Sunday, 21 December 2008

The New Capitalism -by the BBC

Over the last year or so, there is one man that has become a source of pain for some in the financial services sector. Some journalists don’t like him either. It is Robert Peston, BBC Business Editor. [blog]

His idiosyncratic style and general slow delivery (plus mumbling and fumbling and humming) irritates many. Others are irritated by his “attacks” on the financial services sector and the markets. The right-wing blogosphere attack him for being a "leftie" and the mouthpiece of the Labour government. Or so they claim. Stockbrokers and investment managers despise him because he “brings the market down”. I thought the markets were "efficient"?
The FT journos call him Pestowire, or Peston RNS, a reference to the Regulatory News Service used for the public dissemination of financial markets announcements.

It is difficult to convey to anyone living outside the UK how pervasive Mr Peston’s presence in the BBC has become. Since his reports on the debacle of Northern Rock, and the collapse of the banking system and consequent recession, his presence is the main feature of the 6pm and 10pm news bulletins every single day. I remember one day he even broadcast from the garden in his house.

Recently, he has published a short essay with the title “The New Capitalism”. [PDF]
They are summarised in these two videos. [link]

Personally, I don’t have any issues with his reporting. And when someone’s argument is over style, or personality, you know that people are on a loser. So I haven’t got much sympathy for those who blame Peston for anything. The world, or the stock markets, would not be any different, had Robert Peston not reported on the stories we all know about now. Shooting the messenger is not the answer to this problem, and it shows how inward-looking and shamelessly self-preserving the financial services sector (I refuse to use the word ‘industry’) has become: denial has become the modus operandi in the face of an unpleasant reality.

I do have a bit of an issue with this essay though. Not much with the content than with it having the logo of the BBC as an endorsement. So is this the BBC’s vision of capitalism post-credit crunch or Peston’s? It may be trivial and I might be over-analysing, but the presentation of this essay is not clear, and as a license fee payer I object the way in which has been delivered.

I have no issue with Peston’s book “Who rules Britain”. It may read more like a series of articles and it lacks a cohesive argument, a central thesis that it is presented to the reader. But overall, it provides a few examples of how the City and big businesses work, and how tax avoidance, sorry tax efficiency, has been encouraged by the Labour government.

But reading his essay on the new capitalism taking shape, I could not help but wondering about some of the statements and claims made:

“Arguably the global economic crisis will turn out to be more significant for us
and other developed economies than the collapse of communism.”
Well, I disagree completely. The collapse of communism left millions of people in the world, including Europe, ideologically orphan. Suddenly, there was no alternative to capitalism in its various forms. Communism, the egalitarian, collectivist alternative had failed. We went from two competing systems to one. Now we are going from an imperfect system to another one.

I agree 100% on the debt binge ('credit expansion' to be technical about it) as the key cause of the present crisis.

Some of the language is quite emotive:
“To put it in crude terms, for much of the past decade, millions of Chinese
slaved away on near subsistence wages and still managed to save, both as a
nation (China swanks £1,400bn in foreign exchange reserves) and as individuals.
And to a large extent they were working to improve our living standards, because
they made more and more of the stuff we wanted at cheaper and cheaper prices.”

It is naive to say the Chinese slaved away on near subsistence wages. Living standards in industrialized areas of China have risen in a way that was unthinkable a few years ago. If they were “slave” wages, then they could not save as much as they do. Agreed, the wages are low compared to Western standards, but wage differentials should not be measured in absolute terms, otherwise workers everywhere except western Europe are too slaving away. I could even concede that most factory workers in China are on relatively low wages, a byproduct of the excess supply of labour, but average Chinese wages are by no means “slave”. Also, and more importantly, the Chinese were not working to improve our standards or toiling for our prosperity: they were working to improve theirs, like any sensible nation does.
It would be more appropriate to say that we were outsourcing work to China so that we could buy goods at cheaper prices and keep inflation down.

I agree that the savings imbalances and the current account deficits in the UK and US (and also Spain) are unsustainable and that our low inflation in the last few years is the result of excess savings from emerging economies being recycled into UK, US and Euro-area debt.

And I also agree with the culpability. All of us to a certain extent for being addicted to compsumption, but mainly our financial institutions for having failed to protect the interests of their shareholders, creditors and customers, and our governments and regulators for having failed to take the appropriate regulatory (disclosure, capital requirements) and political (current account deficits, allowing outsourcing to countries with unacceptable working conditions, supporting asset inflation) decisions to prevent this crisis from happening.

But Mr Peston forgets to mention the issue of taxation and the use of low-tax jurisdictions by companies and business leaders, and how this Labour government has done nothing to stop it.
He also forgets to mention the use of off-balance sheet vehicles by banks. The Labour government and the FSA did nothing to prevent it. And he does not mention that this goverment has overseen tax changes that favour the megarich and private equity at the expense of middle class earners.

But Peston also forgets to mention the concessions China, India and others will extract from keeping buying our public debt. Just now China, if they wanted to, could bring Western economies to its knees simply by refusing to buy our low-interest, low yield government debt. But the Chinese will not do that. They will keep buying US and UK debt and will extract political concessions from the West.

What these concessions will be is difficult to predict. But I am going to venture a couple of possible scenarios:

Institutional reform: the Chinese and India will demand that international institutions are reformed and the US veto is abolished at the IMF and the World Bank.

Taiwan: Slowly, Tibet has become off-limits for the West. And next it will be Taiwan. If I were Taiwanese I would be crapping myself. Over the next few years we will see how China, slowly but surely, will gain gradual sovereignty over Taiwan as a condition for keeping Western capitalism ticking over. And this way, Mao’s dream of a unified China under one leader and one party will be accomplished.

But will the US accept that they no longer have the monopoly of power in world finance? Will they (we) accept to be humiliated once again over Tibet and Taiwan? Maybe not, since Western governments will be unable to control the press and public opinion as efficiently as the Chinese. So we are heading for a political and economic stalemate of unpredictable consequences.

There is one way out of this problem without the Chinese becoming the new superpower and gaining power over Taiwan: inflation. If the West is unwilling to make so many concessions, China, India, Gulf states and others will demand that US and UK government debt pays a higher rate of interest than it does now. That is something our governemtns can do very well, and technically is called "an increase of the money supply", or as my dad says, "printing more money". This however will fuel inflation in the US and UK and Euro-area which could have a devastating effect on employment and business investment -unless proteccionist measures are adopted to protect "national" industries. But then, protectionism itself keeps inflation high; there is no easy solution.

So over the next few years our political leaders will have to make very “tough” (don’t they love to use the word?) choices.

Do they accept that a new world order is emerging and that there are political prices to pay? Or will they postpone or delay this restructuring of world finance and political power by implementing inflationary policies that will reduce the nominal amounts of national debt but fuel domestic inflation?

In crude terms, the question is: will our (Western) politicians give up the world power mechanisms they have built up over the last few decades?

I know what my answer is. What is yours?

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