The Vanishing Middle Class

October 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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News today that the US unemployment rate dropped in September 2012 to 7.8 percent from 8.1 percent in August and is now at the lowest level since President Barack Obama took office will undoubtedly boost his campaign for re-election, two days after his dismal performance in the first debate with his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. If this is good news for the president, the situation is less rosy than it appears. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers stuck in part-time jobs in September stood at 8.5 million, an increase of 581 million from the previous month and double the level it was in September 2007. Even worse, the number of full-time workers in the US  has declined by 5.9 million since September 2007 while the number of part-time workers has increased by 2.6 million.

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In fact, if the number of part-timers looking for full-time work, the U6 unemployment rate, is considered, it is unchanged

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And as Moira Herbst writes in the Guardian,

 It’s distressing to think that after 20th-century labor struggles won the battle for the 40-hour work week, the 21st-century struggle is a fight for enough working hours to make a living wage.

In another report in today’s New York Times, the average number of employees per new firm declined from 7.7 persons in 1999 to 4.7 in 2011. For almost the last half-century, new companies have accounted for the bulk of jobs created in the United States, In fact, without new start up companies, the United States would have seen a growth in jobs for only 7 years since 1977! The numbers of new jobs created by new companies was the greatest in 1999 as a result of the dot com boom and by 2011, it had declined by some 46 percent.

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One major result of the decline of full-time employment and the rise of part-time employment is that part-timers are denied virtually all benefits. Without healthcare and other benefits, workers are increasingly compelled to rely on Medicaid and emergency room visits for illnesses and as Herbst noted, this leads to a shift in costs from employers to tax payers. This is of course covered up by both political parties in the United States: the Democrats tout the new decline in unemployment figures but never mention that 6.9 million people were working multiple jobs in the US in September. The Republicans stress cutting taxes–making health care even less accessible to the poor.

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Both focus on a middle-class that is rapidly shrinking and not on the increasing numbers of people below the middle class. For them, neither candidate has anything to offer–and therein lies the shame! In today’s politics, the concerns of the masses are silent–the decline of manufacturing not only hollowed out industries but by also kneecapping labor, it has made both major political parties alike–both shifting further and further to the right, and both having nothing to offer to the vast majority of the population.

Europe: The Democratic Deficit

April 12, 2012 at 10:45 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Free Trade, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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“A typical sight during the pre-election protests,” in Spain last year Katherine Ainger wrote in the Guardian, “was a respectable middle-aged man with a cigarette in one hand and a marker pen in the other going from municipal bin to municipal bin writing ‘Vote here’ on the lids.” A few months later, at the other end of the Eurozone, in return for loans from the European Union, leaders of all three major political parties in Greece were required to sign pledges not to rescind a savage austerity program cutting more than 3.3 billion euros from the budget, rendering these pledges concrete and irreversible regardless of the outcome of the general election in April 2012. If the ‘typical sight’ during last year’s Spanish elections suggested that all political parties are the same, the demand that the EU wrested from the Greek politicians proved that their general election, announced for May 6, was rendered meaningless as the victors could not implement a new program. Elections become meaningless.

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Paradoxically, just as French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron after a brief hesitation, abandoned their client dictators in North Africa–even violently  overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in Libya and chafing at the bit to do the same to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria–Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel abandoned all pretense of supporting democracy when they forced then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou to cancel a referendum he had proposed on the harsh terms imposed by the European Union for a bailout to Athens in November 2011. Threatening to expel Greece from the Eurozone, they effectively forced Papandreou to resign two days later and for him to be replaced by a national unity government headed by a former Vice President of the European Central Bank, Lucas Papademos.

Reporting in the Guardian, Helena Smith wrote:

For a country not only burdened by debt but closer to default than ever before, his appointment at the helm of a transitional government in Athens would be widely welcomed. An avuncular figure, Papademos is well respected in the European Union. In the corridors of power in Paris and Berlin, the capitals that count in deciding Greece’s fate, he is seen as a safe pair of hands, more capable than most at navigating the crisis-hit nation away from the shores of economic Armageddon.

Yet, this ‘safe pair of hands’ was the very one who, as president of the Greek Central Bank cooked the books so that Greece could enter the monetary union–and he was helped in this creative accounting by the European division of the Goldman Sachs—which is to be headed soon by the current president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi—for a fee of $300 million. Northern European governments only feign ignorance of their Mediterranean neighbors’ debts and subsidies, as Wolfgang Streeck notes, because their surveillance agencies could not “have failed to notice how countries like Greece saturated themselves with cheap credit after their accession to the Eurozone.” In fact, as government subsidies slowed down in conditions of budget consolidation, it was private flows that made up the difference–and it profited the export industries of the north because of the improved purchasing power among the Mediterranean countries—the prosperity of the north was predicated on the indebtedness of the south! Despite the fact that Eurostat had disclosed in 2004 that billions of euros had been shifted off public records in Greece, Athens continued to enjoy triple-A ratings.

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Even the money being borrowed by Greece may have been the money of wealthy Greeks sent abroad as the Greek upper classes were practically tax-exempt as Stathis Kouvelakis has pointed out. When PASOK took office in 1981, it began to institute a social welfare system but did not seek to enlarge the tax base and even the middle class and the moderately wealthy remained exempt. In a sense then it is the untaxed money of richer Greeks, recycled through European banks, that is the source of the Greek debt! Yet, precisely because these funds were recycled through European banks, a Greek default would undermine the whole European financial system.

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It is no wonder then that Sarkozy and Merkel refused to countenance a referendum in Greece and not only installed their own man at the helm of the government in Athens but placed officials from the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–to oversee the operations of the government. Unless the Greek government complied with the stringent terms of the agreement imposed on it, funds in the escrow account will be withheld from Athens: a 32 percent cut in the minimum wage for those under 25, a 22 percent cut for those above 25, a cut in pensions by 25 percent on top of the laying off of some 200,000 workers over the past 12 months.

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Given that politicians are hand-in-glove with the banks–from Goldman Sachs helping the Papademos shift billions of euros off the books to the Greek police beat up its Greek citizens to impose order for banks and hedge funds–it is no wonder that citizens are turning their backs on the politicians!

Notes on the Spanish General Strike

March 31, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, World Politics | Leave a comment
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To be in Barcelona on Thursday March 29, 2012 was to be a witness to a massive tidal wave of humanity on the streets, stretching beyond the horizon in every direction from Placa Catalunya, the city’s symbolic center. This was a response to the general strike called by Spain’s two largest trade unions–Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) affiliated to the Socialist Party, and the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO)–in response to the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government’s decision to announce the most austere budget since the transition to democracy 37 years ago. As evident on the streets of Barcelona, it was much more than a workers’ protest: though some 30 percent of employed workers had said that they would participate in polls before the strike, Spain has a high rate of unemployment–23 percent or double the European rate and almost half the people under 30 are out of work.

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The unemployed are the backbone of the indignados (“the outraged”) movement that in May last year that with their tents in city centers and their emphasis on transparency, diversity, egalitarianism, and direct democracy, inspired the Occupy movements across the world. The employment situation is only likely to worsen as Mariano Rajoy, the new PP prime minister who took office in December last year, enacted an Emergency decree two months ago that sharply curbed labor rights. Permanent workers in Spain were eligible for 45 days’ pay for each year of employment if they were fired; this was substantially reduced to a maximum of 33 days and in Andalucia alone eight times as many workers were let go in the two months after the decree was promulgated than in the corresponding period last year. Companies were also permitted to reduce working hours.

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The greater flexibility to hire and fire workers provided by the new labor laws may provide greater incomes in the short run to employers but will further depress prospects of economic growth in Spain. Spanish wages are already the lowest among the EU 15 (members of the European Union on 1 May 2004 before the inclusion of states from the former Eastern Europe) and the new law would further depress wages in the context of the high rates of unemployment and provide for more short-term employment–which will lead to a reduction in effective demand.

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Moreover, Spain’s economic problems do not stem from high government deficits but from the burst of a property bubble and absurd laws governing liability of borrowers. The Spanish government had run a balanced budget from the time it joined the Euro in 1999 to 2007–that is to say it did not borrow at all during this period unlike many other economies, including Germany, even though interest rates on Eurozone countries fell sharply. However, though Madrid resisted borrowing at lower rates, Spanish citizens could not resist the lure of cheap interest rates and it fueled a housing boom–housing prices rose by 44 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Houses in Spain couldn’t be built fast enough. Great swathes of the coast and the countryside became clustered with urbanisations, instant housing estates thrown up to cater to what seemed to be an endless stream of Britons, Germans, and other norther Europeans now able to live the kind of life abroad of which their parents could only have dreamed.

Once the bubble burst with the financial crisis, however, the economy unraveled rapidly–the number of empty and unsold properties in the country is estimated to be between 700,000 and 1,500,000–and some 40 evictions are taking place across the country per day. Employment in construction collapsed and laid-off construction workers account for fully a third of the unemployed. What is more, Spanish law does not allow homeowners to simply hand over the keys and walk away from a property if they can no longer pay the mortgage. They remain liable for the remainder of the mortgage if the sale of the property does not cover the full extent of the mortgage–and they seldom do in a period when property prices have fallen by more than 19 percent. Hence, unlike most other countries, the unemployed in Spain not only lose their houses but remain responsible for part of their mortgages. This has meant that young people who had moved out of their parental home have often had to move back–and even that grandparents have had to use their pensions to help support their children and grandchildren. In turn, the iaiaflautas or retirees and grandparents have mobilized themselves to occupy buses to protest against price hikes, bank lobbies to oppose bailouts, and health departments to turn back cutbacks.

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Hence, even if reports say that the general strike led to a fall in electricity consumption by 16.3 percent compared to a fall of 16.9 percent in the general strike of September 2010, it doesn’t account for the vast mobilization of the indignados, the unemployed, the students, and the iaiaflautas. What it underlines is that a new politics is emerging, a politics that as Ferran Pedret has put it “is characterized by the absence of leaders, by assemblies as a form of organization, and a diversity and transversality.”

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it was this that was responsible for the massive turnout–what the strike symbolizes is a new politics, a politics beyond those of political parties because the parties are fully integrated into the system itself that must be changed. So no mere percentages of electricity consumption, businesses that stayed open, or workers participating in the strike can adequately assess its impact.

 

Iceland–An Independent People

April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Posted in democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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In the midst of the NATO campaign against Libya and the budget deal between Republicans and the Democrats in the US, a far more historically significant event appears to have fallen off the radar. On April 9, 2011, the people of Iceland voted for the second time to reject a government proposal for Iceland taxpayers to repay some €4 billion to the governments of Britain and the Netherlands which had compensated their domestic depositors in the collapsed online bank, Icesave. Initially, the British and Dutch governments had pressured the Iceland government to agree to repay them over fifteen years at a 5.5 percent annual interest–which was estimated to cost each household in the tiny island nation about €45,000 over the period. This was rejected by 91 percent of the voters in a referendum in March 2010. After subsequent negotiations, London and Amesterdam agreed to lower the interest to 3.2 percent and stretch the repayment period to 30 years between 2016 and 2046. The deal was accepted by a large majority of 44 in favor and 16 opposed in the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, which also rejected a clause to submit the bill to another referendum. Nevertheless, as the President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to sign the bill, it was automatically subject to a referendum wherein it was rejected by almost 60 percent of the voters.

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The Dutch and British governments–which had used anti-terrorist legislation to seize assets of the failed Icelandic banks–have threatened to scupper Iceland’s application to join the European Union and to take the island nation to court. Reykjavik has insisted that the two governments would get most of their money back and the assets of the Landsbanki bank which set up the Icesave operation would be sold and was expected to realize 90 percent of the Icesave debt. What was at issue in the referendum was not whether London and Amsterdam would be compensated or not–but whether private citizens should be expected to shoulder the burden of repayment of a bank’s debt in which they had no hand in incurring and from which they did not benefit. The threat to take Iceland to court is important because it is to frighten off other states which also face indebtedness due to the financial crisis like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. It is simply the question of whether the bankers have to bear the burden of the bad loans they have extended.

Iceland is, in fact, a case study of neo-liberalism gone awry. Before the late 1990s, Iceland’s financial sector had been small and the banks were largely government-owned. In 1998, the two leading parties–the Independence Party and the Centre Party–embarked on a privatization of the banking sector, assigning Landsbanki to grandees of the Independence Party and Kaupthing to the Centre Party. A new private bank, Glitnir, was also set up merging several smaller banks. None of these banks had much experience in international finance, but like South Korean banks a decade earlier, these banks tapped into abundant cheap credit and easy capital mobility. Unlike the South Korean banks, their strong ties to political parties, the merger of commercial and investment banking, and low soveriegn debt meant that they got extremely high grades from the credit ratings agencies and as Robert Wade and Silla Sigurgeirsdottir note: “government policy was now subordinated to their ends.”

With the government relaxing mortgage rules to permit loans up to 90 percent of value, the banks rode the wave–by buying shares in each other they inflated share prices and enticed depositors to shift their savings to shares. In less than 10 years after the privatization of banks, Iceland had the fifth highest GDP in the world, 60 percent higher than that of the United States, and the assets of their banks was valued at 800 percent of Iceland’s GDP. As land prices soared, Icelanders loaded up on lower-interest yen- or Swiss-franc debt.

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By 2006, Iceland’s current account deficit had soared to 20 percent of its GDP. Late in that year, Landsbanki established an online bank, Icesave, to attract deposits from overseas clients and by offering highly attractive interest rates, it raked in millions of pounds from England, and later millions of euros especially from the Netherlands. This was soon copied by the two other banks. These were established as ‘branches’ rather than as ‘subsidiaries‘ which meant that they were to be supervised by the icelandic Central Bank rather than regulators in Britain or the Netherlands. Because of Iceland’s obligations as a member of the European Economic Area to insure bank deposits, no one thought to worry about whether the Icelandic Central Bank had the capacity to oversee the vastly extended operations of the island’s three major banks.

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This happy bubble burst in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed, within a fortnight of which the three big Icelandic banks collapsed and by November of that year the krona had fallen from its pre-crisis level of 70 to the euro to 190 to the euro, so sharply cutting the islanders’ purchasing power that the three McDonald’s franchises were forced to close as the cost of importing ingredients made the price of burgers prohibitive! The country’s stock market lost 98 percent of its value! If ever there was a definition of crisis, this was it. It was the first time in over 30 years that a ‘developed’ state had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

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In the light of all this, Iceland’s voters have had the courage to face up to the crisis. It was the first country to kick out the government which had failed so spectacularly. Unlike its neighbor in the North Atlantic–Ireland which underwrote its own banking collapse and loader every household with €80,000 in debt–Iceland let the three banks go under and they imposed capital controls to prevent the flight of capital. Though unemployment in Iceland today is 7.5 percent in Iceland–up from 2 percent in 2002–but just over half of Ireland’s 13.6 percent. Though the krona lost almost half its value, inflation is down sharply and without having to pay back foreign creditors, its government finances are in much better shape than those of Greece, Ireland, or Portugal.

Japan: Geoeconomic Consequences of Nature’s Fury and Human Folly

March 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Posted in Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Outsourcing, Political Economy, Production | Leave a comment
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Scarcely believable images of the destruction wrought by a 9.0 earthquake that struck 250 miles northeast of Tokyo and unleashed a tsunami that generated 10 meter high waves–of entire communities being obliterated–and made worse by triggering a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been at the center of world news. While concern has understandably been on the human cost of the tragedy, the economic costs are also staggering. While it is too early to make an assessment, early estimates already suggest that world economic growth may fall by at least a full percentage point.

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In the most immediate instance, it would cause enormous supply chain disruptions to production as Japanese manufacturers produce a whole array of sophisticated components and finished products. For an economy vitally dependent on exports this could be a vital blow–but it would also affect manufacturers world-wide as they source components from Japan, Additionally, the demand for reconstruction funds for Japan could reasonably be expected to lead to a redirection of financial flows with adverse consequences not only for debt-ridden economies like those of the United States but also for the ’emerging economies’ of the Global South.

The estimated $200 billion required to rebuild Japan after the earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the tsunami already triggered a 6 percent rise in the yen with 5 days–from a peak of ¥76.25 to the dollar to ¥81.20–as investors started repatriating funds for Japanese reconstruction before the G-7 economies intervened in currency markets in a concerted effort to drive the yen lower and help stabilize the Japanese economy as a higher yen would have made Japanese exports dearer overseas and hence driven down demand for them.

Fears that radiation from the crippled nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi may be transported through Japanese exports has led to many restaurants to ban Japanese food items like sushi, Kobe beef, and sake. But there has also been apprehension that consumers may be exposed to radiation when driving a Prius car or using a Japanese DVD–a severe blow to an export dependent economy. Even though such fears may be misplaced because the main manufacturing centers are located away from areas near the crippled nuclear reactors and most manufacturing occurs indoors in factories and hence is not directly exposed to airborne radioactive particles, apprehensions are by nature irrational and could lead to a steep decline in consumer demand.

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On March 17, General Motors became the first automobile manufacturer to announce that it will temporarily halt production in its truck plant in Shreveport, Louisiana because of a shortage of Japanese-made parts as a result of the natural disasters in that island nation. The fact that was GM rather than Toyota, Honda, or Nissan to be the first auto manufacturer to stop production because of supply-related problems stemming from the natural disasters underlines the gravity and extent of the disruption of supply-chains from Japan for producers the world over. 10 percent of Volvo’s parts for instance comes from 33 Japanese suppliers, 9 of which were in areas affected by the disasters and Volkswagen has warned of medium-term supply problems. Some Japanese manufacturers–Mitsubishi and Nissan–have opened some of their facilities while Toyota is due to open some of its plants early next week. It is uncertain how long these can operate because they and their suppliers may face problems obtaining raw materials and parts and in shipping finished products due to logistical problems caused by the earthquake, tsunami, and the exclusion zone imposed by fears of a nuclear meltdown at the reactors in Fukushima Daiichi. A Detroit based consultant, John Hoffecker, estimates that an average car had 20,000 components and the abrupt loss of any one component could halt production in its tracks, especially because most manufacturers have implemented just-in-time production systems that reduce inventories.

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Given Japan’s advanced manufacturing technologies, disruptions are not limited of course to the automobile sector. Sony Ericsson and Nokia have warned that they face supply problems for their smart phones, for instance. Apple Computer’s latest gadget the iPad 2 depends on the advanced manufacturing technologies of Japan for crucial components like flash memory to store audio and video files that are manufactured by Toyota which shut down its manufacturing facilities due to the earthquake and tsunami. Other iPad 2 components sourced from Japan include “AKM Semiconductor and DRAM memory produced by Elpida Memory. A touchscreen overlay glass is likely from Asahi Glass.” Even if these suppliers are not directly hit by the earthquake, tsunami, or t, the logistical disruptions caused by the natural disasters including obtaining raw materials and parts and shipping finished goods are likely to hamper production.

it is impossible to assess the costs of reconstruction. Initial estimates of $200 billion were based on the experience of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Not only was the present earthquake much more destructive in scale but it was also accompanied by a massive tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. With a debt-to-GDP ratio double that of the United States, and credit-rating agencies being more prudent after the financial crisis of 2008-09, raising funds at a tolerable rate of interest could be difficult. Unlike the United States which could pump $600 billion as stimulus during the financial crisis, the yen does not enjoy international reserve currency status and hence this is not an option for the Japanese.

This raises the possibility that Japan, which is the third largest holder of US Treasuries, will sell off large chunks of the $877 billion it holds to finance its reconstruction–a sell-off that will have a major impact on interest rates all across the world and depress the value of US Treasuries and could trigger an avalanche of sales of the Treasuries as other holders seek to minimize their holdings. It could cause another enormous liquidity crisis as the financial crisis just did and comes at a time when the economies of the US and the European Union are still weak.

Capitalism as Anti-Market

December 16, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Free Trade, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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Nothing shatters the myth of free market capitalism than reports that an anonymous group of bankers from the largest Wall Street giants meet privately on the third Wednesday of every month to overseas trading in derivatives. Though the big banks claim that this secretive committee–“even their identities have been strictly confidential” says a New York Times report–exists to safeguard the integrity of the markets, they also have fought bitterly to prevent other banks from entering the market and obstructed all attempts to make full information on prices and fees freely available.

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In the most profitable sector of the economy–where derivatives traders are routinely paid tens and hundreds of millions of dollars as compensation and bonuses–markets do not function the way the politicians, economists, commentators, and bureaucrats tell us they do: the forces of supply and demand do not operate without distortions; there is no free flow of information or transparency and customers are price-takers rather than price-makers.

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This, of course, has always been true of capitalism. Fernand Braudel had argued that contrary to prevailing myths, capitalism is anti-market. The market economy, the world of transparent visible realities on which ‘economic science’ was founded, he contended was ‘the not unacceptable face of ‘micro-capitalism,’ barely distinguishable fro ordinary work,” it was very different from the rarefied heights from where exceptional profits–as cornered by the derivatives traders and financiers–are reaped.

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It is precisely because derivatives are ‘exotic’ instruments and not understood by the public, that the virtual identity between free markets and capitalism incessantly proclaimed by policymakers, economists, and journalists live on in the public domain. In many transactions at the corner grocery store or a farmers’ market, there is an appearance of free markets–of small producers and shop keepers selling goods to the public, “barely distinguishable from ordinary work.” But even here, the principles of the market do not operate. No seller in a farmer’s market can know the costs of production of their competitors and nor could consumers go to every seller even in a nearby area to compare prices–in most cases, sellers quote prices they think they can get away with and consumers pay what they think they can afford.

Derivatives trade, of course, is very different. They are designed to shift risks. Typically, if the price of a gallon of oil is $2.50, large consumers may choose to lock in future supplies at $2,80 a gallon so that if prices soar to $3.00 or $3.50 a gallon, they will be insulated from the rise. Their suppliers have no idea how much lower they could charge their customers because the banks dont disclose the process by which prices are set. This is where the collusion takes place–and where the big profits are reaped.

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If this is not enough, we also learn that as the financial crisis set in 2008, the US Federal Reserve opened its vaults a staggering 174 times within a 13-month period to the Citigroup, that Barclays, the British Bank owed the Fed some $48 billion at one time and on and on the list goes of the US Central Bank massively shoring up domestic and foreign banks and even to corporations such as Harley Davidson and McDonalds without public scrutiny. Needless to say, no such facility was ever considered for smaller operators. So much for free markets without the distorting influence of the state!

Eurozone’s Woes

December 4, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Posted in International Relations, Political Economy, world politics | Leave a comment
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The Euro–the single currency adopted by 16 states–has been under siege for over a year beginning with the election of a new government in Greece in September 2009 which sharply revised the country’s public deficit from 6 percent of GDP to 12.7 percent. This led to a loss of confidence in the government’s ability to repay loans and raised the cost of borrowing, creating greater difficulties for the government to repay the 300 billion euro debt bequeathed to it by its predecessor in office. Normally, a government faced with high debts could devalue its currency and thereby increase the competitiveness of its exports and attract both foreign investments and tourists but the adoption of the common currency ruled out this option.

Eventually, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cobbled together a rescue package of €110 billion ($146 billion) in May 2010 in return for Greece implementing very severe austerity measures. European policy makers also set up a European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) to create a safety net of upto €750 billion to preserve financial stability among member states of the common currency.

These floodgates came under renewed threat when German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a statement that in future financial crises, creditors must also share in the losses rather than only the tax-payers. As Ireland was the most indebted economy within the Eurozone, this caused interest rates on Irish bonds to spike causing a further crisis in confidence. Unlike the Greek crisis which was caused by high public deficits, the Irish crisis was caused by a collapse of its housing bubble.

Soon after the introduction of the single currency, weak economic demand in the main Eurozone economies–Germany’s real domestic demand in 2008 was only 5 percent higher than in 1999–fueled an asset price inflation-especially in Ireland and Spain. As the former taoiseach (Prime Minister) Garret Fitzgerald noted, the house construction rate in the Celtic Tiger in the last two decades was six times that of Britain–leading to an extraordinary housing bubble stimulated by the Anglo Irish bank and a host of overseas banks. When the bubble burst, instead of the banks’ creditors sharing the losses, the government assumed their payment obligations, nationalizing the Anglo-irish Bank and creating the National Asset Management Agency to take over large loans from other banks, effectively transforming private debt into public debt.

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The ECB and IMF have once again cobbled together a rescue package of €85 billion ($115 billion) but this has not stopped a massive gap in the bond spreads (an increase in the cost of borrowing for the weaker members of the Eurozone, especially Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) and the fear is that if the crisis spreads to Spain and Italy, two of the largest economies, the EFSF would be inadequate and it would cause an enormous political conundrum: citizens of the stronger states will become increasingly unwilling to bail out the more ‘profligate’ states, and citizens of the latter would be unwilling to put up with increasingly stringent long-term austerity measures.

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Spain is fortunate because a large amount of its government debt is owed to its own banks rather than to overseas banks. At the beginning of 2010, Spain’s public debt was only 53 percent of GDP, about 20 percentage points below that of the Eurozone average and half that of Italy’s. Last year, when the budget deficit stood at 11.1 percent of GDP, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also pushed through an austerity package that led to the government’s deficit falling by 47 percent in the first ten months of 2010. The problem for Spain is its high private debt–especially the heavy borrowing from overseas banks to fund home construction in the years up to 2008, Before the start of the recession, Gilles Moec of the Deutsche Bank estimated that private sector debt was 210 percent of GDP compared to 130 percent for Germany, France, and Italy.

If the extent of the impending crisis have left many to wonder about the future of the euro, the problem surely is not in the common currency. As Philippe Legrain wrote in the Financial Times there is a lot to be said for

enabling capital to flow from one member country to another without exchange-rate risk is a key advantage of the euro. If this were possible globally, emerging economies would not feel compelled to amass huge reserves to protect against crises and could be net recipients of investment instead.

What was the problem was that capital from the stronger members of the Eurozone was channeled to fund asset bubbles in Ireland, Spain, and elsewhere. Tighter regulations of cross-border investments can mitigate this problem. But more importantly, why are lenders coddled in cotton wool while taxpayers are burdened with huge debts they had done nothing to incur? Ordinary Irish citizens, as Paul Krugman, has underlined are:

bearing a burden much larger than the debt — because those spending cuts have caused a severe recession so that in addition to taking on the banks’ debts, the Irish are suffering from plunging incomes and high unemployment.

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Earlier when Iceland and Kazakhstan faced financial crises, creditors shared in the pain. The external debt of Kazakhstan’s banking sector which had stood at 26 percent of GDP when the crisis struck in February 2009 had been cut almost in half by September 2010 by making creditors share in the losses and accepting various combinations of senior and subordinated debt. There is no reason to let banks off the hook. In Iceland, the crisis caused the election of a left-leaning government which also were able to get better terms.

If the current crisis enveloping the Eurozone leads to the election of more left leaning governments, and to a refusal to nationalize private debt and to greater regulations over the economy, it may be the final nail in the neoliberal coffin!

Recession? What Recession ask the bankers!

November 26, 2010 at 9:48 am | Posted in Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Earlier this month, Lord Young of Graffham, the 78-year old ‘enterprise advisor’ to British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to retire after claiming that most Britons “never had it so good” in this ‘so-called recession’ because interest and mortgage rates were so low! If his comments were politically too difficult for the Coalition government in Britain, it was at least true for bankers and financiers in the UK and the US. Though trading is down and Congress is tightening regulations, Wall Street firms are setting aside large sums as bonuses. According to Nomura, the Japanese bank, five Wall Street firms–Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase–are setting aside $89;54 billion this year for its employees’ bonuses even though revenues for the firms fell by 4 percent.

While the bonuses will not be paid till January 2011 as the financial firms assess their performance in the fourth quarter, luxury purchases are booming and The Lion, a new restaurant that opened in New York;s Greenwich Village in May, recently sold a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild for $3,950. Though public outrage has led firms to scale back on corporate excesses like private jets and corporate retreats, personal indulgences have come roaring back.

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While much of the attention has been focused on the top executives who make the 19th century ‘robber barons’ look like petty juvenile delinquents–Goldman Sachs’ chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein pocketed a cool $68.5 million in pay and shares in 2007–this has obscured the fact that lower-level employees making between $100,000 and $200,000 receive hefty year-end bonuses. Wall Street firms typically set aside 40 to 50 percent of their revenues as bonuses.

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In the bizarre logic of Wall Street, if firms do not pay top bonuses to their employees even if the firms post losses, the employees will jump ship to a competitor willing to pay higher bonuses or salaries. This is of course a case of inverted logic: if the employee was responsible for losses, why not let the employee go–or better yet, fire and blacklist the employee?

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And now that the Republicans have won control of the US House of Representatives, they are clamoring to make the Bush era tax cuts permanent. Though Candidate Obama had campaigned on a platform that promised to end the tax cuts for those earning over $200,000, there are signs that the White House will now cave in to Republican demands or at the very least extend them for another two years.

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Despite the media claiming that the Democrats’ loss of approximately 60 seats in the House of Representatives was a “bloodbath”–to which President Obama concurring by admitting they received a “shellacking”–if the overall percentage of votes cast for the two parties are examined, John Kane noted, the Democrats received 47.3 percent of the vote and the Republicans 50.1 percent: hardly a “shellacking”. Moreover, only 38.2 million of the eligible voters cast their ballots–hardly a case of the “American people” rejecting the President’s message. In fact, the reason for the large fall in the percentage of eligible voters exercising their franchise in the 2010 mid-term elections may precisely be because they did not see the Democrats making a difference. After all, the $700 billion bailout may have secured the health of the financial sector–and guaranteed the return of good times to the financiers–but has done little to ease unemployment.

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Hence, it would clearly be a mistake for the Democrats to throw in the towel and cave in to Republican demands. But perhaps it is too much to expect of this President!

Competition, Trade, Currencies, and Economic Summits

November 14, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Posted in International Relations, Outsourcing, Political Economy, Production, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Far more fundamental that the charges and counter-charges of currency manipulation and trade imbalances traded at the November 2010 G-20 summit in Seoul to a shift in the terms of global economic competition was an announcement that the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac, plans the introduction of a 156-seat single-aisle passenger jetliner. The entry of China into the commercial passenger aircraft industry is noteworthy for two reasons.

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First, most of the technology for the Chinese C919 plane will be provided by Western companies. The plane’s computer system, brakes, wheels, and power units by Honeywell; its navigation systems by Rockwell Collins; avionics by GE Aviation; fuel and hydraulics by Eaton Corporation; and flight controls by Parker Aerospace. These companies have agreed to a Chinese stipulation that they set up joint ventures with Chinese companies. Though the companies claim that they will safeguard their intellectual property, David Pierson suggests that the example of high-spreed rail proves otherwise. After European and Japanese firms shared their technology with their Chinese joint venture partners, they are now in direct competition with their former Chinese partners both in and out of China.

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Yet, projections of China’s rapid rise compels there Western aviation companies to bid aggressively for the Chinese market. In the next twenty years, Chinese air traffic is expected to grow at an annual average rate of 8 per cent a year and to meet this demand the country’s domestic airlines are estimated to purchase some 4,330 planes worth $480 billion over the same period. No supplier of aviation parts wants to miss out on this lucrative market.

If the sheer size of its market confers a competitive advantage on China in technology transfer, it is also the case that 55% of Chinas exports are accounted by foreign-owned companies. Moreover, China’s large current account surpluses with the United States and the European Union is matched by large deficits with other countries as shown by a recent article in the Financial Times. In many cases, transnational production and procurement networks span across national  borders to take advantage of wage and cost differentials and a substantial part of China’s exports are only assembled and packaged there from components made elsewhere. This means that these foreign-owned companies are not particularly receptive to calls for China to revalue its currency–or indeed, the attempt by the US Federal Reserve to force down the value of the greenback by releasing $600 billion to buy US Treasury bonds: what a former Chairman of the Fed, Alan Greenspan termed “a policy of currency weakening.”

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Devaluing the dollar by releasing more greenbacks is “clueless” as the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called it because it would raise the cost of living in the United States when the unemployment rate is hovering at double digits and is unlikely to create a spurt in job growth in the United States. In fact, though President Obama trumpeted that his visit to India would create 54,000 jobs in the US, that is merely a third of the jobs created in the country in just the last month as Alan Beattie noted in the Financial Times.

In part, trade imbalances have taken center-stage because during the financial meltdown in 2008 and 2009, trade contracted sharply and thereby reduced trade imbalances as Floyd Norris noted in the New York Times. A modest recovery however highlighted the imbalances and governments began to accuse each other of undervaluing currencies.

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Such charges and counter-charges ignore the changes in competitive pressures. With the greater deployment of automated technologies and numerically-controlled machines, and the Taylorization of even skilled work, wage charts increasing resemble a time-glass: fewer and fewer extraordinarily well-paying jobs, and more and more sub-subsistence jobs as indicated in several prior posts. These underlying conditions can be addressed only in the long-run through well developed plans that do not respect two-year electoral cycles which is the focus  not only of Washington politicians but also of the US punditocracy!

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The one remaining competitive advantage the United States has is that its currency is the only reserve currency but if the Fed devalues the dollar–and already uncertainties in currency markets has led to the price of gold soaring to $1,400 a troy ounce–as Robert Zoellich, the President of the World Bank, has suggested it is likely to lead to multiple reserve currencies. And that will seal the end of the United States as an economic superpower.

A Third Wave of Outsourcing?

November 6, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Posted in Labor, Outsourcing, Political Economy, Production | 3 Comments
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Persistently high unemployment figures in the United States have led to strident calls by politicians about ‘unfair’ trading practices by China, India, and other countries and demands to curb outsourcing of US jobs to lower wage locations overseas. Much of the discussion, especially in the context of President Barack Obama’s 10-day visit to Asia, has focussed on low-cost manufacturing in China and white-collar service work to India, a new type of outsourcing pioneered by Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk service just five years ago, represents the potential to transform outsourcing in some sectors. This represents a further assault on incomes.

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Claiming to take the tedium out of repetitive, monotonous tasks that are notoriously difficult to automate (recognition of handwritten messages or numbers, for instance), a handful of companies are creating software to further deskill digital labor. Essentially, these companies–Microtask, CloudCrowd, Cloudflower, and others–break up tasks into many different component parts both to shield the identity of their clients (as each worker gets to see only a miniscule portion of the document and therefore cannot identify the real client) and to lower labor costs by widely distributing the tasks: Cloudflower claims to have a virtual workforce of 500,000 people in 70 countries while CloudCrowd which was formed only in 2009 claims a virtual workforce of 25,000 and says it has completed 2 million tasks by September 2010 according to its promotional video.

Companies take different approaches. Microtask, a Finnish upstart, contracts with firms and provides software to its clients’ employees which enables them to do a small task–recognition of handwritten numbers, comparison of two images of a product, few minutes of speech transcription–without leaving their computer screen to get more information from the Internet. The software rotates and mixes up the tasks so that there is no monotony while the main computers of the client can compile the tasks performed by its employees–leading to an unprecedented level of control while minimizing the possibility of leaks.

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Other companies directly contract with individual workers. At the Mechanical Turk website, there are are number of tasks on offer and once a person performs a test to show his or her talent at a job–identifying business locations, proof-reading, and such like–they can sign up and do tasks steadily at their own pace and when they want to work. However, Randall Stross reports in the New York Times that when Miriam Cherry, a law professor at the University of the Pacific and her research assistant tried an assignment offering 2 cents “each for finding the contact information of 7,500 hotels and 3 cents each for answering questions about 9,400 toys,” they did not even make the minimum wage!

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As Stross notes, “Worker control is precisely what the Microtask model has engineered out–that’s the source of its insidious efficiency. Just as Ford’s assembly lines a century ago brought work to workers who performed a single, repetitive task, Microtask’s software, via the Internet, does the same. Every two seconds.”

Yet, the so-called ‘cloudsourcing’ (from the Internet ‘cloud’) model is different in crucial respects. By farming out work across the planet, companies do not have to confront organized labor–protests against low wages become infinitely more difficult if workers are spread across many, many jurisdictions. Cloudcrowd, for instance, takes translations of business documents that used to be done by a single person and initially submits it to translation software. The software translation is then broken up into pages and sent to people who look for nonsensical sentences. These are then submitted to native speakers and finally to editors who have no special expertise in the language, but simply make the text more readable. By farming out the work to several unconnected individuals, anonymity is assured and translation costs are minimized–from 20-25 cents a word to just 6.7 cents. And, of course, minimum wage legislation would not apply.

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Even if these widely-distributed tasks do not earn minimum wages in the United States and other high-income economies, they beat the minimum wage in many low-income countries and hence many of the workers for Cloudflower and other ‘cloudsourcing’ companies are located in places like Malaysia and the Philippines. Seen in this light, too, it is not surprising that the new president of the State University of New York at Albany, George M. Philip, could eliminate the departments of Italian, French, Russian, Classics, and Theatre without hesitation!

 

 

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