Excessive credit, rentier capital and crises

By Michael Roberts:

“It is a delusion or a fetish to look at credit as the main or only cause of crisis.  In a capitalist economy, profit rules.  If you deny that, you are denying that capitalism is the right term to describe the modern economy.   Maybe it would be better to talk about a credit economy, and credit providers or creators and not capitalists.  Thinking of credit only, as Keen does, leads him to conclude that China is the most likely trigger of the next global crisis.  But that has already been refuted by the experience of the last year. We must start with profit, which leads to money, investment and capital accumulation and then to employment and incomes.   And there is a mass of empirical evidence that profitability and profits lead investment, not vice versa.”

Steve Keen has a new book out.  It’s called: Can We Avoid Another Financial Crisis? Steve Keen is professor of economics at Kingston University in the UK.  His earlier book (Debunking economics) is a brilliant expose of the fallacious assumptions and conclusions of mainstream economics, i.e. ‘perfect competition; general equilibrium and ‘rational expectations’ of economic ‘agents’.

The failure of mainstream economics to see the coming of the global financial crash and the ensuing Great Recession is now well documented – see my own coverage here.  This failure has led several mainstream economists to disavow its usefulness.  One such recently was Paul Romer, a former New York university professor and now the chief economist of the World Bank.  Last fall, before taking up his appointment at the World Bank, Romer wrote a paper accusing his fellow macroeconomists of forming a monolithic intellectual community, which deferred to authority, disregarded the opinions of those outside of their group and ignored unwelcome facts. They behaved more like cult members than genuine scientists. Romer compared modern macroeconomics to string theory, famously described as “not even wrong.”

This did not go down well.  And now there has been a rebellion among his 600 economists (yes, 600!) at the World Bank.  They have insisted that he no longer be in charge of managing them, after he demanded that they drop their long-winded economic jargon and adopted a simpler style of prose.  Romer responded ironically to this demotion of his power at the World Bank, “Apparently the word is out that when I asked people to write more clearly, I wasn’t nice. And that I slaughter kittens in my office.”

But I digress.  The point of this Romer story is to show that those who dispute the assumptions and conclusions of mainstream economic apologia are not likely to get much of a hearing.  As I said in my post on Romer’s critique, that he won’t succeed in getting “mainstream economics yanked back into reality”. And so it has proved.

Steve Keen, however, continues his attempt to provide an alternative closer to economic reality.  And his new book also makes a prediction: that another crash is coming and even picks out some likely candidates where it is likely to kick off.  Now readers of this blog know that I think it is the job of economics, if it really sees itself as a science, to not only present theories and test them empirically, but also to make predictions.  That is part of the scientific method.  So Keen’s approach sounds promising.

But all depends, of course, on whether your theory is right.  Keen reiterates his main thesis from his previous work: that, in a modern capitalist economy credit is necessary to ensure investment and growth.  But once credit is in the economic process, there is nothing to stop it mismatching demand and supply.  Crises of excessive credit will appear and we can predict when by adding the level of credit to national income.  In the major capitalist economies leading up to the crisis of 2007, private sector credit reached record levels, over 300% of GDP in the US. That credit bubble was bound to burst and thus caused the Great Recession.  And this will happen again.  “A capitalist economy can no better avoid another financial crisis than a dog can avoid picking up fleas – it’s only a matter of time.”

So what of the next crisis? With his eye on credit growth, Keen sees China as a terminal case. China has expanded credit at an annualized rate of around 25 per cent for years on end. Private-sector debt there exceeds 200% of GDP, making China resemble the over-indebted economies of Ireland and Spain prior to 2008, but obviously far more significant to the global economy. “This bubble has to burst,” writes Keen.

Nor does he have much hope for his native Australia, whose credit and housing bubbles failed to burst in 2008, thanks in part to government measures to support the housing market, lower interest rates and massive mining investment to meet China’s insatiable demand for raw materials. Last year, Australian private-sector credit also nudged above 200% of GDP, up more than 20 percentage points since the global financial crisis. Australia shows, says Keen, that “you can avoid a debt crisis today only by putting it off till later.”

This idea that it is the level of credit and the pace of its rise that is the main criterion for gauging the likelihood of a slump in capitalist production also lies behind the view of another heterodox economist, Michael Hudson in his book Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy. Hudson’s main contention that the FIRE economy – finance, insurance, and real estate – cripples the “real” economy and is slowly reducing most of us to debt bondage.

Hudson goes further.  For him, the old system of industrial capitalism – hiring labor, investing in plants and equipment and creating real wealth backed by tangible goods and services – has been eclipsed by the re-emerging dominance of a parasitic neo-feudal class.   It is this elite, not industrial capitalists, who are the foundation of most of our economic woes.  The 2008 crisis was not a typical boom and bust housing crash of capitalism but the logical conclusion of financial parasites slowly bleeding most of us dry. “Today’s neoliberalism turns the [free market’s] original meaning on its head. Neoliberals have redefined ‘free markets’ to mean an economy free for rent-seekers, that is, ‘free’ of government regulation or taxation of unearned rentier income (rents and financial returns).”

I read this to mean that it is not capitalism of the past, competition and the accumulation of capital for investment, that is the problem and cause of crises, but the ‘neoliberal’ world of ‘rentier’ capital, ‘feudal’ parasites and ‘financialisation’.  This would suggest that crises could be solved if capitalism returned to its previous role, as Adam Smith envisaged it, as expanding production through division of labour and competition.

Also, for Hudson, the problem of capitalism is not one of profitability and the striving to extract surplus-value out of the productive labour force but one the extraction of ‘rents’ out of industry by landowners and financiers.  “Labor (‘consumers’) and industry are obliged to pay a rising proportion of their income in the form of rent and interest to the Financial and Property sector for access to property rights, savings and credit. This leaves insufficient wages and profits to sustain market demand for consumer goods and investment in the new means of production (capital goods). The main causes of economic austerity and polarization are rent deflation (payments to landlords and monopolists) and debt deflation (payments to banks, bondholders and other creditors).”  (Hudson)

Thus we have a model of capitalism where crises result from ‘imperfections’ in the capitalist model, either due to a lack of competition and the growth of financial rentiers (Hudson) or due to excessive credit (Keen).  Moreover, crises are the result of a chronic lack of demand caused by squeezing down wages and raising the level of debt for households. The latter thesis is not new – as many mainstream economists have argued similarly and it dominates as the cause of crises on the left.  As Mian and Sufi put it, “Recessions are not inevitable – they are not mysterious acts of nature that we must accept. Instead recessions are a product of a financial system that fosters too much household debt”.

The key omission in this view of crises is any role for profit and profitability – which is after all the core of Marx’s analysis of capitalism – a mode of production for profit not need.  Profit is missing from Keen’s analysis.  Indeed, Keen considers Marx’s theory of value to be wrong or illogical, accepting the standard neo-Ricardian interpretation and Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as being irrelevant to a theory of crises.  Hudson has nothing to say about Marx’s key insights.

The post-Keynesians rely on the Keynes-Kalecki equation, namely that profits = investment, but it is investment that drives or creates profits, not vice versa, as Marx would have it.  This view recently reached its extreme in another relatively new book, Capitalism as Oligarchy, by Jim O’Reilly, where, similar to the view of leading post-Keynesian, Engelbert Stockhammer, that is rising inequality that is decisive to crises rather than profitability of capital, O’Reilly argues that “inequality isn’t a side-effect of something we happen to call ‘capitalism’ but is rather the core of what the system is”.

According to O’Reilly, profits does not come from the unpaid labour of the working class but are ‘created’ for capitalists by the sale of goods and services to the consumer.  Profits come from exploiting the consumer, not the worker.  “where does profit come from? It can’t be from workers since they can spend no more than the wage received (!! – MR).  Wages are a source of revenue through sales, but they’re also a cost. For the system as a whole, they must net to zero—workers are simply not profitable.”  Only capitalists have more income than they spend, so they create their own profits (hmm… MR).

Apparently, Rosa Luxemburg was on the case… “Her insight that profit had to come from a source beyond the worker was correct but she erred in accepting the conventional monetary wisdom that capitalism’s “aim and goal in life is profit in the form of money and accumulation of capital.”   In this theory, profits are not the driver of capitalism but the result of investment and consumption.

The argument that credit plays a key role in capitalism; and ‘excessive credit’ does so in crises was first explained by Marx.  As Marx wrote in Volume 3 of Capital, “in a system of production where the entire interconnection of reproduction process rests on credit, a crisis must inevitably break out if credit is suddenly withdrawn and only cash payment is accepted…at first glance, therefore the entire crisis presents itself as simply a credit and monetary crisis”.  (p621) But that’s at “first glance”.  Behind the financial crisis lies the law of profitability: “the real crisis can only be deduced from the real movement of capitalist production” (TSV2, p512).

Looking for a cause is scientific. But dialectically there can be causes at different levels, the ultimate (essence) and the proximate (appearance). The ultimate is found from the real events and then provides an explanation for the proximate. The crisis of 2008-9, like other crises, had an underlying cause based on the contradictions between accumulation of capital and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall under capitalism. That contradiction arose because the capitalist mode of production is production for value not for use. Profit is the aim, not production or consumption. Value is created only by the exertion of labour (by brain and brawn). Profit comes from the unpaid value created by labour and appropriated by private owners of the means of production.

The underlying contradiction between the accumulation of capital and falling rate of profit (and then a falling mass of profit) is resolved by crisis, which takes the form of collapse in value, both real value and fictitious. Indeed, wherever the fictitious expansion of capital has developed most is where the crisis begins e.g. tulips, stock markets, housing debt, corporate debt, banking debt, public debt etc. The financial sector is often where the crisis starts; but a problem in the production sector is the cause.

Undoubtedly the rise of excessive credit in the major capitalist economies was a feature of the period before the crisis.  And its very size meant that the crunch would be correspondingly more severe as capitalist sector saw the value of this fictitious capital destroyed.

But is it really right to say that excessive credit is the cause of capitalist crises?  Marx argued that credit gets out of hand because capitalists find that profitability is falling and they look to boost the mass of profits by extending credit.

It is a delusion or a fetish to look at credit as the main or only cause of crisis.  In a capitalist economy, profit rules.  If you deny that, you are denying that capitalism is the right term to describe the modern economy.   Maybe it would be better to talk about a credit economy, and credit providers or creators and not capitalists.  Thinking of credit only, as Keen does, leads him to conclude that China is the most likely trigger of the next global crisis.  But that has already been refuted by the experience of the last year.

We must start with profit, which leads to money, investment and capital accumulation and then to employment and incomes.   And there is a mass of empirical evidence that profitability and profits lead investment, not vice versa.

Moreover, why did debt and financial rents become ‘excessive’ in the so-called neoliberal period?  The Marxist explanation is that the profitability of productive capital declined in most modern economies between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, and so there was a rise of investment in finance, property and insurance (FIRE), along with other neo-liberal counter measures like anti-trade union legislation, labour laws, privatisation and globalisation.  The aim was to raise profitability of capital, which succeeded to a limited extent up to late 1990s.

But as profitability began to fall back, the credit boom was accelerated in the early 2000s, leading eventually to the global financial crash, credit crunch and the Great Recession.  As profitability in most top capitalist economies has not returned to the levels of the early 2000s, investment in productive sectors and productivity growth remains depressed.  The boom in credit and stock markets has returned instead.  Fictitious capital has expanded again – as Keen shows.  And rentier capital dominates – as Hudson shows.

If excessive credit alone is to blame for capitalist crises and not any flaws in the profit mode of production, then the answer is the control of credit.  If rentier capital is to blame for the poverty of labour and crises, then the answer is to control finance.  Indeed, Keen argues that the best policy prescription is to keep private sector credit at about 50% of GDP in capitalist economies.   Then financial crises could be avoided.  Hudson recommends annulling unpayable debts of households. And Hudson recommends a nationalized banking system that provides basic credit.

These are undoubtedly important reforms that a pro-labour government or administration should implement if it had such power to do so.  But that alone would not stop crises under capitalism, if the majority of the productive sectors remained privately owned and investing only for profit not need.  As Hudson says himself: “Just to be clear, ridding ourselves of financial and rentier parasites will not usher in an economic utopia. Even under a purely industrial system, economic problems will abound. Giants such as Apple will continue to offshore profits, companies like Chipotle will keep stealing their workers’ wages, and other big businesses will still gobble up subsidies while fulminating against any kind of government regulation. Class divisions will remain a serious issue.”

Source: Michael Roberts Blog – Blogging from a marxist economist (May 25, 2017)

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