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It’s The Economy Stupid: The Gathering Storm

by Frank

Pictured: Mark Carney and Janet Yellen

Pictured: Mark Carney and Janet Yellen

In the face of deteriorating global economic conditions the financial and economic powers-that-be seem fixated on policies which are both ineffective and inappropriate.

Anyone who entertains the notion that central banks around the world actually know what they are doing, and have the magic box of tricks to get the world economy back on track, really ought to take another look at where we have arrived, and where we are going.

Recently the Chairman of the Bank of England (BoE) and former Goldman Sachs employee, Mark Carney, announced new a monetary stimulus package designed to get the UK economy moving again. It consisted of the following measures:

  • Interest rates at a record low of 0.25%, a level not seen in the BoE’s 322-year history with more to come.
  • An extra £60bn of newly created money to buy government bonds, drive down gilt yields and force investors into riskier assets
  • A new £100bn scheme to encourage banks to lend cheaply to UK companies
  • A pledge to buy £10bn of corporate debt issued by UK companies who make a genuine contribution to the UK economy.

All of which adds up to another helping of QE and even lower interest rates of 0.25% with negative rates on the cards. Is this second round of monetary easing going to be any more successful than the first? Or is monetary policy alone going to result in escape velocity and usher in growth? Judging on past performance the prognosis is not encouraging. Last time around QE – i.e. BoE purchases of privately hold UK bonds (Gilts) – injected £375 billion into the economy which was supposed to lead recipients to engage in productive investment into the (real) value-added productive economy. Alas, most of this BoE largesse did not enter the real economy.

Banks (who were the main investors) instead used it to repair their badly damaged balance sheets resulting from the 2008 crash; invested it abroad into more favourable profit climes; deposited it straight back into the BoE in the form of excess reserves (this is what also happened with the US central bank, The Federal Reserve) on which they were paid interest. Other non-financial companies invested their newly acquired liquidity in share buybacks and mergers and acquisition activities. The great paradox of QE was that it resulted in a contraction of money supply – measured as M4 – see chart below – and therefore there was no generalised inflation outside of the above-mentioned asset classes.

The only investment, if we can call it that, which occurred was the speculative purchasing of shares (stocks), property and bonds which pumped up the price of these assets making money for those persons and institutions who happened to own these assets. But as Marx pointed out these price appreciations weren’t real value; it was just asset-price inflation, or, as he put it, fictitious capital, which could disappear (as it did) overnight.

For speculators, however, this was a bonanza. You push up the three asset-classes, bonds-stocks-property, with aggressive leveraged buying from free monies lent to you by munificent central bankers like Mr Carney and Fed boss Janet Yellen. When the market tops out, you sell-off and take your profits. That’s the first leg. When the market crashes (markets undershoot on the downside as much as they overshoot on the up side) then you get to buy bargains at fire damage sale prices. Neat trick eh? The speculators win when prices climb and then win when prices plummet. In the trade it is called ‘pump and dump’.

The above chart shows the collapse of the money supply at the same time as QE was in effect.

The above chart shows the collapse of the money supply at the same time as QE was in effect.

The crux of the matter is that businesses are stubbornly refusing to invest in productive capacity and no amount of monetary easing will induce them do so. You can take a horse to water but …. Seems we are up to our neck in Keynes’ liquidity trap.

This of course raises the question as to why this was the case. Investment decisions are of course related to the rate of interest; and as the text books say high rates of interest will tend to have a negative influence on investment and vice-versa. But of equal and possibly more importance is the return on such investments. The theory of diminishing returns on investment projects goes way back to Quesnay and the French physiocrats, to the British political economists David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus, and in more recent years to Marx, Schumpeter and Keynes. In short, the theory postulates that each successive input (costs) will result in the long run of a fall of output (profits) until a point is reached where output turns negative relative to input and the enterprise is no longer viable. Keynes called this the decline in the Marginal Efficiency of Capital, and along with Schumpeter attributed this to the disappearance of viable investment projects and Animal Spirits.

As JMK explained:

…the crisis is not primarily caused by a rise in the rate of interest, but a sudden collapse in the marginal efficiency of capital.’

For Marx, the explanation of falling profitability was the growth in what he termed the ‘organic composition of capital’ which we would probably call the capital-labour ratio. Given the labour theory of value which he inherited (with modifications) from Adam Smith and David Ricardo, human labour was said to be the source of value – or what we would call value-added – and since it would be increasingly replaced by capital then the rate of profit would fall. Thus, in all these instances investment would tail off as profitability declined.

Additionally, in a recent book – Killing The Host – the American economist, Michael Hudson, argues that the financialisation of mature economies in the west has led to a type of parasitism of rent-seeking activities by financial institutions which are sucking the life out of the productive, value-creating economy.

The rise of the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (F.I.R.E) sector – banks, credit agencies, investment companies, brokers and dealers of commodities and securities, security and commodity exchanges, insurance agents, buyers, sellers, lessors, lessees and so forth – has now reached such a level that it has become larger, more ubiquitous, and profitable than productive industry. Prior to the ascent of financialised capital and the deregulation and privatisation mania, the role of finance was usually restricted to greasing the wheels of the productive (value-creating) economy. Commercial banks took the publics’ deposits and funnelled it as credit into manufacturing and commercial enterprises. In this regulated environment, commercial banks and other financial institutions were legally circumscribed in the level of credit they could extend.

Then, in 1986, came the Big Bang: finance was now off the leash. Instead of producing real value as embodied in goods and services, selling of ownership titles was to become the chosen field of investment.

A good example of this has been share buy-backs. Most of the rise in global stock market valuations has been due to companies borrowing at very low interest rates and buying back and retiring their own shares. This means that those shares remaining in circulation go up in price since the book value of the company remains the same while its volume floating shares (this is called market capitalisation) have contracted. On paper the firm has become more profitable since its share valuations have increased. This means an upward revaluation for the shareholders and the CEOs who now hold their hands out for a bonus. Money lending in general consisting of asset-backed securities, student loans, mortgages, car-loans, credit cards, all serve to increase the flow of rent to the financial sector which are simply overhead costs on the real economy.

Moreover, notice that no new value has been created. The whole thing was just an exercise in moving pieces of paper around.

What is worse this process has not only slowed down the flow of investment monies into the productive sector, it has now reversed the flow from the productive into the financial sector. As for growth, nothing grew except the shareholder bonanza and the CEO’s bonus. The one-time symbiosis between the productive and financial sectors has thus transmuted into a parasitic relationship. Other methods used to generate positive cash-flows include predatory take-overs and lobbying for corporate tax cuts.

In this way, it is entirely possible to generate profits during a period of economic downturn and investment slump.

Mr Hudson also gives a good explanation of what in economics is called ‘economic rent’. Economic rent (also known as price gouging) is the practise of charging higher price for an item due to a market structure – monopoly/oligopoly – which enables this pricing policy.

The utility/energy industries in the UK – a blatant cartel – have been doing this since they were privatised during the Thatcher era. Privatisation has been little more than a legal licence to print money. Privatisation and deregulation simply means the commodification of what were once public goods. Mature economies in the west now seem to be returning to the pre-industrial age of rentier capitalism.

Although the origin of the word ‘rentier’ is obscure, it was used by the classical economists including David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx to identify a particular socio-economic group – usurers – whom they regarded as both anachronistic and parasitic. Mill argued that it was both morally reprehensible that these people should earn monies not by dint of their labour but in their sleep, as their assets earned interest/rent. Just as the present-day Duke of Westminster, Gerald Grosvenor, earns rents from his properties in Mayfair. The Sunday Times Rich List 2016, estimates the Duke was worth £9.35 billion. In (“Theories of Surplus Value” 1862-1863) Marx noted that capitalism was inherently built upon practices of usury and thus inevitably lead to the separation of society into two classes: one composed of those who produce value – capitalists/industrialists, and the other, which feeds upon the first one – the rentier.

Whatever the merits of these theories it is a brute fact that investment/growth/profitability have all been in long term decline. Attempts to shore up business growth has involved the issuing of increasing inputs of debt, a sort of monetary narcotic. But still the ongoing secular stagnation trend continues. Global corporate profitability was around averaged around 30-33% in the early 1960s and has now fallen to less than 20%. In an attempt to overcome this stagnation debt (private and public) 246% of global GDP in 2000 to 286% in 2014. A trend that shows no signs of abating. All this must lead to the inexorable conclusion that since debt is growing faster than output then diminishing returns have set in. Thus:

By 2005, US$5 of new debt was necessary to create an additional US$1 of growth; a five-fold increase from the 1950s.’ S. Das – The Age of Stagnation – p.2

Where all of this is heading doesn’t look particularly appetising; but what is becoming patently obvious is that the Finance Ministers, Central Banks, Financial Elites, Financial journalists, and opinion formers around the world either (a) don’t know what they are dealing with (b) think they know what they are dealing, but don’t, and therefore propose totally inappropriate ‘solutions’ (c) the masters of the universe sitting in their air-conditioned offices and trading floors, who know perfectly well what is happening – but they don’t particularly care; they’ll just take the money and run.

One such, Chuck Prince, Chairman of Citigroup a multinational US investment bank epitomised the morality of the masters of the Universe. During the orgy of speculation- which he was aware would end in tears – he opined that, ‘… if the music is playing you have to keep on dancing.’ When the music stopped, however, and the unsuccessful gambles with the company’s money had led to the collapse of the Bank, Prince resigned with a golden parachute of US$38 billion. Citigroup had later to be rescued by a US government bailout.

When the music plays you have to keep on dancing – a valediction for our times perhaps.


  1. It is fiscal stimulus that is needed i.e. politicians swallowing their deficit aversion and spending money into the economy in a manner that employs people.

    Monetary policy is about the price of money in the banking system. It can’t be a replacement for government fiscal policy which puts money into people’s pockets.

    • So you agree with Werner, then. Because Werner, based on an in-depth and detailed analysis spanning decades, says pretty much what you say here.

      So I’m a bit puzzled when you write things like:

      From what I’ve seen, Werner is a some way off shedding his monetarist training and can’t seem to grasp the fact that we actually have sovereign, fiat, non-convertible, floating exchange rate currencies.
      Kind of the opposite of Michael Hudson who understands completely but speaks likes a monetarist to his audience.

      Both frustrate the hell out of me.

      Hudson and Werner are anything but ‘monetarists,’ in your sense of the term. And if you believe that they are, you haven’t read them, and if you have, you don’t understand them, but oddly enough seem to be in agreement with them in what you advocate. That would make you akin to an ‘unconscious’ plagiarizing critical critic,’ in my opinion.

      My problem with Hudson and Werner is that they very much remain advocates of “capitalist relations of production,” or if you will, the “capital-wage relation,” and therefore offer little more than admittedly somewhat effective palliatives against the more egregious effects of “economic exploitation.”

      At most, they are about constraining the ‘banking industry’ to work for rather than against — parasitically speaking — the ‘real’ economy, which is to say that they are all about “spending money into the economy in a manner that employs people.”

  2. John says

    I can’t help wondering if what happened recently in India – the withdrawal of high value rupee notes – is somehow linked-in with all of this?
    A similar thing has happened in Europe too, with the withdrawal of the 500 Euro note on the alleged basis that it was being used by drugs traffickers.
    Has not something similar also taken place in the US in recent times, with the withdrawal of high value US Dollar bills?
    Is this the start of global demonetisation?
    THE question – I suppose – is what can any of us do about any of this?
    Is this designed to force everyone to put all their spare cash into equity markets, to continue boosting share values?
    Is it all simply designed to pull off a global ponzi scheme?

    • BigB says

      To nearly all of the questions you pose @John, the answer is a unanimous yes – you can view the Indian scheme as a global pilot scheme backed by USAID (no surprise there then.) Europe looks set to follow starting with their Action Plan “to fight the funding of terrorism” – restricting the size of cash transactions. The £50 and the $100 bill have been targeted.
      TPTB think of our life savings and social security nets as extra chips in the high end casino of international finance. In a cashless society, we can’t take our money and cause a bank run, and so it is readily available for the ‘bail in’ when their chips run out, socializing their debt. However, the main objective, I believe, is the extension of surveillance and control. For instance, in a neo-Ballardian near future, it is not such a quantum leap to foresee that for anything less than model behaviour, a citizen could be denied access to their personal finance. I apologize for the cynicism, but I don’t claim to own it, ‘they’ do.
      Ultimately, it is also about international control – extending the already inordinate amount of supranational influence over global governance in the hands of the ‘Gods of Money’ – the central bankers, Wall Street, the City of London etc. – but also private individual billionaire hedge fund types. Soros will hopefully be dead, but his like could easily exert undue influence over a financially vulnerable nation state by threatening to sell their currency short and crash their central bank (as Soros nearly did to the BoE on Black Wednesday.)
      What can we do? I am trying hard to answer that very question, and I’m open to suggestion – all I’ve come up with is something – and very soon!
      Short of living off the land or ‘prepping’ (which is already being rolled back in the ‘States) I see no appetite for genuine non-violent civil unrest (yet – and killing bankers ain’t my thing.) Precious metals or crypto-currency might survive a ‘reset’ – but will need to be ‘re-monetized’ to be of practical value. e-Commerce may or may not continue to be available. Parallel local commerce schemes (Bristol or Brixton pounds; P2P finance; crowdfunding etc) are just that – parallel, and (currently) pegged to the national currency, but could be pegged to BitCoin? Local Economic Trading Schemes based on goods for barter, backed by BitCoin?
      I’m starting to struggle and you can see the problem of vulnerability – what happens to our nascent socio-economic, communication, organization, e-commerce and crypto-currency models if the network gets shut down? Especially if we are prevented from going ‘off grid?’
      Outside of a few hopeful pilot schemes, people are currently too factionalized for a national non-political grassroots cooperative movement (anti-Trump snowflake agit-prop doesn’t even nearly begin to count,) not while the “we’ve never had it so good” big lie malingers. People are prepared to wait for our political spin-meisters to magically bring the ‘good times’ back (after Brexit? – Don’t make me laugh!) Those who think that the good times were neither all that good (taking the broad spectrum view,) nor are they coming back, are currently too few.
      Maybe we all need that ‘reset’ to focus our minds?

  3. BigB says

    It is not the economy, stupid (the main commodity is thin air and there are limited benefits to the general populace), it is international grand theft from the many by the few – and I believe that Frank has fallen into the trap of trying to explain this in terms of classical economics – when Michael Hudson himself has a much better term; ‘junk economics’ – or as Ha Joon Chang has aphoristically put it “economics is common sense made (deliberately) complicated.” In order not to have the wool pulled over our eyes, I believe that to correctly form a conceptual framework for modern economics, only three technical terms are required – theft, fraud and usury.
    It is now so far beyond wilful neglect, incompetence, or misunderstanding that it really should be blatantly obvious to all and sundry how the system is set up – it is beyond ‘rigged’ – it is criminally fraudulent. I find it hard to believe that the populace at large can’t see beyond the overtly complicated technical language, pseudo-scientific graphs, falsely-formed expectations and politico-economic sweetening – it is not complicated, it is not science – in return for the hollow dream that “this time next year, we’ll be millionaires” we are being consciously bled dry.
    We are now at the point where our capitalist overlords are stealing from our children and grandchildren at an accelerating rate. Sod the ‘reset’ – that’s for us to sort out – they’re assets are behind so many limited liability shell companies as to be untouchable. After the ‘reset’ they’ll use their freely acquired capital to clean up in the firesale. After several ‘resets’, bail-ins, IMF ‘debt recovery packages’ etc. – there will be no state, public or privately owned wealth that they haven’t acquired. If anyone wants to know their socio-economic future – think Greece.
    In the meantime, and to facilitate this end goal, the next part of the plan is to ‘demonetize’ the system – so that we are more or less wholly dependant on the ‘cashless’ society. They may even try and confiscate our gold – but that may have to wait until after the reset, so as to not have the plebs get uppity. With all of our collateral ring-fenced and freely available – that should allow their ponzi scheme to be extended for the foreseeable future.
    The elephant in the room that no one wants to confront is that for at least some of our overlords – the global population needs to be reset too. I won’t make a fool of myself by mentioning ‘peak oil’ – and we can argue all we like about ‘global warming’ and ‘sustainability goals’ – but at some point on the curve, if demand continues to outstrip supply (of real goods and commodities – not services commodified from thin air) we’ll meet ‘peak resource.’ Don’t laugh, the system as is is engineered to outstrip resources and the planet is not infinitely giving – and the population reset will be catastrophic.
    Hopefully, I’ll have checked out by then – but if the snowflakes and the social justice warriors want to be spared the indignity of a life of indentured servitude – go protest something real – it’s the neoliberal (neocon) capitalist ‘economy,’ stupid! But it is not the only way.

    • ChrisB says

      ‘ … the next part of the plan is to ‘demonetize’ the system – so that we are more or less wholly dependent on the ‘cashless’ society.’

      The attraction of a cashless society to TPTB is that we will be forced to put our money in the bank and at a stroke of the electronic pen the value of our savings can be reduced or totally eliminated. There will be no more queues of people rushing to withdraw their money from a failing bank, because you won’t be able to hold cash.

      • Chris says

        Re cashless society it is amazing how much traction the supposed fight against criminal elements gets as an excuse to remove cash from the economy. Cash represents approx 3% of ‘money’ in the developed world. What can one realistically do with that 3%? Isn’t the purpose of criminal activity making dirty cash electronically clean? And to achieve that one needs banks and shell companies, tax havens, accountants and the rest of the infrastructure of the ‘respectable’ financial services sector in places such as London. Presumably Barclays/HSBC were not literally cleaning billions of $s worth of banknotes for the South American drug cartels? The only way to remove large scale criminality from the financial sector is to really regulate it, but we can’t have that. Of course removing cash from circulation would be one of the last vestiges of privacy taken from individuals. So we will have to endure the terrorists/cash dog whistles just as we have the ones re Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, Kadaffi’s ‘slaughter’ of civilians etc, etc.

    • Of course, overall, I agree with everything you write. And it is not the only way. And though I did point to Richard Werner’s analysis of how the ‘theft, fraud, and usury’ actually happens, I’m not entirely of one mind with him and likes of Michael Hudson, both of whom I very much respect and admire, in their recommendations for making the “system” more honest and amenable to the needs of the general population.

      Of course, they are ‘realists’ and what they recommend could be legislated into effect tomorrow morning without causing any kinds of dislocations whatever, and in a matter of months, at most a few short years, people’s lives would be greatly improved, and in the ‘interim,’ as step forward toward where we must eventually get, I do wholeheartedly endorse their proposals.

      But we cannot stop with these ‘fixes’ because the structural conditions, politically and economically speaking, would still be very ripe for permitting a repetition of exactly what we currently have, and the goal should be to reach a point where institutionally such a regression would simply become impossible.

      As for demonetization, yes, in part, it is a tightening of the grip of the banks on our lives or, if you will, a refining of one aspect of ‘how’ the ‘fraud, theft, and usury’ is perpetrated.

      Ultimately, however, if we are ever to move beyond the horizon of capitalism, “money” as such, which is a ‘system’ of actual condition permitting the economic rape of the working class, be it either in a monitized or demonitized form, must altogether be euthanized.

      There is another paper that I have also once referenced, here, at OffG, by Paul Mattick, titled “What is Communism.”

      This read is accessible to most anyone and does in my opinion a really good job of helping a person grasp how “money” functions under a capitalist framework and how existing methods of overseeing and coordinating socialized production (i.e., systems of efficient production and distribution that must of necessity involve millions of individuals) can be adapted to better serve community needs.

      Also as a reading of where the Soviet Union essentially went wrong, Mattick’s piece strikes me as both astute and a substantial elaboration of Marx’s critique of “money.”

      Certainly, Mattick’s prescription, equally every bit as technically feasible as anything that economists like Werner and Hudson recommend if it could be implemented, would take us a good deal further down the road toward something beyond capital and in a manner that would, in my opinion, make it more irrevocable.

  4. Jim Porter says

    As soon as negative interest rates become the norm, Bitcoin and the like will really catch on but the big banks have got that covered as they have been investing in Bitcoin since 2008 and normal banking will just syphon off everything from people with normal current accounts – mix that with a cashless society and all choices are stitched up – so, probably by design.

  5. After the American crisis caused by criminal greed and corruption which washed around the world ruining economies and with it businesses and lives. The 2008 crisis. Obama said “we cannot help banks on Wall Street without helping the millions of innocent home owners who are struggling to stay in their homes”. What did the peace prize laureate do? He made peace with the banks and millions of innocent home owners were made homeless some loosing their lives in the process – the deplorables.

    Michael Hudson, “A debt that can’t be paid wont be paid”. So as yet it only applies to the banks…
    There is no such thing as a free lunch – we are still paying for the bankers tab!

  6. The Fed admitted it caused the Great Depression, and they also helped the Great recession to life, stealing tens of trillions from Americans while making the thieves very rich .

    Wait until the next crash, which is coming and will wreck the USA, but the insiders will get very rich. And we’ll hear the same old BS, “Gee, no one saw that coming,” while the banksters laugh all the way to their Cayman Islands banks.

    • Yes. It is absolutely contrived. Stock market booms and busts are one way of pilfering the savings of the working class, and, on the other hand, bankrupting businesses in the so called ‘real’ economy through the mechanism of debt is another complimentary way of concentrating even more capital into the hands of the already fabulously rich.

      I”ve referenced this once before, but it bears being referenced again and again, for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it:

      The YouTube summary reads in part as follows:

      Published on Nov 4, 2014
      “Princes of the Yen: Central Banks and the Transformation of the Economy” reveals how Japanese society was transformed to suit the agenda and desire of powerful interest groups, and how citizens were kept entirely in the dark about this.

      Based on a book by Professor Richard Werner, a visiting researcher at the Bank of Japan during the 90s crash, during which the stock market dropped by 80% and house prices by up to 84%. The film uncovers the real cause of this extraordinary period in recent Japanese history.

      Making extensive use of archival footage and TV appearances of Richard Werner from the time, the viewer is guided to a new understanding of what makes the world tick. And discovers that what happened in Japan almost 25 years ago is again repeating itself in Europe. To understand how, why and by whom, watch this film.

      “Princes of the Yen” is an unprecedented challenge to today’s dominant ideological belief system, and the control levers that underpin it. Piece by piece, reality is deconstructed to reveal the world as it is, not as those in power would like us to believe that it is.

      “Because only power that is hidden is power that endures.”

      A film by Michael Oswald

      You can follow Richard Werner (Author of the Book) on Twitter at @ProfessorWerner

      And if I may be permitted to make one more and related recommendation, for what it teaches us about ‘banking’ as a fleecing operation: Shifting from Central Planning to a Decentralised Economy: Do we Need Central Banks? — a paper by Prof. Richard Werner

      • BigB says

        Thanks for the link, I watched the film the first time you posted it and shall be reading the link shortly. In the meantime, TPTB have their own ‘decentralization’ of the nation Trojan Horse – devolving nation states into city states legislated by a ‘Global Parliament of Mayors.’
        Sold along the lines of a more direct and locally representative form of government, local commerce, sustainable local produce etc.; I could almost buy into it, but then – surprise!
        Hello supranational rules based One World Order!

      • From what I’ve seen, Werner is a some way off shedding his monetarist training and can’t seem to grasp the fact that we actually have sovereign, fiat, non-convertible, floating exchange rate currencies.
        Kind of the opposite of Michael Hudson who understands completely but speaks likes a monetarist to his audience.

        Both frustrate the hell out of me.

        • Hi Jag,

          Just before I go and nod off for the night, a question to you: did we recently have an exchange about ‘money printing’ and ‘sovereign fiat,’ here, somewhere in the OffG threads?

          And can you elaborate a little bit on what you mean by ‘Werner not having shed his monetarist’ training? A comparison and contrast between ‘a monetarist’ and ‘non-monetarist’ might be helpful for me to get a better grasp on what you mean.

          Until tomorrow, then?

    • Seamus Padraig says

      Yup. Our whole economy is now nothing but a big pump-and-dump scam run by the Fed.

Please note the opinions expressed in the comments do not necessarily reflect those of the editors or of OffG as a whole