Central banks have trillions for speculation, none for people

There’s no money for schools, no money for social services, no money for the environment. There is lots of money for speculators, however. A tsunami of money. Money that is measured in the trillions.

The central banks of the United States, Britain, the eurozone and Japan have so far spent US$6.57 trillion (or €6.06 trillion if you prefer) on “quantitative easing” programs. And, for all of that incomprehensibly gigantic sum of money, what mostly has been accomplished is a stock market bubble. And, as a secondary effect, a boost to real estate prices, making real estate speculation pay off a bit more than it ordinarily does.

(Photo by Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia)

(Photo by Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia)

Oh, no so much for the overall economy you say? Hard to argue that point. The world’s advanced capitalist countries are mired in stagnation, structural unemployment and widening inequality, with public investment starved and personal debt a monumental problem. Surely those staggering sums of money could have been put to better use. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first a quick accounting. Money spent on quantitative easing is as follows:

  • Federal Reserve: $4.1 trillion in three programs that ended in November 2014.
  • European Central Bank: €600 billion so far; the ECB has committed to spending a total of €1.1 trillion through March 2017.
  • Bank of England: £375 billion.
  • Bank of Japan: ¥155 trillion so far in two and a half years; the Japanese central bank is committed to spending ¥80 trillion per year with no ending date.

“Quantitative easing” is the technical name for central banks buying their own government’s debt in massive amounts; in the case of the Federal Reserve it also bought mortgage-backed securities. The supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs is to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interest rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because a central bank buying bonds in bulk significantly increases demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

The irrationality of more for those with more

Given that banks are bigger and more profitable than ever (the six biggest U.S. banks racked up a composite net income of US$75 billion in 2014) and U.S. corporations spend about $1 trillion per year buying stock to artificially boost stock prices, shoveling still more money to those with far more than can be spent or invested in any rational way is irrational, no matter how many reports are pumped out by think tanks they pay to tell them otherwise.

So what might have been done with those quantitative-easing trillions thrown at banks instead? The total student debt in the United States, where the costs of higher education has risen more than double the rate of inflation since 1982, is $1.3 trillion as of October 2015. Printing the money to cover the entirety of the country’s student debt would total less than one-third of what the Federal Reserve spent on inflating a stock-market bubble. That leaves many more needs to be addressed.

The infrastructure of the U.S. is crumbling, and governments are short of money to fix what needs to be fixed. The investment needed to modernize and maintain school facilities is estimated to be at least $270 billion. The foreseeable cost of maintaining water systems in the coming decades in the U.S. is estimated at $1 trillion. The American Water Works Association arrives at this total by assuming each of 240,000 water main breaks per year would require the replacement of a pipe. Capital investment needs for wastewater and stormwater systems are estimated to require another $298 billion over the next 20 years.

The shortfall of funding to clean up Superfund sites is estimated to be as much as $500 million per year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in four United Statesians lives within three miles of a hazardous waste site; more than 400,000 contaminated sites await cleanup. And we can throw in another $21 billion to repair the more than 4,000 dams deemed to be deficient by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Jobs instead of speculation

Add up all of the above and we would have spent a total of $3.4 trillion. Instead of throwing money at speculators and banks in the vain hopes they would spend the money productively instead of pocketing it or directing it toward speculation or boosting stock prices, we could have wiped out all student debt, fixed all the schools, rebuilt aging water and sewer systems, cleaned up contaminated industrial sites and repaired dams, and still have $700 billion more to spend on other needs.

If we were to apply that remaining $700 billion to create a federal jobs program, such as was done during the Great Depression, a total of 14 million jobs paying $50,000 and lasting one year could have been created, or three and a half million jobs paying that salary and lasting four years. That is in addition to all the people who could be put to work performing necessary infrastructure repair work if the above projects were carried out.

All of that for no more money than the Federal Reserve threw away on quantitative easing. This same argument can be made elsewhere: The British think tank Policy Exchange estimates Britain’s needs for investment in transportation, communication and water infrastructure to be a minimum of £170 billion. That is less than half of what the Bank of England spent on its quantitative-easing scheme, and dwarfs an estimated £2.5 billion deficit in the National Health Service.

Instead of spending this money on programs that would put people to work and enable them to get on their feet financially, those with more get more. European non-financial companies are estimated to be sitting on $1.1 trillion in cash, or more than 40 per cent higher than in 2008, the Financial Times reports. The St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve estimates that, in 2011, U.S. corporations were sitting on almost $5 trillion of cash, a total likely to have increased.

This is what class warfare looks like, when only one side is waging it.

We have no money so central banks give more money to banks

It’s unanimous! The European Central Bank confirms that the only possible solution to falling wages and depressed spending is to throw more money at the banks and inflate another stock-market bubble.

The ECB thus joins the world’s other most important central banks in the hope that “quantitative easing” — a form of “trickle-down” economics — will somehow work despite having never achieved anything other than the inflation of asset bubbles, a benefit primarily to the one percent. Then again, perhaps that might explain it.

Mario Draghi, the president of the ECB, last week committed €1.1 trillion to buying eurozone government bonds and, to a lesser degree, asset-backed securities and pools of mortgage loans known as “covered bonds.” Starting in March, the ECB will buy €60 billion of assets a month, with a commitment to continue this program until September 2016. The ECB’s stated goal is to boost inflation and prevent deflation, while also driving down the value of the euro.

The European Central Bank joins the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan in flooding the financial system with money, and joins all those central banks and the Swiss National Bank in attempting to drive down the value of its currency. One problem is that all currencies can’t decline against one another, any more than all countries can simultaneously produce trade surpluses. At the moment, it is the euro that is declining in value, which theoretically will give a boost to exports from eurozone countries, but as eurozone countries conduct most of their trade with one another, the boost from a weakened euro will not necessary be significant.

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

But with declining wages, fewer people have enough to spend, and the super-wealthy already have more money than they can possibly use for productive investment. Nonetheless, the “market” has decreed that more austerity for working people and more speculation by the one percent is the magic elixir that will finally fix the economy.

Fix it for whom? Let’s start to answer that question by noting the supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs: to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interests rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because a central bank buying bonds in bulk significantly increases demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

Trillions for asset buying sprees

We are not talking about small change here. In three rounds of quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve spent about $4.1 trillion. The Bank of England has spent £375 billion. The Bank of Japan, after boosting its QE program last October, will now spend ¥80 trillion (about US$680 billion) per year. This after 18 months of quantitative easing failed to revive the economy, as with an earlier QE program that ran from 2001 to 2006. In just the past 18 months, the Bank of Japan’s QE spending was ¥75 trillion ($640 billion).

Imagine what could have been done with these enormous sums of money had they been used for directly creating jobs, or simply by giving it directly to working people, who would have gone out and spent it. Or by putting the money to productive use, such as rebuilding crumbling infrastructure.

Instead, what is planned is more austerity — that is, more punishment. The other component of the European Central Bank’s January 22 announcement is that favorite term, “structural adjustment.” A euphemism used by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund when ordering an end to job security and social safety nets as a condition for granting loans to developing countries, this is now being applied to the global North. Near the end of his remarks announcing the quantitative easing, ECB President Draghi said:

“[I]n order to increase investment activity, boost job creation and raise productivity growth, other policy areas need to contribute decisively. In particular, the determined implementation of product and labour market reforms as well as actions to improve the business environment for firms needs to gain momentum in several countries. It is crucial that structural reforms be implemented swiftly, credibly and effectively as this will not only increase the future sustainable growth of the euro area, but will also raise expectations of higher incomes and encourage firms to increase investment today and bring forward the economic recovery.”

Labor “reforms” are necessary to “improve the business environment.” In plain language, that means more austerity in an effort to boost corporate profits. In the question-and-answer session after the announcement, President Draghi gave revealing answers to two different questions: “For investment you need confidence, and for confidence you need structural reforms” and “it would be a big mistake if countries were to consider that the presence of this programme might be an incentive to fiscal expansion. … This programme should increase the lending capacity of the banks.”

Firing workers and pushing wages lower will make capitalists feel better? Perhaps, but if there isn’t demand for their products, they still aren’t going to invest.

If consumers have no money, they aren’t buying

The ECB wishes to believe that further reducing job security and social safety nets will provide capitalists with the magic “confidence” that will prompt them to invest. But there is already plenty of industrial capacity sitting idle — E.U. manufacturing capacity utilization is only 80 percent while the E.U.-wide unemployment rate is 10 percent. The youth unemployment rate is 21.9 percent. More austerity isn’t going to reverse these effects of austerity.

The Bank of Japan boosted its quantitative easing program in October 2014 because it had not pulled the Japanese economy out of stagnation. Gross domestic product contracted in the second and third quarters of 2014. (Fourth-quarter statistics have yet to be reported.) Japanese wages have declined in the past year while profits have increased. Household spending in Japan had fallen for six consecutive months at the time of the Bank of Japan’s announcement, in part due to an increase in sales tax pushed through by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing has served to prop up a stock market that continues to rise despite ongoing stagnation. The standard measure of stock market valuation, the price/earnings ratio, remains high by historical standards. (This ratio is a company’s market value per share divided by earnings per share, or to put it another way, how many dollars a buyer pays for one dollar of profit.) The composite P/E ratio for the broadest measure of U.S. stocks, the S&P 500 Index, is 19.7. The rare times in history that ratio has risen above 20 has been followed by a crash.

Japan’s stock market has also risen during its quantitative easing; its benchmark Nikkei 225 Index has doubled since November 2012.

Trillions of dollars has been poured into programs that do little more than produce stock-market bubbles; more trillions have been poured directly into banks and other financial institutions for bailouts. The European Central Bank says more of the same, and European workers will continue to pay for it. The markets demand this, it is said. Capitalist markets, however, are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers — when we let “markets” make social decisions, that really means a dictatorship of big business and big banks. And supporting those banks is very expensive.