Quantitative easing has rigged the market, boosting company profits

We can't go on like this...

In the history of industrial relations the clash between workers and management has always come down to: "How can we be paid more for less work?". This applies to both sides of the employment divide. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, the first union members, were created out of a strike to prevent a pay cut and ever since then all industrial disputes have had at their heart wages and hours worked.

Karl Marx recognized the conflict and condensed it into the "‘Exploitation Rate" which essentially asks the question: ‘How many hours a day does it take for capitalism to make a profit?’ The more hours a day that a capitalist extracts from each worker in excess of what is needed to cover the cost of production, the greater the Exploitation Rate. Capitalists seek to maximize it, workers seek to minimize it.

At least conceptually the Exploitation Rate is a useful way to frame your thoughts around the relationship between capital and labour. But also it’s actually possible to get an idea how it has changed over time especially since the onset of the recent financial crisis. Using averages of hours worked, people employed and the profits made by US companies as a whole you can get a handle on the time at which, on each working day, on average, America begins to make a profit. In 2006 it was about 12:30pm. But since then it has dropped to about 11:45am which might not sound like very much but in the context of the working day it is an 8 per cent increase in the Exploitation Rate.

This effect has allowed American companies to start pumping out profits even in the midst of one of the worse recessions that the Western world has ever seen – the stock market has risen by over 90 per cent since its 2009 trough, while real wages have increased by only about 1.5 per cent. Workers now work longer and for less and the divisions between capital and labour have increased.

We have a terrible tendency to believe that everything in economics reverts back to some kind of historic norm. This isn’t surprising given that our experience confirms this; all recessions are mere blips and normal service can be expected to resume after a brief period of time and we return to a path of enduring and rising prosperity. But something has changed in our economies; the nature of employment is fragile – underemployment through increased part-time working, zero-hour contracts and no-pay internships have fundamentally reduced the bargaining power of labour. Rising pay isn’t going to be the thing that starts to reduce the Exploitation Rate.

So, if the Exploitation Rate is going to decline again, the only thing left is an increase in company costs. Western economies (particularly the US and UK) have benefited from ultra-low interest rates since 2008. Long-term borrowing costs have been kept low by the use of unconventional monetary policies like quantitative easing (QE). The markets have, effectively, been rigged in favour of stock owners and corporate bond borrowers and to the disadvantage of savers who receive a fixed income from the bond markets. It’s another factor that has increased the Exploitation Rate as interest payments haven’t eaten into profits.

But this is set to change. The UK has stopped its QE program and the US is seeking an exit strategy from their Gargantuan pump-priming policy. So if there is a threat to company profits, and by extension the stock markets going forwards, it comes from the right-sizing of bond yields and not from the pay demands of workers.

To reinforce this, the shock decision by Larry Summers to withdraw as a candidate for the top slot at the Federal Reserve caused bond yields to fall, the US dollar to weaken and stock markets to rally. Summers had been associated with stopping the process of QE earlier than his rival, the current deputy chair Janet Yellen. The episode only serves to reinforce the idea that we have a set of asset classes hopelessly dependent on the continuation of a policy that serves no purpose other than to perpetuate a collective desire to avoid reality. If I was Larry Summers I’d be pretty happy right now – at least I won’t now go down in history as the guy who bust the stock market.

Source: Bloomberg

Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt