For too long, capitalism has been going mad.
Getting back to the plot will require more than piecemeal reform: what we need is a Reformation.
The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) today kept its oil-demand forecast broadly unchanged – but additionally warned of weakening demand amid signs of an economic slowdown in industrialised nations.
At the same time, although there have been myriad distractions of late, Gold is quietly returning to its stepped bull status: over the last fortnight there have been sales periods, but as I write it is sitting quite nicely just below $1260.
These commodities – oil and gold – remain two of the most important clues to use as signposts to the future: the first reflects falling industrial demand, the second a flight to safety. Transportation measures like the Baltic Index are another – as are the yield-prices on government bonds….the fancy name for debt accrued by countries who are no good at housekeeping. So when countries are in bad shape and the risk of lending to them is higher, yields to the lender will be higher. And if the whole world seems to be going broke, they will be higher still.
Connected to this, the final Big Questions in my lexicon of clues (I’m not a sophisticated investor) are (a) is the gdp and trade profit of those debtor nations looking healthy and (b) are their public finances in good order?
Pretty much everywhere around the globe at the minute, all these signs are going the wrong way: oil is falling in price, gold is rising, the Baltic index is flatlining, bond yields throughout the EU are high – and getting higher in the US, all the major Western blocs have huge trade gaps, and almost all of them have government debt running at historically stratospheric levels.
Frankly, the last thing anyone not mentally disturbed would do given those signs is to invest in the Stock Markets; for the Bourses of the world are only worth getting into if (1) there are solid reasons to expect extended growth (2) there are very clear signs it has reached the bottom, and (3) there are data in a consistent series suggesting genuine recovery.
But all the major stock markets are up today. They’re up today because they were down yesterday. They were down yesterday because they were up the day before that. And with every tiny statistic or statement (for example, Nick Clegg today saying the UK’s recovery will be “a rough ride”) these and currency markets will carry on going up-down-up-down like a hooker’s underwear.
I exaggerate slightly – but only slightly. We are heading for a catastrophe here, and traders everywhere are falling upon useless tit-bits of gossip like so many braindead wolves. The best analogy would be thousands of folks milling around a weather forecast, while a huge asteroid was about to plough into the Earth.
This is why I am so strongly opposed to bourses as the majority way of raising finance for capitalism. They are too mercurial, eccentric and neurotic to be reliable. And in the 21st century world of 24/7 information from all directions, their neurosis can degrade into psychosis at any moment.
After the Second World War, national and local banks were called upon to rescue the defeated nations, Japan and Germany. They did a remarkable job – because they were patriotic, and focused. There were no dumb distractions like default swaps and mortgage derivatives. They did the job banks were designed to do: maximise property ownership, bankroll democracy, and take risks on new industry. From the last of these came Sony, Honda, BMW, VW and a host of other hugely successful forms of exported craftsmanship.
Today, banks don’t do this very much; some banking firms don’t do it at all. They bankroll mega-mergers where the only risk is losing the bid….and thus only being able to charge enormous fees, as opposed to obscene costs and commissions. They extend debt to sovereign States already in way over their heads. And they sell each other idiotic pieces of paper that are of use to neither man nor beast – aka, the pond life who represent their shareholders. But when they’re all done doing that, there’s just no money for backing new, entrepreneurial concerns.
One of these pointless paper-trails is called The Derivative.
A derivative is a piece of paper relative to what the value of something might be in the future. It is a betting slip. Beginning life as an entirely sensible form of hedge (an each-way bet, if you like) by the mid 1990s derivatives had begun to emerge as almost a form of currency. Today, they are treated by many as if they might be $1000 bills. Unfortunately, they might also be worth less than a sheet of toilet tissue….in that unlike toilet tissue, they aren’t even effective as a way to clean your backside.
The total value of derivatives being traded today is six times the value of the global economy. Compared to derivatives, mediaeval Dutch Tulip bulbs and the English South Sea Bubble were gold-plated, index-linked civil service pensions.
Derivatives are also used as collateral. Yes, this may strike you as stark-staring mad – potential gambling debts being used to guarantee further debts – but trust me, they are. So much so in fact, that at six times the value of global gdp, dealing in the derivatives sector is akin to playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber: your chances of coming through the experience alive are slim indeed.
The FT’s sage Martin Wolf wrote to me years ago saying ‘investing in something you don’t understand is a mug’s game’. Over the last decade, all over the planet banks, governments, town halls, countries, individuals, mutuals and pension funds have invested in derivatives about which they knew less than nothing.
Such paper is sometimes referred to as ‘notional money’. When huge losses are made investing in notional money, it’s uncanny how the banks that issued it always want real money in recompense. Picking over the corpse that is Lehman Brothers, the auditors too are making real money from a collapse caused by notional money….and the withholding of real money by firms who sold them sub-prime notional money. Iglgle-biggle-burble-booble-oggle-uurghll.
Stock markets, remote shareholders, globalised banks and derivatives are all part of a system meant to capitalise healthy service and manufacturing businesses. What I’ve tried to show in this essay is that they are not just slightly askew – they are almost wholly dysfunctional.
Some of our leaders since 2008 have been calling from reform. Little or none has materialised. But we don’t need reform: we need a Reformation. We need a fresh start completely removed from the Bedlam wherein multi-million dollar bonuses are paid to people who have contributed nothing, zilch and zero to the Common Good.
We need to deglobalise banking and business. To switch taxation systems away from income and towards socio-commercial behaviour. We need to rediscover families, communities, risk, due reward, respect, personal responsibility, ethics and duty in the contxt of commerce. And above all, we need to rediscover what is still the best aim for any culture – that of Jeremy Bentham: the greatest happiness of the greatest number.