In the period since the financial crisis, there has been no action to address or recognise the problem. Instead, the reaction has been a host of measures to try to restore a situation that was, of itself, a delusion.
Front and centre were the bank bailouts. The process was not only one in which government money was poured into the banking system, but also a process of allowing the banks to hide their underlying insolvency. Governments have also borrowed to support the existing economic structure, which is an attempt to maintain employment and activity, which is itself an attempt to support (for example) real estate prices, which in turn supports the value of bank assets, which in turn supports the viability of the financial system. It is all circular, with one element supporting the other, with overseas borrowing the foundation of the system. It is impossible to tease apart the circular relationships. Governments must keep on borrowing more and more, or the whole edifice falls apart.
Effectively, when consumers stopped borrowing, government stepped in to fill the vacuum. The problem is that, in doing so, they are supporting the unsupportable. I have previously laid out the contradictory nature of this process in my last post. We have a process as follows:
- A government borrows money from overseas
- The money is spent by the government and this increases activity in the economy
- Individuals who would otherwise be unemployed are able to buy houses, pay back loans, service mortgages, buy goods and services
- Individuals and businesses pay more taxes
- Government revenues are supported
- GDP is supported by all of the activity, either preventing a dramatic fall or slowing of GDP growth
- The relatively good health of the economy reassures investors (e.g. some investors actually believe that the US is recovering)
- Investors are willing to extend further credit
It all looks to be highly sustainable, except for the fact that governments are accumulating debt which is being used to finance consumption. For example, in the case of tax revenues being supported, the money that is returned in taxation to the government is being supported by the borrowing, such that the revenue from taxation is a case of the government eating its own tail. It borrows, a portion of that borrowing is consumed, and the returned tax revenue is therefore the borrowing minus the intermediate consumption process. It simply means that a small amount of the borrowed money is returned to the government, whilst the total amount of borrowed money increases.
The other result of borrowing more is that more borrowed money supports the level of GDP, which means that the more a government borrows, the higher the GDP. All the borrowed money supports activity within the economy, and this gives the appearance of a healthy economy. This allows for a better debt to GDP ratio, which is, of course circular.
For example, if a government were to double their overseas borrowing overnight, then they would be able to massively increase activity in the economy. GDP would climb rapidly, and the result would be that the GDP to debt ratio would look much better. What you have done is pulled a massive amount of future activity into the present, and this would flatter the size of the economy. However, the GDP outcome does not represent your own generation of activity, but consumption of the output of others, at a cost of committing your own future output. In other words at the cost of a future shrinkage in your own activity. Unless you just keep borrowing more and more.
And here is the problem. Unless you keep borrowing more and more, there is no way to sustain your GDP level, and no way to keep the GDP to debt ratio looking positive. As soon as you stop borrowing from overseas, you are then in a position of repaying the debt that you have already accumulated, and also doing this when your economy is fragile. It is fragile because the structure of the economy has still not managed the adjustment to the new competition from the emerging economies. Government has borrowed to consume to support the structure of an economy that was already built on excessive borrowing from overseas. There is still a period of adjustment to the real structure of the world economy to take place. This can only be achieved through seeing the destruction of the swathes of the economy that were supported through the distribution and consumption of resources that were generated from overseas.
This returns me to the example of the US economy, in which I showed that 17% of US GDP may be accounted for by activity in the distribution and consumption of resources borrowed from overseas. As yet, nobody has contested this figure, though it is certainly open to challenge (see here for the original post). Even if I am roughly right, we can see what happens if the growth in debt halts. We would see a massive contraction in the US economy, and the debt to GDP ratio would deteriorate in a shocking way. It is similar to what we are seeing in Greece. Businesses will close, unemployment will explode, government revenues will fall, asset prices will fall, banks will go bust, and the economy will fall off the edge of a cliff. As this happens, it will become increasingly impossible for governments, businesses and individuals to service the debts that have been accumulated as part of an economic structure built on foundations of sand.
The really horrific part of this is that it is not just the US that is in this terrible position. This is a widespread problem. Furthermore, the structures that have been built to protect failing sovereign states is built upon credit coming from many of the states that are now at risk. One interesting development is that the US is now questioning their role in the IMF bailout of Greece, and is recognising that the credit it would supply would fall into a black hole, and that it can no longer afford to bail out other countries. After all, the US finances are themselves flashing red warning lights. I pointed out in a previous post that, in reality, although the US appears to be a major funder of the IMF, it is in reality the creditors to the US that are really funding the IMF. If the US were not able to borrow more money, would they be able to finance the IMF as they have traditionally done in the past?
Where is the money for IMF bailouts going to come from in the future? It is a question I asked at the start of writing this blog, and it only now that it is apparent to the world that there is a problem. When both the 'bailees' and 'bailouters' are broke, what happens then?
In Europe, it is possible to see the increasing queasiness at having to bail out their fellow European states. The fact that the bailing out of another state means borrowing more, and taking the sovereign debt risk of other countries onto already stretched balance sheets, means that the bailouts can only go so far. The problems do not stop there. For example, if Greece defaults on its debt, this will impact Germany through, for example, their banking sector's exposure to Greek debt. If Greece falls, it may take elements of the German financial system with it. Such is the complexity of the edifice of debt that has been created around the world, and the complexity in the linkages in the destiny of sovereign states.
Niall Ferguson famously coined the phrase Chimerica to express the interdependent relationship between China and the US. The US used Chinese credit to purchase Chinese goods, and then plays a major role in the support of China's export sector. The two countries are inextricably tied in dysfunctional relationship. If either side blinks, they both plunge. However, the contradictions of a developing country (China is still relatively poor) supporting the rich lifestyle of the US must be a finite arrangement. Both sides need to extricate themselves from the relationship, but neither side seems to know how.
In recent news, China has recommenced the purchase of US treasuries, and Chimerica is once again in full swing. This means that, for the moment, the US might continue to finance their dizzying deficits. I think that we are safe in assuming that China is restarting the relationship because they can no longer see any clear alternative. However, as they have hinted at in various statements, China knows that Chimerica is unsustainable, and the US appears to realise this too. In both cases, it is possible to sense that they both hope that something will turn up. In the meantime, the scale of the problems for the future grows and grows.
The only way to describe the trading relationships across the world is 'dysfunctional'. They are relationships built upon a foundation as follows: country 'x' provides country 'y' with credit, and country 'y' uses that credit to buy goods and services from country 'x' and country 'z'. Country 'x' builds an export market in country 'y', and therefore needs country 'y' to keep buying their goods, in order for them to maintain employment and growth. Japan needs the US, Germany needs Spain, China needs the US and so forth. The recipient countries must keep buying, but increasingly have less and less capability to repay the money they are borrowing. The country 'x's reach a point where they are confronted with the reality that they are, in effect, almost giving their goods and services away, as they will never be paid for them. However, if they stop, their own industries will collapse, as they are structured towards servicing these debtor markets.
When German workers wince at the Greek bailout, this is the logical conclusion of the dysfunctional relationship. German credit has allowed German exports to Greece (of course, this is not a one to one relationship, but I use this case for simplifying some complexity). If Greece defaults on their debt, German creditors will take a haircut. If Greece is bailed out, the German government will, through the tax system, make the German worker pay for the Greek bailout. In either case, Germany will have, in real terms, been providing goods and services to Greece at massively subsidised cost, or in extreme circumstance free of charge. In all cases excepting full repayment of debt from Greece, Greek consumption is being subsidised through the labour and efforts of overseas workers. It does not matter which of these many creditor/debtor nations we can look at, the relationship is basically the same.
In each case, in each of these relationships, the dysfunctional accumulation of debt continues, and always with the hope that 'something will turn up', that the debtor nation will miraculously turn around, and start earning more than they consume.
However, the debtor nations have become credit addicts, and become ever more dependent upon the credit to sustain the structure of their economy, which is itself structured around debt. The more credit they get, the more their economic structure will be shaped to utilise the credit. The population of each country is unaware of the source of their apparent wealth, which is too abstract to understand, and they then resist any reform which might mean that they have to accept their real level of wealth. The politicians cave in, and hope that something will indeed turn up (or that they are lucky enough to be out of office when the contradictions of the situation are forced to resolution).
In the end, the creditor nations must blink. They will only support the profligate so far. Like the debtor nations, the people of the creditor countries are unaware that they are in effect, giving away a portion, or all of their labour, to other nations. When it becomes apparent, as with Greece and Germany, that this is the reality of the situation, they are understandably resentful. However, they do not realise that, if the situation halts, then many workers will find that their particular industry, their individual job, is pointing at a market that was entirely reliant on the credit that they have been providing. When their own country turns off the credit taps, the markets for their goods and services will evaporate. They have been pointing their industry and labour to the wrong markets, to markets that were never really going to pay for their goods and services, because they do not have enough output that they are willing to return.
In practice, what happens is that all the savings of individual workers are exposed to the losses that will follow the non-payment of debt. When a person invests in a pension fund, puts their savings in a bank, they are deferring their own consumption. In principle, their money should be channelled into new investments which will produce a future return. Instead, through whichever conduit, their savings have been used to support consumption in the debtor nations. If Greece defaults on debt, and German banks take a hit, this is not abstract money, but the accumulated savings of individuals aggregated and lent into the Greek economy.
I hasten to add that, as they currently operate, the markets are not all relatively ‘benign’ movements of savings and investments. The infamous speculators do exist. However, I have no problem with these people risking their money, for example betting against the Euro. What I do object to is naked credit default swaps, and any of the many other practices that border on the fraudulent, or the way that government backstops the risk, or the way in which governments have entrenched and supported an elite of bankers.
Returning to the central point, the deferred consumption of German workers has instead been consumed by Greek workers, and they are not going to return that consumption with goods or services for the German workers to consume. The deferred consumption has been forever consumed.
The point that I am trying to make here is that this is not as abstract a situation as many analysts and commentators try to make it. It is about the basics of person 'A' manufacturing good 'B' or providing service 'C' to person 'D'. This is the core of economics. It is not mountains of abstract data, but about how this process works in practice. At the heart of the system is that the savings of person 'A', their deferred consumption, is aggregated and offered to others in the belief that it will be returned one day in goods and services for their own consumption.
The expectation of each worker who defers their consumption is that, at least, their savings will be returned in an a way that gives them access to an equivalent amount of goods and services to those they might have consumed at the time of the investment. This is a reasonable expectation, and is the source of potential for sustainable economic growth.
The problem arises when the systems for the allocation of those aggregated savings go wrong. This is the dysfunctional trading relationships between countries. Those in government, in the financial services industry, the analysts and economists, all misunderstood what they saw. They made false assumptions as follows:
- Just because a country has always been wealthy, it will always be wealthy
- Just because a country has a good credit record, any amount of credit might be given to that country
- GDP = Wealth creation
- Inflation measures are meaningful, even when asset prices are inflating outside of the recorded figures
- Trade imbalances might be eternally sustainable where the cause of the imbalance is in consumption activity of one actor of the goods and services of another actor
I am not sure that this covers all of the assumptions, but it is certainly a starting point. At the heart of all of the above is a question of credit risk. What we are seeing are assumptions that underpin how investors have determined the risks in the provision of credit. At the heart of the economic crisis is that various metrics and assumptions led to a false set of beliefs about the relative creditworthiness of individuals, businesses and states.
These assumptions were built upon a world that no longer existed. The entry of the emerging markets, and the newly intensified competition for a finite amount of resource changed the game and the structure of the world economy. As the emerging markets emerged, we entered a period of hyper-competition.
Instead of confronting the competition, much of the developed world simply borrowed and pretended that nothing had changed. The assumption was that the rich world would get richer, and the developing world would get richer. It never occurred to any of the economists, politicians, analysts, and financiers, that with finite increases in resources, we had entered a situation similar, albeit not the same as, a zero sum game. While the pie of resources was getting larger, the number of actors eating the pie was increasing faster still. Just because some of them were lending some of their share of the pie, did not alter the problem that the share of the pie was changing.
So it is that we come to the situation today, with a world economy in which false dawns, endings of the 'financial' crisis, come and go. New solutions are tried, more illusionary gains are achieved, only to see the underlying and unaddressed problems bubble back to the surface. We can see that, despite the efforts of government, many of the rich world countries are indeed getting poorer. The austerity program proposed in the UK may just be an example of this process in action, and we can only hope that austerity can resolve the problems gradually. However, the actions of having tried to prevent change make a gradual rebalancing the least likely outcome, though not impossible.
It is never pleasant to be relentlessly gloomy. I have offered consistent pessimism. I do so because, I believe, I have identified the underlying causes of the economic crisis. In doing so, I believe that the actions to try to turn back the clock are wrong. The only way to move forwards is to resolve the imbalances, and take the pain sooner than later. In accruing ever more debt, in seeking to prop up systems that can not be supported, it may delay the pain, but at a greater cost later. At each stage of the economic crisis, I have repeated the same message.
The only way to resolve the crisis is in the structural reform of economies, and to face the fact that, with a finite pie, and more actors seeking a share of the pie, the only solution is to win the greatest share of the pie possible through efficient development of industry and innovation, and having lean and effective economies. This means that we must trim the fat from our economies. We simply do not have the resource to maintain the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed.
We also have to face up to the imbalances in the world economy, and accept that these are finally unsupportable. Country ‘x’ can not and will not provide goods and services to country ‘y’ at subsidised rates forever. In particular, now that the inability to repay is being highlighted, the real choices for the creditor nations are becoming clear. The reality of the imbalances is now showing the underlying choice – continuation of giving something and getting very little in return, or a painful period of restructuring of their own economies to reflect the real distribution of wealth creation and resource.
I also accept that, in this hyper-competitive world, we are unlikely to win as great share of the pie as before. In an ideal world, the resource pie might expand infinitely, but this is an unlikely outcome at our current position in history (a debate I will leave aside for the moment), and we might have to accept a period of hyper-competition for a long while. After all, there is plenty of labour out there that is still yet to be connected with technology, capital and markets.
It is not an easy message to digest. However, if we wish to address a problem, we have to face up to the actual causes of the problem. As long as the policymakers seek to ignore the real problem, we will continue down the wrong path. It does seem that, with the emergence of the problems of Greece, there are the first signs of accepting that the situation can not continue as it has done. Greece is a warning, and we are collectively starting to take heed. Whether this translates into effective action, and above all acceptance of the reality of the situation, is still uncertain. I can only hope that it does, and that it is not too late.
Within this perspective on the world economy is a further worry. I blithely suggest that we need to adjust, but I also identify that the people of the creditor and debtor nations have not, and probably will not, fully grasp how this mess arose. We see this in the riots in Greece, and the growing anger at the politicians in Germany. The adjustment is going to be very, very painful, and this presents significant dangers. In order for the adjustments to be made, both debtor and creditor countries will suffer painful adjustments. The whole world economy will go through a painful adjustment. In such circumstances, with unemployment growing, and complex and difficult to explain causations, it is a period in which social and political instability will rise.
It is a time in which some people will offer easy solutions, will blame group ‘x’ or group ‘y’ for all of the ills, who will grab the popular anger, and will use that anger for their own ends.
The situation I have outlined in this post, the causes of the economic crisis, are not down to any individual country, or any single group. The bankers were greedy, the regulators were idiots, the Chinese were mercantilist, the Western politicians acquiesced to the Chinese mercantilism, when the politicians promised something for nothing, the press acceded, and the people with them. I could go on. In the end, we all played a role in building this mess.
In addition, the situation is not one in which there will be any painless fixes. We have collectively spent years building an illusionary economic structure. As that structure adjusts, and it must adjust, there is no way to do so without pain for everyone. How we might deal with the adjustment is a matter of debate, but there is no way in which it can be done without pain being felt by ordinary people. However, there will be those who will offer ‘clever’ solutions. They will ‘magic’ away the problems. How this might take place, when the problem is the structure of the world economy, is a mystery. However, they will dress up their magic with plausible and complex argumentation, and in the end avoid accepting that there must be some kind of pain.
In the scenario I have painted, it is apparent that there must be pain that comes with the restructuring. I do not hide this. For governments, the key is not to try to halt the restructuring, but to seek to ameliorate the worst of the effects. It is a fine balance between restructuring and, in the case of the ‘rich world’ getting poorer, and maintaining social cohesion. The danger lies in the pretense that no restructuring is necessary, and that pain might be avoided. The danger lies in governments squandering their resources, as they already have done, in propping up a system that is inherently unsustainable and inherently unstable.
In a very long essay, I have suggested a system that might prevent these problems happening again (it can not ‘fix’ the current problems, but might accelerate their resolution). It is not a perfect solution. No system, for example, might have fully absorbed the labour supply shock that the world has seen. However, the system I have proposed would have prevented the imbalances that followed the supply shock. It is a system which is largely self-regulating, bubble resistant, and imbalance resistant. However, I suspect that such a system is only a dream, as it removes power from those who would like to hold on to their power. I therefore offer it as a solution, but also as a solution that is unlikely to be adopted.
Note 1: When first posting this solution, my use of the concept of value of labour led one commentator to suggest that it was Marxist. The concept of value of labour used is very different from that of Marx, and the solution is in no way Marxist. Also, a regular critical commentator on my blog, commenting under the name ‘Lord Keynes’ has recently said the following:
Cynicus’ variant on the labour theory of value, in which he believes that value is both caused by subjective factors and by labour is logically inconsistent. Value cannot be subjective and also caused by labour.
It is entirely consistent to say that we subjectively value labour, which is my explicit central point. I see no inconsistency in this. Lord Keynes simply misrepresented my argument to create an inconsistency. From this commentator, there will no doubt be essays in response to this reply. I would therefore ask you to read the original.
Note 2: As ever, please feel free to comment on any aspect of the post. Even in a post as long as this, in order to cover breadth I have had to sacrifice depth. If any point is unclear, I have expansions on each of the points littered throughout the blog. Also, in trying to compress many arguments, I hope that the arguments are not weakened or might appear inconsistent. Finally, there is the sin of omission. For example, I do not include the many additional mercantilist Chinese practices that I have included elsewhere in the blog, or the dangers in quantitative easing (printing money), or many other key points. In short, an overview can only be an overview.
Note 3: Thanks for the interesting comments on the last post. I recently found that I had missed following one of your links on a previous post, which was to a You Tube video of the Modern Mystic. An amusing distraction....many thanks.