12 Oct 2016

Business Debt in China

This speaks for itself really. Corporate debt in China is now 165% of GDP. Every time I see a figure like this my question is, "What interest rate are the paying on that?" Say it's 10% APR. That would mean that 16.5% of the GDP of China is being spent on interest payments. The next question is "Who are they borrowing from?". That is, where is 16.5% of China's GDP going? We know it must be going to banks, but Chinese banks, American, European...?

7 Oct 2016

Rent Seeking

@AnnPettifor tweeted a picture the other day. It was a cutting from the 2012 Financial Times. It turns out the article is available online.

The monumental folly of rent-seeking.
The success of market economies is not achieved by policies that encourage greed. John Kay.
"The activities of Shah Jahan epitomise rent-seeking – the accumulation of a fortune not by creating wealth through serving customers better but by the appropriation of such wealth after it has already been created by other people. Both are routes to personal enrichment and the tension between them has been a dominant theme of economic history. Whenever the balance shifts too far in favour of appropriation over creation, we see entrepreneurial talent diverted to unproductive activity, an accelerating cycle in which political power and economic power reinforce each other – until others become envious of the proceeds of appropriation, and the resentment of the oppressed undermines the legitimacy of the regime. Political and economic instability are an inevitable consequence."

Extracting and paraphrasing the definition
Rent seeking is the accumulation of wealth by appropriating wealth that has been created by other people rather than by producing something. Both rent seeking and production are routes to creating wealth. 
When the balance of wealth accumulation shifts towards appropriation over creation, i.e. when rent seeking over takes production, entrepreneurial talent is diverted into unproductive activities (such as the finance industry) and away from more beneficial activities.
I'm not sure how the last part follows from the first. I think the author skipped a few steps. But we can see that if people's effort is going into accumulating wealth created by other people without contributing anything that that is a problem. And we can see that for the last 40 years or so successive governments around the world have been facilitating rent seeking at the expense of producing things. Britain, which used to be a major producer of steel and manufacturer of steel products, is now more focussed on providing services, especially financial services. The banking and finance sector has expanded rapidly as manufacturing has shrunk.

In Britain, people with spare cash do not invest it in business, they buy a house and rent it out. This is the most basic form of rent seeking. It creates a divisive situation in which most housing is primarily a source of income for the wealthy rather than a home for anyone. It leads to the situation where too many people benefit too much from high house prices and therefore high rents and this distorts the market. In Britain too over at least two decades few houses have been built to meet the demand for housing, especially in the low-cost portion of the market.

This is exacerbated by drug lords, kleptocrats, and other world-scale criminals are using the London property market to launder their money. This tends to force prices up in central London and that has a ripple effect. The housing market has inflated at between 500%-1000% of the consumer price index.

Most people can now never dream of owning their own home. A lot of us can never dream of even renting our own home and must find lodgings or live communally. Rent money, wealth created through labour, goes to landlords who produce nothing but simply accumulate wealth created by others. It might be forgiveable if there were investing in housing so that there were enough houses for everyone, but they are not. And it would be very interesting to see how much tax large scale landlords are paying.

Another form of rent seeking is lending money and charging interest on it. But that is another story.

2 Oct 2016

The Warning

I don't usually cross post blog posts, but in this case I'm making an exception

I've just watched an excellent documentary which provides another important angle on the 2008 financial crisis. It actually first aired on PBS in the USA in Oct 2009. The Warning.

Hat tip to Ann Pettifor of Prime Economics for tweeting about this.

Asked about the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent recession/depression, the mainstream - including those still in charge of the economy - often reply that we could not have seen this coming. But this was only ever true because the mainstream were just not looking. Instead, they had their heads buried in troughs of money.

Brooksley Born
In American a woman called Brooksley Born did see it coming and was in a position to do something about it. She tried, but was shut down by Bill Clinton's financial advisors: Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and the Fed Chief,  Alan Greenspan.

Born warned that the market in derivatives--bets and insurance on the future price of assets and bets on those bets--was huge, completely unregulated, open to fraud, and likely to cause huge damage to the USA and world economies if they failed. Evidence that they certainly would fail was already evident in 1994 because of law suits brought by Proctor & Gamble and others against the hedge fund that lost their money in risky investments in derivatives. Banks were massively invested in the derivatives market. In 2008 this market was worth USD500 trillion. For perspective the UK's annual GDP is about USD2 trillion.

Greenspan was an disciple and acolyte of Ayn Rand. He did not believe in the necessity of pursuing fraud prosecution because "the market would sort it out". The others were like-minded. They shut Born down and made it impossible for her to continue in her role. The argued vociferously and repeatedly against any regulation of financial markets.

Greenspan retired in 2006. Then in 2007, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. In 2008 the Great Financial Crash happened. Later, Greenspan recanted his free market ideology during a senate hearing. But does not seem to have been help culpable for this costly errors.

Rubin took over City Bank in time for it to be bailed out by the US tax payers because of it's reckless gambling in derivatives.

Obama's financial advisors are... Larry Summers and Tim Geitner. So we know that Summers and Geitner basically facilitated the financial crisis and they are the economic advisors to the President.

One of the problems for Hillary Clinton is that she is associated with this crowd of losers who wrecked the economy and walked away from it unscathed, like drunks who walk away unharmed from the multiple car pile they caused.

Brooksley Born is a name that ought to go down in history.

Further Reading

The Great American Bubble Machine (2010). Rolling Stone Magazine. "From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression -- and they're about to do it again."

 The Woman Greenspan, Rubin & Summers Silenced (2009) The Nation.