ASSA 2019 part 2 – the radical: profitability, growth and crises

While hundreds attend the big meetings of the mainstream sessions at the annual meeting of the American Economics Association (ASSA 2019), only tens go to the sessions of the radical and heterodox wing of economics.  And even that is thanks to the efforts of the Union of Radical Political Economics (URPE), which celebrated its 50th year in 2018 that even these sessions take place.  URPE provides an umbrella and platform for radical, heterodox and Marxian analysis.  But it is also true that the AEA has included URPE (and other evolutionary and institutional economics associations) in its annual sessions – a mainstream concession not offered by economic associations in the UK or continental Europe.

This year the keynote address within the URPE sessions was the David Gordon Memorial Lecture by Professor Anwar Shaikh of the New School of Social Research in New York.  Anwar Shaikh has made an enormous contribution to radical political economy over more than 40 years, with the body of his work compiled in his monumental book, Capitalism, competition, conflict, crises, published in 2016.

Shaikh’s presentation was entitled Social Structure and Macrodynamics, which was an envelope for discussing the differences between mainstream economics (both micro and macro) and radical (Marxist?) political economy – and the resultant policy solutions offered to avoid and/or restore capitalist economies in crisis.  Shaikh argued that political economists must recognise the social structure of capitalism, including the reality of imperialism – something denied or ignored by the mainstream.  Instead of looking at the social structure of economies, the mainstream deliberately locks itself into the arcane and unrealistic world of ”free markets’’ and such things as game theory.

On crises, Shaikh delineated orthodox or mainstream theory as arguing that ‘austerity’ ie cuts in public spending and wage restraint was necessary to restore an economy in a slump, painful as it might be.  Heterodox (radical Keynesian) theory opposed this and imagined that spending through monetary and fiscal stimulus could restore growth to the benefit of both capital and labour.  Both sides ignored the social structure of capitalism, in particular that it is a system of production for the profit of the owners of capital.  Shaikh put it: “The truth is that successful stimulus requires attention to both effective demand and profitability”.

Those who read my blog regularly know that I would go further or indeed put it differently.   Capitalist economies go into slumps because of a collapse in profits and investment and this leads to a collapse in “effective demand”, not vice versa as the Keynesians (in whatever species) would have it.  So a restoration of profitability is necessary to restore growth under capitalism- this is what I (and G Carchedi) have called the Marxist multiplier compared to the Keynesian multiplier.

What is wrong with Keynesian theory and thus policy is that it denies this determinant role of profitability.  Indeed, in a way, the neoclassical mainstream has a point – that it is necessary (rational?) to drive down wages, weaken labour through unemployment and reduce the burden of the state on capital to revive profits and the economy. Of course, the mainstream cannot explain crises; often deny they can happen; and have no policy for recovery except to make labour pay.

The debate continues between the two wings of mainstream economics over fiscal and monetary stimulus.  Former chief economist of the IMF, Olivier Blanchard was the outgoing President of the AEA and in his address at ASSA 2019 he argued that, because yields on bonds were so low now, the interest cost of debt was very low; and so governments can run up budget deficits (ie reverse austerity) without causing a problem.

This view was echoed by that arch Keynesian policy exponent, Larry Summers in a recent article warning of an upcoming slump and the need for governments to provide counter cyclical infrastructure spending to avoid it.  “Fiscal policymakers should realise the very low real yield on government bonds is a signal that more debt can be absorbed. It is not too soon to begin plans to launch large-scale infrastructure projects if a downturn comes.”

Blanchard and Summers’ support for fiscal stimulus was attacked by the austerity exponents like Kenneth Rogoff (the controversial debt crisis history expert) who responded that fiscal stimulus a la Keynes is and would ineffective in avoiding a crisis: “those who think fiscal policy alone will save the day are stupefyingly naive…. Over-reliance on countercyclical fiscal policy will not work any better in this century than in it did in the last.

And so the debate within the mainstream goes on, blithely (or deliberately?) ignoring the social structure of macrodynamics (as Shaikh put it), namely that capitalism is a ‘money-making’ mode of production for owners of capital and so profitability not demand (or even debt) is what counts for the health or otherwise of economies.

So what has happened to the profitability of capital since the end of the Great Recession in 2009?  Two papers in the URPE sessions considered this.  David Kotz, the well-known Marxist economist from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, looked at the Rate of Profit, Aggregate Demand and Long Term Economic Expansion in the US since 2009.  Kotz (therateofprofitaggregatedemandan_preview) noted, as many others have, including myself in my book, The Long Depression, that the US recovery since 2009 has been the weakest since the 1940s.  Indeed, the last ten years are better considered as ‘persistent stagnation’.

Kotz made the point that the onset of recession in the US economy in the period since World War II has always been preceded by a decline in the rate of profit.  After a sharp drop in 2009, the profit rate recovered through 2012-13. It then declined from 2013 through 2016, then rose slightly in 2017. Kotz asked the question: why was the three-year decline in the profit rate not followed by a recession? His tentative conclusion was that “a likely explanation is that the profit rate remained relatively high after 2013 compared to past experience in the neoliberal era.”  I would argue differently: the modest fall in profitability from 2014-2016 was actually accompanied by a mini-recession, as I have shown.  Indeed, fixed investment plummeted in 2016 to near zero, as Kotz also shows.  So the connect between profits and investment and growth is still there.

Kotz does not think that the 2008 recession was the “consequence of a falling profit rate but rather was set off by a deflating real estate bubble and severe financial crisis”.  It may have been “set off”, but was that underlying cause?  There is no space to deal with this old argument about the Great Recession.  I can only refer you to these papers here – and my new book, World in Crisis.

Even though the rate of accumulation followed the movement in profitability after 2009, it remained low compared to its pre-recession level.

As Kotz says, this is a good explanation of why US productivity growth was also poor in the long depression or stagnation since 2009.  Kotz’s stats also reveal that the major contribution to the recovery after the end of the Great Recession was business investment, contributing 53.3% of GDP growth, almost as large as the 61.8% contribution from consumer spending growth, even though the latter constitutes 60-70% of GDP and business investment only 10-15%.  After 2013, consumer spending became more important as investment tailed off, leading to the mini-recession of 2014-16.

Kotz wants to distinguish the period of 1948-79 as one of ‘regulated capitalism’ and the period 1979-2017 as the ‘neoliberal era’, by showing that investment spending growth was much higher than consumption spending growth in the first period and lower in the second period. This leads him to conclude that “neoliberal capitalism is stuck in its structural crisis phase, a condition that can be overcome within capitalism only by the construction of a new institutional form of capitalism. However, there is no sign yet of the emergence of a viable new institutional structure for U.S. capitalism.”

But I don’t think that flows from Kotz’s data.  Actually in the neo-liberal period, both investment and consumer spending growth slowed and so did growth.  The swing factor was investment growth, which halved, while consumer spending fell only 20%.  Professor Kotz may not agree but I think his analysis tells us is that business investment is still the driver of growth under capitalism, while consumption is the dependent variable in aggregate demand.  It’s the same story in the neoliberal period as in the ‘regulated period’. What happens to profitability and investment is thus the crucial indicator of the future, not the emergence of any ‘new institutional structure’.

In this light, there was a revealing paper presented by Erdogan Bakir of Bucknell University and Al Campbell of the University of Utah.  They looked at the before-tax profit rate of US capital, unlike Kotz who looked at the after-tax rate of non-financial companies.  Bakir and Campbell conclude that the before tax rate is “a good predictive of cyclical downturn in the U.S. economy.”  In a typical business cycle, profit rate peaks at a certain stage of the business cycle expansion and then starts to decline while economic growth continues. This initial decline in the profit rate during what they call the “late expansion phase of the business cycle” becomes a reliably good predictor of cyclical contraction.  This very much matches my own view of profit cycle under capitalism.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the details of this paper to hand, so I’ll have review its conclusions another time.

The gap between the levels of profitability and investment since 2000 in several major capitalist economies have been subject of much debate.  In the past, it has revolved round the view that profits and investment are not connected causally and investment is driven by other factors ie demand or animal spirits a la Keynes or financialisation, where investment is going into financial speculation and away from productive investment (see here).

More recently, this ‘puzzle’ has centred on the measurement of investment – in particular, that investment increasingly takes the form of ‘intangibles’ (brand names, trademarks, copyrights, patents etc in ‘’intellectual property’.  Ozgur Orhangazi at Kadir Has University took this up in another paper
He presents the usual facts showing the gap between profitability and tangible investment. He argues that this gap can be explained by missing intangible investments. Intellectual property as a share of capital stock has doubled since the 1980s.

However, I note from his graph that, in the period of the 2000s, this share did not move very much and yet this is the period of the apparent ‘puzzle’.  Orhangazi draws lots of conclusions from his analysis which I shall leave the reader of his paper to consider but the key one is, as he says “All in all, these findings are in line with the suggestion that the increased use of intangible assets enables firms to have high profitability without a corresponding increase in investment.”  If this is correct it suggests, post-2009, that the causal connection between profits and tangible investment has weakened and that capitalism is actually doing ok and investing well (in intangibles) and just does not need so much profit to expand. That begs the question on whether ‘intangibles’ like ”goodwill’’ are really value-creating.

But is this argument of mismeasurement factually correct? In his AEA presidential address, Olivier Blanchard also looked at US profitability.  Like Marxist analyses of US (pre-tax) profitability, he noted that there was a big fall from the 1960s to the late 1970s and a stabilisation afterwards.

Blanchard noted that the ‘market value’ of firms had doubled compared to the stock of tangible capital invested (Tobin’s Q) since the 1980s.  But he dismisses the argument of mismeasurement of investment in intangibles to explain this:  “A number of researchers have explored this hypothesis, and their conclusion is that, even if the adjustment already made by the Bureau of Economic Analysis is insufficient, intangible capital would have to be implausibly large to reconcile the evolution of the two series: Measured intangible capital as a share of capital has increased from 6% in 1980 to 15% today. Suppose it had in fact increased by 25%. This would only lead to a 10% increase in measured capital, far from enough to explain the divergent evolutions of the two series.”

Blanchard says the ‘puzzle’ is more likely due to monopoly rents.  My own explanation and critique of these explanations can be found here.  But the essential point for explaining slumps in capitalism and predicting new ones is intact, in my view,: it depends on the relation between profitability and capitalist (productive) investment that leads to new value.

I have not got the space to deal with all the other interesting papers in the URPE sessions.  They include an analysis by Margarita Olivera of the Federal University of Brazil of the obstacles to industrial development in Latin America posed by trans-national companies and the new free trade agreements like TPP.  Eugenia Correa of UNAM and Wesley Marshall of UAM Mexico analysed the new counter-revolution in economic policy ahead as right-wing governments take over in Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador.  And again, I shall have to neglect an analysis of China’s industrial development provided by Hao Qi of Renmin University (semiproletarianizationinatwosector_preview).

There were also several papers from a post-Keynesian perspective with Michalis Nikioforos of the Levy Institute presenting the usual wage-led, profit-led theory of crises. Daniele Tavani and Luke Petach of Colorado State University presented an insightful alternative to the explanation by Thomas Piketty of rising inequality of wealth and income based on the switch to neo-liberal policies in the 1980s driving down the share of labour, not Piketty’s neoclassical marginal productivity argument (incomesharessecularstagnationand_preview).  And Lela Davis, Joao Paulo, and Gonzalo Hernandez presented a paper that showed financial fragility was to be found in smaller new firms entering and exiting – this was the weak link in the debt story for capital (theevolutionoffinancialfragilitya_preview).

Finally, there were several papers on developments in international finance.  Ingrid Kvangravenof the University of York looked at changing views on the beneficial role of international finance for capitalism; Carolina Alves of Girton College, Cambridge reckoned that ‘financial globalisation’’ and neoliberal policies have led the economic strategy of international institutions to drop fiscal stimulus policy and Keynesian-style intervention for monetary management.  Devika Dutt from Amherst reckoned that international reserve accumulation particularly in so-called emerging economies encourages volatile capital inflows that make those economies vulnerable to financial crises (canreserveaccumulationbecounterprodu_powerpoint).

To sum up ASSA 2019.  The mainstream still avoids explaining the global financial crash and the Great Recession, ten years since it ended.  So it is still confused about what economic policies would avoid a new slump; are they monetary, ‘macro-prudential’ or fiscal?  This is because it denies the social structure of capitalism, namely that is a mode of production for profit to the owners of capital who are engaged in a class struggle to extract value from labour.  The irreconcilable contradiction between profitability and growth over time was at the core of Marx’s insight as the underlying cause of regular recurring and unavoidable crises of capitalism.  This is what the mainstream does not accept and where radical political economy comes up front.


6 Responses to “ASSA 2019 part 2 – the radical: profitability, growth and crises”

  1. Anti-Capital Says:

    If possible, can you produce the charts for rate of profit and rate of capital accumulation for the entire post WW2 period– 1946-2017 or 2018? Thanks.

  2. Brad Mayer Says:

    Off topic perhaps, but comments at some other time on “China won’t take over” found at would be of interest. If you think, like I do, that China is the other big shoe to drop in the capitalist world system.

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