Monday, September 15, 2008

All at sea

From the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

The indications are that the economy is heading for a recession, which no government can prevent.

The idea that the market economy can progress steadily, providing for ever-rising levels of growth, trade and employment, is a fantasy dreamt about by every Chancellor of the Exchequer and most politicians generally. This was never more the case than with the former Chancellor Gordon Brown who claimed repeatedly that year-on-year economic growth was the unique product of his prudent and circumspect economic management of British capitalism.

The prudence of the erstwhile Chancellor – and now Prime Minister – is suddenly in doubt as the economy, according to most commentators and analysts, heads towards a recession his government seems powerless to prevent. No longer in command of everything he surveys, Brown’s frailties are suddenly all too apparent, even to many of his former supporters. Indeed, it is interesting that many of the commentators who saw little to question in Brown’s outlandish claims over the last ten years were also most often the cheerleaders for a housing market bubble they said would never burst, and which now provides them with endless column inches of hard-hitting prose now that it finally has.

Before the housing market crash began and when the politicians and mainstream press were still in denial, we had, in the May 2007 Socialist Standard, a different perspective: ‘past history demonstrates that sooner or later, the current housing bubble will end in tears. When asset prices become completely disengaged from what is happening in the real economy where wealth is produced and value created, and are only sustained by ever increasing amounts of indebtedness, it cannot last – capitalism just does not work that way’. According to the Financial Times (9th August) this debt has now risen from 100 per cent to 170 per cent of household income under New Labour (the highest in the G7 countries) and 80 per cent of this has been secured on property, a perilous situation for the housing market in particular but also for the economy as a whole.

Business cycle

Growth in the market economy (in the housing sector and more generally) does not proceed in the manner of a straight upward line as imagined on a Treasury graph. Its general direction is upwards over the long-term, but growth tends to be uneven, unpredictable, and prone to periodic wild gyrations. For very good reasons this is the way it has always occurred in capitalism and there is nothing about the system, or the politicians who oversee it, to suggest it will happen any differently in future.

In the nineteenth century the concept of capitalism’s ever-recurring trade cycle was well-known, the most coherent and in-depth analysis of it being developed by Karl Marx. As prescient now as it was then, Marx summarized his view in the following terms:

‘The factory system’s tremendous capacity for expanding with sudden immense leaps, and its dependence on the world market, necessarily give rise to the following cycle: feverish production, a consequent glut on the market, then a contraction of the market, which causes production to be crippled. The life of industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis and stagnation’ (Capital, Volume 1, p.580. Penguin Edition).

There are two related factors which drive this boom/slump cycle. Firstly, the fact that production takes place with a view to realising a monetary profit. Without this prospect of profit, production will not take place. Needs without the ability to pay are left unrecognised, whether that be housing for those unable to get a mortgage or food for those unable to pay for it. Secondly, this profit-seeking is conducted by hundreds of thousands of competing enterprises whose ultimate aim is to increase market share, increase production, and through doing so increase profits. The problem is that the drive to compete for these enterprises is their only tangible reference point to one another. What they do is not co-ordinated and planned, and not linked to the demands of other companies and industries. Instead, there is an anarchy of production which periodically leads to key sectors of a booming economy over-expanding in relation to existing market demand.

That this situation occurred in the US housing market from 2006 onwards, and has since been transmitted to many other property markets including that of the UK, is now obvious even to most of those who vehemently denied it would happen.

Defining a recession

The Treasury and Bank of England (along with their counter-parts in the United States) officially define a recession as ‘two consecutive negative quarters of economic growth’. By this they mean half a year of economic contraction. The way that statistics are necessarily compiled (especially considering the time-lag factor) it is not always evident that a recession has been happening until after the event. In 2001 it was assumed that the United States was in a recession, but after the event it turned out that this wasn’t (quite) so based on this definition.

Marx claimed that for a recession (depression or slump – depending on your preferred terminology) to occur, overproduction for particular markets had to spread and ‘grip the principal articles of trade’ (Theories of Surplus Value, p.393). In practice, sometimes this generalisation of overproduction will occur through a ‘knock-on’ effect when there is clearly disproportionate growth and overproduction in some industries that spreads more widely, but at other times it doesn’t spread sufficiently to cause a noticeably wider downturn. Furthermore, even when it does spread there are usually industries that do well in an otherwise declining economy, as was the case in the major 1930s slump when motor car manufacturing, for instance, continued to grow while other industries contracted.

There is little doubt that capitalism in most industrialised nations is long overdue a recession of sorts – the last widespread one was in 1990-92 and the boom since then has been far longer than the historic average. In this period capitalism has survived the Asian crisis of 1997, the collapse of the world’s biggest hedge fund a year later (the ironically named Long Term Capital Management), the spectacular bursting of the dot-com bubble with its various corporate scandals, the attacks on the World Trade Centre and other major political crises, and the massive 2000-2003 bear market in equities, all without officially entering recession in either the US or UK.

This time there are two significant forces propelling it in the direction of recession, however: the aforementioned property market crash which has seen the biggest monthly house price falls in both the US and UK in history, and the serious ‘credit crunch’ that has developed from it. The latter has occurred because so many investment products have been based on low-grade (‘sub-prime’) housing debt and as the housing market falls and people cannot pay their mortgages much of this debt has to be written off. It was recently enough to turn what would have been a six monthly profit for the Royal Bank of Scotland of in excess of £5 billion into a loss of £691 million instead, and has led RBS and many other banks to re-capitalise themselves through issuing more shares; in the US it nearly led to the complete collapse of one of the largest investment banks, Bear Stearns.

The main problem is that no-one, sometimes not even the banks themselves, know where all of these problematic sub-prime investments are or how much needs to be written off. It is this that famously led to an almost unprecedented reluctance among the banks to lend to one another last year as they did not trust what was on (or rather not on) each other’s balance sheets. Irrespective of what central banks have done with base interest rates, it has led to inter-bank lending rates being pushed up to comparative historic highs (the spike in LIBOR – the London Inter-bank Offered Rate – is what put paid to Northern Rock’s meteoric rise as it was hugely dependent on borrowing on the money-markets).

The credit system and the money markets associated with it are what oil capitalism’s financial machine. When they become dysfunctional the entire system can suffer; banks are reluctant to lend either to industry or to individuals, lines of credit dry up and companies getting into difficulty find that their one possible lifeline has been cut off. Indeed, it is the credit system that tends to act as a key transmission mechanism spreading problems in some sectors of the economy to others.

Lead indicators

The extent to which the combined effects of the housing market crash and the resultant credit crunch will lead to a recession is currently hotly debated by analysts, though it clearly has the potential to be very serious indeed. Hard data in the coming months should prove conclusive one way or the other as, in truth, there are few genuine ‘lead indicators’ of a slump that can tell us definitively that one is about to happen, or how deep it will be. For example, production tends to fall most noticeably once the slump is already underway and unemployment is another lagging indicator, only rising when companies have started cutting back on staffing levels in response to difficult trading conditions.

Falling stock markets are better lead indicators of a recession; this is because at the level of individual companies it is their interim and preliminary company results along with quarterly trading statements that typically give advance clues as to what is happening on the ground, and stock markets are usually quick to react, as they have been this time. Nearly all major stock markets have at some point fallen 20 per cent or more from their peaks since the credit crunch started, technically entering ‘bear market’ territory. The problem with stock markets, however, is that they can fall in the short-term for all sorts of other reasons too and also have a tendency to over-react to events. When UK shares lost about 50 per cent of their value in the 2000-3 bear market (and US shares almost as much) this reflected little that was happening in the real world of the underlying capitalist economy of production and trade.

Some economists and analysts have argued that the best indicator of an impending recession is what is called an ‘inverted yield curve’ on the money markets. This means a situation whereby short-term interest rates are above long-term rates (the inverse of the usual relationship) and in these circumstances banks have little incentive to lend long-term to industry when selective short-term lending is both safer and more profitable. In practice, an inverted yield curve is indeed almost always a precursor of recessions. Unfortunately, like falling stock markets, inverted yield curves can happen at other times too (the US had a significantly inverted yield curve in 2000 and had a curve that flattened and threatened to invert in 1998, yet there was no recession on either occasion). This time around, the US yield curve inverted in 2006-7 and has since switched to being positive; the UK yield curve inverted in the wake of the credit crunch starting last summer, and has recently started to flatten out again.

Mine’s A Baltic Dry

Arguably the best lead indicator of a recession exists as a measurement of what is happening in the ‘real’ economy of production and trade in capitalism rather than its financial superstructure. This is a curious and little known gauge of economic activity called the Baltic Dry Index. It covers dry bulk shipping rates and is managed by the Baltic Exchange in the City of London.

Each day the Baltic Exchange establishes average prices for shipping various cargoes around the world, whether it be 100,000 tones of iron ore from Brazil to the UK or 100,000 tons of soybeans from the US to India. Essentially, the index is a barometer of activity amongst shipbrokers involved in shipping those raw materials that are typically the precursors to production around the world, and it measures the demand for shipping capacity versus the supply of bulk carriers. It is a useful index because dry bulk mainly consists of commodities that act as raw material inputs into the production of other goods such as electricity, steel and food. Also, demand for these is variable and elastic whereas the supply of dry bulk shipping is inelastic, changing little in the short-term because of the length of time needed to build new tankers. This means changes in the index tend to principally reflect changes in demand. Fluctuations in the index have historically proved to be amongst the best lead indicators of economic activity in the market economy there is.

This has been demonstrated over the last few years, when the Baltic Dry Index surged on the back of the booming global economy and the demand for industrial and agricultural commodities led by China, India, Brazil and other emerging markets. Interestingly, despite a continuation of much of this activity, the index has in more recent times faltered. From the beginning of 2005 until the start of 2008 the index more than doubled, but after some volatile movement has since fallen from a peak of nearly 11,800 reached in May to around 7,000 at the time of writing, a fall of around 40 per cent. If this fall continues into the autumn and beyond, then a widespread, serious recession is more than likely as it will be reflective of a massive decline in the demand for raw materials required for the world economy.

Quite how severe the economic downturn proves to be is no small matter of interest as it will affect the lives of hundreds if millions across the globe, leading to falling production, falling property prices, rising unemployment and acute financial distress for many. And this is far more significant than the distress that is being caused for a Prime Minster in Britain who swore that this would never happen and who thought he could hold back the tide of capitalism’s business cycle through his financial management skills – a man who has been left looking ever more like King Canute instead, staring out to sea with the waves already lapping well above his ankles.

Dave Perrin