Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Predictions

China’s Downward Growth Trajectory

China remains one of the most dynamic and important growth centers in the world economy.  The country is the single largest contributor to world GDP growth, accounting for almost 40 percent of global growth in 2016.  As I argued in a previous post, China’s rise owes much to its post-1990 embrace of an export-led growth strategy and resulting restructuring as the premier assembly/production base for transnational capital’s East Asia-centered cross-border production networks.

China recorded an unprecedented average rate of growth of nearly 10 percent over the years 1978 to 2008.  However, the slowdown in international trade and continuing economic difficulties in the advanced capitalist countries some seven years after the end of the Great Recession signals a significant change in the global economic environment.  China’s rate of growth has been steadily falling.  But Chinese leaders claim that the country has significantly lessened its trade dependence and begun a successful transformation to a more domestically centered economy.  They speak confidently of achieving an average rate of growth of 6.5 percent over the next five years.  I am dubious that such a transformation is taking place and that the target growth rate can be achieved.  If Chinese rates of growth do continue to fall, as I expect, perhaps to the 2-4 percent range, internal class pressures will likely build for a radical change in China’s current social and economic policies.  And, given China’s key position in the international economy, its slowdown will likely also have important negative consequences for the growth and political stability of many countries, especially those in East Asia, Latin America, and Sub Saharan Africa.

China’s Growth Trajectory

The chart below shows China’s growth performance since 1961.  From 1991 until 2015, the country’s yearly rate of growth never fell below 7.3 percent.  In ten of those years, Chinese GDP grew by at least 10 percent.   With this record as backdrop, the recent downturn in China’s economy stands out.  Not only did the country’s rate of growth fall to 6.9 percent in 2015, a 25 year low, it fell again, to an estimated 6.6 percent in 2016.  And, as noted above, the Chinese government has lowered its target growth rate to an average 6.5 percent for the next five years.

gdp-growth

Moreover, as the chart below highlights, China’s growth over the last few years has consistently fallen short of consensus forecasts.

forecasts

Of course, a slowdown in growth would have been hard to avoid, given China’s reliance on international trade and the severity of the Great Recession and weak post-Recession recovery in the advanced capitalist world.  Still, at the time of the crisis, it appeared that the Chinese economy would just power through the recession.  For example, the economy recorded growth of 9.7 percent in 2008, 9.4 percent in 2009, and 10.6 percent in 2010.   (In fact, a significant minority of economists pointed to this performance to argue that China’s trade dependence had been vastly overstated—more on this below.)  It is now clear that this was a temporary, stimulus-driven, growth spurt and not sustainable. However, the Chinese government, as well as many analysts, are now claiming that the Chinese economy is finally undergoing a long-delayed rebalancing away from its past reliance on external demand.  New policies designed to boost domestic consumption will, they believe, produce a more stable and egalitarian Chinese economy.  And while these policies are unlikely to generate the extraordinary growth rates of the past, they will allow the Chinese government to meet its current growth target and the country to continue to anchor world growth.

I disagree with this consensus.  As far as I can tell, the Chinese government has not achieved (or even pursued, for that matter) a meaningful rebalancing of the Chinese economy.  Thus, I expect the country’s rate of growth to continue to fall well below the target 6.5 percent growth rate.  To understand why I disagree with the consensus requires that we first investigate the Chinese growth experience.

The Chinese Growth Experience

The Chinese economy has gone through several major transformations.

Here I focus on post-1990 developments because it is in this period that the Chinese economy gradually becomes enmeshed in transnational capital’s accumulation dynamics and, as a result, a major force in the global economy.  The Chinese government’s decision to marketize the country’s economy and then privatize state enterprises came at roughly the same time that transnational capital was aggressively looking to internationalize its operations through the establishment of cross border production networks.  The two developments intertwined, and the consequence was that China, with the support of the Chinese state, gradually became the central player in East Asia’s regionally structured production-export networks.

We can see, in the chart below, the steady increase in China’s merchandise exports.  The major acceleration took place after 2001, which is when China joined the WTO.  In 2015, Chinese exports declined.

exports

The following chart puts this export growth in perspective, by showing the rise in China’s exports relative to the growth of the country’s GDP.  The export ratio climbed from 14 percent in 1990, to 21.2 percent in 2000, before reaching its peak in 2006 at a whopping 37.2 percent.  By 2015, the ratio had fallen back to a still considerable 22.1 percent.

exports-to-gdp

The next chart shows the movement in China’s current account balance (which is dominated by movements in the trade balance) as a percent of the country’s GDP.    The current account ratio rose from a relatively insignificant 0.22 percent in 1995, to 1.7 percent in 2000, before dramatically climbing in the period following China’s 2001 membership in the WTO.  The current account ratio went from 2.4 percent in 2002, to 8.4 percent in 2006, before peaking at an extraordinary 9.9 percent in 2007.  The current account ratio rose from 2014 (2.6 percent) to 2015 (3 percent) despite the absolute decline in exports, because imports fell by more.

current-account

To state the obvious: it takes a lot of investment to produce these trade numbers.  Factories have to be built and machinery purchased.  Transportation networks–highways, ports, rail lines, airports–have to be built.  Urban infrastructure—communication, energy, water, and waste systems as well as worker housing—has to be constructed.  We can get some idea of the scale of the Chinese effort by looking the dramatic rise in the ratio of gross fixed capital formation to GDP.  As we can see in the chart below, it reached historic highs of 38.9 percent in 2007, before moving to an even higher 45 percent in 2010.  In 2015 the ratio stood at 44 percent.

gross-fixed-capital-formation

Finally, as we see below, in sharp contrast to the growth in exports and fixed investment, household consumption as a share of GDP steadily declined until the last few years, with the first half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s standing out for the steepest declines.  The consumption ratio stood at 56.2 percent in 1970, 46.2 percent in 2000, and a low of 36.4 percent in 2006.  In 2015 the ratio was 37 percent.

consumption

In broad brush, the Chinese state promoted the country’s growth though policies that prioritized the construction of a massive infrastructure for production; the transfer of hundreds of million peasants from farms into cities to serve as wage labor; and the creation of a welcoming environment for export-oriented transnational corporations.   The results, in addition to rapid and sustained rates of economic growth and elevation to one of the world’s largest exporters and destinations for foreign direct investment, include socially devastating environmental destruction, world-ranking inequality, and—key to our discussion here–an export-driven economy.

Now, as noted above, the statement that China’s growth has heavily depended on exports was challenged by some economists who pointed to the country’s high rates of growth over the years 2008 to 2010 in the face of the collapse in international economic activity and trade.  They defended their position using data designed to measure the contribution of different economic sectors to growth.  The table below, which comes from the Asian Development Bank, presents such data for China.

The table provides estimates of the percentage contributions made by consumption (government and private), investment, and net exports to China’s economic growth.  As we can see, net exports, except for the year 1990, make a relatively small contribution to Chinese growth.  In fact, in 2003 and 2004, when exports were rapidly growing, net exports actually subtracted from growth.  To clarify: a negative contribution by net exports during those years does not mean that exports fell, only that the trade surplus narrowed, thereby reducing trade’s contribution to growth.  Viewed from this perspective, Chinese growth is overwhelmingly explained by domestic demand—investment and consumption–even during the years 2005 to 2007, when net exports made its biggest recent contribution.

table-china-growth

However, focusing on net exports is not a useful way to understand the importance of export activity.  The fact is that Chinese imports could be used to support consumption, investment, or export production.  Thus, to test the importance of exports, one would have to adjust each of these three sectors by subtracting the value of imports used by that sector.  The table above is constructed on the assumption that imports are used only in the export sector, an assumption that cannot help but minimize the contribution of trade to Chinese growth.  In addition, given what we know about China’s economic transformation, it seems hard to deny that a significant share of investment, whether in plant and equipment or infrastructure, was also triggered by export activity.  Moreover, the country’s export activity, by generating income for a growing share of China’s workforce, had to have increased the country’s private consumption.  In short, calculating the contribution of exports to Chinese growth requires far more than a simple examination of the contribution of net exports.

A number of economists, using different methods, have concluded that external demand has played a very significant role in driving Chinese growth.  For example, consultants for the McKinsey company, using their own measure of domestic value-added exports, estimated that exports accounted for some 30 percent of Chinese growth over the period 2002 to 2006.

Two Asia Development Bank economists used a different measure to calculate the contribution of external demand to Chinese growth, one that included inflows of foreign direct investment as well as their own estimate of domestic value added exports.  Their measure of external demand “grew steadily and maintained a two-digit annual growth rate [from 2000] until the global financial crisis in 2008. The estimates suggest that the weight of [external demand] on the economy increased gradually during this period—in 2001 it accounted for 18.3 percent of GDP growth; by 2004, almost half of the 10.2 percent GDP growth could be attributed to [it]. During 2005–07, the share of external demand dropped slightly, but remained 38 percent–40 percent.”

Yılmaz Akyüz, Special Economic Advisor to the South Center and former Director of UNCTAD’s Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, using detailed input-output tables, concluded that:

despite a high import content ranging between 40 and 50 percent, approximately one-third of Chinese growth before the global crisis was a result of exports, due to their phenomenal growth of some 25 percent per annum. This figure increases to 50 percent if spillovers to consumption and investment are allowed for. The main reason for excessive dependence on foreign markets is under consumption. This is due not so much to a high share of household savings in GDP as to a low share of household income and a high share of profits.

In short, it seems clear that exports and foreign direct investment have played a major role in China’s high speed growth.  Therefore, it is to be expected that a global recession and very weak post-crisis global recovery would cause a fall in China’s rate of growth.  But that raises these two important questions: by how much and for how long?  And not surprisingly, the answers to those questions depends, in part, on the response of the Chinese government.

The Misleading Rebalancing of the Chinese Economy

In a trivial sense, if exports fall, then domestic spending will become more important to growth.  However, a meaningful rebalancing must mean more than that.  The economy should be transformed in ways that allow for sustainable growth based on domestic demand that is underpinned by and contributes to a rising majority standard of living.  That is what I do not see.

The Chinese government’s immediate response to the global recession was a massive stimulus program supported by a highly expansionary monetary policy.  In November 2008 the government announced a stimulus package, heavily weighted toward infrastructure spending, equal to $586 billion or about 14 percent of the country’s gdp.   Thanks to the government’s control over key state industrial enterprises and the country’s banking system, the spending began one month later and continued throughout 2009.

Two Chinese economists describe the impact of this program on the country’s growth as follows:

Directly after the unveiling of the stimulus package, the year-over-year growth rate of fixed asset investment in China jumped 9 percentage points from 2008:Q4 to 2009:Q1 and accelerated further to 38 percent per year in 2009:Q2. So for the entire year of 2009 the yearly growth rate of fixed investment reached 30.9 percent, almost twice as high as its average pre-crisis growth rate. As a result, gross fixed capital formation contributed a phenomenal 8.06 percentage points to China’s 9.1 percent per year real GDP growth in 2009. In other words, investment alone was responsible for nearly 90% of the robust GDP growth in 2009 when Chinese exports collapsed and shrank by nearly 45 percent. . .

(T)he People’s Bank of China started to expand money supply by the end of 2008. The monetary injection immediately led to sharp increases in credit lending at nearly the same speed and magnitude. Despite positive inflation, the real growth rate of outstanding loan balances increased from 5 percent per year in mid-2008 to 12.49 percent per year in December 2008, and further up to 32.5 percent per year in June 2009, a historical peak during the entire reform era since 1978.

Accompanying this explosion of investment was a change in its composition.  Investment by private sector manufacturing firms fell, while investment by key state owned industries tied to the government’s infrastructure program–which targeted the construction of new roads, railway lines, ports, airports, and the like–grew.  Local governments pursued their own investment activity, supported by cheap and plentiful loans, promoting construction of new industrial parks, shopping centers, and apartment complexes.

All this investment powered the Chinese economy through the period of global collapse; China’s gdp grew by 9.4 percent in 2009 and 10.6 percent in 2010.  However, as to be expected, the effects of the stimulus program gradually weakened, leaving in its wake massive excess capacity in many state owned firms; under-used airports, highways, railways, and shopping centers; and enormous environmental damage.  Determined to keep growth up, the government maintained its expansionary monetary policy.  However, given the continued weakness in the global economy, little of the money was used for productive investment.  Instead businesses, local governments, and wealthy citizens tended to borrow to purchase assets, more specially stocks and housing, producing bubbles in each.  The stock market bubble was popped by policy in 2015.   The housing bubble is ongoing.  Construction of housing has helped offset the decline in state investment in infrastructure.  And the wealth effect from the stock and housing bubbles has boosted consumption (by high income families), as we can see in the chart below. But housing construction is too limited and personal consumption is too small a share of the economy to halt the steady slide in the country’s gdp growth rate.

household-consumption

Underpinning and now threatening the Chinese government’s growth strategy has been a rapid and extreme build up in debt.  Chinese debt levels soared from 150 percent of gdp in 2009 to approximately 280 percent of gdp in 2016.  And the debt build up is accelerating.  In other words ever more debt appears needed to produce a slowing gdp.  And the debt build-up appears to be running up against its own limits.  As the China specialist Michael Pettis wrote in his May 2016 monthly report on the Chinese economy:

in order to achieve current levels of GDP growth, China’s debt is growing at least two-and-a-half times as fast as debt-servicing capacity and is probably growing three or four times as fast. Clearly this isn’t sustainable. And it must become even less sustainable as long as the process continues. If China attempts to maintain GDP growth of 6.5% for the next five years, it won’t be enough for debt to continue growing at the same already-alarming rate relative to GDP growth. In the late stages of overinvestment growth cycles, credit must grow exponentially relative to GDP growth. . . .

If China manages the targeted 6.5% GDP growth over the next five years, in short, so that by the end of 2021 its GDP will be double the 2011 level, its GDP will be nearly 40% larger than it is today. If we assume that it takes 15-16% growth in credit, gradually rising to 20-22% growth in credit, to achieve this GDP growth target, China’s debt will have risen to become between 110% and 170% larger than it is today. This represents an enormously high growth rate on an already high level of debt.

And, as Pettit goes on to say, these projected debt levels “are simply too implausible to take seriously. In my opinion it is, in other words, extremely unlikely that China can follow the targeted GDP growth path because the target can only be met if debt is able to grow to what are effectively impossibly high levels.”

The Chinese government has tried several times over the last years to tighten credit, but each time, worried about the consequences, they have reversed course.  George Magnus, writing in the Financial Times, provides a useful summary of this experience:

Total Social Financing, a broad measure of monthly credit creation, is growing at nearly three times the rate of officially recorded money GDP growth, or more if you don’t believe the official GDP data. Curiously, many private companies face tight credit conditions and so rapid credit creation may be largely for the benefit of the cash-flows of already highly indebted real estate sector, local governments and state enterprise sectors.

Some financial policies have been introduced by way of countermeasures, but to little effect. For example, the government clamped down in 2013 on borrowing by local government financing vehicles, only to relax the curbs last year [2015]. It also introduced a local government bond debt swap scheme last year to allow expensive bank debt to be swapped for cheaper debt instruments. Banks duly bought more than Rmb3tn of bonds, but traditional lending growth continued regardless.

After encouraging the development of shadow banking between 2009 and 2013, lending restrictions were enforced in 2014, but a fall in financial institutions’ off-balance sheet assets simply showed up in an expansion in the main banking system’s assets. . . .

Instead, all we are likely to see is more credit easing, in the wake of the six initiatives since late 2014 to cut interest rates and banks’ reserve requirements, albeit to no economic effect. The credit binge, then, will continue until it can’t.

The decisive factors will be the already compromised debt servicing capacity of borrowers, and the behavior of banks under the weight of rising non-performing and bad loans and emerging funding difficulties as loan to deposit ratios increase further.

Thus, even while demonstrating a willingness to tolerate deepening imbalances, the Chinese government has been forced to accept ever lower rates of growth.  And, there are good reasons to believe that the trade-offs facing the Chinese government are worsening, leaving the government with little choice but to accept a lower growth target.  One reason is that China’s housing bubble will, like all bubbles, eventually come to an end.  C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh provide the following overview of developments in China’s housing market:

What exactly is going on in the Chinese housing market? Over the past year, there has been a dramatic rise in prices of residential property in many cities, and especially in some of the large metros. This comes after a period just before, when everyone was talking about the “softening” of the Chinese real estate market as the authorities sought to clamp down on what they believed was speculative activity that was leading to excessively high prices and making housing unaffordable for many ordinary Chinese. But since then – and really from early 2015, as [the chart below shows] – prices seem to have gone completely berserk, increasing at unprecedented rates.

housing

The problem, as in most housing booms, is that house purchases are leveraged (albeit to a lesser extent in China than in other countries because of higher down payment requirements). The extent of debt flowing into housing has increased sharply in the current year. According to Bloomberg, outstanding housing mortgages in China increased by 31 percent just in the first half of 2016, three times more than the increase in overall lending. Loans to households increased to account for as much as 71 percent of total new lending in August 2016, compared to 24 percent in January. And this excludes the shadow banking activities that are also dominantly geared to real estate and construction lending. This means that there is bound to be a knock-on effect on banks and other lenders, once the bubble bursts and house prices start coming down. The Chinese authorities are trying to walk the tightrope to bring stability and greater affordability into the housing market without simultaneously destabilizing finance, but this is a difficult task. Indeed, the problem may be urgent, because in fact in many cities the downslide in house prices has already started – and indeed it is evident that in recent months the trend has got aggravated.

The housing market boom has encouraged new home construction and greater consumption, both of which have helped moderate the decline in Chinese growth rates.  Letting the air out of the bubble, even assuming that this can be done in a controlled way, will weaken an important force supporting economic growth.

A second reason for pessimission about Chinese growth is the increasing problem of capital flight.  In brief, rich Chinese and foreign investors are now moving money out of China.  As the New York Times reports:  “In Beijing, confidence has given way to a case of nerves. Local residents often sense trouble coming before foreign investors and are the first to flee before a crisis. Chinese moved a record $675 billion out of the country in 2015, some of it for purchases of foreign real estate.”

money-flows

And, as Bloomberg News points out, this problem will not be easily managed:

China’s balancing act isn’t getting any easier.

Policy makers are grappling with how to attack excessive borrowing and rein in soaring property prices while maintaining rapid growth. They’re also battling yuan depreciation and capital outflow pressures as U.S. interest rates rise, while on the horizon looms the risk of confrontation with America’s President-elect Donald Trump on trade and Taiwan. . . .

Outflows will exceed $200 billion in the fourth quarter [2016] and rise further in the first quarter, said Pauline Loong, managing director at research firm Asia-Analytica in Hong Kong.

Capital is leaving for more fundamental reasons than rising U.S. rates and a stronger dollar, she said. Drivers include rising expectations of yuan weakness, fears of an abrupt policy U-turn trapping funds in the country, and a lack of profitable investment opportunities at home amid rising costs and slowing growth.

“The real nightmare for Beijing – and for markets – is a vicious cycle of capital outflows triggering bigger devaluations of the yuan that in turn drive bigger and faster outflows,” Loong said. “We expect capital outflows to increase in the coming months as Chinese money seeks to maximize exit quotas in case of more stringent restrictions later on.”

The most effective way to halt a capital outflow is to reduce credit and raise interest rates.  However, doing so would likely topple the housing market and threaten the financial health of bank and non-bank lenders and high income borrowers, and push down growth rates.  On the other hand, to do nothing means a continuing rundown in reserves and a self-reinforcing currency decline.

A third reason is the enormous excess capacity of key Chinese industries and continuing slow growth in the world economy.  The consequences of these interrelated problems are well described by two analysts:

As officials from China and the US meet this week [June 2016], they’re scheduled to talk about everything from the US Federal Reserve’s decision-making process to the disputed South China Sea. But China’s “excess capacity” problem is top of the agenda.

US treasury secretary Jack Lew called the problem “distorting” and “damaging” in remarks in Beijing on Monday (June 6) and said it was critical to global markets that China cut its production.

That’s because some of China’s factories have been pumping out more steel, solar panels, and other goods than the world wants or needs—in order to keep China’s GDP growing and citizens employed.

Widespread labor strikes and a slowing domestic economy have put pressure on local Chinese officials to keep factories going, even as leaders in Beijing have pledged to cut capacity and said they could lay off millions. Most of these factories are state-owned, meaning they’re subsidized by the government, rather than making market-driven decisions.

That means Chinese manufacturers can lower prices of what they make to keep factories busy more easily than private companies. China’s producer price index, which measures wholesale prices they command for their goods, has fallen for 50 months in a row.

The net effect for some industries outside of China has been devastating, marked by mass layoffs and closing factories, as lower-priced Chinese goods flood the market—and that has been no where more apparent than the steel industry.

producer-prices

This is not a sustainable situation.  The combination of growing debt with falling producer prices is a deadly one for business stability.

And it is worth mentioning a fourth: the changing labor situation in China.  Workers are increasingly fighting and winning wage increases despite Chinese government efforts to the contrary.   As a result, as the New York Times explains:

Labor costs in China are now significantly higher than in many other emerging economies. Factory workers in Vietnam earn less than half the salary of a Chinese worker, while those in Bangladesh get paid under a quarter as much.

Rising costs are driving many companies in a variety of sectors to relocate business to a wide range of other countries. In the most recent survey from the American Chamber of Commerce in China, a quarter of respondents said they had either already moved or were planning to move operations out of China, citing rising costs as the top reason. Of those, almost half are moving into other developing countries in Asia, while nearly 40 percent are shifting to the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Many of the factories moving away make the products often found on the shelves of American retailers.

Stella International, a footwear manufacturer headquartered in Hong Kong that makes shoes for Michael Kors, Rockport and other major brands, closed one of its factories in China in February and shifted some of that production to plants in Vietnam and Indonesia. TAL, another Hong Kong-based manufacturer that makes clothing for American brands including Dockers and Brooks Brothers, plans to close one of its Chinese factories this year and move that work to new facilities in Vietnam and Ethiopia.

Other companies with an extensive presence in China may not be closing factories, but are targeting new investments elsewhere.

Taiwan’s Foxconn, best known for making Apple iPhones in Chinese factories, is planning to build as many as 12 new assembly plants in India, creating around one million new jobs there. A pilot operation in the western Indian state of Maharashtra will start churning out mobile phones later this year.

To this point, labor activism largely remains limited to shop-floor struggles aimed at forcing corporations to meet wage, benefit, and safety standards mandated by law.  However, capitalist mobility gives the Chinese state little room to maneuver.  For now, state repression has kept the insurgency from become a movement.    But, a sustained slowdown could trigger more militant activism, and on a wider scale, which would negatively impact foreign investment and production.

What Lies Ahead For The Chinese Economy?

The Chinese government faces enormous challenges.  Its strategy of building a powerful export sector is now threatened by stagnation in the advanced capitalist countries.  It sought to compensate by directing a massive, wasteful, and environmentally destructive infrastructure program that has largely run its course.  It now confronts a growing debt spiral, a housing bubble, and capital flight, as well as industrial over capacity and a growing worker insurgency.  There is no simple set of policies that can solve any one of these problems without making another worse.  For example, government spending to sustain production will only add to capacity and debt problems as well as increase capital flight.  Tightening credit markets will help reduce over capacity and capital flight, but likely collapse the housing market and significantly dampen economic growth.

In making this case for difficult times ahead, I do not mean to suggest that the Chinese economy is on the verge of collapse.  Rather I mean to argue that the country’s growth can be expected to slow considerably, perhaps to the 2 to 4 percent range.  And for China that likely means an intensification of internal pressures for structural change, especially from workers who have enjoyed few of the gains they helped produce during the country’s many years of high-speed growth.

And, since most of the third world has become ever more export-dependent, and China has been the prime export market for the parts and components produced by Asian countries and the primary commodities sold by many Latin American and Sub Saharan African countries, China’s slowdown can be expected to have a significant negative effect on growth rates in most of the third world.   At the same time, unless the slowdown in China’s growth rate triggers a major restructuring of the Chinese economy that disrupts/reorients existing cross border production networks, something that has yet to happen, the effects on US and European economies should be far less.  The consequences might be greater for Japan, given its tighter integration with East Asian economies.

In sum, those expecting China, or East Asia more generally, to anchor a resurgent global economy, will be disappointed.  Transnational corporations have gone far in creating a world to their liking, but the resulting contradictions and tensions are multiplying rapidly, even in those countries and areas where accumulation dynamics have been the most robust.  The need is great for meaningful change in how economies are structured and interconnected.

Asia’s Economic Future

There is strong reason to expect a further weakening of global economic activity over the next several years, putting greater pressure on majority living and working conditions.

In brief, Asia’s economic dynamism is ebbing.  Given the region’s centrality in the international economy, this trend is both an indicator of current global economic problems and a predictor of a worsening global situation.

Asia’s central role in the global economy

Asia’s central role in the world economy is easily documented.  For example, as the Asian Development Bank points out, “Global headwinds notwithstanding, developing Asia will continue to contribute 60% of world growth.”

Asia’s key position is anchored by China.  China is the single largest contributor to world GDP growth, likely accounting for almost 40 percent of global growth in 2016.  Stephen Roach, former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm’s chief economist, estimates that China’s contribution to global growth was 50 percent larger than the combined contributions of all the advanced capitalist economies.

The rise of Asia, and in particular China, owes much to the actions of transnational corporations and their strategy of creating Asian-centered cross-border production networks or global value chains (GVC).  In the words of the Asian Development Bank, these networks or chains involve “dividing the production of goods and services into linked stages of production scattered across international borders.  While such exchange of inputs is as old as trade itself, rapid growth in the extent and complexity of GVCs since the late 1980s is unprecedented.”

The strategy was initiated by Japanese transnational corporations who began shifting segments of their respective production processes to developing Asian countries in the late 1980s; US and European firms soon followed.  The process kicked into high gear in the mid to late 1990s once China opened up to foreign investment and decided to pursue an export-led growth strategy.

Asia, as a consequence, became transformed into a highly efficient, integrated, regional export machine, with China serving as the region’s final assembly platform.  Developing Asian economies became increasingly organized around the production of manufactures for export; their share of total world manufacturing exports rose from 18.4 percent to 32.5 percent over the period 1992-3 to 2011-12.   And, following the logic of cross border production, a growing share of these exports were parts and components, which were often traded multiple times within the region before arriving in China for final assembly.   Parts and components accounted for more than half of all developing Asian intra-regional manufacturing trade in 2006-7.

China, befitting its regional role, became the first or second largest export market for almost every developing Asian country, with the majority of those exports the parts and components needed for the assembly of advanced electronics.  Between 1995 and 2014, the electronics share of manufacturing exports to China from Korea grew from 8.5 percent to 32.2 percent.  Over the same period, the electronics share from Taiwan exploded from 9.1 percent to 63.7 percent, for Singapore the share grew from 17.5 percent to 36.8 percent, and for the Philippines it rose from 3.4 percent to 78.3 percent.  China’s exports to the region, and especially outside the region, were mostly final goods, with the most technologically advanced assembled/produced under the direction of foreign transnational corporations.  In line with this development, China became the premier location for foreign investment by transnational corporations from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, as well as leading non-Asian corporations.

This history allows us to appreciate the forces that powered Asia’s growth.  Growing demand for manufactures by consumers and retailers in the US and the Eurozone became increasingly satisfied by exports from Asia.  The production of these exports triggered the production of and trade in parts and components by developing East Asian countries and their final assembly in China, as well as massive investment in new factories and supportive infrastructure, especially in China.  East Asian export production also required significant imports of primary commodities, which were largely purchased from countries in Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa, who experienced their own growth spurt as a result.

As we now well know, this growth was heavily dependent on the borrowing capacity of working people in the advanced capitalist world, especially in the US, whose incomes had been falling in large part because of the shift of production to Asia.  The collapse of the debt-driven US housing bubble in 2008 triggered a major financial crisis and global recession, which also greatly depressed international trade.   A weak international recovery has followed; international trade and growth remain far below pre-crisis levels, raising questions about Asia’s future economic prospects.  To appreciate why I am pessimistic about Asia’s economic future requires us to delve more deeply into the ways in which Asian economies have been restructured by transnational capital’s accumulation dynamics.

The Dynamics of Asia’s Economic Transformation

The three charts below, which come from an article authored by the Monetary Authority of Singapore in collaboration with Associate Professor Davin Chor of the National University of Singapore, provide a useful visualization of the Asian economic transformation described above, in particular, changes in the trading relationships of the countries, with each other and with the rest of the world.  The authors use what they call a measure of “upstreamness” to highlight “where a country fits in the operation of cross border production networks, more particularly whether it specialized in producing raw input, intermediate inputs or finished goods.”  The more a country specializes in producing raw inputs, the greater is the value of its upstreamness index; the more it specializes in producing final goods, the smaller is its upstreamness index.

More precisely: the upstreamness index for an industry takes on values equal to or larger than 1.  A value of 1 means that the industry’s output “is just one stage removed from final demand.” A greater value means that the industry’s output enters the relevant production process as an input that is a number of stages removed from final demand.  Here are some examples of upstreamness values for select US industries:

index-values

For the charts below, the upstreamness measure for each country is calculated by weighting the upsteamness of its export industries by the share of each industry in the country’s total exports for the year in question.

As the authors explain:

Charts 2 to 4 depict the changing networks of trade flows between the Asian economies, and in relation to the US, UK, Eurozone (EZ), Australia, as well as the rest of the world (ROW). In these charts, the arrows indicate the direction of the net trade balance between each pair of economies, while the width of each arrow is proportional to the magnitude of this balance.

The arrows are color-coded to reflect the upstreamness of the export flows that move in the same direction as the net trade balance between each pair of nodes. For simplicity, export upstreamness values lying between 1 and 2 are labelled as “downstream” (green), those between 2 and 2.5 as “midstream” (yellow), and those above 2.5 as “upstream” (red).

As we can see in Chart 2, in 1995, a time when cross boarder production networks were still limited, Japan dominated the Asian region.  It was a significant downstream (green) exporter to the US, the Eurozone, the UK, and China.  And it was a significant supplier of key midstream machinery to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.  It generally purchased its upstream inputs from the ROW.   As we can also see, China was well on its way to becoming a major exporter of final goods to the US, the world’s dominant consumer of both downstream and midstream goods.

chart-2

chart-3

By 2005, as illustrated in Chart 3, Japan’s role in the region had dramatically diminished.  China was now the region’s hub, and as such, the dominant exporter of finished goods to the US, the Eurozone, Hong Kong, and the ROW.  The economies of Korea and Taiwan had also been transformed, increasingly oriented to supplying upstream parts and components to China-based exporters.

chart-4

Chart 4, which captures conditions in 2014, shows a deepening of the trade patterns of the previous period.  China’s export dominance is greater yet, as illustrated by the increase in the width of its green trade arrows pointing to the US, ROW, EZ, and Hong Kong.  The Korean and Taiwanese economies are even more dependent on sales of parts and components to China.  Because of their relatively small trade activity, it is difficult to appreciate the transformations experienced by other Asian countries.  Many ASEAN countries, as noted above, had become suppliers of key electronic components to China.  Vietnam, due in large part to the expansion of South Korean production networks, has become an important assembly and export location for some consumer electronics such as smart phones.

What is also not visible from these charts is the effect that transnational corporate-driven regionalization dynamics have had on the structures and stability of individual countries, and of course on the working and living conditions of Asian workers.  One consequence of the rise of China as the region’s key final assembly and production platform is that leading firms from other Asian countries significantly reduced their domestic investment activity as they located operations in China. This deliberate deindustrialization was a natural outcome of the establishment of cross border production networks which involve, as stated above, the dividing of production activities into segments and the location of one or more of these segments in other countries.

The chart below highlights the dramatic decline in Japanese investment as Japanese firms shifted segments of production overseas.   This ongoing decline in investment is one of the most important reasons for the country’s ongoing economic stagnation.

japan

The following chart shows a similar sustained decline in investment, although beginning at a later date than for Japan, for the grouping “Rest of emerging Asia,” which includes Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.   China, on the other hand, has experienced a dramatic and sustained rise in its investment ratio. Chinese state activity, rather than foreign direct investment, accounts for the great majority of this investment, although in many cases it was undertaken to attract and support foreign production.

asian-investment

As leading Asian transnational corporations expanded their production networks, their actions tended to restructure their respective home economies in ways that left these economies more unbalanced and crisis prone.  For example, almost all Asian economies became increasingly export dependent at the same time that their exports narrowed to a limited range of parts and components.   And with transnational corporations increasingly able to shift production from one national location to another, China’s pull became ever stronger.  One consequence was that governments throughout Asia were forced to match China’s relatively low labor costs and corporate friendly business environment.  In many cases, they did so by transforming their own labor markets though the introduction of new laws and actions designed to weaken labor rights.  This, in turn, tended to suppress regional purchasing power, thereby reinforcing the region’s export dependence.  Not surprisingly then, the decline in exports that has followed the post 2008 Great Recession poses a serious challenge to Asia’s growth strategy.

According to the Asian Development Bank:

Developing Asia’s exports grew rapidly in real terms at an annual rate of 11.2 percent in 2000–2010 (Figure 1.2.1). Excepting a brief rebound in 2010, the region’s export volume growth has slowed since the crisis, recording annual growth of 4.7 percent in 2011–2015. A major concern is that developing Asia’s exports actually declined by 0.8 percent in 2015, which was a particularly bad year for world trade. Regional trends follow the lead of export growth in the PRC, which contributes about 40 percent of developing Asia’s export value.  PRC export growth slowed from an annual average of 18.3 percent in 2001–2010 to 6.4 percent in 2011–2015, falling into a 2.1 percent decline in 2015. The slowdown in developing Asia excluding the PRC was less pronounced as growth halved from 8.0 percent in 2001–2010 to 4.1 percent in 2011–2015, still growing marginally in 2015 at 0.8 percent. . . .

The slowdown has meant that developing Asia’s export growth in 2011–2015 was, at 4.1%, similar to the 4.3% averaged by other developing economies and not much higher than the 3.6% of the advanced economies—two groups that developing Asia has historically outperformed in export growth.

trade-trends

And as the region’s export growth rate declined, so did overall rates of GDP growth, as we see in the table below.

rates-of-growth

Still, these growth rates remain impressive, especially in light of the steep decline in regional exports.  Perhaps not surprisingly, developing Asia’s buoyancy owes much to China’s ability to maintain its relatively high rates of economic growth.  However, as I will discuss in a following post, contradictions and pressures are mounting in China that will intensify its economic slowdown and significantly depress growth in the rest of Asia, with negative consequences for the rest of the world.

Capitalism and Inequality

Defenders of capitalism in the United States often choose not to use that term when naming our system, preferring instead the phrase “market system.”  Market system sounds so much better, evoking notions of fair and mutually beneficial trades, equality, and so on.  The use of that term draws attention away from the actual workings of our system.

In brief, capitalism is a system structured by the private ownership of productive assets and driven by the actions of those who seek to maximize the private profits of the owners.  Such an understanding immediately raises questions about how some people and not others come to own productive wealth and the broader social consequences of their pursuit of profit.

Those are important questions because it is increasingly apparent that while capitalism continues to produce substantial benefits for the largest asset owners, those benefits have increasingly been secured through the promotion of policies – globalization, financialization, privatization of state services, tax cuts, attacks on social programs and unions–that have both lowered overall growth and left large numbers of people barely holding the line, if not actually worse off.

The following two figures come from a Washington Post article by Jared Bernstein, in which he summarizes the work of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The first figure shows the significant decline in US pre-tax income growth.  In the first period (1946-1980), pre-tax income grew by 95 percent.  In the second (1980-2014), it grew by only 61 percent.

income-trends

This figure also shows that this slower pre-tax income growth has not been a problem for those at the top of the income distribution.  Those at the top more than compensated for the decline by capturing a far greater share of income growth than in the past.  In fact, those in the bottom 50 percent of the population gained almost nothing over the period 1980 to 2014.

The next figure helps us see that the growth in inequality has been far more damaging to the well-being of the bottom half than the slowdown in overall income growth.  As Bernstein explains:

The bottom [blue] line in the next figure shows actual pretax income for adults in the bottom half of the income scale. The top [red] line asks how these folks would have done if their income had grown at the average rate from the earlier, faster-growth period. The middle [green] line asks how they would have done if they experienced the slower, average growth of the post-1980 period.

The difference between the top two lines is the price these bottom-half adults paid because of slower growth. The larger gap between the middle and bottom line shows the price they paid from doing much worse than average, i.e., inequality (aging demographics are also in play, but the researchers show that they do not explain the extent of the slowdown in income growth). That explains about two-thirds of the difference in endpoints. Slower growth hurt these families’ income gains, but inequality hurt them more.

inequality-versus-growth

A New York Times analysis of pre-tax income distribution over the period 1974 to 2014 reinforces this conclusion about the importance of inequality.  As we can see in the figure below, the top 1 percent and bottom 50 percent have basically changed places in terms of their relative shares of national income.

changing-places

The steady ratcheting down in majority well-being is perhaps best captured by studies designed to estimate the probability of children making more money than their parents, an outcome that was the expectation for many decades and that underpinned the notion of “the American dream.”

Such research is quite challenging, as David Leonhardt explains in a New York Times article, “because it requires tracking individual families over time rather than (as most economic statistics do) taking one-time snapshots of the country.”  However, thanks to newly accessible tax records that go back decades, economists have been able to estimate this probability and how it has changed over time.

Leonhardt summarizes the work of one of the most important recent studies, that done by economists associated with the Equality of Opportunity Project.   In summary terms, those economists found that a child born into the average American household in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of making more than their parents.  This falls to 79 percent for a child born in 1950, 62 percent for a child born in 1960, 61 percent for a child born in 1970, and only 50 percent for a child born in 1980.

The figure below provides a more detailed look at the declining fortunes of most Americans.   The horizontal access shows the income percentile a child is born into and the vertical access shows the probability of that child earning more than their parents.   The drop-off for children born in 1960 and 1970 compared to the earlier decade is significant and is likely the result of the beginning effects of the changes in capitalist economic dynamics that started gathering force in the late 1970s, for example globalization, privatization, tax cuts, union busting, etc.  The further drop-off for children born in 1980 speaks to the strengthening and consolidation of those dynamics.

american-dream

The income trends highlighted in the figures above are clear and significant, and they point to the conclusion that unless we radically transform our capitalist system, which will require building a movement capable of challenging and overcoming the power of those who own and direct our economic processes, working people in the United States face the likelihood of an ever-worsening future.

The Trump Victory

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the latest example of the rise in support for right-wing racist and jingoistic political forces in advanced capitalist countries.  Strikingly this rise has come after a sustained period of corporate driven globalization and profitability.

As highlighted in the McKinsey Global Institute report titled Playing to Win: The New Global Competition For Corporate Profits:

The past three decades have been uncertain times but also the best of times for global corporations–and especially so for large Western multinationals. Vast markets have opened up around the world even as corporate tax rates, borrowing costs, and the price of labor, equipment, and technology have fallen. Our analysis shows that corporate earnings before interest and taxes more than tripled from 1980 to 2013, rising from 7.6 percent of world GDP to almost 10 percent.  Corporate net incomes after taxes and interest payments rose even more sharply over this period, increasing as a share of global GDP by some 70 percent.

global-profit-pool

As we see below, it has been corporations headquartered in the advanced capitalist countries that have been the biggest beneficiaries of the globalization process, capturing more than two-thirds of 2013 global profits.

advanced-economies-dominate

More specifically:

On average, publicly listed North American corporations . . . increased their profit margins from 5.6 percent of sales in 1980 to 9 percent in 2013. In fact, the after-tax profits of US firms are at their highest level as a share of national income since 1929. European firms have been on a similar trajectory since the 1980s, though their performance has been dampened since 2008. Companies from China, India, and Southeast Asia have also experienced a remarkable rise in fortunes, though with a greater focus on growing revenue than on profit margins.

And, consistent with globalizing tendencies, it has been the largest corporations that have captured most of the profit generated.  As the McKinsey report explains:

The world’s largest companies (those topping $1 billion in annual sales) have been the biggest beneficiaries of the profit boom. They account for roughly 60 percent of revenue, 65 percent of market capitalization, and 75 percent of profits. And the share of the profit pool captured by the largest firms has continued to grow. Among North American public companies, for instance, firms with $10 billion or more in annual sales (adjusted for inflation) accounted for 55 percent of profits in 1990 and 70 percent in 2013. Moreover, relatively few firms drive the majority of value creation. Among the world’s publicly listed companies, just 10 percent of firms account for 80 percent of corporate profits, and the top quintile earns 90 percent.

bigger-the-better

Significantly, most large corporations have chosen not to use their profits for productive investments in new plant and equipment.  Rather, they built up their cash balances.  For example, “Since 1980 corporate cash holdings have ballooned to 10 percent of GDP in the United States, 22 percent in Western Europe, 34 percent in South Korea, and 47 percent in Japan.”  Corporations have often used these funds to drive up share prices by stock repurchase, boost dividends, or strengthen their market power through mergers and acquisitions.

In short, it has been a good time for the owners of capital, especially in core countries.  However, the same is not true for most core country workers.  That is because the rise in corporate profits has been largely underpinned by a globalization process that has shifted industrial production to lower wage third world countries, especially China; undermined wages and working conditions by pitting workers from different communities and countries against each other; and pressured core country governments to dramatically lower corporate taxes, reduce business regulations, privatize public assets and services, and slash public spending on social programs.

The decline in labor’s share of national income, illustrated below, is just one indicator of the downward pressure this process has exerted on majority living and working conditions in advanced capitalist countries.labor-share

Tragically, thanks to corporate, state, and media obfuscation of the destructive logic of contemporary capitalist accumulation dynamics, worker anger in the United States has been slow to build and largely unfocused.  Things changed this election season.  For example, Bernie Sanders gained strong support for his challenge to mainstream policies, especially those that promoted globalization, and his call for social transformation.  Unfortunately, his presidential candidacy was eventually sidelined by the Democratic Party establishment that continues, with few exceptions, to embrace the status-quo.

However, another “politics” was also gaining strength, one fueled by a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic right-wing movement that enjoyed the financial backing of the most reactionary wing of the capitalist class.  That movement, speaking directly to white (and especially male) workers, offered a simplistic and in its own way anti-establishment explanation for worker suffering: although corporate excesses were highlighted, the core message was that white majority decline was caused by the growing demands of “others”—immigrants, workers in third world countries, people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and Jews—which in aggregate worked to drive down wages, slow growth, and misuse and bankrupt governments at all levels.  Donald Trump was its political representative, and Donald Trump is now the president of the United States.

His administration will no doubt launch new attacks on unions, laws protecting human and civil rights, and social programs, leaving working people worse off.  Political tensions are bound to grow, and because capitalism is itself now facing its own challenges of profitability, the new government will find it has little room for compromise.

According to McKinsey,

After weighing various scenarios affecting future profitability, we project that while global revenue could reach $185 trillion by 2025, the after-tax profit pool could amount to $8.6 trillion. Corporate profits, currently almost 10 percent of world GDP, could shrink to less than 8 percent–undoing in a single decade nearly all the corporate gains achieved relative to world GDP over the past three decades. Real growth in corporate net income could fall from 5 percent to 1 percent per year. Profit growth could decelerate even more sharply if China experiences a more pronounced slowdown that reverberates through capital-intensive sectors.

future

History has shown that we cannot simply count on “hard times” to build a powerful working class movement committed to serious structural change.  Much depends on the degree of working class organization, solidarity with all struggles against exploitation and oppression, and clarity about the actual workings of contemporary capitalism.  Therefore we need to redouble our efforts to organize, build bridges, and educate. Our starting point must be resistance to the Trump agenda, but it has to be a resistance that builds unity and is not bounded in terms of vision by the limits of a simple anti-Trump alliance.   We face great challenges in the United States.

The Fading Magic Of The Market

Poorer than their Parents?  That was the question McKinsey & Company posed and attempted to answer in their July 2016 report titled: Poorer Than Their parents? Flat or Falling Incomes in Advanced Economies.

Here is the report’s key takeaway, which is illustrated in the figure below:

Our research shows that in 2014, between 65 and 70 percent of households in 25 advanced economies were in income segments whose real market incomes—from wages and capital—were flat or below where they had been in 2005.  This does not mean that individual households’ wages necessarily went down but that households earned the same as or less than similar households had earned in 2005 on average.  In the preceding years, between 1993 and 2005, this flat or falling phenomenon was rare, with less than 2 percent of households not advancing.  In absolute numbers, while fewer than ten million people were affected in the 1993-2005 period, that figure exploded to between 540 million and 580 million people in 2005-14.chart-1

More specifically, McKinsey & Company researchers divided households in six advanced capitalist countries (France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States) into various income segments based on their rank in their respective national income distributions.  They then examined changes in the various income segments over the two periods noted above.  Finally, they “scaled up the findings to include 19 other advanced economies with similar growth rates and income distribution patterns, for a total of 25 countries with a combined population of about 800 million that account for just over 50 percent of global GDP.”

The following figure illustrates market income dynamics over the 2005-14 period in the six above mentioned advanced capitalist countries. For example, 81 percent of the US population were in groups with flat or falling market income.

six-target-countries

The next figure provides a more detailed look at these market income dynamics.

market-income-six-target-countries

McKinsey & Company researchers also looked at disposable income trends, which required them to incorporate taxes and transfer payments.  As seen in the first figure of this post, government intervention meant that the percentage of households experiencing flat or declining disposable income was considerably less than the percentage experiencing flat or declining market incomes, 20-25 percent versus 65-70 percent.

The researchers attempted to explain these trends by analyzing “the patterns of median market and median disposable incomes for two periods: 1993 to 2005 and 2005 to 2014.  We focus on income changes of the median income household because middle-income households are representative of the overall flat or falling income trend in most countries, with the singular exception of Sweden.”

They highlighted five factors: aggregate demand factors, demographic factors, labor market factors, capital income factors, and tax and transfer factors.  As we can see from the second figure above, labor market changes hammered median market income in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.  And as we can also see, tax reductions and transfer payments helped to offset declines in median market disposable income in those three countries. In the case of the United States, while median market income fell by 3 percent over the period, median disposable income grew by 2 percent.

What is the answer to the question posed by McKinsey & Company?  Most likely large numbers of people will indeed be poorer than their parents.  Why?  Aggregate demand continues to stagnate as does investment and productivity.  Employment growth remains weak while precariousness of employment continues to grow.  Finally, the elite embrace of austerity works against the likelihood of new progressive government social interventions.  Without significant change in the political economies of the major capitalist countries, the next 14 years are going to be painful for billions of people.

Yes on Oregon Measure 97

Straight Talk About Measure 97

If we want Oregon to prosper we need to dramatically improve our state’s badly underfunded public schools, health care system, and senior services.  Here are some of the consequences of current funding levels: Oregon ranks 38th in school funding, has the 3rd largest class sizes, and has the 4th lowest graduation rate in the country.  Growing numbers of working people are unable to afford health care or financially survive a medical emergency; Oregon ranks 39th in the country for public health funding.  The number of seniors being forced to leave their homes because of a lack of social services also continues to grow.

The primary reason our state doesn’t have the funds it needs is that corporations operating in Oregon have quietly but steadily found ways to stop paying state income taxes.  As the Oregon Center for Public Policy pointed out in a recent study, “In the 1973-75 budget period, corporations paid 18.5 percent of all Oregon income taxes. Today they pay just 6.7 percent, a decline of nearly two-thirds. Absent any significant policy change, corporations are projected to pay just 4.6 percent of all Oregon income taxes by the mid 2020s.”  A study funded by The Council On State Taxation, a business lobbying group, found Oregon tied with Connecticut for the lowest “total effective business tax rate” in the country.

There is no point in beating around the bushes.  The only reasonable way to generate the tax revenue we need to fund critical state programs is by forcing corporations to pay more in taxes. If we don’t, as bad as things are now, they will get worse.  The state Chief Financial Officer, George Naughton, reports that the state of Oregon is facing a $1.4 billion gap between projected revenue and what it needs to maintain existing service levels.  State officials are talking possible 7 percent cuts across state programs.

There is an answer: Pass Measure 97 in November.

The virtues of Measure 97

Measure 97 will tax few corporations and the heaviest burden will fall on large out of state corporations.  Measure 97 makes one change to the existing Oregon tax code: it raises the corporate minimum tax on Oregon sales over $25 million for the largest C-corporations selling in the state.

Currently, the state minimum tax for C-corporations with sales of 25 to 50 million is $30,000 and tops out at $100,000 for C-corporations with sales above $100 million.  Measure 97 would impose a new tax rate of 2.5% on sales above the $25 million threshold.  The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office (LRO) offers the following example: “a C-corporation with Oregon sales of $50 million would pay a corporate minimum tax of $30,001 for the first $25 million in sales (the current tax) plus 2.5% on the second $25 million ($625,000) for a total minimum tax of $655,001.”

Oregon has some 400,000 businesses, 30,000 of which are classified as C-corporations.  According to the LRO, only 1051 of these corporations have more than $25 million in state sales and would be required to pay the higher minimum tax; that is approximately one-quarter of one percent of all businesses and 3 percent of all C-corporations selling in the state.  The real burden of the tax will fall on even fewer firms: the LRO estimates that the top 50 C-corporations would likely be responsible for more than 50 percent of the resulting increase in tax revenue.  And most of the money raised by the tax, more than 80 percent, will come from companies headquartered outside the state.

Measure 97 is an effective tax that will raise significant funds.  Measure 97 raises the minimum tax on large C-corporation sales, not profits.  By taxing sales rather than profits firms will not be able to fudge accounts and escape their responsibilities.  And Measure 97 taxes large C-corporations on their sales in Oregon.  Because the tax is on where the sales take place rather than where the goods are produced, firms cannot escape the tax by shifting production outside the state.  As for revenue, the LRO estimates that the tax would raise some $6 billion each biennium, which would boost the state budget by more than 15 percent; we are talking real money.

Measure 97 also makes clear where the money is to be spent.  The measure says that the funds generated by the tax are to be used to “provide additional funding for: public early childhood and kindergarten through twelfth grade education; health care; and services for senior citizens.” While it is true that the legislature will have the final say, passage of the measure will send a clear signal of our priorities to our elected leaders.

Misleading controversies over Measure 97’s effectiveness

The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office studied the likely impact of Measure 97 on the Oregon economy.  Some who oppose the measure have drawn on parts of its report to buttress their opposition.  Unfortunately, most of their objections to Measure 97 have been based on a misunderstanding of both the LRO’s methodology and the report’s conclusions.

Let’s be clear on what the report does say:

First, the report finds that Measure 97 will raise more than $6 billion in each of the next two budget cycles and that the new tax will ensure a more stable funding base for the state going forward.

Second, the report also shows that there is little reason to fear tax pyramiding.  Tax pyramiding is a common consequence of what are called gross receipt taxes, which are taxes that are levied on all business transactions.  As goods and services are sold from one business to another the tax tends to pyramid, growing larger and larger.  Measure 97 is not a typical gross receipts tax.  First, it is not levied on all business transactions.  As we saw above, only 1000 firms will likely pay the tax.  Competition within the economy will make it difficult for these firms to pass on the cost of the tax and other firms that may purchase their products will not be responsible for paying an additional tax.  Second, the LRO report shows that the tax will fall heaviest on large firms that are engaged in “final” rather than “intermediate sales,” for example, retail sales.  Thus, there is no evidence to support fears that Measure 97 will result in significant tax pyramiding and escalating tax rates.

Third, the report also concludes that the gains from greater and more stable funding of vital services come with minimal negative economic consequences.  The LRO study does find, as critics of Measure 97 point out, that the Oregon economy with Measure 97 in place will grow more slowly and create fewer jobs over the next five years than if the measure were not passed.  However, the negative impact of the tax is quite small.  For example, the LRO model predicts that there will be 20,000 fewer jobs in Oregon if Measure 97 is passed, but this is out of a projected labor force of some 2.7 million.  In reality we are talking about rounding errors.  This is highlighted by the results of a study of the effects of Measure 97 by the Northwest Economic Research Center (NERC) at Portland State University.  The NERC, using a similar methodology, concluded that adoption of the measure would generate a small overall gain in employment.

Most importantly, critics of Measure 97 do not appear to understand the LRO’s methodology and the biases that shape its conclusions.  The LRO did not use a forecasting model to assess the economic consequences of Measure 97.  In other words, the LRO never actually tried to predict what would happen to the Oregon economy if we passed or didn’t pass Measure 97.  For example, it did not try to model the consequences of slashing state budgets if the measure does not pass; it did not take the looming budget deficit into account at all.

Rather the LRO used an idealized model of the 2012 Oregon economy that operates in its own time and space, with firms that keep no profit (since all earnings are distributed to their owners) and full employment.  The authors of the study introduced the tax, made assumptions about firm responses, and used their model to simulate their created economy’s return to a new equilibrium state over a five year period.

While this model has its uses when comparing two different tax proposals, it is not very helpful for modeling the actual economic consequences of Measure 97.  In fact, its structure is such that its predicted results overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits of the measure.  One serious flaw in the model is its assumption that businesses have no retained profits.  This means that firms will automatically seek to pass the entire tax along to consumers, leading to higher prices and declines in real income.

However, there are many reasons to think that this outcome is unlikely.  First, competitive pressures will, in many cases, make it difficult for large firms to raise their prices.  After all, only some firms in each industry will be required to pay the new tax.  Second, studies have shown, including a recent one jointly authored by the Oregon Consumer League and Our Oregon, that large firms tend to have national pricing strategies.  In other words, these firms charge the same prices for the same products in every state in which they operate.  The study also found no relationship between state tax policies and the cost of living in each state.  Thus, it is likely that large multi-state firms operating in Oregon will simply absorb much of the new tax, accepting slightly lower profits, rather than try to pass it on to consumers through higher prices.

When you hear opponents of Measure 97 confidently predict that its passage will lead to higher prices and real income losses for consumers because businesses will simply pass on the cost of the tax to consumers, take a minute to investigate who is bankrolling the opposition to the measure.  Among the leading contributors to the no campaign are companies like Comcast, Standard Insurance, Procter and Gamble, Weyerhaeuser, Walmart, Well Fargo, and US Bank.  Would they be pouring tens of thousands of dollars each into the campaign if they didn’t fear that the tax will cost them profits?

Another serious flaw in that the model is that it does not try to capture any of the broader social benefits that would accrue to the state and its citizens from passage of Measure 97.  For example, the model does not account for the fact that a better educated and healthier population will likely attract new businesses and employment opportunities.  Or that well-funded social services would enable more people to work, boosting their incomes, or help families better weather hard times and plan and save for the future.   If the LRO had adjusted its model to compensate for these flaws, there is no doubt that its assessment of the effects of Measure 97 would have been far more positive.

In sum, most Oregonians know that many people are hurting.  And we are facing a huge budget deficit that will, if nothing is done, require more cuts to education and critical social services, leading to more suffering.  Measure 97 is a game changer.  Yes, this measure will force a large tax increase on some of the country’s biggest corporations.  But the reason that we need such a large increase is that these corporations have essentially been using our public services for close to nothing.  Until 2010 the state minimum tax was $10.  Even now, many corporations find ways to completely avoid paying even the minimum tax.  Measure 97 will put an end to that.  It will go a long way to creating an Oregon that works for the great majority.

Falling Profit Margins Signal Recession Ahead

Business cycles are intrinsic to the way capitalism operates; they are the outcome of contradictions generated by the private pursuit of profit.  In fact, it is the movement in profits that drives the cycle, with a sustained downward movement in the profit margin signaling growing dangers of a recession.

And, it is a sustained downward movement in the profit margin that is leading business forecasters to raise warnings of a coming recession.  A case in point: a June 2016 J.P. Morgan special report titled Profit Stall Threatens Global Expansion states:

One metric for gauging the stage of the business cycle is the level of the profit margin. In this regard, the timing does not look encouraging. The US experience is instructive in this regard. The rolling over of the profit margin has led every US post-World War II recession by one to three years. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that our medium-term recession-probability models show the odds of a recession within the next three years running near 90%.

Recessions mean hardship, especially for working people.  Unfortunately, because most Americans have benefited little from the current expansion, few will have the financial resources necessary to moderate the social costs that come with any downturn.

Business Cycle Theory

Some definitions are needed to show why profit margins are key to gauging the state of the business cycle.  Profits are the difference between a firm’s total revenue from selling products and its total cost from producing them.  The profit margin is the firm’s profit per dollar of sales or revenue; it is calculated by dividing total profits by total revenue.

If we think about the corporate sector as a whole, we can define total corporate profits as the product of corporate total revenue (or sales) multiplied by the average corporate profit margin (or earnings per dollar of sales).  Total revenue is a function of the level of demand in the economy.  The profit margin is heavily dependent on changes in the cost of production (most importantly changes in productivity, which include the intensity of work, and wages).  Not surprisingly, both demand and business production costs, and thus total revenue and the profit margin change over time, sometimes moving in the same direction and sometimes not.

Coming out of a recession, corporations tend to enjoy rapidly increasing demand for their products and, for them, still pleasingly low costs of production thanks to their recession-era leverage over workers.  This translates into rapidly increasing profits and expectations of continued profitability.  This, in turn, encourages more hiring and investment in new plant and equipment, which helps to strengthen demand and further the expansion.

However, at some point in the expansion, costs of production begin to rise from their recession period lows, causing a fall in the profit rate.  For example, productivity begins to slow as firms press older equipment into use and workers take advantage of the improving labor market to slow the pace of work.  And, as unemployment falls over the course of the expansion, workers are also able to press for and win real wage gains.  With costs of production growing faster than product prices, the profit rate begins to decline.

For a time, the growth in sales more than compensates for lower profit margins and total profits continue to rise, but only for a time.  Eventually steadily declining profit margins will overwhelm slowing growth in sales and produce lower profits.  And when that happens, corporations lose enthusiasm for the expansion.  They cut back on production and investment, the effects of which ripple through the economy, leading to recession.

The Data

The following figure from the J.P. Morgan study shows movements in productivity and the profit margin with each point representing a two year average to smooth out trends.  The grey stripes denote periods of recession.  As noted above, the profit margin turns down one to three years before the start of a recession.  The recession, in turn, helps to create the conditions for a new upward movement in the profit rate.

us profit margin

As J.P. Morgan analysts explain:

Indeed, for the US, the turn down in the profit cycle weighs heavily in our estimate of rising recession risks.  The deeper historical experience of the US better highlights the linkage between productivity and corporate profitability. The latest downshift in US productivity suggests the disappointing profit outturns of late likely will not stabilize absent a pickup in productivity growth to an above-1% annualized pace, all else equal. While some acceleration is embedded in our forecast, recent experience suggests the risks are skewed to the downside.

As we can see, in the case of the current expansion, the profit margin is not just falling, it has now moved into negative territory.  Thus, although profits remain high [see figure below], the current decline into negative territory means that profits are now actually falling.  If past trends hold, it is only a matter of time before corporate responses push the US economy into recession.

profit share

When discussing the business cycle it is also important to add that we are not describing a regular pattern of ups and downs around an unchanging rate of growth.  Corporate responses to the conditions they face influence the pattern of future cycles.  For example, if corporations decide to respond to growing worker gains during an expansionary period by shifting production overseas, future recessions will likely be more painful and expansions weaker in terms of job creation and wages.  If fear of corporate flight leads governments to slash corporate taxes, public finances will suffer and so will support for needed investments in physical infrastructure and social services, again boosting profits but at the expense of the longer term health of the economy and its majority population.  This dynamic helps to explain the growing tendency towards long term stagnation coupled with minimal wage gains even during expansions.

J.P. Morgan analysts are not just pessimistic about the US.  They also estimate that profit margins are falling throughout the world, as illustrated in the figure below.

global profit margins

Thus:

If the US experience is any guide, recession risks are elevated broadly. Globally, profit margins peaked near the end of 2013, and declines have occurred across nearly all countries with the exception of Taiwan, Korea, and South Africa [figure above]. Margins have been stable in the Euro area, Japan, and China. By comparison to the huge declines in some countries, the margin compression in the US appears relatively modest. Not surprisingly, Brazil—already in its worst recession since the Great Depression—has seen the most significant margin compression. A similar message is seen for Russia. But for those economies still in expansion, the fall in margin is the most concerning for Poland, the UK, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Australia, Turkey, and India, in order of largest margin declines.

The takeaway: we have plenty to worry about.

Brexit and Grexit

With all the talk of Brexit it is easy to forget about Greece and the terrible cost that county continues to pay for its Eurozone membership.  [For more on the Greek crisis and political responses to it see my article The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Socialist Transformation: The Case of Greece.]  Unfortunately, the UK vote to leave the European Union has done nothing to encourage EU leaders to modify their view that the economically weaker European country governments must continue to impose austerity on their respective populations.

Matthew C Klein, in a Financial Times blog post, illustrates what EU-imposed austerity has meant for Greece.  As he comments, “The collapse of the Greek economy is almost without precedent.”

As we see in the figure below, real household consumption has fallen 27 percent since its peak.  Consumption only fell by 6 percent during the period of the global financial crisis.

Greece-real-HH-consumption-590x290

As a result of mass unemployment, wage cuts, and tax increases, Greek disposable household income has fallen even more.  The collapse in consumption was “moderated” only by massive dissaving.  From 2006 to 2009 the personal savings rate averaged 6 percent.  In 2015, Klein reports, it was -6 percent.

Since mid-2011, Greek households have suffered a €19 billion decline in savings.  This includes, as shown in the next figure, a decline of €36 billion in household deposits and cash, including deposits in non-Greek banks and foreign currency.  One has to wonder how many Greeks have already run out of savings.

Greece-HH-deposits-by-type-590x303


Greek spending on housing and consumer durables, what Klein calls household investment, has fallen from about one-fifth of disposable income in 2007 to just 2 percent in 2015.  This spending is too low to offset depreciation. “After accounting for wear and tear, Greek household spending on housing, cars, etc is now running at a rate of -5 per cent of household incomes.”

Greece-HH-net-investment-rate-590x303
Greek business has also been disinvesting.  And until recently so was the government.  “The combined effect [of household, business and government disinvestment] is Greece’s capital stock has been shrinking by about 6 to 7 per cent of output since 2012.”

Greece-disinvestment1-590x301

According to Sharmini Peries, the executive producer of The Real News Network:

With the Brexit vote clinched by those who voted to leave the E.U., the possibility of a Grexit has reemerged in the minds of some. Greece has far more reason to leave the E.U. than the U.K. In a recent survey done by Pew Research, E.U.’s favorability has dropped by double digits in the continent. In Greece more than any other E.U. country, 71 percent of those who took part in the survey said that they had unfavorable views of the E.U.–far higher than the U.K. Further, more than 90 percent disapprove the way in which the E.U. has handled economic issues and the migrant crisis, where the Greeks bear the brunt of that burden.

So, how has the EU responded to the UK vote and Greece’s continuing economic unraveling?

In the words of Dimitri Lascaris, who Peries interviewed for perspective on the impact of Brexit on Grexit:

Well, I think the Greeks would be wildly supportive of anything that results in a relaxation of the austerity policies. As we’ve seen, however, the electorate of the Greek will has virtually no impact on policymaking in the E.U. That was demonstrated in rather brutal fashion in July of last year after over 60 percent of Greeks rejected a less severe austerity program than was ultimately imposed on them.

So it’s interesting, it’s very instructive to look at how the E.U. elite has reacted to the Brexit vote, in particular in the context of Portugal, because Portugal late last year elected a government, a socialist minority government, that appears to have some level of support from leftist parties and the Greens, enough to maintain power for the time being. And initially that party said that they were going to roll back the severe austerity that had been imposed on Portugal. And Portugal is widely viewed as being the country that is most at risk after Greece in the eurozone because of the debt and austerity and the rest of it.

So what happened with the last 48 hours, well after the E.U. elite in the IMF had time to digest the results in Britain? The IMF issued a statement urging the Portuguese government to redouble its commitment to austerity. And Wolfgang Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister of Germany, caused quite an uproar when he told the press in the last couple of days that if Portugal didn’t stick by the austerity dictates of the current bailout, it would be forced to come hat-in-hand to the E.U. to beg for yet another bailout. And that caused quite a bit of outrage in Portugal.

So at this stage there’s absolutely no indication, as far as I can see, that the E.U. elite has learned any lessons from the Greek referendum in July of last year or the Brexit vote, both of which were certainly, at least to some degree–this isn’t the whole story, I think, but to some degree they were an expression of discontent with the economic policies of the E.U. and with the fundamentally antidemocratic character of the E.U. So at this stage there’s little reason to believe that the E.U. elite is going to draw the lessons that ought to be drawn from these two votes.

Of course, it is also possible that the EU elite have correctly understood the political moment.  After all, imposed austerity policies have enabled them to shift much of the costs of the recent crisis and ongoing economic stagnation onto working people in Europe’s so-called periphery and blunt potential political challenges to existing European relations of power.  Human suffering doesn’t appear to figure prominently in their calculations.

Third World Countries Lose Ground

Globalization advocates celebrated the 2003-08 period, pointing to the rapid rate of growth of many third world countries as proof of capitalism’s superiority as an engine of development.  Overlooked in the celebration was that fact that growth and development are not the same thing, and in most countries the benefits of growth were only enjoyed by a small minority.  Also overlooked was the fact that this growth was achieved at the cost of ever increasing damage to the health of our planet.  Finally, these cheerleaders also minimized the unbalanced, unstable, and unsustainable nature of the growth process; some seven years after the end of the Great Recession most countries continue to struggle with stagnation, with working people disproportionately suffering the social consequences.

The following figures, taken from the World Bank’s latest annual Global Economic Prospects report, highlight the severity of the post-crisis growth slowdown.

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the extent of the growth slowdown.   Emerging Market and Developing Economy (EMDE) commodity exporters have suffered the worst declines.  In terms of region, EMDEs in Europe and Central Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean recorded the lowest rates of growth.  Sub Saharan African countries experienced one of the sharpest declines in growth relative to the 2003-08 period.

Figure 1: Gowth By Group

Growth by group

 

Figure 2: Regional Growth EMDEs (weighted average)

regional growth weighted

This ratcheting down of EMDE growth rates means a significant setback in progress towards achieving advanced economy levels as shown in Figure 3 A and B.

Figure 3: Catch-Up of EMDE Income To Advanced Economies

catch up

The Financial Times discusses the significance of this development:

That downgrade [in world growth] came alongside a new analysis showing that for the first time since the turn of the century a majority of emerging and developing economies were no longer closing the income gap with the US and other rich countries.

Last year just 47 per cent of 114 developing economies tracked by the bank were catching up with US per capita gross domestic product, below 50 per cent for the first time since 2000 and down from 83 per cent of that same sample in 2007 as the global financial crisis took hold.

That, the bank’s economists warned, would have a meaningful impact on the future people in those countries could expect.

“Whereas, pre-crisis, the average [emerging market] could expect to reach advanced country income levels within a generation, the low growth of recent years has extended this catch-up period by several decades,” they wrote.

Leading International Monetary Fund officials have warned in recent months that the so-called process of “economic convergence” had slowed to two-thirds of its pre-crisis rate. But the warning from the bank paints an even starker picture.

In the five years before the 2008 financial crisis, emerging markets could expect to take an average of 42.3 years to catch up with US per capita GDP, according to the bank’s analysis.

But over the past three years, as major emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia and South Africa have slowed or fallen into recession, the slower average growth means the number of years it would take to catch up with the US has grown to 67.7 years.

For frontier markets, those more fragile economies further down the development scale, such as Nigeria, the catch-up period more than doubled from 43.1 years to 109.7 years.

And, it is important to add, even these projections are likely optimistic.  The IMF and World Bank have repeatedly overestimated future rates of growth and tend to downplay the possibilities of yet another global crisis.

The World Economy: Trouble Ahead

Economic conditions are not good and the signs are for more trouble.  The post-Great Recession recovery has been incredibly weak and it appears that it will soon come to an end.  And here I am writing about all the advanced capitalist economies, not just the United States.  Perhaps the key indicator: investment and productivity trends.

Here is the International Monetary Fund [IMF] writing in 2015: “Private fixed investment in advanced economies contracted sharply during the global financial crisis, and there has been little recovery since.”

More specifically, the IMF finds that:

The sharp contraction in private investment during the crisis, and the subsequent weak recovery, have primarily been a phenomenon of the advanced economies. For these economies, private investment has declined by an average of 25 percent since the crisis compared with precrisis forecasts, and there has been little recovery. In contrast, private investment in emerging market and developing economies has gradually slowed in recent years, following a boom in the early to mid-2000s.

The investment slump in the advanced economies has been broad based. Though the contraction has been sharpest in the private residential (housing) sector, nonresidential (business) investment—which is a much larger share of total investment—accounts for the bulk (more than two-thirds) of the slump. There is little sign of recovery toward precrisis investment trends in either sector.

real private investment

The figure above illustrates how far advanced economy investment has fallen relative to the precrisis period and past forecasts and that there has been no recovery in investment spending (the log scale shows percentage change in investment).

The following figure, which covers only advanced economies, demonstrates that the investment slump has affected both residential and nonresidential investment.  And, as far as the latter is concerned, investment spending on both structures and real equipment are significantly down relative to past trends.

types of investment

These trends have real consequences.  As the economist Michael Roberts points out,  “Global industrial output growth continues to slow and in the case of the G7 economies (red line below), industrial production is now contracting.”

world IP

He also highlights the fact that “world trade . . . is in significant negative territory (red line below).  This is partly due to the collapse in energy and other industrial raw material prices.  But even when you strip out the impact of the deflation in prices, world trade volume is basically static (blue line) and well below even the low world GDP growth rate of around 2.5%.  Countries with low domestic demand can expect no compensation through exports.”

world trade

The investment slump has also taken its toll on productivity.  According to the Financial Times:

Output per person . . . grew just 1.2 per cent across the world in 2015, down from 1.9 per cent in 2014. A slowdown in Chinese productivity was a big driver, as was poorer output growth in commodity producing countries in Latin America and Africa because of weaker oil prices and production.

Productivity growth in the eurozone, measured by gross domestic product per hour, is set to be a feeble 0.3 per cent and barely better in Japan at 0.4 per cent.

But the US, which appeared to be outperforming other advanced economies, is now increasingly concerned at the deterioration in its own performance. Growth in output per hour slowed last year to just 0.3 per cent from 0.5 per cent in 2014, well below the pace of 2.4 per cent in 1999 to 2006.

Moreover, things are fast deterioriating in the US.  The Financial Times reports that productivity will likely fall this year for the first time in three decades. “Research by the Conference Board, a US think-tank, also shows the rate of productivity growth sliding behind the feeble rates in other advanced economies, with gross domestic product per hour projected to drop by 0.2 per cent this year.”

us-productivity-growth

Sadly, as Roberts argues, most governments still seek to rejuvenate their respective economies by some combination of monetary easing, cuts in public investment, privatization, weakening labor rights, and new free trade agreements. These policies have not worked and there is no reason to think that they ever will.