Central banks have trillions for speculation, none for people

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

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

(Photo by Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia)

(Photo by Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia)

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

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

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

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

The irrationality of more for those with more

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

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

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

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

Jobs instead of speculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trillions for asset buying sprees

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

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

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

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

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

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

If consumers have no money, they aren’t buying

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

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

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

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

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

Federal Reserve talks jobs, but (in)action speaks louder than words

If you haven’t gotten a pay raise lately, you are not alone. The percentage of U.S. workers reporting no change in their renumeration remains near its all-time high, according to statistics kept by the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve.

The San Francisco Fed’s “wage rigidity meter” — the percentage of “job stayers” who report receiving the same pay as one year earlier, rose above 15 percent in 2010 and has remained there since. For comparison, that figure was 11 percent in 2008, at the start of the global economic downturn and about six percent in the early 1980s, when this statistic first began to be tracked. For hourly workers, not surprisingly, conditions are even worse: More than 20 percent report no increase in pay, about triple the number in the early 1980s.

That is merely one additional piece of evidence — if any more be needed — that inequality is on the rise. Reuters reports that there is some discussion within the Federal Reserve to temporarily tolerate higher inflation as a “tradeoff” to encourage growth in wages and an accompanying boost to full-time employment. How serious this talk actually is might be signaled by this paragraph in the same Reuters report:

“Fed staff economists accepted in 2010 that labor’s share of annual U.S. output, which over a decade had dropped to around 56 percent from its long-term average of around 62 percent, was unlikely to recover.”

In other words, the Federal Reserve says inequality is here to stay. So perhaps tinkering with policy that possibly could make a marginal difference — even the Fed has to keep up appearances sometimes — is the most that might be expected. Contrast that with the enthusiasm with which the Fed has shoveled money into its “quantitative easing” programs — measures that have primarily acted to inflate a new stock-market bubble with a small secondary effect of re-animating real estate prices.

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

“Quantitative easing” is the technical name for a central bank going on an asset buying spree. In conjunction with setting low interest rates, it is a theoretical attempt to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. The Federal Reserve’s program buys U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities in massive amounts.

Through the end of June 2014, the Fed poured about US$4.1 trillion into three quantitative-easing programs since December 2008. The Bank of England had committed £375 billion to its Q.E. program as of the end of 2013.

Prior to the economic downturn, the Fed held between $700 billion and $800 billion of U.S. Treasury notes on its balance sheet, but, because of its quantitative-easing programs, it now holds more than $4 trillion. The Fed is in the process of winding down its buying spree with an intent to finish it in October. Instability is likely to occur when the Fed tries to unload its bloated piles of assets, and many of the world’s other central banks will seek to unload their assets as well.

The latest stock-market bubble, then, will burst as all others before it, with high debt loads dropping another anchor on the economy. A commentary in Forbes calculates that the level of borrowing used to buy stocks is already higher than it ever was during the 1990s stock-market bubble or the run-up before the 2008 crash as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars or as a ratio with the S&P 500 stock index.

What could the world’s governments have done with this massive amount of money had it instead gone to socially useful programs? Instead, trillions of dollars were spent to inflate another stock-market bubble. One more way the world’s wealthiest have gotten fatter while the sacrifices are borne by the rest of us.

And that is merely one way that inequality not only continues to grow, but is accelerating. From 2000 to 2009, labor productivity rose an average of 2.5 percent annually while real hourly wages rose only 1.1 percent, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations — the biggest gap it has yet measured, going back to the late 1940s.

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

(Graphic by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

More recent figures, according to Reuters, indicate the gap continues to grow — from 2007 to today, average hourly wages have risen a total of 1.5 percent while productivity has increased by 11.4 percent. Nor is that a phenomenon limited to the United States. The International Labour Organisation calculates that wages in the world’s developed countries increased six percent from 1999 to 2011 while labor productivity increased about 15 percent.

If the employees are not receiving the benefits from their increased productivity, then it is the bosses and speculators who are grabbing it. Thus it is no surprise that the gap in wealth has increased more sharply than have incomes. A research paper written by Fabian T. Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger and Robert F. Schoeni found that accumulated wealth has decreased for the majority of people since 1984. The median level of net worth — that is, the 50th percentile or the point where the number of people with more is equal to the number with less — has decreased by about 20 percent since 1984. By contrast, those at the 95th percentile have nearly doubled their net worth since 1984.

So much money has flowed upward that industrialists and financiers, and the corporations they control, have more money than they can possibly find investment for — this money is diverted into increasingly risky speculation in an attempt to find higher returns. Working people were handed the bill for the previous bubbles, and before we can get back on our feet the bursting of another bubble looms. Class war is raging, and it’s clear what side is winning.

The Federal Reserve inflates another bubble, but not for you

If you haven’t experienced the “recovery” from the Great Recession the corporate media keeps insisting is here, that’s because “quantitative easing” is a new way to say “trickle-down.” In this latest version, the Federal Reserve has pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets to create a stock market bubble.

Panic at the New York Stock Exchange (image via U.S. Library of Congress)

Panic at the New York Stock Exchange (image via U.S. Library of Congress)

Other than a small secondary effect of re-animating real estate prices, a growing bubble in stock prices has constituted the extent of the economic impact. Good for the one percent, not so good for the rest of us.

“Quantitative easing” is the technical name for a Federal Reserve program in which it buys U.S. government debt and mortgage-backed securities in massive amounts. In conjunction with keeping interest rates near zero, quantitative easing is supposedly intended to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. A reduction in long-term interests rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; for businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the dollar, thereby boosting exports by making U.S.-made products more competitive.

In real life, however, the effect has been an upward distribution of money and an increase in speculation. This new form of trickle-down has not worked any differently than it did during the Reagan administration. Now that the Federal Reserve will gradually reduce the amount of bonds it purchases (announced last month) and perhaps end the program by the end of 2014, Wall Street and corporate executives worry that their latest party might be over.

What hasn’t changed, and won’t anytime soon, is the weakness of the global economy, particularly for the world’s advanced capitalist countries. If you aren’t making enough money to get by, you aren’t planning a shopping spree. If working people, collectively, continue to see wages erode, happy days are not at hand. They aren’t.

The top one percent has captured almost all of the “recovery,” which is why the corporate media continues to peddle its mantra. Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, calculates that 95 percent of all U.S. income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the top one percent. That result is an intensification of a pattern — Professor Saez calculates that 68 percent of all income gains for the longer period of 1993 to 2012 went to the top one percent.

Fueling a speculative binge

How is this connected to quantitative easing? The money borrowed by corporations has not gone toward investment or hiring new workers, but rather into buying back stock and speculation. Financiers and executives riding the crest of this wave of cheap money in turn use their gains to further speculate, or to buy expensive works of art, itself speculation that the wildly rising prices for collectible works will continue.

U.S. corporations bought back about $750 billion of their stock in 2013. When a corporation buys back its stock, it is spreading its profits among fewer stockholders, thereby boosting its stock price. That’s more profits for financiers and bigger bonuses for executives, achieved without investing in the enterprise.

The billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller in a television interview called the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program:

“[T]he biggest redistribution of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich ever. … I mean, maybe this trickle-down monetary policy that gives money to billionaires and hopefully we go spend it is going to work. But it hasn’t worked for five years.”

Mr. Druckenmiller said this on CNBC, a cable-television business news station whose anchors openly cheer news of rising corporate profits and celebrate wealth accumulation. The “five years” he mentioned is a reference to the three successive programs of quantitative easing that began in the final weeks of the Bush II/Cheney administration. In a separate report, CNBC journalist Robert Frank writes that it has become “increasingly clear” that the wealthiest one percent are the big winners:

“The largesse of the Federal Reserve over the past five years has amounted to one of the largest ever subsidies to the American wealthy — fueling record fortunes, record numbers of new millionaires and billionaires, and an unprecedented shopping spree for everything from Ferraris to Francis Bacon paintings. The prices of the assets owned by the wealthy, and the things they buy, have gone parabolic, bearing little relationship to the weak, broader economy. …

Fed policy has fueled a surge in the value of financial assets. Since the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans own 60 percent of financial assets, and the top 10 percent own 80 percent of the stocks, those gains in financial assets have gone disproportionately to a small group at the top.”

Stock prices reaching unsustainable levels

More speculative money is poured into stock markets because the heavy Federal Reserve buying of bonds dampens demand in that sector. Ted Levin, writing for the business publication SmallCap Network, summarizes this effect:

“[Q]uantitative easing involves buying long-term bonds, which in turn drives down the interest rates on these. The reason for this is that when there is a strong demand for bonds — which is exactly what quantitative easing artificially creates — bond issuers do not have to offer such high interest rates in order to attract investors. This in turn means that bonds are less attractive to non-governmental investors, and so they turn to stocks instead — driving up the price.

The second reason is that quantitative easing makes more capital available to businesses at lower rates. This allows them to swap high-cost debt for low-cost debt and buy back stock — improving their earnings per share and driving up the value of the remaining stock.”

The most basic measure of a stock, or the stock markets as a whole, is the “price/earnings ratio.” The P/E ratio is a company’s yearly profit divided by the price of one share. As of January 14, the P/E ratio for the S&P 500, the standard barometer, was at about 19.5 and has been rising steadily the past couple of years. A handful of times in history, the P/E ratio has risen above 20, only to crash each time. The historical average is 14.5 — meaning that stocks are currently overvalued.

Stock prices have become unmoored from underlying economic conditions — and are frequently pure speculation. Most trading is done through computer programs, often with a stock bought and sold in fractions of a second to take advantage of quick pricing changes, and increasingly exotic derivatives to draw in ever more speculative money by the wealthy who are awash in far more money that can possibly invest rationally.

Wall Street’s party will wind down as slowly and gently as the Federal Reserve can manage, and it may yet reverse itself and continue its quantitative-easing program. As of the end of December 2013, the Fed has spent a total of $3.7 trillion over five years on quantitative easing and the Bank of England has committed £375 billion to its quantitative easing.

How much could these enormous sums of money have benefited working people had this money instead been used to create jobs directly or for productive social investment? And these barrels of money thrown to financiers are merely the latest tranches — the U.S., E.U., Japan and China committed 16.3 trillion dollars in 2008 and 2009 alone on bailouts of the financiers who brought down the global economy and, to a far smaller extent, for economic stimulus. For the rest of us, it’s been austerity and mounting inequality.

Going beyond the obvious question of why such absurdly one-sided policies should be tolerated, it also necessary to ask: Why do we continue to believe an economic system that requires such massive subsidies “works”?