Posts Tagged ‘finance’

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Peering into the gloom

January 25, 2010

Alex Callinicos has provided a brief summary of the state of the world economy, as revealed in recent statistics:

The National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) released its estimate for Britain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It noted, “GDP fell by 4.8 percent in 2009. This is a bigger fall than in any year of the Great Depression and is Britain’s biggest contraction since 1921…

“The broader picture of the depression is that output fell sharply for 12 months until March and has not changed very much since then, although evidence of a recovery is starting to emerge.”

In other words, the British economy shrank more last year than it did in any one year of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Callinicos also notes, however, that the future courses of the British and world economies are ‘shrouded in obscurity’.

He’s right to point out the uncertainties. What has happened in the recent past is, by itself, no guide to the future – as Gordon ‘no return to boom and bust’ Brown has discovered. The red faces in the economics mainstream tell their own story.

Nonetheless, stepping back from the statistical picture, it is possible to discern some shapes.

The most obvious is the pressure on the British economy from the vast costs of bailing out the financial system. Any attempt to substantially repay this borrowing within either the four years that Alastair Darling has offered, or the shorter timescale favoured by the Tories, will drag down the rest of the economy.

It represents a huge transfer from those spending money – either us as taxpayers, or the government through services – to those who save money: from those keeping the economy moving, to those hoarding cash.

Both the main parties are committed to repayment, squeezing workers and public services to please the financial markets. But repaying the debt does not necessarily benefit British capitalism in general. Other sections of capital need a robust domestic market to sell their products to – especially if markets overseas remain depressed, and competitive. Most UK companies do not export. If their domestic market is squashed by rising taxes or public spending cuts, they are in trouble.

So whilst all sections of British capital have a belief in the general necessity of keeping the financial markets sweet, the rate at which that debt should be repaid is a different matter.

Too fast, and domestic demand is squashed. Too slow, and the financial markets get jumpy. No-one can know for sure the best rate. And the different sections of British capital all have their own idea.

As the crisis revealed, no major part of British capitalism is prepared to countenance radical steps to overcome this dilemma – Adair Turner’s remarks notwithstanding. When the City of London was on its knees, the priority on all sides was to help it to its feet, through bailouts. No effort was made to seize the economic reins from the City.

Because the banks and the financial institutions were bailed out, and because there has been no real international agreement on how to discipline them in the future, they are liable to behave in exactly the same way as before: taking risks that could undermine the whole economy.

Combine this with the uncertain rate of debt repayment, and you have the potential for major instability. That’s even before considering the potential for resistance to major cuts. Whichever government is in place could run into a brick wall of opposition.

There is a way out of this bind. But it would mean posing a serious economic alternative to the domination of the City. It would mean building a movement able to do this.

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Basel, and spoiled brats

January 7, 2010

This from the FT:

The Bank for International Settlements will gather top central bankers and financiers for a meeting in Basel this weekend amid rising concern about a resurgence of the “excessive risk-taking” that sparked the financial crisis.

In its invitation, the BIS cited concerns that “financial firms are returning to the aggressive behaviour that prevailed during the pre-crisis period”.

This should surprise precisely no-one. To all intents and purposes, the bankers got away with it: they’ve been bailed out, and if the bonuses symbolise one thing – other, I suppose, than a breathtaking indifference to public hatred – it’s a return to normality. The status quo ante has been restored, at great expense.

The finance industry won’t learn any lessons from any of this; worse yet, the incentives to take exactly the same ‘excessive risks’ that forced the crisis last time have all been reinforced: like the proverbial spoiled brat, if you think  your doting parents will clean up after your mess, why would you do anything other than make yourself thoroughly obnoxious? Why not behave even more outrageously? The bankers can, and they probably will.

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They think it’s all over

August 25, 2009

Well, it isn’t.

First, the numbers don’t support it. Behind a certain amount of excitable flapping and squawking over a few decentish headline stock prices, much of the underlying data is grim: unemployment here continuing to rise, foreclosures in the US and late UK mortgage payments still rising, and wage settlements grinding to a halt.

All these matter hugely for both economies, since – with credit lines still jammed – they’ll directly affect consumption. And with consumption spending driving 80 per cent of US demand growth during the boom years[*], that’s a big blow to growth across the whole economy.

Coupled with the immense pressure now being exerted on government spending as a result of the bailouts, and it should be clear that future prospects for capitalism in its neoliberal heartlands remain somewhat shaky. The trillions now sloshing around the financial institutions may, eventually, trickle into the rest of the economy, stimulating a boom. But the underlying weaknesses remain.

That’s the real story here. The numbers are only part of it – and, really, only a fairly small part. The truth of the last 18 months or so is that the entire existing economic order, “neoliberalism”, the economic rules of the game we’ve lived under for twenty or more years now, suffered a massive seizure. But instead of changing that order, even in capital’s own terms, rejigging the institutions, rewriting the rules, doing everything just a little bit differently – we’ve placed the sickly patient on a drip.

That’s the meaning of the bank profits and the bonuses. Zombie neoliberalism is still with us, lumbering on as if nothing had happened. Yet it is far weaker than previously: without a purge of the banks and the financial institutions, killing off the insolvent and the incompetent, there is no reason whatsoever for any of them to reform. And without reforms, they will expose capitalism to the same illnesses it contracted last time: contagion, the spread of financial plague from economy to economy, and systemic risk.

But of course, the banks and the institutions couldn’t be allowed to collapse, whatever Mervyn King may have wished. They were peering into the abyss after Lehman Brothers collapsed. The grim prospect of an almighty domino effect loomed, with the ties between collapsing banks pulling more and more of the economy down behind them.

So the bailouts. The patient is hardly cured; more drugged to the eyeballs, and weakened.

[*] figure from Glynn (2004), Capitalism Unleashed, p.53

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Save the tossers

December 28, 2008

Potlatch has a financial haiku

Banks began to sink

So we bankrupted the state

To save the tossers

…that I rather liked. Pinteresque.