Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”
The sovereign debt crisis of 2010-2 emanated from the realization that lower growth rates throughout the industrialized West were insufficient to guarantee the repayment of debts accumulated by governments. The proceeds of the credits and loans assumed by public sectors throughout Europe and in the USA were ploughed into successive futile attempts to stimulate ailing economies and avert banking crises and panics.
But this second leg of the global Great Recession is less about stalling growth than about the perception and measurement of growth. As labour-intensive industries increasingly adopted information- and automation-driven manufacturing, outsourcing and offshoring, the anemic recovery that attended the 2008-9 conflagration in the industrialized West was rendered jobless. Corporations sit on hoarded cash piles, driven by enhanced profitability and productivity even as workers languish in unemployment lines. Globalizeed labor and skills markets coupled with technological substitution for human employment dented consumption and this, in turn, adversely affected investments. The classical twin engines of every recovery since the Second World War have thus been somewhat decommissioned. Bouts of fiscal and monetary profligacy failed to resuscitate moribund financial transmission mechanisms.
But this is also a crisis of national accounting. The traditional ways of measuring growth simply fail to capture technological progress; the massive increase in purchasing power as it applies to consumer goods and products; and a discernible improvement in externalities such as the environment. Critical factors such as vastly improved health, an increased life expectancy (and, therefore, an extended economic horizon), public goods, or even changes in the quality of life remain unreflected in the way that countries measure their output and adjust it.
Indeed, current methodologies of quantifying GDP and GNP (NDP) take a dim view of the precipitous and predictable drop in the prices of consumer goods, for instance. The same computing power costs now one fifth what it used to cost only three years ago. But this means that its contribution to the country’s GDP is down by c. 81% over the same period of time (assuming 6% inflation in these three years)! In other words: technological (and productivity) improvements translate into economic contraction in the way we currently gauge our economies.
Moreover: it is a maxim of current economic orthodoxy that governments compete with the private sector on a limited pool of savings. It is considered equally self-evident that the private sector is better, more competent, and more efficient at allocating scarce economic resources and thus at preventing waste. It is therefore thought economically sound to reduce the size of government – i.e., minimize its tax intake and its public borrowing – in order to free resources for the private sector to allocate productively and efficiently.
Yet, both dogmas are far from being universally applicable.
The assumption underlying the first conjecture is that government obligations and corporate lending are perfect substitutes. In other words, once deprived of treasury notes, bills, and bonds – a rational investor is expected to divert her savings to buying stocks or corporate bonds.
It is further anticipated that financial intermediaries – pension funds, banks, mutual funds – will tread similarly. If unable to invest the savings of their depositors in scarce risk-free – i.e., government – securities – they will likely alter their investment preferences and buy equity and debt issued by firms.
Yet, this is expressly untrue. Bond buyers and stock investors are two distinct crowds. Their risk aversion is different. Their investment preferences are disparate. Some of them – e.g., pension funds – are constrained by law as to the composition of their investment portfolios. Once government debt has turned scarce or expensive, bond investors tend to resort to cash. That cash – not equity or corporate debt – is the veritable substitute for risk-free securities is a basic tenet of modern investment portfolio theory.
Moreover, the “perfect substitute” hypothesis assumes the existence of efficient markets and frictionless transmission mechanisms. But this is a conveniently idealized picture which has little to do with grubby reality. Switching from one kind of investment to another incurs – often prohibitive – transaction costs. In many countries, financial intermediaries are dysfunctional or corrupt or both. They are unable to efficiently convert savings to investments – or are wary of doing so.
Furthermore, very few capital and financial markets are closed, self-contained, or self-sufficient units. Governments can and do borrow from foreigners. Most rich world countries – with the exception of Japan – tap “foreign people’s money” for their public borrowing needs. When the US government borrows more, it crowds out the private sector in Japan – not in the USA.
It is universally agreed that governments have at least two critical economic roles. The first is to provide a “level playing field” for all economic players. It is supposed to foster competition, enforce the rule of law and, in particular, property rights, encourage free trade, avoid distorting fiscal incentives and disincentives, and so on. Its second role is to cope with market failures and the provision of public goods. It is expected to step in when markets fail to deliver goods and services, when asset bubbles inflate, or when economic resources are blatantly misallocated.
Yet, there is a third role. In our post-Keynesian world, it is a heresy. It flies in the face of the “Washington Consensus” propagated by the Bretton-Woods institutions and by development banks the world over. It is the government’s obligation to foster growth.
In most countries of the world – definitely in Africa, the Middle East, the bulk of Latin America, central and eastern Europe, and central and east Asia – savings do not translate to investments, either in the form of corporate debt or in the form of corporate equity.
In most countries of the world, institutions do not function, the rule of law and properly rights are not upheld, the banking system is dysfunctional and clogged by bad debts. Rusty monetary transmission mechanisms render monetary policy impotent.
In most countries of the world, there is no entrepreneurial and thriving private sector and the economy is at the mercy of external shocks and fickle business cycles. Only the state can counter these economically detrimental vicissitudes. Often, the sole engine of growth and the exclusive automatic stabilizer is public spending. Not all types of public expenditures have the desired effect. Witness Japan’s pork barrel spending on “infrastructure projects”. But development-related and consumption-enhancing spending is usually beneficial.
To say, in most countries of the world, that “public borrowing is crowding out the private sector” is wrong. It assumes the existence of a formal private sector which can tap the credit and capital markets through functioning financial intermediaries, notably banks and stock exchanges.
Yet, this mental picture is a figment of economic imagination. The bulk of the private sector in these countries is informal. In many of them, there are no credit or capital markets to speak of. The government doesn’t borrow from savers through the marketplace – but internationally, often from multilaterals.
Outlandish default rates result in vertiginously high real interest rates. Inter-corporate lending, barter, and cash transactions substitute for bank credit, corporate bonds, or equity flotations. As a result, the private sector’s financial leverage is minuscule. In the rich West $1 in equity generates $3-5 in debt for a total investment of $4-6. In the developing world, $1 of tax-evaded equity generates nothing. The state has to pick up the slack.
Growth and employment are public goods and developing countries are in a perpetual state of systemic and multiple market failures. Rather than lend to businesses or households – banks thrive on arbitrage. Investment horizons are limited. Should the state refrain from stepping in to fill up the gap – these countries are doomed to inexorable decline.
In times of global crisis, these observations pertain to rich and developed countries as well. Market failures signify corruption and inefficiency in the private sector. Such misconduct and misallocation of economic resources is usually thought to be the domain of the public sector, but actually it goes on eveywhere in the economy.
Wealth destruction by privately-owned firms is typical of economies with absent, lenient, or lax regulation and often exceeds anything the public administration does. Corruption, driven by avarice and fear, is common among entrepreneurs as much as among civil servants. It is a myth to believe otherwise. Wherever there is money, human psychology is in operation and with it economic malaise. Hence the need for governmental micromamangement of the private sector at all times. Self-regulation is a costly and self-deceiving urban legend.
Another engine of state involvement is provided by the thrift paradox. When the economy goes sour, rational individuals and households save more and spend less. The aggregate outcome of their newfound thrift is recessionary: decreasing consumption translates into declining corporate profitability and rising unemployment. These effects are especially pronounced when financial transmission mechanisms (banks and other financial institutions) are gummed up: frozen in fear and distrust, they do not lend money, even though deposits (and their own capital base) are ever growing.
It is true that, by diversifying risk away, via the use of derivatives and other financial instruments, asset markets no longer affect the real economy as they used to. They have become, in a sense, “gated communities”, separated from Main Street by “risk barriers”. But, these developments do not pertain to retail banks and when markets are illiquid and counterparty risk rampant, options and swaps are pretty useless.
The only way to effectively cancel out the this demonetization of the national economy (this “bleeding”) is through enhanced government spending. Where fearful citizens save, their government should spend on infrastructure, health, education, and information technology. The state’s negative savings should offset multiplying private savings. In extremis, the state should nationalize the financial sector for a limited period of times (as Israel has done in 1983 and Sweden, a decade later).
A Note on GDP (Gross Domestic Product)
GDP figures are not an exact science. All over the world, GDP numbers are politicized and subject to heavy manipulation. There are at least 3 known methodologies to calculate GDP and, for each of these methodologies, there are two alternative formulas which take into account completely different economic sets of data.
Still: there are good proxies to GDP. For instance: the consumption of electricity in the residential (household) sector and in the industrial sector, adjusted for the size of the informal economy, for the change in personal incomes (including private credit), and for shifts in weather patterns (as measured by a multiannual time series of average temperatures). Macedonia’s energy consumption has been growing by almost 4% annually for a few years now. This means that the economy is either stagnant or slightly contracting – but definitely not growing, as the government would have us believe.
Other proxies: money velocity; wage statistics (especially the wages of urban unskilled workers); crude death rate; infant mortality; and even the amount of mail sent per capita. Fluctuations in purchasing power (PPP) reflect the relative strengths of currencies, but also changes in GDP. All these measures indicate that Macedonia’s economy is experiencing either weak growth or no growth at all.
The formula to calculate GDP is this:
GDP (Gross Domestic Product) =
Consumption + investment + government expenditure + net exports (exports minus imports) =
Wages + rents + interest + profits + non-income charges + net foreign factor income earned
But the GDP figure is vulnerable to “creative accounting”:
1. The weight of certain items, sectors, or activities is reduced or increased in order to influence GDP components, such as industrial production. Developing countries often alter the way critical components of GDP like industrial production are tallied.
2. Goods in inventory are included in GDP although not yet sold. Thus, rising inventories, a telltale sign of economic ill-health, actually increases the GDP!
3. If goods produced are financed with credits and loans, GDP will be artificially HIGH (inflated).
4. In some countries, PLANS and INTENTIONS to invest are counted, recorded, and booked as actual investments. This practice is frowned upon (and landed quite a few corporate managers in the gaol), but is still widespread in the shoddier and shadier corners of the globe.
5. GDP figures should be adjusted for inflation (real GDP as opposed to nominal GDP). To achieve that, the calculation of the GDP deflator is critical. But the GDP deflator is a highly subjective figure, prone, in developing countries, to reflecting the government’s political needs and predilections.
6. What currency exchange rates were used? By selecting the right “points in time”, GDP figures can go up and down by up to 2%!
7. Healthcare expenditures, agricultural subsidies, government aid to catastrophe-stricken areas form a part of the GDP. Thus, for instance, by increasing healthcare costs, the government can manipulate GDP figures.
8. Net exports in many developing countries are negative (in other words, they maintain a trade deficit). How can the GDP grow at all in these places? Even if consumption and investment are strongly up – government expenditures are usually down (at the behest of multilateral financial institutions) and net exports are down. It is not possible for GDP to grow vigorously in a country with a sizable and ballooning trade deficit.
9. The projections of most international, objective analysts and international economic organizations usually tend to converge on a GDP growth figure that is often lower than the government’s but in line with the long-term trend. These figures are far better indicators of the true state of the economy. Statistics Bureaus in developing countries are often under the government’s thumb and run by political appointees.
Note: Why Recessions Happen and How to Counter Them
The fate of modern economies is determined by four types of demand: the demand for consumer goods; the demand for investment goods; the demand for money; and the demand for assets, which represent the expected utility of money (deferred money).
Periods of economic boom are characterized by a heightened demand for goods, both consumer and investment; a rising demand for assets; and low demand for actual money (low savings, low capitalization, high leverage).
Investment booms foster excesses (for instance: excess capacity) that, invariably lead to investment busts. But, economy-wide recessions are not triggered exclusively and merely by investment busts. They are the outcomes of a shift in sentiment: a rising demand for money at the expense of the demand for goods and assets.
In other words, a recession is brought about when people start to rid themselves of assets (and, in the process, deleverage); when they consume and lend less and save more; and when they invest less and hire fewer workers. A newfound predilection for cash and cash-equivalents is a surefire sign of impending and imminent economic collapse.
This etiology indicates the cure: reflation. Printing money and increasing the money supply are bound to have inflationary effects. Inflation ought to reduce the public’s appetite for a depreciating currency and push individuals, firms, and banks to invest in goods and assets and reboot the economy. Government funds can also be used directly to consume and invest, although the impact of such interventions is far from certain.
Economies revolve around and are determined by “anchors”: stores of value that assume pivotal roles and lend character to transactions and economic players alike. Well into the 19 century, tangible assets such as real estate and commodities constituted the bulk of the exchanges that occurred in marketplaces, both national and global. People bought and sold land, buildings, minerals, edibles, and capital goods. These were regarded not merely as means of production but also as forms of wealth.
Inevitably, human society organized itself to facilitate such exchanges. The legal and political systems sought to support, encourage, and catalyze transactions by enhancing and enforcing property rights, by providing public goods, and by rectifying market failures.
Later on and well into the 1980s, symbolic representations of ownership of real goods and property (e.g, shares, commercial paper, collateralized bonds, forward contracts) were all the rage. By the end of this period, these surpassed the size of markets in underlying assets. Thus, the daily turnover in stocks, bonds, and currencies dwarfed the annual value added in all industries combined.
Again, Mankind adapted to this new environment. Technology catered to the needs of traders and speculators, businessmen and middlemen. Advances in telecommunications and transportation followed inexorably. The concept of intellectual property rights was introduced. A financial infrastructure emerged, replete with highly specialized institutions (e.g., central banks) and businesses (for instance, investment banks, jobbers, and private equity funds).
We are in the throes of a third wave. Instead of buying and selling assets one way (as tangibles) or the other (as symbols) – we increasingly trade in expectations (in other words, we transfer risks). The markets in derivatives (options, futures, indices, swaps, collateralized instruments, and so on) are flourishing.
Society is never far behind. Even the most conservative economic structures and institutions now strive to manage expectations. Thus, for example, rather than tackle inflation directly, central banks currently seek to subdue it by issuing inflation targets (in other words, they aim to influence public expectations regarding future inflation).
The more abstract the item traded, the less cumbersome it is and the more frictionless the exchanges in which it is swapped. The smooth transmission of information gives rise to both positive and negative outcomes: more efficient markets, on the one hand – and contagion on the other hand; less volatility on the one hand – and swifter reactions to bad news on the other hand (hence the need for market breakers); the immediate incorporation of new data in prices on the one hand – and asset bubbles on the other hand.
Hitherto, even the most arcane and abstract contract traded was somehow attached to and derived from an underlying tangible asset, no matter how remotely. But this linkage may soon be dispensed with. The future may witness the bartering of agreements that have nothing to do with real world objects or values.
In days to come, traders and speculators will be able to generate on the fly their own, custom-made, one-time, investment vehicles for each and every specific transaction. They will do so by combining “off-the-shelf”, publicly traded components. Gains and losses will be determined by arbitrary rules or by reference to extraneous events. Real estate, commodities, and capital goods will revert to their original forms and functions: bare necessities to be utilized and consumed, not speculated on.
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