At the end of last week, Lord Mandelson, the authentic, unelected voice of global capital within the New Labour government, stated what he saw as the “simple problem”. He was making a bid for supranational influence in Washington, in a speech entitled “Can we fix globalisation?".
He put it like this: “The stability of the global economy is the sum of sovereign national macroeconomic policies on interest rates, currency levels, domestic spending and demand. There is no mechanism to mediate between these policies or enforce action that would counter systemic risk, in financial markets or at the general level of the global economy.”
Mandelson, who is now effectively deputy prime minister after saving Gordon Brown’s skin, couldn’t have put it clearer: the whole thing is beyond control. Capital does what it has to do, regardless of what policymakers and wonks want. Take pensions, for example. Employers now see their contributions as a major cost to be cut at a time of crisis.
Yesterday, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that the destruction of the value of both private and public pensions threatened to turn the two year financial crisis into a “social crisis lasting decades”. An OECD survey found that private pension plans lost 23% of their value last year, while higher unemployment “leaves little room for more generous public pensions”. At the same time, accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that for the first time many firms are planning to end their final-salary pension schemes for existing staff as well as new entrants.
What, you may ask, about the total of $5,000bn (about £3,000bn or £3 trillion) already pumped into banks and pledged by governments to stimulate their own economies? Even if you discount the fact, according to Kroll, the world’s leading risk consultancy, in the rush to spend the money, more than $500 billion – at least a tenth of the total - will be lost to fraud and bribery it’s still a load of cash. Surely all that money is doing its job, freeing the credit markets and restarting investment? Surely the upturn is on the way?
No, it isn’t.
The World Bank, another global agency with no power at all to fix the crisis, projects that the world economy will now contract 2.9%, seriously worse than its forecast of a minus 1.75% just three months ago in March.
Capital inflows to developing countries will turn sharply down, says the report, falling by a shocking 75%, leading to a 50% contraction in industrial outputs. Germany, Japan and South Korea are heavily dependent on capital intensive exports to economies like Russia, China and Hungary, so will suffer badly from the reciprocal effect of the accelerating downturn. Shares in Russia have crashed 20% this month already, and its banking system has all but ceased lending due to growing fears about a second wave of financial crisis that could hit the banking sector later this year.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, 16 weeks have passed since the Bank of England began “quantitative easing” after Alistair Darling authorised the creation of £150 billion of new money, widely trumpeted as the last throw of the financial dice. So far, £96 billion has been spent, of which £93.5 billion was used to buy “gilts”, which means it was not lent to industry for capital investment but lent to the government.
But it isn’t working. Overall, lending to private, non-financial companies fell by an average of £1 billion over each of the past six months. It’s OK though, Alistair’s capitalist friends haven’t gone empty-handed. They’ve had £750 million in the form of corporate bonds. It’s amazing how they’ve got away with it for so long, and it’s high time they were stopped. The simple truth is that the capitalist system cannot be “fixed” and instead would benefit from a unique scrappage project much more radical than the one introduced to try and boost car sales.