Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The End of Capitalism As We Know It?

The Western world is in an economic crisis similar in scale to the oil shock of 1973. What we are seeing is nothing less than the unravelling of neo-liberalism – the dominant economic and ideological model of the last 30 years.

The disintegration of Anglo-Saxon-inspired markets has come about largely because of the confluence of two tendencies of the "free market": speculation and monopoly capitalism. Contrary to received opinion, free markets – unless subject to civil regulation, asset distribution and persistent intervention – always tend to monopoly.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently efficient about free markets – they do not of themselves promote sound investment or wise management. Rather, when markets are conceived wholly in terms of price and return, and when asset wealth and the leverage that this provides becomes as concentrated as it was in the 19th century (which is a scenario we are approaching), then markets encourage nothing other than gambling masking itself as sound investment.

For example, before 1973 the ratio of investment to speculative capital was 9:1; since 1973, these proportions have reversed. So huge have the numbers, leverage and derivative instruments become that their value now far exceeds the total economic value of the planet. For instance, in 2003 the value of all derivative trading was $85 trillion, while the size of the world economy was only $49 trillion.

These ratios have risen with the latest estimates that the value of all traded paper instruments exceeds the underlying value of the assets on which they are written by 3:1. The fact that these assets may themselves be devaluing by up to 50 per cent (US housing values have declined by 25 per cent in two years) means that the overall ratio of global paper value to its leveraged base may indeed double.

This average global figure itself masks even more extreme levels of leverage. The Carlyle Group de-faulted on $16.6bn (£8.4bn) of debt last week. The private equity firm had been speculating assiduously on its AAA-rated mortgage base – by some estimates, at the end of its life, Carlyle's loan-to-value ratio and hedge exposure was at 36:1. There are, of course, many other private equity firms in a similar position.

This incalculable level of speculation is abetted by the huge concentration of wealth that has occurred since 1973. Why? Because if markets tend to monopoly then smaller groups of people control larger amounts of assets. The latest figures demonstrate this admirably: the richest 10 per cent of the UK population increased their share of the nation's marketable wealth (excluding housing) from 57 per cent in 1976 to 71 per cent in 2003. Over the same period, the speculative capital that could be deployed or inves-ted by the bottom 50 per cent of the British population fell from 12 per cent to just 1 per cent. Indeed, the wealthiest 1 per cent of the population, on current government figures, now control more than a third of all the marketable wealth – and this ignores the vast sums held in offshore tax havens.

The New Economics Foundation has shown that global growth has not aided the poor. In the 1980s, for every $100 of world growth, the poorest 20 per cent received $2.20; by 2001, they received only 60 cents. Clearly neo-liberal growth disproportionately benefits the rich and further impoverishes the poor.

Real wage increases in the top 13 countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have been below the rate of inflation since about 1970 – a situation compounded in Britain as the measure of inflation massively underestimates the real cost of living.

Thus wage earners – rather than asset owners – have faced a 35-year downward pressure on their standard of living. Indeed, the golden age for the salaried worker, as a share of GDP, was between 1945 and 1973 – and not this vaunted age of liberalisation.

The trouble is that nobody in power recognises this crisis for what it is – an asset insolvency crisis brought about by massive debt leverage. Neo-liberals are still reacting as if the emergency was one of liquidity. They are wrong. Governments should bail out not banks and speculators but the customers who now have every reason to fear for the future.

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