse in Japan where industrial production and corporate profits are contracting.  And of course, China’s growth rate has steadily slowed.  Brazil, Russia and South Africa are in recession.

Japan profits

So what is to be done?  Once again desperate measures are being considered – in particular ‘helicopter money’.  I have explained the origins and nature of this flying money before.  The theory behind the concept is to fuse monetary and fiscal policies: cash-strapped governments sell short-term debt straight to their central bank for newly printed money that is then injected straight into the economy via tax cuts or spending programs. The usual intermediaries, like banks, are bypassed.

Helicopter frenzy has reached a new level with the efforts of the Japanese government to get its economy going.  The government has announced a new package of government spending programmes and it wants to finance these from money printed by the Bank of Japan.  This is one step further from Japan’s longstanding aim of restoring economic growth and ending deflation through quantitative easing, then backed up by negative interest rates and now ‘helicopter money’.

This is part of so-called Abenomics, the three-arrowed policy of the Abe government (monetary easing, fiscal expansion and ‘reform’ of the labour market by increasing participation by women and reducing labour rights).  Abenomics has totally failed.  But that has not stopped the likes of Keynesian Paul Krugman dropping in on Abe and calling for more easing.  Krugman spoke to a special meeting including and introduced by Abe to advise the Japanese government on what to do to get the economy going.

After saying that monetary policy of quantitative easing and negative interest rates was not working, Krugman basically said: do not worry about the size of Japan’s public sector debt (currently 230% of GDP) because the short-term aim must be to get demand going. So more government spending.  He did not mention that the Japanese government has been running budget deficits of over 5% of GDP a year for a decade or more with little to show for it in economic recovery. Keynesian policies have already failed in Japan but Krugman was there to advise Abe to do more. Abe responded: “Professor Krugman, the international community must coordinate in the fiscal space and the countries which are able would spend fiscally. This message is very important. I presume that this is going to be essentially your message and I agree with your message. “

More recently, Ben Bernanke, the original promoter of helicopter money and former Fed chair during the global financial crash, was flown into Japan to advise on yet more printing of money.  Bernanke in April published on his Brookings blog that, while there were many challenges behind such a strategy, a “monetary financed fiscal program” shouldn’t be ruled out in the case of an emergency.  “Under certain extreme circumstances — sharply deficient aggregate demand, exhausted monetary policy, and unwillingness of the legislature to use debt-financed fiscal policies — such programs may be the best available alternative. It would be premature to rule them out,” Bernanke wrote.

But helicopter money will fail to kick-start the Japanese economy.  As Richard Koo, the Japanese Keynesian economist, puts it:  “direct financing may increase reserves in the banking system, but those reserves will stay trapped in the banking system since there are unlikely to be any additional private-sector borrowers.   In short, there’s no need for fancy helicopter-money theatricals. What’s needed is a greater allocation of long-term patient capital to government so that it can spend its way out of the private sector’s surplus savings problem productively and responsibly (ideally by committing capital to multi-generationally wealth-inducing projects that the private sector is unlikely to want to fund).”

As I have noted before, back in the depth of the Great Depression, Keynes came to a similar conclusion that quantitative easing would not work in getting economies out of depression.  Low interest rates and extra liquidity cannot get things going again, if the profitability of investment (what Keynes calls the ‘marginal efficiency of capital’) remained too low. Keynes concluded: “I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment; since it seems likely that the fluctuations in the market estimation of the marginal efficiency of different types of capital, calculated on the principles I have described above, will be too great to be offset by any practicable changes in the rate of interest”.  General Theory.  And so Keynes moved on to advocating fiscal spending and state intervention to complement or pump-prime failing business investment.

Nevertheless, the advocates of ‘helicopter money’ are speaking louder.  Now the chief economist at the OECD has lent her support to the sound of rotors in the economic sky.  Catherine Mann commented on Bloomberg TV that “We can’t just stick with this low nominal GDP growth”.  So we need action.  “Helicopter money by itself isn’t going to be any more effective at gaining economic growth than what the central banks have been doing already”.  Why? Because “you’re just going to take the helicopter money and put it in your mattress — where you’ve been keeping the rest of it.”  So, instead, the authorities could opt for helicopter shopping coupons “where you actually have to go spend the money.”  Now shopping coupons are going to get capitalism out of depression.

It seems that all these mainstream economists do not take into account their own research on the efficacy of quantitative easing.  The IMF held a special conference on just that subject last year.  And what did they conclude?  One economist from the LSE commenting on QE found that: “Yet, there is little evidence that the program led to an increase in credit.”  Some Fed economists considered the macroeconomic effect of QE.  They concluded that“ our analysis suggests that the net stimulus to real activity and inflation was limited by the gradual nature of the changes in policy expectations and term premium effects, as well as by a persistent belief on the part of the public that the pace of recovery would be much faster than proved to be the case.”  Then some European economists looked at the impact of the ECB’s QE.  They found that QE“significantly reduced bank risk and allowed banks to access market based financing again. The increase in bank health translated into an increased loan supply to the corporate sector, especially to low-quality borrowers. These firms use the cash inflow from new bank loans to build up cash reserves, but show no significant increase in real activity, that is, no increase in employment or investment”.

money multiplier

So the modern mainstream economists found the same result that Keynes found in the 1930s.  Pumping money and expanding credit does not work in restoring growth because it does not boost investment or employment.  It just fuels a stock market and bond boom. Indeed, while the Japanese government wants to start the rotor blades, the governor of the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda, announced at today’s BoJ meeting that helicopter money was ‘illegal’ (as it ‘monetised’ government debt) and things in Japan were fine anyway.  So two fingers to Bernanke.  I’ll return to how fine things are in Japan in a future post.

To add to the evidence against the efficacy on monetary measures to end the depressed level of growth, some economists at the Bank of England looked at the impact of finance on growth“The real question of interest here is if investment is low, is the blockage that is stopping investment taking place due to real economy factors – such as globalisation and secular stagnation – or financial factors – such as a lack of access to finance.”  The BoE economists found what others have also found: that small businesses are starved of credit to invest but large businesses have sufficient internal funds and don’t need to borrow, but still won’t invest.  The reason businesses are not investing at previous levels is because the profitability of invested capital is relatively low at least compared with the late 1990s.

Quantitative easing, negative interest rates and shopping coupons are not going to turn things around if profitability of investment in productive assets is not sufficient.  Public investment is the alternative.  The level of public investment in every major economy has been slashed in the years of austerity since the global financial crash.  The question then becomes; if more public investment is needed, how is it to be paid for and should it complement private investment or replace it altogether?  You know my answer to that.

Globalisation and whose recovery?

July 24, 2016

The finance ministers of the top 20 economies of the world met in Chengdu, China this weekend and they were worried.  Global economic growth continues to slow and monetary policy (central bank easing through cutting interest rates and engaging in ‘quantitative easing’) does not seem to be working in restoring levels of economic growth achieved before the Great Recession.

And the decision of the British people to vote to leave the European Union is an extra shock to world capital economy. Brexit implies further slowdown in world trade expansion; one way that the G20 financial authorities hoped could get global growth going again.  The prospect (still unlikely) that Donald Trump could win the US presidential election in November also raises the risk that the largest and most important economy in the world could move towards protectionism on trade and finance, as well as imposing and supporting tighter restrictions on the free movement of labour.  The great days of globalisation could be over.

Prior to the meeting, the IMF had to announce yet another reduction in its forecast of global growth.  The reduction was not much, but it was the fifth time in 15 months.  The IMF now expects global GDP to grow at 3.1 percent in 2016 and at 3.4 percent in 2017 — down 0.1 percentage point for each year from estimates issued in April.  And this forecast is still well above the much more pessimistic June forecast of the World Bank, which is expecting only 2.4% growth in 2016 from the 2.9 percent pace projected in January.

The G20 leaders said they were opposed to trade protectionism “in all its forms” and were committed to further monetary and fiscal measures to “strengthen growth”, but there was again no commitment to common action.  US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said ahead of the meeting that it was “not the right time for coordinated action similar to that in 2008-09 following the global crisis because economies face different conditions.”  So basically, they are doing nothing and relying on already failing policy methods.

But the strategists of global capital are worried.  First, nothing appears to be working and real GDP and trade growth are slowing.  Look at the latest data on world trade growth by the Dutch research group CPB.  World trade contracted yet again in May and is now up only 0.75% from May 2015 in volume (that’s excluding price effects).  Growth in 2016 is well below the post-Great Recession average of 2.7% a year, which in turn is less than half the rate of world trade growth before the global financial crash (at 5.7%).

world trade volume

And it is not just trade.  World industrial production, the best measure of growth in the productive sectors of the world economy, is hardly moving and is actually falling in advanced capitalist economies, according to CPD.  Again industrial production growth is below even the post-crash average, which in turn is below the pre-crash average.

world IP

But it is not just the economic performance of the global economy that worries the G20 leaders; it is the political effect that this is having on the people of the major economies.  They are losing confidence in mainstream politicians because they cannot deliver on better living standards and any recovery for the majority since the Great Recession.  The leaders talk big about recovery and improving conditions but the majority don’t see it.  This partly explains the Brexit vote in Britain and the rise of so-called populist parties in Europe and Trump in the US.

Three recent reports by mainstream economic experts show that the perception of the majority that they have not seen any ‘recovery’ is based on reality.  McKinsey, the international management consultants, published a report called Poorer than their parents? A new perspective on income inequality, which showed that the real incomes of about two-thirds of households in 25 advanced economies were flat or fell between 2005 and 2014!

McKinsey concludes that “Most people growing up in advanced economies since World War II have been able to assume they will be better off than their parents. For much of the time, that assumption has proved correct: except for a brief hiatus in the 1970s, buoyant global economic and employment growth over the past 70 years saw all households experience rising incomes, both before and after taxes and transfers. As recently as between 1993 and 2005, all but 2 percent of households in 25 advanced economies saw real incomes rise.

Yet this overwhelmingly positive income trend has ended. “between 2005 and 2014, real incomes in those same advanced economies were flat or fell for 65 to 70 percent of households, or more than 540 million people (exhibit). And while government transfers and lower tax rates mitigated some of the impact, up to a quarter of all households still saw disposable income stall or fall in that decade.

McKinsey forecasts that: “If the low economic growth of the past decade continues, the proportion of households in income segments with flat or falling incomes could rise as high as 70 to 80 percent over the next decade. Even if economic growth accelerates, the issue will not go away: the proportion of households affected would decrease, to between about 10 and 20 percent—but that share could double if the growth is accompanied by a rapid uptake of workplace automation.”  Who says this is not A Long Depression!

Last week, Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, published a speech of his that he made in Port Talbot, Wales, in June. Port Talbot is the home of the British steel industry, now owned by the Indian steel giant, Tata.  Tata has announced that it wants to sell the business there or close it down, putting thousands of steel workers out of work.

Now Haldane has been a bit of a maverick in central bank circles in the past.  I have already pointed out in previous posts that he considers that the finance sector in capitalism adds ‘no value’ whatsoever and can be even negative for the global economy – that is very ‘off message’ for a bank official!

At Port Talbot, he made a speech called “Whose recovery?”. In it, says that, when he visited a community centre in Nottingham in the middle of England:  “I was stopped in my tracks by a forest of furrowed brows and a phalanx of probing questions, not all of them gentle. “What exactly do you mean by recovery?” one asked. “My charity is dealing with 50% more homeless people than three years ago.” Every other charity in the room had similar stories to tell. Whether it was food banks, mental health problems or drug addiction, all of the numbers were up. The language of “recovery” simply did not fit their facts.”

In the UK’s very weak economic recovery since 2009, it is the rich, those in the south and those who are older than have ‘recovered’. The rest have not at all.  Haldane commented. “At least as measured by GDP, the economy and society as a whole is 5% better off. But is it? The income of the already-rich has risen by just over 10%, while the income of the already-poor as fallen by 50%. Does the former really swamp the latter when it comes to the well-being of society?”

Haldane found that in only two regions – London and the South-East – is GDP per head in 2015 estimated to be above its pre-crisis peak. In other UK regions, GDP per head still lies below its pre-crisis peak, in some cases strikingly so. For example, in Northern Ireland GDP per head remains 11% below its peak, in Yorkshire and Humberside 6% below and here in Wales 2% below.

Since the end of the Great Recession, the largest gains in income have come in regions where income was already high – London (incomes more than 30% above the UK average) and the South-East (14% higher). Contrarily, some of the larger losses have been in regions where income was already-low – Northern Ireland (18% lower than the UK average) and Yorkshire and Humberside (14% lower).  Haldane concluded that “it is clear that recovery has been associated with both the incomes and, more strikingly, the wealth of the least well-off having broadly flat-lined. Recovery has not lifted all boats, especially some of the smaller ones. This pattern may go some further way towards solving the recovery puzzle. Whose recovery? To a significant extent, those already asset-rich.”  And this is the UK, which has supposedly recovered better than the rest of Europe.

Then there is the report by Macquarie, the Australian based investment firm (WhatCaughtMyEye200716e248606). Macquarie reckons that the structure of the labour force is shifting towards the modern equivalent of ‘lumpenproletariat’ (they use the Marxist term). Most people are increasingly employed in more precarious and low-paid occupations.  This applied to “as much as 40%-45% of the labour force”.  The same trend is evident in most other developed economies.  Macquarie have not have got the concept of lumpenproletariat right.  What the investment firm describes is really the normal position of the labour force under capitalism: continual tendency to join the ‘reserve army’ of labour.

This is why the ‘recovery’ has not been felt by the majority as they are locked into insecure jobs with low incomes. Inequality of income and wealth continues to worsen, while the productivity of the labour force languishes across the board.  US labour productivity has stagnated from the 1980s onwards.  “Over subsequent decades, stagnant productivity was pretty much replicated across most economies. Declining productivity growth reflects that an increasing proportion of the labour force and employment is essentially “warehoused” in lower productivity occupations, pending either their final elimination and replacement”, says Macquarie.

The last six years represented essentially a continuation of a trend towards lower-end jobs in the US, which started in the mid-to-late 1980s. “On our estimates, low end/contingent jobs represented ~36% of the total labour force in 1990 and today it is ~42% (or around 52m jobs vs. 33m in similar occupations in 1990) whilst the high end jobs used to be 45%-46% and today the number is closer to 43.5%.”

So the world economy has still not recovered to pre-crisis levels.  More important, the majority of households in the major economies have seen no ‘recovery’ at all.  The great jobs expansion is been mainly in low-paid, low productivity sectors or in self-employment where incomes are relatively lower.

The solution to this depression of incomes, output and productivity from mainstream economics varies from the Keynesians, who yet again advocate more government spending as monetary policy is exhausted (see this latest piece by Summers and Eggertsson) to the Austrian monetarists who reckon the problem is excessive monetary easing by central banks that has created a credit bubble without any impact on the real economy.  The Keynesians want more government spending and the Austrians want less credit expansion.  As I and my co-author G Carchedi showed in a The long roots of the present crisis, neither policy solution will work.

What worries the strategists of capital is that their failure to get capitalism going again or reduce the burden for the majority to pay for it is beginning to end their political control of the majority.  Brexit, the rise of Trump and other ‘populist’ leaders now threaten the end of the neoliberal ‘free trade, cheap labour’ agenda of globalisation.

 

Getting off the fence on modern imperialism

July 19, 2016

Those of you who have been following the discussion on modern imperialism on my blog will know it was kicked off by two books: one by John Smith called Imperialism in the 21st century and one by Tony Norfield called The City – London and the power of financeThe discussion on my blog was expanded at the recent workshop on Imperialism in London, where the analysis was developed among upwards of 100 participants.

Since then, John Smith has sent in a long comment on my last post on that workshop which merits some decent space and a reply.

So first, here is John’s comment.

“Sorry, I’ve been away and have only just come upon this post. It raises many questions; here I restrict myself to two of them.

  1. Michael repeats Lucia Pradella’s claim that, “in Volume III, Marx explains that investments in colonies, where the rates of profit were higher, are a factor that counteracts the law of the falling rate of profit.” This is not true. What we get in Volume III is not an explanation, but an extremely fleeting mention. Here is the passage to which Michael and Lucia refer:

“As far as capital invested in colonies, etc. is concerned, the reason why this can yield higher rates of profit is that the profit rate is generally higher there on account of the lower degree of development, and so too is the exploitation of labor, through the use of slaves and coolies, etc.” (Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 345)

In my book (Imperialism in the 21st Century, p244) I comment:
“Close examination of this passage reveals not one but two reasons why capital invested in colonies may return a higher than average rate of profit. Lower degree of development refers to low productivity, capital-intensity, etc., and extends to the colonies the same unequal exchange effect previously identified by Marx in trade between more and less advanced capitalist nations. It is the second part of the sentence that attracts attention. Marx says that “the profit rate is generally higher [in the colonies] … and so too is the exploitation of labor, through the use of slaves and coolies, etc.” The few words in this single sentence are the only place in the whole of Capital’s three volumes and in its fourth volume, Theories of Surplus Value, where Marx mentions the positive effect on the rate of profit in the imperialist nations of higher exploitation in subject nations.”
… to which I added this footnote:

“It is noteworthy that Marx talks about the exploitation of labor, not the rate of exploitation, and labor, not labor-power. That this might be due to the provisional, draft form of the original can be discounted—even in rough drafts, Marx is meticulous in his choice of words. It is more likely that he deliberately chose not to use the developed capitalist form of these categories, because in the colonies, at that time, the commodification of labor-power and the universalisation of the capital/wage labor relation had a way to go. This again underlines the evolutionary distance separating the past three decades from the stage of capitalist development observed and analyzed by Marx.”

  1. Michael says “John argues that imperialist exploitation is now predominantly ‘super-exploitation’… Other forms of exploitation under capitalism: absolute surplus value (namely through maximising the working day); or relative surplus value (namely lowering the cost in hours for maintaining the labour force in a given day); according to John, these have become secondary forms of exploitation under modern imperialism.”

I’m sure that Michael agrees that great care and precision is necessary when dealing with these concepts, and I’m therefore disappointed that Michael repeats this crude mischaracterisation of my argument – I’ve already made two attempts to correct him on this, in a previous blog comment and at the IIPPE workshop itself. I argue that the vast global shift of production to low-wage countries signifies that capitalists in North America, Europe and Japan have become very much more dependent on super-exploited workers in low-wage nations (‘super-exploited’ because their rate of exploitation is higher than in their own countries – precisely why production has shifted), and this is why, during the neoliberal era, capitalism has become more not less imperialist.

I still don’t know whether Michael agrees with this. My book further argues that shifting production to low-wage countries has become an increasingly-favoured alternative way of cutting costs and boosting profits than investing in productivity-expanding technology – which is why accelerated outsourcing coincided with a historic collapse of capital investment in the imperialist countries. I therefore argue that the substitution of relatively high-wage workers in imperialist countries with low-waged, more intensely exploited, workers in oppressed nations has become the predominant means of *increasing* the rate of exploitation. My argument therefore hinges on the *relative* importance of the three means of *increasing* surplus value, and makes no claim that one, in absolute terms, is more important than the other.

To summarise, four propositions:

  1. a) in Capital, Marx identified not two put three ways to increase the rate of surplus value, and that while he repeatedly emphasised the importance of the third (reducing wages below the value of labour power) each time he explained that examination of this was excluded Capital because his ‘general theory’ required the assumption that all commodities sold at their value;
  2. b) it is true, as Lucia argues, that in Capital Marx does not analyse a single national economy, but neither does he analyse the concrete global economy of his day (still less, obviously of our day) – the glancing reference to ‘coolie labour’ alone is proof of this. He analyses an idealised unitary economy in which all factors of production, including labour, are freely mobile (i.e. he excludes all forms of monopoly) – as is reflected in his assumption that labour power has but one value;
  3. c) that replacing labour power of higher value in imperialist countries with labour power of lower value in Bangladesh, China etc is tantamount to, i.e. has the same effect on the rate of exploitation as, the reduction of wages below the value of labour power and therefore corresponds to the third form of surplus value increase;
  4. d) that this is therefore a new fact not contained in the theory of value presented in Capital. This does not mean that Marx was wrong, it means that capitalism itself has evolved, and that the general theory presented in Capital need to be critically developed to take account of this evolution.

This is very far from the last word on this topic, in fact it gets us only to the starting point of the conversation that we need to have. To avoid this debate going around in circles, I request that Michael unequivocally states his opinion on these four propositions, because I’m still not sure where he stands. In fact that I think there is a bit of fence-sitting going on (bold by MR).

And here is my reply:

John, thank you for your very comprehensive comments on the discussion that we have been having about the nature of exploitation under modern imperialism.

You suggest that I have not been clear where I stand on the key points that you raise in your book and in our discussion and I have been ‘fence-sitting’.  Maybe.  But sometimes it is necessary to consider all points and not immediately agree or disagree until you are convinced.  An open mind, at least for a while, is not a bad thing as long as sitting on a fence does not go on too long!

But I think gradually I have formulated my views during our discussions.

John says that Marx did not just say the rate of profit is higher in the colonies due to a lower degree of development (i.e. low productivity and capital intensity) but that there was also a higher exploitation of labour.  John says this means Marx did not use his categories of capital when referring to colonies because the colonies were not part of global capital at the time.

I cannot see that we can draw this conclusion.  To me, Marx is saying that the rate of profit (in value) is higher in the colonies just as it is higher in less efficient, lower capital intensity capitals in a modern economy.  And in the process of equalisation towards an average rate of profit, value is transferred from the inefficient to the more efficient capitals.  “The rates of profit prevailing in the different branches of production are originally very different. These different rates of profit are equalized by competition to a single general rate of profit, which is the average of all these different rates of profit” (Capital III, p.158).

This theory applies to the global economy.  In addition, workers in the colonies can be exploited more when they don’t receive the value of their labour power in wages or are slaves.  That adds to the profitability in the colonies that can be transferred through international trade and capital flows to the imperialist economies.

I agree that capital has shifted investment into the periphery in order to take advantage of much lower wage costs there compared to the advanced economies. Who could deny that? And it is in keeping with Marx’s theoretical analysis.  Also it is another way of counteracting Marx’s law of falling profitability – indeed that is the point.  If that makes capitalism “more imperialist” in the neo-liberal period, fine.

But has ‘super-exploitation’ become a ‘relatively’ more important way of increasing surplus value over absolute and relative surplus value in the neoliberal period?  Well, maybe.  But I’m not sure what revelation or modification in the Marxist theory of imperialism this suggests.

John wants a reply to his four summarised propositions.  So I’ll try and get ‘off the fence’.

John:

  1. a) in Capital, Marx identified not two put three ways to increase the rate of surplus value, and that while he repeatedly emphasised the importance of the third (reducing wages below the value of labour power) each time he explained that examination of this was excluded Capital because his ‘general theory’ required the assumption that all commodities sold at their value;

My reply:

Well, Marx excluded this third category of super-exploitation because the fundamental cause of exploitation is the appropriation of value by capital even when workers get paid their ‘value’.  If it were just ‘super exploitation’, the theory of value would be wrong.

Marx did not say that “all commodities sold at their value”.  On the contrary, commodities do not sell at their value as Smith (Adam) and Ricardo thought, but at their prices of production because of the transformation of individual values into prices of production through an average rate of profit.  Indeed, that is why ‘super exploitation’ is not enough to show why profitability is higher in some capitals than others.

John

  1. b) it is true, as Lucia argues, that in Capital Marx does not analyse a single national economy, but neither does he analyse the concrete global economy of his day (still less, obviously of our day) – the glancing reference to ‘coolie labour’ alone is proof of this. He analyses an idealised unitary economy in which all factors of production, including labour, are freely mobile (i.e. he excludes all forms of monopoly) – as is reflected in his assumption that labour power has but one value;

My reply:

I disagree that Marx’s analysis is ‘idealised’.  It starts with an abstract analysis taken from the real world with realistic assumptions (like all value comes from labour; capital accumulation leads to increased mechanisation) to which is added all the concrete parts of capitalism: from ‘capital in general’ to ‘many capitals’, from the commodity to money and to credit; from the world to many nations; from competition to monopoly.  Indeed, he does not exclude ‘all forms of monopoly’.  He analyses the concrete global economy of his day, often in much detail.

John

  1. c) that replacing labour power of higher value in imperialist countries with labour power of lower value in Bangladesh, China etc is tantamount to, i.e. has the same effect on the rate of exploitation as, the reduction of wages below the value of labour power and therefore corresponds to the third form of surplus value increase;

My reply:

No, super exploitation is when wages are below the value of labour power.  But the ‘value of labour power’ is different in different countries depending on the socially accepted level in each.  So capital shifting investment to low wage countries from high wage countries does not prove by itself that ‘super exploitation’ is involved at all.

John

  1. d) that this is therefore a new fact not contained in the theory of value presented in Capital. This does not mean that Marx was wrong, it means that capitalism itself has evolved, and that the general theory presented in Capital need to be critically developed to take account of this evolution.

My reply:

Super exploitation is not part of the theory of value because, as Marx says, it is temporary and changes and is different in each country etc.  In the process of production, capitalists might force a lower wage. If the value of labour power has remained the same, i.e. if the necessities of life and their production price remain the same, the lower wage can purchase less wage goods and the price of labour power (wages) falls below its value, the production price of those socially determined necessities.  That is super exploitation.

But if this low wage is maintained, workers must eventually accept a lower value of labour power in the goods and services they can buy with it.  In that sense, super exploitation becomes simply a higher level of (“normal”) exploitation because the value of labour power has been lowered in the class struggle.  Yes, more exploitation, but not super-exploitation as a new category of capital.

Super-exploitation is not a category that explains exploitation as such. And it is not a new fact – it’s been around all the time.  Is it decisive now?  Not proven.

Stock markets, profits and irrationality

July 17, 2016

In a recent post, Paul Krugman took up the issue of whether movements in the stock market provide a good guide on how the capitalist economy is doing.  The question arises because the US stock market prices have hit a new all-time high in the last couple of weeks with apparently slightly better economic news and with the conviction among investors (i.e. big banks, corporation, managed funds and hedge funds) that the US Federal Reserve was not going to raise its policy interest rate this year or even for the foreseeable future.

Krugman reckons that stock prices generally have a lot less to do with the state of the economy or its future prospects than many people believe. As the economist Paul Samuelson put it, “Wall Street indexes predicted nine out of the last five recessions.”  Indeed, Krugman went further in saying that “in some ways the stock market’s gains reflect economic weaknesses, not strengths. And understanding how that works may help us make sense of the troubling state our economy is in.”

Krugman makes three (good) points to explain why stock prices are of little guidance about the state of the US economy: “First, stock prices reflect profits, not overall incomes. Second, they also reflect the availability of other investment opportunities — or the lack thereof. Finally, the relationship between stock prices and real investment that expands the economy’s capacity has gotten very tenuous.”

And profits in the US have been falling as a share of total output and even in absolute terms just as the stock market has risen.

US corporate profits growth

And the prospects for investment that will deliver higher growth have diminished.  So it would seem that the stock market has got way out of line with the so-called ‘real economy’.

Why? Well, Krugman’s answer is ‘monopoly power’.  The very big companies are making big money, and then sitting on the cash and buying back their own shares.  As a result, stock prices rise even though investment in the real economy stagnates or falls. There is no doubt that this is part of the explanation.  But the other part relates to the very low interest rates that operate across the board in the major economies.  Central banks in many economies have driven interest rates into negative territory, so banks are being paid to borrow money and in turn they must offer very low rates to companies and households, particularly the large companies.  They can virtually borrow for free and then use the cash to buy shares.

interest rates

This is a financial credit ‘bubble’ of similar proportions to the housing credit bubble prior to 2007.  And it is expressed in the fact that global private sector debt has not fallen at all since the onset of the Great Recession.  Instead, debt has been piled up as a cheap way of sustaining capitalist economies.  This successfully ‘saved’ the banks, although it has not restored profitable investment and faster growth in the productive sectors of the major economies.  This is US corporate debt to GDP below.

US corporate debt

This brings me to a recent discussion about the role and relevance of stock markets to the capitalist economy conducted by the two leading mainstream economic exponents of stock market theory from Chicago University: Eugene Fama and Richard Thaler.  Both are Nobel prize winners in economics.  Fama is famous for his so-called Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH) and Thaler is a renowned ‘behavioural economist’.  The debate between the two is really about whether the stock market provides a good guide to what is happening in a capitalist economy or whether it is totally volatile and ‘irrational’.

Fama says that EMH explains that capitalist markets, including stock markets, are ‘efficient’ in the sense that the price reflects what buyers and sellers reckon is right given the information before them.  Well, that does not sound very profound.  And is it true?  Fama says “testing the proposition is difficult”!  But, he says, it is a good approximation to what is going on.  So if stock prices are high and rising, it means that investors think the economy is doing better (given the information they have) and they may well be right.

Thaler, on the other hand, reckons that stock market prices are so volatile that there is no rational explanation of their movements; they can reflect ‘bubbles’ based on what another ‘behavioural’ colleague of Thaler’s, Robert Shiller, called ‘irrational exuberance’.  Thaler cites the huge fall in stock prices in the crash of 1987.  There was no basis for the crash in the ‘real economy’ which was doing well.  Fama’s reply is that people thought there was an economic recession coming on, but they were wrong and then the stock market corrected itself.  The crash of 1987, In hindsight, that was a big mistake; but in hindsight, every price is wrong.”  People change their minds.

Thaler argues that there are ‘bubbles’, which he considers are ‘irrational’ movements in prices not related to fundamentals like profits or interest rates.  Fama’s reply is that you cannot tell if there is a ‘bubble’ before it happens, only in hindsight and the bubble in prices may merely express a change in view of investors about prospective investment returns, not ‘irrationality’.  In this sense, Fama is right and Thaler is wrong.

But that is not very helpful to the rest of us to understand what is happening and what stock markets are doing.  Fama is (in)famous for stating after the Great Recession that you cannot predict crashes or slumps and we should not even try (see my The causes of the Great Recession).  Just accept that they happen.  Thaler is telling us that crashes and slumps are caused by ‘irrationality’ and not by any fundamental developments in the wider economy.  Neither mainstream economic theory offers any help, then.

Thaler says the answer is for the monetary authorities to intervene “but very gently” to “lean against the wind a bit.  That’s as far as I would go. We both agree that markets, good or bad, are the best thing we’ve got going. Nobody has devised a way of allocating resources that’s better.”  In contrast, Fama reckons government or central bank intervention to control market prices (that are broadly ‘efficient’) islikely to cause more harm than good.”

So, in effect, both Fama and Thaler accept that markets rule and that market prices broadly allocate resources efficiently and ‘rationally’, except that Thaler wants to understand why people act sometimes differently than Fama’s ‘rational’ model.  Fama summed up their conclusions in the debate: “In general, it would be useful to know to what extent all economic outcomes are due to rational and irrational interplays. We don’t really know that.”  So the great Nobel prize winners don’t know much about why stock prices move up and down, often with no relation to the movement of key economic fundamentals like profits, investment, labour costs etc.

If we consider the movement of stock market prices from the point of view of Marxist analysis, then it is not so mysterious.  In previous posts, I have dealt with this issue.  As I said in one post: “Whatever the fluctuation in stock prices, eventually the value of a company must be judged by investors for its ability to make profits.  A company’s stock price can get way out of line with the accumulated value of its stock of real assets or its earnings, but  eventually the price will be dragged back into line.  Indeed, if we consider stock price indexes (ie an index of an aggregated group of individual stock prices) over the long term, they exhibit clear cycles, with up phases called bull markets and down phases called bear markets. And these bull and bear markets, at least in the US, match nicely the movement in the rate of profit”.

In Robert Shiller’s own measure of stock market prices relative to profits (below), we can see that stock market prices generally move with profitability, but they can get way out of line for period. Right now they are still higher than they were in the last ‘bear’ market.

Shiller CAPE

Marx made the key observation that what drives stock market prices is the difference between interest rates and the overall rate of profit. What has kept stock market prices rising now has been the very low level of long-term interest rates, deliberately engendered by central banks like the Federal Reserve around the world, with zero short-term rates and quantitative easing (buying financial assets with credit injections).  The gap between returns on investing in the stock market and the cost of borrowing to do it is thus maintained.

In his recent opus, Capitalism, Anwar Shaikh looks at the theory of financial prices. (Chapter 10). Of course, every day, investors make ‘irrational’ decisions but, over time and, in the aggregate, investor decisions to buy or to sell stocks or bonds will be based on the return they have received (in interest or dividends) and the prices of bonds and stocks will move accordingly.  And those returns ultimately depend on the difference between the profitability of capital invested in the economy and the costs of providing finance.

So this has less to do with ‘monopoly pricing’ as Krugman thinks and much more to do with the expansion of ‘fictitious capital’ relative to the profitability of capital as a whole.  And less to do with Keynes’s view, which reckons that stock market prices are driven by subjective ‘animal spirits’ and more to do with the objective level of profitability.

If stock prices get way out of line with the profitability of capital in an economy, then eventually they will fall back.  The further out of line they are, the bigger the eventual fall.    That is what we can expect now.

It’s out there now!

July 14, 2016

My long overdue book, The Long Depression, can now be purchased at Haymarket Books

http://www.haymarketbooks.org/pb/The-Long-Depression

and at Amazon US

https://www.amazon.com/Long-Depression-Marxism-Global-Capitalism/dp/1608464687

and at Amazon UK

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Depression-Michael-Roberts/dp/1608464687/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1468512452&sr=8-1&keywords=the+long+depression

 

 

 


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