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

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle