Monday, 16 January 2017

The world will be listening to Xi Jinping at Davos

By John Ross

Xi Jinping is the first Chinese president to speak at the Davos World Economic Forum. This visit has attracted even greater international media attention than the normally high levels of interest in a trip by China's leader. As the Financial Times chief foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman put it, "The big star of this year's forum is certain to be Xi Jinping."

The reason for this is well understood. China's unequivocal support for open economies and globalization is now clearly in contrast to the protectionism embraced by U.S. President-elect Trump and that was manifested on a smaller scale in the U.K. Brexit referendum.

In terms of declared positions on globalisation, a definitive turning point has already been made. Every U.S. president since World War II has at least verbally committed to free trade and globalisation. Trump explicitly broke with this historical U.S. position with threats to impose a 35 percent tariff on Mexico, a 45 percent tariff on China, to impose a U.S. "border tax", to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), by his pressure for U.S. companies not to invest in Mexico despite it being a NAFTA partner and by his clear overall policy statements. In parallel, while the reality of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was not a move for freer trade - being in reality an anti-China bloc - nevertheless its unilateral abandonment by Trump made the U.S. appear an unreliable negotiating partner.

Whatever happens in the future, there can never again be 100 percent certainty that the U.S. remains committed to globalisation. This fundamental pillar on which the post-World War II global order was built is no longer solid. It is widely understood that of the world's two largest economies, only China remains unequivocally committed to globalisation.

This directly and powerfully affects other countries in addition to China - hence the wide international interest in Xi Jinping's Davos visit. Other countries well understand, both factually and theoretically, the decisive importance of the international trade and globalisation.

Factually, numerous studies demonstrate the positive correlation of an economy's international openness and its development speed. Growing internationalisation by almost all countries was a decisive trend during the long period of relative global international economic stability and growth after World War II - a marked contrast to 1929-39 global economic fragmentation, marked by the infamous U.S. Smoot-Hawley protectionist tariff, which led to the greatest economic crisis in modern history.

Clear theoretical understanding of economic openness's advantages has existed for over two hundred years. The first sentence of the founding work of modern economics, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, is, "The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour… have been the effect of the division of labour." But division of labour in a modern economy has reached a point where it is necessarily international in scale. International supply chains, which alone ensure the cost efficiency of modern production, flow from the reality that different countries have different advantages in different parts of production. Attempts to create self-contained national economies necessarily make economies less efficient. Therefore, every strategy of "import substitution" or attempt to create an efficient national self-contained economy necessarily fails.

U.S. protectionism's negative effects, with its inevitable international reciprocal retaliation, would hit even the U.S., the world's largest economy - increasing prices of imported goods for consumers and costs for U.S. producers while restricting export markets. Even for the U.S., three quarters of the world market in economic terms and 95 percent of the world's customers in population terms lie outside its borders. A protectionist U.S. economy cannot match the advantages of orientation to a global economy.

But for Germany, 95 percent of its potential market is outside its borders, for Brazil 97 percent, for Australia 98 percent, for Thailand over 99 percent. Protectionism would be more damaging for them than the U.S. Such countries therefore applaud Xi Jinping's unequivocal defence of globalisation - not because of deference to China, but out of national self-interest because globalisation really is "win-win."

Sometimes in the media there is loose talk of a "rise of protectionism and populism." But this imprecise expression conceals a precise reality. In some European countries, there certainly is an increase in support for protectionist populist parties - for example, in France Marine Le Pen's National Front or the Alternative in Germany. But these are minority parties who are not in power and who in most cases have no realistic prospect whatsoever of forming governments. Only in the Anglo-Saxon economies have protectionist forces actually come to office or been able to determine government policy.

The overwhelming majority of countries, including traditionally firm U.S. allies such as Germany or Australia, have expressed opposition to Trump's protectionist policies. When Germany's Chancellor Merkel recently said, "We see protectionist tendencies," she was naturally discreet enough not to mention the U.S. But most people were well aware that the U.S. was included in the countries she was speaking of. A large majority of other countries listening will strongly agree either publicly or silently with Xi Jinping's clear statements in support of open economies and globalisation at Davos.

Maintaining an internationally open economy is vital not only for governments but for the world's population. Globalisation has brought immense benefits to the majority of the world's people, strongly confirming economic theory. Certainly, socialist countries were most able to take advantage of globalisation's benefits. The world's four fastest growing economies in the last 30 years have been socialist - China, Laos and Vietnam, together with a Cambodia whose economic policies are decisively influenced by China. China experienced the world's most rapid rise in living standards. Eighty-three percent of the people in the world lifted out of internationally defined poverty were in China, and a further 2 percent were in Vietnam - only 15 percent were in capitalist countries.

But while socialist countries made the most efficient use of globalisation, other countries also strongly benefitted. India under Modi has consciously moved closer to China's economic model, and India is now the world's other major rapidly growing economy. Several African countries, basing themselves on globalisation, have achieved growth rates of 6-8 percent a year.

Certainly the political crisis in the Anglo-Saxon countries, which has produced support for the protectionist dead ends, was created by a failure to improve their population's living standards. U.S. median household incomes are lower than 16 years ago, U.S. inequality has soared. In the U.K., real incomes in the last eight years experienced their most prolonged decline for a century. But this was not inherent in globalisation, as demonstrated by the dramatic improvements achieved by most countries, but a result of the specifically neo-liberal paths launched by Reagan and Thatcher. It is for this reason, not globalisation, that a protectionist political dead end has become strongest in the Anglo-Saxon economies.

China's support of globalisation, symbolised in Xi Jinping's Davos visit, corresponds to China's national self-interest. But it also corresponds to the national self-interest of other countries and peoples. Mutual self-interest is the firmest of all foundations for cooperation.

It is for this reason Xi Jinping's visit to Davos has attracted such intense international interest.

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This article originally appeared at

Thursday, 5 January 2017

British economic crisis is deepening

By Tom O’Leary

2017 has begun with some upbeat economic survey evidence although the majority of economic forecasters are cautious about whether this will be sustained. Leading stock market are also at or close to all-time highs. The reality is that the UK economic outlook is deteriorating. This will have both important economic and political effects over the course of the year.

Chart 1 below shows the nominal growth rate of profits for UK companies, quarter-on-quarter. Profits (more accurately the gross operating surplus) of firms have fallen marginally before inflation is taken into account. Once the effect of price rises is included, the fall in profits becomes more substantial.

Chart 1. Quarterly growth of UK companies, quarter-on-quarter
Source: ONS
Quarterly growth rates can be misleading, in part because they also reflect the impact of immediately preceding growth rates. If these were substantial, as in Q1 2016, then the effect is to depress subsequent quarterly growth. In a less erratic measure, the moving average of the last 5 quarters year-on-year growth rate in profits is 0.8%. This is extremely weak, and turns negative in real terms, once inflation is taken into account. It is much weaker than the long-run average growth in profits for the UK economy, which has effectively been slowing down since the early 1970s, with cyclical fluctuations.
Chart 2. UK companies’ year-on-year growth rate of profits, 1956 to 2016
Source: ONS
Profits matter. The creation of surplus value and accumulation as profit is the motor force of any capitalist economy. While every individual firm will continue to seek to maximise profits, if the total accumulation of profits is close to zero, then firms as a whole will primarily seek to maintain their capital rather than to expand it. Capital preservation is the priority.

This is exactly what has happened in the recent period. Firms have stopped investing, and are generally content to hire workers only as an alternative to capital investment or where they can enforce limited hours, low pay, zero hours or other increases in exploitation. In each of the first 3 quarters of 2016 the total level of business investment was below the equivalent period in 2015. In the quarter to October there was no growth in employment, while full-time employment fell by 50,000, made up by a similar rise in part-time work.

These trends represent the acceleration of longer-term tendencies in the UK economy. Chart 3 below shows the contribution of the different sectors of the UK economy to the total accumulation of the capital stock. From 1997 to 2015 UK companies increased their net capital stock by less than 1.5% per annum.
Chart 3. Net capital stock growth 1997 to 2015

Source: ONS
In absolute terms the company sector increased its capital stock by £390 billion over the period. But the combined increase in the capital stock from the household and government sectors significantly exceeds this total, rising by a combined £600 billion! The UK has not been able to rely on the private business sector to lead productive investment for a long time.

But this long-term trend has become more pronounced since the crisis. Private companies’ net capital stock has risen by little more than 1% on average per year since 2007. This profit-induced weakness of business investment is the primary cause of the Great Stagnation in the UK and in other advanced industrialised economies since the crisis.

Brexit effect

Since the Brexit vote profits have declined outright and so has business investment. Manufacturing has declined by 1% since June and industrial production has fallen by 2%. The trade gap has widened by £8 billion compared to the same period in 2015, an increase of almost 20%. The forecasts of sunny uplands by the Brexiteers are purely delusional.

There are many single markets in the world. The British economy is itself one, with minor exceptions there are common laws, freedom of movement for goods, capital firms and people, and a unitary currency and fiscal policy. The benefit of the EU Single Market in the making is that it is one of the world’s three largest single markets, alongside China and the US. This provides a powerful magnet for capital seeking profits. 

Of course it is possible for small amounts of capital to make very large profits investing in a small market, such as the UK would become with Brexit. But it is impossible for a large mass of capital to make large returns in a small market. And Britain needs large capital inflows simply in order to finance its external deficits.

British firms are struggling to realise profits. Ever since the crisis their level of investment has been abysmally low. This deepened the long-run negative trends in the UK economy. These have become sharply worse since the June 23 referendum. In any Brexit scenario, the less the access to the EU Single Market, the lower the attractiveness of the UK to international capital. Without a dramatic change in Brexit policy, there is little reason for optimism about UK economic prospects in 2017.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Migrants don’t drive down wages (once more)

By Tom O’Leary

A false argument can become an established truth by a process of constant repetition. But it is still false. This is now the main method used in the ongoing debate about the effects of immigration to the UK. One of the key false assertions widely made is that immigrants have driven down wages. 

Chart 1 below is based on a TUC analysis on the effect of the recession on real wages in selected countries. Contrary to Government propaganda, the UK economy is not booming. On some measures it is among the worst-performing countries coming out of the crisis. By contrast, while there are many other advanced industrialised countries that have been badly hit by the crisis, only Greek real wages have fallen as far as those of British wages over the period 2007 to 2015.

Chart 1. Change in Real Wages in Selected Countries, 2007 to 2015
Source: TUC

This collapse in UK wages has coincided with the continued growth in net migration to the UK. But coincidence is not even correlation, let alone causality. 

In reality, no-one outside the far right ever dreamt of linking wages to immigration levels until the Tory Government introduced a net migration target in 2011. This was a blatant attempt to distract from its own unpopularity because of its austerity policy. Labour had started to pull ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls for the first time in 4 years (data here). Blaming migrants for low wages, poor public services, the housing crisis and other issues is classic scapegoating.

The assertion that migrants drive down wages rests on general truisms; that migrants are willing to work for lower pay, they undercut wages and so on. If any of this were true, it would be generally true. There cannot be a unique mechanism which only applies to the UK which does not apply to other advanced industrialised countries. Yet this is one of the more obvious ways in which this argument falls down.

In Chart 2 below the total level of migration to the UK and to Germany from 2000 to 2014. It should be noted that over the period 2007 to 2015 German real wages rose by 13.9% while UK real wages fell by 10.4%, as noted in Chart 1 above.

Chart 2.
Yet this is almost exactly the period in which migrant inflows to Germany and to the UK diverge dramatically. In effect, just as German real wages were advancing migrant inflows were soaring towards 1.4 million per annum. At the same time, while UK real wages were declining the level of migrant inflows was more or less steady at approximately 500,000 per annum. As a proportion of the total population German migration was also much higher than that of the UK.

If the general proposition were true that migrants drive down wages in advanced industrialised economies, it would be true across those economies. It is patently untrue. German wages rose in real terms while its immigration rate and totals were far higher than that of the UK.

In reality, the German economy is a much more highly productive economy than the UK, about 30% higher. This is based on much greater openness to the world economy and much higher levels of investment over a prolonged period. This allows both higher wages and higher wage growth than the UK. It is the exceptionally low level of UK investment combined with the economy’s long-term structural weaknesses which have caused the depth of the crisis here and the fall in real wages. Migrants have not cut British wages. British bosses have.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

RBS shows left must think for itself

By Tom O’Leary

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is a publicly-owned bank. The overwhelming majority of its shares are in state hands, 73% of the equity. Yet it was the only major bank to fail outright the recent ‘stress test’ of its balance sheet conducted by the Bank of England. The bank is a basket-case. It is costing all of us money, and yet it could be a key contributor to economic recovery.

For many years the left has called for the nationalisation of the banks. This happened as a result of the financial crisis. But with very few exceptions the left had very little to say about what the public sector could do with its newly-acquired and deeply damaged assets. That was an error. Now that the left leads the Labour party and could be in position to lead the next government, it should use every lever at its disposal to produce an investment-led recovery. RBS should be seen as one of those levers.

Financial snapshot

The financial position of RBS is deteriorating, highlighted by the Bank’s stress tests. The stress tests themselves have four fundamental elements, related to the earlier global financial crisis. In the Bank’s stress scenario, world GDP falls by the same amount as in the global financial crisis and UK GDP falls by a lesser amount. But UK unemployment rises more than previously and UK property prices fall by a significantly greater amount. The stress test assumptions compared to the global crisis are shown in Chart 1 below.

Chart 1. Stress test scenarios compared to 2007/08
Source: Bank of England
The specific problem for RBS is revealed by this fundamental test. RBS is a loss-making bank, incurring a pre-tax loss of £2.7 billion in 2015. But it is also particularly unprepared to withstand a downturn in the housing market. This is despite the fact its so-called capital cushion against losses has increased. In 2010 its Tier 1 capital ratio was 10.7% while in 2015 it had risen to 15.5%.

This is a startling outcome, which completely belies the idea that banks can be insulated against shocks simply by increasing their spare or cushion Tier 1 capital. These are economic shocks outlined by the Bank of England, with perhaps severe financial consequences. The answer lies in economic policy, and its financial implementation.

RBS has become a more risky bank since the crisis, not a less risky one under its private sector management even while it has been in public ownership and its Tier 1 capital ratio has risen. This is because it has increased its dependence on lending to the housing market. Between 2010 and 2015 RBS increased mortgage loans on its balance sheet from £90.6 billion to £104.8 billion, and the proportion of its total balance sheet from 83.6% to 86.4% of the total.

This completely lop-sided dependence on mortgages means that any projected decline in house prices has an even greater damaging effect on RBS’s balance sheet than previously. RBS has in effect been cutting its lending to the productive sectors of the economy from already abysmally low levels. Business loans now account for just 4.4% of the total RBS balance sheet.

Of course, if private sector businesses are unwilling or unable to borrow for productive investment then it would be foolish for RBS or any bank to chase business by offering uncommercial business lending. But thankfully, even in the UK, there are large parts of the economy which are in public sector hands and which could easily increase their productive borrowing for investment. 

These include local authorities and universities. There is too still a host of companies in public sector hands. Local authorities own, or have significant holdings in a series transport networks, bus services, rail networks and even airports. In addition, they could all usefully increase and upgrade local authority housing. Universities own research facilities and share in science parks which can be expanded. They own publishing enterprises, which could be upgraded and digitised. Large scale companies remain in public hands, from broadcasting companies, to research facilities, the NHS, the Post Office, water companies, network rail and air traffic control. 

All of these could be expanded with investment and in the process would increase the level of productivity and prosperity for the economy as a whole. The publicly-owned National Grid could undertake its own large scale investment in renewable energy projects. The return on them would be on average very high, and RBS itself would be rebalanced away from the housing market.

The Tory government has presided over the longest fall in living standards in the UK on record. It has produced the Brexit car crash simply in order to manage its own internal divisions. It is utterly incapable of lifting the economy out of its morass. Inevitably, it has no idea how to lead RBS out of its crisis. The only reason a fire sale has not been conducted is that outstanding legal cases, primarily in the US, mean that some parts of RBS are still burning.

Labour cannot take its lead from the Tories on any of these issues. One of the most difficult tasks in politics is to arrive at an objective perspective on key issues, overcoming the weight of prejudice fostered by the enemies of workers and the poor. But RBS is a practical example of how the left must learn to think for itself, and use every lever at its disposal to deliver an investment-led recovery.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Autumn Statement shows Brexit makes us poorer

By Tom O’Leary

The ever-optimistic Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has come under sustained fire from the Brexiteers for its gloomy prognosis and forecasts for the Autumn Statement. This criticism is entirely misplaced. The OBR has underestimated the negative impact of Brexit.

The OBR has loyally served successive Tory or Tory-led administrations having been created by them in 2010 and has routinely forecast much stronger growth than has occurred, along with rising living standards that have failed to materialise. However, what the OBR cannot do is ignore economic reality. Its forecast weaker growth over the next two years, that is before Brexit is enacted, chimes with almost all private forecasts. The Brexiteers want to shoot the messenger, who brings news of the downturn they have created.

The OBR repeatedly emphasised that it cannot make any substantive forecasts about the Brexit period itself as the government would not provide any information on the post-Brexit economic regime, not even in the widest parameters. Instead, the OBR focused on the immediate negative impact of the Brexit vote and the deterioration of the economic outlook, and even assumed a resumption of slower but steady growth from 2019 onwards. Give the disruption that is currently scheduled for 2019 when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, this seems implausible.

Worse outlook because of Brexit

The most important OBR forecast changes are shown in Table 1 below (taken from Table 1.1 of the OBR’s November 2016 Economic and Fiscal Outlook). GDP growth falls by a cumulative 1.1%. Household consumption is down by 1.8%. Crucially business investment falls by 12.75%. In terms of living standards average earnings fall by a cumulative 2.8%.

Table 1. Changes in OBR forecasts for key economic variables since March 2016

Source: OBR
Not all of this deterioration is due to Brexit. The OBR specifies that around 60% of it is. In the OBR’s ‘counterfactual’ scenario, as if there had been no referendum, shows that 61.25% of the deterioration by the end of this parliament is due to Brexit (Table 1.4 of the OBR document). 

The remainder is the customary downward revision to forecasts as the OBR’s rose-tinted view gives way to reality. But this can hardly provide much comfort to the Brexiteers on the right or left. The OBR has only really taken account of the turmoil of the next two years and its previous track record suggests the forecasts will be markedly lower over time.

It is clear from Table 1 above that the biggest single casualty over the next few years is business investment. This is entirely predictable and predicted. As the level of investment is in part determined by the scope of the market, the UK’s withdrawal from the world’s largest market will inevitably deter investment. Contrary to government propaganda and much easily-led commentary, there will be no attempt to replace this new slump in business investment with increased public sector investment, as shown in Chart 1 below. Contrary to Tory propaganda there is no ‘National Productivity Investment Fund of £23 billion’, it is simply the relabelling of existing government spending on road, rail, housing and so on.

Chart 1. UK Pubic Sector Investment as Proportion of GDP
Brexit may have been sold as an opportunity to ‘get our country back’, but no vote can overcome the forces of global capitalism, or abolish the laws of economics. Irrespective of the ideas those who supported Brexit, the effect of the vote is to prolong the longest period of falling real wages in recorded UK history, as shown in Chart 2. Real wages had been falling since the end of 2014, when they were 5.7% below where they were when Labour lost office in 2010. But Brexit postpones the wage recovery primarily through flat wages and higher prices, so that they are not now officially forecast to recover until Q3 2019. This lost decade in wages is prolonged by Brexit.

Chart 2. Index of Real Wages
Overall the crisis of the British economy is demonstrated by the change in Consumption and Investment since the beginning of the crisis. The OBR has forecast the outturn for the remainder of this year. The changes in Consumption and Investment are shown in Chart 3 below. The change in aggregate Consumption since the beginning of the crisis has been just over £135 billion, led by rising private Consumption. The cumulative rise in Investment is just £0.8 billion, effectively zero.

It is this rise in Consumption without any rise in Investment to sustain it which has led to enormous overseas borrowings to cover the current account deficit. Consuming without Investment is also responsible for flat or falling living standards for the overwhelming majority.

Chart 3. UK Consumption and Investment Q1 2008 to Q4 2016 (Forecast)
 Unsurprisingly, the notion that exports will boom because of Brexit is revealed as pure fantasy. With zero investment the economy can only decline competitively if there is zero investment, once the one-off boost from Sterling’s devaluation fades. This is shown by the OBR in terms of export market share, that is exports divided by imports, in Chart 4 below. In fact, the OBR forecasts showing the relative decline of export performance accelerating post-Brexit compared to the previous trend.

Chart 4. UK Export Market Share
Economic objectives

As noted above, the OBR sought but was not given any meaningful advice from the government about its aims in the Brexit negotiations, or what policy outcome it expected. Instead it was given two statements by Theresa May. Below is a key section from the statements they were given.

Theresa May said, “I want it to give British companies the maximum freedom to trade and operate in the Single Market and let European businesses do the same here. But let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again.”

The OBR requested guidance on economic policy. What it got was bombast on immigration. This must be assumed to override economic policy, or supersede it.

Yet the OBR is clear, the objective of reducing immigration will itself reduce both growth and living standards for all. There are 70 references to migration in the OBR document. It states that potential growth will be 2.4% because of lower net migration by 2021. To be absolutely clear, this is not simply an effect which reduces GDP, it also reduces living standards for the entire population, measured as per capita GDP. The OBR states, “On a per capita basis, cumulative growth would have been 0.3 percentage points higher because net migration adds proportionately more to the working-age population than to the total population, thereby boosting the employment rate too” (p.45).

It should be the goal of all economic policy to maximise the greatest sustainable increase in the living standards of the population. The Brexit vote and the Brexit government have overturned that strategic aim, replacing it with immigration-reduction. Chancellor Philip Hammond told the Tory party conference that ‘no-one voted to be poorer’. Yet his own government acts as if they did. It is what they will deliver.

The reason the Cabinet Brexiteers are in uproar is that their reactionary fantasies cannot survive contact with the real world. Even the perennial optimists at the OBR must be attacked. But this is in the nature of Brexit, a reactionary project propelled by distortions and outright lies. Because Brexit erects barriers between the UK economy and the world’s biggest market, living standards will be much lower than otherwise. Curbing immigration will compound this effect.

Of course, it is quite possible for political movements and even nations to sustain themselves on reactionary fantasies for a whole period. But they tend not to survive contact with the outside world. The Autumn Statement is probably just a small foretaste of what is to come as the Brexit fantasy meets reality.