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Monday, June 3, 2013

The Global Economy: A Midyear Snapshot

What happens to the US economy when the Federal Reserve stops printing money to buy mortgage based securities, treasury notes, and other bonds? What happens when that body stops injecting 85 billion dollars into the US economy every month?
These questions torture the economic pundits in the mainstream press.
Contrary to what most believe there has been no recovery. The reports from the other principal global economies have been dismal, recording stagnation or anemic growth. In the mean time, the US economy has been sustained by forced feeding. The Federal Reserve quietly prints notes and takes around 85 billion dollars worth of various securities off the market and parks them on the Fed's balance sheets. The announced reasons for this action are to keep interest rates low, attracting borrowers, and to thus stimulate business growth and job creation. An unannounced consequence of the 85 billion dollar injection has been a surge in equity markets and housing prices. Since both stock portfolios and home values are the principal components in the psychological “wealth effect” -- the subjective, personal sense of financial well-being -- they have spurred the impression of recovery and consumer confidence. Behind this conjured image of recovery, the US economy continues to stagnate and erode.
Whenever the Federal Reserve has suggested that it might slow or end this life-support, markets have dropped precipitously.
Obviously, the Federal Reserve program, dubbed “quantitative easing,” is a back-door stimulus program. Not a stimulus program of the New Deal type, not public works and public jobs, but more a reclamation of the garbage piled up after the massive, destructive party thrown by the financial sector and a rekindling of the pre-crisis euphoria. No one in the political establishment, neither Republican nor Democrat, had the stomach for a full-blown New Deal program, nor did they have any desire to pass even a little of the cost of a fix-up on to their corporate masters.
So the task of recovery fell in the lap of the Federal Reserve, an ostensibly independent non-political body. The Federal Reserve is not political, except when it is. While it can't be dictated to by the branches of government, its make-up of ivy league professors and financial industry veterans guarantees loyalty to corporate moguls. It also keeps an ear open to the powerful as well as the rich. On occasion the Fed even hears the voices from the barricades, but only when they are at the barricades!
It shares that “independence “ with the Supreme Court. Like the Supreme Court, the Fed gets occasionally chastised when it either missed or failed to get the message of a ruling class change in policy.
All central banks boast of their independence, but all listen closely for a shift in political favor. The Central Bank of Japan recently demonstrated its fealty to political change. With the election of Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister, the Bank relented to his pressure and began a policy of quantitative easing with the goal of doubling Japan's money supply in two years. Abe, a right-wing nationalist, advocates purchasing securities and bonds through a speed-up of the Bank's printing presses, but makes no effort to conceal his real goal: radically reducing the exchange rate of the national currency, the Yen.
Like his foreign policy initiatives, Abe's currency policy is a bold act of aggression, in this case, economic aggression. A weak yen makes Japanese manufacturing products cheaper in global markets, giving Japan a competitive edge against other global manufacturers. The rise of Japanese nationalism has not gone unnoticed by other Asian powers. Chinese demonstrators have trashed Japanese cars in a way reminiscent of similar spectacles in the US decades ago. Japanese automobile sales have dropped sharply in the PRC.
While retaliation may well be on the horizon, the Abe policies have brought a sharp drop in the Yen's value, but also great volatility in Asian equity markets.
Similarly, for all the US Federal Reserve's aggressiveness in printing money, the stock market's surge and the recovery of housing prices have masked serious issues plaguing the real US economy.
[June 2: “Investors have ignored poor economic news as stocks have risen... The Basil, Switzerland based Bank of International Settlements said... that central banks' policies of record low interest rates and monetary stimulus had helped investors “tune out” bad news-- every time an economic indicator disappointed, traders simply took that as confirmation that central banks would continue to provide stimulus.” as reported by Fox News.]
Disposable personal income growth is collapsing, for example. Excepting the 2008-2009 collapse, disposable personal income growth was lower in 2012 than any time since 1959 and is trending even lower in 2013. Not surprisingly, the personal savings rate-- a rate that grew dramatically after the frivolity leading to the 2008-2009 collapse-- has now dropped sharply. Clearly, workers are taking home less while reducing their savings to pay the bills. While unsustainable, this tact has buoyed consumer spending.

[May 31: The Commerce Department reported a .2% pull back in consumer spending for April, 2013.]

Manufacturing production in the US has declined for three of the last four months. Caterpillar Inc., a bell weather of the basic manufacturing sector, has witnessed factory orders of machines, calculated on a rolling three-month average, decline steadily throughout 2012, moving into negative territory at year's end.

Hyper-exploitation in 2009, in the form of unprecedented gains of productivity growth, pulled the US economy from its nadir. But since 2009, productivity gains have slackened with a substantial decline in the last quarter of 2012 and only a very modest recovery in the first quarter of 2013. Consequently, anemic corporate revenue growth is increasingly crimping earnings, once again threatening the rate of profit.
Pressures on profit are demonstrated by the falling yield on junk bonds. The demand for yield-- the never-ending search for a higher rate of profit-- has driven the yield on the riskiest investments lower than at any time in recent memory (a leading high-yield bond index records a return below 5%, the lowest since records began in 1983!). Conversely, treasury bonds, once popular as a safe haven, are now commanding greater and greater yield despite the fact that the Federal Reserve gobbles them up and removes them from bond markets. Obviously, investors do not want safe Treasuries; investors do want risky junk bonds! The gap between Treasury yields and junk bond yields are narrower than any time since 2007. Are we skating on the same thin ice, the same crisis of accumulation?
Accelerating private debt in Asia suggests that much of the capital seeking higher profit growth rates has landed there. But Asia is not the hot bed of growth that it was a few years ago. The mounting private debt in Asian economies supports risky, speculative projects and services like commercial and residential real estate. With international trade tepid, these once export-leading countries are attempting to sustain growth through speculation and the hope of global recovery. The new Chinese leadership seems determined to reduce the role of the state sector, market regulation, and public financing, the very factors that allowed the PRC to painlessly weather the global crisis. They are determined to entrust the fate of the economy to global markets. The simultaneous shrinking of government debt and the explosion of private debt underline this policy shift.
[May 31: The Reserve Bank of India reported the lowest annual GDP growth rate in a decade for the end of the fiscal year, March 31.]
The once robust South American economies are also slowing. Exports to the PRC are declining and exports to the EU are on the skids, retarding growth throughout the region. Stagnant growth presents new challenges to the conservative neo-liberal regimes on the continent as well as the more progressive social democratic governments. Nor do South American economies offer any relief, as they have until recently, to the global economy.
And, of course, Europe is in a depression-- a deep and profound depression. The EU as a unity faces both centrifugal and centripetal forces that challenge any policy resolution. Moreover, the major parties – conservative, liberal, and social democratic-- have exhausted their policy toolboxes. Until a new road is chosen, the European Union will only drag the world economy towards a similar fate.
[May 31: Eurostat reports the EU unemployment rate reached a new high-- 12.2% in April-- the highest level ever recorded since euro-wide tracking began in 1995.]
The global economy faces two stubborn challenges: first, a crisis of accumulation and second, an insufficiency of global demand. They are, of course, inter-related, continuation of the 2008-2009 collapse, and immune to conventional treatment. The vast inequalities of wealth and the resultant massive accumulation of capital hungering for investment opportunities (driven by Marx's tendency for the rate of profit to fall) stand at the center of the lingering crisis. Capital continues to seek increasingly risky and unproductive profit schemes, schemes that strangle productive, socially useful (but unprofitable!) activities. At the same time, the crisis has immiserated millions and idled a vast mass of human capital. Left with limited resources and limitless insecurities, these casualties of the crisis have necessarily reduced their patterns of consumption. A shrinkage in global demand followed.
Some still harbor illusions of taming capitalism and slaking its thirst for profit. As the years of crisis continue, it looks more and more like the beast must be slaughtered.

Zoltan Zigedy

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