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

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia