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The coming storm

Tensions in the global economy are near breaking point. The looming turmoil in stock markets, interest rates and currencies will affect us all.

1. Making sense of the mayhem

When does a stock-market slide become a crash? And when does a financial crash spark an economic crisis? At the end of last year, few investors were giving much thought to such nice distinctions. Less than two months into 2016, with the leading global equity indices having dropped between 10 and 25 per cent at their worst, these questions are on everyone’s lips.

The turmoil in the equity markets should not really come as a surprise: the warning signs have been there for some time. Haggard veterans returning from other financial fronts – oil and metals exchanges; the emerging markets, including China; corporate bond funds – have been reporting heavy losses and instances of extreme volatility for more than 18 months. Safe-haven flows flooding into the soundest government bonds left more than $5trn of them yielding less than 0 per cent by late 2015; in effect, investors were paying governments for the privilege of lending to them. Even in the most liquid global asset class of all, the 24/7 market for foreign exchange, erratic behaviour has been on the rise. The Swiss franc, the world’s fifth most traded currency, jumped by nearly 30 per cent on one morning just over a year ago.

The potential of these dislocations to derail the UK’s economic recovery has not been lost on our policymakers. The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee has comprehensively surrendered the idea of finally raising interest rates: its one member who had been voting in favour joined the more pessimistic majority earlier this month. The Chancellor, meanwhile, has been at pains in recent speeches to warn of the “cocktail of risks” facing the British economy. There seems little doubt, in other words, that the sudden acceleration of uncertainty on global financial markets is serious. But why is it happening – and what does it mean?

If the crisis of 2008 taught us anything, it is that, after three and a half decades of financial globalisation, we live in an uncannily interconnected world. A slide in the price of new-build homes in the suburbs of Las Vegas can lead to a death spiral in the shares of a German provincial bank. A squeeze in the market for an esoteric derivative product understood by only the two or three investment-bank rocket scientists in New York who designed it can force a collapse in a currency used by more than a billion people halfway round the world. The price of every financial asset is connected in some way to every other – and like the apocryphal butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane a thousand miles away, a tiny bit of indigestion in the most innocuous of markets can precipitate violent convulsions elsewhere.

It is easy to assume that this complex web of interdependency makes the markets impossible to read – and in general, one should indeed be wary of plausible-sounding ­tipsters pointing to this or that particular share price as a sure sign that Armageddon or Nirvana is round the corner.

Yet although all financial prices are in this important sense equal, some are most definitely more equal than others. These days, there are three prices, above all the many thousands of others, which govern the global economy.

The first – probably the most fundamental of all, though by no means the most familiar – is the yield on the benchmark US treasury bond, the interest rate that the American government has to pay to borrow from savers for a term of ten years. This is the purest expression of the price of money: it captures the cost of acquiring purchasing power that you don’t already have in the world’s largest and wealthiest economy. It is also the best gauge of markets’ deepest fears – for when recession looms, investors want only the safest financial claims; and when disaster threatens, only claims on the US government will do. The whole world bids for US treasury bonds, making their prices fly and their yields plummet.

The second core price is better known. It is the level of the S&P 500 Index, the American equivalent of the FTSE 100: the price that summarises the value of the US stock market. The value of equity shares rises and falls with the waxing and waning of economic growth and corporate profitability – so this price measures the market’s appetite for risk, by taking the temperature of its enthusiasm for the largest, most productive and most inventive companies in the world.

The final member of this global financial triumvirate is the trade-weighted exchange rate of the US dollar, or its average exchange rate against the other major currencies of the world. The dollar is the world’s reserve currency – the one money that everyone, everywhere, is happy to use. It is the default denomination of every international debt contract; outstanding dollar loans to Chinese companies alone add up to nearly $1trn. When the dollar strengthens on the foreign exchanges, servicing dollar debt becomes more expensive. So this price calibrates the global cost of doing business.

These three prices exercise powerful gravitational pulls on every aspect of the world economy, like three moons inexorably drawing the global financial tides this way and that. As with real celestial bodies, when they are in alignment, the sea is smooth and investors enjoy plain sailing; but when their orbits diverge, we are in for equinoctial gales and rough crossings.

We need look no further than the current financial disruption for a case in point.

 

2. The markets’ trilemma

All three prices today stand close to historic extremes. At 1.75 per cent, the yield on the US treasury note is within touching distance of its all-time low in the modern era – 1.38 per cent, notched up in July 2012 at the height of the worldwide gloom over the euro crisis (see chart on page 27). The level of the US stock market, by contrast, is high; equity prices are “rich” after seven years of relentless rallies, even after the wobble of the past two months.

The dollar, meanwhile, is positively rampant. It has strengthened by 24 per cent against the US’s main trading partners in the past 18 months alone, and is more expensive than it was at the peak of the dotcom bubble in the late Nineties, when all everyone wanted was to own a bit of cor­porate America.

Separately, these prices may all make sense. When we try to fit all three together, however, the tensions underlying the current market turbulence become clear. Each of the three most likely short-term scenarios for the global economy is consistent with two of them. None is compatible with them all.

The first scenario to consider is the one the world’s policymakers are currently betting on: that the economic recovery in the United States, though a bit limp, remains on track. There may be icy winds blowing from China and the other emerging markets, and a lack of momentum in Europe and Japan. Yet fundamentally the US economy remains in good health, and the collapse since mid-2014 in commodity prices – from oil to copper and iron ore – is, on balance, a net positive for American growth.

The second scenario is the one that is all over the press: the US, and perhaps the whole world economy, is already in recession. China piled up a mountain of debt seeking to offset the negative effects of the last crisis, but that borrowing financed the construction of ghost cities and commodity speculation. Now the reckoning has arrived, the Chinese boom has gone into reverse, and the resulting fall in commodity prices is wreaking economic and political havoc from Riyadh to Rio de Janeiro – and even in the US itself.

The third scenario is superficially the least dramatic, and hence figures least in the news. It is that things have got neither suddenly better, nor suddenly worse. Fundamentally, the US and the world remain stuck in the same, mildly disappointing rut they have been in since 2009. Call it the “new normal”, call it “secular stagnation”, it is neither a proper recovery nor a new global recession: it is simply the familiar pattern of low growth, low inflation and low interest rates that we have been living with for the past seven years.

Which of these scenarios is the one we actually face? For the purpose of understanding the current market meltdown, it doesn’t really matter. The reason for investors’ manifest uncertainty is that none of these three scenarios is consistent with all three of the governing prices in the global system.

If the US recovery is intact, then a strong dollar and a fully valued stock market look reasonable – but US treasury yields should be significantly higher, reflecting the higher inflation and more hawkish monetary policy that robust growth inevitably implies.

If, on the other hand, the US is close to or in recession, then both low treasury yields and dollar strength could be justified as the product of a flight to the safest asset in the global system and its main reserve currency – but the stock market is hopelessly overpriced because profits are doomed to dry up.

If both these dynamic views turn out to be red herrings, and the US is to be stuck in the recent grind of low growth and low inflation for the foreseeable future, then it is easy to envision treasury yields staying low and equity markets staying high under the continuing influence of ultra-loose monetary policy. Yet by the same token, it is difficult to see why the dollar should keep up its stunning run: it has been the stark divergence in monetary policy – hawkish in the US, dovish everywhere else – that has propelled its dizzying ascent.

The problem is that one of these three scenarios (or something broadly similar) will eventually come to pass. When it does, at least one of the three master prices that govern the global economy will have to adjust, and probably rapidly. The markets are in the grip of a trilemma that will almost certainly prove highly disruptive – and investors are cottoning on.

 

3. Monetary policy rules, but for how much longer?

So much for the current market action and its proximate cause. What about the longer term?

The first and second scenarios – recovery and recession – at least have the virtue of being familiar. A global recovery would certainly be preferable to a global recession. But either scenario would at least restore confidence that the type of business cycle we have known for the past sixty years still exists. That would be important because it would mean that the conventional models of the economy remain valid, and policies derived from them the best bet there is.

The third scenario – a return to the lacklustre but at least relatively stable path of the past seven years – would be more worrying, for many investors. The reason is simple. It would reinforce the sense that neither investors nor policymakers really understand what is going on.

The key feature of the relative economic calm that the world experienced from 2009 to mid-2014 was the unprecedentedly loose monetary policy implemented by the world’s major central banks. Central bank interest rates in the US, the eurozone, Japan and the UK have been pinned close to zero. Policymakers have made delicately turned verbal commitments to keep rates low for a very long time – the policy experiment called “forward guidance”. Trillions of dollars, euros and yen, and hundreds of billions of pounds, have been freshly printed under the rubric of “quantitative easing” (QE) in order to make money still more freely available when the conven­tional strategy of cutting interest rates has been exhausted.

The striking thing about these policies is that they are only tangentially supported by the theoretical frameworks that these central banks use to understand the economy. As Ben Bernanke, the then chairman of the US Federal Reserve, put it in his final public appearance in office in 2014, “[T]he problem with QE is it works in practice but it doesn’t work in theory.”

People who don’t spend their time staring at Bloomberg screens might be forgiven for asking why this matters. If, as Bernanke says, QE works, then who cares whether we know why it does or not?

The reason is that all policy – and monetary policy more than any other kind – depends critically on people’s expectations of what its outcome will be and their confidence that the policymakers understand the mechanism. In the field of public policy, the risks of unintended consequences are always large. They are multiplied many times over if the people in charge cannot explain why their actions are producing a particular result.

The looming risk is that monetary policy – the one tool that governments have been willing to use aggressively over the past seven years – starts to lose its grip. If its potency depends on investors believing that central banks know what they are doing, but those central banks lose their credibility, monetary policy may cease to work.

The point is far from academic. At the end of January, the Bank of Japan surprised the world by announcing that its monetary easing had not, as many had assumed, reached its limits. Concerned that the turmoil on the markets would spark a strengthening of the yen, it took its policy interest rate into negative territory for the first time ever in order to discourage safe-haven flows to its currency.

Until now, the near-automatic effect of such a loosening has indeed been to drive investors into riskier yen-denominated ­assets and out of the yen altogether, leading to its sharp depreciation against other major currencies over the past three and a half  years.

Now, it seems, the magic is wearing off. Bond yields dropped as expected, all right; but the yen did not comply. It has strengthened more than 4 per cent against the US dollar since the new loosening policy was introduced. The credibility of the Bank of Japan is fading. The market does not believe it can do what it wants to do – or even, perhaps, that it knows how its experimental interventions really work.

Investors’ bigger fear is that such doubts infect the Federal Reserve. The consequences
of such a crisis of confidence in the powers of the most central of central banks would be of an order of magnitude far more serious.

Ever since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of pegged exchange rates in 1971, the sole guarantee that currencies will maintain their purchasing power, both domestically and abroad, has been confidence in central banks’ discretionary policies. A loss of faith in the consensus model of monetary policy would pitch us into the anchorless world that the architects of the Bretton Woods system always feared.

The past few weeks have been nerve-shredding for those who work on the financial markets. They should prepare for more of the same – and those who have nothing to do with the trading of stocks, bonds and currencies should ready themselves, too.

If it is belief in the power of loose monetary policy that has kept bond yields low and equity prices high, we should prepare for spikes in interest rates and stock-market crashes – with painful ramifications for companies and households that need to finance their activity. If it is confidence in the power of central banks to manipulate the value of their currencies that has bolstered the dollar and depressed the euro and the yen, then we should expect dramatic re-evaluations of these exchange rates, with inevitably disruptive consequences for global trade.

Over the longer term, the most consequential result of all will probably be an urgent search for a new framework for monetary policy, and above all for a new anchor. History – and, in the US, actively discussed political proposals – would suggest that the abandonment of discretionary policymaking in favour of formulaic rules, or even a return to a gold standard, are the candidates most likely to be chosen at short notice.

The sad fact is that these measures would represent last resorts from failure. Flexibility in monetary policy, credibly deployed, is probably the single most effective tool of government ever invented. It would be a confused and benighted age that chose to abandon it in favour of more primitive techniques of control.

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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