Blog Archives

We Can Only Choose One: Our National Economy or Globalization

Does our economy serve our society, or does our society serve our economy, and by extension, those few who extract most of the economic benefits? It’s a question worth asking, as beneath the political churn around the globe, the issues raised by this question are driving the frustration and anger that’s manifesting in social and political disorder.

A recent essay examines these issues in light of Brexit, which the author sees as a manifestation of dramatic but poorly understood changes in Britain’s economy over the past 60 years:

How Britain was sold: Why we need to rethink the case for a national capitalism in the age of uncertainty.

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Trade Isn’t China’s Only Worry

China’s enormous successes–raising hundreds of millions out of poverty, landing a rover on the dark side of the moon, etc.–are well known. Less appreciated is China’s increasing vulnerability to financial instability arising from asymmetries that cannot be resolved by tweaking trade policies.

As this article explains, The China Story That Is Far Bigger Than Apple, China’s trade balance–trade surpluses for decades– is close to slipping into trade deficits.

At the same time, China’s once-mighty pool of savings has diminished as consumption has risen. As a result, China now needs foreign investment more than it did in the previous era.

Chinese businesses have borrowed around $2 trillion in US dollar-denominated debt in the past few years, requiring the acquisition of dollars to service the debt.

So far this sounds like a typical case of a fast-growth economy maturing into a trade-deficit, debt-dependent consumption economy.

What the article misses the staggering rise in the cost of living in China over the past two decades. 

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Connecting the Dots of Big Data, Soaring Corporate Profits and Trade Wars

Let’s connect the dots between these two comments from longtime correspondents: the first is on the model of collecting and selling data (Big Data), and the second on trade:

GFB:

“If I had a lot of money, would I want to do:

A) –invest in the exploration forbidding areas of the globe for oil reserves with a 50/50 chance of no results
–negotiate leases for the areas of the planet I want to extract oil in and have to negotiate with corrupt and unstable governments
–Pay for the oil extracting and transportation infrastructure
–deal with the fluctuating market values – which may make my whole investment worthless

OR

B) set up a low cost trap that has millions of people handing me for free, and with their acknowledged permission, their preferences, tastes, beliefs, and aspirations . . . which I can re-sell at almost no cost to a long list of buyers, with a price that I can set as I have the data.

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What If All the Cheap Stuff Goes Away?

One of the books I just finished reading is The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. The thesis of the book is fascinating to those of us interested in the rise and fall of empires: Rome expanded for many reasons, but one that is overlooked was the good fortune of an era of moderate weather from around 200 BC to 150 AD: rain was relatively plentiful/ regular and temperatures were relatively warm.

Then one of Earth’s numerous periods of cooling–a mini ice age–replaced the moderate weather, pressuring agricultural production.

Roman technology and security greatly expanded trade, opening routes to China, India and Africa that supplied much of Roman Europe with luxury goods. The Mediterranean acted as a cost-effective inland sea for transporting enormous quantities of grain, wine, etc. around the empire.

These trade routes acted as vectors for diseases from afar that swept through the Roman world, decimating the empire’s hundreds of densely populated cities whose residents had little resistance to the unfamiliar microbes.

Rome collapsed not just from civil strife and mismanagement, but from environmental and infectious disease pressures that did not exist in its heyday.

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The Demise of the Dollar: Don’t Hold Your Breath

The demise of the U.S. dollar has been a staple of the financial media for decades. The latest buzzword making the rounds is de-dollarization, which describes the move away from USD in global payments.

De-dollarization is often equated with the demise of the dollar, but this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the currency markets.

Look, I get it: the U.S. dollar arouses emotions because it’s widely seen as one of the more potent tools of U.S. hegemony. Lots of people are hoping for the demise of the dollar, for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the actual flow of currencies or the role of currencies in the global economy and foreign exchange (FX) markets.

So there is a large built-in audience for any claim that the dollar is on its deathbed.

I understand the emotional appeal of this, but investors and traders can’t afford to make decisions on the emotional appeal of superficial claims–not just in the FX markets, but in any markets.

So let’s ground the discussion of the demise of the USD in some basic fundamentals. Now would be a good time to refill your beverage/drip-bag because we’re going to cover some dynamics that require both emotional detachment and focus.

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Trump, Trade and Taxes

Donald Trump has made trade agreements a central issue in this presidential election, declaring trade treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as unfair and subject to cancellation or renegotiation.

Setting aside the issue of whether presidents can cancel trade treaties via executive orders, let’s look at the underlying issue: the erosion of manufacturing and entry-level job opportunities that lead to middle-class security and pay.

The question then becomes: what are the causes of this erosion of manufacturing and the middle class? Trade is relatively easy to finger because the flood of cheap goods into the U.S. coincided with the wholesale offshoring of manufacturing capacity.

But it isn’t quite that simple. “Free” Trade, Jobs and Income Inequality: It’s Not As Easy As We Might Think (March 22, 2016)

There are many other issues in play, including:

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The Root of Rising Inequality: Our “Lawnmower” Economy (hint: we’re the lawn)

After decades of denial, the mainstream has finally conceded that rising income and wealth inequality is a problem–not just economically, but politically, for as we all know wealth buys political influence/favors, and as we’ll see below, the federal government enables and enforces most of the skims and scams that have made the rich richer and everyone else poorer.

Here’s the problem in graphic form: from 1947 to 1979, the family income of the top 1% actually expanded less that the bottom 99%. Since 1980, the income of the 1% rose 224% while the bottom 80% barely gained any income at all.

Globalization, i.e. offshoring of jobs, is often blamed for this disparity, but as I explained in “Free” Trade, Jobs and Income Inequality, the income of the top 10% broke away from the bottom 90% in the early 1980s, long before China’s emergence as an exporting power.

Indeed, by the time China entered the WTO, the top 10% in the U.S. had already left the bottom 90% in the dust.

The only possible explanation of this is the rise of financialization: financiers and financial corporations (broadly speaking, Wall Street, benefited enormously from neoliberal deregulation of the financial industry, and the conquest of once-low-risk sectors of the economy (such as mortgages) by the storm troopers of finance.

Financiers skim the profits and gains in wealth, and Main Street and the middle / working classes stagnate. Gordon Long and I discuss the ways financialization strip-mines the many to benefit the few in our latest conversation (with charts): Our “Lawnmower” Economy.

Many people confuse the wealth earned by people who actually create new products and services with the wealth skimmed by financiers. One is earned by creating new products, services and business models; financialized “lawnmowing” generates no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity–the only engine that generates widespread wealth and prosperity.

Consider these favorite financier “lawnmowers”:

1. Buying a company, loading it with debt to cash out the buyers and then selling the divisions off: no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity.

2. Borrowing billions of dollars in nearly free money via Federal Reserve easy credit and using the cash to buy back corporate shares, boosting the value of stock owned by insiders and management: no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity.

3. Skimming money from the stock market with high-frequency trading (HFT): no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity.

4. Borrowing billions for next to nothing and buying high-yielding bonds and investments in other countries (the carry trade): no new products/services, no new jobs and no improvements in productivity.

All of these are “lawnmower” operations, rentier skims enabled by the Federal Reserve, its too big to fail banker cronies, a complicit federal government and a toothless corporate media.

This is not classical capitalism; it is predatory exploitation being passed off as capitalism. This predatory exploitation is only possible if the central bank and state have partnered with financial Elites to strip-mine the many to benefit the few.

This has completely distorted the economy, markets, central bank policies, and the incentives presented to participants.

The vast majority of this unproductive skimming occurs in a small slice of the economy–yes, the financial sector. As this article explains, the super-wealthy financial class Doesn’t Just Hide Their Money. Economist Says Most of Billionaire Wealth is Unearned.

“A key empirical question in the inequality debate is to what extent rich people derive their wealth from “rents”, which is windfall income they did not produce, as opposed to activities creating true economic benefit.

Political scientists define “rent-seeking” as influencing government to get special privileges, such as subsidies or exclusive production licenses, to capture income and wealth produced by others.

However, Joseph Stiglitz counters that the very existence of extreme wealth is an indicator of rents. Competition drives profit down, such that it might be impossible to become extremely rich without market failures. Every good business strategy seeks to exploit one market failure or the other in order to generate excess profit.

The bottom-line is that extreme wealth is not broad-based: it is disproportionately generated by a small portion of the economy.”

This small portion of the economy depends on the central bank and state for nearly free money, bail-outs, guarantees that profits are private but losses are shifted to the taxpaying public–all the skims and scams we’ve seen protected for seven long years by Democrats and Republicans alike.

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It’s Time to Retire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a Measure of Prosperity

What if we used wellness (Gross Domestic Happiness) as a metric for prosperity rather than GDP?

Distilling an economy’s success in delivering “prosperity” to a single number has outlived its purpose. Zachary Karabell describes the birth of GDP in far less complex times in (Mis)leading Indicators: Why Our Economic Numbers Distort Reality (Foreign Affairs):

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