The Global Policy Crisis Keeps Growing Because We’ve Never Seen This Kind of World Economic Crisis

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

But it is no accident that so many of the world’s economies are sputtering at the same time, or that so many people around the globe are angry. … One reason for the synchronized gloom, of course, is the synchronization of the global economy. … Rather, we are all, both together and apart, trying to figure out three big questions. … The first is how nation-states fit into a globalized world economy.

Chrystia Freeland, The three questions of global importance, Reuters, June 21, 2012.

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In an era of globalization, there are no innocent bystanders. There are certainly no oases of prosperity in the face of yet another major shock in the global economy. America’s growth mirage is an important case in point.

Stephen S. Roach, The Great American Mirage, Project Syndicate,  June 27, 2012.

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The possible conclusions are stark. One possibility is that those investing in financial markets expect economic policy to be so dysfunctional that the global economy will remain more or less in its current depressed state for perhaps a decade, or more. The only other explanation is that even now, more than three years after the US financial crisis erupted, financial markets’ ability to price relative risks and returns sensibly has been broken at a deep level, leaving them incapable of doing their job …

J. Bradford DeLong, The Perils of Prophecy, Project Syndicate, June 27, 2012.

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If we are to thrive as a global community of almost 10 billion – the projected population by 2050 – these new models are not optional, they are an absolute necessity.

From the Introduction, Outlook on the Global Agenda 2012, World Economic Forum.

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As a world economic crisis developed in 2008 and lasted longer than most economists predicted, it became increasingly clear that beliefs about macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy needed to be thoroughly examined. … By the end of this fascinating conference, we knew that we had entered a brave new world and that the crisis is generating enough questions to fill our research agendas for years to come.

From the Preface: Olivier J. Blanchard, David Romer, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E. Stiglitz, In the Wake of the Crisis: Leading Economists Reassess Economic Policy, MIT Press, 2012.

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We are living in very unusual times,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, the chief executive of Pimco, the world’s largest bond manager. “History may not be as reliable a guide as it’s been in the past.”

Jeff Sommer, Flights to Safety Can’t Hide the Dangers, New York Times, May 12, 2012.

COMMENTS

A significant number of economists and policy experts have wondered whether this global economic crisis is different – for two reasons: very few experts saw such a severe crisis coming and, even after absorbing that surprise, very few expected the crisis to be so resistant to policy interventions and to persist for so long.

The crisis is different this time – because it is embedded in a confluence of historical developments that the world has never seen before.  It involves the following developments:

  • Global climate change is damaging agricultural, tourism, fishing, and other weather sensitive industries, forcing producers to invest in very costly efforts to move and/or modify productive activities
  • The scale and scope of global production is running up against absolute resource limits, substantially curtailing practices that once were common and allowed market based productive activities to increase at low cost:
    • discovering easy to extract oil, natural gas, and mineral  deposits
    • opening up frontiers (territories not organized under western models of political authority) to invading waves of farmers, miners, loggers, entrepreneurs, and investors
    • adapting to dwindling fish stocks by fishing farther from shore and deeper
    • finding and harvesting virgin forests
    • abandoning aging and polluted cities, rivers and lakes (increasingly costly to maintain) to build newer cities in regions where rivers and lakes are untarnished
  • The centuries long era of incorporating the world’s territories and peoples into the western system of nation-states and coercing and bribing the world’s peasants, tribal peoples, and unpaid family and community workers into labor and consumer markets has come to an end; this has all but eliminated one of the primary ways in which the growth of demand for goods and services generally kept pace with the growth of productive capacity
  • The global spread of advances in productive technology, which entails the substitution of machine energy for human energy and machine thinking for human thinking, is slowing the growth of demand for goods and services by reducing opportunities to gain income through work.

This confluence emerged in recent decades and has permanently damaged the capacity of the world economy to generate the large pulses of consumer demand that historically called forth the productive investment responses that produced pulses of demand for labor.  The pulses of demand for labor increased wages and moved families from the ranks of the poor into the ranks of the middle class.  Over the longer term, more wealth was also pumped into the hands of the people at the top, preparing those people to respond to the next pulse of consumer demand.

Today, there is no mechanism for generating that heartbeat of economic growth.  The confluence of forces has damaged both phases of the cycle.

On the demand side, the first response to the confluence was a massive increase in global debt levels.  Debt growth sustained the growth of demand.  However, debt growth had to come to an end.

Today, with global debt levels very high and with global corporations wielding enormous political power in the world economy, it is not politically feasible to generate a Keynesian pulse of global consumer demand (either by massively expanding global debt levels or by  redistributing a large amount of wealth from the affluent to the have-nots).  But, even if the world economy’s leaders did find a way to generate a large pulse of consumer demand, it would largely fail to restart world economic growth.

On the supply side, the productive investment responses to a large pulse of consumer demand can no longer produce the employment and income gains that they produced in the past.  The ratio of machine energy to human energy in the world economy is so high now that demand for labor would not increase sufficiently to drive up global wage levels to the degree that was the case in the past.  Moreover, and more importantly for the long run, increasing the production of goods and services in the context of a world of resource limits that are becoming more difficult to overcome will drive up consumer prices. Whatever wage gains are realized will be offset by a higher cost of living..

From time to time in the history of the capitalist world economy, its magic has faltered and then been restored. This time the magic will sporadically flicker on for a while here and there in the world economy, but it will not be restored.  Something else will happen.

U.S. Job Growth is Becoming Increasingly Vulnerable to Economic Troubles That Develop Almost Anywhere in the World Economy

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

“’There is a separation between the United States economy and stock prices,’ said Russell Price, a senior economist with Ameriprise Financial. He said in 2008, a lot of the market momentum came from sales growth overseas in emerging markets, and a weaker dollar that helped profits.”

Christine Hauser, S.&P. 500 at Highest Close Since ’08, New York Times, February 24, 2012.

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“Globalization is one factor driving up profit for companies in the United States. According to a March 2011 paper by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, foreign earnings represented 40 percent to 45 percent of total profit between 2008 and 2009, against around 20 percent in the 1980s.”

Martin Hutchinson, U.S. stock bubble is in profit, not value metrics, Reuters Breakingviews, March 5, 2012.

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A recent Standard & Poor’s study found that 50 percent of sales by companies in the S.&P. 500-stock index are outside the United States. Interestingly, the report also found that these companies paid more in foreign taxes than to the United States government. ”

Steven M. Davidoff, Tax Policy Change Would Bring Cash Piles Abroad Back Home, New York Times, August 16, 2011.

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“China’s economic growth may further slow in the first quarter to 8.5 percent, from 8.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, with the potential risks of a sharper global deterioration and a sudden domestic property downturn raising the government’s concerns about policy changes, a senior economist from the State Council’s think tank said on Thursday.”

Chen Jia, Economic growth could slow further, China Daily, March 23, 2012.

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“After a decade in which GDP rose by at least 9% a year, it slipped back to ‘only’ a bit above 8% by the end of last year, according to the OECD. For the next decade, the OECD forecasts annual growth will hover at around 7%.”

Brian Keeley, How Slow Will China Go?,OECD Insights, March 21, 2012.

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The difficulties in the euro area have affected the U.S. economy. … In addition, weaker demand from Europe has slowed growth in other economies, which has also lowered foreign demand for our products.

Ben S. Bernanke, The European Economic and Financial Situation, Testimony Before the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., March 21, 2012.

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A main indicator of business sentiment in Europe unexpectedly fell deeper toward recession territory Thursday, compounding concerns about the global recovery after signs of slowing manufacturing in China.

The survey of purchasing managers in the Chinese factory sector, released by HSBC, showed that activity declined in March for the fifth consecutive month, as the Chinese economy felt the pain of feeble global economic activity.

China has become a major market for European products as varied as heavy machinery and luxury goods, so a slowdown there worsens problems in Europe.

Jack Ewing and Bettina Wasserner: Indicators Fall in China and Europe, New York Times, March 22, 2012.

COMMENTS

U.S. job growth is becoming more vulnerable to economic troubles that develop beyond the borders of the U.S. because U.S. corporations increasingly earn their profits in multiple regions of the world economy, perhaps not even primarily in the U.S.  This trend can be expected to continue as high end manufacturing, investments in science and technology, and populations of affluent consumers continue to grow in Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (referred to as BRICS) and spread to more countries.

The global distribution of U.S. corporate profit centers links economic troubles elsewhere in the world economy to U.S. job growth in two ways: through the impact of those troubles on the investment decisions of U.S. corporations and through their impact on incomes of older Americans.

Adverse Impact on Corporate Investments in the U.S.

With their economic interests spread across the world economy, economic troubles outside as well as inside the U.S. reduce the funds U.S. corporations have to invest anywhere.  Wherever economic troubles arise, U.S. corporations are largely free to distribute losses across multiple parts of their worldwide operations in whatever combinations they deem most profitable.

The U.S. is very likely to get a share of investment losses, even those losses that originate outside the U.S.  This is likely for at least two reasons:

  • In recent years rates of return on investments have generally been higher in some of the emerging economies than in the U.S., so U.S. corporations are unlikely to favor the U.S. over all other countries in which they have operations.
  • With an eye to future possibilities, U.S. corporations may even respond to shrinking profits outside the U.S. by shifting funds from the U.S. to economically troubled regions to maintain political favor, increase the productivity of operations in those regions, and/or finance takeovers of weaker competitors.

A reduction in the flow of investments in the U.S. almost necessarily slows job growth.

Adverse Impact on Spending by Older Americans

Economic troubles outside the U.S. can have an adverse impact on spending by all Americans, but the adverse impact on spending by older workers and retirees is particularly direct.  Moreover, the size of the impact is growing as large numbers of baby boomers transition out of the labor force.  (The Pew Research Center estimates that about 10,000 people now turn 65 every day. )

Older Workers.  Older workers see retirement coming, so they are likely to increase investments for retirement.  Those with families are also likely to try to build investments to leave their children.

Increases in investment activities link the spending behavior of older workers directly to economic troubles outside the U.S. because decisions about how much income to invest are influenced by stock market trends.  And those trends are tied to profits earned by U.S. corporations outside the U.S. as well as those earned in the U.S.

To reach a given financial position, higher stock market returns translate into being able to keep more income for spending.  Lower returns translate into having to reduce spending and invest more income.  (In this regard, it is important to note that the majority of older workers are at the highest income plateau they will reach in their working lives, so investment increases must be offset by spending reductions.)

By lowering the rate at which stock values increase, troubles outside the U.S. reduce spending in the U.S. Less spending translates into slower job growth.

Retirees.  The link between economic troubles outside the U.S. and the spending behavior of retirees is even stronger.

Retirement brings a partial or complete shift to sources of income that are quite dependent on trends in corporate profits and stock values – social security, pensions, and government programs that supplement incomes (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, assistance with food, transportation, and housing costs).  Pensions are directly funded by corporate profits and stock values.  Social Security and other government programs are funded by revenues partly derived from taxes corporate profits and taxes on individual earnings on stock portfolios.

Thus, through their adverse impact on corporate profits and stock values, economic troubles outside the U.S. reduce spending by U.S. retirees and government spending on behalf of retirees.   Slower job growth necessarily follows.

The Longer View

Most economists keep looking for a much needed shift to a sustained high rate of job growth in the U.S.  It probably will not come.

As things now stand, the world economy is chronically unsteady, plagued by sporadic outcroppings of economic troubles (that are mistakenly defined in terms of national boundaries rather than in terms of the world economy).  U.S. job growth is dampened by this global and revolving economic troubles account and will be dampened further as U.S. corporations spread their operations to even more regions of the world economy.

This state of things is more likely than not to continue indefinitely, unless the world’s nations do a much better job of managing the world economy as a whole and the U.S. government does a better job of managing investments in the U.S.

Scientists Map Key Component of World Economy

“We present the first investigation of the architecture of the international ownership network, along with the computation of the control held by each global player. We find that transnational corporations form a giant bow-tie structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial institutions. This core can be seen as an economic “super-entity” that raises new important issues both for researchers and policy makers. [from the abstract]

Remarkably, the existence of such a core in the global market was never documented before and thus, so far, no scientific study demonstrates or excludes that this international “super-entity” has ever acted as a bloc. However, some examples suggest that this is not an unlikely scenario. For instance, previous studies have shown how even small cross-shareholding structures, at a national level, can affect market competition in sectors such as airline, automobile and steel, as well as the financial one.”

Stefania Vitali, James B. Glattfelder, Stefano Battiston, The network of global corporate control, arXiv.org, July 2011

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“‘This is empirical evidence of what’s been understood anecdotally for years,’ says information theorist Brandy Aven of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.”

Rachel Ehrenberg,  Financial world dominated by a few deep pockets, ScienceNews, September 24th, 2011; Vol.180 #7 (p. 13)

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This study does not show that the allocation of investments that create employment opportunities for the world’s people is managed almost exclusively for the benefit of the members of this super-entity and their managerial minions and political allies.

It does not show that this super-entity uses its power to pressure governments around the world, including U.S. federal and state governments, to implement policies that are not in the best interests of the people who must live under and with the policies of those governments.

It does show that there is an entity with the power to do such things.

Note: the study examined relationships among 43,000 transnational corporations and 600,508 economic actors connected by more than a million ownership ties.