Panic stalks the Square Mile

In the tumultuous first week of August, the international markets woke up to the reality that extrem

During the stock-market panic of autumn 2008, we lived for the weekends. We were renting a cottage near Banbury in Oxfordshire and we would blast up the M40 on Friday nights, wend through the misty streets of our nearest village and then down into a dell, where the house nestled. An hour later, with our little boy tucked away in bed, I'd sit at my computer and watch the US markets until they closed.

Even when I knew that the traders in New York were stumbling from their offices to the bars of Broadway, I couldn't relax. It had become common practice for bad news to be released after the closing bell on Wall Street. Friday-night press releases - whether they were gloomy updates from struggling banks, a grim report from the Federal Reserve or a surprise downgrade from rating agencies - gave traders a couple of days to digest information before getting back to their desks on Monday. Those weekends, while walking through the bright clouds of falling leaves, I would try to get some perspective on the latest financial catastrophe, try to see the markets with a clarity that I wasn't afforded in the white-knuckle working week.

I thought back to that time as I sat up late on Sunday 7 August, trying to make sense of the negative headlines that had caused the stock-market jitters of late July to turn into an early-August rout. The trader's job is one of pattern recognition: to sift through information and judge between the incidental and the meaningful. The best in the business seem to make these judgements at the level of instinct. No mantic powers were required in the first week of August to tell that the news was bad. What traders, analysts and economists are now trying to work out is if this crisis is merely a big bump on the road to recovery, or a sign that the much-feared double dip is finally here.

As recently as 7 July, the FTSE was edging towards 6,100. By the end of 5 August, it sat at under 5,250. We entered correction territory - a fall of over 10 per cent from recent highs - on most major exchanges and, despite some decent US employment data, declines rivalled those that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. The Dow Jones index staged a brief rally late that afternoon as Silvio Berlusconi announced measures aimed at liberalising Italy's economy. With the echo of the closing bell still ringing on Wall Street, however, Standard & Poor's (S&P) dramatically stripped the US of its AAA rating for the first time in history.

As long as the US retains its AAA status at the two other big rating agencies (Moody's and Fitch), S&P's move is largely symbolic. Banks and insurers will still be able to treat US treasury bonds as AAA-rated for risk management purposes and the downgrade will have only a marginal effect on borrowing costs. That doesn't mean we should ignore it.

Many will question the validity of S&P's move, given the tarnished reputations of such agencies after their decision to give ridiculously inflated ratings to sub-prime securitisations in the run-up to the financial crisis. The US government has highlighted flaws in S&P's calculations, pointing to a $2.1trn mistake. Yet S&P has, for once, got things right. The drawn-out relief rally that has taken place since early 2009 reflects the concerted, unilateral action taken by governments across the world to address the credit crisis. The over-leveraged financial system was bailed out by politicians, who realised that the only way to keep banks alive was to assume the liabilities of those in the worst shape, while pumping enormous amounts of liquidity into the markets to resuscitate the rest. The plan worked and stock markets heaved a communal sigh of relief.

Fearful symmetry

The political decisiveness of those mid-crisis days was a canard. In the weeks leading up to the S&P downgrade, there was a ghastly trans­atlantic symmetry as US politicians indulged in shameful point-scoring over the (usually routine) raising of the debt ceiling and Europe shilly-shallied over its response to the seemingly endless problems in Greece. Only debt of the most robust credit quality should be rated AAA. The US came within days of defaulting on its bonds as Republicans and Democrats played games of economic brinkmanship. In downgrading the US rating, S&P merely acknowledged that an investment in the country's debt risks falling foul of political intransigence.

Meanwhile, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, was correct to question the "systemic capacity of the euro area to respond to the evolving crisis" but this was unhelpful. The European Financial Stabilisation Facility - set up to bail out struggling euro-area governments - needs to be bigger than the current €440bn (£385bn) but any major increase will be resisted strongly by Germany. Italian and Spanish bond yields rocketed, pushed higher by a lack of direction at the European Central Bank (ECB), which initially held back from including their debt in its asset purchase scheme.

In the first week of August, the markets woke up to the reality that the financial crisis, which they had thought was behind them, had merely been transferred from the private sector to public balance sheets. Where companies led by supposedly decisive CEOs used to be the big borrowers, the debt is now in the hands of governments run by infighting bureaucrats. In the wake of the S&P downgrade, China called for the US to get over its "debt addiction". As a holder of over $2trn of US debt, China, by far the country's largest creditor, has a right to make its voice heard. More worrying for the US was a suggestion at the end of the press release that China might stop or scale down its purchase of treasuries. The S&P downgrade is not world-changing in itself, but if China uses it as an excuse to alter its asset allocation or push for the replacement of the US dollar as the global reserve currency, China's reference to the US as "the world's sole superpower" would end up carrying some heavy irony.

The last time stocks hit the lows seen on the morning of 5 August was towards the end of August last year, when a combination of concerns over European peripherals (Ireland and Portugal specifically), Chinese inflation and poor US economic data hit investor confidence. The old trader adage "Sell in May and go away" (that is, hold only cash from May to October) would have been particularly useful this year. The rationale behind the maxim is sound: with investors on holiday, any moves in the market are affected by illiquidity. Where, in a fully functioning market, one would expect buyers and sellers to remain more or less balanced, in the summer months there is no one around to stand in the way of a rout. Last year's August slump was largely owing to this summer sluggishness.

The situation this time around is rather different. Because of the ongoing wrangle over the US debt ceiling, traders have been chained to their desks for the past few weeks. Many of those who did get away have been called back from their trips to the Côte d'Azur. Volumes have been heavy recently. On 5 August, US stocks experienced the highest levels of trading since the "flash crash" of May 2010, when computer-driven, high-frequency-trading hedge funds caused a correction of nearly 1,000 points in the Dow Jones index. Then, it was a technical fault in the market that caused the enormous trading volumes. This time, investors are scared and are selling out of all but the most defensive stocks.

Another sure sign of fear is the record volume of options trades that went through on 4 and 5 August as investors attempted to put in place hedges against further market turmoil. Panic once again stalks the Square Mile and traders are struggling to make sense of a complex picture. Usually, in times of market turmoil, gold rises in price; but when panic really sets in, the highest-quality assets suffer.

Some of the best trades of my career were made in the mad days between October 2008 and February 2009, when hedge funds were scrambling to raise money to meet margin calls (a requirement to post cash against the falling value of the fund's assets). Because it was impossible to sell anything but the most liquid assets (the "family silver", as it was described), those of us who did have cash to spend were able to pick up extraordinary bargains, with discounts of anywhere up to 70 per cent of face value. This time, gold is the "family silver". It is always useful to watch the gold price - it's a pretty good sign of where investors are on the greed/fear continuum - and falls in gold in times of panic suggest a capitulation of confidence. If you believe Warren Buffett's mantra of "Be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful", it's a good signal to start picking up bargains.

The big question for traders and portfolio managers is whether we have experienced a short, sharp shock and should be buying selectively or whether we are at the beginning of a new bear market, which would entail an overhauling of asset allocations. The picture looks bleak. If we are entering a double-dip recession, investment strategy will be a matter of quick thinking and guesswork - but there are obvious approaches traders could take and a few likely developments to keep in mind.

1 Equity exposures should be reduced for all but the most defensive stocks. Pharmaceutical companies, basic household and consumer goods should be held.
2 Currency investment will focus on a new breed of solvent nations with stable political and economic systems. The Singaporean dollar, the Norwegian krone and the Australian dollar will join the yen and the Swiss franc as the main safe-haven currencies.
3 We should not rule out dramatic inflation driven by governments attempting to inflate away the unsustainable levels of debt on their balance sheets. Already, there is talk of further quantitative easing in the US. Although everything points to a bubble in the gold price, it remains one of the few sure-fire ways of hedging against inflation.
4 Diversification is still key. A portfolio with a good spread of asset classes (including commodities, private equity and hedge funds) and geographies (with attention to Asia and South America) will - with luck - ride the storm.

Back to reality

As traders returned to their desks on Monday 8 August, it appeared that a weekend's contemplation had failed to lift the gloom. After following Asian stocks lower, the FTSE briefly rallied into positive territory. This window of optimism prompted Nick Clegg to claim that the ECB's buying of Italian and Spanish bonds was "calming the markets". He was wrong.

As Wall Street futures plunged, the FTSE gave up its modest gains and slumped towards the 5,000 level. Gold hit a record high. Crude oil dived. With unrest on the streets mirroring the turmoil in the markets, it is impossible to say how bad things will get from here.

Following Lehman's collapse, it felt as if all of the certainties had been stripped from the markets, as if there was nothing between us and financial Armageddon. It feels like that again. Without bold intervention from the governments at the heart of this crisis, traders will be looking back on the weekends of the 2008 crash with misty-eyed nostalgia. Back then, it felt like the end; now, we know that it was just the beginning.

Alex Preston is the author of "This Bleeding City" (Faber & Faber, £7.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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