By Kumar David –
Two months ago (7 October), my column was about finance-capital and debt. Readers, even those familiar with economics, said it was a little complex and that in any case the general reader could benefit from an overview primer on finance-capital. This introduction is designed for general readers and I focus on the USA the heartland of finance-capital. I have used many sources including Michael Hudson’s Killing the Host, one of the best but badly written books I have read recently – sentence structure and editing are bad. Nonetheless it is an excellent introductory treatise on finance-capital. I will take up six topics.
- Drowning in debt
- The 1% and the 99%
- Finance-capital versus capitalism
- Finance-capital as rent-seeker
- Pumping and dumping
- Post-2008: The greatest plunder in human history
What I am constrained to omit for reasons of space is fraud, embezzlement, speculation, reckless casino-finance and regulatory capture – the staffing of oversight agencies with ex-CEOs and Directors of the institutions they are expected to oversee. Goldman Sachs had stacks of crony-alumni posted to oversight agencies by Obama-era bureaucrats Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner.
Drowning in debt
Governments, corporations and households (mortgages, credit-cards and student loans) are drowning in debt and there is no way the debts can ever be repaid. I will explain why in a moment but first note that not just the miserable governments of Sri Lanka, Italy, Greece, Latvia that are indebted to the neck, the same is true of mighty America, Japan, France and the governments of many rich countries. Corporations that cannot honour obligations declare bankruptcy, or post-2008 in the US banks, insurers, the car industry and big enterprises were bailed out by the state while ten million (yes 10) households went to the wall. Incapacity to escape the debt debacle is universal, this is why from third millennium in Mesopotamia onward it was the practice for the king to decree universal debt forgiveness every several years so that the economic cycle could start again.
Let me give you a simple sketch of how under the terror of compound-interest it is not possible for a government to escape from debt. Global GDP expanded 14-fold from 1940 to 2015 that is an average if assumed constant, rate of growth of 3.6% per year. Interest rates in America (stats easy to find) were on average 6% or more. The Federal Rate from 1940 to 1968 was below 5% but from 1968 to 2001 it soared touching 17% in 1981 and remained way above 5% till the 2008 debacle. It is difficult for me without research students to derive a weighted average, so I will illustrate using 5% and 6%. At 5% constant compound-interest, money will grow by a factor of 38.8 in 75 years and at 6% it will become 79.1 times larger. It is obvious that GDP growth cannot match the rate at which debt expands; 14 versus 38.8 or 79.1. International interest rates that developing countries like Sri Lanka face are on average higher than these assumptions. In a nutshell, governments, even the USA, will never escape the debt trap. At some point debt will be annulled to prevent systemic collapse. Too bad for the One Percent, they will lose just the hem of their shirts!
International finance, banks and fund houses, actually do not want governments to pay off debt but to keep borrowing. The objective is capture; privatise the debtor’s public domain (mines, utilities, harbours and monopolies) just as rural lenders set their eyes on seizing the farmer’s land as he sinks into debt, unless rescued by land reform legislation which is equivalent to debt deletion. There is no other way out for Sri Lanka or for poor Indrajit Coomraswamy; global debt is designed to engulf the debtor. The only way out is to annul it; come on, face the fact!
The 1% and the 99%
Eighty-six percent of global wealth is in the clutches of just 8.6% of its population. Not only Thomas Piketty’s empirical results but a slew of global statistics shows a similar result. Did you ever wonder how Sri Lanka and America, India and Italy, Jamaica and Japan could all be in debt at the same time? If one government is in debt won’t another be in credit? No not at all; the whole blithering lot are in debt to the filthy rich, the so-called 1%, the top of the pyramid of global inequality.
Global wealth resides in a few hands. Billionaire real-estate and corporate moguls, families bursting with boodle, oil kingdoms and sheikdoms, pension and post-office banks and a few sovereign wealth funds, but they stand in the background. Banks, and investment and off-shore fund managers who are paid handsomely place the funds. Corporate raider Carl Ichan’s wealth is estimated at $20 billion, JPMorgn Chase CEO Jamie Diamon’s at $29.5 billion; Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin earned $129 million in a decade as head of Citigroup, Obama’s National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers’ net worth, mostly earned by the influence he wields in the financial world, is about $17 billion, and Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Financial earns $100 million a year. But as I will explain next, finance-capital contributes nothing to enhancing productive investment or economic growth. It’s entirely a money management game where money is manipulated to make more money, to make the wealthy wealthier, to accumulate increasing wealth in the hands of the One-Percent.
Finance-capital versus capitalism
Finance-capital though it dominates modern capitalism does not contribute to the expansion of the real economy of industrial and agricultural production, nor does it play an important role in the growth of service sectors that serve consumer needs like information services, transport, trade and travel, mercantile enterprises and hotel and tourism. The principal activity of finance-capital has nothing to do with the production and investment side of capitalism that classical economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill elaborated and Marx criticised. It lives in a different universe; finance-capital is money-manager capitalism, not production capitalism.
It is a myth that that finance-capital generates funds for industry and productive activity to invest. Most money needed for expansion of enterprises is generated by the accumulation of the enterprises own profits. The financial sector invests does next to nothing in the real capitalist economy of output and employment; its eyes are on a different and predatory role. Finance-capital is the management of money pure and simple for the increase of money itself and is not linked to industrial, agricultural or service sector capitalism. Finance-capital inhabits an endogenous money circuit. It is a rent-seeking or rentier system, creating debt for interest extraction, asset-price inflation in real-estate and equities for leveraged speculation. I will now briefly explain what rent-seeking means.
Finance-capital as rent-seeker
Smith, Ricardo and Mill used the term free-market to oppose rent seeking. Their campaign was against the landlord class which was “making money in its sleep”. It was a struggle against land-rent; the market had to be freed from the strangle hold of rentiers. We have come full circle. The most powerful class in modern society is finance-capitalism, a rentier class, a rent-seeker pure and simple.
The avenues of rent extraction are through skyrocketing asset inflation in real-estate (mainly commercial property) rising interest extraction by blowing up debt bubbles as explained before and monopoly rights in telecoms (spectrum) and profitable public utilities. Industrial capitalists if they borrow are compelled to share their profit with interest seeking lenders who also hold ‘senior claim’ on funds if things go wrong. Capitalist usually borrow from banks is not for production or enterprise expansion; it is for facilitation of the commercial side such as letters of credit and role-over money between shipping and receiving payment. Insurance is also profitable money-for-jam method of rent collection. Finance-capital is not an adjunct to productive capitalism; it is a rent-seeking (unearned money like the income of the classical landlords) through asset price inflation, real-estate transactions, compound-interest collection and insurance. It now dominates the world starting from less prominent beginnings in the late 1980s to an apex position in the 21-st Century.
Pumping and dumping
I use three features of finance-capital to show that it inhabits a different world from common or garden capitalism: a world of financial manipulation (Grr, I refuse to use ‘financial engineering’). I have chosen IPOs, buy-back scams, and equity-to-debt swaps. Companies use Initial Placement Offers to place big blocks of new stocks on the market Take the manipulation (a finance-capital staple) of Apple in 1980. Carl Ichan led an alliance of corporate raiders who acquired a big enough block of Apple shares to force the company to issue $100 billion of new shares. This was utterly unnecessary; Apple was sitting on billions of dollars in reserves but the game was something else. The IPO, offered at $14 per share, a gross undervaluation, gave preference to prominent ‘preferred interests’ and company insiders. By sunset that very day the share price had risen to $29. Corporate raiders made a killing, took their gains, cut and ran. Apple of course only got the opening price of $14, the gains all went to financial operators – hedge and mutual funds, banks and corporate raiders. This IPO game is played again and again. It has nothing to do with investment in economic growth; it is a scam that will make Adam Smith turn in his grave.
Another scam is the buy-back mania. For many years less new shares have been issued in the US than shares bought back by companies. Buy-back sets off a “mania of the masses” reaction that dives share prices up, worsened if some billionaire is shown to be entering the market. You pump it up, dump it and leave the dumbest to pick up the pieces (“shorting” they call it). Purchases are leveraged; borrow at 3% annual rate, make 10% in days or weeks, cut, pay back the bank and run. Buy-back of shares in 2003-2013 was worth $2.4 trillion. This is finance-capital for you; it has bugger-all to do with capitalism as an engine of growth.
Thirdly, powerful money-market interests persistently pressure big companies to reduce share capital and increase bond issue; that is to swap equity for debt. The objective is to make companies less participatory (shareholders are co-owners in theory) and more dependent on the debt market. The effect is the same as what I have described above as the pit of indebtedness that governments have fallen into. Such is the real road to serfdom along Friedrich Hayat’s neoliberal pathway.
The greatest plunder in human history
I am not an American and have not lost anything, but my blood boils when public money is plundered on an Orwellian scale. The post-2008 ‘recovery’ packages exceed the plunder of the Soviet economy by Russian oligarchs and US raiders, and exceeds after scaling for time, Nadir Sha’s plunder of Delhi in 1738-40 when the Persians took away the Peacock Throne and Kohinoor Diamond.
The rip-off started with the Troubled Assets Recovery Programme of $900 billion in December 2008 to bailout America’s mismanaged and reckless risk-taking banks which included $250 billion to bailout just one rogue bank, Citicorp. This was followed between 2009 and 2012 by the $185 billion bailout purportedly of insurance giant AIG but actually Goldman Sachs which held huge amounts of AIG bonds. The greatest plunder was the $4.2 trillion that the Federal Reserve created and handed out to finance-capital, mainly banks. The One-Percent, the banks and Wall Street not the economy were bailed out using public funds. Capitalise profits, socialise losses is an old game but never before on such a scale.
The Obama Administration’s (and Bush-2’s last two months) complicity is so enormous that the anger of the Trump Base at Democrats and the Washington elite for serving the American financial empire by sucking the nation dry is entirely justified. This is one reason why Obama and Democrats are hated by workers and Southern poor whites. Obama, Timothy Geithner, Hank Paulson (a Republican), Robert Rubin and Larry Summers are rightly seen as manning the watchtowers around the Washington swamp. Obama was Wall Street’s president in the service of finance-capital, not the people’s president.