by Francis Lee for the Saker Blog
‘’The years since the 1970s are unprecedented in terms of their volatility in the price of commodities, currencies, real estate, and stocks. There have been 4 waves of financial crises: a large number of banks in three, four or more countries collapsed at about the same time. Each wave was followed by a recession, and the economic slowdown which began in 2008 was the most severe and most global since the great depression of the 1930s … Bubbles always implode, since by definition they always involve non-sustainable increases in the indebtedness of a group of borrowers and/or non-sustainable increases in the price of stocks/shares … Debt can increase much more rapidly than income for an extended period …’’ But ‘’… when eventually the rate of their indebtedness slows the ‘day of reckoning’ occurs, when there isn’t enough cash to pay the interest on outstanding loans the bust is inevitable.’’ (1)
Interestingly enough 1971 was the year when Nixon took the world off the gold standard, which had been in effect since 1944. At a stroke this was probably the most destabilizing event since the Wall Street Crash of 1929. But the full effects didn’t filter through the system until the decades beginning in the 1960s. The problem was the fact that the US economy had undergone a metamorphosis from being a surplus trading nation to being a deficit nation. Earlier, in 1944 to be exact, it was agreed at the Bretton Woods conference that a new trading system needed to be constructed, this in order to overcome the problems of the inter-war trade wars which had led to mutual impoverishment. The new global trade architecture was to be based upon a hierarchy of hard currencies, the British pound, the French Franc, the Italian Lira et cetera all aligned at a fixed rate of exchange with the US dollar which was to be convertible with gold at $35 per ounce.
The system worked for a while but excess US expenditures – namely the imperial expeditions in Korea and Indo-China, as well as a bloated system of some 800 military bases stationed in areas all over the world, and add in the social expenditures of the LBJ administration in the US, all of which meant that abundant US$s were turning up all over the place, particularly in Europe and Japan. Holders of these surplus greenbacks sought conversion into either their own currencies or the universal equivalent – gold. This gave rise to a run on gold since the US was required to honour the arrangement of convertibility. In its turn this led to a serious depletion of US gold reserves which necessitated the US (and by implication involve the rest of the world) to unilaterally suspend the gold standard. Henceforth US trading partners would, whether they liked it or not, take dollars which they were assured were as good as gold (a ridiculous proposition). This was described by the French politician Valery Giscard D’Estaing as an ‘Exorbitant Privilege’ and of course he was perfectly correct. At this point the Triffin Dilemma/Paradox kicked in. But I have covered this elsewhere (See The Rise and Fall of Empires).
It should be understood that booms and busts have always been normal in a capitalist economy. Two eminent political economists have put forward their explanation of this phenomenon as follows.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) explained that capitalists would try to boost their profits in new and more productive technology to save labour costs. In a letter to his close compatriot and friend – Friedrich Engels – he wrote: ‘’All of you note that from reasons I no longer have to explain, that capitalist production moves through certain periodical cycles.’’ He particularly identified the rate of profit to be the independent variable in capitalist production; this variable gave rise to a number of other dependent variables such as employment and unemployment, investment decisions, stock market booms and slumps, and capitalist companies borrowing monies by issuing shares/stocks or borrowing directly from banks. They also began to issue bonds as did governments. Thus the role of finance capital was enormously enhanced.
Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) reckoned that when capitalism went into a crisis or slump, it made much of the old equipment or plant obsolete. Other capitalists then began to turn to the new technology to gain advantage, so capitalist slumps led to innovations. Schumpeter called this process ‘creative destruction’. So a cycle of new technology would start after a major slump. But this new technology would not be developed until the profits cycle moved into upswing. Then there would be a take-off of the new technology. The next downward wave would mean a setback to the new technology cycle and an even worse situation for capitalists depending on the old technology. Finally, in another new upswing for profits, the new technology would take over as the dominant force. In the next downswing the new technology would become mature and capitalists would look for new systems and the whole process would restart.
These cycles, however, would very much vary in duration from fairly short-term business restocking, to longer term business cycles, property cycles, profit cycles and into longer and more profound upheavals which may have matured over decades. The Kondratiev cycle being a prototype which has lasted for at least 60 years. Nikolai Kondratiev himself was a Soviet economist who was able to identify such cycles. Four such waves were identified from the late 1700s and four complete waves were identified by Kondratiev. Such waves were occasioned by the usual boom-bust cycle but essentially these cycles were pushed forward by the production and diffusion of new technologies and the operationalization of new modes of production. From water powered, steam powered, electrification, Fordist organized production, and digital communications and computerization of the entire economy. These were the ongoing means of production, although the class nature of the capitalist system did not change.
Unfortunately Kondratiev found himself on the wrong side of the Stalinist nomenklatura and was arrested for suggesting that the US would not necessarily collapse in the great recession of ’29. Heresy! He was arrested and did 8 years in one of those grim Soviet prisons, and finally taken out and was shot by firing squad in 1938. These were grim times.
In recent years, however there has been a new development feature which has been exacerbated during crisis situations involving that part of the economy indicated by the acronym FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) and its growing importance in the economy in both qualitative and quantitative terms.
Finance as it is referred to has always been part of the general economy. But it was always in a sense the junior partner to industry and subordinate as such. Its role was to support the productive sector in terms of credit and liquidity, but the relationship has now become almost inverted. Value producing Industry is now relegated to the second tier of the economy and finance now runs the show.
‘’To maintain the semblance of vitality Western capitalism has become increasingly dependent on expanding debt levels and on the expansion of fictitious capital … fictitious capital is made up of financial assets that are only symbols of value, not real values. For example company shares that are traded like goods and services do not in the same way embody value. They are tokens which represent part ownership of a company and the potential of a distribution of future profits in the form of dividends. The paper or electronic certificate itself is not a genuine value that can create more value. Rising share/stock prices are often presented as the evidence of a healthy economy, but the amount of money that a share/stock changes hands says nothing definitive about the value of the company’s assets or about its productive capacity. On the contrary, it is when real capital stagnates that the amount of fictitious capital tends to expand.’’(2)
Turning to financialisation proper and its genesis. This phenomenon was enabled through the holy trinity of privatisation-liberalisation-deregulation. This was a political/economic project which began to take root in the 1970s but came into full fruition in the 1980s led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. At both the political and economic level radical theorists such as those ensconced at the Chicago University department of Economics became the crucial protagonists in a movement led by Milton Friedman and which was to become known as the Chicago School. Its impact was profound. This insofar as it signalled the end of one epoch and the beginning of another.
‘’The expansion of the financial sector is the most recognisable aspect of financialisation. However a more telling part for how the workings of the economy change is the adoption of financial activities by the non-financial corporate sector, by the wider industrial economy. The core feature of financialisation is the fusion of industry with financial activity. (My emphasis -FL) Troubled financial firms turn to financial activity in order to raise cash and/or shore up profitability.
These activities start with raising debt to fund business operations working at sub-par profitability. They extend into financial engineering where buying and selling shares or acquiring companies take precedence over productive investment and organic growth in the underlying businesses. Financial services companies are often helpful in conducting these activities. The drive-through comes from the non-financial businesses that are obliged to pursue financial activities when their original productive ones are less profitable and remunerative.’’ (3)
The hegemon of deregulated finance had thus assumed a seemingly unstoppable momentum from the late 20th century, through to the 80s and 90s until the early 21st century. It has been a process whereby financial markets, financial institutions, and financial elites gain greater influence over economic policy and economic outcomes. It has impacted on the economy producing deep-going changes, not necessarily for the better. But its principal raison d’etre has been to elevate the significance and practice of rent-seeking activities relative to the real value-producing sector. Economic rent is essentially parasitic involving the tapping into those income streams which are producing real value. These consist inter alia of – banks, credit agencies, investment companies, brokers and dealers of commodities and securities, security and commodity exchanges, insurance agents, buyers, sellers, lessors, lessees and so forth – has now reached such a level that it has become larger, more ubiquitous, and profitable than productive industry.
In contemporary terms financial institutions had been involved in the acquisition of economic rent. This consisted of little more than a parasitic claim on real value as was produced in the production process. To cite a simple example. Parking meters don’t produce any new value, they merely transfer existing value from the motorist to whoever is collecting the meter charges. Other examples are rent from land, patents and copyrights, monopolistic pricing and so forth. This situation was initially outlined by David Ricardo (1772-1823) who argued that ‘’The interest of the landlord is also opposed to the interest of every other class in society – namely, capitalists and workers. Ricardo’s animus toward the land-owning classes was in part based upon this theory of economic rent as outlined in his definitive work, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation first published in 1817. It was a theme that Keynes took up 2 centuries later with his recommendation of the early ‘euthanasia’ of the ‘rentier’ and the rentier class. The views of Ricardo and Keynes were unfortunately disregarded, and to this day, in the UK at least, the Monarchy, landed aristocracy and rentier class are still very much a power in the land. (The UK never had its bourgeois revolution, or rather it did in the civil war between Parliament and the King – 1642-49. Cromwell and Parliament won, and Charles 1 had his head chopped off in 1649, but there was a restoration whereby his son Charles 2 was brought back from France to claim the throne of England.)
But I digress.
The whole process of financialisation was to divert income from the real value-producing sector of the economy and transferring it through various rental manipulations to the financial sector. Needless to say this would purposely result in inequality and stagnant and/or falling wage levels.
Thus from 1970 onwards this part of the economy has grown from almost nothing to 8% of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This means that one dollar in every ten is associated with finance. In terms of corporate profits finance’s contribution now represents around 40% of all corporate profits in the US. This is a significant figure and, moreover, it does not include those overseas earnings of companies whose profits are repatriated to their countries of origin.
Finance operates at different levels in the economy: through changes in the structure and operation of financial markets, changes in the behaviour of nonfinancial corporations, and changes in economic policy
The increasing pervasiveness of finance in the contemporary world economy and its ever-expanding role in overall economic activities, and in addition to its ongoing growth in profitability, are the indicators of growth and spread of financialisation. Given the historical record, however, it seems highly probable that this financial ascendency will not be permanent and the whole house of cards will eventuate into a collapse into debt-deflation and a long period of economic depression.
The template for contemporary financial operations can be described from activities of Investment banks like Goldman Sachs as well as run-of-the-mill commercial banks. Of course, as stated, these venerated institutions do not create value as such; they are purely rent-extractive. Commercial banks can and do make loans out of thin air, debit this loan to the would-be mortgagee who then becomes a source of permanent income flow to the bank for the next 25 years. At a more rarefied level Goldman Sachs is reputed to make year-on-year ‘profits’ by doing – what exactly? Nothing particularly useful. But then Goldman Sachs is part of the cabal of central banks and Treasury departments around the world. It is not unusual to see the interchange of the movers and shakers of the financial world who oscillate between these institutions. Hank Paulson, Mario Draghi, Steve Mnuchin, Robert Rubin, and most recently from the IMF to the ECB, Madame Lagarde … on and on it goes.
This system now moves into ever more vertiginous levels of instability. But this was the logical consequence of deregulation. Regulation involves additional costs, but the last thing financial markets want is an increase in costs: ergo, deregulation. But this was to be wholly expected. As a result the history of regulation is that new types of institutions are developed that exist outside the scope of regulations, e.g., money-market funds were developed as a way to pay interest on demand deposits. The offshore market developed to avoid the costs that domestic banks incur in the form of reserve requirements and deposit insurance premiums; the offshore branches of US banks – i.e., the Eurodollar market – could pay higher interest rates than their domestic branches. The whole institutional structure – its rules, regulations and practises were deregulated, and finance was let off the leash. Thatcher, Reagan, the ‘Big Bang’ had set the scene and there was no going back: neoliberalism and globalization had become the norm. From this point on, however, there followed a litany of crises mostly in the developing world, but these disturbances were in due course to move into the developed world. Serial bubbles began to appear.
Ever mobile speculative capital was to move from one financial debacle to the next leaving a trail of wreckage and destruction in its wake. But, hey, that was someone else’s problem. The Savings and Loans crisis 1980’s and 90’s, Long Term Capital Management, 1998, dot.com bubble 2000/2001 and the property market bust in 2008 where the precursors of the current and even deeper blow-out.
But contrary to popular mythology – ‘this time it’s different’ – any boom and bust has an inflexion point where boom turns to bust. This is when buyers incomes, and borrowers inability to extend their loans could no longer support the rise in the price level. Euphoria turned to panic as borrowers who once clamoured to buy were now desperate to sell. 2008 had arrived. The same financial drama of boom and bust was to repeat itself. In the initial euphoria property prices went up but the market became oversold. At this point house prices and the prices of attendant derivatives – e.g. Mortgaged Backed Securities (MBS) – began to stall. The incomes and borrowing of would-be purchasers could no longer support the ever-rising property asset prices. The cycle had reached its inflexion point, now the whole thing went into reverse. Everyone was frantic to sell, prices collapsed. Some – a few – made money, quite a few lost monies. Investors were wondering what had happened to their gains which they had made during the up phase. Where had all that money gone? In fact the ‘gains’ were purely fictional as were the losses. Such gains/losses which had appeared then simply disappeared like a will ‘o’ the wisp. The gains and losses were never there in the first place given as an accounting identity they were balanced.
One would have thought that past experience would have chastened investors into a more conservative frame of mind. But no. Whenever there was a sniff of something for nothing the mob starts to move like Wildebeest on the plains of the Serengeti, an unstoppable stampede. Even such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton perhaps one of the greatest scientific minds of his day who lost a cool £20000.00 on the South Sea Bubble lamented in 1720 that ‘’I could calculate the movement of heavenly bodies but not the madness of the people.’’ I suppose you could see this as being yet of another instance of human irrationalism – a recurring theme and instances in human nature, of which sadly there have been many.
And what has all of this to do with Coronavirus? Well everything actually. I take it that we all knew that the grotesquely overleveraged and dangerously poised world economy was heading for a ‘correction’ but that is rather an understated description. Massive downturn would be more accurate. This was already baked into the cake prior to the COVID-19s emergence and warnings were duly given and then routinely ignored. We are now left with a combination of a dangerous pandemic crisis combined with a huge financial and economic correction. The world was a combination of a unprecedently bloated paper money bubble and a rampant and virulent pandemic virus. Anticipated consequences can only be imagined.
(1) Manias, Crashes and Panics – Kindelberger and Aliber – P.1/2 – 6th Edition 2011.
(2) Phillip Mullan – Creative Destruction – p.22
(3) Mullan – Ibid, – p.22/23
*A note on fictitious capital:
Fictitious capital is a by-product of capitalist accumulation. It is a concept used by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy. It is introduced in chapter 25 of the third volume of Capital. Fictitious capital contrasts with what Marx calls “real capital”, which is capital actually invested in physical means of production and workers, and “money capital”, which is actual funds being held. The market value of fictitious capital assets (such as stocks and securities) varies according to the expected return or yield of those assets in the future, which Marx felt was only indirectly related to the growth of real production. Effectively, fictitious capital represents “accumulated claims, legal titles, to future production’’ and more specifically claims to the income generated by that production.
The moral of the story is that it is not possible to print wealth or value. Money in its paper representation of the real thing, e.g., gold, is not wealth it is a claim on wealth.