Some commentators have seen the victory of Donald Trump and, prior to that, the Brexit vote as symptoms of a crisis in capitalism. Much of the campaigning in the US election, both by Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left focused on the plight of the poor. Whether the blame was put on immigration, big government, international organisations, the banks, cheap imports undercutting jobs or a lack of social protection, the message was clear: capitalism is failing to improve the lot of the majority. A small elite is getting significantly richer while the majority sees little or no gain in their living standards and a rise in uncertainty.
The articles below look at this crisis. They examine the causes, which they agree go back many years as capitalism has evolved. The financial crash of 2008 and the slow recovery since are symptomatic of the underlying changes in capitalism.
The Friedman article focuses on the slowing growth in technological advance and the problem of aging populations. What technological progress there is is not raising incomes generally, but is benefiting a few entrepreneurs and financiers. General rises in income may eventually come, but it may take decades before robotics, biotechnological advances, e-commerce and other breakthrough technologies filter through to higher incomes for everyone. In the meantime, increased competition through globalisation is depressing the incomes of the poor and economically immobile.
All the articles look at the rise of the rich. The difference with the past is that the people who are gaining the most are not doing so from production but from financial dealing or rental income; they have gained while the real economy has stagnated.
The gains to the rich have come from the rise in the value of assets, such as equities (shares) and property, and from the growth in rental incomes. Only a small fraction of finance is used to fund business investment; the majority is used for lending against existing assets, which then inflates their prices and makes their owners richer. In other words, the capitalist system is moving from driving growth in production to driving the inflation of asset prices and rental incomes.
The process whereby financial markets grow and in turn drive up asset prices is known as ‘financialisation’. Not only is the process moving away from funding productive investment and towards speculative activity, it is leading to a growth in ‘short-termism’. The rewards of senior managers often depend on the price of their companies’ shares. This leads to a focus on short-term profit and a neglect of long-term growth and profitability – to a neglect of investment in R&D and physical capital.
The process of financialisation has been driven by deregulation, financial innovation, the growth in international financial flows and, more recently, by quantitative easing and low interest rates. It has led to a growth in private debt which, in turn, creates more financial instability. The finance industry has become so profitable that even manufacturing companies are moving into the business of finance themselves – often finding it more profitable than their core business. As the Foroohar article states, “the biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself.”
So will the election of Donald Trump, and pressure from populism in other countries too, mean that governments will focus more on production, job creation and poverty reduction? Will there be a movement towards fiscal policy to drive infrastructure spending? Will there be a reining in of loose monetary policy and easy credit?
Or will addressing the problem of financialisation and the crisis of capitalism result in the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor, but this time through more conventional channels, such as increased production and monopoly profits and tax cuts for the rich? Trump supporters from among the poor hope the answer is no. Those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries think the answer will be yes and that the solution to over financialisation requires more, not less, regulation, a rise in minimum wages and fiscal policies aimed specifically at the poor.
Can Global Capitalism Be Saved? Project Syndicate, Alexander Friedman (11/11/16)
American Capitalism’s Great Crisis Time, Rana Foroohar (12/5/16)
The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing review – work matters less than what you own The Guardian, Katrina Forrester (26/10/16)
- Do you agree that capitalism is in crisis? Explain.
- What is meant by financialisation? Why has it grown?
- Will the policies espoused by Donald Trump help to address the problems caused by financialisation?
- What alternative policies are there to those of Trump for addressing the crisis of capitalism?
- Explain Schumpeter’s analysis of creative destruction.
- What technological innovations that are currently taking place could eventually benefit the poor as well as the rich?
- What disincentives are there for companies investing in R&D and new equipment?
- What are the arguments for and against a substantial rise in the minimum wage?
The spectre of debt has awoken many of us in the night. Indebtedness is a key economic issue in the 2010s. Economists are devoting ever increasing amounts of research time trying to understand its impact on economic behaviour. This will not surprise you when you learn that the debt owed by the UK non-bank private sector to banks stood at £2.17 trillion at the end of September. This is the equivalent to 150% of annual GDP.
Chart 1 shows the stock of outstanding lending by Monetary Financial Institutions (banks and building societies) to the non-bank private sector bank since 1979. Back then the non-bank private sector had bank debt to the tune of around £70 billion or 10 per cent of GDP. Today’s figure is nearly 3000 per cent higher! Of this debt, around about 55 per cent is currently held by the household sector, 27 per cent by Other Financial Corporations (such as insurance companies and pension funds) and 18 per cent by private non-financial corporations. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Chart 2 shows the stocks of debt as percentages of annual GDP. We can infer from it that there are waves of growth in bank debt. Two notable periods are during the 1980s and again from the late 1990s up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. During the early and mid 1990s the relative size of debt stocks tended to stabilise while in the early 2010s the actual stocks of debt, as well as relative to GDP, declined. A credit binge seems to be followed by a period of consolidation. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
It is important that we understand the drivers of the growth of debt. The impact of debt on the balance sheets of the non-bank private sector and on banks themselves has implications for economic behaviour. In the early 2010s this has been to markedly slow the pace of growth through its impact on aggregate demand. Economic agents have, in general, looked to consolidate. There is no doubt that this partly reflects a precautionary motive. An important means by which debt and the balance sheets on which it is recorded affect behaviour is through a precautionary mechanism. This is difficult to accurately quantify because it represents a psychological influence on spending. Furthermore, it is affected by the prevailing circumstances of the time.
In looking to understand the factors that affect the growth of debt we may, as a result, learn more about the framework within which we may want banks and their customers to operate. Consequently, we may be in a better position to ensure sustainable longer-term growth and development. If there are cycles in credit it is important that we understand why they arise and whether, as some have suggested, they are an inherent part of the financialised economy in which we live. If they are, can we mitigate their potentially destabilising effects?
Retail shares facing nightmare before Christmas The Telegraph, John Ficenec (9/11/14)
Growing wealth inequality in the UK is a ticking timebomb The Guardian, Danny Dorling (15/10/14)
Richest 10% of Britons now control more than half the country’s wealth: Nation is only member of G7 where inequality between rich and poor has increased this century Mail Online, Mark Duell and Corey Charlton, (15/11/14)
Household debt is growing as families struggle Yorkshire Evening Post (31/10/14)
Consumer spending forecast to be the highest for four years The Telegraph, Ashley Armstrong (10/11/14)
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England
Quarterly National Accounts, Q2 2014 Dataset Office for National Statistics
- What is the non-bank private sector?
- What factors might affect the rate at which non-bank private sector debt stocks grow?
- How might we go about assessing whether the aggregate level of lending by financial institutions to the non-bank private sector is sustainable?
- How might we go about assessing whether the level of lending by individual financial institutions to the non-bank private sector is sustainable?
- What information is conveyed in the balance sheets of economic agents, such as households and private non-financial corporations
- What is meant by precautionary saving?
- Can precautionary saving occur when the economy is growing strongly?
- What are the mechanisms by which non-bank private sector debt could impact on economic behaviour?
Following the financial crisis, all sectors of the economy continue to repair their balance sheets. As well as households, non-financial corporations and government, this is true of the banking sector. In part, the repairing and rebalancing of their balance sheets is being brought about by regulatory pressures. The objective is to make banks more resilient to shocks and less susceptible to financial distress.
The need for banks to repair and rebalance their balance sheets is significant because of their systemic importance to the modern-day economy. Financial institutions that are systemically important to national economies are know as SIFIs (systemically important financial institutions) while those of systemic importance to the global economy are know as G-SIFIs or G-SIBs (global systemically important banks). The increasing importance of financial institutions to economic activity is known as financialisation.
One way of measuring the degree of financialisation here in the UK is to consider the aggregate size of the balance sheet of resident UK banks and building societies (including foreign subsidiaries operating here). The chart shows that the balance sheet grew from £2.6 trillion in 1998 Q1 to £8.5 trillion in 2010 Q1. Another way of looking at this is to consider this growth relative to GDP. This reveals that the aggregate balance sheet of banks and building societies grew over this period from 3 times annual GDP to a staggering 5.6 times GDP. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
But, now consider the aggregate banking balance sheet in the 2010s. This reveals a shrinking balance sheet. At the end of the second quarter of this year (2014 Q2) it had fallen back to £7.1 trillion or 4 times GDP. As a share of GDP, this was the smallest the aggregate balance sheet had been since 2005 Q1.
Does a shrinking balance sheet matter? This is where the analysis becomes tricky and open to debate. If the smaller size is consistent with a more stable financial system then undoubtedly that is a good thing. But, size is not that all matters. The composition of the balance sheet matters too. This requires an analysis of, among other things, the liquidity of assets (i.e. assets that can be readily turned in a given amount of cash), the reliability of the income flow from assets and the resources available to withstand periods of slow economic growth, including recessions, or periods of financial difficulty.
As we have identified before (see Financialisation: Banks and the economy after the crisis), the financial crisis could herald new norms for the banking system with important implications for the economy. If so, we may need to become accustomed to consistently lower flows of credit and not to the levels that we saw prior to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. However, an alternative view is that we are merely experiencing a pause before the next expansionary phase of the credit cycle. This is consistent with the financial instability hypothesis (see Keeping a Minsky-eye on credit) which argues that credit cycles are an integral part of modern financialised economies. Only time will tell which view will turn out to be right.
‘Cleaning up bank balance sheets is key’ Irish Examiner, John Walsh (10/10/14)
More action needed at European banks: Fitch Courier Mail, (17/10/14)
Bank lending to small businesses falls by £400m The Telegraph, Rebecca Burn-Callander (20/10/14)
Bank lending to SMEs falls by £400m SME insider, Lindsey Kennedy (21/10/14)
Record world debt could trigger new financial crisis, Geneva report warns The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/10/14)
RBS shares jump as bank’s bad debts improve The Guardian, Jill Treanor (30/10/14)
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England
- Using examples, demonstrate your understanding of financialisation.
- Draw up a list of the alternative ways in which we might measure financialisation.
- What factors are likely to explain the recent reduction in the aggregate balance sheet of resident banks and building societies in the UK?
- How might we go about assessing whether the aggregate level of lending by financial institutions is sustainable?
- How might we go about assessing whether the level of lending by individual financial institutions is sustainable?
- How would reduced flows of credit be expected to impact on the economy both in the short term and in the longer term?
- Are credit cycles inevitable?
- Of what significance are credit cycles in explaining the business cycle?
As of 31 October 2013, British households had a stock of debt close to £1.43 trillion. Economists are increasingly recognising that the financial well-being of economic agents is an important macroeconomic issue. The financial position of households, businesses and governments can be expected to affect behaviour and, hence, economic activity.
We can calculate the net financial wealth of households as the difference between their stock of financial assets (savings) and their financial liabilities (debt). The latest figures from the Bank of England’s Money and Credit show that as of Halloween 2013, British households had amassed a stock of debt of £1.4296 trillion. It is certainly a large figure since it not far short of the expected GDP figure for 2013 of around £1.6 trillion.
The chart above helps to show that of the aggregate household debt, £1.271 trillion is secured debt (debt secured against property). The remaining stock of £158.589 billion is unsecured debt (e.g. overdrafts, outstanding credit card debt and personal loans). In short, 89 per cent of the stock of outstanding household debt is mortgage debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
In January 1994 the stock of secured debt stood at £358.75 billion and the stock of unsecured debt at £53.773 billion. 87 per cent of debt then was secured debt and, hence, little different to today. The total stock of debt has grown by 247 per cent between January 1994 and October 2013. Unsecured debt has grown by 199 per cent while secured debt has grown by 254 per cent.
But, consider now the path of debt between the end of October 2008 and October 2013. During this period, the monthly series of the stock of unsecured debt has fallen on 52 occasions and risen on only 9 occasions. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has fallen on only 10 occasions and often by very small amounts. Consequently, the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by 22.8 per cent between the end of October 2008 and October 2013. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has risen by 3.9 per cent. The total stock of debt has risen by 0.1 per cent over this period and, therefore, it is essentially unchanged.
The amount of debt accumulated by households is example of the increasing importance of the financial system in our everyday lives. The term financialisation helps to capture this. Financialisation means that economists need to think much more about how financial institutions and the financial well-being of people, businesses and governments affect economic activity. There is little doubt that the financial position or financial health of economic agents, such as households, affects their behaviour. We would expect in the case of households for their financial well-being to exert an influence on their propensities to spending or save. But, just how is an area in need of much, much more research.
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)
Money and Credit – October 2013 Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England
- Outline the ways in which the financial system could impact on the spending behaviour of households.
- Why might the current level of income not always be the main determinant of a household’s spending?
- How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
- Explain what you understand by net lending to individuals. How does net lending to individuals affect stocks of debt?
- Outline the main patterns seen in the stock of household debt over the past decade and discuss what you consider to be the principal reasons for these patterns.
- What factors might explain the rather different pattern seen in the growth of debt since October 2008 compared with that in earlier part of the 2000s?
- What do you understand by the term financialisation? Of what importance is this phenomenon to economic behaviour?
In the blogs The capital adequacy of UK banks and A co-operative or a plc? we focus on how British banks continue to look to repair their balance sheets. To do so, banks need to ‘re-balance’ their balance sheets. This may involve them holding more reserves and equity capital and/or a less risky and more liquid profile of assets. The objective is to make banks more resilient to shocks and less susceptible to financial distress.
This will take time and even then the behaviour of banks ought to look like quite different from that before the financial crisis. All of this means that we will need to learn to live with new banking norms which could have fundamental consequences for economic behaviour and activity.
The increasing importance of financial institutions to economic activity is known as financialisation. It is not perhaps the nicest word, but, in one way or another, we all experience it. I am writing this blog in a coffee shop in Leicester having paid for my coffee and croissant by a debit card. I take it for granted that I can use electronic money in this way. Later I am going shopping and I will perhaps use my credit card. I take this short term credit for granted too. On walking down from Leicester railway station to the coffee shop I walked past several estate agents advertising properties for sale. The potential buyers are likely to need a mortgage. In town, there are several construction sites as Leicester’s regeneration continues. These projects need financing and such projects often depend on loans secured from financial institutions.
We should not perhaps expect economic relationships to look as they did before the financial crisis. The chart shows how levels of net lending by financial institutions to households have dramatically fallen since the financial crisis. (Click here for PowerPoint of chart.)
Net lending measures the amount of lending by financial institutions after deducting repayments. These dramatically smaller flows of credit do matter for the economy and they do affect important macroeconomic relationships.
Consider the consumption function. The consumption function is a model of the determinants of consumer spending. It is conventional wisdom that if we measure the growth of consumer spending over any reasonably long period of time it will basically reflect the growth in disposable income. This is less true in the short run and this is largely because of the financial system. We use the financial system to borrow and to save. It allow us to smooth our consumption profile making spending rather less variable. We can save during periods when income growth is strong and borrow when income growth is weak or income levels are actually falling. All of this means that in the short term consumption is less sensitive to changes in disposable income that it would otherwise be.
The financial crisis means new norms for the banking system and, hence, for the economy. One manifestation of this is that credit is much harder to come by. In terms of our consumption function this might mean consumption being more sensitive to income changes that it would otherwise be. In other words, consumption is potentially more volatile as a result of the financial crisis. But, the point is more general. All spending activity, whether by households or firms, is likely to be more sensitive to economic and financial conditions than before. For example, firms’ capital spending will be more sensitive to their current financial health and crucially to their flows of profits.
We can expect particular markets and sectors to be especially affected by new financial norms. An obvious example is the housing market which is very closely tied to the mortgage market. But, any market or sector that traditionally is dependent on financial institutions for finance will be affected. This may include, for example, small and medium-sized enterprises or perhaps organsiations that invest heavily in R&D. It is my view that economists are still struggling to understand what the financial crisis means for the economy, for particular sectors of the economy and for the determination of key economic relationships, such as consumer spending and capital spending. What is for sure, is that these are incredibly exciting times to study economics and to be an economist.
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England
Cut in net lending to non-financial firms raises credit worries Herald Scotland, Mark Williamson (25/5/13)
Loans to business continue to shrink despite Funding for Lending Scheme Wales Online, Chris Kelsey (3/6/13)
Factbox – Capital shortfalls for five UK banks, mutuals Standard Chartered News (20/6/13)
UK banks ordered to plug £27.1bn capital shortfall The Guardian, Jill Treanor (20/6/13)
Barclays, Co-op, Nationwide, RBS and Lloyds responsible for higher-than-expected capital shortfall of £27.1bn The Telegraph, Harry Wilson (20/6/13)
UK banks need to plug £27bn capital hole, says PRA BBC News (20/6/13)
Barclays and Nationwide forced to strengthen BBC News, Robert Peston (20/6/13)
Five Banks Must Raise $21 Billion in Fresh Capital: BOE Bloomberg, Ben Moshinsky (20/6/13)
Co-operative Bank to list on stock market in rescue deal The Guardian, Jill Treanor (17/6/13)
Troubled Co-operative Bank unveils rescue plan to plug £1.5bn hole in balance sheet Independent, Nick Goodway (17/6/13)
Co-op Bank announces plan to plug £1.5bn hole Which?(17/6/13)
The Co-operative Bank and the challenge of finding co-op capital The Guardian, Andrew Bibby (13/6/13)
Co-op Bank seeks to fill £1.5bn capital hole Sky News (17/6/13)
Central banks told to head for exit Financial Times, Claire Jones (23/6/13)
Stimulating growth threatens stability, central banks warn The Guardian (23/6/13)
BIS Press Release and Report
Making the most of borrowed time: repair and reform the only way to growth, says BIS in 83rd Annual Report BIS Press Release (23/6/13)
83rd BIS Annual Report 2012/2013 Bank for International Settlements (23/6/13)
- What is meant by equity capital?
- How can banks increase the liquidity of their assets?
- Explain how Basel III is intended to increase the financial resilence of banks.
- What do you understand by the term ‘financialisation’? Use examples to illustrate this concept.
- How might we expect the financial crisis to affect the detemination of spending by economic agents?
- Using an appropriate diagram, explain how a reduction in capital spending could affect economic activity? Would this be just a short-term effect?
- What does it mean if we describe households as consumption-smoothers? How can households smooth their spending?