As the US falls into recession, the rest of the global economy is being sucked downwards with it. The collapse of credit instruments originating in the U.S. is also weakening the financial balance sheets of banks and other overseas holders of these investments, affecting not just the banking sector but also stock markets abroad. Banks from the underdeveloped countries in the South have less exposure to sub-prime loans and the housing market bust in the US. But the adverse consequences of the current global financial crisis on the welfare and livelihoods of exploited classes in the oppressed countries will be more severe and protracted. But workers are fighting back.
BY PAUL L. QUINTOS
Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research
Posted by Bulatlat
The worst crisis since the Great Depression
“The world economy has entered new and precarious territory”, opens the latest World Economic Outlook published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last April 2008. It describes the current financial crisis that erupted in August 2007 as “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression, inflicting heavy damage on markets and institutions at the core of the financial system.”
Other commentators have described the current crisis as a “systemic financial meltdown”, a “financial tsunami”, a “tipping point” in the world economy or even “the Very Great Depression” in the making.
When even the most optimistic defenders of the ruling system speak of a “systemic crisis”, then something of historical significance must be happening in our midst. Our task is to grasp the significance of the current crisis in the world capitalist system for the laboring classes, and draw lessons for our struggle against imperialism.
Mainstream economists explain the current crisis as the bursting of the housing bubble that had inflated to unprecedented levels since 2001. The Economist described this bubble in 2005 thus: “the total value of residential property in developed economies rose by more than $30 trillion over the past five years, to over $70 trillion, an increase equivalent to 100 percent of those countries’ combined GDPs. Not only does this dwarf any previous house-price boom, it is larger than the global stock market bubble in the late 1990s (an increase over five years of 80 percent of GDP) or America’s stock market bubble in the late 1920s (55 percent of GDP). In other words, it looks like the biggest bubble in history.”
This boom in house prices had been deliberately encouraged by the low-interest rate policy of the US Federal Reserve as a way of containing the impact of the dotcom bust in 2001. In the same way that asset inflation in tech stocks underpinned the growth of the US economy in the second half of the 1990s, the booming housing market propped up the US economy in the first half of this decade. Rising house prices and low interest rates encouraged millions of Americans — whose wages had been stagnant or declining since the 1970s — to borrow money using their houses as collateral and use this for consumer spending, thus boosting effective demand in an otherwise stagnant US economy. “Consumer spending and residential construction accounted for 90 percent of the total growth in US GDP from 2001 to 2005. And over two-fifths of all private-sector jobs created over the same period had been in housing-related sectors, such as construction, real estate and mortgage broking.”
Mortgage lending had become so profitable that banks and brokers began lending to “subprime borrowers” — those with lower incomes or poorer credit histories — with nary a credit investigation, down payment or even collateral. This high-risk or subprime mortgage lending spread hand in hand with the broader securitization strategy of finance capitalists. This refers to the now rampant and unregulated practice of investment banks and financial institutions of issuing loans, slicing and dicing these loans, then repackaging them as “mortgage-backed securities”, “asset-backed securities”, “collateralized debt obligations” (CDO), “collateralized loan obligations” and other synthetic financial instruments which are then sold to other capitalists in search of investment opportunities for their surplus capital. This allows the originators of these loans to transfer the risks associated with these loans while securing greater returns on their portfolio investments. This encouraged risky lending throughout the system, particularly in the booming housing market where subprime loans had expanded to 20 percent of all mortgages by 2006, up from 9 percent a decade earlier. It also magnified the likelihood of system-wide contagion in the event of widespread credit defaults.
Indeed as house prices started to plateau in 2005 and as interest rates started to rise, default rates and home foreclosures in the US started to climb in the latter part of 2006. This led to the collapse of scores of mortgage brokers and a number of mid-sized lending institutions with a large share of sub-prime mortgages in their loan portfolio. Unfazed, US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced in June 2007 that the crisis in the subprime sector “seem unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system.”
By August 2007, subprime mortgage backed securities began imploding in the portfolios of banks and hedge funds from around the world. Since then, one major bank after another has announced credit losses in the tens of billions. As of the middle of September 2008, three of Wall Street’s top five investment banks and icons of finance capitalism – Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch – have disappeared as independent entities. Other major banks, including Morgan Stanley and Washington Mutual, are facing the same fate.
The current financial turmoil is forcing central banks to step in and bailout those financial institutions that are simply “too big to fail”. The Bank of England, for instance, extended a L25 billion emergency loan to the ailing Northern Rock last year. Last March 14, 2008 the US Federal Reserve guaranteed the loans of JP Morgan to rescue Bear Stearns, the fifth largest investment bank in the US with $2.5 trillion worth of trading contracts with firms from around the world. Even more momentous was the US government’s decision last September 7, 2008 to take over the two biggest mortgage lending agencies in the country — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – effectively placing US housing finance under direct government control and increasing the gross liabilities of the US government by $5.4 trillion, a sum equal to 40 per cent of GDP. Nine days later, the US Federal Reserve agreed to provide American International Group (AIG) – among the world’s largest private insurers with operations in 130 countries — with an $85 billion loan to help it stave off bankruptcy. This rattled stock markets across the globe, plunging share prices and prodding private banks to hold on to their reserves. This has forced the world’s leading central banks to band together and inject $300 billion into the global financial system to ease the credit crunch and prevent further panic – for now.
But this means that taxes from working people are once again being used to rescue capitalists, demonstrating the boundless parasitism of financial elites. Nouriel Roubini, a New York University economist, describes this as “socialism for the rich, the well-connected and Wall Street (i.e. where profits are privatized and losses are socialized).” Meanwhile, the biggest finance capitalists like JP Morgan are gobbling up these distressed capitals at firesale prices — further concentrating capital in the hands of a tiny finance oligarchy.
The current global financial crisis — with the US economy at its epicenter — is merely the latest and so far most severe in a series of financial crises that have erupted since the 1970s. Economists from the World Bank note no fewer than 117 systemic banking crises (defined as ones in which much or all of bank capital was exhausted) in 93 countries (that is, half the world) since the late 1970s. “In 27 of the crises for which they have been able to obtain the data, the fiscal cost of the bail out was 10 per cent of GDP, or more, sometimes vastly more.”
In the heartland of the global capitalist system, Paul Volcker notes that, “today’s financial crisis is the culmination, as I count them, of at least five serious breakdowns of systemic significance in the past 25 years – on the average one every five years. Warning enough that something rather basic is amiss.”
Indeed, these series of boom-busts in the financial sector are not merely events that are resolved after each episode. Rather they are generated by persistent and worsening contradictions in the real economy.
“Globalization” and “Financialization”
The unprecedented devastation of productive forces wrought by the last inter-imperialist war cleared the stage for around two decades of relatively stable and sustained growth in the advanced capitalist countries. But by the late 1960s, Europe and Japan were fully reconstructed as industrial powers rivaling the United States and worldwide economic growth began to slow just as monopoly capitalist competition intensified. Even as big business continues to invest in new technologies in its drive to extract ever greater profit, growth rates, national productivity rates, capital stock formation and net profit rates have been on the decline since the 1970s. Average net profit rates in the G7 countries fell from 17.6 percent in the 1950-70 period to 13.3 percent in 1970-93.
Only the US economy appeared vigorous in the second half of the 1990s but only on the basis of a speculative build-up in the equities markets using foreign borrowing which fueled over-investment in information technology and buoyed consumer spending. This dotcom bubble went bust in 2001, replaced by the housing bubble which has brought upon us the present crisis.
Underlying this systemic tendency towards crisis is the fundamental contradiction in capitalism itself: between social production which enables great strides in productivity on the one hand, and the private ownership of the means of production which ensures that only a few profit from production by exploiting the many. This contradiction inevitably leads to crises of overproduction – a situation in which there is a glut in commodities relative to the capacity of people to buy them.
The shift to neoliberal economic policies in the 1980s is monopoly capital’s attempt to revive falling profits due to the worsening crisis of overproduction – by forcing open markets, sourcing cheaper labor and raw materials, and securing profitable investment outlets. Through the IMF, the WB and the WTO – all of which are imperialist controlled “multilateral” institutions – liberalization of investments and trade, the privatization of public assets, deregulation of markets and cutbacks in social services and welfare spending, are imposed on client states under the hypocritical slogan of “free-market globalization”.
Combined with the re-integration of the former Soviet Union and China into the global capitalist system, imperialist globalization has truly succeeded in rewarding international monopoly capital. On the other hand, these reforms which aim to maximize profits and minimize wages, benefits and social spending for workers and the people have only resulted in the immiseration of the vast majority in the world. The net result is that by 2000, the richest 1 percent in the world own 40 percent of global assets, the richest 2 percent own 51 percent, while the poorest half of world population own barely 1 percent of global wealth.
Hence the flipside to the crisis of overproduction is the over-accumulation of capital in the hands of the monopoly capitalist elite. With overproduction rendering further investment in new productive capacity (such as factories and employment) increasingly unprofitable, a rapidly rising share of surplus capital is seeking profits not in the real economy but in financial speculation — a process sometimes referred to as the “financialization” of the global economy. This involves the frenetic increase in the trading of currencies, equities, bonds, debt securities, financial derivatives and other complex synthetic financial instruments, taking advantage of even the slightest differentials and momentary changes in bond prices, interest rates, and currency exchange rates in different markets around the world.
In 1980, the value of the world’s financial stock was roughly equal to world GDP, itself bloated. By 1993, it was double the size, and by the end of 2005, it had risen to 316 percent — more than three times world GDP. Government and private debt securities account for more than half of the overall growth in the global financial assets from 2000-2004 – which indicates the role of leverage or debt in driving this process. In 2004, daily derivatives trading amounted to $5.7 trillion while the daily turnover in the foreign exchange market was $1.9 trillion. Together they add up to $7.6 trillion in daily turnover of just two types of portfolio capital flows, exceeding the annual value of global merchandise exports by $300 billion.
This illustrates the increasing alienation of finance from production and explains much of the heightened volatility and instability in today’s global economy. While the value of financial assets is ultimately grounded in the value created by the working class in the process of production in the real economy and cannot diverge too far from it, asset bubbles can form for a period of time driven by “irrational exuberance” (in the words of Alan Greenspan). The positive expectations of financial speculators feed on each other, bidding up asset prices in a seemingly endless virtuous cycle. But like all ponzi schemes, reality eventually takes over and all it takes is one negative development, e.g. rising home foreclosures, to reverse expectations and send the entire the house of cards crashing down.
The fallout from the current financial crisis is expected to be without precedent, at least in monetary terms. The IMF estimates that expected losses and write-downs on US assets could total $945 billion — bigger than the entire GDP of Australia — making it the most expensive financial crisis in history. Even so, some analysts believe this is an understatement.
Unfortunately, these massive credit losses and asset write-downs don’t just affect financiers. Indeed, it is ordinary working people that bear the brunt of its devastating consequences. An estimated 2.2 million or 1 in every 50 households in the US face foreclosure. Those who continue to own homes would be 20-30 percent poorer in terms of household wealth as home values drop as a result of the collapse in the housing bubble. According to one estimate, a collapse of 30 percent in US home prices from their over-inflated peak would wipe out $6 trillion of household wealth and leave 10 million households with negative equity in their homes — they owe more on their homes than they are worth — increasing the likelihood of a new round of foreclosures and credit losses.
Savings, health insurance, and retirement funds of millions of ordinary Americans who were enticed to invest in pension funds and assorted financial instruments will also be wiped out as banks and investment houses write-down billions in assets.
Moreover, this financial debacle ultimately impacts on the real economy as even the biggest banks and financial institutions faced with huge uncertainties are now averse to issuing new loans for housing, investment or for the purchase of cars and other durable goods. This means less investment and consumer spending which in turn means slower growth and even recession. The IMF warns that the US economy may shrink by 0.7 per cent over the 1-year period ending the fourth quarter of 2008, despite aggressive rate cuts by the Federal Reserve and a fiscal stimulus package. Recovery would be slight in 2009 with growth expected to be only 1.6 per cent. These estimates have been revised downwards several times and may still prove to be overstated as the crisis unfolds.
Almost 10 percent of the US workforce is now unemployed or underemployed, and job losses continue to mount. The private sector has shed 411,000 jobs over the past six months. Last month alone (May), 26,000 workers lost their jobs in manufacturing, 34,000 in construction, 27,000 in retail trade, and 39,000 in professional services, most of whom were temps. Over 150,000 temps have been terminated over the past year. The nominal rise in employees’ earnings is falling well behind inflation now running at 4 percent. This implies continued losses in the real value of wages or the purchasing power of most workers which has been stagnant or declining since the 1970s.
As the US falls into recession, the rest of the global economy is being sucked downwards with it. The collapse of credit instruments originating in the U.S. is also weakening the financial balance sheets of banks and other overseas holders of these investments, affecting not just the banking sector but also stock markets abroad. Hence the US is exporting a credit crunch overseas and pushing the entire global economy towards recession.
The IMF estimates that the eurozone’s growth will fall to just 0.9 per cent between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the fourth quarter of 2008. Japan’s growth would slow down to 1.4 percent this year and 1.5 percent next year, while Canada’s growth would fall back to 1.3 percent this year and pick up slightly to 1.9 percent next year. On the whole, “the IMF staff now sees a 25 percent chance of growth slowing to 3 percent or less in 2008 and 2009, equivalent to a global recession”.
The International Labour Organisation warns that the global economic slowdown in 2008 will add at least 5 million workers to the ranks of the unemployed worldwide, raising the global unemployment rate to 6.1 per cent. This is based on a more optimistic scenario of 4.8 percent growth in global GDP, which has been revised downwards by the IMF. A deeper recession would add millions more to the 189.9 million unemployed as of 2007.
Impact on working people in oppressed countries
Banks from the underdeveloped countries in the South have less exposure to sub-prime loans and the housing market bust in the US. But the adverse consequences of the current global financial crisis on the welfare and livelihoods of exploited classes in the oppressed countries will be more severe and protracted.
First, the global credit crunch means reduced capital flows for third world countries who are chronically dependent on foreign capital inflows to pay for older debts, sustain imports from the advanced capitalist countries and paper over chronic deficits they incur as imperialist states plunder their economies.
Second, most un-industrialized countries who are dependent on exporting agricultural products, raw materials, minerals, low-value added manufactures and services (e.g. business process outsourcing) to the advanced capitalist countries will be faced with shrinking exports due to the combination of depressed consumption in the North. Un-industrialized countries that are more deeply bound to neo-colonial trade relations with imperialist centers, particularly the US, would be the most severely affected. This includes the so-called newly industrialized economies which export significant volumes to the US by way of China. That is, by exporting parts and equipment of labor-intensive manufactures that are assembled in China before being shipped and sold in the US and EU markets.
Third, aside from being dependent on low-value commodity exports, un-industrialized countries are also dependent on the export of labor, particularly to the wealthy industrialized countries. International labor migration serves as an outlet for the surplus labor that cannot be absorbed by stunted domestic industries in these countries, as well as an important source of foreign exchange remittances that help pay for imports and debt-service. But recessions and rising unemployment in the advanced capitalist countries are invariably associated with the tightening of borders to keep out foreign workers. This means higher unemployment in labor-exporting countries, reduced earnings for foreign remittance-dependent households, and lower consumption spending in the domestic economy.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, as financial instruments and stock markets become less attractive to financial investors, speculative capital shifts more into commodities trading such as oil, minerals and agricultural commodities. This is contributing to the precipitous rise in food and energy prices beyond what conditions in the real economy warrant, thereby rapidly eroding the real incomes of the vast majority especially in the third world. Food accounts for 30-40 percent of the consumer-price index in most developing countries, compared with only 15 percent in the G7 economies. The Economist estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population suffer double-digit rates of inflation this season (mid-2008).
This is pushing millions of people deeper in poverty. In the Philippines, for instance, the Asian Development Bank estimates that “for every 10 percent increase in food prices, about 2.3 million more fall into poverty.” They will be joining nearly three billion people — half the world’s population — who are living on less than two dollars a day, including 1.3 billion workers.
In sum, what began as a sub-prime crisis in the US housing market in 2006 exploded into a global financial crisis in 2007 and is now giving rise to the specter of global stagflation — that dreaded combination of no growth and high inflation which has not blighted the imperialist countries since the 1970s.
Monopoly Capital’s offensive
It was precisely the problem of stagflation in the latter half of the 1970s that monopoly capital used as an excuse for ramping up its assault on the working class. Neoliberal economists, then ascendant, blamed workers’ wage demands and government spending on social welfare for causing the phenomenon of stagflation.
In 1979, then US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker tripled interest rates in order to stem inflation. This also caused a severe recession in the US which drove up unemployment and dampened wage demands. The Reagan administration also dismantled social welfare spending but greatly expanded military spending to finance US imperialist wars of aggression overseas as well as pump-prime the flagging domestic economy. In 1981, Reagan sacked 11,345 air traffic controllers who had gone on strike demanding better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek — and blacklisted them from federal service for three years. The government also decertified their union. “This was the biggest, most dramatic act of union-busting in 20th-century America. PATCO’s destruction ushered in a decade of lost strikes and lockouts, triggered by management demands for pay and benefit givebacks that continue to this day in a wide range of industries.”
Today, we already hear the prelude to another such offensive against the working class. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, recently expressed fears that “higher headline rates could push up inflation expectations, leading to bigger pay demands, and so trigger a wage-price spiral, as in the 1970s.” Hence he called on “all economic agents, whether corporate or social partners, to be as responsible as possible” — a diplomatic warning against workers who dare attempt to cope with inflation by demanding higher wages.
But polite language cannot hide the increasing brutality of capitalists, state forces, paramilitaries and mercenaries-for-hire against workers around the world in order to pass on the burden of the crisis and protect their profits and privileges. The latest Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights Violations published by the ITUC shows an alarming rise in the number of people killed as a result of their trade union activities, from 115 in 2005 to 144 in 2006. And these are just reported figures from 138 countries covered by the survey. In Colombia alone, 78 trade unionists were assassinated in 2006, eight more than in 2005, while many others faced threats, abduction or “disappearance”. In the Philippines, at least 87 unionists and labor organizers have been killed since 2001. Three Nepali unionists were shot dead during mass demonstrations that eventually brought the king’s absolute rule to an end. In Guinea, 137 people were killed and 1,700 wounded in the fierce repression of the strikes and protests of January and February 2007.
In short, monopoly capital is using the present crisis to appropriate more of the people’s (real) wealth, erode and press down on wages and social spending, lay off workers, promote precarious employment, tear up workers rights, clamp down on workers concerted actions and intensify the exploitation of the working class.
Our Struggle against Imperialism
But workers are fighting back. In Vietnam, an unprecedented wave of workers actions has erupted in the country’s export processing zones where at least seven strikes have broken out so far this year — at Panasonic, VICO, Nissei, Asahi Intecc, Yamaha Motor, Sumitomo and Chiyodj Intergre — because wages aren’t meeting even the basic needs of workers. Autoworkers and steelworkers in Romania won substantial wage increases after launching a series of strikes last April to May. In France, hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets last month in a demonstration against government plans to increase pension contributions. There is also a wave of occupations and strikes at construction sites, cleaning establishments and restaurants by immigrant workers protesting the government’s planned restrictions on immigrants. In the UK, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are threatening to stage a series of one-day strikes this summer to protest the Gordon government’s 2 percent ceiling on pay hikes. In Norway, state workers at the township level are preparing to strike over pay. Drivers’ strikes are spreading across the globe — in the UK, Portugal, Spain, Egypt, India, Korea and Thailand — in response to skyrocketing petroleum prices.
In the Philippines, protesters are pouring into the streets demanded the scrapping of the value added tax (VAT) on oil, the repeal of the Oil Deregulation Law, and the approval of a legislated P125 across-the-board wage increase. Workers are downing tools, drivers are leaving their vehicles, while students are walking out of their classrooms to join these demonstrations. Egypt is now witnessing the biggest wave of strikes in the country since the 1940s, with women workers at the forefront. Workers are angered by neo-liberal privatization policies carried out by the Nazif government which has resulted in thousands of workers losing their jobs and led to an increase in the inflation rate that is currently estimated at around 12 percent while salaries have not increased since the 1970s. In South Korea, workers are at the forefront of a broad coalition opposing U.S. beef imports comprised of citizens, students and unionists who have mobilized in massive demonstrations and vigils calling for President Lee Myung-bak to step down. In South Africa, COSATU is preparing to strike against the government’s planned anti-inflation measures that would likely lead to deeper indebtedness of working families and more job losses.
The current crisis is but the latest manifestation of fundamental contradictions in the world capitalist system that are intensifying in the era of imperialist globalization. Increasing economic polarization, over-accumulation of capital and overproduction that give rise to economic crises and ultimately ruin society’s productive forces — these are inherent in a system based on the private monopoly control of a few over the social means of production – and no amount of fiscal stimulus or financial regulation can fix these problems. The Bush Administration’s grand plan to solve the current financial crisis is to shift the toxic debt load of private banks onto the federal government, i.e. the American people. While this will surely please the financial elites – witness the stock markets rally upon hearing the news – the rescue plan will sharply increase the government’s budget deficit and the already gargantuan US debt thus worsening fundamental imbalances in the real economy and setting the stage for even bigger convulsions later on. The utter helplessness and inutility of world leaders and policy-makers in resolving the current crisis reveals the total bankruptcy of neoliberalism and the unmitigated destructiveness of imperialist globalization – prodding people to search for real solutions elsewhere.
Hence, for the labor movement the current situation is both a challenge and an opportunity. We must counter monopoly capital’s desperate attempt to shift the burden of the crisis onto the people by consolidating our ranks, reaching out and organizing more workers in the factories, offices and in the communities, building unity with other oppressed and exploited sections in our society and internationally, and waging more strikes and other forms of resistance. We must deepen our understanding of imperialism’s offensives — economic, political, military and ideological — against the working masses throughout the world. We must wage not just economic struggles but raise them to political struggle against the ruling system as a whole, win national freedom and democracy, and build socialism as the alternative to this irredeemably rotten system. (Posted by Bulatlat)
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