Share prices, profits and debt

The world’s stock markets continue to hit the roof, particularly the US markets which have reached all-time highs.  ‘The Donald’ may dominate the headlines with his presidential decrees and tweets, but on the whole, financial investors remain optimistic.  As I showed in a previous post, there is a growing consensus among economists and investors that things are looking up and the world economy is set for a sustained recovery.

Take the latest forecasts from Gavyn Davies, former chief economist at Goldman Sachs and now running his own financial agency, Fulcrum.

He comments “One of the most important questions for 2017 is whether this bout of reflation will continue. My answer, based partly on the latest results from the Fulcrum nowcast and inflation models, is that it will continue, at least compared to the sluggish rates of increase in nominal GDP since the Great Financial Crash.” Moreover “The nowcasts continue to report strong growth across the board, with world activity now expanding at a 4.2 per cent annualised rate   Strong growth is especially apparent in the advanced economies, where the growth rate is now 3.0 per cent, a figure that is well above the long term trend of 1.8 per cent. Furthermore, activity growth is estimated to be above trend in all of the major advanced economies simultaneously: US (3.6 per cent), Eurozone (2.5 per cent), Japan (1.8 per cent) and the UK (2.5 per cent).”

So it is looking good.  However, as I did in my previous post, I must throw some cold water on this forecast for higher and sustained economic growth.  Sustained trend growth does not depend on consumption; it does not depend on more spending by households on goods and services financed by more borrowing or induced by higher share prices.  It depends on increased investment in production capacity leading to higher productivity growth. And that, in turn depends on better profits for the key corporate sector of an economy.  And as yet, there is little sign of that.

For example, in the data for the last quarter of 2016 for the US economy, any pickup in business investment was minimal.  US real GDP figures show an annualised rise of 1.9%. So real growth in 2016 was just 1.6% compared to 2.6% in 2015 – the slowest rate since the end of the Great Recession.  There was a bit more business investment after three quarters of decline. But business investment was still up only 0.3% yoy. The key sector of equipment investment was still falling by 3.6% yoy.


As a result, productivity growth (that’s the increase in output per worker), is stagnant, especially in the key productive sectors like manufacturing.


These are similar points to those made by John Ross in his latest post on the US economy, namely the myth of a strong economic recovery.


Well, it could be argued: that’s the past.  As Gavyn Davies and others argue, things will be different this year.  Even ‘post-Brexit’ Britain is likely to record reasonable growth of 2% this year, say the Bank of England and other agencies, contrary to their doomladen forecasts after the referendum last summer.

But I say again, the key indicators are an increase in business investment and behind that, the driver of, an increase in corporate profits.  The figures we have for the third quarter of 2016 (general the latest) suggest a mild recovery in global profits from the slowdown experienced since 2014.  But it is not much to go on.


The overall trend in US corporate profits has been down for over two years.  The graph below shows what has happened to earnings per share (EPS) for the top 500 companies in America.


And behind this decline lies a fall in the record highs achieved in corporate profit margins (i.e. the share of profits in total output) from as early as 2011 – in other words, corporate profits rose but even more slowly than corporate sales or total output.  Some mainstream economists argue that this is good news because tighter margins will increase competition and reduce inequality.  But this is nonsense, as I argued in Jacobin last year.  I argued in that Jacobin piece, falling profits and profit margins herald a slump in investment and then a slump in production and employment.  JP Morgan and other investment bank economists have made the same point.

Corporate profit margins are still well above their historic average. In order for them to revert to their mean, they would have to fall to 9%, according to Casey Research.  The last time profit margins sunk that low, the US economy entered the Great Recession of 2008-9.


As I showed in a recent post, profitability across the spectrum of the corporate sector in the major advanced capitalist economies remains weak and there is a sizeable section of that sector that are ‘zombie’ firms, unable to make any more profit than necessary to cover the servicing of their debts, let along invest in new productive technology to raise productivity and expand.

And behind that situation is the level of corporate debt, something ignored by the likes of Gavyn Davies.  As Austrian economist, William White puts it in a damning piece, “the question that all market observers ultimately have to answer today is whether the epic accumulation of global debt is sustainable. If it is not, as I believe, the next question is how to identify the signs indicating that excesses are becoming unsustainable and leading to breakage.”

Michael Lewitt points out that stock markets “are chasing the highest valuations in history.”  As the graph below shows, they still have some way to go to match the hi-tech bubble excess of 2000. But the US stock market is now at the same level of valuation as just before the 1929 crash.


And yet financial markets are not supported by strong corporate earnings and real GDP growth.  According to Factset, estimated non- GAAP earnings growth for S&P companies in 2016 was a paltry +0.1% (and GAAP earnings growth was negative). Revenues were up roughly 2.0%.  “Wall Street strategists trying to tempt investors into buying more stocks at these levels are playing with fire.” (Casey).

France: penned in

The victory of Benoit Hamon as the new leader of the ruling Socialist party in France sets the scene for an unpredictable outcome from the upcoming presidential election in April-May.

Hamon is a Corbyn-Sanders type left leader who defeated the right-wing Blairite-Clinton candidate in the socialist primary that saw nearly 2m vote.  He stands for cutting the working week, boosting the minimum wage and reversing various neo-liberal measures introduced by incumbent ‘socialist’ President Hollande, who is so unpopular (with 4% approval) that he decided to not to run again.

Hamon starts way behind in the public opinion polls, with about 15% of those voting likely to support him, but ahead of the ‘far left’ candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon with 10%.  The leader of the pack is Marie Le Pen, head of the (formerly openly fascist) racist, anti-immigrant, anti-EU Front National (NF), who is polling about 25%.  The centre-right, neo-liberal main capitalist party, the Republicans, have picked Francois Fillon, who wants to increase the working week, privatise more and cut public employees and services sharply.  Fillon, who has been caught in a scandal of paying his wife €800,000 as his ‘secretary’ from public funds for doing nothing, is polling about 22%.  Then there is the so-called centre candidate, a former right-wing ‘socialist’ minister, Emmanuel Macron, who is pro-EU, wants more neo-liberal policies etc.  He is getting about 21%.

So it’s all wide open.  As the French presidential election is over two rounds, with the top two in the first round then having a run-off, the most likely outcome is that Le Pen may get to the second round but then be roundly defeated by one of the others (in a second round any of the others are ahead against Le Pen by about 60-40).  So it is unlikely that France will vote in a racist Eurosceptic president.

But that does not rule out a new right-wing president who will try to boost profitability at the expense of labour, by raising the working week, imposing stringent labour laws, cuts in public services, pensions and have more privatisations.  That’s because French capital needs to act as it slips further behind its major partner in Europe, German capital.

The French economy picked up the last quarter of 2016, but it was a very modest recovery.  The French economy grew 1.1 percent in all of 2016, compared with 3.2 percent in Spain and 1.9 percent in Germany.  The unemployment rate remains stuck close to 10 percent compared to just 3.9% in Germany.


The reality is that French capital has been in trouble for some time.  The best estimate of the profitability of French capital in the last 50 years shows that after the profitability slump of the 1960s that all the major capitalist economies experienced, French capital made only a limited recovery in the so-called neo-liberal era.


That was partly due to the failure of French industry to invest and compete in world markets and eventually in the Eurozone compared to Germany.  And it was also partly due to the stubborn militancy of French labour to allow cuts in wages and conditions and to preserve public services and benefits – France has the best national health service in the world and still relatively good social benefits and pensions (although these have been eaten away).  And it has an official 35-hour week which is enforced by the labour movement.

At the end of the 20th century, profitability peaked and began to fall again.  It is now at a post-war low.  As a result, French capital is struggling to compete.  Indeed, since the euro started in 1999, the profitability of French capital has plummeted 27% compared to a 21% rise in Germany.  Profitability is still down a staggering 22% since the peak just before the global financial crash in 2007 – that’s way more than the decline in Germany or the Euro area average.


As a result, investment, particularly business investment, has stagnated in the ‘recovery’ since 2009.


As investment has been so poor, growth in productivity has been low (as in many other capitalist economies).


French productivity levels (GDP per hour worked) seem higher than the G7 and the UK.  But this is partly an illusion because the unemployment rate is close to 10% or double that of the UK and Germany.  When you account for that, French productivity is not much higher than the UK.


So this upcoming election is important.  French capital wants a president elected who will introduce policies designed to reverse the long-term secular decline in the profitability of capital and put French labour in its place.  For this, they look to Fillon or Macron – either will do.  But votes do not always work out as the strategists want or expect – as we have seen in the UK with Brexit and Trump in the US.

It is still unlikely that Le Pen will enter the Elysee Palace or that Hamon or Melenchon will combine to enable a leftist candidate to get into the second round and defeat Le Pen.  But it’s possible.  But whatever the outcome, the next French president will face major challenges with an economy that has sluggish growth and investment, high unemployment and growing ethnic divisions.  And that is not even considering the probability that there will be a new global slump during the next presidency.

Abenomics: an update

Back in 2012 when Japanese PM Abe came to power, he launched a new economic policy that was supposed to get Japan out of its seemingly permanent deflationary stagnation.  The ‘three arrows’ of this policy were 1) to print money and take interest rates down to zero and beyond to stimulate consumer spending – so-called ‘unconventional monetary policy’; 2) to increase government spending and run sizeable budget deficits to ‘pump-prime’ the economy in traditional Keynesian-style; and 3) to introduce ‘structural reforms’ i.e. labour and market deregulation in the neo-liberal approach. Warning – graph alert!

Former Fed chair Ben Bernanke, the architect of unconventional monetary policy, was flown to Abe’s Cabinet meetings to advise on the first arrow.

Japan monetary base

Paul Krugman, the great guru of Keynesian stimulus policies, was also flown in to advise on the second arrow; while Abe himself tried to implement the third arrow with sharp cuts in corporate taxes and weakening of labour laws.


In previous posts, I pointed out that Abenomics was really the ultimate policy of mainstream economics in all its wings that would supposedly end Japan’s depression – but it would not work unless profitability of capital was revived and business investment took off.

One of the key targets of Abenomics was to get inflation of prices in the shops rising at 2% a year. This supposedly would force Japanese citizens to spend more and stop saving too much, which had been the result of the deflation of previous years. The combined policies of monetarism and Keynesianism would do the trick.


Well, the latest data from Japan show the miserable failure of these policies.  Annual consumer prices are now falling not rising.  Core consumer prices, which include oil products but exclude volatile fresh food, fell 0.3% in 2016 from a year earlier, a 10th straight monthly decline.


And as for economic growth, Abenomics has failed spectacularly.  Real GDP growth is struggling to reach 1% this year, way below levels achieved when Abe came into office at the time of ‘recovery’ from the Great Recession.


It is just as well that Japan’s ageing population continues to shrink because that has meant that GDP per person has risen more.


But even this meagre rise in GDP hides the deeper failure of Keynesian style policies.  Fiscal stimulus and monetary easing has not led to increased household spending.  On the contrary, Japanese households are consistently spending less.


Why is that?  Well, the answer lies in the partial success of the third arrow – the real drive of Abenomics – namely trying to raise the profitability of capital and the productivity of labour to get Japanese capitalism going. Under Abenomics, profitability has been turned around.  Japanese profitability was in long-term decline during the 1990s and that was only reversed by  the previous neo-liberal policies of PM Koizumi and the global credit boom of the 2000s.  But the Great Recession saw a 25% collapse in profitability.  Abenomics set out to restore profitability of capital.


And Abe did it in two ways.  The first was a sharp cut in corporate taxes.


And while corporate profits taxes were reduced, a special sales tax was imposed on the Japanese public and social security contributions were hiked.


The outcome was a big shift in the share of labour in national income towards profit share.  Real wages per employee fell and with it, household spending.


However, it seems that Japanese corporations, despite improved profitability, are still not prepared to step up business investment by any decisive amount.  That’s because the actual generation of profitable investment is still weak and cuts in corporate taxes are not enough to counteract that. Capital formation remains nearly 20% below where it was in the late 1990s and still below the peak of 2007.


As a result, Japan’s productivity per worker has not increased at all under Abenomics.


So, after four years of Abenomics, employing all the weapons of mainstream economics, and paying their leading advisers to help, Japanese capitalism remains stagnant and worker’s real incomes are falling.



Beware the zombies

Mainstream economics has been seriously puzzled by the failure of the major economies to restore the previous growth rate in the productivity of labour since the end of the Great Recession.  There has been an intense debate over the issue. 

Some argue that productivity growth has been restored but is just not being measured properly, now that much new productivity comes from data, intellectual ideas, software etc and not from the production of things.  But recent research has thrown cold water on this explanation. 

Others argue that productivity growth may be lower, but that is simply the result of the aftermath of the Great Recession, leaving companies unwilling to invest in capital equipment and preferring to speculate in financial markets or just hold cash.  There is some truth in this argument, as I shall explain below.  After all, after a major slump, capitalist companies are going to hoard cash rather than possibly waste it on investment and extra production that may not find a buyer. And a past OECD study found support for what it called the ‘pro-cyclical’ element in post global crash productivity.  “Firms may respond to short-run fluctuations in demand by varying the rates at which their existing capital and labour are utilized, for example by hoarding labour at the time of a crisis waiting for the recovery or underutilising the existing capital stock without shedding it

Others reckon productivity growth had already slowed down before the Great Recession and would not recover because we are now in an era of low growth as all the hi-tech innovations have been exhausted and robots and AI will have little impact on the wider economy.  This view has been strongly contended by mainstream economist, Robert J Gordon, and by more radical observers. It suggests that capitalism may have passed its use-by date.  Again, this argument has some merit but, as I have explained in previous posts, it still does not identify the reason for the investment and productivity growth slowdowns since the end of the Great Recession.

Now some new research brings stronger light onto the debate.   The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the OECD have recently produced reports that hone in one key feature of the ‘productivity puzzle’.  It seems that productivity growth is not stuttering everywhere in capitalist economies.  In the major economies, the so-called ‘frontier’ companies are increasing their productivity as fast as before the financial crisis.  The disappointing economy-wide productivity figures are to be blamed on the companies that are ‘behind the frontier’.

The OECD finds that the ‘diffusion’ of innovation and productivity growth from leading to lagging companies has slowed down.  The ECB also finds the same thing in its study of Eurozone productivity (where it is worse for services than for manufacturing) and the Bank of England finds the same for the UK and that its effect is substantial.  What is most significant is that the new OECD study found that the cause was the large number of ‘zombie’ companies (companies whose regular revenues at most cover their interest expenses (if that) — companies that, to paraphrase BoE governor Carney, “depend on the kindness of their creditors”.  

The OECD researchers find that such zombies take up a frighteningly large part of the economy. Across the nine European countries they studied, the share of the total private capital stock ‘sunk’ in zombie companies ranges from 5 to 20 per cent. The suggestion is that such businesses hog capital and crowd the market for newcomers, make it harder for more promising companies to expand and hold back the reallocation of labour and capital to more productive and faster-growing companies.   The paper concludes that “the prevalence of, and resources sunk in, zombie firms have risen since the mid-2000s, which is significant given that recessions typically provide opportunities for restructuring and productivity-enhancing allocation” and that “a higher share of industry capital sunk in zombie firms tends to crowd out the growth—measured in terms of investment and employment—of the typical non-zombie firm.” All in all “a 3.5% rise in the share of zombie firms—roughly equivalent to that observed between 2005 and 2013 on average across the nine OECD countries in the sample—is associated with a 1.2% decline in the level of labour productivity across industries.” 

This confirms what I argued in a recent debate on the role of profitability.  The huge profits gained since the end of the Great Recession have been mostly confined to the large companies: just a few mega companies hold most of the cash while thousands of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) hold little cash and much more debt.  Indeed, a minority are really ‘zombie’ firms just raising enough profit to service their debt.”

It is easy to see why there are so many zombies.  Despite the relative recovery of headline profitability in many economies in the credit-fuelled boom from 2002 to 2006, many small to medium-sized companies did not see an improvement in profitability.  Instead they racked up higher debt through bank loans.  The Great Recession caused a collapse in profits and even after 2009, profitability improved little for these companies while debt remained high. But the zombie companies have struggled on because interest rates were so low and banks would not foreclose.  This scenario has been found in the extreme in Italy where ‘non-performing’ bank loans have reached 20% of GDP.

As the ECB explains in its report (ecb-zombie-credit-acharya-et-al-whatever-it-takes ),While banks that benefited from the announcement increased their overall loan supply, this supply was mostly targeted towards low-quality firms with pre-existing lending relationships with these banks. As a result, there was no positive impact on real economic activity like employment or investment. Instead, these firms mainly used the newly acquired funds to build up cash reserves. Finally, we document that creditworthy firms in industries with a prevalence of zombie firms suffered significantly from the credit misallocation, which slowed down the economic recovery.”

According to research by the ‘free market’ Adam Smith Institute, 108,000 so-called zombie businesses in the UK are only able to service the interest on their debt, preventing them from restructuring. In other words, they slow the ‘creative destruction’ of capital by the liquidation of the weak for the strong.

This confirms previous studies such as that in the Journal of Finance (2009), Why firms have so much cash, which found that in order to compete, companies increasingly must invest in new and untried technology rather than just increase investment in existing equipment.  That’s riskier: “the greater importance of R&D relative to capital expenditures also has a permanent effect on the cash ratio. Because of lower asset tangibility, R&D investment opportunities are costlier to finance than capital using external capital expenditures. Consequently, greater R&D intensity relative to capital expenditures requires firms to hold a greater cash buffer against future shocks to internally generated cash flow.”  So companies have to build up cash reserves as sinking fund to cover likely losses on research and development.

Similarly, in a recent paper, Ben Broadbent from the Bank of England noted that UK companies were now setting very high hurdles for profitability before they would invest as they perceived that new investment was too risky. “Even if the crisis originated in the banking system there is now a higher hurdle for risky investment –  a rise in the perceived probability of an extremely bad economic outcome….In reality, many investments  involve sunk costs. Big FDI projects, in-firm training, R&D, the adoption of new technologies, even simple managerial reorganisations – these are all things that can improve productivity but have risky returns and cannot be easily reversed after the event.”  So the profitability of capital has got to be high enough both to justify riskier hi-tech investment and to cover a much higher debt burden (even if current servicing costs are low).  Firms are not going to borrow more to invest even if banks are willing to lend.

Marx’s theory of crisis rests on the idea that after a slump capital will only start to invest to raise the productivity of labour if profitability is rising and at a sufficient level.  Indeed, slumps in production should provide the basis for a recovery in profitability and a reduction in the debt burden (credit) built up to the point of the crisis. But right now there are thousands of heavily indebted SMEs which are barely keeping their heads above water despite low interest rates.  They are keeping profitability too low and debt too high.  They are clogging up the system.

Profitability in the major economies did recover from the trough reached at the depth of the Great Recession in 2009.  According the European Commission’s AMECO database, the net return on capital stock is up between 8-30% since 2009 in the major economies.  But even that recovery has not meant that profitability has returned to its previous peak (2005-7) before the great crash, varying from flat to down near 14%.  And in the UK and the US profitability is now falling, according to AMECO.


At the same time, corporate debt levels are still high and rising.


The most extreme strategists of capital recognise the ‘proper’ solution.  Back at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the then US Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, warned against keeping ‘dead’ capital going ‘zombie like’ as a ‘moral hazard’.  “Liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate … it will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less enterprising people”.

The ‘solution’ for capital of ‘creative destruction’ in a slump or depression has not altered.  “The fundamental tenet of capitalism, which holds that some bad companies need to fail to make way for new and better ones, is being rewritten,” says Alan Bloom, global head of ‘restructuring’ at Ernst & Young management consultants. “Many European companies are just declining slowly and have an urgent need for new management, a revised capital structure or at worst to be allowed to fail,” he adds.

With corporate debt levels higher than before the global crash and profitability in most economies lower than before and now peaking again, ‘zombie’ companies are going to have to be removed in a new deluge before improved profitability and productivity can be achieved.


Davos: responsible capitalism

Today, the global political and economic elite meet in Davos Switzerland under the auspices of the World Economic Forum (WEF).  Every year the WEF has an annual meeting in the super exclusive ski resort of Davos, with the participation of 3,000 politicians, business leaders, economists, entrepreneurs, charity leaders and celebrities.  For example, this year Chinese president Xi Jinping, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and many of the economic mainstream gurus and banking officials are among the attendees. Xi Jinping will be the first Chinese president to attend Davos and will lead an unprecedented 80-strong delegation of business leaders, economists, academics and journalists.  He will deliver the opening plenary address on Tuesday and use it to defend “cooperation and economic globalisation”.  

US vice-president Joe Biden, China’s two richest men and London mayor Sadiq Khan will travel on private jets to nearby airports before transferring by helicopter to escape the traffic on the approach to the picturesque town. So many jets are expected that the Swiss government has opened up Dübendorf military airfield, an 85-mile helicopter flight away, to accommodate them.  The increase in private jet flights – which each burn as much fuel in one hour as typical use of a car does in a year – comes as the WEF warns that climate change is the second most important global concern.

While the rich elite fly in on their private jets, extra hotel workers are being bussed in to serve the delegates, while packing into five a room in bunk beds.  One of the main themes of Davos will be the rising inequality of income and wealth.  So Davos itself is a microcosm.

At Davos’ super luxury hotel the Belvedere, there will be “specially recruited people just for mixing cocktails”, as well as baristas, cooks, waiters, doormen, chambermaids and receptionists  to host world leaders, business people and celebrities, who this year include pop star Shakira and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (worth $400m).  Last year, a Silicon Valley tech company was reportedly charged £6,000 for a short meeting with the president of Estonia in a converted luggage room. The hotel has also previously flown in New England lobster and provided special Mexican food for a company that was meeting a Mexican politician.

Britain’s Theresa May will be the only G7 leader to attend this year’s summit as it clashes with Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th US president.  Last year, former UK PM David Cameron partied tie-less with Bono, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kevin Spacey, at a lavish party hosted by Jack Ma, the founder of internet group Alibaba and China’s richest man with a $34.5bn (£28.5bn) fortune. Tony Blair also attended the Ma party last year.

Basic membership of the WEF and an entry ticket costs 68,000 Swiss francs (£55,400).  To get access to all areas, corporations must pay to become Strategic Partners of the WEF, costing SFr600,000, which allows a CEO to bring up to four colleagues, or flunkies, along with them. They must still pay SFr18,000 each for tickets. Just 100 companies are able to become Strategic Partners; among them this year are Barclays, BT, BP, Facebook, Google and HSBC. The most exclusive invite in town is to an uber-glamorous party thrown jointly by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and British financier Nat Rothschild at the oligarch’s palatial chalet, a 15-minute chauffeur-driven car ride up the mountain from Davos. In previous years, Swiss police have reportedly been called to Deripaska’s home after complaints about the noise of his Cossack band. Deripaska’s parties have “endless streams of the finest champagne, vodka, and Russian caviar amidst dancing Cossacks and beautiful Russian models.”

The official theme of this year’s forum is “responsive and responsible leadership”!  That hints at the concerns of global capitalism’s elite: they need to be ‘responsive’ to the popular reaction to globalisation and the failure of capitalism to deliver prosperity since the end of the Great Recession and they also need to be ‘responsible’ in their policies and actions – a subtle appeal to the newly inaugurated Donald Trump as US president or Erdogan in Turkey, Zuma in South Africa, Putin in Russia and Xi in China.

The WEF has been the standard bearer of the positives from ‘globalisation’, new technology, free markets, ‘Western democracy’ and ‘responsible’ leadership.  Trump and other leaders of global and regional powers now seem to threaten that enterprise.  But Trump is the result of the failure of the WEF project itself i.e. global capitalist ‘progress’.

In my book, The Long Depression, in the final chapter I raised three big challenges for the capitalist mode of production over the next generation: rising inequality and slowing productivity; the rise of the robots and AI; and global warming and climate change.  And these issues are taken up in this year’s WEF report entitled The Global Risks Report.  The WEF report cites five challenges for capitalsim:  1 Rising Income and wealth disparity; 2 Changing climate; 3 Increasing polarization of societies; 4 Rising cyber dependency and 5 Ageing population.

The report points out that while, globally, inequality between countries has been “decreasing at an accelerating pace over the past 30 years”, within countries, since the 1980s the share of income going to the top 1% has increased in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and Australia (although not in Germany, Japan, France, Sweden, Denmark or the Netherlands).  Actually, as I have shown in recent posts, global inequality (between countries) has only decline because of the huge rise in incomes per head in China.  Excluding, there has been little improvement, with many lower income countries having worsening inequality.  And as the WEF says, the slow pace of economic recovery since 2008 has “intensified local income disparities with a more dramatic impact on many households than aggregate national income data would suggest.”

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The latest measures of inequality of incomes and wealth as presented by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Daniel Zucman and recently deceased Tony Atkinson, are truly shocking, with no sign of any reduction in inequality in the US, in particular.


Since the global financial crisis the incomes of the top 1% in the US grew by more than 31%, compared with less than 0.5% for the remaining 99% of the population, with 540 million young people across 25 advanced economies facing the prospect of growing up to be poorer than their parents.  And to coincide with Davos, Oxfam, using the data compiled for the annual Credit Suisse wealth report, finds that the world’s eight richest individuals have as much wealth as the 3.6bn people who make up the poorest half of the world!


In my blog and book, I discuss the reasons for this sharp increase in inequality.  Inequality is a feature of all class societies but under capitalism it will vary according to the balance of power in the class struggle between labour and capital.  The WEF report likes to think that the cause is the differential of skills between those who are better educated and therefore can obtain higher wages.  But research has shown this to be nonsense.  The real disparity comes when capital can usurp a greater proportion of value created in capitalist production.  Increased profitability, lower corporate taxes and booming stock and property markets since the 1980s have shifted up incomes from capital compared to wages, particularly for the top echelons in corporations.

And then there is the impact of ‘capital bias’ in capitalist production that I have referred to before.  According to the economists Michael Hicks and Srikant Devaraj, 86% of manufacturing job losses in the US between 1997 and 2007 were the result of rising productivity, compared to less than 14% lost because of trade.


“Most assessments suggest that technology’s disruptive effect on labour markets will accelerate across non-manufacturing sectors in the years ahead, as rapid advances in robotics, sensors and machine learning enable capital to replace labour in an expanding range of service-sector job.  A frequently cited 2013 Oxford Martin School study has suggested that 47% of US jobs were at high risk from automation and in 2015, a McKinsey study concluded that 45% of the activities that workers do today could already be automated if companies choose to do so.” (WEF).

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Technological change is shifting the distribution of income from labour to capital: according to the OECD, up to 80% of the decline in labour’s share of national income between 1990 and 2007 was the result of the impact of technology.  While at a global level, however, many people are being left behind altogether: more than 4 billion people still lack access to the internet, and more than 1.2 billion people are without even electricity.

In my book, I cite the next challenge for capitalism is climate change from global warming.  The WEF report does too.  There are a growing “cluster of interconnected environment-related risks – including extreme weather events, climate change and water crises” .Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are growing, currently by about 52 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.  Last year was the warmest on the instrumental record according to provisional analysis by the World Meteorological Organisation. It was the first time the global average temperature was 1 degree Celsius or more above the 1880–1999 average.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, each of the eight months from January through August 2016 were the warmest those months have been in the whole 137 year record.


As warming increases, impacts grow. The Arctic sea ice had a record melt in 2016 and the Great Barrier Reef had an unprecedented coral bleaching event, affecting over 700 kilometres of the northern reef. The latest analysis by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, on average, 21.5 million people have been displaced by climate- or weather-related events each year since 2008,59 and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) reports that close to 1 billion people were affected by natural disasters in 2015.

The Emissions Gap Report 2016 from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that even if countries deliver on the commitments – known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – that they made in Paris, the world will still warm by 3.0 to 3.2°C. To keep global warming to within 2°C and limit the risk of dangerous climate change, the world will need to reduce emissions by 40% to 70% by 2050 and eliminate them altogether by 2100.

The World Bank forecasts that water stress could cause extreme societal stress in regions such as the Middle East and the Sahel, where the economic impact of water scarcity could put at risk 6% of GDP by 2050. The Bank also forecasts that water availability in cities could decline by as much as two thirds by 2050, as a result of climate change and competition from energy generation and agriculture. The Indian government advised that at least 330 million people were affected by drought in 2016. The confluence of risks around water scarcity, climate change, extreme weather events and involuntary migration remains a potent cocktail and a “risk multiplier”, especially in the world economy’s more fragile environmental and political contexts.

The third big challenge cited by the WEF is restoring global economic growth.  The report points out that permanently diminished growth translates into permanently lower living standards: with 5% annual growth, it takes just 14 years to double a country’s GDP; with 3% growth, it takes 24 years. “If our current stagnation persists, our children and grandchildren might be worse off than their predecessors. Even without today’s technologically driven structural unemployment, the global economy would have to create billions of jobs to accommodate a growing population, which is forecast to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, from 7.4 billion today.”

So the WEF report highlights a whole batch of problems ahead for the stability and success of global capitalism. And what are the answers for a ‘responsive and responsible’ global leadership gathering in Davos?  Capitalism must be preserved, of course, but it will necessary “to reform market capitalism and to restore the compact between business and society.”

But having said that globalisation is failing in its report, the WEF then says that the way forward is really more of the same.  “Free markets and globalization have improved living standards and lifted people out of poverty for decades. But their structural flaws – myopic short-termism, increasing wealth inequality, and cronyism – have fueled the political backlash of recent years, in turn highlighting the need to create permanent structures for balancing economic incentives with social wellbeing.”

Thus the WEF report calls on the rich elite “to be responsive to the demands of the people who have entrusted them to lead, while also providing a vision and a way forward, so that people can imagine a better future.” And how to do this?  “Leaders will have to build a dynamic, inclusive multi-stakeholder global-governance system…the way forward is to make sure that globalization is benefiting everyone.”

Reducing inequality and poverty, boosting productivity and growth through new technology while preserving jobs and raising incomes; reducing gas emissions into the atmosphere to avoid global catastrophes, while preserving and reforming capitalism through global cooperation from Trump in the US, Xi Ping in China, Putin in Russia and Brexit Britain and the European Union.  Hmm…

ASSA 2017 part 2 – Economists and the state of economics

Part one of my report on ASSA 2017 covered the debate among mainstream economists and others on the scale and impact of rising inequality and the role of automation on labour and the capitalist economy.

Talking of inequality brings me to consider the state of economics now, as expressed in ASSA 2017.  The failure of mainstream economics to forecast the Great Recession or to explain it; and the subsequent failure to explain how to get out of the Long Depression that ensued raised questions about the methods and polices of the mainstream at this year’s ASSA.

Nobel prize winner Angus Deaton at ASSA had serious questions.  Economic data were faulty, the models used by economists were unreal and the inequality we see in the world was mirrored in the economics ‘profession’ itself.  Deaton sounded upset that most economists could not get their stuff into the top journals, leaving the gravy train of pay and fame to a small elite of Nobel prize winners.  A few top economists got high pay, good jobs and tenure and the same people got their papers in the top five journals and often not on merit.

Of the 537 people who have held American Economic Association office since 1950, for example, 51.1 percent got their doctorates at the University of Chicago, Columbia, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One-third of the members of the Council of Economic Advisers have had doctorates from MIT. Elite-level economics has become a quite exclusive club.

But economists in general are not really hard done by in the wider scheme of things.  They generally get paid better than most other academics and other ‘professions’ – at least in America.  Indeed, the latest data at ASSA show that newly appointed economists in American academia could expect way more than in most jobs and even most ‘professions’ – starting salaries in the US ate $80-120k.  And even more is paid to economists who go into banking and the world of Goldman Sachs.


And it is not hard to see why.  The aim of mainstream economics is not to analyse society objectively but to defend and promote capitalism and markets as the only viable system of human organisation.  Modern economics is an apologia not a science. For this wasteful and unproductive exercise, economists are paid relatively well compared to occupations that provide things and services that most people actually need.

But the price of apologetics is to fail to see crises coming in the capitalist mode of production.  Mainstream economics failed to forecast the Great Recession and then to explain it.  And it has failed to explain the subsequent Long Depression and how to get out of it.

Indeed, as the ASSA elite bemoaned these failures in Chicago, the Bank of England’s chief economist also warned of the dangers of placing too much faith in economic forecasts. Andy Haldane admitted economic forecasting was “in crisis” and failed to warn adequately about the financial crisis. And he said of economics: “It’s a fair cop to say the profession is to some degree in crisis”. His intention was to highlight the problems inherent in placing too much reliance on large models of the economy which assume people always behave rationally. Mr Haldane said he hoped the lessons learnt after the financial crisis would help economics move away from “narrow and fragile” models to a broader analysis which encompasses insights from other disciplines.

In the Richard Ely ASSA lecture, Esther Duflo reckoned economists should give up on the big ideas and instead just solve problems like plumbers “lay the pipes and fix the leaks”.  Elsewher, at ASSA, it was also suggested that economists were more like engineers than physicists.

This sounded like Keynes’ famous remark that economists should be like dentists – sorting out troublesome teething problems so that capitalism can then run smoothly. Apparently, Duflo reckons the analogy of plumbers means that pure scientific method of cause and effect was less important than practical fixes. So economists should be more like doctors than medical researchers.  Plumbers, dentists, engineers, doctors – but not, it seems, social scientists, let alone scientific socialists.

The failure of economics does not auger well that the mainstream will know what to do about the rise of ‘the Donald’.  At ASSA, a pack of Nobel Prize-winning economists gave Donald Trump and his policy plans the thumbs-down.  “There is a broad consensus that the kind of policies that our president-elect has proposed are among the polices that will not work,” said Joseph Stiglitz, summing up the views of the panel that included his fellow Columbia University professor Edmund Phelps and Yale University’s Robert Shiller.

Phelps was particularly critical of Trump’s singling out of individual companies for abuse and praise, saying such interference could end up discouraging newcomers from entering markets and bringing with them much-needed innovation. “The Trump government is threatening to drive a silver spike into the heart of the innovation process,” he said. Phelps also voiced concern about Trump’s plans for big tax cuts and spending increases. “Such a policy runs the risk it could lead to an explosion of public debt and ultimately cause a serious loss of confidence and a deep recession,” he said.  Shiller was the only Nobel Prize winner on the panel discussion who didn’t take a shot at Trump. “I’m a natural optimist and I would not like to speculate on how bad it could get,” he said.

Much of this moaning appeared to be sour grapes.  So far, Trump has appointed only one economist to his administration, the rest are mostly billionaires.  Apparently, he does not like ‘experts’.  But as Glenn Hubbard, former Bush adviser and now head of Columbia Business School, said: “I think the president will get any economist, he asks”.  Indeed there was another ASSA panel, chaired by Harvard’s top professor Greg Mankiw who were positive about Trumponomics.  John Taylor and Alan Kreuger expected good results from Trump’s proposed infrastructure plans.

Of course, the economists who are really excluded are those on the radical wing of the ‘profession’ who are not engaged in apologia.  They were not looking to join Trump and they were not going to be invited. In the URPE sessions, Esther Jeffers of the University of Paris reckoned that capitalism is on the verge of a new crisis, due to “the misuse of monetary policy, and the fragility of emerging economies”.  Ilene Grabel of the University of Denver also focused the locus of crises in the so-called emerging economies, because they are being challenged by the pursuit of negative interest rates by some of the world’s central banks and the move away from monetary expansion by the US Fed.

As readers of my blog will know, while rising debt costs threaten many corporations in emerging economies, I still think the locus of the next recession will be found in the advanced capitalist economies, particularly the US.  Minqi Li at the University of Utah presented a new paper that looked at the fall in the profit rate in the US, Japan and China during the 1970s.  He reckoned the revival of profitability up to the Great Recession was now over and the locus of capitalism’s demise could be found in any further decline.

However, mainstream economics does not look at profitability of capital as an indicator of the health of capitalism.  That is why it failed to see the Great Recession coming and will not see the next one.  Since the end of the Great Recession, financial asset prices have rocketed while prices and profitability in the ‘real’ economy have not.



But, as we go into 2017, optimism reigns about the capitalist economy, if not with President Trump. It’s going to take a year or so to see if the current optimism expressed in financial markets and among some mainstream economists at ASSA about an economic recovery under Trump is based on good analysis or just on apologia.

ASSA 2017 – part one: productivity and inequality

One of the main themes of this year’s annual conference of the American Economics Association, ASSA 2017, was whether capitalism was slowing down.  Was the productivity of labour (output per ASSAworker or per hours worked) no longer growing at previous trend rates and indeed capitalism was entering some level of permanent stagnation?

If capitalism could no longer develop the productive forces effectively, then its historical raison d’etre disappears. Of course, the ASSA assembly of 13,000 economics professors and graduate students, mainly from American universities, to hear hundreds of economics papers did not see the ‘productivity puzzle’, as it has been called, like that.

In the largest hall, the leading mainstream economists of our time debated the issue of slowing productivity growth, confirmed by all the measures, and what this meant.  Olivier Blanchard, former chief economist at the IMF, doubted that productivity was being measured properly at all.  Barry Eichengreen from Berkeley University was more confident of measurement, but argued that there was nothing particularly strange about the current slowdown, as such “decelerations” are “ubiquitous” in many countries at different times.  Productivity slowdowns are usually the result of too little investment in the skills of the workforce and wasteful investment in means of production; or caused by special ‘shocks’ like a sharp oil price rise.  Eventually, the slowdowns end.

Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University (infamous for the past juggling of his debt data) was even more optimistic.  The productivity growth slowdown now being experienced was temporary. Karl Marx claimed that capitalism would grind to a halt “as the first industrial revolution was fading” but it didn’t.  Keynesian Alvin Hansen (father of the ‘secular stagnation’ thesis) reckoned something similar “at the Great Depression” and he was wrong too.  Rogoff reckoned the current slowdown was caused by a huge ‘debt crisis’ that remains after 2007, but that will subside and the productivity slowdown will “eventually come to an end”.  Marty Feldstein, former economics adviser to the Bush presidency, was very buoyant.  The US economy may have slower productivity growth than before but it was doing better than anywhere else because of its wonderful “entrepreneurial culture and financial system” (!) and a labour market not encumbered with “barriers created by large labor unions, state-owned enterprises and very high tax rates.”

Amid this paean of praise for capitalism in its ‘temporary’ moment of slowdown, the data provided by Dale Jorgensen from Harvard offered a more realistic picture.  Jorgensen reckoned that there were clear signs that, while recovery from the current crisis was likely, a longer-term trend toward slower economic growth will be re-established.”  Jorgensen broke down the composition of economic growth globally and found that the real driver of growth was not ‘innovation’ or even investment in new technology (as measured in neoclassical terms as total factor productivity – TFP), but mainly more and more investment in existing technology and materials.


This conclusion had also been reached by John Ross in his study of Jorgensen’s work before“What is crucial is that the role of different forms of capital, i.e. intermediate products/circulating capital and fixed investment/fixed capital, is the overwhelming force driving US economic growth. Taking the two together 76% of US sectoral output growth is due to fixed and circulating capital, 15% due to labour, and only 9% due TFP.” (Ross).


It means that capitalism mainly grows by relatively more investment in means of production, namely fixed capital with existing technology and material inputs (what Marx called constant capital) relative to investment in labour hours (or variable capital).  The impact of ‘innovation’ and new technology is small.  And Jorgensen reckons that the contribution of the latter will get smaller in the next decade.

In a way, this is another confirmation of Marx’s law of capital accumulation, a long-term tendency for the organic composition of capital to rise.  Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is the other side of the coin.  To some extent, this tendency will be counteracted by an increase in the exploitation of labour through more people entering the workforce globally and by increased hours of work – but not decisively over the long term.

The other big issue relevant both to future productivity and inequality is the advent of robots and AI.  The ASSA conference collected the main mainstream researchers on this subject.  Daron Acemoglu from MIT argued that automation would actually create as many jobs as it would lose for human beings and the economy would be “self-correcting” in terms of employment and inequality.  William Nordhaus of Yale University presented six reasons why robots and AI would not lead to ‘singularity’ (exponential replacement of humans in production) in this century.  And so all is well with the advent of robotic automation in 21st century capitalism.  Fear of extreme inequality and mass unemployment can be dismissed.

At the same time as the big hitters in mainstream economics debated global productivity and stagnation, in a much smaller room, radical economists, under the auspices of the Union of Radical Political Economics (URPE), were having a similar discussion.  Interestingly, nobody on the panel there though that capitalism was in some ‘secular stagnation’, as formulated by Keynesians like Larry Summers, Paul Krugman or Robert J Gordon, at previous ASSAs. 

Bill Lazonick reckoned that productivity growth had slumped because capital had switched from productive investment into rentier activities of financial speculation.  Companies don’t use the stock market to raise money, they support the stock market”.  Anwar Shaikh reckoned that the Keynesian idea of secular stagnation was silly and that the core of the capitalist problem lay with profitability, not productivity as such.  The key to investment was the profitability of enterprise (the profit rate after deducting interest, rent etc going to the capital of finance and circulation) and that was low.  Until that rose, productivity and economic growth would remain low.

In another room, the ‘centrist’ wing of ASSA met.  These are the more radical Keynesians who reckon that capitalism is failing because of wrong policies and regulations (or lack of them).  If the politicians and rich elite adopted the right ones, then all would be well – or at least fairer and more productive.  You see the problem is that the ‘rules of the game’ have been altered, as Nobel Prize winner and adviser to the leftist British Labour leadership, Joseph Stiglitz, puts it.  The rules have been altered in favour of the rich, corrupt and in favour of finance over productive; in favour of monopoly over competition; in favour of rent over productive profit (see his book).

The panel here were convinced that if the rules in the labour market were changed to help unions organise, then inequality and poverty could be reduced.  Lawrence Mishel reckoned that the “main driver of inequality was the lack of worker power and the globalisation which has led to trade agreements that hurt the incomes of the majority –something mainstream economists lie about”.  Mishel listed the “staggering” number of “poor economic decisions” made in recent decades like austerity, deregulating financial markets, supply-side tax cuts, inadequate efforts to address climate change, the fight against the Affordable Care Act in many states and in Congress, etc.

Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who also has a book out aptly called “Rigged”, highlighted the need to reverse rising inequality from excessive CEO pay, a bloated financial sector, patent and copyright protections and protections for highly paid professionals.  He calculated that the “efficiency gains” from “reducing or eliminating these rents” would be worth over $3trn, to be used in other productive ways.

What was needed was to “restructure the market” to produce different outcomes because simple tax changes would not do the trick.  Baker said this policy ‘rigging’ of the economy shows that the ‘free market’ does not operate.  Here he seems to be implying that, if it did, then all would be well and fair.  Because the market is ‘rigged’, not because a market economy exists, we need government to intervene to correct inequalities, injustices and apply policies for the majority not for the few.

Baker fails to explain how the market got ‘rigged’.  Did this just happen? Why was the policy choice for the rich not the majority?  Was it not ever thus?  Baker is looking at the symptoms not the causes. Marxists like me would say the policies that led to rising inequality and the growth of finance capital came about because the Golden Age of capitalism, with its decent pensions, public services and benefits and full employment, could no longer be afforded by market capitalism as the profitability of capital plunged through the 1970s.  So the ‘rigging of the rules’ was necessary for the saving of the capitalist market system.

In a later ASSA session, the mainstream, the radical and the liberal met to discuss “the future of growth” (in effect, the future of capitalism). The IMF’s Jonathan Ostrey (naturally) remained optimistic about the future.  In contrast, Robert Gordon was there to tell us the story of his recent book: that capitalism was in for slow growth because the new technologies would have only limited impact.  Anwar Shaikh presented the (Marxist?) argument that capitalism was subject to regular crises and was past it use-by date.  And James Galbraith and Gerald Friedman presented the liberal Keynesian view as above.

There is no doubt that inequality of incomes and wealth has reached levels in some countries like the US or the UK not seen since the start of modern capitalism.  In another session, Daniel Zucman, presented a paper from himself, Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Piketty (the former rock star economist) and the recently deceased Tony Atkinson, that offered the latest data on inequality of incomes in the major economies.  It showed inequality of incomes was highest and still rising in the US; has risen sharply in China (although now tapering off) and was still relatively low (but still higher) in France.


But is high or rising inequality the fault-line of modern capitalism; is it the cause of low productivity growth and recurring crises of capitalist production?  The left Keynesians think so.  But I have argued that inequality is inherent in a class society including capitalism and that is a symptom rather than a cause of capitalist crises or stagnation.  One paper at ASSA gave some support to that.  The paper found that the empirical evidence does not support the argument that inequality is a major drag on demand growth, except when offset by borrowing by lower income households. There does not appear to be a clear link between the rise in income inequality in recent decades, the financial crisis, or the slow recovery since then.”

In part 2 on ASSA 2017, I’ll discuss the state of modern mainstream economics as ASSA participants see it and the likely efficacy of economic policy in the new era of Trumponomics.

Optimism reigns

Global stock markets ended 2016 near record highs and have started 2017 in a similar vein. Optimism about global economic growth, employment and incomes has bounced.


The latest data on manufacturing, as measured by the so-called purchasing managers’ index (PMI), the view of companies on their sales, exports, employment and orders, show a rise in December across the board and particularly in Europe and the US. PMIs measure whether manufacturing companies think that their activity is expanding or contracting. Anything above 50 suggests expansion. In Europe, the PMIs suggest that manufacturing is now expanding at a record pace (from a low level), while the global average PMI has now reached levels not seen since 2013.

Global PMI.png

Gavyn Davies, former chief economist at the infamous investment bank, Goldman Sachs, now blogs in the Financial Times and produces a measure of global economic activity with his Fulcrum Nowcast model. The latest monthly estimates show that economic growth has recovered markedly from the low point reached last March. Then fears of global recession were high. But Davies says now “not only were these fears too pessimistic, they were entirely misplaced. Growth rates have recently been running above long-term trend rates, especially in the advanced economies, which have seen a synchronised surge in activity in the final months of 2016.”

According to Fulcrum, the growth rate in global economic activity is currently running at 4.1 per cent, compared with an estimated trend rate of 3.8 per cent. This represents a vast improvement on the growth rates recorded in 2015 and early 2016, when growth dipped to below 2.5 per cent at times. The latest estimate for the advanced economies shows ‘activity growth’ running at 2.5 per cent, a rate achieved only rarely during the post-crash economic expansion.

JP Morgan investment bank is also more optimistic, if only a little. “Our global economic outlook calls for a 2.8% gain in global GDP in 2017 (4Q/4Q), a few tenths above potential. The year-ago rate bottomed out at 2.5% this year (during 1Q16-3Q16, we think), so the forecast represents a modest though still meaningful improvement over recent performance.” Goldman Sachs takes a similar view in its look ahead to 2017: “We expect global growth to improve modestly, from 2.5% in 2016 to 2.9% in 2017, with looser fiscal policy and still easy monetary policy in key countries.”  goldman-sachs-isg-outlook-2017

As I argued in my forecast for 2017, optimism that the world capitalist economy is now getting permanently out of its depressed state is driven by the possibility that the new US President Trump will activate a Keynesian-style fiscal stimulus of corporate tax cuts and infrastructure spending that will ‘pump-prime’ the US and other economies out their weak growth.

At the same time, China, having been close to a financial crash, according to mainstream economics this time last year, has steadied and is also picking up some traction. Indeed, China’s pick-up has confounded mainstream expectations that China’s seven-year credit boom, during which the debt/GDP ratio rose from 150% to 250%, would inevitably end in 2016. Almost all non-Chinese economists anticipated a significant slowdown, which would intensify deflationary pressures worldwide.

But the Chinese economy is a weird beast, not understood by mainstream (and even Marxist economists). President Xi may have endorsed in 2013 “the decisive role of the market,” but that hasn’t diminished the leading role of the state. As Aidan Turner put it recently, “Suppose that a full quarter of Chinese capital investment – currently running at around 44% of GDP – is wasted: that would mean China’s people are unnecessarily sacrificing 11% of GDP in lost consumption: but if the remaining 33% of GDP is well invested, rapid growth could still result. And, alongside obvious waste, China makes many high-return investments – in the excellent urban infrastructure of the first-tier cities, and in the automation equipment of private firms responding to rising real wages.”

Thus, according to Fulcrum, emerging economies are currently growing steadily at close to their 6 per cent trend rate, or 2 percentage points higher than achieved in 2015. They have therefore ceased to be a drag on the global expansion. No wonder stock markets are off to the races.

I won’t repeat myself with the arguments I presented against the view that capitalism has turned the corner and is entering a new boom period. I made these in my last post. But let me now add some caveats to the optimism of the banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions in investing our pension funds and savings in the stock market.

First, the expert financial consultants are notoriously wrong in their forecasts. Since 2000, they have predicted the S&P 500 would gain about 10% a year, grossly overshooting the market’s actual performance. And, on average, the consensus always has predicted annual gains, missing all five down years in that stretch. A study by CXO Advisory Group collected more than 6,500 forecasts from 68 so-called market gurus. More were wrong than right.

Second, in the last analysis, stock market prices depend on the expected earnings (profits) of companies. The ratio of the market valuation or price of the US stock market is now pretty high compared to profits by historic standards. When profits are set against the value of a company’s assets, the so-called return-on-equity for the top five listed companies in each industry is double that of the rest. And indeed, if you exclude the top five companies in each sector of US business, profitability (return on stocks purchased) is near 30 year-lows. In other words, earnings are concentrated in the very big oligopoly firms. Most American corporations are scratching a return.

And third, as I have pointed out before, corporate indebtedness has also been rising. A company’s value is measured by investors by its liabilities (net debt and stock value). Currently, those liabilities are at levels compared to earnings not seen since the collapse of 2000-1.

Finally, the US stock market relative to GDP is nearly back to the level seen just before the global financial crash in 2007-8. In other words, it is reaching extremes compared to the sales revenues and profitability of companies.


Stock prices are being artificially driven up by corporations using their profits to buy back their own shares or make higher dividend payments. According to research by WPP, a global communications firm, among companies listed on the S&P 500, share buybacks and dividends have exceeded retained earnings (that is, profits withheld by companies and generally earmarked for investment) in five of the six quarters up to June 2016. Moreover, the ratio of payouts and buybacks to earnings has risen from around 60 percent in 2009 to over 130 percent in the first quarter of 2016.

The locus of what is going to happen to the global economy over the next year or two is to be found in the US. This remains the largest and most productive economy in the world, including manufacturing, and of course so-called services and finance. And the ‘recovery’ after the end of the Great Recession in 2009 has been weakest in post-war US economic history.


US investment and consumption have still not recovered to levels relative to GDP seen before the Great Recession.


So my mantra of a Long Depression is confirmed by these figures – even for the US, which has had the best ‘recovery’ of the major capitalist economies.

Moreover, the duration of this US recovery is the fourth-longest, at 30 quarters of a year, only exceeded by the recoveries in the ‘golden age’ of the 1960s and the profitability boom periods in the ‘neoliberal era’ after the slumps of 1980-2 and 1991.


So the US is due for another slump on the law of averages, within a year or two.

But all mainstream economic forecasters rule out a new recession in 2017. The mantra is that recoveries ‘do not just die of old age’. Something must happen to stop them. As Goldman Sachs puts it: “Recessions in the US have been triggered by Federal Reserve tightening of monetary policy; by economic imbalances such as the bursting of the dot-com and housing bubbles in 2000 and 2008, respectively; or by external shocks such as the Arab oil embargo in 1973. The first two triggers are unlikely to occur in 2017, and the third, a shock, is not something that we can typically anticipate.”

GS goes on: “Historically, since WWII, the odds of a recession occurring over a 12-month period have been 18%. Our composite recession model, incorporating end-of-year financial and economic data, estimates the probability of a recession in 2017 at 23%.” So slightly higher than average. But “once we incorporate the likely passage of a fiscal stimulus package of tax cuts and infrastructure investments in the latter half of 2017, the probability of a recession this year declines to about 15%.”

The question is whether the optimism of markets and mainstream economists of an extended and permanent boom in global production based on fiscal spending and corporate tax cuts in America is justified. As I have argued in other posts, Keynesian-style policies have miserably failed in Japan to get that economy out of its long depression.

And I have argued that sustained growth depends on increased investment in productive sectors and that depends on corporate profits in the US rising, not falling as they have done up to the second half of 2016. This measure is ignored by Goldman Sachs, although not by others.

Trumponomics, in cutting corporate taxes and delivering tax breaks for infrastructure investment, might boost profits for some sectors. But as the data above show, the vast majority of US corporations are seeing the profitability in their investments falling, not rising. The odds of a new recession may be higher than Goldman Sachs thinks.

Forecast for 2017

It has now been eight years of what I have called a Long Depression, since the Great Recession started in January 2008 (see Recessions,depressions and recoveries 071215).  So, in looking ahead to 2017, I thought it might be necessary to check what my forecasts or predictions were in previous years.

I have been accused of calling a new slump every year on the basis that eventually I’ll be right. That’s a bit like claiming that the time is midnight when it is not, but knowing that it eventually will be.  So were my previous annual forecasts just parroting the view that a slump is just around the corner?  Well, at the end of 2011, I said that “2012 is likely to be another year of very weak economic growth in the major capitalist economies.  But it is not likely to see a return of a big slump in capitalism.”  At the end of 2012, I said “In 2013, economic growth in the major economies is likely to be much the same as in 2012 – pretty weak and below long-term averages. But 2013 is not likely to see a return of a big slump in capitalism.”  At the beginning of 2014, I said that “the change in profitability of capital in the US does not suggest a new recession in 2014. ”At the beginning of 2015, I reckoned that “The global economy remains in a crawl and will do so in 2015 for one good reason: the failure of business investment to leap forward. “And at the beginning of this year (2016), I said As for 2016, I expect much the same as 2015, but with a much higher risk of new global recession appearing….Even if a new global slump is avoided this year, that could be the last year that it is.”

That brings me to 2017.  When I made my 2016 forecast, the world economy seemed to be slowing down fast.  The US economy was nearly at a standstill, Europe’s ‘recovery’ remained weak and Japan appeared to have entered a new recession.  The US economy grew far less than expected in the second quarter of 2016.  Real GDP (that’s the value of national production after inflation is removed) increased at only a 1.2% yoy rate. And US business investment fell at a 9.7% annual rate, the third straight quarterly fall. Japan failed to grow at all in Q2 2016, a sharp slowdown from 2% growth in Q1.  And business investment there also collapsed.  Eurozone growth was still stuttering.  Above all, the talk was for a collapse in China’s economy because of excessive debt, bringing about an end to its miracle growth story.  As Gavyn Davies, former chief economist at Goldman Sachs and now a columnist for the FT, recently described the economic mood at the beginning of 2016: “At the turn of the year, there were forecasts of global recession in 2016. ….It was a bleak period.”

But as the year went on, the imminent collapse of the Chinese economy proved to be wrong – something I did predict.  Indeed, by the second half of the year, there were signs of a modest pick-up in growth as the Chinese authorities pumped more credit into the state banks and corporations and directed a modest expansion in fiscal spending.

Now I have argued ad nauseam that it is the profitability of the capitalist sector of economies that is the driver of investment and thus employment and incomes.  A sustained fall in profitability and in the mass of profits will eventually lead to a fall in investment after a year or so and then deliver a slump in the productive sectors of a capitalist economy, triggering in turn, a financial (credit) crisis.  That appeared to be increasingly likely in the first half of 2016 as corporate profits and investment fell.

But in Q3, corporate profits in the major economies staged somewhat of a recovery back into positive territory and the major capitalist economies appeared to avoid a further slide down in growth towards zero. Corporate investment remains weak but if profits were to continue rise, then investment too could pick up.  JP Morgan seems to think so.  In the past, the investment bank’s economists, like me, have highlighted the strong role profits played in driving the capital expenditure (capex) cycle. So “the recent stabilisation in global profit growth bodes well for capex, in this regard.” (JPM).


Financial markets in the last month or so have been buoyed by the possibility of a sustained economic recovery and also by the prospect of huge corporate tax cuts and infrastructure spending to be initiated by the new American oligarch president, Donald Trump, in 2017.  And America’s households also seem more optimistic about 2017.  The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index reached 98.2 in December 2016, the highest reading since January 2004.


This renewed optimism encouraged the US Federal Reserve in December to bite the bullet and risk raising its policy interest rate with aim of controlling credit and inflation, supposedly likely to rise next year.  So everywhere, mainstream economists are now forecasting an acceleration in economic growth.

Gavyn Davies summed this up: “there has been a marked rebound in global activity, and in recent weeks this has become surprisingly strong, at least by the modest standards seen hitherto in the post-shock economic recovery….. the first time that all of the major economies have been growing at above trend rates for several years”  So, says Davies, Overall, we can perhaps be hopeful, though certainly not yet confident, that the global economy will begin to overcome the powerful forces of secular stagnation next year.”

But is this optimism for 2017 justified?  After all, every year since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, the main international economic agencies, the IMF, the OECD etc, have forecast a rise in GDP growth, trade and investment.  And every year they have had to eat their words and revise their forecasts down.  Investment in the major economies is now some 20% below where the IMF forecast it would be back in 2007.


But perhaps the agencies and economists are right this time and perhaps my forecast of a new slump (predicted by 2018 or so) is going to be proven wrong. Well, perhaps.  But consider this.  First, the so-called pick up in US economic growth is minimal.  If the current forecasts of the final quarter of 2016 are realised, then the overall growth rate for 2016 in the US will be just 1.5%, the slowest annual growth rate since 2012.  And growth in real GDP per person in 2016 will be the slowest since the Great Recession ended in 2009.

Second, much of this very modest growth has come from an expansion of household consumption and corporate borrowing (fuelled by very low interest rates and massive injections of credit).  US mortgage rates are at an all-time low and the housing market is booming again.  In Q3, personal consumption contributed two-thirds of the 3.5% (annualised) growth rate achieved by the US economy with trade and a build-up of stocks delivering the rest. Business investment contributed nothing.


Global debt sales (half by corporations) reached a record in 2016, matching levels not seen since before the global financial crash.  The money raised has gone into financial speculation, buying back company shares and in higher dividends to shareholders, thus boosting the stock and bond markets rather than productive investment.

But household consumption, although the largest part of national spending, does not drive growth.  And if the cost of borrowing on credit cards and mortgages is now set to rise as the Fed continues to hikes its floor rate during 2017, as planned, then consumption growth could begin to fall back.  The recovery in corporate profits is based on keeping productive investment and wages low (thus weakening productivity growth) and not on an expansion of investment, sales and revenues.  Moreover global growth is mainly coming from emerging economies like China (half of total growth).  Only one-quarter is coming from the major capitalist economies, with the US, Europe and Japan making negligible contributions.

Globally, corporate debt levels continue to rise faster than productive investment.  As the world’s leading bond investment company, PIMCO commented: “The low cost of financing with record-low interest rates simply made building up leverage tempting…This happens every economic cycle, but what makes this one special is the added incentive to issue debt at very low interest rates. (But) it sows the seeds of the next downturn or the next credit event.”


And there is now the prospect of more reductions in global trade as various international trade agreements bite the dust or flounder – while ‘the Donald’ talks of higher trade tariffs and walls.


One of the most graphic illustrations that the days of globalisation are over, making it more difficult for capitalism to get higher profits from the export of capital as profits fall at home, is the sharp fall in global capital flows – from over 25% of world GDP in 2007 to near zero now.  Banks have stopped lending to other banks and taken their money back, while investors are increasingly reluctant to buy the corporate bonds of other countries.


Rising interest rates, along with still high corporate debt, sluggish world trade and poor business investment, do not look like a recipe for economic recovery in 2017.  So 2017 will not deliver faster growth, contrary to the expectations of the optimists.  Indeed, by the second half of next year, we can probably expect a sharp downturn in the major economies.  Depending on whether this generates a new credit squeeze on weaker corporations and more pressure on banks. similar to that now being experienced in Italy, is difficult to judge.  But far from a new boom for capitalism, the risk of a new slump will increase in 2017.


The system is broken

In an end of the year piece, the biographer of John Maynard Keynes, economist Lord Robert Skidelsky writes that Let’s be honest: no one knows what is happening in the world economy today. Recovery from the collapse of 2008 has been unexpectedly slow. Are we on the road to full health or mired in “secular stagnation”? Is globalization coming or going?”

He goes on: “Policymakers don’t know what to do. They press the usual (and unusual) levers and nothing happens. Quantitative easing was supposed to bring inflation “back to target.” It didn’t. Fiscal contraction was supposed to restore confidence. It didn’t.”

Skidelsky lays the blame for this on the state of macroeconomics – he reminds us of the now infamous visit of the British Queen Elizabeth to the London School of Economics at the depth of the Great Recession in 2008 when she asked a group of eminent economists: why did they miss this coming? (see my book, The Long Depression).  They replied that they did not know why they did not know!

Skidelsky goes on to consider various reasons for the failure of mainstream economics to see the crisis coming or now to know what to do about it.  One reason might be the concentration of economics education on unrealistic models and mathematical formulas, rather than grasping “the whole picture”. He reckons economics has cut itself off from “the common understanding of how things work, or should work.”  This analysis follows that recently argued by Paul Romer, the new chief economist at the World Bank, who, on resigning from academia, also attacked the state of macroeconomics today.

Skidelsky’s second reason is that mainstream economics views society as like a machine that can achieve equilibrium of supply and demand so that “deviations from equilibrium are “frictions,” mere “bumps in the road”; barring them, outcomes are pre-determined and optimal.”  What this fails to recognise, says Skidelsky, is that there are human beings operating in an economic system and they cannot be fitted into an equilibrium model or machine.  Mathematics then gets in the way of the big picture with all its human unpredictabilities and changes. What is wrong with economics, according to Skidelsky is that there is a lack of “broad education and outlook”.  Economists need to know about wider things in social organisation and behaviour and the history of human development, not just models and maths.

While Skidelsky’s arguments have more than an element of truth about them, he does not really explain why mainstream economics has become divorced from reality.  This is not a mistake of education or lack of recognition of wider social sciences like psychology; it is a deliberate result of the need to avoid considering the reality of capitalism.  ‘Political economy’ started as an analysis of the nature of capitalism on an ‘objective’ basis by the great classical economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Mill and others.  But once capitalism became the dominant mode of production in the major economies and it became clear that capitalism was another form of the exploitation of labour (this time by capital), then economics quickly moved to deny that reality.  Instead, mainstream economics became an apologia for capitalism, with general equilibrium replacing real competition; marginal utility replacing the labour theory of value and Say’s law replacing crises.

As Marx succinctly put it: Once for all I may here state, that by classical political economy, I understand that economy, which, since the time of W. Petty, has investigated the real relations of production in bourgeois society, in contradistinction to vulgar economy, which deals with appearances only, ruminates without ceasing on the materials long since provided by scientific economy, and there seeks plausible explanations of the most obtrusive phenomena, for bourgeois daily use, but for the rest, confines itself to systematizing in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the trite ideas held by the self-complacent bourgeoisie with regard to their own world, to them the best of all possible worlds.”

What is wrong with mainstream economics is not (just) that economists of today are too narrowly mathematical and focused on economic models – there is nothing inherently wrong with using maths and models – or that most economists do not have the wider “erudition and multiple talents” of the classical economists of the past.  It is that economics is no longer ‘political economy’, an objective analysis the laws of motion of capitalism, but an apologia for all the ‘virtues’ of capitalism.

The assumption of economics is that capitalism is the only viable system of human social organisation that will deliver the wants and needs of people.  There is no alternative.  Capitalism is eternal and it works as long there is not too much interference in markets from outside forces like government or from ‘excessive’ monopolies.  Occasionally, the task is to control ‘shocks’’ to the system (neoclassical view) or make interventions to correct ‘technical problems’ in capitalist production and circulation (Keynesian view).  But the system itself is fine.

Take Paul Krugman’s reaction to Skidelsky’s piece.  What upsets Krugman is the suggestion from Skidelsky that mainstream economics reckons that fiscal contraction (austerity) was necessary to “restore confidence” after the Great Recession.  Krugman, as the modern doyen of Keynesianism, disagrees with the biographer of Keynes.  Mainstream economics, at least the Keynesian wing, argued the opposite.  More government spending, not less, would have got the capitalist economy out of its depression.   This is basic macroeconomics, Krugman says.

He then goes onto to claim that austerity is “strongly correlated with economic downturns”.  Actually the evidence for that claim is weak indeed, as I have shown in various places on my blog and in papers (published and upcoming).  The great Keynesian solutions of easy money, zero interest rates and fiscal spending have come well short of delivering an end to the depression when they have been tried (and all three have been tried in Japan).  Krugman, of course, tells us that they have not been tried, at least not enough.  Policymakers refused to use fiscal policy to promote jobs; they chose to believe in the confidence fairy to justify attacks on the welfare state, because that’s what they wanted to do. And yes, some economists gave them cover. But that’s a very different story from the claim that economics failed to offer useful guidance. On the contrary, it offered extremely useful guidance, which policymakers, for political reasons, chose to ignore.”

In my view, policy makers may have chosen to ignore fiscal spending to solve the ‘technical problem’ of the Long Depression partly “for political reasons”.  But there are also very good economic reasons for arguing that in a capitalist economy, increased government spending and running budget deficits would not get an economic recovery if the profitability of capital is low.

Skidelsky mentioned the other great blindspot of mainstream economics: the claim that the free movement of goods and capital, globalisation, works for all.  Angus Deaton,winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2015, is an optimistic defender of globalisation.  Deaton’s 2013 book The Great Escape argued that the world we live in today is healthier and wealthier than it would otherwise have been, thanks to centuries of economic integration. In an interview in the FT, Deaton says that “Globalisation for me seems to be not first-order harm and I find it very hard not to think about the billion people who have been dragged out of poverty as a result”.

I have discussed Deaton’s arguments in previous posts.  Deaton represents all that is best in mainstream economics now, as he looks at the big issues: globalisation, robots, inequality and human health and happiness.  He is now worried about the threat of robots for labour’s share, the growing inequalities from “rent-seeking” and the deteriorating health of Americans from over use of drugs pumped into them by pharma companies.  He reckons that happiness effectively peaked once a person was earning the equivalent of $75,000 a year.”  Of course, most don’t have even that, as Deaton knows.  But he remains confident that capitalism is the best system of social organisation as it has taken a billion people “out of poverty” over the last 250 years. So capitalism works, even if its apologists ignore its workings and cannot explain when it does not work.

The FT interviewer left Deaton and wandered back to his car “There is a limp, wet parking ticket stuck to my windscreen, a $40 fine. I smile. I’m also drawn back to the advice Deaton offered when I first sat down and mentioned my fear of a looming ticket.  “I’m sure you can get out of it,” the Nobel laureate told me. “Just tell them the system was broken.”

Well, the system is broken and the economists cannot get us out of it.