Infrastructure and Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank. Some Scattered Thoughts.

What is Infrastructure?

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Infrastructure, though definitionally an elusive term, encompasses an economic standpoint consisting of large capital intensive natural monopolies. The term attains it heterogeneity by including physical structures of various types used by many industries as inputs to the production of goods and services. By this, it has come to mean either social, or economic infrastructure, wherein, in the former, are schools, hospitals etc, while in the latter are energy, water, transport, and digital communications, often considered essential ingredients in the success of the modern economy. Conceptually, infrastructure may affect aggregate output in two main ways: (i) directly, considering the sector contribution to GDP formation and as an additional input in the production process of other sectors; and (ii) indirectly, raising total factor productivity by reducing transaction and other costs thus allowing a more efficient use of conventional productive inputs. Infrastructure can be considered as a complementary factor for economic growth. How big is the contribution of infrastructure to aggregate economic performance? The answer is critical for many policy decisions – for example, to gauge the growth effects of fiscal interventions in the form of public investment changes, or to assess if public infrastructure investments can be self-financing.

Let us ponder on this a bit and begin with the question. Why is infrastructure even important? Extensive and efficient infrastructure is critical for ensuring the effective functioning of the economy, as it is an important factor determining the location of economic activity and the kinds of activities or sectors that can develop in a particular economy. Well-developed infrastructure reduces the effect of distance between regions, integrating the national market and connecting it at low cost to markets in other countries and regions. In addition, the quality and extensiveness of infrastructure networks significantly impact economic growth and affect income inequalities and poverty in a variety of ways. A well-developed transport and communications infrastructure network is a prerequisite for the access of less-developed communities to core economic activities and services. Effective modes of transport, including quality roads, railroads, ports, and air transport, enable entrepreneurs to get their goods and services to market in a secure and timely manner and facilitate the movement of workers to the most suitable jobs. Economies also depend on electricity supplies that are free of interruptions and shortages so that businesses and factories can work unimpeded. Finally, a solid and extensive communications network allows for a rapid and free flow of information, which increases overall economic efficiency by helping to ensure that businesses can communicate and decisions are made by economic actors taking into account all available relevant information. There is an existing correlation between infrastructure and economic activity through which the economic effects originate in the construction phase and rise during the usage phase. The construction phase is associated with the short-term effects and are a consequence of the decisions in the public sector that could affect macroeconomic variables: GDP, employment, public deficit, inflation, among others. The public investment expands the aggregate demand, yielding a boost to the employment, production and income. The macroeconomic effects at a medium and long term, associated with the utilization phase are related to the increase of productivity in the private sector and its effects over the territory. Both influence significantly in the competitiveness degree of the economy. In conclusion, investing in infrastructure constitutes one of the main mechanisms to increase income, employment, productivity and consequently, the competitiveness of an economy. Is this so? Well, thats what the economics textbook teaches us, and thus governments all over the world turn to infrastructure development as a lubricant to maintain current economic output at best and it can also be the basis for better industry which contributes to better economic output. Governments, thus necessitate realignment of countries’ infrastructure in tune with the changing nature of global political economy. Infrastructure security and stability concerns the quantity of spare capacity (or security of supply). Instead of acting on the efficiency frontier, infrastructure projects must operate with spare capacity to contribute to economic growth through ensuring reliable service provisions. Spare capacity is a necessary condition for a properly functioning system. To assure the level of spare capacity in the absence of storage and demand, the system needs to have excess supply. However, no rational profit-seeker will deliberately create conditions of excess supply, since it would produce a marginal cost lower than the average cost, and to circumnavigate this market failure, governments are invested with the responsibility of creating incentives ensuring securities of supply. This is seeding the substitutability of economics with financialization. 

So far, so good, but then, so what? This is where social analysts need to be incisive in unearthing facts from fiction and this faction is what constitutes the critique of development, a critique that is engineered against a foci on GDP-led growth model. This is to be done by asking uncomfortable questions to policy-makers, such as: What is the most efficient way to finance infrastructure spending? What are optimal infrastructure pricing, maintenance and investment policies? What have proven to be the respective strengths and weaknesses of the public and private sectors in infrastructure provision and management, and what shapes those strengths and weaknesses? What are the distributional consequences of infrastructure policies? How do political forces impact the efficiency of public sector provision? What framework deals best with monopoly providers of infrastructure? For developing countries, which have hitherto been plagued by weaker legal systems making regulation and enforcement more complicated, the fiscally weak position leads to higher borrowing costs. A most natural outcome is a systemic increase in financial speculation driven by deregulation transforming into financial assets. Contrary to common sense and what civil society assumes, financial markets are going deeper and deeper into the real economy as a response to the financial crisis, so that speculative capital is structurally being intertwined with productive capital changing the whole dynamics of infrastructure investment. The question then is, how far viable or sustainable are these financial interventions? Financialization produces effects which can create long-term trends (such as those on functional income distribution) but can also change across different periods of economic growth, slowdown and recession. Interpreting the implications of financialization for sustainability, therefore, requires a methodological diverse and empirical dual-track approach which combines different methods of investigations. Even times of prosperity, despite their fragile and vulnerable nature, can endure for several years before collapsing due to high levels of indebtedness, which in turn amplify the real effects of a financial crisis and hinder the economic growth. 

Role of Development Banks and AIIB

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Where do development banks fit into the schema as regards infrastructure investment? This question is a useful gamble in order to tackle AIIB, the new kid on the bloc. As the world struggles to find funds to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), development banks could be instrumental in narrowing the gap. So, goes the logic promulgated by these banks. They can help to crowd-in the private sector and anchor private-public sector partnerships, particularly for infrastructure financing. However, misusing development banks can lead to fiscal risks and credit market distortions. To avoid these potential pitfalls, development banks need a well-defined mandate, operate without political influence, focus on addressing significant market failures, concentrate on areas where the private sector is not present, monitor and evaluate interventions and adjust as necessary to ensure impact, and, finally, be transparent and accountable. All of these are the ideals, which more often than not go the other way. China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite having no track record still enjoys the highest ratings on par with the World Bank. This has fueled debates ranging from adding much-needed capital augmenting infrastructure to leniency in observing high standards of governance, and possibly ignoring environmental and societal impacts.

The AIIB was officially launched in Beijing on January 16th, 2016, with 57 founding members, including 37 in Asia and 20 non-regional countries. Being the largest shareholder of the AIIB, China has an initial subscription of $29.78 billion in authorized capital stock in the AIIB out of a total of $100 billion, and made a grant contribution of another $50 million to the AIIB Project Preparation Special Fund on January 16th, 2017. India is the second-largest shareholder, contributing $8.4 billion. Russia is the third-largest shareholder, contributing $6.5 billion, and Germany is the largest non-regional shareholder (also the fourth largest shareholder), contributing $4.5 billion. While being open to the participation of non-regional members, the AIIB is committed to and prioritizes the ownership of Asian members. This is reflected in the capital structure requirement and the requirements for the composition of Board of Governors in the AIIB’s Article of Agreement (AOA), which requires no less than 75 percent of the total subscribed capital stock to be held by regional members unless otherwise agreed by the Board of Governors by a Super Majority vote. The AOA also requires that 9 out of the AIIB’s 12 members be elected by the Governors representing regional members, and 3 representing non-regional members. The prioritization of Asian-members’ ownership of the AIIB does not necessarily mean that the AIIB’s investment is restricted only to Asia. According to its AOA, the AIIB aims to “improve infrastructure connectivity in Asia,” and it will invest in Asia and beyond as long as the investment is “concerned with economic development of the region.” The bank currently has 64 member states while another 20 are prospective members for a total of 84 approved members. 

The AIIB’s EU/OECD members potentially could have some positive influence over the institutional building and standard setting of the young institution. The European Commission has recognized that an EU presence in China-driven institutions would contribute to the adoption of best practices and fair, global standards. Adherence to such standards will be promoted by the AIIB entering into partnership with existing Multilateral Development Banks. It has also been argued that joining the AIIB would give the European countries access to the decision-making process within the AIIB, and may even allow the European countries to play a role in shaping the AIIB’s organizational structure. As an example of EU/OECD members’ activism in monitoring the AIIB’s funds allocation, both Denmark and the UK, who are AIIB’s OECD members, proposed that contributions to the AIIB would qualify as official development aid (ODA). After a thorough review of AIIB’s AOA, mandate, work plan and other available materials, the OECD’s Secretariat of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) recommended including AIIB on the List under the category of “Regional development banks,” which means the OECD would recognize the AIIB as one of the ODA-eligible international organizations. Once approved, the Secretariat of DAC will be able to “monitor the future recipient breakdown of the AIIB’s borrowers through AIIB’s future Creditor Reporting System and thereby confirm that the actual share of funds going to countries on the DAC List of ODA Recipients is over 90%.” That is to say, if approved, there would be additional external monitor to make sure that the funds channeled through the AIIB to recipient countries are used properly. 

The AIIB’s initial total capital is $100 billion, equivalent to about 61 percent of the ADB’s initial total capital, 43 percent of the World Bank’s, 30 percent of the European Investment Bank’s (EIB), and more than twice of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s (EBRD). Of this $100 billion initial capital, 20 percent is to be largely paid-in by 2019 and fully paid-in by 2024, and the remaining 80 percent is in callable capital. It needs to be noted that according to the AOA, payments for paid-in capital are due in five installments, with the exception of members designated as less developed countries, who may pay in ten installments. As of any moment, the snapshot of AIIB’s financial sheet includes total assets, members’ equities and liabilities, the last of which has negligible debt at the current stage since the AIIB has not issued any debenture or borrowed money from outside. However, to reduce the funding costs and to gain access to wider source of capital, the AIIB cannot rely solely on equity and has to issue debenture and take some leverage, particularly given that the AIIB intends to be a for-profit institution. In February 2017, the AIIB signed an International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) Master Agreement with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which would facilitate local currency bond issuance in client countries. Moreover, AIIB intends to actively originate and lead transactions that mobilize private capital and make it a trusted partner for all parties involved in the transactions that the Bank leads. In the long term, the AIIB aims to be the repository of know-how and best practices in infrastructure finance. 

It is widely perceived that the AIIB is a tool of Chinese foreign policy, and that it is a vehicle for the implementation of the Belt and Road (One Belt, One Road) Initiative. During a meeting with global executives in June 2016, the AIIB President Jin Liqun clarified China’s position, saying the AIIB “was not created exclusively for this initiative,” and that the AIIB would “finance infrastructure projects in all emerging market economies even though they don’t belong to the Belt and Road Initiative.” It is worth pointing out that despite the efforts on trying to put some distance between the AIIB and the Belt and Road Initiative, there is still a broad perception that these two are closely related. Moreover, China has differentiated AIIB projects from its other foreign assistance projects by co-financing its initial projects with the preexisting MDBs. Co-financing, combined with European membership, will make it more likely this institution largely conforms to the international standards” and potentially will steer the AIIB away from becoming solely a tool of Chinese foreign policy. This supports China’s stated intention to complement existing MDBs rather than compete with them. It also means that the AIIB can depend on its partners, if they would allow so, for expertise on a wide range of policy and procedural issues as it develops its lending portfolio.

Although AIIB has attracted a great number of developing and developed countries to join as members and it has co-financed several projects with other MDBs, there is no guarantee for any easy success in the future. There are several formidable challenges for the young multilateral institution down the road. Not all the infrastructure investment needs in Asia is immediately bankable and ready for investors’ money. Capital, regardless it’s sovereign or private, will not flow in to any project without any proper preparation. Although Asia faces a huge infrastructure financing gap, there is a shortage of ‘shovel-ready’ bankable projects owing to the capacity limitations. The young AIIB lacks the talent and expertise to create investor-ready bankable projects, despite that it has created a Project Preparation Special Fund thanks to $50 million by China. The AIIB aims to raise money in global capital markets to invest in the improvement of trans-regional connectivity. However, infrastructure projects are not naturally attractive investment due to huge uncertainties throughout the entire life cycle as well as unjustified risk-profit balance. Getting a top-notch credit rating is just a start. The AIIB has to find innovative ways to improve the risk-adjusted profitability of its projects. This issue itself has been a big challenge for many MDBs who engage in infrastructure financing for a long time. It is uncertain if the AIIB could outperform the other much more matured MDBs to find a solution to tackle the profitability problem in infrastructure financing. The highest rating it has received from ratings agencies could pose a challenge in itself. The high rating not only endorses the bank’s high capital adequacy and robust liquidity position, but also validates the strong political will of AIIB’s members and the bank’s governance frameworks. A good rating will help the AIIB issue bonds at favorable rate and utilize capital markets to reduce its funding costs. This certainly will contribute to AIIB’s efforts to define itself as a for-profit infrastructure investment bank. However, there is no guarantee that the rating will hold forever. Many factors may impact the rating in the future, including but not limited to AIIB’s self-capital ratio, liquidity, management, yieldability, risk management ability, and its autonomy and independency from China’s influence. 

Conjuncted: Balance of Payments in a Dirty Float System, or Why Central Banks Find It Ineligible to Conduct Independent Monetary Policies? Thought of the Day

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If the rate of interest is partly a monetary phenomenon, money will have real effects working through variations in investment expenditure and the capital stock. Secondly, if there are unemployed resources, the impact of increases in the money supply will first be on output, and not on prices. It was, indeed, Keynes’s view expressed in his General Theory that throughout history the propensity to save has been greater than the propensity to invest, and that pervasive uncertainty and the desire for liquidity has in general kept the rate of interest too high. Given the prevailing economic conditions of the 1930s when Keynes was writing, it was no accident that he should have devoted part of the General Theory to a defence of mercantilism as containing important germs of truth:

What I want is to do justice to schools of thought which the classicals have treated as imbeciles for the last hundred years and, above all, to show that I am not really being so great an innovator, except as against the classical school, but have important predecessors, and am returning to an age-long tradition of common sense.

The mercantilists recognised, like Keynes, that the rate of interest is determined by monetary conditions, and that it could be too high to secure full employment, and in relation to the needs of growth. As Keynes put it in the General Theory:

mercantilist thought never supposed as later economists did [for example, Ricardo, and even Alfred Marshall] that there was a self-adjusting tendency by which the rate of interest would be established at the appropriate level [for full employment].

It was David Ricardo, in his The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, who accepted and developed Say’s law of markets that supply creates its own demand, and who for the first time expounded the theory of comparative advantage, which laid the early foundations for orthodox trade and growth theory that has prevailed ever since. Ricardian trade theory, however, is real theory relating to the reallocation of real resources through trade which ignores the monetary aspects of trade; that is, the balance between exports and imports as trade takes place. In other words, it ignores the balance of payments effects of trade that arises as a result of trade specialization, and the feedback effects that the balance of payments can have on the real economy. Moreover, continuous full employment is assumed because supply creates its own demand through variations in the real rate of interest. These aspects question the prevalence of Ricardian theory in orthodox trade and growth theory to a large extent in today’s scenario. But in relation to trade, as Keynes put it:

free trade assumes that if you throw men out of work in one direction you re-employ them in another. As soon as that link in the chain is broken the whole of the free trade argument breaks down.

In other words, the real income gains from specialization may be offset by the real income losses from unemployment. Now, suppose that payments deficits arise in the process of international specialization and the freeing of trade, and the rate of interest has to be raised to attract foreign capital inflows to finance them. Or suppose deficits cannot be financed and income has to be deflated to reduce imports. The balance of payments consequences of trade may offset the real income gains from trade.

This raises the question of why the orthodoxy ignores the balance of payments? There are several reasons, both old and new, that all relate to the balance of payments as a self-adjusting process, or simply as a mirror image of autonomous capital flows, with no income adjustment implied. Until the First World War, the mechanism was the gold standard. The balance of payments was supposed to be self-equilibrating because countries in surplus, accumulating gold, would lose competitiveness through rising prices (Hume’s quantity theory of money), and countries in deficit losing gold would gain competitiveness through falling prices. The balance of payments was assumed effectively to look after itself through relative price adjustments without any change in income or output. After the external gold standard collapsed in 1931, the theory of flexible exchange rates was developed, and it was shown that if the real exchange rate is flexible, and the so-called Marshall–Lerner condition is satisfied (i.e. the sum of the price elasticities of demand for exports and imports is greater than unity), the balance of payments will equilibrate; again, without income adjustment.

In modern theory, balance of payments deficits are assumed to be inherently temporary as the outcome of inter-temporal decisions by private agents concerning consumption. Deficits are the outcome of rational decisions to consume now and pay later. Deficits are merely a form of consumption smoothing, and present no difficulty for countries. And then there is the Panglossian view that the current account of the balance of payments is of no consequence at all because it simply reflects the desire of foreigners to invest in a country. Current account deficits should be seen as a sign of economic success, not as a weakness.

It is not difficult to question how balance of payments looks after itself, or does not have consequences for long-run growth. As far as the old gold standard mechanism is concerned, instead of the price levels of deficit and surplus countries moving in opposite directions, there was a tendency in the nineteenth century for the price levels of countries to move together in the same direction. In practice, it was not movements in relative prices that equilibrated the balance of payments but expenditure and output changes associated with interest rate differentials. Interest rates rose in deficit countries which deflated demand and output, and fell in surplus countries stimulating demand.

On the question of flexible exchange rates as an equilibrating device, a distinction first needs to be made between the nominal exchange rate and the real exchange rate. It is easy for countries to adjust the nominal rate, but not so easy to adjust the real rate because competitors may “price to market” or retaliate, and domestic prices may rise with a nominal devaluation. Secondly, the Marshall–Lerner condition then has to be satisfied for the balance of payments to equilibrate. This may not be the case in the short run, or because of the nature of goods exported and imported by a particular country. The international evidence over the past almost half a century years since the breakdown of the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate system suggests that exchange rate changes are not an efficient balance of payments adjustment weapon. Currencies appreciate and depreciate and still massive global imbalances of payments remain.

On the inter-temporal substitution effect, it is wrong to give the impression that inter-temporal shifts in consumption behaviour do not have real effects, particularly if interest rates have to rise to finance deficits caused by more consumption in the present if countries do not want their exchange rate to depreciate. On the view that deficits are a sign of success, an important distinction needs to be made between types of capital inflows. If the capital flows are autonomous, such as foreign direct investment, the argument is plausible, but if they are “accommodating” in the form of loans from the banking system or the sale of securities to foreign governments and international organizations, the probable need to raise interest rates will again have real effects by reducing investment and output domestically.

Surplus. What All Could Social Activists Do, But Debate?

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The social surplus is a basic concept of classical political economy which has been revived in the post-war period by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. They defined it as

.. the difference between what a society produces and the costs of producing it. The size of a surplus is an index of productivity and wealth, and of how much freedom a society has to accomplish whatever goals it may set for itself. The composition of the surplus shows how it uses that freedom: how much it invests in expanding its productive capacity, how much it consumes in various forms, how much it wastes and in what ways.

The surplus can be calculated in alternative ways. One is to estimate the necessary costs of producing the national product, and to deduct the costs from the national product. This raises the conceptual problem of calculating the necessary costs of production. Some of the outlays recorded as costs by firms (such as outlays for superficial product differentiation and advertising) may be unnecessary from the social viewpoint. Hence the determination of the necessary costs is crucial for this first method. A second method is to estimate the various expenditures absorbing the surplus (non-essential consumption, investment etc.) and to add them up.

The re-elaboration of the surplus concept in the post-war period is connected to the evolution of certain features of capitalism. In Monopoly Capital Baran and Sweezy argued that capitalism had made a transition from a competitive phase to a monopolistic phase in the twentieth century. In their view, the concentration of capital in giant corporations enables them to fix prices, in contrast to nineteenth century capitalists who worked under more intense competition. These giant corporations set their sales prices by adding mark-ups to production costs. Such price setting gives the corporations control over the partition of the value added with their workers. Corporations also strive to increase their profits by reducing their production costs. On the macroeconomic plane, the general endeavour to reduce production costs (inclusive of labor costs) tends to raise the share of the surplus in GDP. This rising surplus can be sustained only if it is absorbed. The consumption of capitalists, the consumption of employees in non-productive activities (e.g. superficial product differentiation, advertising, litigation etc.), investment and some part of government expenditure (e.g. public investment, military outlays) are the main outlets for absorbing the surplus.

As almost sixty years have elapsed since the above framework was formulated, it is legitimate to ask: has the increasing ratio of trade to global output impaired the diagnosis of Baran and Sweezy with regard to the monopolization of capital, and with respect to the inclination for the surplus in GDP to increase? Has increasing trade and integration of markets raised competitive pressures so as to restrict the pricing latitude of industrial conglomerates?

The immediate effect of global trade expansion obviously must be to increase overall competition, as greater numbers of firms would come to compete in formerly segregated markets. But a countervailing effect would emerge when large firms with greater financial resources and organizational advantages eliminate smaller firms (as happens when large transnationals take on firms of peripheral countries in opened markets). Another countervailing trend to the competition-enhancing effect of trade expansion is mergers and acquisitions, on which there is evidence in the core countries. A powerful trend increase in the extent of firm level concentration of global markets share could be observed in industries as diverse as aerospace and defence, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, trucks, power equipment, farm equipment, oil and petrochemicals, mining, pulp and paper, brewing, banking, insurance, advertising, and mass media. Indications are that the competition-enhancing effect of trade is balanced (perhaps even overwhelmed) by the monopolizing effect of the centralization of capital, which may sustain the ability of large corporations to control the market prices of their products.

On the other hand, if mergers and acquisitions imply an increase in the average size of the workforce of corporations, this could stimulate a counterbalance to corporate power by higher unionization and worker militancy. However, the increasing mobility of capital, goods and services on the one hand, and unemployment on the other is weakening unionization in the core countries, and making workers accept temporary employment, part-time employment, flexibility in hiring and dismissing, flexible working days and weeks, and flexibility in assigning tasks in the workplace. Increasing flexibility in labor relations shifts various risks related to the product markets and the associated costs from firms onto workers. Enhanced flexibility cannot but boost gross profits. Hence the trend towards increased flexibility in labor practices clearly implies increased surplus generation for given output in individual countries.

The neoliberal global reform agenda also includes measures to increase surplus generation through fiscal and institutional reforms, both in developed and underdeveloped countries. Lowering taxes on corporate profits, capital gains and high incomes; increasing taxes on consumption; raising fees on public services and privatization of these services, of utilities and of social security – all these policies aim at disburdening the high income earners and property owners of contributing to financing essential services for the maintenance of the labor force. These reforms also contribute to increasing the share of surplus in total output.

In brief, in the era of neoliberal policies evidence does not seem to suggest that the tendency for the share of surplus in GDP to rise in individual countries may have waned. If so, what is happening to the surplus generated in international production?

Baran and Sweezy argued that the surplus of underdeveloped countries had been and was being drained away to the centers of the world-system. Their description of core firms‘ overseas activities in Monopoly Capital can be read as a description of offshore outsourcing activities today if one replaces subsidiary with suppliers:

What they [giant multinational corporations] want is monopolistic control over foreign sources of supply and foreign markets, enabling them to buy and sell on specially privileged terms, to shift orders from one subsidiary to another, to favour this country or that depending on which has the most advantageous tax, labour and other policies…

The authors’ view was that imperialism had a two-fold function with respect to the surplus: finding cheap foreign sources of supply (which increases the surplus in the home country), and using other countries‘ markets as outlets (which helps absorb the surplus of the home country). A major motive of transnational companies in their current practice of outsourcing parts of production to underdeveloped countries is to cut production costs, hence to increase gross profits. When the corporation of a core country decides to outsource its production to a peripheral country, or when it shifts its sources of supply of intermediate inputs to a peripheral country, this increases global surplus creation. Global output remains the same, the costs of producing it decline. For the firm, the effect of offshore outsourcing is the same as if it were to reduce its own (in-house) costs of production, or were to outsource to a cheap supplier in the home economy. If the workers in the core country dismissed due to the offshore outsourcing find newly created jobs and continue to produce surplus, then global output increases and surplus creation increases a fortiori. If the workers dismissed due to the outsourcing remain unemployed, then their consumption (provided by family, unemployment benefits etc.) absorbs part of the surplus produced by other workers in employment. Should the supplier in the peripheral country expand her production to meet the order under subcontract, there will also be some increase in surplus creation in the peripheral country. In this case the total increase in surplus may accrue to both countries  economies – in indeterminate proportions.

It is worth noting that the effect of offshore outsourcing on productivity in the core economies is ambiguous. The formula

Productivity = (Sales Revenue – Material Input Cost) / Number of Workers

shows that an increase in material input cost (due to the increase in outsourced inputs) and a reduction of the in-house workforce (due to outsourcing) may ultimately affect the outsourcing firm‘s productivity either way. The gains that motivate firms to outsourcing are not gains in labor productivity (which arguably could legitimize outsourcing from a social viewpoint), but gains in gross profits – i.e. in surplus appropriation.

It emerges that the basic tendencies in the production and growth of the social surplus described by Baran and Sweezy have not changed under globalizing capitalism. New economic policies, corporate strategies and international rules of conduct appear to promote increasing surplus transfers from the periphery to the core of the world-system. In order to lift itself out of destitution the periphery is exhorted to remove restrictions on trade and capital flows, and to compete for advantageous positions in global value chains controlled by transnationals by improving quality, reducing costs, innovating etc. The export-led growth economic strategy compels peripheral producers to individually compete for exportation by repressing wages, and conceding much of the surplus produced to their trade partners in the core countries. Part of the surplus accruing to the periphery is consumed by transnational élites imitating the consumption of the well-to-do in the core societies. On the other hand dollarization, capital flight and official reserve accumulation exert downward pressure (a pressure unrelated to trade balances) on the exchange rate of peripheral currencies. The undervaluation of peripheral currencies, reflected in deteriorating terms of trade, translates into a loss of surplus to the core countries, and reduces the capacity of poor countries to import capital goods from the core. The resulting meager per capita fixed capital formation in the underdeveloped countries bodes grim prospects for the welfare of future generations of working people in the periphery. These trends are maintained by the insertion of millions of workers in Asian hinterlands into global production networks, and by the willingness of peripheral states governed by transnational élites to continue free trade and capital transactions policies, and to accumulate foreign exchange reserves. Africa’s poor populations await their turn to be drawn into the world labor market, to eke out a subsistence and produce a surplus, of which a large part will likely flow to the core.

In order to prevent the drift of the victims of globalizing capitalism to irrational reaction (religious or nationalist fanaticism, clash of civilizations etc.) and to focus their attention on the real issues, social scientists and activists should open to debate the social and economic consequences of the export-led growth idea, all the theories and policies that give precedence to global efficiency over national saving and investment, and the social psychology of consumerism. There is pressing need to promote socio-economic programs based on the principle of self-sufficient and self-reliant national development, wherein the people can decide through democratic procedures how they will dispose the social surplus they produce (how they will distribute it, how much they will save, invest, export) under less pressure from world markets dominated by transnational companies, and with less interefence from international institutions and core states. Within the framework of the capitalist world-system, there is little hope for solving the deep social contradictions the system reproduces. The solution, reason shows, lies outside the logic of the system.

Prisoner’s Dilemma. Thought of the Day 64.0

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A system suffering from Prisoner’s Dilemma cannot find the optimal solution because the individual driving forces go against the overall driving force. This is called Prisoner’s Dilemma based on the imaginary situation of two prisoners:

Imagine two criminals, named alphabetically A and B, being caught and put in separate prison cells. The police is trying to get confessions out of them. They know that if none will talk, they will both walk out of there for lack of evidence. So the police makes a proposal to each one: “We’ll make it worth your while. If you confess, and your colleague not, we give you 10 thousand euro and your colleague will get 50 years in prison. If you both confess you will each get 20 years in prison”. The decision table for these prisoners is like this:

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As you can see for yourself, the individual option for A, independent of what B decides to do, is confessing; moving from right column to left column, it is either reducing his sentence from 50 to 20 years, or instead of walking out of there even getting a fat bonus on top. The same applies to B, moving from bottom row to top row of the table. So, they wind up both confessing and getting 20 years in prison. That while it is obvious that the optimal situation is both not talking and walking out of prison scot-free (with the loot!). Because A and B cannot come to an agreement, but both optimize their own personal yield instead, they both get severely punished!

The Prisoner’s Dilemma applies to economy. If people in society cannot come to an agreement, but instead let everybody take decisions to optimize the situation for themselves (as in liberalism), they wind up with a non-optimal situation in which all the wealth is condensed on a single entity. This does not even have to be a person, but the capital itself. Nobody will get anything, beyond the alms granted by the system. In fact, the system will tend to reduce these alms – the minimum wages, or unemployment benefit – and will have all kinds of dogmatic justifications for them, but basically is a strategy of divide-and-conquer, inhibiting people to come to agreements, for instance by breaking the trade unions.

An example of a dogmatic reason is “lowering wages will make that more people get hired for work”. Lowering wages will make the distortion more severe. Nothing more. Moreover, as we have seen, work can be done without human labor. So if it is about competition, men will be cut out of the deal sooner or later. It is not about production. It is about who gets the rights to the consumption of the goods produced. That is also why it is important that people should unite, to come to an agreement where everybody benefits. Up to and including the richest of them all! It is better to have 1% of 1 million than 100% of 1 thousand. Imagine this final situation: All property in the world belongs to the final pan-global bank, with their headquarters in an offshore or fiscal paradise. They do not pay tax. The salaries (even of the bank managers) are minimal. So small that it is indeed not even worth it to call them salary.

Top-down Causation in Financial Markets. Note Quote.

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Regulators attempt to act on a financial market based on the intelligent and reasonable formulation of rules. For example, changing the market micro-structure at the lowest level in the hierarchy, can change the way that asset prices assimilate changes in information variables Zk,t or θi,m,t. Similarly, changes in accounting rules could change the meaning and behaviour of bottom-up information variables θi,m,t and changes in economic policy and policy implementation can change the meaning of top-down information variables Zk,t and influence shared risk factors rp,t.

In hierarchical analysis, theories and plans may be embodied in a symbolic system to build effective and robust models to be used for detecting deeper dependencies and emergent phenomena. Mechanisms for the transmission of information and asymmetric information information have impacts on market quality. Thus, Regulators can impact the activity and success of all the other actors, either directly or indirectly through knock-on effects. Examples include the following: Investor behaviour could change the goal selection of Traders; change in the latter could in turn impact variables coupled to Traders activity in such a way that Profiteers are able to benefit from change in liquidity or use leverage as a mean to achieve profit targets and overcome noise.

Idealistically, Regulators may aim for increasing productivity, managing inflation, reducing unemployment and eliminating malfeasance. However, the circumvention of rules, usually in the name of innovation or by claims of greater insight on optimality, is as much part of a complex system in which participants can respond to rules. Tax arbitrages are examples of actions which manipulate reporting to reduce levies paid to a profit- facilitating system. In regulatory arbitrage, rules may be followed technically, but nevertheless use relevant new information which has not been accounted for in system rules. Such activities are consistent with goals of profiteering but are not necessarily in agreement with longer term optimality of reliable and fair markets.

Rulers, i.e. agencies which control populations more generally, also impact markets and economies. Examples of top-down causation here include segregation of workers and differential assignment of economic rights to market participants, as in the evolution of local miners’ rights in the late 1800’s in South Africa and the national Native Land act of 1913 in South Africa, international agreements such as the Bretton Woods system, the Marshall plan of 1948, the lifting of the gold standard in 1973 and the regulation of capital allocations and capital flows between individual and aggregated participants. Ideas on target-based goal selection are already in circulation in the literature on applications of viability theory and stochastic control in economics. Such approaches provide alternatives to the Laplacian ideal of attaining perfect prediction by offering analysable future expectations to regulators and rulers.

How Permanent Income Hypothesis/Buffer Stock Model of Milton Friedman Got Nailed?

Milton Friedman and his gang at Chicago, including the ‘boys’ that went back and put their ‘free market’ wrecking ball through Chile under the butcher Pinochet, have really left a mess of confusion and lies behind in the hallowed halls of the academy, which in the 1970s seeped out, like slime, into the central banks and the treasury departments of the world. The overall intent of the literature they developed was to force governments to abandon so-called fiscal activism (the discretionary use of government spending and taxation policy to fine-tune total spending so as to achieve full employment), and, instead, empower central banks to disregard mass unemployment and fight inflation first. Wow!, Billy, these aren’t the usual contretemps and are wittily vitriolic. Several strands of their work – the Monetarist claim that aggregate policy should be reduced to a focus on the central bank controlling the money supply to control inflation (the market would deliver the rest (high employment and economic growth, etc); the promotion of a ‘natural rate of unemployment’ such that governments who tried to reduce the unemployment rate would only accelerate inflation; and the so-called Permanent Income Hypothesis (households ignored short-term movements in income when determining consumption spending), and others – were woven together to form a anti-government phalanx. Later, absurd notions such as rational expectations and real business cycles were added to the litany of Monetarist myths, which indoctrinated graduate students (who became policy makers) even further in the cause. Over time, his damaging legacy has been eroded by researchers and empirical facts but like all tight Groupthink communities the inner sanctum remain faithful and so the research findings haven’t permeated into major shifts in the academy. It will come – but these paradigm shifts take time.

Recently, another of Milton’s legacy bit the dust, thanks to a couple of Harvard economists, Peter Ganong and Pascal Noel, who with their paper “How does unemployment affect consumer spending?” smashed to smithereens the idea that households would not take consumption decisions with discretion, which the Chicagoan held to be a pivot of his active fiscal policy. Time traveling back to John Maynard Keynes, who outlined in his 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money a view that household consumption was dependent on disposable income, and, that in times of economic downturn, the government could stimulate employment and income growth using fiscal policy, which would boost consumption.

In Chapter 3 The Principle of Effective Demand, Keynes wrote:

When employment increases, aggregate real income is increased. The psychology of the community is such that when aggregate real income is increased aggregate consumption is increased, but not by so much as income …

The relationship between the community’s income and what it can be expected to spend on consumption, designated by D1, will depend on the psychological characteristic of the community, which we shall call its propensity to consume. That is to say, consumption will depend on the level of aggregate income and, therefore, on the level of employment N, except when there is some change in the propensity to consume.

Keynes later (in Chapter 6 The Definition of Income, Saving and Investment) considered factors that might influence the decision to consume and talked about “how much windfall gain or loss he is making on capital account”.

He elaborated further in Chapter 8 The Propensity to Consume … and wrote:

The amount that the community spends on consumption obviously depends (i) partly on the amount of its income, (ii) partly on the other objective attendant circumstances, and (iii) partly on the subjective needs and the psychological propensities and habits of the individuals composing it and the principles on which the income is divided between them (which may suffer modification as output is increased).

And concluded that:

1. An increase in the real wage (and hence real income at each employment level) will “change in the same proportion”.

2. A rise in the difference between income and net income will influence consumption spending.

3. “Windfall changes in capital-values not allowed for in calculating net income. These are of much more importance in modifying the propensity to consume, since they will bear no stable or regular relationship to the amount of income.” So, wealth changes will impact positively on consumption (up and down).

Later, as he was reflecting in Chapter 24 on the “Social Philosophy towards which the General Theory might lead” he wrote:

… therefore, the enlargement of the functions of government, involved in the task of adjusting to one another the propensity to consume and the inducement to invest, would seem to a nineteenth-century publicist or to a contemporary American financier to be a terrific encroachment on individualism, I defend it, on the contrary, both as the only practicable means of avoiding the destruction of existing economic forms in their entirety and as the condition of the successful functioning of individual initiative.

For if effective demand is deficient, not only is the public scandal of wasted resources intolerable, but the individual enterpriser who seeks to bring these resources into action is operating with the odds loaded against him …

It was thus clear – that active fiscal policy was the “only practicable means of avoiding the destruction” of recession brought about by shifts in consumption and/or investment. That view dominated macroeconomics for several decades.

Then in 1957, Milton Friedman advocated the idea of Permanent income hypothesis. The central idea of the permanent-income hypothesis, proposed by Milton Friedman in 1957, is simple: people base consumption on what they consider their “normal” income. In doing this, they attempt to maintain a fairly constant standard of living even though their incomes may vary considerably from month to month or from year to year. As a result, increases and decreases in income that people see as temporary have little effect on their consumption spending. The idea behind the permanent-income hypothesis is that consumption depends on what people expect to earn over a considerable period of time. As in the life-cycle hypothesis, people smooth out fluctuations in income so that they save during periods of unusually high income and dissave during periods of unusually low income. Thus, a pre-med student should have a higher level of consumption than a graduate student in history if both have the same current income. The pre-med student looks ahead to a much higher future income, and consumes accordingly.Both the permanent-income and life-cycle hypotheses loosen the relationship between consumption and income so that an exogenous change in investment may not have a constant multiplier effect. This is more clearly seen in the permanent-income hypothesis, which suggests that people will try to decide whether or not a change of income is temporary. If they decide that it is, it has a small effect on their spending. Only when they become convinced that it is permanent will consumption change by a sizable amount. As is the case with all economic theory, this theory does not describe any particular household, but only what happens on the average.The life-cycle hypothesis introduced assets into the consumption function, and thereby gave a role to the stock market. A rise in stock prices increases wealth and thus should increase consumption while a fall should reduce consumption. Hence, financial markets matter for consumption as well as for investment. The permanent-income hypothesis introduces lags into the consumption function. An increase in income should not immediately increase consumption spending by very much, but with time it should have a greater and greater effect. Behavior that introduces a lag into the relationship between income and consumption will generate the sort of momentum that business-cycle theories saw. A change in spending changes income, but people only slowly adjust to it. As they do, their extra spending changes income further. An initial increase in spending tends to have effects that take a long time to completely unfold. The existence of lags also makes government attempts to control the economy more difficult. A change of policy does not have its full effect immediately, but only gradually. By the time it has its full effect, the problem that it was designed to attack may have disappeared. Finally, though the life-cycle and permanent-income hypotheses have greatly increased our understanding of consumption behavior, data from the economy does not always fit theory as well as it should, which means they do not provide a complete explanation for consumption behavior.

The idea of a propensity to consume, which had been formalised in textbooks as the Marginal propensity to consume (MPC) – which described the extra consumption that would follow a $ of extra disposable income, was thrown out by Friedman.

The MPC concept – that households consume only a proportion of each extra $1 in disposable income received – formed the basis of the expenditure multiplier. Accordingly, if government deficit spending of, say $100 million, was introduced into a recessed economy, firms would respond by increasing output and incomes by that same amount $100 million. But the extra incomes paid out ($100 m) would stimulate ‘induced consumption’ spending equal to the MPC times $100m. If the MPC was, say, 0.80 (meaning 80 cents of each extra dollar received as disposable income would be spent) then the ‘second-round’ effect of the stimulus would be an additional $80 million in consumption spending (assuming that disposable and total income were the same – that is, assuming away the tax effect for simplicity). In turn, firms would respond and produce an additional $80 million in output and incomes, which would then create further induced consumption effects. Each additional increment, smaller than the last, because the MPC of 0.80 would mean some of the extra disposable income was being lost to saving. But it was argued that the higher the MPC, the greater the overall impact of the stimulus would be. Instead, Friedman claimed that consumption was not driven by current income (or changes in it) but, rather by expected permanent income.

Permanent income becomes an unobservable concept driven by expectations. It also leads to claims that households smooth out their consumption over their lifetimes even though current incomes can fluctuate. So when individuals are facing major declines in their current income – perhaps due to unemployment – they can borrow short-term to maintain the smooth pattern of spending and pay the credit back later, when their current income is in excess of some average expectation.

The idea led to a torrent of articles mostly mathematical in origin trying to formalise the notion of a permanent income. They were all the same – GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. An exercise in mathematical chess although in search of the wrong solution. But Friedman was not one to embrace interdependence. In the ‘free market’ tradition, all decision makers were rational and independent who sought to maximise their lifetime utility. Accordingly, they would borrow when young (to have more consumption than their current income would permit) and save over their lifetimes to compensate when they were old and without incomes. Consumption was strictly determined by this notion of a lifetime income.

Only some major event that altered that projection would lead to changes in consumption.

The Permanent Income Hypothesis is still a core component of the major DSGE macro models that central banks and other forecasting agencies deploy to make statements about the effectiveness of fiscal and monetary policy.

So it matters whether it is a valid theory or not. It is not just one of those academic contests that stoke or deflate egos but have very little consequence for the well-being of the people in general. The empirical world hasn’t been kind to Friedman across all his theories. But the Permanent Income Hypothesis, in particular, hasn’t done well in explaining the dynamics of consumption spending.

Getting back to the paper mentioned in the beginning, it finds deployment of a rich dataset arguing to point where the permanent income hypothesis of Friedman is nailed to the coffin. If the permanent income hypothesis was a good framework for understanding what happens to the consumption patterns of this cohort then we would expect a lot of smoothing going on and relatively stable consumption.

Individuals, according to Friedman, are meant to engage in “self-insurance” to insure against calamity like unemployment. The evidence is that they do not.

The researchers reject what they call the “buffer stock model” (which is a version of the permanent income hypothesis).

They find:

1. “Spending drops sharply at the onset of unemployment, and this drop is better explained by liquidity constraints than by a drop in permanent income or a drop in work-related expenses.”

2. “We find that spending on nondurable goods and services drops by $160 (6%) over the course of two months.”

3. “Consistent with liquidity constraints, we show that states with lower UI benefits have a larger drop in spending at onset.” In other words, the fiscal stimulus coming from the unemployment benefits attenuates the loss of earned income somewhat.

4. “As UI benefit exhaustion approaches, families who remain unemployed barely cut spending, but then cut spending by 11% in the month after benefits are exhausted.”

5. As it turns out the “When benefits are exhausted, the average family loses about $1,000 of monthly income … In the same month, spending drops by $260 (11%).”

6. They compare the “path of spending during unemployment in the data to three benchmark models and find that the buffer stock model fits better than a permanent income model or a hand-to-mouth model.”

The buffer stock model assumes that families smooth their consumption after an income shock by liquidating previous assets – “a key prediction of buffer stock models is that agents accumulate precautionary savings to self-insure against income risk.”

The researchers find that the:

the buffer stock model has two major failures – it predicts substantially more asset holdings at onset and it predicts that spending should be much smoother at benefit exhaustion.

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7. Finally, the researchers found “that families do relatively little self-insurance when unemployed as spending is quite sensitive to current monthly income.” Families “do not prepare for benefit exhaustion”.

Hyman Minsky, Karl Polanyi, Deleterious Markets and if there is any Alt-Right to them? Apparently No.

Karl Polanyi has often highlighted on the insight about the predicaments of the market. these perils realize that when the markets are left to their own devices, they are enough o cause attrition to the social relations and fabric. However, the social consequences of financial instability can be understood only by employing a Polanyian perspective on how processes of commodification and market expansion jeopardize social institutions. For someone like Hyman Minsky, equilibrium and stability are elusive conditions in markets with debt contracts. His financial instability hypothesis suggests that capitalist economies lead, through their own dynamics, to “the development over historical time of liability structures that cannot be validated by market-determined cash flows or asset values”. According to Minsky, a stable period generates optimistic expectations. Increased confidence and positive expectations of future income streams cause economic actors to decrease margins of safety in their investment decisions. This feeds a surge in economic activity and profits, which turns into a boom as investments are financed by higher degrees of indebtedness. As the economic boom matures, an increasing number of financial intermediaries and firms switch from hedge finance to speculative and Ponzi finance. Minsky argued that economists, misreading Keynes, downplay the role of financial institutions. In particular, he argued that financial innovation can create economic euphoria for a while before destabilizing the economy and hurling it into crises rivaling the Great Depression. Minsky’s insights are evident in the effects of innovations in mortgages and mortgage securities. Actors using speculative and Ponzi finance are vulnerable to macroeconomic volatility and interest rate fluctuations. A boom ends when movements in short-term and long-term interest rates render the liability structures of speculative and Ponzi finance unsustainable. The likelihood of a financial crisis (as opposed to a business cycle) depends on the preponderance of speculative and Ponzi finance in the economy under question.

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Minsky regularly criticized economists for failing to grasp Keynes’s ideas. In his book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy Minsky argued that while economists assimilated some of Keynes’s insights into standard economic theory, they failed to grasp the connection between the financial and real sectors. Specifically, he argued that finance is missing from macroeconomic theory, with its focus on capital structure, asset-liability management, agency theory, and contracts. He wrote:

Keynes’s theory revolves around bankers and businessmen making deals on Wall Street … One of the peculiarities of the neoclassical theory that preceded Keynes and the neoclassical synthesis that now predominates economic theory is that neither allows the activities that take place on Wall Street to have any significant impact upon the coordination or lack of coordination of the economy…

Minsky’s work on financial crises builds on Keynes’s insights, using terms such as “euphoric economy”, and “unrealistic euphoric expectations with respect to costs, markets, and their development over time”. Yet Minsky considered the issues of rational prices and market efficiency as only the tip of an iceberg. His broad framework addresses issues related to the lending practices by financial institutions, central bank policy, fiscal policy, the efficacy of financial market regulation, employment policy, and income distribution. Financial institutions, such as banks, become increasingly innovative in their use of financial products when the business cycle expands, boosting their leverage and funding projects with ever increasing risk. Minsky’s words on financial innovation are striking, as if foretelling the recent crisis.

Over an expansion, new financial instruments and new ways of financing activity develop. Typically, defects of the new ways and the new institutions are revealed when the crunch comes.

Commercial banks sponsored conduits to finance long-term assets through special purpose entities such as structured investment vehicles (SIVs), something similar to the Indian version of Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs). These were off balance sheet entities, subjecting them to lower regulatory capital requirements. Special purpose entities used commercial paper to raise funds they then used to buy mortgages and mortgage securities. In effect, banks relied on Minsky-type speculative and Ponzi financing, borrowing short-term and using these borrowed funds to buy long-term assets. Wrote Minsky,

The standard analysis of banking has led to a game that is played by central banks, henceforth to be called the authorities, and profit-seeking banks. In this game, the authorities impose interest rates and reserve regulations and operate in money markets to get what they consider to be the right amount of money, and the banks invent and innovate in order to circumvent the authorities. The authorities may constrain the rate of growth of the reserve base, but the banking and financial structure determines the efficacy of reserves…This is an unfair game. The entrepreneurs of the banking community have much more at stake than the bureaucrats of the central banks. In the postwar period, the initiative has been with the banking community, and the authorities have been “surprised” by changes in the way financial markets operate. The profit-seeking bankers almost always win their game with the authorities, but, in winning, the banking community destabilizes the economy; the true losers are those who are hurt by unemployment and inflation.

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Combining Hyman Minsky’s insights on financial fragility with a Polanyian focus on commodification offers a distinct perspective on the causes and consequences of the foreclosure crisis. First, following Polanyi, we should expect to find commodity fiction applied to arenas of social life previously isolated from markets to be at the heart of the recent financial crisis. Second, following Minsky, the transformations caused by novel uses of commodity fiction should be among the primary causes of financial fragility. Finally, in line with a Polanyian focus on the effects of supply-demand-price mechanism, the price fluctuations caused by financial fragility should disrupt existing social relations and institutions in a significant manner. So, how does this all peter down to alt-right? Right-wing libertarianism is basically impossible. The “free” market as we know it today needs the state to be implemented – without reading Polanyi, you just know for example that without the force of the state, you just can’t have private property or all the legal arrangements that underpin property, labour and money. So it wouldn’t work anyway. Polanyi’s point is that if we want democracy to survive, we need to beware of financial overlords and their ideological allies peddling free-market utopias. And if democracy even stinks of stability, then stability is destabilizing as Minsky would have had it, thus corroborating the cross-purposes between the two thinkers in question, at least to the point of a beginning.