The saving glut of the rich

800px-A1_Houston_Office_Oil_Traders_on_MondayRobert Armstrong, US finance editor at the Financial Times, penned a helpful opinion piece in Tuesday’s paper, in which he tries to account for the disconnect between financial markets and the real economy in recent years, the Covid-19 correction notwithstanding. As he says:

“Until last Friday, it looked as if stock markets had lost all track of reality. In the world, we saw spiralling unemployment and political disarray. In the markets, especially the huge American market, exuberance.”


“The market, however, is already acting like it is the fourth of July. The S&P 500 has risen to within 5 per cent of its all-time high.”

This is despite the fact that

“Covid-19 has put working- and middle-class people under immense strain, while the asset-owning classes have felt relatively little pain.”

which is a potential source of political unrest and, in the end, political and economic change.

He accounts for this by positing a self-reinforcing cycle between rising inequality and rising financial markets, in the US in particular, drawing on a recent working paper by Atif Mian, Ludwig Straub and Amir Sufi. It is quite a long and technical paper, so rather than go through it, I will quote from Armstrong’s article, in which he summarises the key points: Continue reading

Heiner Flassbeck – Harz IV and the purpose of economics

Here is the latest post from Heiner Flassbeck, formerly of UNCTAD, and who now runs his own consultancy which focuses on macroeconomic questions.

The post explores how a decade of wage repression following the Harz IV reforms in Germany resulted in weak growth in wages relative to productivity, which in turn weakened growth in domestic demand and led to a boom in exports. The piece contains some useful charts comparing the growth in foreign and domestic demand in Germany and France.

These trends created major economic imbalances in the eurozone which in the long run proved unsustainable as they weakened economic performance in the region and were a major factor behind the global financial and eurozone crises.

Whether you are a supporter or detractor of the ‘European project’, these arguments should not be ignored. They point to the need for reforms to the structure of policymaking in the eurozone, particularly in Germany, it being the largest country with the largest current account surplus. Such reforms are needed in order to promote widespread prosperity and help to safeguard the future of the region. On the other hand, if this need is neglected, the disruptive breakup of the eurozone cannot be ruled out.

Flassbeck concludes as follows:

“In order to counter the centrifugal forces in Europe, Germany must lead the way by withdrawing its reforms and normalising wage developments. On the other hand, Germany would undoubtedly be hit hard economically in an exit scenario of Italy or France. It would have to reckon with its production structure, which is extremely export-oriented and which was formed in the years of monetary union, being subjected to a hard adjustment. The German recession is already showing how susceptible the country is to exogenous shocks.

The basic decision in favour of the euro can still be justified today with good economic arguments. The dominant economic theory, however, has ignored these arguments from the outset and politically disavowed them. Built on monetarist ideas in the European Central Bank and crude ideas about competition between nations in the largest member state, the monetary union could not function. All those who want to save Europe as a political idea must now realise that this can only be achieved with a different economic theory and a different economic policy that follows from it. Only if the participation of all members of society in economic progress is guaranteed under all circumstances and the competition of nations is abandoned can the idea of a united Europe be saved.”

An abundance of wealth and a scarcity of capital: resolving the paradox

One of the major economic phenomena of our time seems to be an enormous accumulation of elite wealth amidst rising inequality within nations, even while output and productivity growth, particularly since the Great Recession, have been mediocre across much of the world.

In his book Capitalism without Capital, Alan Shipman draws together a wealth of economic ideas, from the theory of the global savings glut and the Cambridge controversies in the theory of capital to Thomas Piketty’s writings on inequality, to argue that we are living in an era of abundant ‘wealth’ alongside a shortage of real productive capital assets. It is growth in the latter which remains the driver of rising living standards for the majority. Continue reading

A low-inflation world and what to do about it

The Economist magazine recently published a special report on the world economy, looking at the ‘problem’ of low inflation. More than ten years have passed since the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession, and inflation is now strikingly low in many rich economies. This is despite unemployment falling to historically low levels in countries such as the US, UK and Germany, although it remains much higher in a number of European countries that have yet to recover from the worst of the eurozone crisis.

Normally economists expect wages to rise faster as unemployment falls below some critical level and the labour market tightens, and at some point this has tended, at least in the past, to lead to higher inflation.

In the US and UK, wage growth has been picking up, but inflation has remained low, and has even undershot central banks’ inflation targets. Wage increases are relatively good news for workers after a decade of sluggish or stagnant earnings growth, but remain weak compared to those seen prior to the recession. Continue reading

Financialisation is a problem for capitalism. Is socialism the solution? (Part 1)

GraceBlakeleyStolenThe rise of finance across the world economy in recent decades and its spectacular fall from grace as the crisis of 2008 unfolded has given birth to the notion of financialisation in academic circles, particularly among heterodox economists. Grace Blakeley, economics commentator for the New Statesman magazine, research fellow at the IPPR think tank and a rising star on the radical left here in the UK, has written an accessible book which attempts to make sense of this phenomenon and attempts to overcome it. Stolen – How to Save the World from Financialisation is aimed at the intelligent layman rather than being an academic work.

In the book, Blakeley explores the recent history of financialisation and the increasing power of finance in society and its damaging economic, social and political impact, focusing mainly on the UK. She also proposes a solution: democratic socialism. In two posts, of which this is the first, I explore some of the thinking in the book and elsewhere on financialisation and its consequences, as well as potential solutions which aim to mitigate or remove its deleterious nature. Continue reading

A Sputtering Car Goes into Reverse: The German Recession and its Consequences — flassbeck economics international

Heiner Flassbeck and Patrick Kaczmarczyk write that amidst global political and economic fragility, the downturn in the Germany economy adds to the uncertainty in a world that, as Paul Krugman put it, has a “Germany problem”. It not only raises questions and doubts over the future of the largest European economy but, …More …

via A Sputtering Car Goes into Reverse: The German Recession and its Consequences — flassbeck economics international

Richard Koo on global stagnation, globalisation and the trade war

In the short video below, Richard Koo, originator of the idea of balance sheet recessions, argues that the current global economic stagnation is largely due to private sector firms as a whole in most of world’s largest economies acting as net savers rather than net borrowers and investors, despite very low interest rates. This is weakening aggregate demand and is compounded by the failure of the other sectors in the major economies, namely households and governments, to compensate by borrowing and spending to counter this weakness.

Of course, the US government is running a budget deficit, which has sustained moderate growth there, but for the largest economies taken together, private sector saving is proving to be a drag on continued recovery.

Koo doesn’t go into the reasons for this behaviour, although he has argued elsewhere that the private sector in many countries is attempting to save in order to pay down high levels of debt, producing a balance sheet recession, or stagnation at best. Fiscal policies that boost demand as well as policies that increase private investment opportunities in general would help to counter this.

He also touches on the US-China trade war as adding to global weakness, and notes that it is unlikely to end anytime soon, due to the job losses in the US which decades of current account deficits have reflected. As Koo puts it, free trade has created enough losers economically to make it a political problem in the US, and one that contributed to the election of Trump.

Aside from the trade war, it is quite likely that rising inequality has contributed to global weakness. With much of the income from economic growth accruing to the already wealthy, who save a larger proportion of it than poorer groups, significant increases in consumption in advance of the financial crisis relied on higher household debt since it is less able to be supported by rising wages for the majority.

In economies such as Germany and Japan, the result has been weaker growth, rising public debt in Japan, and a soaring current account surplus in Germany, while in the US and UK the result has been higher household debt and current account deficits. These trends sustained each other for some time, but the resolution of such imbalances may well be the source of much of the current global turmoil which has followed the crisis of more than a decade ago.

This interpretation suggests a need for policies which reduce inequality and increase wages, boosting consumption in a more sustainable fashion, and therefore increasing private investment opportunities. Greater public investment in infrastructure would also help. In a number of countries this has been constrained by policies focusing on austerity and reducing public debt, which have in many ways proved economically and socially damaging.

Heiner Flassbeck on the global economy: the problem of Europe

In the video below from the Real News Network, former economist at UNCTAD, Heiner Flassbeck, discusses some of the problems besetting today’s global economy and claims that they have deep historical roots. Germany may be heading for a recession due to shrinking exports linked to the ongoing US-China trade war and weak demand in Europe.

Flassbeck argues that the cause of sluggish global demand lies in the weakness of corporate investment compared to corporate saving alongside stagnant wages and the insufficient response of governments in Europe to counter this with more expansionary fiscal policy.

This has been brewing since the 1970s. The US under Reagan, Bush junior and most recently Trump has on a number of occasions responded to sluggish growth with higher fiscal deficits. The exception came under Clinton, when a booming economy and fiscal tightening produced several years of budget surpluses, which ultimately proved unsustainable.

In contrast, many European economies have remained wedded to tighter fiscal policies and austerity in the run-up to the creation of the euro. Since 2000 Germany has relied on foreign demand to drive growth, and now runs, in absolute terms, the largest current account surplus in the world.

Corporate surpluses are also excessively large in Japan, but the government continues to run a moderately large budget deficit which absorbs some of these savings and sustains aggregate demand to a degree. The German government is now running a budget surplus, which withdraws demand from the economy, leaving net exports as the driver of growth.

Ideally, corporations would use more of their retained earnings for investment, rather than running up surpluses as they are doing at the moment, particularly in Germany. This would increase spending on the demand side, and the capital stock on the supply side, boosting growth in output and some combination of employment and productivity.

In the absence of strong corporate investment growth, sufficient demand to support economic growth has to come from household consumption, net exports, or from the government. With insufficient household income growth, Germany has relied excessively on growth in exports enabled by sluggish wage increases for twenty years. In a weakening global economy, it is now suffering again and could be on the brink of recession.

A more sustainable return to healthy economic growth and fuller employment with rising living standards would see household incomes rising for the majority through significant wage increases, stimulating consumption and providing greater incentives for companies to increase investment in new capacity and employment. Also needed is some degree of fiscal expansion which includes public investment in necessary infrastructure and support for those on the lowest incomes.

The corporate sector surplus (the excess of savings over investment) in a number of large economies needs to shrink as wages and household incomes rise alongside corporate investment. This would lessen the need to rely on large and persistent fiscal deficits, which have supported demand in Japan on and off for well over two decades but have not by themselves created the conditions for a return to more balanced economic growth over the longer term. It would also lessen the need for consumption to be excessively dependent on rising debt, as in the UK and US.

More balanced global growth and reduced inequality within countries which have seen the latter soar since the end of the 1970s can be achieved together.

Flassbeck does not really discuss the reasons behind excessive corporate savings relative to investment, aside from a brief reference to neoliberalism, and he ignores the problem of private debt in China, but the interview is interesting and worth a watch.

Inequality, saving and growth: Germany’s role in global rebalancing

Coat_of_arms_of_Germany.svgThe IMF recently published its Economic Outlook for Germany. The report itself is quite long but a brief description of the key points can be found here. I have written before on the problems caused by Germany’s supposedly ‘prudent’ saving behaviour and export prowess, and the IMF covers this issue quite well, although as a report focused on one country, it does not consider the global implications. Here I want to focus on one aspect of the report: the financial imbalances of Germany’s economy and their relationship to both inequality and future growth prospects, both domestically and in the rest of the world.

In macroeconomics, one can consider the financial balances (net borrowing or net lending) of the three main sectors in the economy as a whole: the private sector (firms and households together), the public sector (government) and the foreign sector (the rest of the world). Together these balances can be used to analyse the total flows of expenditure and income between the three sectors, both within that economy and between that economy and the rest of the world.

If a sector runs a financial surplus over a particular period, its income for that period will exceed its expenditure and it will either be accumulating financial assets from another sector or paying down debt owed to another sector. For example, if the government runs a surplus, then revenue from taxation will exceed public spending and it will be able to pay down government debt held by the private sector, either domestically or abroad. Continue reading