• What the Meltdown Tells Us About Markets

    The economic fallout from the global crisis has been immediate, extensive and severe. It has been felt in the shock delivered to our financial institutions, in the balance sheets of our major corporations, in growth rates around the world. More damagingly still, it will take its toll far from the City of London or Wall Street – on the jobs, homes and lives of perhaps billions of ordinary people in all parts of the globe.

    Among the many casualties, and in one of the most important, has been the belief- virtually unchallenged for thirty years – that we had, on the basis of the market’s infallibility, solved the problem of how to run the economy successfully. That conviction has surely been shaken to its core. The simple confidence that the market could always be relied on to deliver the best outcomes can no longer stand in the face of the meltdown produced by market forces that were allowed to run riot. The widely accepted assertion that markets, left to themselves, are self-correcting cannot survive the recession.

    We can now see what had once been known but had been lost sight of – that when markets operate without any restraint they will inevitably lead to excess and eventually to self-destruction. Even Adam Smith had accepted that markets could and would become the means by which dominant market operators were empowered to act against the general interest. And Keynes had warned that this tendency of markets more generally was exacerbated in the case of financial markets.

    This was because, he maintained, of the inherent instability of financial markets and their excessive reliance on opinions and sentiment – not to say guesses and hunches – rather than on real things with well-established values. We have seen exactly what he meant. An unregulated market in financial assets was permitted to create and put a price on new kinds of assets which had no more than a speculative value. As long as those assets – futures, securitised debt, credit default swaps and so on – were accepted at face value, they could be offered as security for debt which could then be used in turn to underpin the creation of a new swathe of assets.

    Those who manipulated these money-making mechanisms must have felt as though they were living the alchemist’s dream. Those who watched from the sidelines – including our political leaders who might ordinarily have recognised their responsibility to provide some safeguards – could only marvel, lost in admiration and envy, dazzled by the riches being generated. And as long as the asset values kept growing, the fact that they were underpinned in real terms only by debt mattered little. It seemed to be a fail-safe operation; no great skill was required, and the mechanisms and processes – novel and untried as they were – were apparently supported and validated by complex mathematical models. Even substantial operational errors, such as the gross over-valuation of assets, could be quickly washed away by the rising tide of asset values right across the waterfront. Even the unskilled could make fortunes – to say nothing of the opportunities offered to fraudsters on an unprecedented scale.

    But it needed only a scintilla of doubt to creep in about the value of these new assets for the whole ramshackle structure to come tumbling down. When the confidence bubble burst, assets lost their value, but debt did not. The result was – as we have seen – the collapse of the whole financial infrastructure of the world’s major advanced economies.

    In New Zealand, with our relatively undeveloped financial sector, we have tended to congratulate ourselves on escaping the direct consequences of the financial meltdown. But that was to live in a fool’s paradise. It has not taken long for the financial collapse to have its effect on the real, productive economy, and for the hit taken by our export markets and commodity prices to be added to the impact of the home-grown recession we had entered at the end of 2007.

    Some of the immediate global lessons to be learned from this experience have been applied quickly, albeit belatedly. The new regulatory regime for financial markets and institutions introduced by President Obama is a recognition that we should never again entrust our economic future to unregulated markets. His example will no doubt be followed by other, but by no means all, governments. President Obama at least seems to understand that we cannot correct and prevent egregious errors by handing back control to those who committed them in the first place. Effective regulation is now surely the name of the game.
    But, as governments around the world have – with varying degrees of reluctance or enthusiasm – found themselves taking centre stage, many commentators and practitioners, not least in New Zealand, have jibbed at accepting the longer-term and wider lessons to be learned from the meltdown. They have been keen to see government intervention to correct past errors as merely a case of dangerous times requiring exceptional measures. The central task, they believe, is to right the ship; it should then be allowed to sail on as before. They impatiently await the opportunity to return to what they see as business as usual, so that governments can safely be put back in their boxes. This is, however, to misunderstand what has happened. The current role of government in correcting and counteracting recession is not an unfortunate aberration. The recession has revealed an abiding truth – that the market can deliver its unmatched benefits only if governments are there when needed to make good its deficiencies and act against its excesses.

    The plunge into recession has illustrated beyond peradventure what happens when market operators become so powerful that governments are unable to restrain market excesses. But the response that is now needed to limit and shorten recession delivers a further lesson – that governments must bear a responsibility not only for allowing the recession to develop but also for the measures needed to counteract it. Governments can and must act to correct market failure in ways that the market, left to itself, cannot. Economies are robust things. They would recover sooner or later without intervention. But – as all but the most purblind now recognise – it is the responsibility of governments to hasten the recovery process, and thereby limit the misery that recession inevitably brings about.
    The reason for this is that governments, uniquely, have the ability to counter the inevitable tendency of recessions to feed on themselves. For most actors in the economy, the demands of self-interest mean that, in a recession, they spend less, invest less, cut costs, employ fewer people. Each individual decision taken by companies or businessmen may be – indeed usually is – rational and justified, but the cumulative effect for the economy as a whole is that recession is intensified.There are those who wish to resist this line of argument. They are reluctant for ideological reasons to accept that governments should ever have a special role and responsibility. They argue that governments should act (if at all) as though they were individual people or companies. According to this view, governments in a recession should also cut costs, spend less and lay people off, as though they were just like households or businesses. But if governments behave like everyone else, the economy is condemned to a deeper and harsher recession than needs be. Those holding this view are so blinded by an ideological hostility to the very idea of government as to deny Keynes’ statement of the obvious – that governments have a unique responsibility to act counter-cyclically. Only governments have the capacity and the duty to defy market logic. Only governments have the resources to over-ride what would normally be market-based self-interest and to substitute for it the wider interest in getting the economy as a whole moving again. Only governments can afford to live with long-term indebtedness if that is what is required in the interests of their shareholders – and that means everyone. Our own government has been one of the more reluctant to learn this lesson.Government intervention, whether to underpin the liquidity of the financial sector or to stimulate demand in the real economy, is certainly necessary if recovery is to be hastened, but it is – importantly – more than a singular response to a singular problem. It is a statement of a wider and ever-present relationship between governments and markets. Markets function best – indeed only function properly at all – if government is ready and willing to second-guess and lean against market outcomes. What is required of governments to save and support financial markets in a recession is equally required – in differing ways – if markets across the whole economy are to function properly. There are of course those who would at this point throw up their hands in horror. For them, the debate is about absolutes. The alternative to the unfettered market is state socialism. They do not see that to recognise and correct the deficiencies of the market is the best guarantee that a market economy can sustain itself efficiently and beneficially.

    It is vital to understand that this is a lesson of more than purely economic import. The damage that has been done by the unrestrained market has, after all, been more than merely economic. By the time the crash came, thirty years of unrestrained global markets had done largely unrecognised damage on a much wider scale. Not least, the so-called “free” market had converted the world to a new culture of greed and excess. No reward was too outrageous for those who could claim that it was ordained by the market. The huge fortunes “earned” by successful market operators were regarded – by themselves and by cheerleaders such as The Economist – as a proper reward for their brilliance. Self-aggrandisement was treated as the mainspring of all economic progress. Greed was good. A New Labour government in Britain, we were assured, was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” The values of those who grew rich by exploiting others were held up by the world’s media for admiration and emulation.

    The consequences for both our economy and our system of values were certainly deleterious, but the debit side of the balance sheet is further burdened when we can add in the social outcomes. Across the globe, and especially in those countries (such as New Zealand) where the “free” market and the culture of greed were allowed free rein, there was a rapid widening of the gap between the rich and poor – not surprising given that the billions gouged from the economy by the manipulators of financial markets were not new real resources but were filched from the pockets of the rest of us. The result has been societies that are less integrated and more divided – societies increasingly marked by alienated and disaffected minorities who feel that their interests are quite separate from those of the increasingly triumphant, visible and eulogised “rich and powerful”.

    If we widen our perspective even further, to take account of the threat to the global environment which many believe to be an underlying and developing crisis of even greater dimensions than the global recession, we can again see a prime example of market failure. Global warming, the exhaustion of natural resources, the despoliation of our ecology, the energy crisis, the pollution of water and air, are all consequences of a short-sighted and narrow market-based approach to the interaction of economic activity with the natural world. It is the inevitable outcome of a dogma that says that the bottom line of individual corporations is the only number that matters, and that the shareholders’ interests must necessarily prevail over those of the wider community and humanity as a whole.
    The recession – and government’s response to it – has laid bare and illustrated a further and yet wider truth – that the readiness of government to intervene is the essential condition on which the market can be made compatible with democracy. The whole point of democracy, after all, is that it ensures that the wider and longer-term interest is brought to bear so that the often harsh and unfair outcomes of unfettered market operations are softened and made more acceptable. That is what governments are for. If the market is infallible and must never be challenged, there is no role for democracy. Governments are then merely bit players and democracy merely a sham – a cosmetic trick to provide the illusion that the rich and powerful can be made to account for themselves. We can profit from this recession if we draw from it the important lesson that the legitimacy conferred by the democratic mandate empowers and requires government to ensure that personal and sectional interests must not prevail over the general interest. There can be no return to the fallacy that the “free” or unfettered market establishes a kind of economic democracy that renders democratic politics irrelevant. The recession and the need for a government response to it may be, one hopes, an exception, but the value of the proposition that democracy rules is a constant.Many of the deficiencies of unregulated markets have clearly manifested themselves within the national context but their true theatre of operations has been on a global scale; the triumph of the “free market” has been, after all, a global victory. The global dimension was an important element in ensuring that, for three decades, it could confidently be claimed that “there was no alternative”.Today’s commentators are certainly justified in pointing to the unprecedented size, power and reach of economic forces that now operate on a global scale. But what has really been significant about the drive to globalisation is that it has been invested with a truly ideological fervour. Globalisation has ceased to be just a useful way of describing a number of related but more or less accidental economic developments, and has become, in the minds of many, a deliberate and coordinated project. It is this ideological element that marks out the current development of the global economy. The market fundamentalism that fuels it is ideologically driven and is intolerant of debate or challenge; according to its supporters, the global market is infallible and produces unprecedented and unalloyed benefit.The rise of the global economy has been, in other words, as much a political phenomenon as it is an economic one, and as such it has succeeded in turning upside-down many of the assumptions and attitudes politicians and others have acted upon for centuries. The global economy is, by definition, an economy in which there is little or no intervention by governments or other authorities. If there were such intervention in any part of it, so that the intervention made that part operate differently from the rest, it would cease to be a single market and would instead be a series of differentiated markets in which different rules applied. The global economy therefore operates on the basis of an acceptance by most politicians that intervention is to be eschewed. There is a recognition on the global scale of what at the national level would be described as the monetarist view that governments should limit themselves to establishing conditions of monetary stability and leave the economy to look after itself. These trends are clearly seen in New Zealand – perhaps the most enthusiastic and ideologically-driven participant in the global market, and a leading innovator in the mechanisms of monetarism.The acceptance of this view has required left-of-centre politicians to make an historic reversal of a fundamental position they have taken in what has probably been the central debate of modern politics. For at least 200 years (or, in other words, for as long as we have had what would be recognised in modern terms as an economy), that debate has raged. It is a debate to do with the role of government in relation to the economy, and it has been the central issue that has divided right from left.An early statement of the positions of the protagonists in that debate is to be found as long ago as 1810 in the majority and minority reports of the British Select Committee on the High Price of Gold Bullion. The Select Committee focused on a relatively narrow point – whose responsibility it was to determine the volume and value of the money stock – but the debate reflected much wider issues concerning the responsibilities of government and the extent of its role. While the language may be outdated, the ideas are contemporary. Sadly, the debate itself has virtually been abandoned, most often by those who do not understand that they have given up anything of value.On the one hand has been the view – generally supported by the majority in 1810, who concluded that government should have no discretionary power to adjust the money stock – that governments have very limited capacity to manage the economy. Any pretension to extend that power will not only be self-defeating but also – because of the distorting effect on the proper and unfettered operation of the free market – positively damaging. Governments, according to this view, are not, or at least should not be, actors in the economy in their own right. They should not be, because their motivation will usually be a non-market one, and to use the power of government to intervene for non-market purposes in the marketplace will inevitably distort the market’s proper operation. More importantly, they should not even claim a role as policy-maker in shaping the course of the economy, since it is very unlikely that policy-makers will reach as good judgments as would the unfettered market.Governments should instead limit themselves to those aims that are their proper concern. The defence of the realm, the maintenance of law and order, the underpinning of a system of law and practice that allows commerce and business to operate efficiently – this is the proper role of government. In the field of economics, the role of government is similarly restricted. It is limited to the maintenance of the value of the currency, as an essential part of the landscape in which business can operate efficiently. It matters little what the numerical value of the currency might be, as long as it is stable enough over a sufficient length of time to enable business decisions to be taken with confidence. Government is entitled to use those instruments of monetary policy as are necessary, such as interest rates, to secure the desired stability. Beyond that, however, governments should withdraw. Once monetary stability has been established (and this is essentially a technical operation that can safely be left to officials and is thereby insulated against the vagaries of democratic pressures), the economy can safely be left to operate by itself. This is not a failure of responsibility but a proper recognition of the respective roles of government and business.The alternative view postulates a much greater role for government. According to this view, government is a major player in the economy, both as a direct and significant actor in its own right and as a coordinator of other actors and a maker of policy. This inescapable role means that government should accept, and according to some views seek and welcome, a responsibility for the performance of the economy.That performance is to be measured not according to purely monetary criteria but according to real phenomena such as output, employment and investment. Government should therefore set its sights on achieving targets such as full employment, a reasonable rate of growth in output, and an effective level of services. Stability should be sought not only in terms of monetary conditions but also in matters such as the level of demand. Particularly in the matter of demand management, governments will often aid economic performance by taking a deliberately counter-cyclical stance. The economy will also perform better if the power of government is harnessed to the needs and interests of industry, and if government undertakes those functions – such as the provision of major infrastructure – that cannot easily be carried out by private industry.Historically, the right in politics has on the whole identified with the first view, while the left has endorsed the second. It is hard to exaggerate the significance of the left’s abandonment – over the last three decades – of its historic commitment to the idea that the power of government should be used to promote the general good in favour of an acceptance that the task can safely be entrusted to the “free” market instead.

    This barely remarked reversal has removed from the left any identifiable ground on which to stand. All politics in the end is a response to a fundamental characteristic of social organisation. All societies demonstrate an inevitable tendency for power to concentrate in a few hands. The power may be expressed in physical, economic, social or hierarchical terms – but at its most fundamental it is power to make choices, the freedom to choose, even at the expense of and against the interests of others.

    In any society, those who are stronger, cleverer, or luckier, or who enjoy some other advantage, will inevitably acquire more power than others. They will then, with equal inevitability, use that power to enhance their advantage, accreting to themselves differential privileges which will make them yet more powerful, allowing them to entrench that advantage and defend it against attack, and by doing so to reinforce the disadvantage of others. The response that should be made to that intensifying concentration of power is the central and defining issue of politics – and the key characteristic of the left response has been, traditionally, to resist and counteract it.

    A society in which the market dice are allowed – indeed, must be allowed – to lie where they fall is inevitably one in which power concentrates in fewer and fewer hands. A government supposedly of the left that feels unable to challenge market outcomes can have nothing to say – however it is dressed up, whatever cosmetics are applied – to those who look to it for social justice and a more integrated society.

    How and why did this flip-flop occur? How did these free-market doctrines become so dominant? Why did governments – even those of the left – not ensure that market forces were tempered by a concern for the interests of the majority? The answer lies in a single word – globalisation. It was the development of the global economy which incapacitated governments and which left the field uncontested to market forces.

    The individual steps by which this was achieved need be only briefly rehearsed here. One of the earliest was one that masqueraded as a purely technical change that would help international trade and investment, and that was sold to the ordinary citizen as a welcome reduction in bureaucracy. That change was of course the removal of exchange controls by Reagan and Thatcher so that international capital was free to roam the world in search of the most favourable investment opportunities.

    In one step, the rules of the game had changed hugely. Investors no longer had to comply with the requirements of elected governments. Instead, governments found themselves played off against each other by investors who commanded greater and greater resources as the now global economy was funnelled into fewer and fewer hands.

    Now, it was governments that had to sue for terms, and who would lose out in the competition for investment if they did not comply with the demands of the multinationals. The world’s major corporates could, in effect, set the political agenda in each individual country. The price they demanded for what was seen as essential foreign investment was a menu of measures drawn from the text-books of right-wing ideologues and familiar to any observer of the New Zealand scene. That menu included a “free-market’ (or monetarist) economic policy, low business tax rates, accommodating rules about the repatriation of profits, industrial relations laws that reduced the power of trade unions, health and safety legislation that was not too onerous, a regime that allows the “externalisation” of costs to the environment (or, in other words, the transfer of those costs to the public purse), and labour costs aligned to the lowest international benchmarks.

    The investors, on the other hand, now understood that they could exercise their power quite irresponsibly; it was, after all, governments – not the investors – that had to answer to their electorates. The investors answered to no one but their shareholders. Most costs could be “externalised” or passed on to taxpayers who no longer had a voice. And, as voters began to understand that their governments could no longer protect them, confidence in the democratic process began to weaken.

    It is no accident that, with the rise of the global economy, voter apathy is an endemic problem in the older democracies. Voter turn-out in the leading democracies, and particularly in the United States, is notoriously low, and it is on a downward trend in most countries. Even in a country like New Zealand, where there has traditionally been a commendably high participation rate in general elections, voter interest is declining. In the United Kingdom, while the turn-out in the 2005 general election showed a tiny improvement on the 2001 figure, both results – at just over 60 per cent – were at historically low levels. And the numbers voting in the recent European elections were shamefully low.

    At around the same time, monetarism – the doctrine that managing the economy was a more or less technical exercise in controlling inflation (the only goal, it was said, that mattered) by regulating the price of money – became the accepted wisdom, on the left as well as the right. And, in a development introduced in its modern form in New Zealand, this technical task could safely be entrusted to unaccountable officials – bankers no less – so that, in one simple step, democratic government was excluded from perhaps the central function – the management of the economy – for which it was elected.

    These ground-breaking changes were reinforced by the re-shaping of political structures in the image of international capital. Multi-national investors found it increasingly irksome to have to deal with national governments, each with its own set of requirements, each reflecting the particular interests and priorities of their own voters. They insisted that economies would function more efficiently if those controlling investment capital could deal with authorities, like the European Commission, that matched their own multinational structure and scale – and that were not democratically elected, but were instead multinational bureaucracies whose goals coincided with their own. So powerful was the momentum towards the integration of national economies in the name of greater economic efficiency that no one seemed to notice that the long-term consequence was not only an actual reduction in economic efficiency but also a political loss of a most serious kind – the replacement of democratic governments as the ultimate authority by multinational capital.

    The ability of multinational capital to set the political agenda meant that a doctrine that could never have been directly sold to voters in individual countries – the view that markets are infallible, that they must not be regulated or interfered with in any way, that the interests of shareholders and the bottom line are all that matters, and that governments must step aside while market forces have their way – became the dominant driver of the world economy.

    The concession that it is the market that is the only legitimate and effective determinant of economic activity, and that government has only a limited role to play in holding the ring, is not a matter whose effect is limited to the management of the economy. The implications go much wider. If the left concedes that, on the central question of economic policy, decisions can safely be left – indeed, must be left – to the market, then what case can be made for saying that the market cannot be trusted in important but less central matters such as the delivery of health, housing or education? If the market is infallible or at least unchallengeable on the most important issues, then the rest of the game has also been conceded.

    And if the fundamental question of managing the economy is to be handed over to unelected officials, and thereby removed from the democratic control of voters so that they no longer have the opportunity of expressing a view or choosing an alternative, how could it be argued that it is essential that other, less important, matters should be subjected to democratic control? Are democracy and the responsibilities of government to be limited to the detail and the trivia, while the essential issues are decided by unaccountable experts?

    To accept these propositions, even implicitly, is entirely destructive of any political position that treats democratic control and government responsibility as the central features of a proper system of government. It is because the left has indeed accepted those propositions that it has found itself intellectually bankrupt and lacking in confidence. Very few left politicians have analysed their situation in this way, preferring to persuade themselves that they are merely acknowledging the – largely undefined – inevitable (in matters like central bank control of monetary policy) and pretending that this central concession leaves intact their political positions on other issues.

    The abdication of the left has been more than just a failure of omission. The democratic state that exercises its traditional concern for all of its citizens, and in particular for those who need its help, has not simply ceased to exist; it has been turned against itself. The revolution that has occurred under the influence of the global economy has not meant that the activist state has disappeared; it has merely changed its role and focus, and operates in a different interest.

    Hence, the modern state is increasingly activist in the causes of producing more police and prisons, in treating views at variance with orthodoxy as subversive, in regulating the labour market so as to force people to work for lower wages, in making life difficult for immigrants and other non-conformists, in restructuring the agencies that deliver public services, and in redefining the concept of public service virtually out of existence so as to ensure that private interests can pursue profits across the whole economy. As a consequence of globalisation, the state has been recruited as just one more soldier to the cause. It has become just one more mechanism for ensuring that the prescriptions of global investors are followed faithfully.

    This is not just a matter of the freedom to debate and choose different political systems, remedies and approaches. It is also a real loss of freedom to act and to govern one’s own life. The loss of economic power, accompanied by the closing off of the political escape route and safety valve, means a real loss of freedom for the majority of people. The test of a free society is the degree of freedom enjoyed by the least free. Freedom is not an absolute; it is the degree to which one is free to act and choose in relation to the same power exercised by others. If power is concentrated in fewer hands, so that they have comparatively more power of decision and choice, then by definition others are less free. Those societies that are part of the global economy can therefore be said to be less free than when they decided – however imperfectly – their own affairs and futures.

    It may be questioned, however, as to how far the problem is unwelcome to those who now control and dominate the political debate. Voter apathy might be seen as encouraging evidence that the real political debate is now over – that we have reached the “end of history” and that, for the first time in the modern era, there is no longer any real challenge to the views and interests of the rich and powerful.

    It is no accident that the constant mantra of political leaders like Margaret Thatcher was that ‘there is no alternative’. It is very much in the interests of the purveyors of the new orthodoxy that dissent should not only be discouraged but be convinced that it is pointless and hopeless.

    This victory is all the sweeter because it can be represented as the proper and defensible outcome of the democratic process. The voters are apathetic, so it can be argued, because they no longer have anything of substance to concern themselves with or to contest. Apathy is, in fact, contentment and an endorsement of the dominant orthodoxy. All the processes and trappings of democracy are, after all, in place. The opportunities are there for the expression of different or contrary views. If they are not taken up, surely that is evidence that those views no longer have traction?

    This is the final irony. When the democratic process has been hollowed out so that there is little of substance left, the mere – perhaps only apparent – existence of that process can be used to silence the critics. A victory won by force or overtly in the face of democratic process would be hard to justify or defend. But a victory that appears to have been secured in accordance with democratic process can not only be justified but celebrated.
    So, what is now to be done? As President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel remarked, a good crisis should never be wasted. The fact that thirty years of global “free-market” economics have not only culminated in recessionary crisis but have raised a wide range of yet more fundamental questions about governments and markets provides us with an opportunity that must be taken.It is an opportunity that arises in two arenas – the national and international. This is not the place to set out a complete agenda but we can at least sketch out the approaches that will be needed if we are to learn and apply the lessons of the past thirty years. On the national level, it is surely now clear that it is governments, not banks, that underpin our financial systems and our currencies; and if that is so, should we not recognise that banking and the creation of money and credit are public functions for which public accountability should be demanded? And should not the management of the economy be the first function of democratically accountable government and not sub-contracted out to unaccountable bankers and officials?In the light of undeniable statistical evidence of widening inequality and fractured societies, should we not consign to the dustbin of history the discredited “trickle-down” theory of wealth creation, and acknowledge that a fair distribution of wealth will not happen by itself but must be a deliberate matter of government responsibility? And is it not clear that markets are valuable servants but dangerous masters, and that supervision and monitoring in the public interest are needed if goals like full employment, responsive and effective public services, and social cohesion are to be achieved?On the international scale, is it not clear that we need new forms of international cooperation to restrain the irresponsible and excessive flows of “hot” money and the volatility of exchange rates, and to provide better prudential supervision of international lending and greater responsibility of international investors to the communities in which they invest? And should we not apply the lessons of the recession to issues beyond the immediately economic, so that we do not leave to the short-sighted and the self-interested the issues of ecology and the environment that will decide our future as a species? Why should New Zealand not take the lead in promoting this new international agenda?This most recent recession is significantly different from its predecessors, in that we now have a chance to understand better what has caused it. It provides, as a result, a potentially critical turning-point in our relationship with our planet. We can now perceive, albeit imperfectly, where irresponsibility and lack of foresight could lead us. There will be many who will want to ignore the warning signs. It is vital that there are also many who do not.
    Bryan Gould

    28 August 2009

    This article appeared in the August edition of Watchdog, the journal of CAFCA (the Campaign Against the Foreign Control of Aotearoa)

  • Who Controls The Banks?

    The recession may not yet have reached its mid-way point, but already the lessons that seemed so stark in the immediate aftermath of the financial meltdown are receding fast. The way out of recession is apparently being directed by traffic lights and signposts controlled by worryingly familiar faces.

    Foremost amongst these phoenix-like revivals are the banks. Just months after they were rightly seen as basket cases – their irresponsibility and greed the primary causes of the recession and their very survival requiring billions of pounds of handouts from the hard-pressed taxpayer – they are back in the box seat, not only apparently immune from reform or regulation, but again paying out huge bonuses, and their unchanged role accepted as essential to economic recovery.

    According to their own pronouncements, the least surprised at any of this are the banks themselves. Are their affairs not directed by the most brilliant operators who can only be attracted by huge salaries, bonuses, fees and commissions? Is our economic future not totally dependent on their freedom to make as much money as they can for themselves and their shareholders? Is the recession not itself proof that the banking function is not only too important to be allowed to fail but is in the end best left to those who know what they are doing?

    Some of these claims can be summarily dismissed as laughable examples of special pleading. A plumber or bus driver who proved himself so incompetent at what he was employed to do that he flooded the house or crashed the bus could not claim that he was uniquely qualified for a supremely demanding occupation, but would be out of a job. Bankers who destroy the financial system should be similarly judged.

    And our supposed dependence on the City’s earnings is – far from being a reason for re-instating the status quo ante – a striking warning against allowing this dangerous situation to arise again. Among the many lessons we should not forget is that City earnings not only go to a tiny fraction of society but require support from an economic policy which – by giving priority to those who manipulate existing wealth over those who invest in and create new wealth – is guaranteed to destroy other kinds of economic activity, particularly in the real, as opposed to financial, economy. Those who have lost jobs in manufacturing, for example, have literally paid for the bonuses “earned” by City fat cats.

    Perhaps the most surprising of the claims made is that the banking function is of central importance to the whole economy but should at the same time remain in the hands of a private oligopoly – and an oligopoly that is entitled to put its own interests ahead of the general interest. Even more surprisingly, after all that we have recently experienced, this argument seems to have been accepted without demur by the government that spent our billions on rescuing the banks.

    It has always been a mystery that the banking function – which in macro-economic terms means essentially the creation of credit and therefore of money – should have been allowed to develop in private hands. The banks have avoided scrutiny on this issue, first by (improbably) denying that they create money, secondly by arguing that the function is in any case so important to the economy that it would be too dangerous to disturb it and finally by maintaining that only they have the expertise to discharge the function anyway – and all this at a time when the prevailing orthodoxy is that the most important factor in economic management is the rate of growth in the money supply, so that the banks’ central role in the creation of credit – the most important single factor in the excessive growth in the money supply – has an additional and unmistakeable macro-economic impact.

    What the recession has demonstrated is that none of these defences can stand. The first stage of the financial crisis was largely one of liquidity and arose because the banks’ (supposedly non-existent) ability to create credit was brought to a halt. This required government intervention on a massive scale – so much for the argument that the bankers’ role should not be disturbed – and this in turn showed that it was not the bankers’ expertise (which was manifestly in very short supply) but government resources that underpinned the banking function.

    So, if the public has an intense interest in the proper discharge of the banking function, and the last-resort guarantor is the public purse from which billions of our money have been spent, why are we content to allow the private oligopoly to proceed on its merry way and to decide in their own interests issues that matter to all of us and that should be placed under democratic control? Why would we not consider some form of public ownership (we have, after all, paid many times over for banks that were virtually worthless) or, at the very least, a degree of effective regulation to ensure that the public interest was protected and that the banking function served that interest rather than private greed?

    The prize is, after all, a banking system that serves the wider economy and not just itself. Our failure (or refusal) to see this shows just how deeply ingrained is our frame of reference, and how much at risk we remain from a repetition of past errors.

    Bryan Gould

    10 August 2009

  • Gordon Is Right This Time

    William Keegan and Will Hutton do not, I suppose, consult each other as they write their respective pieces for The Observer. If their contributions in this week’s paper are read together, however, they make for a compelling combined message, and one that Gordon Brown and his government would do well to learn and apply.

    First, William Keegan’s piece laments (as I do) the opinion polls that reveal the number of voters who believe that, if they are having to tighten their belts, then the government should do likewise. I suppose it is understandable that people should feel, at a visceral level, that the government has got the country into the mess, and should therefore share in the pain that ordinary citizens are suffering. It is nevertheless disappointing that a gut reaction should take such precedence over economic literacy and common sense. It is even more disappointing, though perhaps more to be expected, that these sentiments should be encouraged by those who should know better.

    The truth is that government must bear a responsibility not only for allowing the recession to develop but also for the measures needed to counteract it. Governments can and must act to correct market failure in ways that the market, left to itself, cannot. Economies are robust things. They would recover sooner or later without intervention. But – as all but the most purblind now recognise – it is the responsibility of governments to hasten the recovery process, and thereby limit the misery that recession inevitably brings about.
    The reason for this is that governments, uniquely, have the ability to counter the inevitable tendency of recessions to feed on themselves. For most actors in the economy, the demands of self-interest mean that, in a recession, they spend less, invest less, cut costs, employ fewer people. Each individual decision taken by companies or businessmen may be – indeed usually is – rational and justified, but the cumulative effect for the economy as a whole is that recession is intensified.
    There are those who wish to resist this line of argument. They are so hostile to the very idea of government that they are reluctant to accept that governments should ever have a special role and responsibility. They argue that governments should act (if at all) as though they were individual people or companies. According to this view, governments in a recession should also cut costs, spend less and lay people off, as though they were just like households or businesses. But, given – whether they like it or not – their importance to the level of economic activity, if governments behave like everyone else, the economy is condemned to a deeper and harsher recession than needs be. As Keynes pointed out, only governments have the capacity and the duty to defy market logic. Only governments have the resources to over-ride what would normally be market-based self-interest and to substitute for it the wider interest in getting the economy as a whole moving again. Only governments can afford to live with and fund long-term indebtedness if that is what is required to protect the interests of their shareholders – and that means everyone. You don’t need to be a Keynesian to accept this; all you need is common sense.
    At this point, enter Will Hutton. He makes the point that – perhaps belatedly – Gordon Brown and his government have recognised that common sense requires them to use the power of government to fight the recession. As a result, the recession – bad as it is and will yet be – will be shallower and shorter than it would otherwise have been.

    In doing this, they have opened up a clear and significant gap between their approach and that of the Tory opposition. As far as we can tell, the Tories would have done nothing, other than wring their hands at the inevitable and growing size of the government deficit – and ironically, that very inactivity is the one thing guaranteed to make the deficit bigger. A longer and deeper recession would mean yet more damage to the government’s finances; a less severe recession, counteracted by judicious government spending, would by contrast bring the deficit under control and limit its size.

    Yet, as Will Hutton points out, Gordon Brown gets no credit for his courageous (and surely correct) stand on the responsibilities of government in a recession. It is his opponents who, for reasons of opportunism, prejudice and perhaps sheer ignorance, continue to make the running.

    He is not, of course, alone. The right, in the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, continue to exploit public sentiment in order to undermine confidence in the power of government. But surely, for Gordon Brown as for other more enlightened leaders, this is stronger ground on which to fight than the disastrous argument about which party will cut more severely.

    I remember a young Gordon Brown who, with an eye for a phrase that was hardly new but nevertheless full of meaning, proclaimed that “good government matters”. That has never been more true than at the recession-ravaged present. Why not say so – again and again and again?

    Bryan Gould

    27 July 2009.
    This article was published in the online Guardian on 27 July.

  • Too Late for Complacency

    Reality is beginning to catch up with complacency. We have consistently underestimated the severity of the recession; our forecasts have constantly had to be adjusted to take account of the ever-worsening outlook, but they still lag behind the true dimensions of the downturn.

    A sign of the times is the fall in GDP for the first quarter of the year. What this figure tells us is, that despite the optimism expressed by the Treasury and others in the months before Christmas, the recession is well into its second year and is still building momentum. No one now believes that the second quarter of 2009 will show any reversal of the trend, and that means that we are now about to enter our seventh quarter of recession, with little or no relief in sight.

    Why have our forecasts so consistently understated what has been happening, with the result that our policy response has been dangerously inadequate? The answer is a complex one.

    The first part of the answer lies in the fact that we are experiencing a different recession from the one that has afflicted most of the rest of the world. Our recession has come in three phases; the first began at the end of 2007 with our own home-grown recession, when our domestic economic policies hit the buffers and the constant use of ever-higher interest rates and an over-valued exchange rate in a failing attempt to control inflation had done enormous damage to our wealth-creating sector.

    Long before the rest of the world, we had already become accustomed to living with recession. We were therefore less panicked by the onset of the second – global – phase of recession, in the third quarter of 2008, when the world’s financial institutions were in free fall. We felt that we were already grappling with the problems, and we were in any case less affected – in the short term at least – by financial failures than most other countries. There was a sense of “phoney war”; people began to believe that the recession was not so bad after all.

    But what they had not reckoned with was the third and most dangerous phase of recession – the price paid by our small, vulnerable, open economy when the financial crisis impacted the real (and not just the financial) economy around the world. What we are now discovering is that as growth turns negative, unemployment rises, credit becomes more difficult and expensive, and investment plummets on a global scale, there are very nasty consequences for our export markets and for the prices we are paid for our goods – and that is to say nothing of the increased cost of the international credit on which, in our indebted state, we are so greatly dependent.

    The worst of our recession, in other words, is yet to come; as I warned in these pages in December “we are still looking to the early end of a recession that has barely begun.” We are likely to be first in to the recession, but last out. Our share of the pain from the global downturn will follow – at the end of the causal chain – as a consequence of the pain felt by others, but we are still behaving as though the measures thought adequate to deal with the first (home-grown) phase of recession will carry us through. Part of the reason for this, sadly, seems to be a continuing predilection for relying on monetary policy, and an ideological reluctance to accept the value of government intervention.

    Our so-called “stimulus” package has been piecemeal and small-scale – scoped to deal with recession in early 2008 but inadequate to respond to what is now in store. And, it has been less effective than it might have been because it has been misdirected, taking the form of tax cuts for the well-off (who may or may not spend them) rather than direct investment in economic activity and in lifting demand.

    We still seem to pay inordinate attention to the OCR, but that bolt has largely been shot. Monetary policy, once interest rates have been cut to low figures, is largely ineffectual to stimulate the economy. The Governor of the Reserve Bank’s insistence on keeping further minor cuts up his sleeve does have one consequence however; it is read by the foreign exchange markets as an invitation to pile in to the New Zealand dollar, so that a once again over-valued currency will ensure that any nascent recovery will be still-born. And, when we eventually do turn the corner, the odds are that we will be back on the same debt-fuelled treadmill that ran us into the buffers in the first place.

    There will be some developments to help us – net migration figures and a stabilising housing market perhaps – but the most important factor depressing our immediate economic future is rising unemployment. We have only now started to see the full potential of job losses. The actuality and the fear of unemployment is only just getting under way. If we don’t want to see the recession deepen into 2010, we should be acting now.

    Bryan Gould

    28 June 2009

  • New Labour Betrays Its Supporters

    As the Labour Party steels itself for electoral meltdown, it may seem ironic – after the global-sized catastrophes of the Iraq invasion and the worldwide recession – that it is the descent into venality at home that will count most with the voters. But to underestimate the importance of the expenses scandal would be a mistake.

    The voters understand intuitively that, having presided over and applauded a society in which greed and the pursuit of self-interest have been elevated into positive virtues, New Labour’s own pursuit of power at any cost has produced its inevitable outcomes. The expenses debacle has been much more than a series of individual peccadilloes and defalcations; it has been the expression of a political culture that has created a gulf between what is seen as acceptable and necessary in the political world and the standards of decent behaviour expected of the rest of us. The individual manifestations of that culture may seem grubbily petty and venal, but the embarrassed squirming among the political class as the detail has been exposed is testimony to how out of touch our leaders had become and how serious that is for the whole political process.

    This matters more to Labour than to others. The Tories have never bothered to hide their view that power is to be sought so that it can be used to defend vested interests. The Liberals seem to believe that power is best exercised by “nice” people. Only Labour, traditionally, has pursued power with the avowed purpose of correcting the unfairness and inefficiency of allowing the dice to lie where they fall and of creating a better society.

    It is for that reason that the demise of Labour – under its “New Labour” leadership – is a matter not just for pain and anger at the loss of the opportunity presented by the 1997 election victory, and contempt for those who led us down this cul-de-sac into disreputability. It is also a major blow to our whole political structure which, in the absence of a substantial presence from the democratic left, will be less effective at creating a healthy society and a strong economy than it should be.

    The special importance of the left lies not just in the fact that it is, or at least has been, the major source of progressive ideas, that it has provided the most reliable stimulus of new thinking, that it has generated the most creative dynamic for reform – though all of that is true. Its true value is that it underpins the whole case for democracy and for the power of good government.

    Among the many lessons we should draw from the global recession is that this is what happens if government fails in its purpose. Ever since democracy was ushered in, there has been no shortage of powerful forces dedicated to undermining it. This is for the obvious reason that the whole point of democracy is to offset the power of the powerful with the political strength of the people. In the absence of that political power, without bringing to bear the legitimacy of the democratic mandate through an elected government, there is no force capable of resisting the might of the economically or socially or militarily powerful.

    The failure of government to lean against the economically powerful over the last three decades led directly to the unregulated excesses that created a market-driven recession. And, even as we grapple with the measures needed to recover from recession, the same central question is starkly posed – what is the proper role of government?

    The key feature of a recession is that every individual, every business, will have a cast-iron and rational reason for battening down the hatches. Only government has the capability and responsibility to act in a contra-cyclical way, against market logic, and to pull us out of recession faster than would otherwise happen, by spending and investing at a time when no one else will.

    What this tells us is that it is always the role of government – when necessary – to represent the wider interest against powerful forces, and to act in a way that would be irrational or impossible for the private individual, however powerful. It is only the left that has in the past carried into government this central concept of what the true purpose of democratic government really is.

    If this week’s elections do indeed show how thoroughly New Labour has debased and betrayed the legacy with which it was entrusted, it will not just be Labour’s party warriors who are relegated and enfeebled. The vast majority of the British people – irrespective of their party allegiances or lack of them – will have been significantly disenfranchised. The blow struck by the expenses scandal against faith in the democratic process will claim more casualties than just a few MPs. The real losers from the demise of the Labour Party will be millions of ordinary people who – perhaps without knowing it – will have lost their best defence against the depredations of the powerful.

    Bryan Gould

    2 June 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 2 June