The Twilight of Neo-liberalism?

by Francis Lee, crossposted from the Saker Blog

It speaks volumes about the gravity of the current political and economic situation that the leading US investment bank Goldman-Sachs has seen fit to issue a sombre warning.

‘’Goldman Sachs Group Inc. put a spotlight on the suddenly growing concern over inflation in the U.S. by issuing a bold warning on Tuesday that the dollar is in danger of losing its status as the world’s reserve currency. With Congress closing in on another round of fiscal stimulus to shore up the pandemic-ravaged economy, and the Federal Reserve having already swelled its balance sheet by about $2.8 trillion this year, Goldman strategists cautioned that U.S. policy is triggering currency “debasement fears” that could end the dollar’s reign as the dominant force in global foreign-exchange markets …

There are many factors pushing the gold price higher, including fear of increasing political uncertainty, rising concerns involving another spike in COVID-19 infections in the country, increasing government debt, rising inflation, and concerns that the US dollar is seeing a new downtrend to the Chinese Yuan.’’ (1)

The fact that gold is being spoken about by the financial cognoscenti is in itself significant. Gold bugs (like me!) have long been regarded by orthodox academic economists and business financiers as being beyond the pale in terms of their relevance to current economic and financial issues. But, as with everything, times change, fashion changes, paradigm shifts take place – such is the way of the world.

At the time of writing gold has, after the 2012 engineered smackdown, been ascending remorselessly toward its present gold price of $1972,00.00 a whisker away from $2000.00 per oz. This latter price has an important psychological significance – a tipping point for both investors and owners of this particular asset. The new economic order established paper assets – representations of wealth, which replaced real wealth – i.e., gold. This was the beginning of the new epoch, a turbulent period now reaching what appears to be a climax. The increasing economic disorder has become chaotic since that date as fundamental and seemingly intractable problems began to manifest themselves.

The Nonage

In order to maintain a semblance of vitality, western capitalism entered into a period of steroid-enforced growth based upon increasingly unorthodox methods. This inflexion point took place in 1971 when in a televised broadcast Richard Nixon took the US off the gold standard and introduced a fiat standard based purely upon the US dollar. This was a little later supplemented by the US-Saudi agreement whereby oil would be fixed to a dollar price. At a stroke, these two events destroyed the Bretton Woods system of a dollar-gold standard with the $ convertible with gold at $35 per oz. The old order was finished; a new ideological economic regimen was rolled out. When and how long it might last is a matter of speculation.

In this Brave New World and following the lead of the US most of the rest of the world economies followed suit. This was a pivotal moment in economic history. But, whisper it softly, there were deep-going structural weaknesses initially hidden from view in the new economy which would eventually become increasingly problematic. The global economy had become increasingly dependent on expanding debt levels and on the expansion of fictitious capital. This was all part of what was to become known as neoliberalism, globalization or increasing financialization, call it what you will, it amounts to the same thing. [2]

Fictitious capital, consists of layers of financial paper assets – but it should be understood that these ‘assets’ are only symbols of value, not real values. For example, company shares which are traded like goods and services do not, in the same way, embody value. They are tokens which represent part ownership of a company and the potential distribution of future profits in the form of dividends. The paper or electronic certificate itself is not a genuine value it is only a claim on value. Real value is the production of goods and services such as cars, haircuts, IPhones, hotels and eating out, aroma therapy, shoes, books … and so forth, in a productive economy. This as opposed to rising share/stock prices which are often presented as a healthy economy, but the amount of money a share/stock changes hand for says nothing definitive about the value of a company’s assets or about its productive capacity.

John Stuart Mill once commented in this respect.

‘’The ordinary progress of a society which increases in wealth, is at all times tending to augment the incomes of landlords; to give them both a greater amount and a greater proportion of the wealth of the community, independently of any trouble or outlay incurred by themselves. They grow richer, as it were in their sleep, without working, risking, or economizing. What claim have they, on the general principle of social justice, to this accession of riches? In what would they have been wronged if society had, from the beginning, reserved the right of taxing the spontaneous increase of rent, to the highest amount required by financial exigencies’’ (3)

Capital movements into and out of existing assets was not necessarily productive investment but mainly pure speculation. And speculation itself was driven by increasing levels of cheap debt, both sovereign and private. This process may be observed in the Fed’s force-feeding new monies into the economy at which corporations use this largesse to buy-back their own stock thus enhancing their market price. Insofar as it might be produced it becomes clear that finance led growth is based upon trickle-up economics in which the gains of the wealthy come directly at the expense of ordinary people. Financialization involves the extraction of economic rent from the circulation (of capital) process, as well as patents, copyrights and land/property.

The United States demonstrates these tendencies very clearly and its interest rates remain the dominant influence across the mature economies. This is due to the dollar’s role as a reserve status, i.e., the world money. But there has been a long trajectory of decline in real commercial bank interest rates which averaged 7% during the 1980s, 5.5% during the 1990s 4% during the 2000s for the period leading up to the financial crash of 2008 and have been below 2% and even lower ever since. They are now being held down to zero or even minus interest levels and functioning as free monies for the speculating community or corporations who wish to avail themselves to this monetary largesse to increase their market capitalisation. Demonstrably the US and the rest of the mature economies have been undergoing a secular decline since the 1970s which has eventuated in what seems to be a policy of demented money printing.

Moreover, financialisation has not to any extent been adept at creating more wealth for all, but instead has channelled this wealth to particular favoured groups. This is evidenced with the GDP metric which is only measured in terms of output and not the distribution of and ownership of wealth produced. The result is, in short, that the rich have got considerably richer and the rest have either stagnated or declined. And this has not been an accident.

Maturity and Decline

The present crisis in the global economy has been brought about by the culmination of a number of variables which taken as a whole have been responsible for the present impasse. All the early promises of a new world order of stability, prosperity and peace which were touted in the 80s 90s and 00s never lived up to their billing. The then UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, boasted that under ‘New Labour’s’ stewardship the boom-bust cycles of both the domestic and world economies had been banished. University of Chicago’s Professor Robert Lucas claimed that macro-economics had ‘’solved for all practical purposes’’ the problem of economic depressions. In the real world, however, the entire period from 1971 and well into the 21st century was punctuated by a series of rolling bubbles and crises: the 1987 stock market crash, 1990, the collapse of the junk bond market, the 1994 great bond market massacre together with the Tequila crisis in Mexico, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 1998 collapse of Long Term Capital Management, the 1998 default in Russia, and the 2000-02 dot-com bubble crash and finally the 2008 blowout. These once in a lifetime events seem to occur every year or so.

But the economic/financial powers that be (PTB) ensconced in the ivory towers of University Economics departments and Editorials in the Washington Post, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and Economist were having none of it. As these esteemed ladies and gentlemen saw it the new paradigm was going through a ’tricky’ teething stage and all would be well in the fullness of time, or so we were persuaded. It is difficult to know whether or not these people actually believed what they were articulating or were just plain stupid. But their theories at times actually verged upon a timeless circulation of axioms which are true by definition. It has been noted that,

‘’Academic economics has become a disaster and disgrace … Not only did the academic economists fail to see the great 2008 implosion coming, they weren’t even looking in the right direction. And having been surprised by its arrival, they had little to say about its implications – the greatest event to have befallen the capitalist system since WW2 … although there are shining exceptions, most academic economists, whilst clinging to the idea that their subject is relevant and of interest to the wider world, in fact practice a modern form of medieval scholasticism – of no use to man or beast. The output of this activity consists of articles entombed in ‘scholarly’ journals usually about questions of startling irrelevance, badly thought out and appallingly badly written, littered with jargon and liberally dosed with mathematics, destined to be read by no-one outside of a narrow coterie, and increasingly, not even by them.’’ (5) Agreed!

The Interregnum 2008-2020

The Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008 has shown that perpetual growth and progress is an illusion. Moreover this was the first leg of the mega-crisis of which the second leg is now looming. Recent indicators include structural unemployment which is around 15% in the US – but this figure is almost always understated: See John Williams’ excellent repudiations in Shadow Government Statistics. Additionally there has been the growth of semi-employment in the ‘gig’ economy, short-term contracts, non-unionized labour, and illegal (often foreign) presence in itinerant employment and workers from the EU’s southern and eastern peripheries who are temporarily employed on farms during the summer for lack of UK workers. Many of these workers have no insurance or medical cover and live hand-to-mouth on a daily basis.

Unprecedented debt levels, chronic levels of debt-driven consumption are now common-place and the modern workforce is increasingly stratified. There are well-paid jobs for a small portion of those with requisite skills, but the vast majority of new employment is in the low paid service sector, such as retail, leisure, hospitality, security, aged care, and health care … youth unemployment remains high, even where work can be found starting incomes are around 10 to 12 percent lower than they were in 2007.

This situation was not only present in the UK but on the European continent also.

Millions of Europeans in temporary, part-time or bogus self-employed contracts can only find insecure and badly paid jobs, despite the healthy economic climate. That is the price of deregulating labour markets, Investigate Europe reports. This precarious set of labour conditions was created intentionally.

‘’The misery of bad jobs has many faces. It can take the form of work contracts without health or social insurance; it can be part-time jobs, which don’t pay enough to live on. Or those affected are kept dangling from one temporary contract to the next, or they have to eke out a living as bogus self-employed and contract workers. The methods vary from one country’s national legislation to that of another, but the outcome is always the same: millions of EU citizens have to get by with insecure and badly paid jobs, offering them no prospects.’’ (6)

2020 – the Debacle

Thus the world enters the second decade of the 21st century totally unprepared for what’s coming and with a leadership bereft of any plans or ideas of how to handle the situation. GDP growth is in unprecedented negative territory pretty much everywhere. In the United States, the birthplace of the Washington Consensus, GDP growth rate fell by no less than -32.9% and GDP annual growth rate by -9.5%. In Germany GDP growth rate fell by -10.1% and annual GDP growth rate by -11.7%. In China GDP growth rate was positive 11.5% and annual GDP growth rate was 3.2%. In the euro area GDP growth rate was -12.1% and annual growth rate was -15%. These are quite extraordinary figures which will need to sink in before any reasoned judgements are made. One look at the US situation is hardly comforting however.

‘’On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that 1.43 million new claims for unemployment benefits were filed last week, the 19th straight week that new claims have exceeded one million. After declining for months, new claims have risen over the last two weeks.

The number of workers claiming continuing unemployment benefits also rose from 16.1 million to 17 million for the week ending July 18. In addition, 830,000 new claims were filed for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which covers self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for traditional jobless benefits.

Under these conditions, the $600-a-week federal supplement to state unemployment benefits is running out today for an estimated 20 million workers. Overnight, millions will see their incomes cut by two-thirds, from an average of $921 a week in May to about $321 a week. In some states, the theft of this lifeline will be even worse. In Oklahoma, jobless aid will be cut by 93 percent to $44 a week.

It is a measure of the precarious situation American workers faced even before the pandemic that the weekly supplemental assistance and the paying out of a one-time $1,200-per-person “stimulus” check led to a 45 percent increase in US personal income in the second quarter. Seventy percent of those who returned to work in June suffered an income loss by doing so.

Last week, the moratorium on evictions expired for about 18 million renters—more than a third of the 44 million total US renter households—who live in buildings with mortgages backed by the federal government. With rent bills accumulated over the last four months now due, housing advocates predict a “tsunami” of evictions, with half a million households in Los Angeles alone threatened.

Millions in the US are also going hungry. According to a US Census Bureau survey, food insecurity last week reached its highest reported level since May, with almost 30 million Americans reporting they had not had enough to eat at some point in the seven days through July 21.’’ (7)

Mindful of the impact of the Corona Virus and not wishing to rush to any rash judgement, the fact still remains that the world economy was already in a parlous and brittle condition, long over-due for a big correction which was going to happen with or without the complication of the Corona Virus. All the sugar-coated promises made at the turn of the century by various politicians, journalists, and world leaders regarding the new economy, a world-wide system of prosperity peace, harmony and growth turned out to be fairy-tales best suited to infants – and infants are precisely what our leaders seem to think we are.

Speculating about future developments is difficult since we are in the early phases of the downturn. What we do know is that it is like most previous downturns but beyond bad and seemingly unprecedented. Events can only be assessed retrospectively. It is now also clear that hegemonic turbo-capitalism and its tendency toward imperialism and war is not congruent for further human development and even perhaps life on this planet. This seems patently obvious to anyone who actually thinks about these issues. We (humanity) is now at a critical juncture in history. But the world has postponed, indefinitely, dealing decisively with the challenges. Anyone who questions the present course is held up to ridicule as a professional permanent pessimist, or worse. Nothing is done, and we ignore reality. Unfortunately as the Russian/American writer Ayn Rand – who is not one of my favourite writers – declared. “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

Enough said. Francis Lee

NOTES

(1)Bloomburg – 27-July-2020

(2) Phillip Mullan – Creative Destruction – pp57/5 – ’In addition to the direct contribution of the fire sector to raising GDP artificially, the explosive growth in debt and other features of financialization a major, probably a bigger role.

(3) The notion of economic rent – made famous by David Ricardo and his theory of ground-rent – is based upon the extraction of rent from particular income streams or other assets, including land. Monopolistic rents are those which contain price levels which are over and above the costs of production.

(4) J.S.Mill – The Principles of Political Economy – 1848

(5) Roger Bootle – The Trouble with Markets – pp.232-233

(6) Tagesspiegel – Berlin – 25-10-2017

(7) World-Wide Socialist Website – 31-July-2020