The financial industry is a lot bigger than a giant vampire squid

The size of the financial industry bears no relation to the economy. Self-mythological panegyrics aside, the finance industry confiscates money; it doesn’t create it. How much? Get out your calculators, and maybe you’ll have to find a way to add a couple of digits to what your screen can hold.

Perhaps the total amount of money extracted by financiers (or, more to the point, speculators) is not quite as large as Douglas Adams’ description of space in the, yes, increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhikers’ Trilogy, as “Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is.” But it’s close. 

OK, let’s put down a couple of numbers here. The numbers on their own are so absurd as to defy easy comprehension, so let’s try to find a way to situate them.

  • Total amount of debt outstanding: US$305 trillion (€304 trillion).
  • Total amount of financial instruments traded, on average, per day: US$9.68 trillion (€9.65 trillion).

Yep, that’s a whole lot of money. So big that the imagination struggles to grasp such numbers. One way to put those numbers in perspective is that the size of the world economy (global gross domestic product for all the world’s countries) was US$96.1 trillion (€95.8 trillion) in 2021.

Commodities futures trading (photo by Lars Plougmann)

In other words, the volume of currency trading (foreign exchange), stocks, bonds and their derivatives exceeds the size of the global economy in 10 business days. (The period is almost certainly a little less, as that US$9.68 trillion in average daily trading doesn’t include most government bonds, trading figures for which are difficult to come by.) To create another comparison, the amount of debt owed by the world’s governments, businesses and households (the $305 trillion total above) is more than three and a half times of the value of all economic activity produced in a year.

Still another way to look at this activity is that foreign exchange trading (including swaps, options, spot transactions and outright forwards) in one day is bigger than the economies of all countries other than the United States and China. Given that the U.S. dollar, the world’s reserve currency, is involved in 88 percent of foreign exchange trades, trading in the dollar by itself totals more than a year’s production of all countries other than itself and China.

A multi-headed monster that is never satiated

Rolling Stone magazine once memorably described Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” That makes finance capital as a whole a multi-headed monster with the attributes of a tyrannosaurus rex, killer whale, giant squid and elephant that can swallow ships at sea whole, fly through the air at supersonic speed and never stops eating. Or something like that. Perhaps some planet-eating monster in a science fiction potboiler? Maybe we can fall back on Douglas Adams after all, and just consider the financial industry vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big. 

And getting bigger. When I last did this exercise 10 years ago, it took about 11 business days for speculators to trade financial instruments and contracts valued at all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year. Now it’s 10 days. There’s progress for you.

There is no rational economic reason for a financial industry — and “bloated” would be woefully inadequate to describe it — even a fraction of this size. Most of the action on stock exchanges is simply speculation. Greed is certainly a part of the picture, but by no means the entire picture. Because there are insufficient opportunities for investment, more money is diverted into speculation. As ever bigger piles of money are diverted into speculation, the size of the financial industry and the percentage of corporate profits claimed by the financial industry steadily grows. This capital is a function of the amount of money flowing upward to the rich becoming larger than they can use for personal luxury consumption or investment; these torrents of money are diverted into increasingly risky pure speculation.

“Greed” (Nicholas Kwok)

Too much money comes to chase too few assets, rapidly bidding up prices until there is no possible revenue stream that can sustain the price of assets bought at inflated levels. Not altogether different from those Warner Brothers cartoons in which the character walks off a cliff, takes several steps suspended in air before looking down, sees there is nothing but air below and then falls, at some point speculators look down and notice they have no support, mass panic commences and prices collapse, bringing on another economic downturn. One that working people, not speculators, will pay for. 

The very size of financial markets is a major contributing cause of economic instability. Financial companies, having extracted immense sums of bailout money after the 2008 collapse, have leveraged their power to become even bigger through consolidation, thereby enabling them to divert more capital from productive use. But even during the “boom” portion of business cycles financiers are destructive to an economy by rewarding manufacturers for mass layoffs, moving production to low-wage developing countries with few or no effective labor or environmental laws, and setting up subsidiaries overseas and using creative accounting to shift profits offshore to avoid paying taxes. Financiers provide rewards for such behavior in the form of rising stock prices, and those stock prices in turn provide top executives a rationale to give themselves stratospheric pay packages because they “enhanced shareholder value.”  

In turn, there is continual downward pressure on wages — an increasing share of corporate revenues go toward executive pay and profits as the share going toward wages declines. And much of those corporate profits are quickly funneled into dividends and stock buybacks, yet more ways for money to move upward into the ever grasping hands of super-wealthy speculators.

As I wrote back in June, the corporations of North America, Europe and Japan handed out an astounding US$2.75 trillion (€2.63 trillion at then exchange rates) to shareholders in 2021 through dividend payments and stock buybacks. By February 2022, the amount of money created by the central banks of five of the world’s biggest economies for the purpose of artificially propping up financial markets since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic totaled US$9.94 trillion (€8.76 trillion). That is on top of the US$9.36 trillion (€8.3 trillion at the early 2020 exchange rate) that was spent on propping up financial markets in the years following the 2008 global economic collapse. That’s US$19.3 trillion (€17.1 trillion) in the span of 14 years, and this astounding sum of subsidies and handouts represents only one program of the many used by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada.

Crash to crash, but it’s you who is supposed to fall down

How could a parasitic industry grow to such gargantuan proportions? In theory, stock markets exist to distribute investment capital to where it is needed and to enable corporations to raise money for investment or other purposes. In real life, neither is really true. A corporation with stock traded on an exchange can use that status to issue new shares, raising money without the burden of dealing with lenders and paying them interest. But large corporations can raise money in a variety of ways, for example by issuing bonds or other interest-bearing debt, or by selling shares directly to private investors. Nor do corporations necessarily wish to float new stock — doing so is disliked by investors because profits are diluted when spread among more shares. Instead, it is more common for large companies to buy back shares of their stock (at a premium to the trading price), which means less sharing of distributed profits. And thus the steady increase in buybacks, which combined with dividends, in some years exceeds the total of profits! 

And what of distributing investment capital to where it is needed? That is saying, in so many words, that stock markets make finance more efficient — that capital will be put to use in the industries or companies in which a high profit is seen as a good bet because a company is filling a need with a product but lacks sufficient capital to take full advantage, or that the company already has a history of delivering profits. At bottom, buying stock is a gamble on the future profits of the company in which stock is bought. An investor is betting that profits will not only rise, but rise at a faster rate than in the past. I at one time worked on a financial news wire service, and one day was surprised when the stock price of a well-known technology company fell despite announcing it had earned a profit of $800 million for the previous three months, a higher profit than the same quarter in the previous year. On closer examination, the company was punished by speculators because the rate of the increase of the profit did not increase — this gigantic profit was lower than what stock market “analysts” had predicted. 

What happens to rain forests when the market is allowed to decide. (Photo of Montane Rainforest in Ecuador by Gunnar Brehm)

This illustrates that trading is primarily done for speculation, not for any rational economic reason. The beginnings of the financial industry lie in the very slow rate of business in the early days of capitalism; it could take years for an investment made on the other side of the globe to pay off. Thus financiers stepped in to provide cash liquidity. But because financial speculation doesn’t have the physical limitations of the production of tangible goods, speculation would become prominent. Indeed, financial crashes long predate the crashes of 1929 and 2008. “Tulip mania” consumed the Dutch in the 1630s, speculation fueled by the first futures contracts; uncontrolled speculation in the 1710s in the English South Sea Company and the French Company of the Indies led to the collapse of stock in both, a bubble in which short selling was born; an 1830s bubble in U.S. real estate burst when banks stopped making payments; and an 1870s bubble inflated by speculation in railroads and construction in North America and Europe burst when the Vienna stock market crashed, followed by waves of bank failures, to note some of the more well-known examples.

The world’s billionaires and multi-national corporations profited enormously from the Covid-19 pandemic, enormously inflating their wealth. Not surprisingly, debt increased dramatically as well. The 2020 increase in debt was the biggest for any year since World War II, according to the International Monetary Fund. 

Half of the 2020 increase in debt was governmental, again no surprise given the trillions handed out to financial institutions that year. According to the IMF, “Debt increases are particularly striking in advanced economies, where public debt rose from around 70 percent of GDP, in 2007, to 124 percent of GDP, in 2020. Private debt, on the other hand, rose at a more moderate pace from 164 to 178 percent of GDP, in the same period. … Public debt now accounts for almost 40 percent of total global debt, the highest share since the mid-1960s.” 

Extracting money from those who work

It should always be remembered that profit comes from a capitalist paying to employees much less than the value of what they produce. In turn, the financial industry extracts money from the producers of tangible goods and services, and often from governments as well. Finance capital seeks to profit off any and all economic activity anywhere, regardless of cost to everybody else. It’s incredibly profitable — not only are investment banks among the most profitable corporations, but speculators can rake in hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars annually — and they pay less in taxes that you do! 

Not even the biggest corporations are immune from financial industry pressure. Several years ago, DuPont, the chemical multi-national that produces many products that dominate their market, had racked up about US$17.8 billion in profits over five years, handed out $4 billion to shareholders from the proceeds of selling its performance chemicals business and boasted a one-year increase in its stock price of 20 percent. Yet a powerful hedge-fund manager declared war on DuPont management, demanding DuPont be broken up into two companies, under the theory that more profit could be extracted. The speculator did not get what he wanted, but DuPont did lay off workers to appease speculators despite its massive profitability. Ultimately, DuPont merged with Dow Chemical and then the combined conglomerate split into three companies, maneuvering done mainly to throw more cash at speculators.

Even Wal-Mart is not ruthless enough for Wall Street. After five years of massive profits (US$80 billion), speculators began driving down the price of Wal-Mart stock in part because the company had raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour. Wal-Mart did attempt to offset that news by also announcing a new $20 billion buyback of shares, but not even blowing that kiss to financiers served to lift speculator moods. Thus the company that is the most ruthless in accelerating the trend of moving manufacturing to the locations with the lowest wages, legendary for its relentless pressure on its suppliers to manufacture at such low cost that they have no choice but to move their production to China, or Bangladesh, or Vietnam, because the suppliers can’t pay more than starvation wages and remain in business, was deemed by financiers to be insufficiently brutal.

As always, it’s heads, Wall Street wins and tails, Wall Street wins. Those fantastic values of financial instruments traded don’t fall from the sky and aren’t because of some rare acumen of speculators. Those sums of money, which would put orbiting satellites at risk if they were stacked up, are the direct result of exploitation of those who work.

Financial manipulation and inequality keep rising: Capitalism working as intended

Many well-meaning people lament that our economic system is “not working.” But that isn’t true if we apply some historical context. What has capitalism wrought since its earliest days?

Capitalism is a totalizing system built on slavery, colonialism, imperialism, plunder, deeply uneven power relations and exploitation. It remains a system where “might makes right” is the “rule of law.” The “innocence” of early capitalism is a fantastical myth purporting the existence of an earlier, innocent capitalism not yet befouled by anti-social behavior and violence or by greed.

Such an innocent capitalism has never existed, and couldn’t. Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. It is not for nothing that Karl Marx famously wrote, “If money … ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Mass movements can, and have, temporarily ameliorate the deep inequality. But always temporarily, as we can’t stay in the streets forever. Corporate globalization and the pervasive political apparatus that nurtures, sustains and expands it are ever intensifying. The holders and managers of multi-national capital accrue ever more power and wealth, which begets still more power and wealth, raising inequality to absurd levels.

Anti-austerity march in Dublin (photo by William Murphy from Dublin)

The object of capitalism is for capitalists to accumulate more. A macabre race: How could any human being spend billions, tens of billions, of dollars/euros/pounds? Why would an economic system that results in such mind-boggling inequality be further rigged to increase inequality? Could we soon see the world’s first trillionaire?

This is the backdrop for the latest series of reports highlighting the madness of capitalist inequality. Let’s take a quick look while we try to put those reports in some kind of context.

Trillions for speculators, crumbs for you

At the same time that wages are stagnant, living standards are falling, inflation is hurting purchasing power and labor laws are under attack, the corporations of North America, Europe and Japan handed out an astounding US$2.75 trillion (€2.63 trillion) to shareholders in 2021. At the same time, the average pay of U.S. chief executive officers is now approaching 700 times the median pay of their employees.

That massive largesse (although even “largesse” seems inadequate) for shareholders came in two forms: $1.5 trillion in dividends paid and $1.25 trillion in stock buybacks. Simultaneous with those payouts for speculators, which have fully rebounded from the temporary declines of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, companies are sitting on more cash than ever. Non-financial companies in the S&P 500 Index held US$1.3 trillion in cash and cash equivalents in the third quarter of 2021, compared to $909 billion at the beginning of 2020. So, yes, they can afford to give employees a raise.

Keep this in mind when financiers scream for more austerity and bigger corporate profits, and corporate executives claim they have no choice but to cut costs by eliminating jobs, holding down wages and shipping jobs to low-wage, weak-regulation havens.

And indications so far this year show that 2022 is likely to top 2021’s records for dividends and stock buybacks. Reuters, citing Goldman Sachs, estimates that “S&P 500 companies in 2022 will spend $1 trillion buying up their own shares.” Those giant corporations spent a record $882 billion buying back their stock in 2021, and combined with the dividends handed out, S&P 500 corporations ladled out almost $1.4 trillion last year. (The S&P 500 is a stock market index that comprises 500 of the largest companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges.)

Indeed, life is good if you are a financial speculator. Or parasite, to be more blunt about it.

Financiers as whip and parasite

What is the point of a company using its profits to buy its own stock? To artificially boost how profits are reported. In short, a buyback is when a corporation buys its own stock from its shareholders at a premium to the current price. Speculators love buybacks because it means profits for them. Corporate executives love them because, with fewer shares outstanding following a buyback program, their company’s “earnings per share” number will rise for the same net income, making them look good in the eyes of the financial industry. Remaining shareholders love buybacks because the profits will now be shared among fewer shareholders.

There is a downside to this financial manipulation. You have likely already guessed who loses: Employees. They’ll have to suffer through pay freezes, work speedups and layoffs because the money shoveled into executive pay and financial industry profits has to come from somewhere. This is an unvarnished example of class warfare. A quite one-sided war.

The financial industry, and especially Wall Street, is both a whip and a parasite in relation to productive capital (producers and merchants of tangible goods and services). The financial industry is a “whip” because its institutions (firms that trade stocks, bonds, currencies, derivatives and other instruments on financial markets) bid up or drive down prices, and do so strictly according to their own short-term interests. The financial industry is also a “parasite” because its ownership of those securities enables it to skim off massive amounts of money as its share of the profits. People in the financial industry don’t make tangible products; they trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds, derivatives and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity.

(Artwork by Susana Anaya)

In the looking-glass world of finance, the biggest drivers of this insatiable process are “shareholder activists.” These so-called “activists” aren’t activists in any customary sense. In ordinary language, an activist is someone who advocates and organizes for social advancement. But in finance-speak, an “activist” is a shareholder who has bought stock in a company for the purpose of demanding the maximum possible short-term profit, regardless of cost to others or to the company itself. “Shareholder activists” are ultra-rich speculators who are particularly aggressive in demanding that profits be handed over to them and jobs be eliminated to extract more for themselves.

Financiers and industrialists fight over the money that workers produce — profits ultimately derive from the capitalist paying the employee much less than the value of what the employee produces — but they agree they should have all of it. You and your co-workers don’t get anything more than crumbs, even though it’s the work of you and your fellow employees who create the money that is converted into gargantuan corporate profits, multi-million salaries for top executives and towering piles of money funneled into speculator pockets. The financial industry does not create money or profit. It confiscates it. That confiscation is embodied in the massive amount of stock buybacks and dividends reported above — massive not only in the raw numbers, but in the very high percentage of overall net income directed into those buybacks and dividends.

If you consume all today, what will there be tomorrow?

How high a percentage? In some years more than 100 percent! For example, in 2015 and 2016, the companies comprising the S&P 500 paid out more money in dividends and stock buybacks than the total of their net income. In 2018, following sharp increases in U.S. corporate profit levels thanks to the Trump administration’s corporate tax cuts, stock buybacks and dividends again exceeded profits. Those years are not aberrations — for the 10-year period of 2009 to 2018, such payouts totaled more than 90 percent of net income for S&P 500 corporations.

These massive payouts to financial speculators aren’t good for employees but are also not good for the long-term health of the corporations handing out the money, something frequently discussed within industry circles. For example, the Harvard Business Review, hardly hostile to business, in a January 2020 article titled “Why Stock Buybacks Are Dangerous for the Economy,” wrote:

“When companies do these buybacks, they deprive themselves of the liquidity that might help them cope when sales and profits decline in an economic downturn. … Taking on debt to finance buybacks, however, is bad management, given that no revenue-generating investments are made that can allow the company to pay off the debt. Stock buybacks made as open-market repurchases make no contribution to the productive capabilities of the firm. Indeed, these distributions to shareholders, which generally come on top of dividends, disrupt the growth dynamic that links the productivity and pay of the labor force. The results are increased income inequity, employment instability, and anemic productivity.”

The Roosevelt Institution, a U.S. think tank that although liberal is far removed from hostility to capitalist institutions, also laments the runaway nature of these massive payouts of stock buybacks and dividends. The organization noted that these payouts are a choice. (Stock buybacks were illegal before neoliberalism took hold at the dawn of the 1980s). A Roosevelt Institute paper, “Regulating Stock Buybacks: The $6.3 Trillion Question,” had this to say:

“Total spending by all publicly traded companies on stock buybacks between 2010–2019 totaled $6.3 trillion, according to their 10-K and 10-Q public filings. Shareholder payments––stock buybacks plus dividends––have on average totaled 100 percent of nonfinancial corporations’ corporate profits over the last decade. Corporate stock is largely owned by wealthy households; the top 10 percent of US households by wealth own 85 percent of corporate equity. To allow this level of buyback activity is a clear policy choice: The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has encouraged stock-price manipulation through SEC Rule 10b-18, which essentially lets companies conduct buybacks in any amount, despite purported limits, as it does not enforce its rules nor does it collect real-time data on stock buyback activity.”

With Canadian and European Union regulators lifting temporary restrictions on banks buying back stock and paying dividends in 2021, it is inevitable that we will see more of these. The European Central Bank, the anti-democratic institution that is the most powerful entity within the EU, called its lifting of restrictions “a vote of confidence in the sector’s resilience to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic” while Canada’s “six largest banks could return a combined C$47 billion ([US]$38 billion) in cash to shareholders and still exceed regulators’ capital requirements.”

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

Even Forbes magazine, the self-described “capitalist tool,” admits that dividend payouts are “immense.” And this is a global phenomenon. “In 2021, dividends from UK, Europe and Australian markets grew the fastest compared with 2020, thanks to a recovery in the mining and banking sectors,” Forbes reports. Oil and gas companies are also joining the party — the seven biggest energy companies, including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron, will spend as much as US$41 billion (€39.2 billion) in stock buybacks this year, according to the Financial Times.

No wonder regulatory officials are bullish on banks. The central banks of five of the world’s biggest economies have spent about US$10 trillion since 2020 on “quantitative easing,” the technical name for central banks intervening in financial markets by creating vast sums of money specifically to be injected into them and thereby inflating stock-market bubbles. This artificial propping up of financial markets is done through central banks buying their own government’s debt and also buying corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities. As of February 2022, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada spent a composite US$9.94 trillion (€8.76 trillion) from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic on quantitative easing. And that is not the only program in which central banks showered banks with limitless largesse.

Do executives really work 700 times harder than you do?

Not unrelated to the massive amounts of money siphoned to financiers is the extraordinarily bloated pay of top executives, exemplified by chief executive officer pay. A report just published by the Institute for Policy Studies reveals that the average gap between chief executive officer pay and median worker pay in the U.S. is now 670-to-1 at 300 large corporations studied. Forty-nine of those companies had CEO-to-worker ratios higher than 1,000-to-1. The Institute’s study found that “CEO pay at these 300 firms increased by $2.5 million to an average of $10.6 million, while median worker pay increased by only $3,556 to an average of $23,968,” compared to one year earlier. Worse still, of the more than 100 companies at which employee pay increased below the rate of inflation (and thus a net cut in pay), two-thirds of them spent money on buying back their stock.

How extreme does this inequality get? Here are merely two examples. The Institute’s study reports, “With the $13 billion Lowes alone spent on share repurchases, the company could have given each of its 325,000 employees a $40,000 raise. Instead, its median pay fell 7.6 percent to $22,697.” A previous Institute for Policy Studies report determined that had a proposed law, the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act, been in effect, Wal-Mart “would’ve owed an extra $1 billion in federal taxes, enough to cover the cost of 13,502 clean energy jobs for a year.” Wal-Mart’s CEO-to-worker pay ratio is more than 1,000-to-1.

Not even extraordinarily ruthless Wal-Mart, the entity most responsible for production being moved to China to take advantage of low wages, is immune from pressure imposed by financial speculators. In 2015, Wal-Mart’s stock price was bid down by speculators for the “crime” of raising its minimum wage to the lordly sum of $9 an hour. Shed no tears for the cut-throat retailer, however, as it receives billions of dollars per year in subsidies and dodges at least $1 billion in taxes annually.

Battle in Seattle photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Having worked our way through the latest set of awful numbers demonstrating the severity of inequality, you can be forgiven if you ask yourself “What else is new?” Inequality is an inescapable feature of capitalism. A severely anti-democratic way of organizing an economy and society. Who would intentionally design such a system? Could you imagine, in a world with egalitarian distribution with sufficient resources for all, if somebody came along and said, “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s give a few people thousands of times more than everybody else and give those lucky few overwhelming political power so that they tilt the system even more in their favor.” Such a person, in such a society, would surely be deemed insane. Yet this is widely accepted as the best system that exists or can ever exist. A system that is destroying the livability of Earth while making life more precarious for billions.

Capitalism is a system that was founded on violence, was built on violence and sustains itself on violence. That force takes many forms. Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. English feudal lords began throwing peasants off their land in the 16th century, a process put in motion, in part, by continuing peasant resistance. The rise of Flemish wool manufacturing — wool had become a desirable luxury item — and a corresponding rise in the price of wool in England induced the wholesale removal of peasants from the land. Lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. Peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment (up to death) for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours.

A process of intensifying exploitation enabled early factory owners to accumulate capital, thereby allowing them to expand and amass fortunes at the expense of their workforces; they were also able to drive artisans out of business, forcing artisans to sell off or abandon the ownership of their means of production and become wage laborers. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the introduction of machinery was a tool for factory owners to bring workers under control — technological innovation required fewer employees be kept on and deskilled many of the remaining workers by automating processes.

The routine use of armies, private militias and police in violently putting down any attempt by working people to defend or organize themselves, and especially harsh, often lethal, measures against strikes, helped keep capitalists in the saddle. As markets at home became saturated, the endless growth required by capitalism induced industrialists to expand to new markets, encouraged all the way by financiers, and thereby expanding the reach of capitalism and subsuming more of the world under its hegemony as processes of dispossession and resource extraction accelerated.

Violence, including through military invasions and sanctions, remains a crucial means of maintaining capitalism and of keeping the leading powers of the Global North at the top of the pyramid. Other forms of force are readily used, however. The most important use of force is via financial markets. Financial power has always been a powerful lever used by the capitalist center as the apex of the financial system has moved over the centuries from Venice to Amsterdam to London to New York, with each move to a city contained within a militarily more powerful country able to project power over larger areas. Total control of the global financial system enables the United States to impose its will on other countries, even on its Global North allies, a concentrated force used to attack challenges to capitalism and to keep itself at the system’s center.

The task of transcending this is immense, but nonetheless it is the task that must be accomplished. Greed is a human characteristic but if we go to the roots, the problem is a system that facilitates and celebrates greed. Cooperation, after all, is a human characteristic as well, one that could be facilitated and celebrated in a different world.

Banks fueling global warming is business as usual

The gap between what needs to be done to save the Earth from the environmental disaster of unchecked global warming and what is actually being done continues to widen. Yet another exemplar of this gap is the funding practices of the world’s biggest banks.

Capitalists not concerning themselves with small things like the future ability of the planet to remain livable is nothing new, or we wouldn’t be in our present predicament. But a new report from seven environmental organizations finds that 60 of the world’s biggest banks have invested US$4.6 trillion in fossil fuel projects since the Paris Climate Accord was signed in 2015.

Our descendants, should they be faced with a chaotic climate, massive agricultural disruptions, mass extinctions on land and in the sea, drowned coastal cities and desertification — as they will be should present-day business as usual continue — are not likely to believe that their ruined world will be a fair tradeoff for a handful of industrialists and financiers of the past getting obscenely rich.

Can curses be made retroactive? Perhaps not. But perhaps a worldwide environmental movement can grow sufficiently large and militant to force the necessary changes. There are many out there trying to organize and raise attention — particularly young people, because they will be around long enough to potentially see today’s dire predictions become tomorrow’s reality — but perhaps global warming remains an abstract in too many minds. Or perhaps the daunting challenge of transcending capitalism, without which it is essentially impossible to reverse global warming, is too difficult a challenge. Throwing up our hands in despair would be easier, but if we wish our descendants (or people already alive) to inherit a living world, activism on a world scale is essential.

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

What words should we use to describe an economic system under which it is profitable for a handful of powerful people to profit from the destruction of the environment, and this behavior is richly rewarded?

What words should we use to describe an economic system in which, despite overwhelming evidence of the suicidal course that system is leading humanity, is nonetheless heading straight for global calamity?

What words should we use to those who profit enormously from all this, and why do they have such enormous sums of money to be able to force a continuation of this suicidal course? None of you reading these words voted for this, and none of you can vote to put an end to this. Economic decisions are completely out of the hands of working people; current capitalist ideology has evolved to the point where it is supposed to be unthinkable that economic decisions could be subject to democratic processes. Yet more proof that without economic democracy, there can be no political democracy. A lesson capitalism imposes daily.

Nice words for the environment, gigantic sums of money for fossil fuels

The aforementioned exemplar, a report titled “Banking on Climate Chaos: Financial Fuel Report 2022,” sponsored by Oil Change International, Rainforest Action Network, Indigenous Environmental Network and four other organizations, “finds that even in a year where net-zero commitments were all the rage, the financial sector continued its business-as-usual driving of climate chaos.” Banks are investing in fossil fuels at levels even higher than in 2016, the year after the signing of the Paris Climate Accord, when the world’s governments agreed to the goal of holding the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees from the pre-industrial level. Of the $4.6 trillion invested by 60 of the world’s biggest banks since the Paris agreement, $742 billion was invested in the industry in 2021 alone.

These banks come from countries around the world, but four United States-based banks were the worst offenders, the report said. “Overall fossil fuel financing remains dominated by four U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America — who together account for one quarter of all fossil fuel financing identified over the last six years,” it said. “RBC is Canada’s worst banker of fossil fuels, with Barclays as the worst in Europe and MUFG as the worst in Japan.” Three Canadian banks — RBC (Royal Bank of Canada), Scotiabank and Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) — are among the top dozen in the world for financing fossil fuels.

Even more alarmingly, Royal Bank of Canada and TD have been the “leaders” in a grotesque expansion of tar sands financing — $23 billion was invested in tar sands production in 2021, a 51 percent increase from 2020. Those two Canadian banks combined doubled their funding for tar sands in 2021 compared to 2016. Even more money was poured into fracking. Last year alone, $62 billion was poured into fracking. Wells Fargo more than doubled its fracking investments to $8 billion in 2021. Since the Paris Climate Accord was signed, four U.S. banks are far and away the biggest culprits in fracking — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America.

Graphics via Banking on Climate Chaos report

Yes, the world’s governments are hypocritical in signing agreements to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions with no enforcement mechanisms and are far from meeting their announced goals. But that certainly is no reason to excuse the financial industry for its significant role in ensuring that more greenhouse gases than ever are thrown into the atmosphere. Or bank hypocrisy. Take London-based Barclays, Europe’s biggest banking contributor to fossil fuel production and the world’s fifth-largest investor in fracking, trailing only the four U.S. banks mentioned just above.

What are we to make of Barclay’s pronouncement, right on its website home page, proclaiming that “Barclays gives shareholders a ‘Say on Climate.’ ” The bank says it will give shareholders “an opportunity to vote on its climate strategy, targets and progress” at its 2022 annual general meeting. Barclays Chairman Nigel Higgins, in a slick pamphlet, claims the bank aims to be “net zero” by 2050. It would seem to be heading in the opposite direction, unless the intention is to pour billions of pounds into fossil fuels until 2049, then magically stop. If the situation weren’t so serious, we could laugh at the chairman’s assertion that “We believe that our original championing of net zero and Paris alignment has made a difference in banking.” If hot air could displace carbon dioxide, I suppose it would make a difference.

The slick pamphlet, 36 pages long, is full of aspirational goals and even goes so far as to proclaim itself a founding member of the Net Zero Banking Alliance, “part of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.” How lovely. The result of last year’s Glasgow climate summit was to continue the tradition of “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” while making commitments that ensure global temperatures will soar past 2 degrees C. As for Barclay’s, a reader searches in vain for any mention of what shareholders will be asked to vote on. Those affected by fossil fuel production won’t be asked, of course.

If only hot air could be tapped as an energy source

The intent here isn’t to single out Barclays. Rather, this sort of corporate greenwashing is all too typical. The world’s biggest funder of fossil fuel projects, JPMorgan Chase, for example, claims that it has a “commitment to align key sectors of our financing portfolio with the goals of the Paris Agreement” and “we are measuring the emissions of our clients in key sectors of our financing portfolio.” It would seem there are plenty of greenhouse-gas emissions to measure. But are we supposed to be fooled by this folderol?

Similarly, Royal Bank of Canada, the largest non-U.S. funder of fossil fuels and world’s fifth largest overall funder, says with a straight face that is helping clients reach net-zero goals and is “Setting the standard for best-in-class governance, including through our Climate Strategy & Governance group.” We’d hate to see what a lower standard might look like given the $201 billion it invested in fossil fuels from 2016 to 2021, with 2021’s total double that of 2020.

Although paling in comparison to the US$4.6 trillion the biggest banks have ladled out to the fossil fuel industry over the past five years, including $742 billion in 2021, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have done their part. The World Bank, funded by the world’s governments, in particular those of the Global North, has provided tens of billions of dollars for fossil fuels since the Paris Climate Accords were signed, reports Urgewald, a non-profit environmental and human rights organization based in Germany. This money includes $12 billion in direct project finance in over 35 countries; as much as $20 billion annually given as government budget support, including for coal projects; and billions more for infrastructure projects that enabled new coal-fired plants that would not have been built otherwise.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), notorious for imposing extreme austerity on peoples around the world as the price for loans, sometimes imposes additional conditions mandating they “roll out the red carpet for the fossil fuel industry,” reports the U.S.-based environmental organization Friends of the Earth. An FOE report found that:

“Aside from the austerity measures it is so well known for, the IMF has been found to attach conditions in its lending to a number of countries that support new tax breaks for Big Oil. One recent study found that IMF loan programs supported new producer subsidies for coal and gas in Mozambique and Mongolia. The Fund also enabled new legislation in these countries to facilitate public finance of fossil fuel projects. As more countries turn to the IMF for help in coping with COVID-19, it is imperative the IMF does not further entrench fossil fuel dependency around the world. But a recent analysis has found that the IMF’s COVID-19 era loans failed to boost green recovery policies. Another study found that most Covid-19 era loans by the IMF call for austerity measures to be implemented once the pandemic crisis subsides, limiting the resources that countries will have to spend on a just and green recovery.”

Nor can the massive industry subsidies be forgotten. A paper prepared in 2015 by, ironically, four IMF economists, found that subsidies for the fossil fuel industry totaled an astounding $5.6 trillion for 2014. This total included environmental damages, including air pollution, in addition to direct corporate subsidies, below-cost consumer pricing and foregone taxes. No, the IMF was not suddenly questioning capitalism, nor did this report, carefully noting that it did not represent the views of the IMF, devote so much as a single word questioning the economic system that has produced such disastrous outcomes. A more recent IMF study found that fossil fuel subsidies have increased to $5.9 trillion, of which 92 percent arose from undercharging for environmental costs and foregone consumption taxes.

Perhaps those responsible for IMF lending practices don’t read their own organization’s papers (or, if they do, ignore them when they contradict the IMF’s mission of enriching capitalists and immiserating working people). Government officials don’t pay attention to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports detailing the dire state of the climate. And oil and gas executives laugh at what they get away with and continue to fund “think tanks” that pump out a steady stream of global warming denial. Canada, during the Stephen Harper régime, went so far as to invent the new crime of being a member of an “anti-Canadian petroleum movement,” equating such a stance with terrorism. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police added to this criminalization of advocating for clean air and water by challenging the very idea that human activity is causing global warming or that global warming is even a problem. The basis on which a police force can make such a declaration is unclear.

Capitalism can’t be anything other than what it is

Capitalist governments, not only those countries like Canada and Australia that are dependent on energy and/or mining exports, are beholden to not only the industrialists and financiers who are the real rulers of the world but to the ever intensifying competitive pressures of capitalism, from which industrialists and financiers are not exempt. The controllers of corporations routinely threaten to move elsewhere if political office holders don’t do as corporate executives demand, and the decisions of those executives are not reviewable no matter the effect on the local area.

For corporate executives and the speculators whom they in turn must indulge, maintaining profits means cutting costs (in the first place, the cost of labor), taking bigger shares of existing markets, forcing open new markets and developing new ways of achieving these goals. An enterprise that doesn’t do these gets run out of business by enterprises that do. Larger enterprises, those big enough to be listed on stock markets, have to increase profits, not maintain them, piling on still more pressure — not only from the competition, but from the financial industry, which holds a whip over the producers and distributors of tangible goods and services. A company that merely has steady profits, no matter how high, will be punished by financial speculators because the stock price won’t rise. Stock prices are bets and claims on future profits, and finance capital is relentless in expecting higher stock prices. A corporate executive team that doesn’t deliver will be forced out and replaced by another team that will do as financiers demand.

A corporation can achieve the necessary profits by reducing wages, through either layoffs or moving production to low-wage locations with few regulations. Corporate globalization is due to precisely that. Corporations can also buy machinery so that they can employ less workers; they are doubly incentivized to do this because the machines can be depreciated, lowering their taxes. As more people are put out of work, faster overall economic growth is needed just to maintain existing employment; thus the long-term tendency of more unemployment and lower wages as more people compete for fewer jobs. As industries in national economies become consolidated in an oligarchy of the handful of giant corporations who survived national competition, the route to growth is to expand elsewhere. As the winners in other countries undergo the same process, the relentless competition, now on a planetary scale, winnows these national winners into a small number of global winners.

And when one competitor gives itself a boost to profits (including by finding the country with the lowest wages), the other competitors have to do the same to stay in business. Profits margins decline as the initial boost is eroded by competitors doing the same; and the next round of “innovation” — finding another country with yet lower wages, more layoffs, work speedups, exemptions from environmental rules, pressure on governments to reduce taxes and eliminate tariffs, and inducing governments to enact draconian “free trade” agreements elevating multinational capital above governments — touches off another round of cost cutting and doing whatever possible to boost profits. This is a cycle that has no end under capitalism.

As this mad, endless growth continues, more must be produced, more must be transported, new sources of energy and raw materials must be exploited and more pollution must be dumped into the environment with no cost to the corporate polluter. More carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases will be thrown into the atmosphere as a direct result of this growth and frenzied activity. Thanks to the massive capital accumulated by the winners of capitalist competition, industrialists and financiers can spend gigantic sums of money spreading propaganda through a network of institutions, bend school and university curricula to their interests, own and control the mass media and buy the political system.

Growth for growth’s sake, and without controls — capitalism is a cancer. A system that nobody controls nor can anybody control it. A system, however, that runs on its own momentum and can’t be anything other than what it is. That we can somehow get control of the machine and make it do good is worse than an illusion.

The future has no value in capitalist economics

Not only is the environment an externality that corporations do not have to account for, thereby dumping the costs on to the public, but orthodox economics doesn’t account for the environment, other than as a source of resources to exploit. The same capitalist market that is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers is supposed to “solve” environmental problems. A May 2009 Monthly Review article by sociologists Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” puts this contradiction in stark perspective:

“Where [orthodox economists] primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.”

A melting glacier (photo by Vojife)

From that perspective, it follows that present-day environmental damage is of minimal concern to capitalists and future damage of no concern. The industrialists and financiers who reap billions today won’t necessarily be around when the environmental price becomes too high to avoid. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors write:

[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, [orthodox] economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … [E]thical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.”

Every incentive is for more

Lest we doubt that orthodox economists are moving down a down a slippery slope in which some humans are valuable and others are without value, recall the infamous memo of Lawrence Summers, written when he was chief economist for the World Bank, in which he wrote:

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.”

The modern corporation has a legal duty only to provide the maximum profit for its shareholders. In other words, it is expected to act to further its own interest without regard to anything else. The corporation is considered a legal person under U.S. law — one that has no biological limits nor barriers to its growth. Joel Bakan, in the introduction to his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, summed up capitalism’s dominant institution this way:

“The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

That pathological institution is controlled by, and the wealth produced for, a tiny percentage of people. We can call them the one percent (using the language of Occupy Wall Street), the bourgeoisie (using classical terminology), or industrialists and financiers (using broad labels). Their towering piles of money, hidden away in tax havens and secret bank accounts, are directly built on the backs, the sweat and labor, of their employees. This would be the case even without the added bonus of corporate personhood. Yet no matter how successful today, corporations must expand and be ruthless in beating the competition on pain of going under tomorrow. Every incentive is for more growth, more production, more consumption. Nobody, not even the biggest or most powerful capitalist, has the ability to stop or control it. Even capitalists ride the tiger, although of course they have vastly better ability to manage the vicissitudes of capitalist competition than do working people.

Capitalism is a system that is built, and functions, to generate profit, not to meet needs. If you doubt that, then why are extraordinary amounts of money spent on advertising to get us to buy what we don’t need? If global warming is to be reversed, a rational economic system based on human need, not on private profit, is what is needed. Cooperation for the common good, not competition for the profit of a few at any cost. Is corporate profit really worth the destruction of Earth’s livability?

There’s no money? Then how can there be $10 trillion for financiers in two years?

Noting that there is always money to be thrown at the finance industry but little for social needs is by now about as startling as noting the Sun rose in the east this morning. But what is eye-opening is the truly gargantuan amounts of money handed out to benefit the wealthy.

We’re not talking billions here. We are talking trillions.

For example, the amount of money created by the central banks of five of the world’s biggest economies for the purpose of artificially propping up financial markets since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic totals US$9.94 trillion (or, if you prefer, €8.76 trillion). And that total represents only one program of the many used by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada.

That is on top of the US$9.36 trillion (or €8.3 trillion at the early 2020 exchange rate) that was spent on propping up financial markets in the years following the 2008 global economic collapse.

So we’re talking approximately US$19.3 trillion (€17.1 trillion) in the span of 14 years for five central banks’ “quantitative easing” programs, the technical name for intervening in financial markets by creating vast sums of money specifically to be injected into them and thereby inflating stock-market bubbles. And that total doesn’t include various other programs that also come with price tags, nor the similar programs of other central banks, including those of Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. As just one example, the Paycheck Protection Program initiated by the U.S. Congress in 2020 sent most of its money into the grasping hands of business owners and shareholders rather than workers earning a paycheck.

Given these repeated massive subsidies, why are we supposed to believe that the capitalist economic system “works”? And why do working people always have to pay for financiers’ ever more imaginative speculations?

“Greed” (Nicholas Kwok)

Imagine all the public good that could have been done with even a fraction of that money. Fixing infrastructure, proper funding of social programs, upgrading health coverage, adequately funding hospitals, canceling student debt, strengthening education systems and more — all of this could have been done.

For example, the consultancy firm Aecom estimates that Britain’s infrastructure needs are underfunded by a total less than what the Bank of England spent on its quantitative-easing scheme for the past two years. Parallel to that, the U.S. could wipe out all student debt, fix all schools, rebuild aging water and sewer systems, clean up contaminated industrial sites and repair dams for less than what the Federal Reserve spent on quantitative easing since the pandemic began. As for Canada, one estimate is that the country needs to spend an additional C$60 billion per year on technologies that would enable Canada to meet its carbon neutral targets by mid-century — a total that is a fraction of what the Bank of Canada has thrown at the financial industry.

Spending big to inflate a stock-market bubble

What is quantitative easing and why does it matter? Quantitative easing is the technical name for central banks buying their own government’s debt in massive amounts and, generally in lesser amounts, corporate bonds. In the case of the Federal Reserve, it also buys mortgage-backed securities as part of its QE programs.

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 of the resulting distortion in demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates and making them less appealing to speculators. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money also goes into real estate speculation, forcing up the price of housing. 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. And the strategy of governments to lower the value of their currencies — a widespread tactic in the years following the 2008 collapse — can’t succeed everywhere because if someone’s currency devalues, someone else’s concurrently rises in value.

In other words, these programs, along with most everything else central banks in capitalist countries do, are to benefit the wealthy, at the expense of everybody else. Although we wouldn’t reasonably expect capitalist government agencies to act differently, central banks are particularly one-sided in their policies, which they can do because they are “independent” of their governments. Thus they openly serve the wealthy without democratic control.

A trillion here, a trillion there but not for you

Figuring out what central banks are up to and how much money they are creating for financiers is difficult because they don’t provide totals; at best there are monthly targets for spending and, even then, targets are not listed for all programs. And some, such as the Bank of Canada, are particularly reluctant to share money figures. Most often, banks’ websites and press releases proudly list the many programs designed to benefit financiers but without putting price tags on them. Thus the figures below may not be precisely accurate, but they are in the ballpark. To the biggest financial corporations, what’s a hundred billion more or less?

Having provided the caveats, my best calculations of what some of the world’s most prominent central banks have spent on quantitative easing are as follows (figures in U.S. dollars):

  • U.S. Federal Reserve $4.04 trillion
  • European Central Bank $3.4 trillion
  • Bank of Japan $1.6 trillion
  • Bank of England $600 billion
  • Bank of Canada $300 billion

That’s a total of US$9.94 trillion. Imagine the height of the stack of bills that such a sum would reach — maybe it would be so high that orbiting spacecraft would ram into it, scattering the money across wide areas. At least that way, more people might benefit.

The European Central Bank in Frankfurt (photo by DXR)

The above of course are not the only central banks to join the party. The Reserve Bank of Australia has spent an estimated A$320 billion in the past two years, although, according to Reuters, it is “considering how and when to wind up its A$4 billion ($2.84 billion) in weekly bond buying given the economic pick up.” Sweden’s Riksbank and the Swiss National Bank also indulge in quantitative easing; Switzerland’s central bank has done so much of it that it owns assets valued at more than the country’s gross domestic product. Similar to Australia’s, central banks, the Bank of Japan excepted, also are indicating they’d like to wind down their latest QE programs, but doing so is a delicate operation given that speculators have become drunk on the spending and cutting off the money could lead to sudden downturns in stock prices, in turn triggering disruptions in the economy.

Nothing like free money to make the party fun. But, on a less humorous note, how is it that deficit scolds and ideologues of austerity, who never miss an opportunity to shoot down legislation intended to give working people assistance, are silent about these gargantuan piles of money thrown at financial markets? The later version of the Build Back Better plan pushed by President Joe Biden, originally estimated to cost about $3.5 trillion before being reduced to less than $2 trillion, would have cost less than half of what was spent on quantitative easing. And, however flawed, would have provided vastly better relief.

And remember, the nearly $10 trillion and counting in two years of QE programs are only a portion of the money rained on business and the wealthy who benefit from these policies.

One sure outcome of all this is that inequality will increase, as exemplified by the dramatic increases in the wealth of billionaires. A report published last month by Oxfam, appropriately titled “Inequality Kills,” found that the wealth of the world’s 10 richest people has doubled since the pandemic began while “99% of humanity are worse off because of COVID-19,” a situation Oxfam calls “economic violence.” The wealth of the world’s 2,755 billionaires has increased by $5 trillion in less than a year — from $8.6 trillion in March 2021 to $13.8 trillion in January 2022.

And although increasing inequality is nothing new, the pace is accelerating. The Oxfam report states:

“This is the biggest annual increase in billionaire wealth since records began. It is taking place on every continent. It is enabled by skyrocketing stock market prices, a boom in unregulated entities, a surge in monopoly power, and privatization, alongside the erosion of individual corporate tax rates and regulations, and workers’ rights and wages—all aided by the weaponization of racism.”

Unlimited money for U.S. financiers, a little money for workers

In addition to quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve has instituted nine lending programs; three of these are “unlimited” and the other six authorized for $2.9 trillion. (This is all in addition to the $4 trillion spent on QE.) Of this additional $2.9 trillion, just $500 billion is earmarked for revenue-strapped state and local governments; the remainder are for businesses, including those in the financial industry. About $450 billion per day for several weeks during spring 2020 was dedicated to dollar swaps with other central banks — an agreement between two central banks to exchange currencies, most often to enable central banks to provide foreign currencies to domestic commercial banks.

Is there anyone who actually knows how much money the Federal Reserve is spending to keep capitalism running?

And even when money is supposed to go to working people, it mostly doesn’t go to them. A prime example of this not terribly surprising phenomenon is the U.S. Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Multiple studies over the past year have shown that most PPP money flowed upward, regardless of what the intentions of Congress members who designed the program may have been.

The New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

The most recent and likely most comprehensive of these studies, a National Bureau of Economic Research “working paper” issued in January 2022 by 10 authors led by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found the PPP to be “highly regressive.” About three-quarters of PPP money wound up in the hands of the top 20 percent of households. The paper estimates that 23 to 34 percent of PPP dollars went directly to workers who would otherwise have lost jobs. The majority of the funds flowed to business owners and shareholders. The study focused on 2020 results; the paper’s authors believe that 2021 loans did not boost employment, a result that implies the share of PPP money going to workers would actually reduce the 23 to 34 percent estimate.

The paper calculates that for every $1 in wages saved by the PPP, $3.13 went somewhere else. To put it another way, the cost of saving a job for a year was $170,000 to $257,000, three to five times the average compensation for affected jobs. “This program was highly, highly regressive,” Dr. Autor told The New York Times.

Three papers published earlier came to similar conclusions. A study by Michael Dalton, a research economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that was issued in November 2021, found that “a range of $20,000 to $34,000 of PPP spent per employee-month retained, with about 24% of the PPP money going towards wage retention in the baseline model.” To put it another way, $4.13 were spent for each $1 of wages saved. Finding still worse results, a separate National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, with Raj Chetty as lead author, found that so little of PPP spending flowed to businesses most affected by the pandemic that employment at small businesses increased by only 2%, “implying a cost of $377,000 per job saved.” Finally, a paper published by Amanda Fischer, then the Policy Director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, concluded that PPP funding did not have a statistically significant impact on preventing avoidable layoffs among employees and that PPP money was not geographically directed at the worst-hit areas, further reducing effectiveness.

Class warfare in action, pandemic style. A little bit for working people, lots for those who already have more. The PPP did provide benefits, including saving jobs, and surely played a role in the unprecedented reversal of the high unemployment rate of 2020, but at a price far higher than necessary — no help for working people without more going to the wealthy.

Class warfare in Europe

In addition to its quantitative easing, the European Central Bank is increasing borrowing limits and easing borrowing rules for banks; it is also reducing required capital holdings for banks. The ECB has upped its QE spending to €40 billion per month and will reduce that to €20 billion by October 2022. A December 2021 announcement implied it intends to eventually end the program altogether, “shortly before it starts raising the key ECB interest rates.”

Remember all the finger-pointing and scapegoating of Greeks when the ECB and the European Commission imposed punishing austerity on Greece? There was no money and people had to be punished. Yet there are virtually unlimited funds to benefit financial speculators. These disparate responses aren’t completely inconsistent — Greeks had to be punished because the ECB and European Commission, leading institutions of the European Union, were determined that big banks, particularly French and German banks, had to be repaid in full, no matter the cost to working people or the Greek economy — the ECB even cut off Greek banks from routine financial flows in 2015 to enforce their diktats.

Britons recently received a fresh lesson in who the Bank of England serves when the bank’s governor, Andrew Bailey, declared that employees should not be given raises. It was sufficiently embarrassing that this open class-warfare statement, the sort of policy that is supposed to be kept behind closed doors, was said in public that the British government actually issued a rebuke. Noting that British household disposable incomes are expected to fall by 2 percent this year and that inflation-adjusted pay remains below the pre-2008 financial crisis peak, The Guardian reported:

“The governor of the Bank of England has come under fire from unions and earned a rebuke from 10 Downing Street for suggesting workers should not ask for big pay rises to help control inflation. Andrew Bailey said he wanted to see ‘quite clear restraint’ in the annual wage-bargaining process between staff and their employers to help prevent an upward spiral taking hold. However, his comments drew a furious response from union leaders, as households face the worst hit to their living standards in three decades as soaring energy prices cause inflation to outstrip wage growth. … Bailey was paid £575,538, including pension, in his first year as the Bank’s governor from March 2020, more than 18 times the UK average for a full-time employee.”

The average full-time employee is not who the Bank of England, or any other central bank in the capitalist world, has in mind when setting policy. What this episode nicely illustrates is that profits increase when wages are held down. Profit, it can’t be said too often, comes from paying employees only a small fraction of the value of what they produce. The drive by the corporations of the advanced capitalist countries to move production to low-wage, low-regulation havens around the world, continually in search of the next stop on a race to the bottom, is why so-called “free trade” agreements contain ever more extreme rules to benefit multi-national capital.

Class warfare in Canada and Japan

Getting precise figures on what the Bank of Canada is up to is impossible as it is particularly coy in announcing money figures. Bloomberg, for example, could only say that “hundreds of billions of dollars” has been spent in the bank’s QE program. My calculation on what the bank may have spent on quantitative easing is based on the C$376 billion differential on the amount of assets held by the bank between the end of 2019 and on February 2, 2022.

Like the other central banks, the Bank of Canada has several other programs to benefit the financial industry. In the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, it announced multiple programs. The bank implemented several QE programs for buying corporate bonds, federal and provincial government bonds, mortgage bonds and commercial paper (short-term debt issued by corporations), as well as programs to provide credit and “support the stability of the Canadian financial system.” The bank was not forthcoming about the total cost of these programs at the time; it committed to spending C$5.5 billion per week, with no cutoff date, on just two programs, the purchases of federal government bonds and mortgage bonds.

The amount of “direct aid to households and firms” was only a small fraction of what was committed to helping the financial industry. No different, of course, than the response of other central banks.

Ottawa from the McKenzie Bridge (photo by Siqbal)

The Bank of Japan, which had never ended the quantitative easing it began after the 2008 economic collapse, has committed to unlimited government bond buying. In a September 2021 announcement in which it committed to buying ¥20 trillion worth of corporate bonds, the central bank said it “will purchase a necessary amount of Japanese government bonds (JGBs) without setting an upper limit so that 10-year JGB yields will remain at around zero percent.” So large has the bank’s purchases been that it owns assets worth almost 130 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product. The bank doubled the pace of its bond purchases at the beginning of the pandemic.

Since March 2020, the benchmark index of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the Nikkei 225, has increased 51 percent. In contrast, Japanese wages are “about at the same level as two decades ago,” The New York Times reports. Wages actually fell by around one percent in both 2020 and 2021, Reuters reports, with wage declines accelerating at the end of 2021. Working people have not done well from the world’s longest experiment in quantitative easing.

Circling back to the (admittedly rhetorical) questions asked in the opening paragraphs of this article, it depends on what is meant by “works.” If we mean by that word, as most people likely would, that an economic system functions for the benefit of all, then the scope of money required to keep it functioning forces a conclusion that it does not work in any meaningful sense. If, however, we mean “works” in the meaning given that word by financiers, industrialists and those who serve them and/or interpenetrate with them, most certainly including central bank officials, then all is well because it facilitates the accumulation of capital. Working people around the world pay to maintain financiers and industrialists in their accustomed wealth and power because that is how capitalism is supposed to work. How else would absurd “theories” like trickle down still be implemented after 40 years of failing to do what they are publicly advertised to do?

Another reminder that capitalist markets are simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful financiers and industrialists, and those interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the vast majority of humanity. It cannot be otherwise.

The political economy of Covid-19

Governments around the world are attempting to prop up a failing capitalist system by — surprise! — throwing money at wealthy individuals and corporations, especially in the financial industry. In other words, in this time of unprecedented crisis and economic difficulty, it’s business as usual.

We were here not much more than a decade ago, although the rise in unemployment has been more dramatic than during the economic collapse of 2008. That global economic crisis was a long time coming but was inevitable for anyone willing to pay attention. During the 1990s stock-market bubble, traders repeatedly said the dramatic price rises could not last, but as long as the consensus view was that the long bull market would continue they were not going to step off the ride. When the bubble did burst, new forms of speculation kept the financial industry’s party going for several more years. Credit was the lubricant for the later round, both inflating a real estate bubble and enabling consumer spending to continue in the face of declining wages, until the speculation became unsustainable.

No more bubbles to inflate, governments representing the world’s four largest economies alone committed US$16.3 trillion in 2008 and 2009 on bailouts of the financiers who brought down the global economy and, to a far smaller extent, for economic stimulus. Those commitments included $11 trillion for the U.S. (where money thrown at capitalists far exceeded the $700 billion in the Troubled Assets Relief Program), $4 trillion for the European Union, $750 billion for Japan and $600 billion for China. Smaller economies did that too. The Reserve Bank of Australia shoveled A$1.8 billion (US$1.5 billion at the then exchange rate) at financiers to shore up its banking system. The Reserve Bank of India did the same, handing out 60 billion rupees (US$1.3 billion).

Cherry blossoms in Washington (photo by Sarah H. from USA)

All that was simply to deal with the immediate crisis of 2008. As stagnation continued, many of the world’s most prominent central banks decided to throw new gigantic sums of money at the financial industry. Specifically, through programs known by the technical name of “quantitative easing.” What that is are central banks buying in massive amounts bonds issued by their own governments, corporate bonds and/or mortgage-backed securities. For all the talk of the world’s governments taking “unprecedented” measures to deal with the dramatic economic crash triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the money being committed is in the form of new quantitative easing.

An economic song and dance

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 of the resulting distortion in 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.

By any standard, we are indeed talking about massive amounts of money. Just on “quantitative easing” alone, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England and Bank of Japan spent approximately US$9.36 trillion, or, if you prefer, €8.3 trillion, in the years following the 2008 collapse. Here’s a breakdown:

  • The Federal Reserve spent $4.1 trillion in three QE programs that ended in November 2014.
  • The European Central Bank spent €2.6 trillion on its QE programs, which only concluded at the end of 2018.
  • The Bank of England spent £375 billion on its QE program.
  • The Bank of Japan has spent north of ¥200 trillion; precise figures are not available. Japan’s QE has been so large and long-lasting that the Bank of Japan now owns assets valued at more than the entire country’s economy.

Think of all the social needs that could have been fixed for such sums. For example, the British think tank Policy Exchange estimated in 2015 that 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. The U.S. 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 — all for $700 billion less than what was spent on quantitative easing.

Given this recent history — by no means an aberration in the history of these capitalist governments — it is no surprise that relief for the economic crash caused by Covid-19 has been largely directed at corporate boardrooms and the bank accounts of the wealthy.

Stimulus packages to deal with pandemic, but who gets stimulated?

The Federal Reserve, like most central banks, is “independent” of the rest of government. The reason given is to avoid “political interference,” but in reality so the elites of financial institutions can continue to do whatever they want without consequence. But as is customary, the Federal Reserve doesn’t act in a vacuum; Congress and the White House are also doing what they can to shovel gigantic sums of money at financiers and industrialists.

So far, Congress has passed two stimulus packages that were signed into law, one in late March and the second in April. A third has been passed by the House of Representatives, but the Senate has shown no inclination to take it up and there is reason to doubt House Democrats are actually serious about this last effort.

The first stimulus is the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, worth $2 trillion, which was signed into law on March 27. This is the act that resulted in United Statesians receiving one-time $1,200 checks from the federal government. Considering that the average monthly rent in most cities of the United States is more than that, those checks are tokens that serve to obscure where most of the money went. It wasn’t to households left without work.

The Federal Reserve (photo by Stefan Fussan)

A second stimulus bill was passed and signed into law on April 24 and is worth another $500 billion. Most of the money in this second stimulus bill was earmarked for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program in the CARES Act intended for small businesses that may be forgiven if firms use them to keep workers on payroll; the PPP had run out of money in two weeks. Democrats said they wanted money in this round to go to state governments struggling with suddenly shrinking tax revenue but, as is their custom, immediately capitulated when Republicans said no.

The CARES Act included $250 billion to bolster unemployment insurance, $500 billion in aid for industry and state governments, other monies going directly to specific industries and $350 billion for the PPP. Sounds nice, yes? Appearances and reality, however, diverge.

Before the second, supplemental stimulus package was passed, it had already become apparent that much of the stimulus money was going to Big Business. And that was not all, as yet more tax cuts for large corporations were included in the CARES Act. According to Democracy Now, “A congressional committee reports tax provisions in the coronavirus stimulus passed by Congress last month will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans. Four out of five tax filers benefiting from the $70 billion temporary tax loophole are millionaires or billionaires. They’ll receive an average windfall of $1.6 million — dwarfing the $1,200 payments for working Americans.”

Manipulation of Paycheck Protection Program

Meanwhile, much of the PPP money didn’t go to mom-and-pop businesses forced to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At least 75 publicly traded companies received funds from the PPP, which is supposed to help small businesses. The Associated Press reports:

“The Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to infuse small businesses, which typically have less access to quick cash and credit, with $349 billion in emergency loans that could help keep workers on the job and bills paid on time. But at least 75 companies that received the aid were publicly traded, the AP found, and some had market values well over $100 million. And 25% of the companies had warned investors months ago — while the economy was humming along — that their ability to remain viable was in question. By combing through thousands of regulatory filings, the AP identified the 75 companies as recipients of a combined $300 million in low-interest, taxpayer-backed loans. Eight companies, or their subsidiaries, received the maximum $10 million possible, including a California software company that settled a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation late last year into accounting errors that overstated its revenue.”

Even the Big Business cheerleaders at the CNBC business news cable channel reported that “Hundreds of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program emergency funding have been claimed by large, publicly traded companies, new research published by Morgan Stanley shows.” This report estimated that at least $243.4 million of the total $349 billion handed out in the PPP as of April 21 — by which time the PPP had already run out of money — went to publicly traded companies.

The above figures might be an underestimate; a later Washington Post report said “hundreds” of publicly traded companies have received a composite of more than $1 billion in PPP funding, although some of that money has been returned under public pressure. Eighty percent of applicants were left with nothing after funding ran out.

Published reports differ in determining the number of inappropriate recipients of PPP money because there is little accountability. One reason for that, beyond the usual wanting to shield favored donors from public scrutiny, might be that several members of Congress have themselves received PPP money. The Trump administration is refusing to provide information; it would not be a surprise to find there is something to hide there as well. Politico reports that “at least four members of Congress have reaped benefits,” and the actual total might be higher. “It’s a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have acknowledged close ties to companies that have received loans from the program — businesses that are either run by their families or employ their spouse as a senior executive,” Politico reports, naming two Democrats (Susie Lee of Nevada and Debbie Mucarsel Powell of Florida) and two Republicans (Roger Williams of Texas and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri).

Tax breaks for the one percent slipped into stimulus

One tax break inserted into the second stimulus bill only applies to companies with revenue of $25 million and another provision lets people in households earning at least $500,000 a year deduct even more of their business losses from stock market profits, The New York Times reports. These deductions will enable the recipients to reduce what they owe in capital gains taxes. Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine, told the Times, “Many of the tax benefits in the stimulus are ‘just shoveling money to rich people.’ ”

And given the grifters who occupy the White House, it will come as no surprise that there are special benefits for the owners of real estate. One of the goodies stuffed into the stimulus packages will allow people who own their businesses through partnerships or other similar structures to use all of the losses they claim on paper to offset taxes they might otherwise owe from other income, such as stock market profits, eliminating a cap on how much of those losses could be used. These partnerships can be very profitable, but as long as they show a loss on paper the owners can offset taxes. Jesse Drucker of The New York Times, in an interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, estimates this tax break for the wealthy will cost the government $135 billion — essentially all of which will go to the top one percent.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

This massive tax break is not specifically written for the real estate industry, but that is the industry that is likely to benefit the most as corporate real estate operations are often structured in these ways. Mr. Drucker said:

“In real estate, you can actually have, in the real world, what is quite a profitable business that generates losses on tax returns because real estate developers get to write down the value of their buildings. That turns into a deduction. And the result is that people like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump — to the degree that we have had some insight into their taxes over the last few years, we have seen that they have reported big losses on their tax returns. In many cases, it’s almost certainly the result of some of these favorable provisions that let them write down the value of their buildings. So the point is that any tax law change you make that gives people the ability to make maximum use of their losses is something that could very easily benefit real estate investors because they have so many losses. And in the case of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, we don’t have to speculate on that. We know that in previous years, they have reported big losses, which would put them in a position to benefit from this.”

Not even the most elementary provisions to put some limits on where the money is going were inserted into these stimulus bills. For example, although there is a clause prohibiting the use of the money for stock buybacks and extra executive pay, it’s followed by another clause allowing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (the foreclosure king) to waive the prohibition. Nor are there measures to demand that corporate recipients even pay tax. Reuters reports that the PPP has given “millions of dollars in American taxpayer money to a number of firms that have avoided paying U.S. tax.” Twelve companies provided with $104 million in loans use offshore havens to cut their tax bills, seven of which paid no taxes.

Federal Reserve offers trillions of dollars

The Federal Reserve’s contribution to the wealthy goes far beyond the two stimulus bills. By the end of March, the Fed had already committed more than $3 trillion in loans and asset purchases in the wake of a rapidly collapsing economy. This included fresh commitments to a recently announced new quantitative-easing program in which the Fed had pledged to spend $700 billion to buy Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds in addition to multiple loan programs. Although most of this will come from printing money, $450 billion of this came from the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus passed by Congress.

Following its March 23 announcement, the Fed announced another round of measures on April 9, this time committing $2.3 trillion in new loans and credits for business and local governments. The centerpiece of this round is the “Main Street Lending Program,” which makes it sound like these loans will be earmarked for small businesses, but loans will be offered to corporations with as many as 10,000 workers and revenues of up to $2.5 billion. Not exactly what we have in mind when we think of “Main Street.” The set of measures could inject $6 trillion into the financial system, but that money, if actually spent, seems mostly destined for the pockets of speculators.

With state and local governments dangerously short on revenue due to the economic crisis, and thus putting social programs in jeopardy, what does the White House want to do? The only “solution” demanded by Donald Trump is to cut the payroll tax, the source of money for Social Security. The president claims he wants a “temporary” payroll tax cut, but that has to be seen not only in light of his complete inability to say anything truthful but his and his administration’s stated desire to cut Social Security. Cutting the funding for the retirement program is a good way to undercut it, which has long been the wish of Wall Street. Even if there weren’t nefarious reasons at work, would a temporary payroll tax cut provide a jolt to the economy? Definitely no, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a May 12 commentary.

“President Trump has said he will not support any additional relief or stimulus measures in response to the human and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic unless they include a temporary payroll tax cut,” the Center said. Stimulus packages are only effective “if they quickly deliver resources to people and businesses that most need it and so are most likely to spend rather than save any extra dollars they receive.” But the Trump plan would fail to help either. The Center said:

“Cutting the employee share of payroll taxes gives the most help (in dollar terms) to higher earners, who are less likely to need the help or to spend most or all of the extra money. Compounding the weaknesses of this approach, it does less for those with lower earnings and nothing at all for people who have lost jobs. And cutting employer payroll taxes is an ineffective way to shore up business hiring and investment. Business’ main problem now is lack of customers for their products — both because of social distancing measures and because many customers’ incomes have fallen dramatically as unemployment has risen. Businesses will not hire (or retain) more workers or invest in more equipment than they need to produce the goods and services they can actually sell.”

Already there are signs that the windfall large businesses have received from the Trump administration have been slipped into bank accounts, not into investment. Economist Jack Rasmus has calculated that the loss of income for the tens of millions of United Statesians plunged into unemployment has cost them a composite $1.3 billion in lost wages. Ridiculing the orthodox economic “theory” that the problem with recessions are “sticky wages” — in other words, wages don’t fall fast enough or far enough during downturns — Professor Rasmus notes that businesses are not investing in the wake of the wage reductions. He writes:

“They’re hoarding the $1.74 trillion in Congressional loans and grants bailouts. And hoarding the $650 billion in business tax cuts also in the bailout legislation thus far (which one hears very little about in the media, I might add). … [T]he short term cash deposits by business in just institutional money funds (only one source) has risen from $2.3 trillion before March 1, 2020 to $3.3T today. That’s a $1T rise in cash deposits by businesses, just in institutional money funds. More is being deposited in commercial banks. The long run average of business deposits in commercial banks has been around 5% (6% under Obama and 4.6% under Trump 2016-19) to 15.8% since March 1. Businesses and investors are hoarding their cash and stuffing it in their short term accounts in banks, funds, and who knows where else, on and offshore.”

Much of that hoard of cash is likely destined for stock buybacks, dividends, speculation, buying companies and boosting lobbying efforts down the road. U.S. corporations spent more than $1.1 trillion on buying back stock in 2018 and although the pace slacked a bit in 2019, more than $700 billion went toward buybacks. Stock buybacks are completely unproductive spending — they are simply corporations buying their own stock, giving those who sell a premium to the trading price and boosting profits for remaining shareholders because the profits will be shared among fewer people. Speculators love them.

Britain, EU and Canada: Lots for financiers, crumbs for working people

Capitalism is a global system, and thus using a crisis to benefit the wealthy and powerful is hardly limited to the United States, even if it is the center of the global capitalist system and thus at the forefront of propping up its winners. Tax Watch UK, which describes itself as an “investigative think tank,” discovered that among the recipients of loans under the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility are 13 companies with links to tax havens or that “have seen controversy regarding their financial affairs.” Those 13 companies received £4.8 billion, or almost 30 percent of the total. Tax Watch UK reports that among these is Baker Hughes, a subsidiary of General Electric, “which is embroiled in a £1 billion tax dispute over unpaid taxes going back to 2004.”

The British government, headed by the mendacious Boris Johnson, hasn’t been shy about handing out money to business. The Bank of England has committed £200 billion to quantitative easing (bond buying), £330 billion in loan guarantees for business and an unspecified amount for “short-term liquidity” for the government, among other measures. Separately, Whitehall has committed tens of billions of pounds to three separate loan programs, property tax holidays, direct grants for small firms, grants for “innovation” and other items. For working people? A total of £14.7 billion of additional funding to the National Health Service and £7 billion for increased payments under the Universal Credit scheme and other benefits. Overall, quite one-sided toward capital.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

Similar to the United States and United Kingdom, the bulk of money committed by the European Union to shore up the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic is for quantitative easing. The EU has committed to pouring €1.35 trillion into buying private- and public-sector securities by June 2021 under its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program.

The EU will also offer a €540 billion addition to its European Stability Mechanism, an International Monetary Fund-style loan program under which money is loaned to governments under condition that recipients implement severe austerity. (This is the program under which the EU paid off the Greek government’s debt to European banks, meaning that Greece instead owed its debts to EU institutions rather than the banks, doing nothing to lower the debt level but forcing Athens to administer punishing austerity that left Greeks destitute.) And on top of the above, the EU has thrown in another €200 billion for businesses. For working people, nothing more than relative crumbs: €37 billion “to support public investment for hospitals, [small businesses], labor markets, and stressed regions” and €100 billion to protect workers and jobs. Once again, quite one-sided in favor of capital.

Back across the Atlantic, Canada has announced multiple programs, including quantitative easing. The Bank of Canada has implemented several QE programs for buying corporate bonds, federal and provincial government bonds, mortgage bonds and commercial paper (short-term debt issued by corporations), as well as programs to provide credit and “support the stability of the Canadian financial system.” The Bank of Canada is not forthcoming about the total cost of these programs; it has committed to spending C$5.5 billion per week, with no cutoff date, on just two programs, the purchases of federal government bonds and mortgage bonds. A measure of what has been spent so far is indicated in the central bank’s balance sheet, which reveals that total assets held by it increased from $120 billion on March 11 to $498 billion on June 11. So that’s $378 billion with more to come.

What is Canada spending on working people? $116 billion for “direct aid to households and firms” and $4 billion for the health system. So a lot less, and even some of this much smaller amount will be going to businesses.

Although more direct aid for working people is being included this time around — given the crisis of neoliberalism and that the massive subsidies to the same financiers responsible for the crash of the economy in 2008 haven’t been forgotten, political leaders had no choice but to sweeten the pot a little — the overwhelming majority of the money dispensed is going to the financial industry and to large corporations. Again it must be asked: How much more useful would it have been to use this money for practical needs and direct payments to people instead of propping up a bloated and wasteful financial system? More directly, how long can the peoples of the world continue to believe that a system in crisis so frequently and requires such massive bailouts works?

Tax cuts as a route to cutting Social Security

Conservatives are fond of saying that if you give a man a fish you can feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you can feed him for a lifetime. This is supposed to tell us that social benefits, such as government programs, are bad for people. A much better example of conservative thought would be to say if I put a fence at the entrance to the pier and don’t let anyone else have access to the water, I can have all the fish for myself.

Let those peasants starve! Such a privatization of fish isn’t distant from the actual mechanics of class warfare as it is practiced, unfortunately.

Take the latest salvo in ongoing class warfare, United States edition: The coming assault on Social Security. Curious as to why the Republican Party’s mania for balanced budgets suddenly vanished? I mean, besides the mind-boggling hypocrisy we can expect from the Right. The immediate cause was to placate their billionaire donors who issued marching orders last June. A “donor retreat” at a Koch brothers’ compound in Colorado was attended by 400 people, and, as The Guardian reported, the “price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs’ broad policy and political network. Donors decreed that Republicans must pass “tax reform” and reverse the Affordable Care Act (because health care is a socialist plot?) or their checkbooks would be shut.

That the Trump/Republican tax plan will be a bonanza for the wealthiest is well documented by this point, with the “Corker kickback” not only giving “dissident” Republican Senator Bob Corker a multimillion-dollar payday to ensure his vote but giving Donald Trump himself tens of millions of dollars thanks to the special rule benefiting real estate speculators. But lurking behind this devastating corporate offensive is the little matter of the extra $1.5 trillion to be added to the deficit. When Republicans (probably assisted by the more spineless among the Democrats) decide in the near future that deficits matter after all, social benefits will be in the cross hairs, with Social Security and Medicare likely to be the prime targets.

In advance of this, we will be treated to a rerun of horror stories designed to convince United Statesians that Social Security is unsustainable. The claim will once again be that either we’ll have to accept steep cuts to Social Security payments or privatize it, putting our retirements in the hands of Wall Street. This has been the wet dream of financiers for decades, and as an added bonus, Wall Street is another major beneficiary of the Trump tax cuts. “Heads I win, tails you lose” is always the way of Wall Street and here we have it again, pocketing untold millions from tax cuts and then taking away your Social Security when the ensuing deficit mounts.

One way of promoting privatization is to allege that there isn’t enough being paid into the system to cover future claims. It is true that in recent years Social Security has been paying out more than it is taking in, although it is far from broke. Concomitant with that argument is the claim that everybody takes out much more than they pay into it over their working lives. But that isn’t necessarily true — a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, issued in 2006, found that people earning near the median income get back about the same as they pay into the fund. Low-income earners do receive more than they pay, but conversely high earns get back less. But Social Security is supposed to be progressive. Indeed, the CBO’s report says, “The Social Security benefit formula is designed to provide beneficiaries who had lower life-time earnings with monthly benefits that are higher, as a percentage of their lifetime average earnings, than those received by higher-earning beneficiaries.”

The corporate interest in gutting Social Security

Those saddled with a lifetime of low or median earnings have spent a lifetime being exploited on the job, so whatever extras are received are pennies on the stacks of dollars extracted from them. Remember that profits come from the usually wide gap between what you are paid and the value of your work, and what financiers haul in is skimming off that pot collected by employers dealing in tangible services and products. There is a symbiotic relationship between financiers and industrialists and although there is much wrangling between them (which is why corporate press releases so often proclaim “enhancing shareholder value” as an important part of their mission), they have a mutual interest in exploiting employees.

That mutual interest extends to gutting Social Security, even if financiers have the more immediate interest. The challenge of funding Social Security isn’t a difficult one. An important reason why that is so is because Social Security taxes are only imposed on income up to $127,200. Anything above that is untouched. So why not raise the bar? Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would apply this tax to all income above $250,000. This plan would eliminate 80 percent of the projected shortfall, according to an analysis from the Social Security office of the Chief Actuary. For whatever reason, Senator Sanders’ plan wouldn’t touch income in between. Taxing all income would raise still more money.

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Another method is suggested by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He argues that a payroll tax increase of four percent would be sufficient to fully fund Social Security and Medicare for another 75 years. He acknowledges that such an increase would be difficult for many workers, but he estimates that the loss of income from decades of upward distribution of income to be 40 percent — a loss ten times greater. That figures comes from the gap between the rate of earnings increases for working people and the rate of increases in productivity. He explains:

“[U]pward redistribution over this period has reduced wage growth by more than 40 percentage points. In short, our children are 40 percent poorer than they would otherwise be because of the money going to people like Bill Gates and Steve Zuckerberg rather than ordinary workers.

So by very conservative estimates, a typical person in their twenties or thirties has seen their income reduced by more than 40 percent because of all the money redistributed to those at the top. However, the generational warriors want young people to be upset about the possibility that a bit more than one-tenth of this amount could be used to pay for their parents’ and their own Social Security and Medicare. (This upward redistribution is also responsible for about half of the projected shortfall in Social Security, as more income going to profits and high-income workers escapes the Social Security tax.)

It is also important to understand that government action was at the center of this upward redistribution. Without government-granted patent monopolies for Windows and other Microsoft software, Bill Gates would probably still be working for a living.”

A trillion dollars for Wall Street

Privatizing Social Security would additionally cut benefits because financiers would take hefty cuts. The administrative costs of the retirement portion of Social Security (the bulk of the program) is 0.4 percent. In contrast, Dr. Baker reports, “even relatively well-run privatized systems, like those in Chile or the United Kingdom, are 10–15 percent of benefits.”

Such ratios were Social Security privatized would cost nearly $1 trillion in a decade, he calculates — $1 trillion taken from Social Security benefits and diverted into Wall Street’s bottomless pockets. Consider that the standard payment for hedge-fund managers is to receive an annual fee of two percent of the value of the total assets under management and 20 percent of any profits. The fee gets paid even when the fund loses money. In 2014, the top 25 hedge-fund managers hauled in $11.6 billion despite collectively underperforming the stock market.

Fees for ordinary money managers are not this high, and a privatized Social Security wouldn’t pay fees as exorbitant as those charged by hedge funds. But it would still be huge sums of money. That is why Wall Street has long lusted to get its hands on it.

U.S. Treasury Department under new management (photo by takomabibelot)

Then there is the matter of returns. Would gambling Social Security funds on the stock market really result in better results? Not necessarily. In studying the stock market’s long-term returns for an article I wrote a decade ago, not long after the 1990s bubble had burst, I found that you would have to time your retirement to the peaks of bubbles. When adjusted for inflation, the Dow Jones Industrial Average — the ultimate index of stock-market health and which has its components continually adjusted so as to replace low-performing stocks with high-performing ones — was below its 1929 peak as late as 1991. Here are some long-term results:

  • The Dow peaked at 995 in February 1965. Adjusted for inflation, that was 42 percent more than it was worth at its previous bubble peak in 1929, not so impressive when it took 36 years to get there.
  • The ensuring crash bottomed out in December 1974. At this point, the Dow, adjusted for inflation, was worth only half of what it was worth in 1929 and little more than one-third of its 1965 peak.
  • The most recent crash bottomed out in March 2009, at which point the Dow was three percent below its 1965 peak, adjusted for inflation.

The stock market is edging into bubble territory as we begin 2018, and stocks are priced high by historical standards. The basic measure of stock-price sustainability is the price/earnings ratio of the S&P 500, representing the largest companies on U.S. stock markets. The ratio’s average, calculated back to 1872, is 14. Prior to the 1990s bubble, the S&P 500 P/E ratio rose above 20 four times; each time it subsequently fell below 10. A standard measurement of the P/E ratio today is 26. One way to understand that number is that an investor is essentially paying $26 for each dollar of corporate profit, which is considered too high. It is true that the P/E ratio has been almost continually above the historic average since the 1990s bubble, but nonetheless this more recent rise indicates that a stock collapse is looming.

Goodbye retirement, goodbye disability payments

There aren’t any free lunches. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study notes that Social Security is not only a retirement program, but also an insurance program that could not be duplicated if privatized:

“Social Security is not only a retirement program but also an insurance program. About one-third of payroll taxes go to fund Social Security disability insurance and survivors insurance. Comparable insurance products would be extremely expensive to buy in the private insurance market, if one could even find such products. Social Security also provides an inflation-indexed annuity: Social Security benefits are adjusted each year for inflation and are paid until death, regardless of how long a beneficiary lives. These features of Social Security provide a valuable form of insurance against the risks of inflation and of outliving one’s savings.”

Nor would sinking funds into stock markets necessarily be a wise gamble, the Congressional Budget Office has said:

“Government investment in private securities does not offer a free lunch: although it would increase the expected value of budgetary resources, it would do so at the cost of exposing the government, future taxpayers, and beneficiaries of federal programs to greater risk. If that risk was taken into account, the returns on private securities would be no greater than the returns on government securities. … Using risky investment portfolios to finance spending by government agencies could weaken budgetary control of federal financial resources.”

That last item, however, is a lure of Republicans and their corporate masters. Create a larger deficit, cut social spending, repeat. This reduces lifespans, reducing payouts through Social Security and corporate retirement plans, for those lucky enough to still have one. Earlier deaths has already been declared a “silver lining” by U.S. corporations.

And let us not forget the sometimes bipartisan nature of Social Security cuts — Barack Obama had proposed a change to the way inflation is calculated for the determination of cost-of-living increases that would have resulted in lower adjustments for inflation, effectively a small yearly reduction. He did so as a bargaining chip in an effort to force Republicans in Congress to agree to modest tax increases. Ultimately, a Democratic Party revolt, spurred by grassroots opposition, forced an end to this plan, but this episode does serve as a reminder that social movements, not hoping for political office holders to do good, is the key to being able to retire some day.

In Chile, in 1998, the government actually asked workers not to retire because of a sustained economic downturn. (The Chilean retirement system was forcibly privatized under Pinochet). Think it can’t happen elsewhere? Keep in mind these words by Stephen Moore of the far right groups Club for Growth and Cato Institute: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.”

You’ll work until you drop, but Wall Street will profit.

TPP is not dead: It’s now called the Trade In Services Agreement

One can hear the cry ringing through the boardrooms of capital: “Free trade is dead! Long live free trade!”

Think the ideas behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the so-called “free trade” regime are buried? Sadly, no. Definitely, no. Some of the countries involved in negotiating the TPP seeking to find ways to resurrect it in some new form — but that isn’t the most distressing news. What’s worse is the TPP remains alive in a new form with even worse rules. Meet the Trade In Services Agreement, even more secret than the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And more dangerous.

The Trade In Services Agreement (TISA), currently being negotiated among 50 countries, if passed would prohibit regulations on the financial industry, eliminate laws to safeguard online or digital privacy, render illegal any “buy local” rules at any level of government, effectively dismantle any public advantages to be derived from state-owned enterprises and eliminate net neutrality.

TISA negotiations began in April 2013 and have gone through 21 rounds. Silence has been the rule for these talks, and we only know what’s in it because of leaks, earlier ones published by WikiLeaks and now a new cache published January 29 by Bilaterals.org.

Earlier draft versions of TISA’s language would prohibit any restrictions on the size, expansion or entry of financial companies and a ban on new regulations, including a specific ban on any law that separates commercial and investment banking, such as the equivalent of the U.S. Glass-Steagall Act. It would also ban any restrictions on the transfer of any data collected, including across borders; place social security systems at risk of privatization or elimination; and put an end to Internet privacy and net neutrality. It hasn’t gotten any more acceptable.

Photo by Annette Dubois

Photo by Annette Dubois

TISA is the backup plan in case the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership don’t come to fruition. Perhaps fearful that the recent spotlight put on “free trade” deals might derail TISA as it derailed TPP, the governmental trade offices negotiating it have not announced the next negotiating date. The closest toward any meaningful information found was the Australian government’s bland statement that the “Parties agreed to reconvene in 2017.”

The cover story for why TISA is being negotiated is that it would uphold the right to hire the accountant or engineer of your choice, but in reality is intended to enable the financial industry and Internet companies to run roughshod over countries around the world. And while “liberalization” of professional services is being promoted, the definition of “services” is being expanded in order to stretch the category to encompass manufacturing. Deborah James of the Center for Economy and Policy Research laid out the breathtaking scope of this proposal:

“Corporations no longer consider setting up a plant and producing goods to be simply ‘manufacturing goods.’ This activity is now is broken down into research and development services, design services, legal services, real estate services, architecture services, engineering services, construction services, energy services, employment contracting services, consulting services, manufacturing services, adult education services, payroll services, maintenance services, refuse disposal services, warehousing services, data management services, telecommunications services, audiovisual services, banking services, accounting services, insurance services, transportation services, distribution services, marketing services, retail services, postal and expedited delivery services, and after-sales servicing, to name a few. Going further, a shoe or watch that measures steps or sleep could be a fitness monitoring service, not a good. A driverless car could be a transport service, not an automobile. Google and Facebook could be information services and communication services, respectively.”

Why is it you are kept in the dark?

Before we get to the details of the text itself, let’s take a quick look at how the world’s governments, on behalf of multi-national capital, are letting their citizens know what they are up to. Or, to be more accurate, what they are not telling you. Many governments have not bothered to update their official pages extolling TISA in months.

The European Union is negotiating TISA on behalf of its 28 member countries, along with, among others, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Norway, Switzerland, Pakistan and Turkey.

In the United States, the new Trump administration has yet to say a word about it. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative web site’s page on TISA still says “TiSA is part of the Obama Administration’s ongoing effort to create economic opportunity for U.S. workers and businesses by expanding trade opportunities.” Uh-huh. President Donald Trump is not against “free trade” deals; he simply claims he can do it better. The Trump administration has issued blustery calls for “fair deals” and braggadocio puffing up Donald Trump’s supposed negotiating prowess. A typical White House passage reads, “To carry out his strategy, the President is appointing the toughest and smartest to his trade team, ensuring that Americans have the best negotiators possible. For too long, trade deals have been negotiated by, and for, members of the Washington establishment.”

overlap-of-trade-dealsMore typical of the TISA negotiators is the latest report from the European Commission, which summarized the latest round, held last November, this way: “Parties made good progress in working towards an agreed text and finding pathways towards solving the most controversial outstanding issues at both Chief Negotiators and Heads of Delegation levels.” The Canadian government’s last update is from last June and declares “Parties conducted a stocktaking session to assess the level of progress on all issues.”

Traveling across the Pacific brings no more useful information. Australia’s government offers this information-free update: “Parties agreed to a comprehensive stocktake of the negotiations, identifying progress made and areas which require ongoing technical work.” New Zealand’s government can’t even be bothered to provide updates, instead offering only discredited, boilerplate public-relations puffery similar to other trade offices.

The one hint that TISA negotiations are experiencing difficulty that could be found through an extensive online search is this passage in a U.S. Congressional Research Service report dated January 3, 2017: “Recognizing that outstanding issues remain and the U.S. position under a new administration is unclear, the parties canceled the planned December 2016 meeting but are meeting to determine how best to move forward in 2017.” Given that the new administration is moving as fast as possible to eliminate the tepid Dodd-Frank Act financial-industry reforms, it would seem TISA’s provisions to dismantle financial regulation globally would not be a problem at all.

But that these talks are not progressing at the present time does not mean the world can relax. It took years of cross-border organizing and popular education to stop the TPP, and this effort will have to replicated if TISA is to be halted.

The details are the devils already known

Commentary accompanying Bilaterals.org’s publication of several TISA chapters stresses that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite its apparent defeat, is nonetheless being used as the model for the Trade In Services Agreement. Thus we are at risk of the TPP becoming the “new norm”:

“Several proposed texts from the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement have been transferred to TiSA — including state-owned enterprises; rights to hold data offshore (including financial data); e-commerce; and prohibitions on performance requirements for foreign investors. While these texts originated with the United States, they appear to be supported by other parties to the TPP, even though those governments were reluctant to agree to them in the TPP and will no longer be bound by that agreement. That suggests the TPP may become the new norm even though it has only been ratified in two of the 12 countries, and that was done on the basis of U.S. participation that no longer applies. TPP cannot be allowed to become the new ‘default’ position for these flawed agreements.”

Some of the most extreme measures have been dropped (at least for now) and much of the text is not agreed. Nonetheless, there is nothing to cheer about, Bilaterals.org reports.

“The effectiveness of opposition to TiSA has led governments to conclude that they cannot sell some of the more extreme proposals, which have thus been dropped from previous leaked texts. But the fetters on the rights and responsibilities of governments to regulate in the interests of their citizens from what remains would still go further than any single other agreement. There are no improvements on the inadequate protections for health, environment, privacy, workers, human rights, or economic development. And there is nothing to prevent developing countries becoming even more vulnerable and dependent in an already unequal and unfair global economy.”

Hypocritically, TISA would prohibit developing countries from adopting measures that countries like the United States used to facilitate its industrial development when it was an emerging country in the 19th century. In an analysis for WikiLeaks, Sanya Reid Smith of the Third World Network, an international coalition specializing in development issues, wrote:

“[T]he proposals in this text restrict the ability of developing countries to use the development paths taken by many of the developed TISA countries. Some experts call this developed countries ‘kicking away the ladder’ after they have climbed up, to prevent developing countries from developing the same way. … In TISA, the USA is proposing restrictions on host countries being able to require senior managers be citizens of the host country. Yet when it was a capital importer, the USA had the opposite law: its 1885 contract labour law prohibited the import of foreign workers, i.e. the USA required senior managers (and all other staff) be Americans, which increased the chances of skills being passed to locals.”

Letting banks decide what’s good for you

These proposals are more extreme than language in existing bilateral trade agreements. Many of TISA’s provisions are lifted from TPP, but some go beyond the latter’s already extreme proposals For example, not even the TPP contemplated the entire elimination of regulations of any kind against the financial industry. Article 14 of TISA’s annex on financial services, which had contained the most explicit language prohibiting regulation, has been removed, but Article 9 still contains language requiring no limitations beyond those applying to domestic financial firms. In other words, a smaller country would be required to allow a giant bank from a bigger country to take over its entire banking system.

Incredibly, regulations against financial derivatives yet to be invented would be illegal. A Public Citizen analysis states:

“TISA would require governments to allow any new financial products and services — including ones not yet invented — to be sold within their territories. The TISA Annex on Financial Services clearly states that TISA governments ‘shall permit’ foreign-owned firms to introduce any new financial product or service, so long as it does not require a new law or a change to an existing law.”

As another example, the financial-services annex (in article 21) would require that any government that offers financial products through its postal service lessen the quality of its products so that those are no better than what private corporations offer. Article 1 of the financial-services annex states that “activities forming part of a statutory system of social security or public retirement plans” are specifically covered by TISA, as are “activities conducted by a central bank or monetary authority or by any other public entity in pursuit of monetary or exchange-rate policies.”

That social security or other public retirement systems are covered is cause for much alarm because they could be judged to be “illegally competing” with private financial enterprises. It is conceivable that central banks could be constrained from actions intended to shore up economies during a future financial crisis if banks decide such measures “constrain” their massive profiteering off the crisis.

The countries negotiating TISA.

The countries negotiating TISA.

Article 10 of the annex continues to explicitly ban restrictions on the transfer of information in “electronic or other form” of any “financial service supplier.” In other words, EU laws guarding privacy that stop U.S.-based Internet companies from taking data outside the EU to circumvent those privacy laws would be null and void. Laws instituting privacy protections would be verboten before they could be enacted. These rules, if enacted, could also provide a boon to companies like Uber whose modus operandi is to circumvent local laws. The Bilaterals.org analysis accompanying the leaks notes:

“The main thrust of TiSA comes through the e-commerce, telecommunications, financial services and localisation rules and countries’ commitments to allow unfettered cross-border supply of services. Together they would empower the global platforms who hold big data, like Google, without effective privacy protections, and tech companies like Uber, who have become notorious for evading national regulation, paying minimal tax and exploiting so-called self-employed workers. Given the backlash against global deals for global corporations TiSA will simply add fuel to the bonfire.”

Who interprets the rule is crucial

The language of TISA, like all “free trade” agreements, is dry and legalistic. How these rules are interpreted is what ultimately matters. TISA contains standard language requiring arbitration by judges possessing “requisite knowledge”; that language means that the usual lineup of corporate lawyers who represent corporations in these tribunals will switch hats to sit in judgment. The tribunals used to settle these “investor-state disputes” are held in secret with no accountability and no appeal.

The intention of “free trade” agreements is to elevate corporations to the level of governments. In reality, they raise corporations above the level of governments because only “investors” can sue; governments and people can’t. “Investors” can sue governments to overturn any law or regulation that they claim will hurt profits or even potential future profits. On top of this, a government ordinarily has to pay millions of dollars in costs even in the rare instances when they win one of these cases.

Each “free trade” agreement has a key provision elevating corporations above governments that codifies the “equal treatment” of business interests in accordance with international law and enables corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or law that might prevent the corporation from extracting the maximum possible profit. Under these provisions, taxation and regulation constitute “indirect expropriation” mandating compensation — a reduction in the value of an asset is sufficient to establish expropriation rather than a physical taking of property as required under customary law. Tribunal decisions become precedents for further expansions of investor “rights” and thus constitute the “evolving standard of investor rights” required under “free trade” agreements. TISA contains the usual passages requiring “equal treatment.”

At bottom, “free trade” deals have little to do with trade and much to do with imposing corporate wish lists through undemocratic means, including the elimination of any meaningful regulations for labor, safety, health or the environment. TISA is another route to imposing more of this agenda. And the TPP itself isn’t necessarily dead — both Chile and New Zealand are holding discussions with other TPP countries to salvage some of the deal. Chile has invited TPP countries, plus China, to a March summit and the New Zealand trade minister is visiting Australia, Japan, Mexico and Singapore.

Working people around the world scored a major victory in stopping the TPP, at least in its current form. The activists who achieved this deserve much credit. But there is far more to do. Capital never rests; nor can we. Here we have class warfare in naked fashion, and there is no doubt on which side the capitalist world’s governments lie.