Webs of money

A 2016 book that was an eye-opener for me was Brooke Harrington’s Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent. A sociologist, she had trained as a private client wealth manager and worked among/for the global elite – the Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs).  The rich really are different…. and among her striking findings was their deep-seated belief they have that the money is theirs, or their family’s, and governments truly have no legitimate right to take any of it away from them in taxes.

Spiderweb Capitalism: How Global Elites Exploit Frontier Markets by Kimberly Kay Hoang is a sort of companion or follow-up volume. She is also a sociologist, but in this case conducted academic research as a clear outsider. Her focus is also different: her interest is in the ploys the UHNWIs and their delegated High Net Worth Individuals (professional lawyers and PRs etc who act for them, making pretty vast amounts of money themselves but bearing some legal risk) devise to distance themselves from “playing in the gray” – that is on the borders of legality or beyond – in emerging markets Vietnam and Myanmar. These ploys generally involve complex structures with holding companies in the Caymans, Samoa, British Virgin Islands etc, multiple Special Purpose Vehicles to make investments, professional advisers in Hong Kong or Singapore, and local fixers.

More academic (ie. slightly clunky) in style than the earlier Harrington book, it is nevertheless a fascinating read, reflecting five years of interviewing the different categories of people involved in these global money flows, and following some around on their extensive travels. Again, avoiding – or evading – tax is a regular theme. The book documents the various mechanisms involved, from the on-the-ground bribery (including attempts at mutually assured destruction deterrence such as sharing compromising social events with bribed officials) to the setting up of bank accounts and pitching investments to UHNWIs in the US. The scope of the fieldwork involved is impressive.

What to do about the spider’s web of global money flows? That’s less clear. Each individual (whether dominant or subordinate spider) is one element in a system that ultimately traps all. Although an optimistic note I took from the book is that US legislation does seem to be inhibiting some of the practices documented. In any case, it’s super-valuable to have htis kind of rigorous evidence about how the web operates, and how its inhabitants are motivated and incentivised. This is a very impressive book.

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Discord and David Hume

October has been whizzing past, with travel to conferences (hooray), the start of term, and a new grandson. I’ve been reading a lot of non-economics books on trains and planes, including Ai Weiwei’s compelling memoir 1000 Days of Joys and Sorrows, Red Dust by Ma Jian, and also a chunky hardback, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, Nights of Plague.

Another chunky hardback has been Paul Tucker’s latest, wide-ranging and erudite, book, Global Discord: Values and Power in a Fractured World Order. I must admit it took me some time to get into it, perhaps due to my general October distraction, but I’m with the programme: his aim is to bring a mash-up of David Hume and Bernard Williams to the current fraught state of geopolitics and global crises. The book uses the Humean dual of incentives and norms to think about international economic institutions in place of more traditional International Relations perspectives (realism, constructivism…). As long-time readers of this blog will know, I’m a big Hume fan (although confess to not having read Bernard WIlliams since my student days).

The motivating question is whether a legitimate international order can exist in a world transitioning out of the European/Atlantic order and facing complex existential challenges. Specifically, what international economic arrangements can co-exist with current geopolitics and shifts in power? The book starts with a historical overview of how the current arrangements and structures developed and why the growing power of China has challenged them. The second section looks at what form institutions for international co-operation can take and when/whether they can be stable and self-enforcing – Humean norms and conventions as a lens on international relations feature strongly here. Part three focuses on current tensions within and between China and the US – neither seeming particularly stable internally at the moment, never mind in terms of their mutual relations.

Part four is really the heart of the book: what does the Hume-Williams framework – what will be stable and self-enforcing in its norms, and what will be normatively right – imply for how democracies can legitimately delegate to international organisations, and how such organisations can legitimately constrain individual countries and governments? What are the principles for participation and delegation? How can practical problem solving encourage and sustain norms of behaviour (Hume)? What is its moral basis and hence legitimacy particularly in our still liberal(ish) democracies (Williams)?

The final part moves on to how to apply the framework in the current context, in terms of different more and less opti/pessi-mistic scenarios:lingering status quo, superpower struggle,  new Cold War, reshaped world order. Chapters consider different organisations – the IMF, WTO, BIS etc – getting in to how these might evolve. And the book ends with a vote for cautious optimism. (I find it hard to share that view as Brexit continues to destroy British democracy and prosperity, courtesy of the Conservative Party, I must say.)

The breadth of the research (and length of bibliography) across different disciplines is impressive. The book isn’t a light read, but worth while – and there are actually plenty of online events where Paul Tucker himself will give a better summary than I can here. For any day’s news headlines make it clear there could hardly be a more important set of questions to be resolved.

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Exporting US capitalism

When I was in the early days of my previous journalism career, writing for the Investors Chronicle, and also pregnant with child number 1, I was taken by a stockbroker (I think it was Smith New Court, bought by Merrill Lynch in 1995) on an investors’ tour of Budapest and its environs. It was early 1990, and the ‘shock therapy’ privatisation of companies in the formerly communist countries was under way. One visit vivid in my memory was the day trip to Ganz Electric on the outskirts of Budapest, where it seemed like iron ore went in at one end and everything from tractors and trains to light bulbs emerged at the other. But the toilet paper for the office suite was locked up in a cupboard to which only the Director’s formidable secretary had a key.

Ethan Kapstein’s Exporting Capitalism: Private Enterprise and US Foreign Policy brought this all back to me because one of the chapters covers that post-perestroika era. (Indeed, my previous job had involved interpreting perestroika for western European clients of an economic forecasting company and I, like many others, was coming to realise that the figures for material output of the Soviet bloc had led us to greatly over-state the prior economic growth of those countries.) Kapstein, now a Prof at Arizona State and a Director of a conflict studies center at Princeton, had previously been a banker and worked for the US Government and the OECD. He therefore had a seat on various front lines in variously troubled economies. This experience illuminates the book’s analysis. I found it a very interesting read.

The book is a history of the ups and downs of the US’s consistent focus on relying on private investment, particularly FDI, as a vector for economic development and a handmaiden to US foreign policy goals – above all, limiting the spread of Communism to developing countries. Starting with postwar Taiwan, the US has insisted on the central role of private enterprise. One explanation is ideological, the deep-seated US reverence for business and the market. Another is simple pragmatism: official aid will never be sufficient to meet the scale of the investment need in low or middle income countries. A third is an implicit theory of change: that multinational FDI builds local supply chains and has multiplier effects, setting down long-term roots for sustained development, and inoculating local people against socialist ideas and undesirable (from the American perspective) other overseas influence.

Of course, the record has been mixed, to say the least, even among the post-Communist countries. The multinationals required to do the investing have their own aims, which are not obviously aligned with long-term national development needs. Some – such as ITT in overthrowing Allende in Chile – played deeply troubling roles. With hindsight, shock therapy was too much shock and not enough therapy – the idea being to create quickly enough people with enough of a stake in the market to prevent a reversal to communism. But heterogeneous local institutional and political conditions turned out to make a big difference to outcomes.

The historical chapters in this book are fascinating. I was stopped short in one of the final chapters by the reflection that times are changing (indeed) and the US is now converging on China’s state capitalism. This seems a bizarre over-interpretation of the shift – more complex than often painted – away from globalisation. And anyway, as this chapter observes, official aid is still absolutely dwarfed by investment need. The private sector will fill the gap, or the investment won’t happen. It would be good to get away from the old chestnut that state and market are opposites, when they succeed or fail together, and for the same reasons. The history of FDI underlines the need for contextual nuance. Still, a very interesting and enjoyable read, gaining much from the author’s personal practical experience.

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Post-neoliberalism?

The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era by my Cambridge colleague Gary Gerstle has quite rightly been highly praised. It covers a whole century, starting with the New Deal and post-world war 2 era to preface the bulk of the book, its characterisation of the neoliberal turn from the start of the 1980s. It ends with Trump and the turn away – so Gary argues – from neoliberalism to something as yet undefined. Neoliberalism is described as a commitment to free trade and financial flows, to free movement of people and openness to others, and to deregulation and the expanded scope of markets. Interestingly, he frames the point about the expansion of the market domain in terms of characterising people as consumers, instead of workers, and argues that Ralph Nader played a key role in this regard through his influence on Jimmy Carter, as the old order started to give way to the new.

The book gives a twin-tracked account of what drives these transitions from one era to another. One set of drivers consists of events – economic crisis in particular, so the 1970s commodity shocks at the start and the GFC at the end. More surprising is the role attributed to the Soviet Union: the 1917 Revolution as a stimulus for New Deal politics; Cold War contestation paving the way for business and financial interests to reach a modus vivendi with organised labour through the 1960s in order to avert any threat of domestic socialism; and consequently the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 as a destabilising force because it took the brakes off corporate and financial self-restraint.

Another interesting aspect of the argument is the linking of administrations generally seen as being opposed to each others’ policies – the difference between Republican and Democrat being less decisive than that between Eisenhower and Reagan or Kennedy and Clinton. As Gary puts it, the feature of a ‘political order’ is that the opponents of the government also buy into it; it becomes the water in which almost everyone swims.

The FT review described the book as an instant classic. There are lots of talks and pods online for anybody who wants a taster. As the subtitle says, it’s US-focused; an analysis of how the neoliberal order got exported would be interesting. I highly recommend it – I read it in just a couple of days of travel. And it set me thinking about what the next political order might turn out to be…..

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Co-operation vs sovereignty in an unequal world order

Global governance is understandably something of a preoccupation as economic globalisation seems to be in retreat at the same time that the scale and intensity of global challenges – climate change, the AI race, actual or simmering conflict, organised crime – is increasing. The Bretton Woods institutions – IMF and World Bank – established in the wake of World War Two remain important and powerful, and will have a lot on their plates in the next year or two, including the possibility of a new debt crisis alongside a surge in poverty and hunger. This context raises two questions. One is what is their guiding philosophy in terms of economic analysis and policy recommendations going to be now the old Washington Consensus version of conditionality has been more or less ditched? The other is whether they can help address the new kinds of challenges, or whether instead new institutions are needed?

They were forged out of a crisis of course, but in The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire and the Birth of Global Economic Governance Jamie Martin traces their forbears in the international economic institutions established near the beginning of the 20th century. The key issue he highlights is on the one hand the delicate balance between mutually beneficial co-ordination and voluntary loss of sovereignty among peer countries, and on the other the exercise of power by some countries over others (Imperial powers over colonies or later the US over its debtors) at the expense of the latters’ sovereignty. Co-ordination and co-operation require ceding some decision-making ground but when there is a parity of power this expands the opportunities or benefits each party experiences. However, the international institutions also embed inequalities of power – symbolised by the Asian crisis image of an IMF bureaucrat (Michel Camdessus) leaning over a local politician (Indonesia’s President Suharto) signing up to loan conditions.

Some technocratic institutions governing for example international post or shipping have lasted throughought the century plus, while the BIS (established in 1929/30) is an interesting example of an organisation with a broader mandate yet lasting throughout the 20th century and beyond, despite its missteps during the 1939-45 conflict. Other pre-WW2 international bodies such as the Economic and Financial Section of the League of Nations fell with the implosion of the international order at the outbreak of war. The book argues that the context of post WW1 reparations, the tensions in the European empires, the growth of US economic power and the pressures of the gold standard and the tariff wars of the 1930s all contributed to their downfall. International co-ordination was both essential and impossible.

The lesson for the 21st century, it concludes, is that today’s context of shifting economic power and economic crisis pose similar challenges for the Bretton Woods institutions. The history of earlier institutions suggests that it is fundamentally hard to resolve the core dilemma of a need for co-operation with the desire for sovereignty in a world of unequal power: “Tweaks to existing international institutions, like the IMF and World Bank, may be insufficient to produce a more stable reconciliation of global governance and democratic politics.” But what form should new institutions take? This very interesting book leaves the question hanging.

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