Tag Archive for Financialisation

The rise of shadow banking

Both the EU Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund published reports recently on the growth and risk of the shadow-banking sector.
While estimating the size of the sector and identifying some immediate risks, both reports fail to identify the rise of finance, and in particular non-bank credit-creating entities, over recent decades as a systemic aspect of monopolisation, stagnation, and over-accumulation.
Both reports also promote the “positive” aspects of shadow banking and see it having a role in releasing credit where other financial institutions might not venture. As the IMF put it, “the challenge for policy-makers is to maximise the benefits of shadow banking.”
The IMF defines shadow banking as credit intermediation outside the conventional banking system—or non-bank entities that create credit. This is a broad definition, making shadow banking about a quarter of total financial intermediation. It therefore includes pension funds, insurance entities, hedge funds, structured investment vehicles, mortgage services rights (collectors of interest and debt), and derivative product companies, which are often special-purpose vehicles.
The Financial Stability Board has been monitoring shadow banking since 2011 and has reported that the United States, Britain and the euro area have the largest shadow-banking systems. Britain’s accounts for more than 360 per cent of GDP, while those of the United States and the euro area are closer to 200 per cent.
But Ireland (also included in the euro area) stands out. The shadow-banking system here has been estimated to be in the region of €1.7 trillion—almost 11 times our GNP. This is without doubt related to global tax evasion and the fact that many corporations pay less than 1 per cent tax, never mind the official rate of 12½ per cent.
The growth of the shadow-banking system has created new risks and instabilities within the system, but it has also provided a much-need avenue for investment. Its importance as an avenue for investment far exceeds the risks it creates with regard to the reproduction of capital, and so there have been few serious attempts to control, isolate or regulate the sector. In fact the IMF makes it clear that, as regulation has increased in the normal banking industry, shadow banking has grown, as if to imply that regulation is futile and that shadow banking should be embraced and normalised.
Seven years after the crisis erupted, the crucial role played by finance, financial products and investment avenues is obvious. There will be no serious attempt to control capital merely to mitigate its worst instabilities by establishing publicly funded bail-out mechanisms or to increase the confidence of investors in finance. This is monopoly capitalism in the twenty-first century.

Taken from Socialist Voice, http://www.communistpartyofireland.ie/sv/07-shadow.html

How Speculation for Its Own Sake Pays Billions

by PETE DOLACK

Taken from http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/05/15/how-speculation-for-its-own-sake-pays-billions/

The absurdity of the tsunami of money crammed into speculators’ bank accounts is illustrated in the fact that the 25 highest-paid hedge-fund managers vacuumed up a collective $11.6 billion in 2014 — and that was considered to be a bad year for them by the business press. Stratospheric though that total is, it is barely more than half of what the top 25 took in a year earlier.

All together now: Awwww. Yes, somehow these speculators will have to get by on a paltry average of $467 million.

Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine — one can hear their editors’ teeth gnashing at their heroes’ bitter fate — lamented that 2014 was the worst year since the 2008 stock meltdown for hedge-fund managers in announcing its “Rich List.”

Nonetheless, some observers might believe that these moguls earned somebody serious money to collect such enormous paychecks. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. For the sixth consecutive year, hedge funds fell short of the average stock-market performance, returning a composite average of three percent. Perhaps the 25 hedge-fund managers who hauled in the most money for themselves were better? Not really. Alpha reports that the hedge funds of at least 12 of the individuals on its top 25 list posted gains below the 2014 average.

The S&P 500 Index, the broadest measure of U.S. stock markets, gained 11.4 percent in 2014 and the benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 7.5 percent. So somebody throwing darts, or parking their money in a passive fund that tracks a major index, would have done as well or better in many cases. Despite their subpar performances, hedge-fund managers continue to receive an annual fee of two percent of the value of the total assets under management and 20 percent of any profits. The fee gets paid even when the fund loses money.

So it’s heads, Wall Street wins and tails, Wall Street wins. And hedge funders pay less in taxes. Much of their income is classified as capital gains under U.S. tax law, and the tax rate on capital gains are much less than on regular income.

Imposing austerity on others is a job never finished

What is that hedge-fund managers do to “earn” such enormous sums of money? Let us take a look. The top person on the 2014 list is Kenneth Griffin of Citadel Capital, who hauled in $1.3 billion for the year. Citadel makes lots of money through computerized high-speed trading — buying and selling securities in microseconds to take advantage of momentary price changes. Apparently allowing computers to do the work leaves Mr. Griffin with time to pursue his hobby of widening inequality still more.

Not content with the fact that his 2014 earnings are equal to the combined median wage of 26,000 U.S. workers, he contributed $10 million to an Illinois campaign that seeks to cut workers’-compensation benefits, make it illegal for employees to contribute to political campaigns through their union, abolish prevailing-wage laws and render union dues collections much more difficult. He’s also contributed millions to the Koch brothers’ war chest. Mr. Griffin’s firm also owns a stake in ServiceMaster, a company that profits from the privatization of public services by firing employees and rehiring them at lower wages.

A Huffington Post article, noting that Mr. Griffin is also a major donor to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, nonetheless reports that he believes Mayor 1% is too soft on public employees despite the mayor’s attacks on pensions and teachers. The article said:

“Griffin, alone, could fund all of Chicago’s pension liabilities for [2014] (estimated at $692 million) and still have $208 million [from his 2013 income] left to scrap by on. Yet Griffin is terribly worried that the mayor is being too soft on retirees. He castigated Chicago and Illinois politicians for not making ‘tough choices,’ blaming Democrats who control city, county and state government for not fixing pension, education and crime problems.”

Second on the hedge-fund list is James Simons of Renaissance Technologies. Although Alpha reported that he no longer runs his firm on a day-to-day basis and “spends a good chunk of the year on his 226-foot yacht,” Mr. Simons hauled in $1.2 billion in 2014. His firm employs physicists, others scientists and mathematicians to develop models for its computerized trading. Alas, speculation pays much more than scientific research that might benefit humanity.

Buy, strip, profit, repeat

Third on the list is Raymond Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, who took in $1.1 billion in 2014. He specializes in bond and currency speculation. Fourth on the list is William Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management, who is what the corporate media likes to call an “activist investor.” In other words, someone who buys stock in a company and immediately demands massive cuts so he can make a large short-term profit is an “activist investor” because he does this more loudly than others.

Mr. Ackman hauled in $950 million in 2014. Forbes magazine, as consistent a cheerleader for the corporate overclass as any institution, summed him up this way last year:

“[H]edge fund billionaire William Ackman has tried to destroy a company that sells diet shakes, played a prominent role in nearly driving a 112-year-old retailer into the ground [and] helped launch a hostile takeover of a pharmaceutical company in a way that the Securities & Exchange Commission is reportedly examining for potential violations of insider trading law. Now, Ackman is suing the U.S. government.”

He is suing the U.S. government because it is taking the profits from federal housing-loan programs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to recoup money used to bail them out rather than handing the profits over to speculators such as himself. Never mind that the government spent hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out speculators. Among his most recent exploits, he was involved in two separate deals that would have moved a U.S. corporation’s headquarters to Canada so that it could avoid paying taxes, savings that would be earmarked for speculators’ wallets.

No summation of hedge-fund greed would be complete without a mention of Paul Singer, another entrant on the Alpha list. The vulture capitalist specializes in buying debt at pennies on the dollar and then demands to be paid the full face value, regardless of human cost. Among other exploits, he has seized an Argentine naval ship, demanded $400 million from the Republic of the Congo for bonds he bought for less than $10 million and compelled the government of Peru to pay him a 400 percent profit on the debt of two banks he bought four years earlier.

The outsized renumeration of financiers is due to the disproportionate size of the financial industry. A rough calculation estimates that in 11 business days speculators trade instruments and contracts with a value greater than all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year. In other words, a year’s worth of gross world product is traded in about two weeks on the world’s stock, bond, derivative, futures and foreign-exchange markets.

Such frenzied trading, often involving high-speed computers and ever more exotic betting, has little to do with actual economic needs and much to do with extracting money by ever more imaginative needs. Such is a system that values financial engineering more than human life.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.

SHADOW BANKING AROUND THE GLOBE: HOW LARGE, AND HOW RISKY?

This Chapter 2 of an IMF economic report.

IMF Shadow Banking

The chapter describes the growth and risks of and regulatory responses to shadow banking—financial intermediaries or activities involved in credit intermediation outside the regular banking system, and therefore lacking a formal safety net.

The largest shadow banking systems are found in advanced economies, where more narrowly defined shadow banking measures indicate stagnation, while broader measures (which include investment funds) generally show continued growth since the global financial crisis. In emerging market economies, the growth of shadow banking has been strong, outpacing that of the traditional banking system.

 

State and finance in financialised capitalism

Definitely worth reading this analysis of contemporary capitalism, class and the State by Costas Lapavitsas.

State and finance in financialised capitalism

Costas Lapavitsas is a leading Professor of Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and also sits on the National Advisory Panel of Class.

The structural problems within the UK and other mature economies were brought to the surface during and after the crisis of 2007-9. This paper argues that these problems are inherent to contemporary mature capitalism and have to do, primarily, with financialisation. The exceptional rise of finance in terms of size and penetration across society, the economy and the policy process, is apparent to all. The rise of finance is a sign of a fundamental transformation of mature capitalism within commercial and industrial enterprises, but also banks and perhaps most strikingly, within households.

The period of financialisation, lasting from the 1970s to the present day, has also wrought profound changes to the social structure of contemporary capitalism. It has been a period of extraordinary income inequality, wiping out all of the gains that came in the period following the Second World War. This paper notes that the ability of the rich to extract enormous incomes has been associated with the financial system. Inequality is a characteristic feature of financialisation.

Financialisation has been marked by the ideology of neoliberalism, promoted by universities, think-tanks and a variety of other institutions. Neoliberal ideology ostensibly treats state intervention in the economy with extreme suspicion, but the reality has been very different. The financialisation of mature economies would have been inconceivable without the facilitating and enabling role of the state.

Intervention by the state has taken several forms, including handing a dominant role to central banks to offer vital support to the financial system by providing liquidity and through their ability to influence interest rates. The state has also offered guarantees to bank deposits, boosted the capital of banks out of tax income and implicitly guaranteed bank survival through the ‘too big to fail doctrine’. Finally, the state has fostered financialisation by altering the regulatory framework of finance. The critically important role of the state was demonstrated at the point of the 2007-9 crisis as the state rescued banks and prevented the collapse of the financial system.

 

Debt: A Weapon Against the People

DWAP

This pamphlet follows two recent economic analyses of the crisis and its aftermath published by the Communist Party of Ireland: An Economy for the Common Good (2009) and Repudiate the Debt (2011). In this pamphlet we develop further our analysis of the crisis of capitalism, the role debt plays in the economic system, and, most importantly, the response of the establishment and its attempt to further extend its power and wealth, with devastating consequences for working people’s lives.

When you lend a friend €20, whatever way you put it you are down €20 until they pay you back. Even if they make a commitment to pay you back €30, you are still down €20, and no shop will take your friend’s commitment to pay you back €30 as real money.

However, when a bank lent someone €300,000 for a mortgage, not only did it not deduct €300,000 from its accounts but it actually added the full amount that would be paid back over the lifetime of the mortgage—close to €1½ million—to its assets. It “created” €1.2 million, that doesn’t exist, through the loan.

It is this type of growth—unearned and future—that gave credence to the monetarist belief that there could be unlimited growth and expansion. The lines between asset and liability disappeared on the balance sheets of capitalism. Debt—credit—would make the world go round. Crisis could be overcome.

Or so they told us.

Marx recognised that credit and debt have always played a role in production and consumption within capitalism. But what is different today is the dependence of the system on it, where the rate of profit steadily falls, and the fundamental role it plays in the creation of profit, both as a fund and an avenue for investment. Without debt, capitalism would cease to grow; yet with its systemic reliance on debt capitalism is even more anarchic and volatile, with production and supply even further divorced from demand and consumption. To quote John Maynard Keynes, “when the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”[3]

This pamphlet outlines the principal points of development in the economic system during the second half of the twentieth century and then looks at the nature and extent of the debt crisis in Europe, particularly here in Ireland, which is exposing the contradictions and vulnerability of European economies and ultimately of monopoly capitalism. The crisis, like any crisis, is an opportunity for some, and the European Union and the Irish establishment have seized on this opportunity to further strengthen their power.

It is a naïve mistake to say, as some do, that austerity is not working. This misunderstands the root causes of the crisis, and the system’s response. “Austerity” is not designed to create jobs. It is not designed to ease the burden being placed on workers’ shoulders. It is not designed to reduce the bankruptcy of states. The purpose of the austerity programmes being imposed throughout Europe, particularly in the periphery but more recently also in core countries, is to free up capital and transfer it to finance houses and institutions so as to shore up the primary source of growth in the system: finance capital.

Get your copy of the pamphlet from Connolly Bookshop, Temple Bar.

The Chronic Crisis, with Worse to Come?

Article from the excellent political economy blogger Zoltan Zigedy

http://zzs-blg.blogspot.ie/2014/09/the-chronic-crisis-with-worse-to-come.html

Looking back on the ten years following the 1929 stock market crash, Marxist economist and Science and Society co-editor, Vladimir D. Kazakevich, wrote of the “chronic crisis” that persisted throughout the nineteen thirties in the US (“The War and American Finance,” Science and Society, Spring 1940). Kazakevich drew attention to the stagnation that lasted over the decade, noting that after World War One, the United States became the most dominant economy in the world. Yet “[a]s the most powerful capitalist country, the United States developed particularly glaring financial weaknesses, attributable, for the most part, precisely to its foremost place in a capitalist world torn by economic contradiction and frustration.”
Kazakevich, a good Marxist instead of a born-again Keynesian, reflected on the collapse of growth of the capital goods sector through the New Deal decade: “These figures show how enormously capitalist activity had shrunk in the thirties as compared to the twenties. Most of the Federal expenditures of the New Deal period were directed towards sustaining the demand for consumers’ goods rather than for capital or producers’ goods… Although widely advocated, ‘priming of the pump’ from the end of consumers’ goods alone, has proved a complete failure as an economic measure for resuscitation of the capitalist organization harassed by a chronic crisis.”
Economic commentators today are increasingly nervous about a similar slump in capital goods accompanying our own “chronic crisis.” Because the growth of capital spending (and capital equipment spending) is running well below its long-term average of 8% (growing just 3% in 2013), the average age of industrial machinery and equipment in the US has surpassed 10 years, the highest average age since 1938 when Kazakevich was painting his dire picture! (The Wall Street Journal, 9-3-14) Thus, the slug-like motion of the US economy during the last seven years mimics in an important way the stagnation following the great crash initiating the Great Depression.
While capital spending may not now play quite the decisive role it played in the US economy during the 1930s, it remains a strong indicator of the hesitancy of managers to expand the productive core of the economy. They fail to see prospects for profit expansion in the extensive growth or retooling of the manufacturing sector. Of course that does not mean that managers are not seeking profits or investors are not seeking a return on investment. Managers have plowed more cash into mergers and acquisitions during the first half of 2014 than any time since 1999. That also is typically a part of capitalist restructuring after a severe crash. This rationalizing of capitalist production serves and has served to restore the growth of profit following a capitalist misadventure.
In the wake of the crash of 2007-2008 the US economy experienced a dramatic jump in labor productivity (in the absence of capital investment, this necessarily came largely from an increase in the rate of exploitation). Massive layoffs, plant closings, and weak union leadership combined wage stagnation with extreme speed up of a shrunken labor force. Profits ensued. And consequently the previously depressed rate of profit resumed its growth.
Unfortunately for the prospects of capitalism, the growth of productivity has petered out: its past 5-year average is only slightly more than half of the 20-year average, with productivity actually falling 1.7% in the first quarter of 2014. So this road to profit recovery and growth is seemingly closed.
Of course if the past productivity gains had been shared with the working class, capitalism likely would have experienced an increase in revenues (folks would have purchased more goods and services) and a rosier earnings outlook. But that did not happen. Adjusted for inflation, the cumulative growth of median household income has dropped precipitously since the crash, settling at the level of 1990. Consequently, corporate revenue growth peaked in the third quarter of 2011 and has shrunk ever since.
Thus, three signal measures promising profit-rate increases– capital investment, labor productivity, and revenue increases– are failing the US economy.
Not surprisingly, reported corporate profit growth has suffered. From its peak in the last quarter of 2009 (over 10%), it has receded steadily.
Profits, Profits, Profits!
It is important to emphasize that it is profits that fuel the capitalist system. While it seems an obvious point, it is the starting point of the Marxist theory of crisis. The capitalist system only appears healthy when the capitalist both holds capital and expects a return. He or she dreads two things: idle capital (capital with no prospect of return) and a stagnant or declining rate of return. Consequently, capitalism generates systemic growth if and only if capital is abundant, investment opportunities are rife, and the rate of profit is sufficiently enticing.
But this law of capitalist accumulation contains the seeds of capitalist crisis. As noted above, the growth of the rate of profit has been declining for some time. At the same time, the accumulation of capital is expanding faster than the overall US economy. The relative mass of profits– measured by US corporate profits as a percentage of GDP– reached unprecedented levels in the second quarter of 2014 (a level of profit/GDP only approached twice since 1947: immediately before the crash and in 1950). In other words, despite the fall in the rate of profit, the profit-generating capitalist engine is producing potential new capital faster than wealth is being produced. Three conclusions follow: capital is winning the class war, growth is lagging, and the mass of capital is growing relative to the size of the economy while the profit rate is declining.
And new capital must seek a home, a place to go to accumulate more capital.
Combine the profit-generated capital with the unprecedented cash held by corporations and the availability of cheap credit (nearly non-existent interest rates) and the capitalist class is faced with a daunting task of finding investment opportunities for a vast pool of capital.
If this sounds familiar, it is. Before the crash, many economic commentators noted that the investment world was awash in cash searching for opportunities. I wrote in April of 2007 (Tabloid Political Economy: The Coming DepressionMarxism-Leninism Today, April 5, 2007) that “Despite being awash in capital, financial power searches for investment opportunities to no avail. Economic theorists have been puzzled by the low returns available, even for high-risk or long-term investment. Under normal circumstances, risk and patience earn a premium in investment, but not today. Instead, the enormous pool of wealth concentrated in fewer hands can only lure borrowers at modest rates. There is simply too much accumulated wealth pursuing too few investment opportunities.”
It is this paradox of accumulation– two much capital, too few opportunities– that collapses the already stressed rate of profit and courts structural crisis (or deepening crisis, in our case). It is this paradox of accumulation that drives capital-gorged investors to pursue riskier and more ephemeral schemes.
Risk
Once again a vast pool of capital chases diminishing investment opportunities. Once again, as in the prelude to the crash, yields have shrunk, leading investors into riskier and more speculative investments. Pension funds and hedge funds are moving toward more arcane and less safe bets, hoping that return will outweigh the danger. As Richard Barley perceptively observes in the Wall Street Journal (August 11, 2014):
…there is a dearth of high quality securities. Yet there is still a global glut of capital seeking a home… All this creates incentives for financial engineering. In credit derivatives markets, there are signs investors are delving into esoteric structures. Citigroup reports a “large increase” in trading of products that slice and dice exposure to defaults in credit-default-swap indexes… Precrisis, low yields and seemingly benign market conditions led to the creation of instruments that ultimately few understood. The longer the reach for yield persists, the greater the chance that investors revisit the unhappy past.
For some time, the elusive “reach for yield” has driven a re-vitalized junk-bond market. In the five years after the crash, four of the ten fastest-growing bond funds held substantial quantities of low rated debt, according to WSJ analysts. They note that this “…development underscores the intense demand for investment returns since the 2008 crisis.”
But the flow of cash to the high yield market depressed yields to levels unseen since late 2007. They are rising again as investors sense that global economic turmoil and low yields signal danger.
The mania for mergers and acquisitions has also swung into dangerous, risky territory. Despite Federal guidelines urging the limitation of leverage to six times gross earnings by banks financing acquisitions, forty percent of private-equity takeovers in 2014 have exceeded the 6X rule. This rate is fast approaching the pre-crisis level of 2007.
The Wealth Effect
A seemingly robust stock market and a relatively stable US debt market join to create the illusion of a healthy, prosperous economy. They have, to great effect, masked the serious cracks in US capitalism.
The long anticipated Federal Reserve retreat from QE (Quantitative Easing: the purchase of US and other debt by the Fed) has not brought the disaster that many in the punditry and on Wall Street feared. Seldom noted, however, is the fact that the Peoples Republic of China has escalated its purchase of US treasuries nearly dollar for dollar against the Federal Reserve’s retreat.
The “stellar” performance of equities is another matter. One moderately alarming sign is the steady march of equity price-to-earnings ratios to a territory greater than the long-term average and to a level equal to or above that of 2006-2007. Of course this alone does not explain the market’s performance.
A puzzling aspect of equity price expansion is the historically low market activity in the post-crash period. What, then, has jacked up stock prices?
Part of the answer lies in corporate repurchases of shares, a practice that elevates the market price by taking stocks off the table. The Wall Street Journal (9-16-14) reports that $338.2 billion of equities were bought back by corporations in the first half of 2014, the most since 2007. The same report noted that corporations in the second quarter of 2014 spent “31% of their cash flow on buybacks.”
Corporations are hoarding cash and amassing debt at unprecedented levels (thanks to low interest rates, corporate bond issuance may approach $1.5 trillion this year, having grown geometrically over the last twenty years). Thus, corporate activity has shifted away from investing in future growth and toward mergers and acquisitions and stock buybacks, activities that bolster share inflation without creating underlying value.
Take Apple, for example. Sitting on vast quantities of cash, Apple nonetheless sold $12 billion worth of corporate bonds this year. At the same time, Apple repurchased $32.9 billion in Apple stocks, effectively driving up the price of those shares remaining in the market place.
Does this really create wealth? Or is it a ruse to keep the party going?
Interestingly, it’s not just the jaundiced Marxist eye that peers through the fog to see rocky shoals ahead. Rob Buckland, a CITIGROUP analyst, perceives the US economy as entering “phase three,” the phase preceding a marked downturn. Business Insider(August 15, 2014) summarizes Buckland’s phase three as follows:
Phase 3: This is the tricky part. Stocks are still flying high, but credit spreads are widening as investors become increasingly unwilling to finance further risk. Corporate CEOs have now experienced a lengthy period of gains and become risk-happy. (And we’d note that central banks are already talking about tightening credit by raising interest rates.) Bubbles can form in Phase 3, Buckland says, as the high-flying stock market ignores the early warning signs of the deteriorating credit market….(http://www.businessinsider.com/citi-economy-phase-3-where-bubbles-form-prior-to-crash-2014-8#ixzz3DcJqF9tH)
It is against this backdrop that worries are surfacing among investors. Some bearish hedge fund managers are investing anxiously in credit-default swaps and retreating from high risk. Discounting the distractions and illusions fostered by the monopoly media, serious students see the intractable crisis in Europe, the slowdown of the emerging market economies, the recent setbacks to Abe-nomics in Japan, and the loss of momentum in the economy of the Peoples Republic of China as adding to the contradictions lurking under the surface of the US economy.
Vladimir Kazakevich expressed fears in his 1940 article cited above that “…powerful interests on both sides of the Atlantic are likely to regard a war economy as an immediate solution for the chronic crisis…” Certainly his fears were well grounded. Militarism did prove able to “solve” the contradictions of global depression, at the enormous, unprecedented human cost of World War Two.
One cannot but wonder today if a similar logic is operating in the minds of US and NATO leaders who seem determined to stir hatred and belligerency. The newly emerged ISIS demons seem almost too perfect of a foe — almost a caricature of evil that may well bring an unprecedented level of US military might back to the Middle East. The “limited” US air campaign has already cost over a billion dollars, a nasty piece of military “pump priming” for the US economy.
And bear-baiting– poking Russia with threats, sanctions, and military engagement– is the new obsession of NATO, even at great economic cost to a prostrate Europe. The actions contemplated by militarists would push the risk level back to some of the worst days of the Cold War.
Is it now more and more apparent that only the “specter” of socialism can offer an answer to the chronic global crisis of capitalism and its attendants, xenophobia and war mongering?
Zoltan Zigedy

Explaining the crisis: A response

In the April and May issues of Socialist Voice an opinion article raised a number of questions about an article on economics in the January issue. It proposed that the review of Andrew Kliman’s book The Failure of Capitalist Production counterposed the “declining rate of profit” thesis with the Monthly Review thesis of “financialisation.” It proposed in turn that distinctions between the competing explanations are exaggerated and are reconcilable. Yet this misses important points of demarcation. Furthermore, the subsequent counter-explanation advanced has a number of shortcomings for understanding crisis in capitalism.

Too much or too little surplus value?

The first matter is whether there is indeed a significant difference between the Monthly Review approach and those scholars who emphasise profit cycles. Fundamentally, the Monthly Review thesis represents a theory of “under-consumption.” As a consequence, this thesis views the cause of economic crisis in capitalism as emanating from the excessive exploitation of workers: that is, crisis and stagnation are a result of the rate of surplus value being too high. According to the “under-consumptionist” thesis, capital has appropriated lots of surplus value but it cannot ultimately find enough buyers for the vast quantity of commodities it is able to produce; the spread between surplus and variable capital is highly skewed towards the former.

So it is a problem of investment realisation. The result is either acute economic crisis at periodic intervals or long-term economic stagnation, with many workers and machines lying idle. This is pretty close to the Monthly Reviewthesis, although it should be noted that in their explanatory framework they do not use core Marxist economic categories such as surplus value or indeed the labour theory of value. In contrast, other radical economists, from Henryk Grossman to Andrew Kliman and Alan Freeman, have tended to emphasise a different set of variables in explaining capitalist crisis.      Crucially, this school sees the cause of crises as being the exact opposite of what the Monthly Review school and other under-consumptionists claim it is. The “falling rate of profit” school holds that it is an insufficient rate of surplus value that leads to acute capitalist economic crises. Too little, as opposed to too much, surplus value is being produced for the needs of the capitalist system. The problem is not that there is too much surplus value, with few profitable investment outlets, but the realisation of surplus value itself.

Conceptual demarcations matter

Conceptually, these two theses of crisis theory are completely opposed to one another. Furthermore, the two theses might lead to quite different political conclusions.

The “under-consumption” thesis implies that if a more equal distribution of the national income can be achieved under capitalism—a lower rate of surplus value—the problem of crises and mass unemployment can be overcome within the capitalist system.

This indeed was the position of Paul Sweezy, the intellectual founder of the Monthly Reviewschool. Writing in 1995, he argued:

If my analysis of the performance of the U.S. economy during the last sixty years is accepted, to what policy conclusions does it point? . . . Public ownership of the means of production and planning to meet the needs of all the people [won’t be] a serious option . . . any time soon. The question should therefore be reformulated: what could be done within the framework of the private-enterprise system to make it work better?      The second indispensable change needed to make the private-enterprise economy work better is a redistribution of wealth and income towards greater equality. We live in a period in which an unprecedented and growing share of society’s income accrues to corporations and wealthy rentiers, while the share of the underlying population stagnates or declines.      This implies a permanent imbalance between society’s potential for adding to its stock of capital and its flagging consumer power . . . Would the capitalist class as a whole, in extremis, be willing to give up half of what it has to save the other half? I have a feeling that the fate of the private-enterprise system may depend on the answer to this question. [“Reminiscences,” Monthly Review, May 1995.]
 There is indeed continuity with this political stance in the current efforts of Monthly Reviewto project a “21st-century socialism” that, unpacked, is more radical social democracy rather than Marxian socialism. The “falling rate of profit” thesis, in contrast, implies that the only way out of a capitalist crisis is through an increase in the rate of exploitation of workers.      Here too the crisis problem might in theory be overcome within the framework of capitalism, but only by greatly increasing the rate of surplus value. This, however, implies an explosive intensification of the class struggle (which is precisely what we are seeing now in Ireland and beyond).

Misspecifying demand

Aside from this, other issues are evident in the opinion article that are worth revisiting. One is the argument advanced about the notion of falling consumption capacity on the part of the working class, which in time—admittedly in confluence with other variables—leads to a generalised crisis of capitalism. Intuitively, there is some logic to this argument: if workers’ pay or share of income (or both) are falling, personal consumption demand will tend to fall (unless it is offset by something else, such as credit).

This reduces profits, and sets the stage for an economic crisis or recession. However, this thesis is problematic when we consider that a decline in personal consumption demand can be offset by a rise in another component of demand, for example investment demand. Investment demand consists of spending by businesses to build such things as factories, machinery, and so on.

So if investment demand rises, and the increase is large enough to offset the fall in personal consumption demand, a decline in wages, or workers’ share of income, does not lead to a decline in total demand and therefore does not lead to an economic crisis.

Of course “under-consumptionists” would counter that investment demand cannot grow faster than personal consumption demand in the long run: ultimately, consumers have to buy the stuff. This, however, ignores the fact that a significant section of demand within capitalism is internal to capital, i.e. capitalists selling to each other within “closed circuits.” Mining companies, for example, sell iron to companies that use the iron to make steel; steel companies sell the steel to companies that use it to build mining equipment; companies that build mining equipment sell to the mining companies.

The production of consumer goods and the demand for them typically rises less rapidly than the production of and demand for investment goods. Indeed, if we take the empirical evidence from the world’s largest capitalist economy—the United States—this is what has happened. Since the 1980s (and up to 2009) real investment demand or productive demand grew 73-fold; personal consumption only 15-fold (Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, www.bea.gov). So investment demand grew five times as rapidly as consumption demand. Thus consumption demand is not wholly pivotal to the workings of capitalist crisis.

Furthermore, productive investment has not stagnated irreversibly since the late 1960s but has fluctuated in line with wider profit cycles.

Financialisation, fictitious value, and the dangers of one case

Questions might be raised about the idea that capitalism has reached a new stage, defined not by commodity production but by money simply creating more money (M—M′). If this is so, then we are no longer living in a capitalist mode of production.

Capitalism is commodity production (which is why the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital begins with commodities). If capitalism is not predominantly characterised by M—C—M′ exchange, then it ceases to exist as we know it. If we live in an economy predominated by M—M′ then we live in a fairyland of fictitious value, where everything is ethereal and no value is created.

Of course the only reason M—M′ can exist is if it is grounded on M—C—M′. No economy can exist on M + M′ alone: fictitious value at some point must have recourse to real value in the economy, real value being based on commodity production. In any case, much of the financialisation activity over the last twenty years or so has been rooted in actual productive investment, in utilities such as telecoms, for example, which belies the notion that financialisation must exclusively be indicative of some profit strategy at odds with real production.

Ultimately, financialisation and financial crisis have always accompanied capitalism (tulip mania in 1637, for example). Financialisation at some level indeed is necessary for lubricating the system of productive capitalism. To claim that it represents a new stage is to simply conflate what has been a process of intensification brought about not by stagnant productive investment (which is subject to cyclical waves) but by the deregulation of capital flows in the search for greater profitability.

Of course it is well known that financialisation profits have risen sharply compared with non-financials in the United States; but there has been an even more significant increase in profits from overseas production. Profits from productive sectors overseas have quadrupled since the 1950s, while financial profits have only doubled. (Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, www.bea.gov).

In any case, we should be cautious about extrapolating evidence from the single case of the United States to make wider generalisations about the trajectory of international capitalism. Capitalism at the global level operates unevenly; and while American capitalism might be faced with a secular decline in profitability, this is hardly true of some of the other large economies in the world: India, Brazil, Russia, or China.

Conclusion

The thesis advanced in the opinion article, while containing much validity, is not without problems. Firstly, the conceptual demarcations between the Monthly Review school and the “falling rate of profit” thesis are not as superficial as implied. This is true at both the conceptual and the political level.

Secondly, the wider argument about the trajectory of contemporary capitalism and the genesis of the present crisis is based on three problematic features. The first is arguably based on a misspecification of effective demand by inflating the importance of personal consumption to capitalist growth.

The second problem is arguably based on misconceptualising fictitious value within capitalism; the third is based on an exaggeration of the significance of financialisation as a new stage within the development of capitalism.

[NC]

Understanding the crisis

Understanding the crisis

A response to the review by NC of The Failure of Capitalist Production by Andrew Kliman in the January issue of Socialist Voice.

Understanding the crisis is the key to addressing the political challenges we are facing today. A clear understanding of the forces behind the crisis and the contradictions that exploded in 2007 will help communists and class-conscious trade unionists to evolve the correct strategies and tactics for building class solidarity and consciousness, for pushing forward our class interests and the interests of humanity and the planet as a whole.

There are many great thinkers and activists who bring up to date and develop classic Marxist concepts to explain current events: the journal Monthly Review, the author of the book reviewed in January, Andrew Kliman, Michael Hudson, Samir Amin and researchers at RMF (Research on Money and Finance), to name but a few.

They may differ on some points in emphasis or on others in more fundamental understanding. But the aim should not be to choose one view over another and stick blindly to that view: it should be a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. And this is being achieved by using our collective knowledge and experience, combined with the most developed and coherent analysis of the system, placing it firmly in the historical trajectory of this country.

In short, it is to take the best critiques of the capitalist system today and add our experience to them.

Academics and professional economists (no offence intended) have a tendency to exaggerate differences in order to differentiate themselves from other thinkers. While they may lead the way in developing theories and providing the research that others can use, they cannot be relied on exclusively in explaining events, especially the present crisis. It is not about saying Kliman is right and Monthly Review is wrong but rather, in the best tradition of Marxism, taking the best features of the most advanced scientific thought to explain the world around us, and using this to help us change the world.

 

1. Financialisation of the accumulation process

The review seems to counterpose Kliman’s view of the declining rate of profit and the destruction of capital (or failure to destroy sufficient capital) to financialisation theory (in particular Monthly Review writers) in explaining the crisis and to suggest that it is either one or the other.

The reviewer writes: “The thesis presented in the book stands out in a number of ways from many contemporary radical interpretations (notably the financialised-underconsumptionist thesis advanced by the influential Monthly Review, which melds together a particular Marxian/post-Keynesian viewpoint and that of the Marxist political geographer David Harvey).”

I do not agree that either financialisation or insufficient destruction of capital is the root cause of the crisis. The system itself is the root cause, and both financialisation and insufficient destruction of capital in previous recessions are essential features of monopoly capitalism. Accepting both is not necessarily a contradiction when one understands them as features of monopoly capitalism in its current state.

Kliman’s calculations of the declining rate of profit for the system as a whole, I suggest, do not necessarily contradict the evidence that after-tax profits and wealth have been concentrating and monopolising, leading to an abundance of capital in fewer hands that required investment in financial innovations and that blew up speculative bubbles to avoid global stagnation.

The failure to destroy capital en masse since the Second World War has driven capital to these financial avenues as other, more productive avenues are shut off by over-production and the cheapening of production.

My understanding, for what it is worth, is that the financialisation of the accumulation process (finance as the main avenue for investment of excess capital and source of profit and growth within the system today) is a product of the very crisis Kliman explains so well. It is a result, not a cause, of the generally stagnating economy. It has been a systemic response to divert after-tax profits (and after what capital can be reinvested in the monopolies that finance controls) to financial or (in the case of property bubbles) finance-led investment avenues.

Financialisation was not a misled policy choice but rather a solution to the problem of excess capital in the system, which, without a massive destruction of capital, had no home to go to.

Take GE Capital, Pfizer International Bank or the Volkswagen Bank as examples. These are the banking arms of global manufacturing monopolies. They were not set up as a policy choice by those companies to divert their capital to finance and away from manufacturing: they were set up because even after tax (what little they pay), bonuses and reinvestment, global monopolies still had masses of capital to invest, and financial products offered an avenue.

But financialisation, or the failure to destroy enough capital, do not by themselves explain the crisis; because what drove them as processes?

To try to find this out it might be worth while looking at more of the dominant features and how they connect to financialisation and the declining rate of profit in order to better understand the crisis and the establishment’s response.

 

2. The monopolisation of power

Wealth, income and control are all features of power, and power is being monopolised and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands globally. Power over productive relations that mould the shape of society, human relations and indeed the environment are increasingly centralised in the hands of the big monopolies and their biggest shareholders.

Even during this recession, global wealth increased, from $195 trillion in 2010 to $231 trillion in 2011, with the top 1 per cent—those with more than $712,000—accounting for 44 per cent of that $231 trillion and the top 10 per cent owning 84 per cent, while the bottom 50 per cent have barely 1 per cent.

Recent research found that of 43,060 transnational corporations analysed, a little over 730 entities control 80 per cent of these corporations, and a mere 147 control more than 40 per cent. Of these 147 controlling entities, 75 per cent are financial institutions.

This is how monopolised and uncompetitive production is. The automobile industry is dominated by about six companies, semiconductors by about twelve, music production about four; there are about ten big pharmaceutical companies, three soft drinks companies, and only two major commercial aviation companies.

And, as described above, these are then controlled by a few—often the same—large shareholders. This would suggest that a willing destruction of capital (or devaluation of assets) will be unlikely, given the power possessed by this handful of people who would take the biggest hit.

 

3. The internationalisation of production

Hand in hand with the process of monopolisation, and driven by the same accumulation process, production has become internationalised.

The dominant form of production and exchange is not local: it is truly global. A pair of Nike shoes contains about fifty parts, which are made in dozens of different factories in half a dozen countries. The total cost of a pair of Nike runners is about $1.50; they sell for over $100.

This means that workers are pitted against each other globally in a race to the bottom, with only one winner: profit. The amount of money big monopolies can accumulate through the internationalisation of production is huge. This is what has led to an over-accumulation of capital in the system.

The increasing size of monopolies means they can control the production and distribution networks within their field, and pit one against another. Labour becomes de-skilled as workers merely complete one task rather than completing an entire commodity. And more and more is produced through this cheapening and fragmentation of the production process.

However, the drive to pursue profits and ensure a return for shareholders does not pass on price reductions to consumers, as seen in the Nike example; and as workers in the “West” are cheapened by this process, consumption and demand are weakened, resulting in a continuous state of over-production.

Supply is not driven by demand but by the creation of surplus value through the application of labour in the production process. Capital emphasises the need to get the most out of labour, increase and cheapen production. Demand often suffers as a result and rarely meets supply. The extension of debt, or credit, has been a useful tool in artificially trying to match demand to supply. However, it is like putting a plaster over a gunshot wound and cannot seriously create an equilibrium between contradictory forces.

 

4. The proletarianisation of peoples

One of the great myths is that “globalisation” is destroying the working class and making everyone some kind of middle class. The artificial growth of a middle class has been shown to have been merely superficial and based upon mounting debt and rising asset values. The reality is that, as the internationalisation of production has developed, and in particular the monopolisation of land, this has brought with it the proletarianisation of peoples. More and more peasants and subsistence farmers are driven off their land and forced into cities to work in factories. This also has damaging and negative consequences for the environment, in both rural and urban settings, and has led to the development of horrific slum dwellings around cities.

In addition to this, as the monopolisation of production and retail outlets has progressed, the number of small businesses has also declined globally, being replaced with megastores and transnational companies.

The number of small businesses closing during this crisis is evident. Equally, during a time of crisis, with little real avenue for investment, many companies pursue aggressive take-over strategies to reduce their competition and increase their market share. Often small businesses are absorbed by their larger competitors, again reducing the number of self-employed and increasing the wage class: workers.

 

5. The growing reserve army of labour

As the system expands into almost every corner of the earth, by open warfare at times, and the working class is expanded, so too is the number of global unemployed—the number of potential workers the system has at its disposal. Marx called this group of potential workers the reserve army of labour, and this has truly expanded as monopoly capitalism has grown.

The proletarianisation of peoples and the defeat of the socialist economies have greatly expanded the number of potential workers, to 2.4 billion today, approximately 65 per cent of the potential global work force.

Supply and demand in influencing the cost of labour (our wages) has an obvious and speedy impact, but the cheaper cost of maintaining a worker in southern parts of the globe is the main driving force behind this process. As production has become so internationalised, the speed at which it can seek out and move to the cheapest parts of the globe has increased. The ever-growing reserve army of cheap labour is part of a race to the bottom and of the assault on trade unions and working conditions in the West.

The retreat of social democracy is less an ideological or policy retreat than a result of the fact that its material base—strong domestic industry in the central economies—has vanished as a result of the monopolisation and internationalisation processes and with it the leverage that workers in those countries could bring to bear on political economy.

 

6. The pauperisation of the working class in monopoly centres

This process of imposed division and competition between workers is leading to the pauperisation of the working class in the centres of monopoly capital and the gross exploitation and abuse of workers in the South.

As major economic activities have moved away from the West, social democracy has withered. These economies have been forced to become more “open” to deal with the new speed and direction of capital in undermining the terms and conditions of employment.

While real wages have largely stagnated, debt has driven consumption. Inflating asset values, such as houses and shares, have provided a false growth in consumption by working people in the West. This has been shattered by the burst of this latest speculative bubble.

The extremely weak foundations that consumption was reliant upon have been exposed, and increasing “austerity,” to shore up finance capital, is only exacerbating the overproduction of real goods.

 

7. The role of debt

Credit, and its negative—debt—have always played a role in the capitalist production process. However, it is fair to say today that the role it plays now is far greater and more global in its effect on production and the usual cyclical functioning of the system.

As capital concentrated, those accumulating it could more easily direct and control production to suit their needs through investment and ownership in companies. Equally, the amassing capital required ever more investment avenues. Monopoly production killed off many “real” investment opportunities, and the processes outlined above closed off avenues in reinvestment.

For every extension of a loan, or every bet on a future price or event, debt within the system is created. Debt-based “products” became a significant source of investment and return, including the purchase of and speculation in government bonds or collateralised mortgage products.

Banks created hundreds of debt-based androids that acted as investment avenues but also as security for further loans. This side of the accumulating process (M—M, in the terms used by Marx in Capital) created capital out of itself, and with it volumes of personal, corporate and government debt in the system as debt became an asset and a source of further investment and growth.

The scale of systemic reliance upon this system of M—M growth can be seen in the unusual length of the investors’ “strike” and the negligible effect of hundreds of billions in quantitative easing. During a recession, investors are afraid, and a hoarding of capital is not unusual. However, it would normally pick up after a number of “corrective measures” and an appropriate avenue is found for it.

Today this fear is still clear to see; and reading the pages of Bloomberg or listening to many of the speeches at Davos one can see that it is not going anywhere in the near future. The scale of debt in the system means that investors don’t know how to hedge their bets, as the likelihood of default is ever present and very real. With “sure things” having totally collapsed, investors don’t know where the next Lehman Brother or Irish economy is.

Equally, any quantitative easing that has taken place has not created new jobs or oiled the wheels of production: instead it has been used by those same corporate hoarders to pay off some of their own debts.

 

8. Speculation and bubbles

While the processes described above have concentrated ever more capital in fewer controlling hands, growth in monopoly centres, such as the United States, Britain, and Europe, would have been negligible over the last couple of decades had it not been for speculation-led financial growth in a series of bubbles.

In the German economy, the driving engine of the economy in the European Union, growth never reached more than 4 per cent but was more often 1 or 2 per cent (and this is including finance-led growth). In Ireland, if one knocks off the 25 per cent or so of GNP attributable to the property bubble each year of the so-called Celtic Tiger, our economic growth was more of a mirage than a miracle. Even recently published reports show that the economy is still stagnant; the only small bit of growth is in foreign monopolies.

Mergers and acquisitions, commodity bubbles and futures speculation, energy and “dot-com” bubbles, sovereign debt and currency speculation, property and mortgage bubbles (and throw in some legal, and illegal, money-laundering)—these have provided the system with its major source of growth, investment, and the creation of new capital through profits.

Speculation is different from investment; it is different from the run-of-the-mill extension of credit to a business or company. In a capitalist sense, investment follows an analysis of the company or product and a belief in its ultimate success. That is to say, the investor has “bought in” to the product. Speculation is less thorough. Little analysis is done, or no thorough analysis can be done, as it may be a blind bet on a future event.

The nature of speculation leads to bubbles, as a spike or inflation of asset prices resulting from the investment of capital attracts more capital, leading to further inflation and consequently to a bubble. While this does provide an avenue for a “quick fix” for capital to invest in and get a return, providing growth in the system, it is quickly flooded with all that other capital seeking an investment opportunity. What may have begun as a spike in valuation grows into a bubble and ends with no soft landing but with an explosive burst.

 

A system in deep and lasting crisis

The phenomena described above are all dominant features of capitalism today, and they cannot be undone. This is the situation from which any capitalist recovery must come, or from which any transformation to socialism will be born.

These features, and the extent to which they have developed, are what make the present crisis distinctly different from previous recessions, in a number of
ways.

1. The crisis is universal. It is not confined to one area of the accumulation process. It is not merely a banking or finance crisis. It is not merely a crisis of under-consumption. It is not merely a crisis of over-production of houses or over-investment in energy.

2. The crisis is global. It is not just in one area or one hemisphere. The United States, the European Union, Japan and the global South are all affected.

3. It appears to be continuous or permanent. Rather than being a two-year or three-year “downturn” with a gradual recovery, this is now the fifth year of the crisis, and there are few signs of a recovery.

This is what makes the crisis truly systemic and structural. This is what makes this crisis different from previous ones. The result of this crisis, and any so-called solutions to this crisis, will deepen the contradictions and accentuate these features even more.

Wealth is already being concentrated even further. Production is monopolised even further, with mergers and acquisitions being used as an investment avenue for the abundance of capital in the system. Production is moving to ever-cheaper parts of the globe, reducing the cost of production to maximise profits out of a contracting customer base. The global number of unemployed is increasing, and the impoverishment of working people in the West will further reduce consumption for goods but also lead to the further indebtedness of both individuals and countries.

Without a massive destruction of capital, the stagnation and contradictions that were only superficially covered up by finance-led growth will lie exposed for some time, wreaking hardship and misery on the vast majority while benefiting only a few.

The structure of monopoly capitalism, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, with monopoly rivalry and the control of monopolies through shares that are dominated by a few hedge funds and finance companies, may well prevent the global destruction of asset value on the scale that Kliman suggests, leaving us with the understanding that this is not a normal cyclical crisis or recession but one whose features are so accentuated, structural and systemic, and with contradictions so great, that it may well constitute a phase of capitalism in aggressive decay.