Economic crisis deepens – signs of recovery deceptive
Increased sovereign indebtedness
2009 has been another year of relentless world recession. Worldwide GDP shrank 2.2%, the first time there has been a drop in world GDP since the end of the Second World War. This is despite the fact that Asia has seen growth of 5.7% (down from 7% in 2008) and some other countries are apparently staging a weak recovery. The European Union had shrunk 4.6% in the year to the end of September and the UK has shrunk 6% since its peak in the first quarter of 2008, making the current downturn by a small margin the deepest recession since the Second World War.
Although there appear to be indications that the pace of decline is slackening, this would appear to be entirely due to gigantic stimulus measures. Given the trillions that have been poured into the stimulus exercise all over the globe, the slight signs of recovery are modest indeed. However, it has to be said that besides the US, Japan, Germany and France also seem to have managed to return to (very modest) growth.
To the extent there is any sign of recovery at all, it has been engineered by massive, unprecedented and unsustainable governmental borrowing all over the world. “Governments need to raise $6 trillion (£4 trillion) this year to fund bail-outs and deficits, led by this abject isle with needs of 13.8% of GDP (EU figures)” (Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, ‘Enjoy the rally while it lasts – but expect to take a sucker punch’, Daily Telegraph, 11 May 2009).
“In Germany, long the bastion of fiscal rectitude in Europe … government debt outstanding is expected to increase to the equivalent of 77 percent of the nation’s economic output next year, from 60 per cent in 2002…
”The burdens are even greater in Ireland and Latvia, where economic booms driven by easy credit and soaring property values have given way to precipitous busts. Public debt in Ireland is expected to soar to 83 percent of gross domestic product next year, from just 25 percent in 2007. Latvia is sinking into debt even faster. Its borrowings will reach the equivalent of nearly half the economy next year, up from 9 percent a mere two years ago.
“Like Latvia, the Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia remain worryingly exposed, as do Bulgaria and Hungary. All of these nations carry foreign debt that exceeds 100 percent of the GDP … External debt is often held in a foreign currency, which means governments cannot use devaluation of their own currencies as a tool to reduce their debt when they run into trouble…” (Graham Bowley and Catherine Rampell, ‘In the wake of Dubai, trying to predict the next crisis’, New York Times, 1 December 2009).
The US federal budget deficit for the year to 30 September 2009 was $1.4 trillion, “nearly a billion dollars greater than the year before and the largest shortfall relative to the size of the economy since 1945” (Jackie Calmes, ‘$1.4 trillion deficit complicates stimulus plans’, New York Times, 17 October 2009). This is equivalent to 10% of the US GDP, compared to the 3.2% of GDP of the 2008 budget deficit. All this brings the US national debt to nearly $12 trillion (some 98% of GDP) “and projected deficits for the next decade will add an estimated $9 trillion more” (ibid.). Servicing this debt will cost $202 billion this year, and it is estimated that by 2019 the cost of debt service will exceed $700 billion a year, which is considerably more than “the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”. (Edmund L Andrews, ‘Wave of debt payments facing US government’, New York Times, 23 November 2009).
Japan’s public debt is an eye-watering $10 trillion, double the size of its GDP. According to Hiroko Tabuchi writing in the New York Times of 21 October 2009 (‘Rising debt a threat to Japanese economy’), “Just paying the interest on its debt consumed a fifth of Japan´s budget for 2008”.
Dubai has built up a stock of debt estimated at $80 billion, well over GDP, which sent shock waves throughout the world when one of its companies, Naqeel, whose debts had been considered to be de facto guaranteed by the government, asked in November for a 6-month moratorium.
The UK public sector net borrowing this year was projected by the government in April to be 12.4% of GDP. By 2013-14 the UK’s net debt is projected to stand at 79% of GDP (see Martin Wolf, ‘A chancellor flying on a wing and a prayer’, Financial Times 22 April 2009).
Cost of servicing the debt
At the present time interest rates for sovereign borrowing are extremely low, but as demand for borrowing continues to spiral, it can be expected that interest rates will inevitably increase. As Edmund L Andrews points out (‘Payback time’, New York Times, 23 November 2009), “The United States will not be the only government competing to refinance huge debt. Japan, Germany, Britain and other industrialized countries have even higher government debt loads, measured as a share of the gross domestic product, and they too borrowed heavily to combat the financial crisis and economic downturn. As the global economy recovers and businesses raise capital to finance their growth, all that new government debt is likely to put more upward pressure on interest rates.
“Even a small increase in interest rates has a big impact. An increase of one percentage point in the Treasury´s average cost of borrowing would cost American taxpayers an extra $80 billion this year – about equal to the combined budgets of the Department of Energy and the Department of Education.”
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (op.cit) asks where the 6 trillion needed for sovereign borrowing is going to come from and points out that “Unless this capital is forthcoming, a clutch of countries will prove unable to roll over their debts at a bearable cost. Those that cannot print money to tide them through, either because they no longer have a national currency (Ireland, Club Med), or because they borrowed abroad (East Europe), run the biggest risk of default…
“US hedge fund Hayman Advisers is betting on the biggest wave of state bankruptcies and restructuring since 1934. The worst profiles are almost all in Europe – the epicentre of leverage, and denial.”
This author also points out that borrowing from the massive reserves of countries such as China and Russia as in the past cannot be taken for granted:
“It looked easy for Western governments during the credit bubble, when China, Russia, emerging Asia and petro-powers were accumulating $1.3 trillion a year in reserves, recycling this wealth back into US Treasuries and agency debt, or European bonds.
“The tap has been turned off. These countries have become net sellers. Central bank holdings have fallen by $248bn to $6.7 trillion over the last six months. The oil crash has forced both Russia and Venezuela to slash reserves by a third. China let slip last week that it would use more of its $40bn monthly surplus to shore up growth at home …”
Truly this is the stuff that world wars are made of.
In the UK, interest on government debt is expected to be £600m higher this year than was projected last November, and as much as £2.9 bn higher next year! The UK and other indebted countries will in all likelihood come to experience the extent to which the burden of debt servicing hampers recovery, much as many a third world country already has.
A side effect of all this government borrowing is that the world’s biggest banks are raking in profits, despite continuing losses resulting from recession. The best performing companies in US stock exchanges include many banks, “by trading the same sort of financial products that originally drove the system to ruin” (Editorial, ‘10,000: then and now’, New York Times, 16 October 2009). Graham Bowley further explains on 17 October (‘Bailout helps fuel a new era of Wall Street wealth’):
“Even as the economy continues to struggle, much of Wall Street is minting money – and looking forward again to hefty bonuses.
“Many Americans wonder how this can possibly be. How can some banks be prospering so soon after a financial collapse, even as legions of people worry about losing their jobs and homes?
“It may come as a surprise that one of the most powerful forces driving the resurgence on Wall Street is not the banks but Washington. Many of the steps that policy makers took last year to stabilize the financial system – reducing interest rates to near zero, bolstering big banks with taxpayer money, guaranteeing billions of dollars of financial institutions’ debts – helped set the stage for this new era of Wall Street wealth.
“Titans like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are making fortunes in hot areas like trading stocks and bonds, rather than in the ho-hum business of lending people money. They are also profiting by taking risks that weaker rivals are unable or unwilling to shoulder – a benefit of less competition after the failure of some investment firms last year. …
“… The decline of certain institutions, along with the outright collapse of once-vigorous competitors like Lehman Brothers, has consolidated the nation’s financial power in fewer hands. The strong are now able to wring more profits from the financial markets and charge higher fees for a wide range of banking services. …
“With interest rates so low, banks can borrow money cheaply and put those funds to work in lucrative ways, whether using the money to make loans to companies at higher rates, or to speculate in the markets. Fixed-income trading – an area that includes bonds and currencies – has been particularly profitable …”
It would seem therefore that very little, if any, of the increased profits of the banks has contributed in the slightest to real economic recovery (although they may have improved the statistics), even if some have repaid to the US government the rescue money they received (mainly to avoid further government supervision of, and influence over, their activities). On the contrary, these banks are acting purely parasitically drawing out of the economy whatever little is left.
It must be stressed that in the world of banking if the sharks are thriving, the smaller fish are being swallowed up by the economic difficulties they are experiencing as a result of the crisis. The US has witnessed over 100 bank failures in 2009. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which guarantees bank depositors, and which held more than $50bn in reserve only two years ago, is now in the red. As Eric Dash explains (‘Failures of small banks grow, straining FDIC’, New York Times, 11 October 2009), “The banks loaded their balance sheets with loans to home builders and other property developers to make up for lost business in credit card and mortgage lending that bigger competitors wrested away. They eased their lending standards during the boom years and made big bets on new housing developments, strip malls and office projects. Now many of those deals are falling apart, and the lenders are scrambling to raise capital to cushion the losses.
“There were just 25 bank failures in 2008 and just 10 in the five previous years. But in September alone, regulators took over 11 banks in nine states that were saddled with soured commercial and estate loans…”
It can be expected that bank failures will continue unabated for quite some while:
“… About $870 billion, or roughly half of the industry’s $1.8 trillion of commercial real estate loans, now sit on the balance sheets of small and medium-sized banks… For most of the banks, this represents the biggest and riskiest part of their loan portfolio, since they lack the trading streams and fee businesses of their larger rivals. And as a group, small banks have written off only a tiny percentage of the losses that analysts expect them to incur.
“In fact, applying only the commercial real estate loss assumptions that federal regulators used … for the big banks last spring, … analysts estimated that as many as 581 small banks were at risk of collapse by 2011”.
British banks too seem to be holding their own as far as profitability and stock exchange valuations are concerned, but they are at the same time being hit hard by debts defaults. The government had to put an additional £43 billion into Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds because of continuing trouble with their lending on property. Furthermore European banks in general are vulnerable to the extent that they have not written off projected losses to the same extent that American banks have done. According to Sarah O’Connor writing in the Financial Times of 22 April, “US banks [have] so far taken about half of the writedowns they face, while European banks – particularly vulnerable because of their exposure to emerging European markets – have only taken one-fifth. But if banks took all the writedowns they face immediately, the IMF calculates it would wipe out their common equity altogether”. For banks’ balance sheets to be restored to a proper level of capitalisation would require $275bn in the case of US banks, $375bn in the case of euro area banks and $125bn in the case of UK banks. As for the banks of emerging markets, their estimated refinancing needs total no less than $1.8tr!
UK banks would be hard hit by Dubai defaulting since HSBC and Barclays both have extremely large exposure in the United Arab Emirates ($16bn in the case of the former and $4bn in the case of the latter). They will also be seriously affected by the downturn in shipping.
An obvious effect of a downturn in world production is a downturn in world trade. This in turn leads to a downturn in demand for transport of cargo, whether by ship, aeroplane, train or lorry. This downturn has been no less than 25%! This has led to the bankruptcy of shipping companies such as Eastwind Maritime, a medium-sized company, and the inevitable default on loans made to them. Banks that are likely to be adversely affected because of their investments in shipping include Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, HSH Norbank and Commerzbank in Germany.
No relief for the masses
While banks are bailed out, masses all over the world are suffering loss of employment, loss of their homes, food shortage, and slashed public services.
In the US the burden of the crisis has landed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the working class who, besides being expected in due course to pay the debts incurred by their government to bail out the banks, are being deprived of their employment at ever increasing rates, a trend that is expected to continue notwithstanding the fact that the US is now supposedly out of recession.
Bob Herbert reports in the New York Times of 11 August 2009, “Some 247,000 jobs were lost [in the US] in July, a number that under ordinary circumstances would send a shudder through the country. It was the smallest monthly loss of jobs since last summer. ….
“The country has lost a crippling 6.7 million jobs since the Great Recession began in December 2007. No one is predicting a recovery in the foreseeable future powerful enough to replace the millions of jobs that have vanished in this historic downturn…
“… the plight of young workers, especially young men, is particularly frightening. The percentage of young American men who are actually working is the lowest it has been in the 61 years of record-keeping …
“Only 65 of every 100 men aged 20 through 24 years were working on any given day in the first six months of this year. In the age group 25 through 34 years old, traditionally a prime age range for getting married and starting a family, just 81 of 100 men were employed.
“For male teenagers, the numbers were disastrous: only 28 of every 100 males were employed in the 16-through 19-year old age group. For minority teenagers, forget about it. The numbers are beyond scary: they’re catastrophic!…
“The official jobless rate is now more than twice as high – 9.4 percent … It ticked down … not because more people found jobs, but because 450,000 people withdrew from the labor market…
“A truer picture of the employment crisis emerges when you combine the number of people who are officially counted as jobless with those who are working part time because they can’t find full-time work and those in the so-called labour market reserve – people who are not actively looking for work because they have become discouraged…
“The tally from those three categories is a mind-boggling 30 million Americans – 19 per cent of the overall workforce.”
Even people who retain their jobs in the US are being subjected effectively to wage cuts:
“As many Americans transition from living on home equity loans to sustaining themselves on paychecks, weekly pay continues effectively to shrink: over the last year, average hourly earnings for rank-and-file workers – some 80 percent of the labor force – have increased by 2.5 percent. But average weekly earnings have expanded by only 0.7 percent, less than the increase in the cost of living, because employers have slashed working hours” (Peter S Goodman, ‘Jobs report highlights shaky US recovery’, New York Times, 3 October 2009).
The US ‘recovery’ therefore clearly has nothing to do with any improvement in the purchasing powers of the masses, who not only have less to spend in the way of wages, and not only are suffering high levels of unemployment, but who cannot borrow money to spend in the way they were doing until only two years ago. The ‘recovery’ therefore is in all probability nothing more than an apparent improvement brought about by banking bonanzas based purely on speculation.
As for Europe, official unemployment rates have hit 9.3%. This is made up of an unemployment rate of 20.7% among young workers (aged 15-24) and 7.9% among those aged 24 and above.
In the UK too unemployment has been increasing by leaps and bounds, reaching the 2.49 million mark, although the decline in economic activity is partially disguised by the fact that so many people are working shorter hours for less pay. Short hours do not figure on unemployment statistics.
As Becky Barrow notes in the Daily Mail of 16 December, 2009 (‘Record 6.6million ‘half-timers’ now working reduced hours as bosses struggle to pay full wage’),
“Record numbers of employees are working part-time because their bosses cannot afford to pay full-time salaries, official figures revealed yesterday.
“There are now 6.6 million employees working part-time, the highest number since records began.
“Experts blamed the longest recession in history for triggering the explosion in ‘part-time Britain’, and warned the numbers will keep on climbing.
“Many are being given an ultimatum by their bosses that they must forfeit their full-time jobs and go part-time, or be made redundant.
“In other cases, employees are desperately looking for full-time work, but can only find a part-time job.
“The rising numbers of part-time workers are ‘disguising’ the jobs crisis because they make unemployment numbers appear less dramatic.
“The figures, published by the Office for National Statistics, show unemployment rose modestly by 21,000 to 2.49million in the three months to October. But the situation is actually much worse, experts warned.
“The number of full-time employees plunged by 85,000 during the same period, while part-time employees increased by 123,000.”
As in the United States, not only have the employment prospects of the masses declined, but the wage packets of those in work have also been severely hit:
“Families have suffered the biggest crash in wages on record, official figures showed yesterday.
“They slumped by 1.3 per cent during the July-September quarter compared with the same period of 2008.
“The Office for National Statistics said this was the biggest annual slump since it began collecting wages data in 1955.” (Sam Fleming, ‘Families hit by the worst wages cut in 50 years’, Daily Mail, 23 December 2009).
Hopes for economic recovery rest on the fact that enterprises have gradually over the last two years run down their stocks and are now beginning once more to submit order. However, while the masses of the world are suffering reductions in income as a result of unemployment and short-time working, how much will the capitalists be able to sell them?
According to Neil MacFarquhar writing in the New York Times of 22 October 2009 (‘Experts worry as population and hunger grow’):
“The number of hungry people in the world rose to 1.02 billion this year, or nearly one in seven people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, despite a 12-year concentrated effort to cut the number.
“The global financial recession added at least 100 million people by depriving them of the means to buy enough food, but the numbers were inching up even before the crisis.”
The title of MacFarquhar´s article, however, is entirely misleading, as it suggests that hunger is related to population growth. He himself, however, points out that “Agronomists and development experts who gathered in Rome last week agreed that the resources and technical knowledge were available to increase food production by 50 per cent in 2030 and by 70 percent in 2050 – the amounts needed to feed a population expected to grow to 9.1 billion in 40 years”.
In other words, both now and in the future there is enough food to feed the world, but the logic of capitalism prevents its distribution to the poorest sections of society.
Hunger is not confined to third-world countries. It is also stalking the US:
“More than 49 million working people in the United States lacked access to adequate food last year, the largest number since the government started keeping track of ‘food insecurity’ 14 years ago. This is an increase of 4 percent from the previous year, according to a report issued by the US Department of Agriculture…
“The report … said that nearly 17 million children – more than one in five – were living in households that lacked enough food.
“The number of children who sometimes were ‘outright hungry’ rose from nearly 700,000 to almost 1.1 million in one year, reported the Washington Post.
“Nearly 15 percent of people of all ages did not consistently have adequate food last year, compared with about 11 percent in 2007. The Post called this ‘the greatest deterioration in access to food during a single year in the history of the report’”. (Brian Williams, Militant Vol 73, no 46, 30 November 2009).
It is not lack of food in the world that causes this hunger. It is purely the inability of the capitalist system to secure the livelihood of the masses who, in monopoly capitalism’s race for maximum profit, get trampled in the dirt.
“…Projections by the Congressional Budget Office … imply that over the period from 2010 to 2013 – that is, not counting the losses we’ve already suffered – the ‘output gap’, the difference between the amount the economy could have produced and the amount it actually produces, will be more than $2 trillion. That’s trillions of dollars of productive potential going to waste” (Paul Krugman, ‘Mission not accomplished’, New York Times, 2 October 2009).
Worldwide, according to US Treasury SecretaryTim Geithner speaking at the Economic Club in Washington, it has been estimated that this year’s losses of output alone amount to between $3 and 4 trillion! How many hungry people could those trillions of dollars feed? But such are the exigencies of the laws of capitalism that this is simply impossible.
In the UK rising poverty is expressing itself in the rise in the number of bankruptcies:
“A disturbing picture of ‘Broke Britain’ has emerged as personal bankruptcies soared to a record high and company failures leapt 56 per cent.
“Some 19,062 people were declared bankrupt during the first three months of the year – 23.4 per cent more than during the same period of 2008 …
“The total number of people who became insolvent, including those who entered … Individual Voluntary Arrangements … hit 29,774.
“Experts expect the number of personal insolvencies to continue to increase during 2009, to reach a record 150,000 for the year, well up on the previous high of 107,000 in 2006…
“Director of personal insolvency at KPMG, Mark Sands, said: ‘Despite the credit crunch, levels of consumer debt in the system remain at record levels.
“‘Combined with the highest unemployment levels since 1997 and rapidly increasing negative equity, it is no surprise that we are seeing the highest levels of personal insolvencies since records began’” (Sean Poulter, ‘Bankruptcies hit record high in “Broke Britain” with further gloom predicted’, Daily Mail, 2 May 2009).
And if the masses are suffering now, then much worse is in store in years to come, as the bourgeoisie of every capitalist country seeks to extract from the masses sufficient money to pay off the massive debts that have been incurred as a result of bailing out the banks and the quantitative easing measures they have deployed to try to stem the tide of the crisis. The British people at the next election, for example, already know that all that the various bourgeois parties are offering them is (at most) an invidious choice of which essential services to cut and which proletarian sections of society are to be hardest hit.
Third world disaster
If imperialist countries are experiencing poverty and hunger, the crisis is affecting third world countries far worse:
“The world’s poorest countries will see $1tn … drain from their economies this year according to the first detailed analysis of how the global recession is hitting developing nations.
“Figures published today by the World Bank show the financial crisis taking a heavy toll, with the flow of money into the developing world halving this year after heavy losses in 2008….
“… Releasing its authoritative annual Global Development Finance report, the [World Bank] … singles out Africa, central and eastern Europe and Latin America as regions suffering most from the global recession even while rich nations are starting to talk about recovery.
“It reveals that net private capital inflows to poor countries tumbled to $707bn in 2008 from a peak of $1.2tn in 2007. And it forecasts that inflows will halve again this year to just $363bn…
“Developing countries are expected to grow by only 1.2% this year … But if China and India are excluded, gross domestic product … in the remaining developing countries is projected to fall 1.6%, causing continued job losses and throwing more people into poverty.
“Overall, global GDP is likely to shrink by 2.9% this year, and world trade flows by 10%. Europe and central Asia will see a contraction of nearly 5% … Sub-Saharan Africa will suffer a drop in growth to just above 1%, sharply down from an average of 5.7% in recent years, hit by falls in remmittances from overseas workers, and a plunge in direct investment. Thailand has so far suffered the worst, with its GDP plunging by over a fifth in the final quarter of 2008” (Ashley Seager, ‘World Bank calls on west to help relieve trillion dollar drain on world’s poor’, The Guardian, 22 June 2009).
These figures illustrate a crisis for third world countries which are being devastated paradoxically by the fact that imperialism is having to retrench. Just as workers under capitalism suffer more if they are not exploited, i.e., if they are unemployed, so oppressed countries suffer more if they are not exploited – given the conditions of capitalism – as economic activity to that extent ceases, with millions thrown out of work, unable to find any means of supporting life.
At the same time, however, this crisis for the third world is also a crisis for imperialism, which now has reduced ability to salvage its position through extraction of superprofits from its third-world investments. In the circumstances the old imperialist powers, mired in crisis, are gradually degenerating as world powers. Again, this degeneration is a basis for war as the countries in question resort to any means possible to try to hang on to their past glories.
Increase of contradictions
As countries become more and more desperate to sell their overproduced goods and services, all kinds of beggar-thy-neighbour measures are the inevitable result. The US leads the world in protectionist practices but other countries cannot but follow suit:
“Vietnam’s decision to devalue its currency by 5 per cent last week to protect itself from undervaluation of the Chinese renminbi, and the worried response from Thailand and other Asian countries, suggests the move towards global trade conflict may already be unstoppable. As one group of countries seeks to gain or maintain trade advantage by manipulating their currencies, the historical precedent suggests that countries that are not able to devalue will respond with trade protection, especially tariffs and other barriers, and global trade will suffer” (Michael Pettis, ‘Competitive devaluations threaten a trade war’, Financial Times, 2 December 2009).
The most competitive economy in the world today is the Chinese, and it is against China that a great deal of protectionist measures are directed. In the Financial Times these protectionist methods are almost being defended:
“China could face a protectionist backlash next year because of a huge over-expansion of industrial capacity in recent months that may lead to a surge in cheap exports, a European business group said on Thursday.
“The government’s massive stimulus measures to revive the economy have exacerbated the already serious problem of manufacturing overcapacity, the European Chamber of Commerce in China said in a report. Industries such as steel, cement and plastics were still ‘blindly expanding’, it said.
“‘By the second half of 2010, there will be far more dumping cases against China for unfair trading’, said Joerg Wuttke, chamber president. China’s over-capacity was putting ‘political pressure on our leaders … We are really concerned about protectionism’” (Geoff Dyer, ‘Europe warns China on trade backlash threat’, Financial Times, 27 November 2009).
This justification of protectionism, this suggestion that China by being more economically effective is somehow being ‘unfair’ in its trade practices, bodes ill for world peace. The powers that currently dominate the world, the western imperialist powers, want to maintain that domination notwithstanding the inherent weakness of their overblown economies and it is most unlikely that they will resist the temptation of in due course turning to the use of force to try to stamp out the more vigorous forces that are competing against them.
“…In the coming decade, the big emerging markets of Asia will be growing twice as fast as the US and three times faster than the European Union. By 2020, China, India, Indonesia, Korea and Vietnam together could generate more wealth than the US, Japan and the EU combined. …” (Jeffrey Garten, ‘We must get ready for a weak-dollar world’, Financial Times, 30 November 2009).
For the workers of the imperialist countries, it is clear that there are more hard times ahead. The crisis is not only making them poorer, even to the point of hunger, but is more than likely to plunge them into war. If the capitalist system continues in situ long enough for the crisis to reverse itself and for a new boom to emerge, the old imperialist powers will be much impoverished and will push the living standards of the masses to the minimum as the only means of survival. This is totally absurd in a world which has the material means to ensure a decent standard of living to every single one of its inhabitants. The need for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism has never been clearer. It is very much a question of socialism or death!