Domestic solutions to global problems

Trade Wars are Class Wars by Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis is an excellent account of the global imbalances that have emerged in the 21st century, contributing to the GFC among other consequences. “A core argument of this book is that the distribution of purchasing power within a society affects its economic relations with the rest of the world,” they write. They trace the imbalances problem to the inequailities of income and wealth within China and Germany that mean domestic demand in each case is inadequate to absord domestic production, so the two run large current account surpluses with the rest of the world. “People who cannot buy what they produce must rely on foreign demand for their output.” Hence the ‘class wars’ of the title.

While the US should have been in the same position, given how unequal it is, foreign demand for US assets means it has run a consistent deficit instead: “For more than six decades the United States has satiated savers in the rest of the world at the expense of its own workers” – the dollar being an “exorbitant burden” in this perspective. (Another great virtue of the book is spelling out the fact that balances balance and so the capital account will be in deficit if the current account is in surplus; and if some people are saving – eg the rich in surplus countries – others will have to be borrowing – Greece, or ordinary Americans before the GFC.)

A lot of the commentary has focused on the bilateral US-China trade deficit and the “China shock” due to offshoring, but Klein and Pettis argue that the link is less direct than Chinese vs American factories, and must include an account of capital flows. It portrays inequality within China and Germany, rather than China’s low-wage manufacturing capabilities, as the root cause. The book is just as critical of German as of Chinese domestic policies: “Germany’s ideological and constitutional commitment to fiscal rectitude caused lasting harm to ordinary Germans.” The harm has taken the form of welfare cuts, eroded protection in the labour market, massive under-investment in infrastructure. One doesn’t think of Germany as particularly unequal. Yet although the average German is twice as rich as the average Spaniard, the median German is much poorer – about as wealthy as the median Polish person.

The book refers back to the writings of John Hobson in the early 20th century, when the US was the surplus economy in its gilded age, and Britain the bearer of the reserve currency burden. In Imperialism: A Study (1902) Hobson wrote: “When the distribution of income is suchas to enable all classes of the nation to convert their felt wants into an effectiove demand for commodities, there can be no over-production, no under-employment of capital and labour, and no necessity to fight for foreign markets.” Inequality and the competition for overseas markets led to what what he described as “the greed of empire.” It didn’t end well a century ago, and it isn’t going so well now.

Trade Wars are Class Wars is a tale of three economies, China, Germany and the US. I’m not sure where others fit in – including the UK, also highly unequal but with a (Brexit-augmented) current account deficit. (Greece gets a walk-on role.) Still, I found the argument persuasive and in any case reducing within-country inequality from today’s socially-destructive levels can only be a good thing. It’s a terrific book.

Screenshot 2022-06-03 at 13.38.55

 

Share

Facing up to disorder

I read the proofs of Helen Thompson’s magnificent new book Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century a while ago, and specifically before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Having just read the finished product, it seems all the more prescient and timely. Take this observation, for instance: “For five decades, Central and Southern European energy dependency on Russia has been a geopolitical fact of life. Indeed, since the First World War’s end, the periods in which Germany has eschewed Russian/Soviet oil and later gas have been short … Since it has endured three decades into a post-Cold War world where Moscow uses gas as an instrument of power, Germany cannot escape responsibility for whathappens to states with borders with post-Soviet Russia.”

The book braids together three themes in its synopsis of present disorder and instability. The first is energy-driven geopolitics entwining the fates of the world’s major powers, destabilised periodically by discoveries or technologies (eg fracking in the US) and by events (eg Fukushima and the German abandoment of nuclear). Secondly, and relatedly, there is a sequence of economic crises with their own internal dynamic (the rise of market-oriented philosophies, China’s admission to the world trading system) but also “structural material causes”, in particular the energy shocks of the 1970s and increased energy demand due to China’s economic rise. The final section turns to democratic politics, related to the economic upheavals, and the challenges posed to liberal democracies by plutocracy and inequality, mass migration and the various shocks – the China effect on manufacturing, the GFC.

Along the way, the book weaves in much more – the institutional history of the EU, the breakdown of Bretton Woods, Middle Eastern politics. I’m in awe of Helen’s ability to take a synoptic view of underlying structural trends while mastering so much detail. How much must she read?? The book ends with some observations about what various (democratic) governments might do to tackle these linked predicaments, but it’s pretty pessimistic. I’m left with a sense of not just the length of the shadow of history but also its tenacity: instability is baked in. And as the final words put it: “How… democracies can be sustained as the likely contests over climate change and energy consumption destabilize them will become the central political question of the coming decade.” Read it to be informed, but not to be cheered.

41UgNX7hiqL._AC_UY436_QL65_

Share

In August we’re going to have a week’s holiday, and I’ll also be declining all but the most absolutely urgent online meetings, so am looking forward to some reading. The pile of books to read is very satisfying.

Meanwhile, this week I’ve enjoyed the newly-published Boom and Bust: A Global History of Financial Bubbles by William Quinn and John Turner. The book recounts the history of 10 bubbles in history, some well known – the South Sea Bubble, Wall Street in the 20s – others less so – I for one had never heard of the British Bicycle Mania of the late 1890s. It also ranges from 19th century Australia to modern China.

Each episode is set in the context of a framework described in the first chapter, the Bubble Triangle. These are the three necessary conditions for a bubble to take off: good marketability of the assets involved; abundant money & credit; and large numbers of speculators. With these in place, they argue there are two potential sparks: technology (radio in the 1920s, bicycle innovations in the 1890s) or politics (often, governments seeking to engineer higher asset prices to meet a policy goal, such as encourgang home ownership (the early to mid 2000s) or reducing government debt (John Law in France in the 1760s).

This is a very nice framework, and the book is an enjoyable read, its large array of references kept unobtrusive while testimony to the amount of research that has gone into it. There are some interesting points along the way. For example, the authors argue that the form of railway network shaped by the railway mania of 1848 locked in inefficiencies “which have plagued British railways down to the present day.” Other, less laissez faire, countries invested in a better planned and less duplicative network at lower cost. In Britain, they argue, politicians were too accomodating to constituency interests rather than able to plan a national network.

However, they also highlight the distinction between bubbles sparked by technology and those sparked by politics: “Technology bubbles often involve large sums of money flowing into extremely innovative sectors of the economy, which might otherwise have trouble getting off the ground.” During political bubbles, the money flows into sectors where there are few positive externalities.

The book ends by returning to the Bubble Triangle as a means of predicting when a bubble might occur and some discussion of policy choices – to avert the bubble (hard, with the political ones), or clean up afer it? The final chapter includes a discussion of the role of the media, whose role during bubbles has not always been blameless.

All in all, a great read and a great addition to the literature on financial bubbles.

41yrZCLRr-L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

 

Share

Not learning lessons from the past

You would expect a book about the 2008 financial crisis by three of the key policymakers dealing with it to aim to explain and justify the actions they took throughout the crisis. Firefighting: The financial crisis and its lessons by Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson does this. But it doesn’t come across as being particularly self-serving. Obviously they make their case in arguing that the counterfactual world would have been far worse. But they also acknowledge the role of luck, both good and bad, and do a good job of explaining the political and institutional/legal constraints on policy responses, and the complexity, speed and chaos of the situation.

The book, which is short, with an interesting series of charts at the back, is a chronological account running from the pre-crisis boom and the relaxation of regulatory constraints on the financial sector all the way to the post-crisis… relaxation of regulatory constraints on the financial sector. It ends up being a pretty uncomfortable read as they authors think the whole shebang could happen again, but with less ability for their successors to handle it. “Somehow,” they conclude, “Washington needs to muster the courage to restock the emergency arsenal with the tools that helped end the crisis iof 2008.”

“Somehow.”

This is a US focused account, and is not trying to be a comprehensive account of the crisis. It zooms out to describe the outlines of events and the policy debates and processes. Major steps – such as the Fed becoming lender of last resort for the world through extending repo lines to foreign central banks (rightly empahsized in Adam Tooze’s Crashed as a significant step) get a sentence. There are some insider nuggets. I hadn’t known that Paulson’s brother had a senior role at Lehman just before it went under, for instance. AIG shareholders and executives do not come out of it well. It is surprisingly well-written for a book jointly authored by three senior economic policy guys.

I guess the hoped-for audience is Congress. The overwhelming message I took away is that the firefighting policy response was massively hindered by a fragmented regulatory landscape and a zeitgeist of not getting in the way of the markets. It is hard to know when the situation is moving from normal if large correction to crisis, but when that point is identified the government has to act swiftly and decisively. Many of the mis-steps identified at the time and withhindsight were due to legal limitations on the power of the Fed or Treasury to act.

Leverage has diminished somewhat (not nearly enough) since the crisis. But as we’re back in a context of a “prevailing mood” of light enforcement, and ‘regulatory arbitrage’ by the finance sector to evade what regulation there is, no greater cohesion among financial regulators in the US than before, and a long expansion with lax credit conditions – oh, and less scope for monetary and fiscal relaxation – this is all pretty alarming. Will it take another financial firestorm for the “prevailing mood” to change. Read Firefighting and worry.

Firefighting: The Financial Crisis and its Lessons
Share

Crashed

Adam Tooze’s much-praised history of global political economy from the period just before the Great Financial Crisis to the present – Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World – is indeed a terrific read. It’s a detailed (600+ pages) synoptic account of the political forces that enabled a few dozen banks to entwine the world’s economies in an interlinked web of credit at massive scale, and the political reactions to and consequences of the crisis. One might quibble that some parts of the story are sketchier than others, but then it’s always a good sign to be hankering after more of a book rather than less. Making the parts into a convincing whole is a major achievement.

There are several central points the book emphasises. One is the extent to which the dollar underpinned the whole global financial market construct – and consequently the extent to which the Fed bailed out the whole world after the crisis. Another is busting the myth that the crisis was Anglo-Saxon: the continental European banks were in it up to their eyeballs, with equally ineffective regulatory oversight, such that they too had massive maturity mismatches (like the US banks) and also massive currency mismatches (whereas it was all dollars for the US banks). Tooze is also forensically critical of the lack of a coherent European policy response – both the ECB (especially under Trichet) and the German political establishment come in for particular fire. The policy response to the Greek crisis in particular was abysmal – as was clear at the time. It was always apparent, certainly by 2012, that debt restructuring was essential, and that the bailout was for German and French banks more than for Greece.

The book explores the interplay between the financial crisis and geopolitics, particularly the desire of both China and Russia to ensure the transition – already heralded but revealed by the role of the dollar to be exaggerated – from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Above all, it draws the lines from the possibility of the crisis, and the crisis response, to the current political situation: “Though it is hardly a secret that we inhabit a world dominated by business oligopolies, during the crisis and its aftermath this reality and its implications for the priorities of government stood nakedly exposed. It is an unpalatable and explosive truth that democratic politics on both sides of the Atlantic has choked on.”

Quite so. Here in Brexit Britain, those working in the City have by and large continued to draw their large bonuses, retire early, holiday in exotic places, while post-crisis ‘austerity’ due to the way the crisis torpedoed public finances means many fellow citizens need to use food banks and are seeing local services like social care and libraries starved. Whatever you think about the consequences, the anti-establishment protest vote, in the UK and elsewhere, is entirely understandable. I’ve been completely gobsmacked by how little consequence of the crisis there has been for the financial sector and those working in it. The same went for the rest of Europe, creating “the sense that Europe’s welfare state was being subjected to a relentless program of rollback driven by the demands of bankers and bond markets.”

So too in the US. Tooze describes the election of Trump as the “most disorienting event experienced by the American political class in generations.” It seems likely to me to be even more damaging for the United States than Brexit will be for Britain. Disorienting, but really hardly surprising. It isn’t only the lasting, scarring financial, emotional, health costs the crisis inflicted on millions of Americans (“The grief and distress caused by the crisis were forces to be reckoned with”) but also the way the Fed’s crisis response and the Obama administration programs contributed to polarising American politics. This happened elsewhere, too. Inevitably perhaps, during the firefighting technocratic responses took priority over democratic legitimacy. We see the lasting consequences in the (slightly abstract) disdain for ‘experts’.

Nobody comes out of Tooze’s account particularly well, although some fare less badly than others (eg Bernanke vis a vis Trichet). Some readers will disagree with the economic diagnosis – for there are people who believe the austerity was essential, the fiscal bomb having been detonated by the crisis. There is more sympathy for the Syriza government than many of its interlocutors in Brussels, Berlin and Paris would share. There will be too much detail for some readers – it helps to know what haircuts and CDOs and repos are. Nevertheless, ten years on, Crashed is an essential read to understand the state of the world, and a troubling read, thinking ahead to the next ten years.

Share