Overview: The Bubble and Beyond: | Michael Hudson

From Overview: The Bubble and Beyond: | Michael Hudson.

The question today is whether a new wave of reform will arise to restore and indeed complete the vision of classical political economy that seemed to be shaping evolution a century ago on the eve of World War I, or whether the epoch of industrial capitalism will be rolled back toward a neofeudal reaction defending rentier interests against reform. What is up for grabs is how society will resolve the legacy of debts that can’t be paid. Will it let the financial sector foreclose, and even force governments to privatize the public domain under distress conditions? Or will debts be written down to what can be paid without polarizing wealth and income, dismantling government, and turning tax policy over to financial lobbyists pretending to be objective technocrats?

What has gone relatively unremarked by economists is how financialization of the economy has transformed the idea of saving. In times past, saving was non-spending on goods and services – in the form of liquid assets. Typically on a national scale, between one-sixth and one-fifth of income would be saved – and invested in capital on the other side of the balance sheet. But since the 1980s, as banks loosened lending standards on real estate and made and the financial sector in general turned increasingly to financing corporate raiders, mergers and acquisitions, the way to create future wealth was not to save, but was to go into debt. The aim was capital gains more than current income. Indeed, after 2001 many families “made more” on the rising market price of their homes than they made in salary (not to speak of being able to save out of their salary).

Under financialization, the strategy was to seek capital gains, riding the wave of asset-price inflation being fueled by Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve Board. Investment performance was measured in terms of “total returns,” defined as income yield plus capital gains. And the way to maximize these gains was to borrow at a relatively low interest rate, to buy assets whose price was rising at a higher rate. For the first time in recorded history, large numbers of people went into debt not out of need, not involuntarily and as a result of running arrears as a result of inability to pay, but voluntarily, believing that debt leveraging was the quickest and easiest way to get rich!

The national income accounts were not designed to trace this process. Using debt leveraging to obtain capital gains meant that bank loans found their counterpart in debt on the other side of the balance sheet, not new tangible investment. The result was a wash. So the nominal savings rate declined – to zero by 2008. Yet people thought of themselves as saving, as long as their net worth was rising. That is supposed to be the aim of saving, after all: to increase one’s net worth. The result was a financial “balance sheet boom,” not the kind of expansion or business cycle that industrial capitalism generated.

As this process unfolded “on the way up,” financial lobbyists applauded the asset-price inflation for real estate, stocks and bonds as “wealth creation”. But it was making the economy less competitive, as seen most clearly in the de-industrialization of the United States. Debt-leveraged real estate required families to pay higher prices for housing – in the form of mortgage interest – and pension funds to pay higher prices for the stocks and bonds they buy to pay retirement incomes. That is the problem with the Bubble Economy. It is debt-driven. This debt is the “product” of the banking and financial sector.

When asset prices finally collapse to reflect the debtor’s ability to pay (and the falling market price of collateral bought on credit), these debts remain in place. The “final stage” of the Bubble Economy occurs when foreclosure time arrives and debt-ridden economies shrink into Negative Equity. That is the stage in which the U.S. and European economies are mired today. Economic jargon has called it a “balance sheet recession” – the counterpart to the “balance sheet boom” that was the essence of the preceding Bubble Economy.

At best, the world will return to the debates that marked economic discussion a century ago on the eve of World War I. At issue is whether the financial sector will translate its recent gains into the political power to take debt and financial policy out of the hands of elected government representatives and agencies and shift economic planning and tax policy into the hands of a super-national central bank authority controlled by bank lobbyists.

The lesson of history is that this would be a disaster of historic proportions, because the financial time frame is short-term and its business strategy is extractive, not productive. I hope the papers in this volume will serve as an antidote to the head start that financial lobbyists have achieved in sacrificing economies to austerity in what must be a vain attempt to pay debts under adverse financial conditions that make them less and less payable. By distinguishing tangible wealth creation from debt overhead and other rentier overhead – the task of classical political economy, after all – the policy debate can be cast in a manner that reverses the financial sector’s attempt to replace realistic analysis with euphemistic lobbying efforts and what best can be characterized as junk economics rather than empirical science.

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