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Europe's looming crisis

It all started with sub-prime loans in the United States. Or did it? As the IMF is called in to bail

It was Europe’s dark secret. While American banks were lending irresponsibly to homeowners who couldn’t pay, European banks were lending to emerging countries who couldn’t pay. Europe’s sub-prime crisis has now come home as heavily-indebted nations of the eastern bloc – Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Baltic states – are collapsing one by one into the arms of the IMF. “Icelandisation” is the new spectre stalking Europe.

And, as with sub-prime in urban America, this latest crisis was shockingly predictable. I visited Latvia at the height of the credit bubble 18 months ago, and it was clearly an accident waiting to happen. Riga, the capital, was bristling with upmarket shopping malls and classy bars that were all quite empty. Stalin-era flats were being sold for $200,000 in a country where the average wage was less than $400 a month. Latvia has hardly any industry, no energy and few natural resources apart from trees. But such was the irrational exuberance of foreign banks like Swedbank, it was awash with credit.

According to the Bank for International Settlements, western European banks have lent more than $1.5trn to eastern Europe. Austria has loans equivalent to 80 per cent of GDP and stands to make huge losses as Hungary and Ukraine collapse.

This week, the Austrian government had to cancel an auction of government bonds because it could not be sure that investors would buy them. It is not inconceivable that Austria itself could end up needing to be rescued.

Other European countries implicated in global sub-prime include Spain, which has loaned immense sums ($316bn) to Latin American countries such as Argentina. Britain has $329bn tied up in Asia - or did until values collapsed in the Asian stock market rout. Japan's Nikkei index fell to a 26-year low this week, wiping out tens of billions of yen. The losses are now winging their way home to British pension funds and banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and HSBC.

Banks behaving badly, then, but what's new there? Well, the Bank of England told us this week that global losses so far from the financial crisis amount to $2.8trn. But this includes only a fraction of the likely losses from global sub- prime, which have yet to land on balance sheets.

Until last week's rout in the Asian bourses, there were still economists who believed that emerging markets would not be greatly affected by the credit crunch. But the theory that developing countries, led by China and India, have "decoupled" from the west, no longer holds water. It is clear that they have been dependent on consumer spending in America and Europe all along - and now that western consumers are staying away from the shops, no one is buying their goods. The Baltic Dry Shipping Index, which tracks the cost of hiring ships for international trade, has fallen by 79 per cent this year, itself a signal of a severe global recession.

Gordon Brown's hints that Britain might be able to spend its way out of this recession has to be considered in this light. There is no guarantee, in such a climate, that the British government would be able to borrow sufficient to pay for further bank rescues (they are sure to come), along with the cost of three million unemployed plus a programme of Keynesian infrastructure spending, however desirable that may be.

Investors are already shunning the pound because of anticipated losses from the UK property crash. Sterling has fallen 28 per cent this year, further than in the Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis of 1992, when interest rates rose to 15 per cent. We could be heading for a classic 1960s run on the pound.

The government had hoped that a devalued pound would stimulate exports and pull Britain out of recession, as happened after Black Wednesday 16 years ago, but the economic climate is different. We make few things to export now and the world is not in a buying mood anyway. And it has had quite enough of our "innovative" financial services. Thus Britain's current account deficit of 6 per cent - what used to be called loosely the balance of payments - has suddenly re-emerged as a major economic issue. Borrowing may be a good thing in a recession, but international financiers, sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and banks may not agree.

The UK has the honour of having been the last G7 country to call in the IMF - during the 1976 sterling crisis - and while the government is not yet filling in the application forms, Britain's finances would not impress the Fund's economists. Standard IMF lending conditions are: privatisation, cuts in government spending and increased interest rates.

We are going in precisely the opposite direction, slashing interest rates, borrowing to spend and nationalising the banks.

Seen another way, this is only an indication of the extent to which the IMF is no longer fit for purpose in the Great Deleveraging. In recent years, the Fund has been an engine of Wall Street neoliberalism and financial deregulation, which leaves it ill-equipped to deal with the new international environment of deflation and banking crashes. In addition, there is a fiscal crisis facing the IMF. It has only about $250bn in reserves to throw at a rolling financial crisis that has now engulfed half the planet, from Iceland to Pakistan. Gordon Brown has called on energy-exporting nations to stump up more cash for the Fund, but there is a strong case, too, for reviewing how the IMF operates. Set up as part of the Bretton Woods financial system in 1944, the Fund was designed to cope with episodic currency crises. It is now having to deal with potential insolvencies in countries the size of Argentina as well as bailing out entire regions such as eastern Europe.

It will have to be very much better capitalised if it is going to perform this role, and it will have to abandon much of its free-market ideology.

We need a new set of interventionist institutions capable of managing financial rescues on an international scale.

Ultimately, what is needed is an international central bank with the resources to provide liquidity guarantees, recapitalise banks and regulate international financial flows. This is an immense task, and the world may not yet be ready for it. But it is not a new idea: John Maynard Keynes argued for precisely this during the Bretton Woods negotiations in 1944. He even suggested a world reserve currency "bancor". This is the kind of thinking we need today.

The alternative, if nothing is done, is international tension, even war. Consider failing Ukraine with its large Russian population and its dependency on Russia for energy supplies, right at the moment when Russian dreams of becoming an energy superpower have been dashed by the collapse of the oil price bubble. Or look at nuclear Pakistan, where the entire country is disintegrating in financial chaos. And what about China? Will all those unemployed workers - where half the toy manufacturers have gone bust - go peacefully back to the paddy fields?

When heads of the "G20" group of nations meet in Washington on 15 November for what is being called "Bretton Woods II" they will not just be dealing with a banking crisis. They will be deciding the future of civilisation.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

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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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