China Shifts Course
In the past year the U.S. and global “real” economies have enjoyed a moderate recovery. Much of that has been due to China stimulating its economy to ensure real growth in anticipation of the Communist Party’s convention, which has just ended. China’s President Xi and central bank (Peoples Bank of China) chair, Zhou, have announced, post-convention, that China’s real growth will slow and have warned of a global “Minsky Moment” (i.e. financial crisis) that may be brewing. China will now try, once again, to tame its shadow bankers and speculators who have been feeding China’s debt and bubbles, and prepare for the global financial instability that is brewing. The global financial bubbles—in stocks, bonds, currencies (crypto and real), derivatives, real estate, etc.—have been fueled since 2008 by capitalist central banks, led by the U.S. Federal Reserve and followed even more aggressively by the European Central Bank and Bank of Japan. Central bank free money has boosted stock and other financial asset prices into bubble territory and produced historic capital gains profits for corporations, professional investors, and the wealthiest 1% households in the U.S. and worldwide. The world’s approximately 1,500 billionaires’ wealth now totals more than $6 trillion—and that is only the officially admitted figure. More is not accounted for in the dozens of tax havens worldwide in which they park their money away from public and tax collectors’ view.
U.S. and other governments, meanwhile, are feverishly trying to pass even more tax cuts for billionaires and multi-millionaires, so they can keep even more trillions for themselves. Financial speculation has become the primary means by which super-rich enrich themselves even more—with the help of central bankers and their paid-for Congressional government tax cutters.
Central banks have enabled their wealth acceleration by providing virtually free money for them to invest in financial markets through borrowing (debt) and leverage. Government tax cutters also let them keep more and more of the free money, profits, and their financial capital gains. Financial bubbles are the consequence.
After 8 years of pumping free money into private banks, corporations, and investors, the U.S. central bank has begun a desperate effort to raise interest rates and try to slow the flow of liquidity from the free money firehose that, since 2008, have produced a tripling of corporate profits, a quadrupling of U.S. stock prices, bitcoin, crypto-currency bubbles, and $6 trillion of corporate bond debt issuance, much of which has been passed on to shareholders in dividend and stock buyback payouts. It will be too little, too late, however, as I have argued previously that the Fed cannot raise rates much higher without precipitating a financial credit crunch that will generate the next recession. So the Fed talks tough on rates but does very little. The central banks of Europe and Japan do even less.
Global banks and investors are addicted to the free money from the central banks and that policy will change little, apart from token adjustments and talk. The Fed’s (and all central banks’) dilemma is that raising rates and selling off its balance sheet (that will also raise rates) will cause the dollar to rise in global markets, using, in turn, currency collapse in emerging markets that will sharply reduce U.S. multinational corporations’ profits offshore. The Fed will not jeopardize U.S. multinational corporations’ offshore profits by raising rates too much. Higher rates would also shut down the U.S. construction sector, already weak (new residential housing is declining), and reduce U.S. consumption spending that is also barely growing, as it is based on debt and savings reductions instead of real wage growth. So the Fed is engaged in a charade of raising rates. And whomever Trump reappoints to the Fed chair after Janet Yellen won’t matter. The same free money policies will continue, for the system is addicted to free money and low rates for years to come—and that will continue, feeding financial bubbles.
The Fed, like all central banks today, has become an institution whose main task is to continue subsidizing capital and capital incomes. As the Fed tokenly raises rates, other state institutions (congress, presidency) are also embarking on massive tax cuts for corporations and investors to offset the moderate hikes in interest rates coming from the Fed. More than $10 trillion in corporate-investor tax cuts occurred under Bush-Obama. Trillions more are coming under Trump.
In the 21st century, advanced capitalist economies are increasingly being subsidized by their states—monetarily by their central banks with free money and fiscally by their governments with more and more tax cuts for corporations and investors. Via both central banks and legislatures, the State is increasingly engaged in reducing capital costs and thus subsidizing capital incomes. This is the primary emphasis of neoliberal policy in the 21st century capitalist economy.
The weaker capitalist sectors—Europe and Japan—are engaged in even more aggressive central bank free money provisioning. Europe’s central bank has just announced a sleight of hand, fake change in monetary policy: reducing its monthly free money injection (which has been benefitting mostly going to Germany and France bankers and corporations), while extending the period over which it will continue its program. It will provide less per month but for longer. Just moving the money around, as they say, not really reducing anything.
The Bank of Japan has been even more generous to its bankers, investors and businesses. The Bank of Japan has refused to engage in a free money/higher rates charade (U.S.) or language manipulation to fake a reduction in the free money flow (Europe). Japan’s central bank has announced it will continue buying and subsidizing corporate bonds, private stocks, and other financial assets, at an historic pace, thus contributing to propping up financial markets with no end in sight. Not surprisingly, Japan stock and financial markets are also on a tear, rising to levels not seen in 20 years. Similarly, financial asset markets have begun to escalate as in Europe.
As I have indicated, capitalist central banks are the original primary culprits of the free money policies adopted by all advanced capitalist economies—a policy that has been fueling debt and leverage, and stoking financial asset markets now entering bubble territory once again—i.e. creating the Minsky Moment of financial instability about which China’s PBOC central bank chair, Zhou, has just forewarned.
Two big decisions will occur in the U.S. in the first week of November: Trump will announce his new nominee for the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank and the right wing-dominated U.S. House of Representatives will define the Trump corporate-investor tax cuts further.
But whoever leads the Fed, there will be no real change in policy set in motion decades ago by Greenspan, continued by his protege, Ben Bernanke, and extended by Janet Yellen. Free money will continue to flow from the Fed (and even more freely from the central banks of Europe and Japan). Whether Powell, Taylor, Cohn or whoever are appointed, the policy of free money will continue. Rates will not be allowed to rise much. The private bankers and investors want it that way. And their bought and paid for politicians will ensure it continues. Meanwhile, the Trump tax cuts will additionally subsidize corporations and investors at an even greater rate The Trump tax cuts (which follow more than $10 trillion under Obama and Bush) will enable U.S. corporations to continue paying record dividends and stock buybacks to enrich their shareholders. The $6 trillion in dividends and stock buybacks since 2010 will be exceeded by even trillions more. Income inequality trends in the U.S. will therefore continue to accelerate unabated. It is true the global economy has enjoyed a brief and mild growth spurt in 2017. That growth has been driven by China’s stimulus and by U.S. business inventory investing in anticipations of Trump tax and other deregulation (also cost reduction) policy driven changes. But the growth of the summer of 2017 will soon slow significantly.
Meanwhile, the Trump bump in U.S. economic growth will also fade in 2018, driven up until now largely by inventory investing by business that won’t be realized in sales and revenue in 2018. Working-middle class household consumption has been based on debt and savings reduction instead of real wage income recovery this past year. That is not a basis for longer-term growth. Household consumption cannot be sustained. U.S. autos and housing are already fading. Simultaneously, escalating costs of healthcare insurance premiums will cut deeply into consumer spending in 2018 as well. And government spending, now stagnant, will also slow, as Congress cuts social programs in order to offset deficits created by the massive tax cuts for corporations and investors.
In Europe, political instability forces will keep a lid on economic recovery there (a hard Brexit looking increasingly likely, Catalonia independence uncertainty, new breakaway regions in Italy soon also voting for independence, the rise of right-wing governments in Eastern Europe, etc.). In Japan, business interests will continue to ignore Prime Minister Abe pleas to raise wages, as they have for years, while Japan gives the green light to become the global financial center for crypto-currency speculative investing. Consequently, odds are rising there will be a recession in the U.S. and globally by late 2018 or early 2019. That will likely be accompanied soon, before or after, by a new Minsky Moment of financial instability that will exacerbate the real economic downturn. Z