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Posts Tagged ‘financial crisis

Making sense of India’s credit rating palpitations

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The financial media in India and the mainstream English newspapers are sparing no effort to announce their alarm over the feint by a credit rating agency, Standard and Poor’s, to lower India’s sovereign credit rating. Standard and Poor’s (no, I don’t like the ampersand) is one of the three large agencies which the movers of global capital rely on to tell them where to move illusory money, the other two being Moody’s and Fitch.

As you can see from the tone and tenor of India’s craven business press – all of which are beholden to the country’s big corporations (cross-holdings are common) and which cheer every new sally in the direction of share bazaar capitalism made by the Ministry of Finance and Department of Commerce – their writers and columnists, their reporters and correspondents seem immobilised by rating fear.

The Business Standard reported: Global rating agency Standard & Poor’s on Monday cautioned India might become the first BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) country to lose its investment-grade rating, unless growth issues were addressed immediately. The credit rating agency cited slowing GDP growth and political roadblocks in economic policy making as some of the factors that could lead to such an action.

The Mint commented: Some economists questioned the content and timing of the S&P report, titled Will India Be The First BRIC Fallen Angel?, which came some two months after the credit assessor lowered the outlook on India’s BBB- rating to “negative” from “stable”. The release of the report on Monday triggered a fall in the rupee and caused the benchmark index of BSE to slump. India was upgraded to investment grade in 2007. “In our view, setbacks or reversals in India’s path toward a more liberal economy could hurt its long-term growth prospects and, thus, its credit quality,” S&P analysts Joydeep Mukherji and Takahira Ogawa wrote in the research report dated 8 June.

The Economic Times commented: In an unusually direct reference to what it perceives to be poor quality of the nation’s political leadership, S&P has expressed concerns that ballooning government expenses, widening trade deficit and political vacuum could lead to protectionist policies. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom the agency described as “unelected”, a reference to Singh’s membership of the Rajya Sabha, is battling more with party colleagues over policy than with cantankerous allies often blamed for policy paralysis, the rating agency said. It fears that government policies, which in some instances are aimed to benefit what the report refers to as “politically well-connected firms”, could result in a populist backlash against liberal economic policies. Heightened populism to counter the political fallout of corruption scandals could slow economic growth further, and weaken the already-battered fiscal position.

What do the credit rating agencies do for India? What do these three (and their counterparts in India) have remotely to do with the lives and well-being of the 800 million rural Indians (there are 355 districts whose populations are over a million), or the urban poor in India’s 53 million-plus cities? They are among the tools with which ‘reform’ is grafted onto a country in order to further immiserate the poor and annex natural resources for a global upper middle class whose ranks are being swelled by India’s new rich. They are among the staunchest advocates of ‘austerity’ in the belief (backed by kilogrammes of elegantly designed working papers from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and yes the Asian Development Bank too) that such measures revive investor confidence. Credit rating agencies are the canaries of this intangible called investor confidence, and it ought to be seen as an intolerable affront to India that our people and our myriad economies are to be encapsulated – absurdly and so irrelevant – by the meaningless equations of Standard and Poor’s and its cousins.

“It is a hallmark of the crisis, that every effort the government makes to end it, within “neo-liberal” framework, will only succeed in worsening it,” said Prabhat Patnaik in ‘The End of the “Shine”‘ (People’s Democracy, 10 June 2012). The role of these agencies is to legitimise the enticement of finance back into an economy to keep its bubble spherical. Hence the worried tones of India’s business press, because far more worrying to them (as it is to the 5% of urban Indians who are the audience for this media, who control the flows of money and commodities and who exercise political power) is the spectre of a collapsed bubble being beyond recovery. That is why, every effort on the part of the government to tighten monetary policy in the belief that this would curb inflation and revive ‘investor confidence’ (currently viewed by the ruling alliance with more reverence than it accords to India’s Constitution) will hasten the economy’s downturn.

These are not uncoordinated gambits. In the latest issue of the IMF’s journal, Finance and Development, an article has discussed how “the relatively low-hanging fruit has been picked, and the harder, more exacting, job of addressing tougher problems lies ahead”. (The language sounds neutral but is loaded with violence.) The article goes on to outline an incomplete reform list: “identifying and building tools — still in the early stages of development — to mitigate systemic risk; improving the ability of the authorities to deal with the aftermath if the tools designed to prevent systemic events fail; and providing a framework for financial intermediation (the transfer of savings to investments) to assist in strong and stable economic growth, without overly prescriptive regulation.”

The IMF likes credit rating agencies; they are invaluable for the Fund’s agenda. Their work allows borrowers “to access global and domestic markets and attract investment funds, thereby adding liquidity to markets that would otherwise be illiquid”. The IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report 2010 (Chapter 3), ‘Sovereigns, Funding and Systemic Liquidity’ (2010 October), had said that these ratings “influence market prices, and that downgrades through the investment-grade barrier trigger market reactions… shows that their market impact is associated not only with new information, but also with a ‘certification’ role, though this is most evident through their use of ‘outlooks’, ‘reviews’, and ‘watches’ (pre-rating change warnings) rather than actual rating changes”.

Not content with the sophistication of the regime denoted by the alphabetic identifiers such as AAA, AA or BBB  and the pluses and minuses appended thereunto or removed therefrom – or more likely anticipating that the means used to ‘tend’ bubbles by the agencies was as likely to be used as political ammunition as it was to be cunningly exploited by the commodity traders and their money market partners – India’s Ministry of Finance this year developed an index of relative ratings of sovereigns. This it has called the Comparative Rating Index of Sovereigns. What will such an index serve? “Given that existing ratings do not give an idea of the inter se rankings of various economies with respect to the performance of the others, this index addresses an important conceptual lacuna,” the paper has explained. “The results reveal major changes in relative ratings of various countries, driven largely by the rapid downgrades of some European economies following the global financial crisis.”

And so we have the ‘Comparative Rating Index for Sovereigns (CRIS): A Report Based on “The Relativity of Sovereigns: A New Index of Sovereign Credit Ratings and an Analysis of How Nations Fared over the Last Six Years’ (2012 March). This is the ‘let’s pat ourselves on the back regardless of what the rating agencies say’ argument, and it is a sorry effort to lend an ephemeral shine to the old India Shining metaphor (insubstantial as that was, overused as it came to be). That is why the outcome of this indigenised index is that “India’s Comparative Rating Index for Sovereigns has improved over the six years from 2007 to 2012 by about 2.98% while its rank moved up from 61st to 55th… The US has gone from the top of the chart to the 13th position though it still improved its CRIS score by 2.12%… Some of the largest falls were among European economies and Japan. Greece fell by 71 positions, Ireland 68, Iceland 61, Portugal, 53, Spain 36 and Japan 21. BRICS economies show continuous improvement and the global financial crisis does not seem to have impacted them adversely in terms of CRIS scores”.

A counter index to nullify the unattractiveness of the credit ratings own indices – ratings that are meaningless to Bharat and its people. If we needed more evidence that our major ministries are populated by lotus-eaters – as is the Planning Commission and its opulent toilets – this is it.

The EU crisis pocket guide

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The Transnational Institute has produced a terrific pocket guide on the financial crisis in the European Union, called, not surprisingly, ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’. It’s a very handy alternative to reading about 257,000 words of confusing and jargon-heavy tripe authoritative commentary written by hopelessly compromised economist-blokes commentators and observers of the financial scene.

‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ tells you, as straight as a punch to the chin, how a crisis made in Wall Street was made worse by EU policies, how it has enriched the 1% to the detriment of the 99%. It doesn’t stop at that – quite unlike the boring and largely clueless economist blokes who take great delight in pointing out a problem but have little to say about how to solve it, keeping the 99% in mind.

In keeping with the civilised socialist tendency therefore, ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ outlines some possible solutions that prioritise people and the environment above corporate profits.

You are well encouraged to download the booklet from these links:
Pocket guide: 12 page (PDF, 403KB) or Pocket guide: 8 page (PDF, 399KB)

What ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ contains: How a private debt crisis was turned into a public debt crisis and an excuse for austerity; The way the rich and bankers benefited while the vast majority lost out; The devastating social consequences of austerity; The European Union’s response to the crisis: more austerity, more privatisation, less democracy; Ten alternatives put forward by civil society groups to put people and the environment before corporate greed; Resources for further information.

I am much obliged to the peerless Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal for calling our attention to this absolute gem of a guidebook. Links, if you didn’t already know, promotes the exchange of information, experience of struggle, theoretical analysis and views of political strategy and tactics within the international left. You are well advised to read it regularly.

Here are some of the eye-openers from this Pocket Guide, things we suspected but which the dibbly-dobbly economist blokes and their corporate sponsors never admitted:

Much of the so-called debt crisis was caused not by states spending too much, but because they bailed out the banks and speculators. European Union government debt had actually fallen from 72% of GDP in 1999 to 67% in 2007. It rose rapidly after they bailed out the banks in 2008. Ireland’s bank bailout cost them 30% of their national output (GDP) and pushed debts to record levels.

As austerity cuts swept Europe, the numbers of the wealthy in Europe with more than $1 million in cash actually rose in 2010 by 7.2% to 3.1 million people. Together they are worth US$10.2 trillion. The five biggest banks in Europe made profits of €28 billion in 2010. There are 15,000 professional lobbyists in Brussels, the vast majority of them representing big business.

European Union’s answers to the problem? More austerity. In the UK, 490,000 public sector jobs are being cut; in Ireland, wages for low paid workers have been reduced; in Lithuania the government plans to cut public spending by 30%. The EU is planning to impose requirements by 2013 that means that no European member state countries can have a budget deficit of more than 3% of GDP or a public debt of more than 60% of GDP which will mean even more austerity.

Alternatives from the 99% – Clearly, there is a strong need to break with the dangerous free market fundamentalism that has created and worsened a social crisis of vast proportions. Here are some proposals for alternatives – put forward by many civil society groups – that could create a fairer and more just world.

Joining the dots between economics, income, health and poverty

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The concerns about recession and its impacts on poverty are seen commonly as a question mark over household incomes, over food security and often involve debates about social protection. An aspect that all too often gets ignored in this equation – no doubt because of its complexity – is health and in particular the health of women and children.

Changes in neonatal mortality rates between 1990 and 2009. The map illustrates the change in NMR between the years 1990 and 2009 for each of the 193 countries estimated. PLoS Medicine 8(8): e1001080

This is linked very closely to poverty, however we measure it, and the conditions that either cause poverty to persist (leading to chronic poverty) or cause households at risk to lapse into poverty every now and then (shock). The human development index methodolgy, which is from this year using multi-dimensional indices for poverty for the first time, helps us link health, poverty, income and economic growth (or its opposite).

The question is: is this new understanding, which is more in tune with the way households actually carry on with their lives and are actually affected by wider trends concerning economy, helping integrate the connections? If there is one good reason to ask this question, it is the new study on ‘Neonatal Mortality Levels for 193 Countries in 2009 with Trends since 1990: A Systematic Analysis of Progress, Projections, and Priorities’.

[The World Health Organization (WHO) has a report and summary of the study on this page – ‘Newborn deaths decrease but account for higher share of global child deaths’]
[The full study is available on PLoS Medicine, 1 August 2011 (Volume 8, Issue 8)]

This has shown that every year, more than 8 million children die before their fifth birthday. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries and most are caused by preventable or treatable diseases. In 2000, world leaders set a target of reducing child mortality to one-third of its 1990 level by 2015 as Millennium Development Goal 4 (MDG4). This goal, together with seven others, is designed to help improve the social, economic, and health conditions in the world’s poorest countries. In recent years, progress towards reducing child mortality has accelerated but remains insufficient to achieve MDG4.

“In particular, progress towards reducing neonatal deaths – deaths during the first 28 days of life – has been slow and neonatal deaths now account for a greater proportion of global child deaths than in 1990. Currently, nearly 41% of all deaths among children under the age of 5 years occur during the neonatal period. The major causes of neonatal deaths are complications of preterm delivery, breathing problems during or after delivery (birth asphyxia), and infections of the blood (sepsis) and lungs (pneumonia). Simple interventions such as improved hygiene at birth and advice on breastfeeding can substantially reduce neonatal deaths.”

Neonatal mortality rates in 2009. The map illustrates the NMR in year 2009 for each of the 193 countries estimated. PLoS Medicine 8(8): e1001080

The researchers used civil registration systems, household surveys, and other sources to compile a database of deaths among neonates and children under 5 years old for 193 countries between 1990 and 2009. They estimated NMRs for 38 countries from reliable vital registration data and developed a statistical model to estimate NMRs for the remaining 155 countries (in which 92% of global live births occurred).

They found that in 2009, 3.3 million babies died during their first month of life compared to 4.6 million in 1990. More than half the neonatal deaths in 2009 occurred in five countries – India, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. India had the largest number of neonatal deaths throughout the study. Between 1990 and 2009, although the global NMR decreased from 33.2 to 23.9 deaths per 1,000 live births (a decrease of 28%), NMRs increased in eight countries, five of which were in Africa. Moreover, in Africa as a whole, the NMR only decreased by 17.6%, from 43.6 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 35.9 per 1,000 live births in 2009.

To return to my question concerning the understanding of economics, income, health and poverty, does most current analysis see to integrate these elements, or is it still GDP-income driven? A new (2011 May) paper released by the Brookings Institution indicates that the GDP-income route is still favoured. The paper, ‘Two Trends in Global Poverty’, Geoffrey Gertz and Laurence Chandy, has said that while the overall prevalence of poverty is in retreat, the global poverty landscape is changing. “This transformation is captured by two distinct trends: poor people are increasingly found in middle-income countries and in fragile states. Both trends – and their intersection – present important new questions for how the international community tackles global poverty reduction.”

The two charts show the trajectory of 20 developing countries along three dimensions: number of poor people, degree of fragility and real income per capita. These 20 countries collectively account for 90 percent of the world’s poor in 2005, and thus largely define the evolving state of global poverty. Graphic: Brookings Institution

“The increased prevalence of poverty in middle-income countries is in many ways a trend of success. Over the past decade, the number of countries classified as low-income has fallen by two fifths, from 66 to 40, while the number of middle-income countries has ballooned to over 100. This means 26 poor countries have grown sufficiently rich to surpass the middle-income threshold. Among those countries that have recently made the leap into middle-income status are a group of countries  -  India, Nigeria and Pakistan  – containing large populations of poor people. It  is their “graduation” which has brought about the apparent shift in poverty from the low-income to middle-income country category.”

This categorisation of middle, low and high income was to an extent useful in the 1970s, when the idea of a human development index was being discussed, but we’ve come a long way since. We know that even in smaller countries (rather, countries with populations that are relatively small compared to those whic bear the sort of burdens studied in the PLoS Medicine research) there is a great deal of income disparity. ‘Income’ itself is a condition with a bewildering number of inputs – social science is quite inadequate to the task of being able to recognise all of these, let alone quantify them and rationalise them across countries and regions – which is exactly what studies like this try to do unfortunately.

“In 2005, when more than half the world’s poor lived in such countries, it made some sense to think about fighting poverty in terms of a single developing country paradigm, based on what worked in countries such as Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique or Vietnam,” Gertz and Chandy have said. “This logic was evident in two of the major events of that year which continue to shape today’s development agenda: the G8 meeting at Gleneagles and the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Paris. It was also apparent in Jeffrey Sachs’ influential 2005 best-seller, ‘The End of Poverty’. The legacy of these ideas is scattered throughout the work of the international development community in the design of traditional aid instruments and the standard methods of country engagement.”

The authors of the Brookings paper have said that this approach remains relevant for some countries, but with 90 percent of the world’s poor living in different settings today, its broader application can no longer be justified. Yet they have found that such an admission poses a dilemma. The dilemma exists because one of the reasons the stable low-income paradigm has persisted is because it characterizes an environment in which the international development community feels most comfortable and has the most experience. “The role of external actors in supporting poverty reduction in stable low-income countries is well understood and the standard tools of external assistance – financial and technical assistance – are well suited to them.”

Maplecroft's 2011 food security risk index

What does this mean? Does it give us a hitherto obscured insight into the inner world of aid agencies and international development departments and how they see ‘poor’ countries’ populations? Does it mean that we are burdened with three decades worth of simplistic labelling of populations at risk simply because labelling them any other way makes it difficult to help them? That’s what it looks like to me and I’d like to thank Gertz and Chandy for revealing this. But it’s way past high time this sort of categorisation was ditched, once and for all. It would do us and the battalions of development professionals a huge amount of good to simply be able to say, every so often, “we don’t know enough”.

It is worth being honest about the state of our knowledge concerning the lives of the the majority of households in ‘developing’ countries. Some of the reasons why such honesty will help in the long term are contained in a thoughtful new publication from the World Bank (whose army of development professionals will benefit from its reading). This collection is entitled ‘No Small Matter: The Impact of Poverty, Shocks, and Human Capital Investments in Early Childhood Development’ (The World Bank, 2011) and it has said that, as the 2008 global financial crisis has again demonstrated, economic crises are an unfortunate recurring event in the world and can have severe consequences for household livelihoods.

Progress in key health indicators, UN Human Development Report 2010

‘No Small Matter’ defines economic crises as sharp, negative fluctuations in aggregate income, these being especially common in developing countries, and the frequency with which they occur has been increasing in recent history. We know that declines in household and community resources are not the only risks that arise from an economic crisis because of its aggregate nature. We also know – from fieldwork and by hearing those whom we would wish to help – that at the same time as households cope with the possibility of reduced income from aggregate economic contractions, vital public services may also experience a decline in quality or availability, which in turn may have an additional impact on skill development among children. This is happening now, in more countries than ever before. The economic crisis that hit Latin America in 1982 led to a decrease in public health spending and had a disproportionate effect on the poorest groups. In 2011, the decrease in public health spending exists in many more countries.

A chapter in ‘No Small Matter’, ‘The Influence of Economic Crisis on Early Childhood Development: A Review of Pathways and Measured Impact’, by Jed Friedman and Jennifer Sturdy, is particularly useful.

This has said that “conservative estimates suggest that over 200 million children under five years of age living in developing countries fail to reach their cognitive development potential because of a range of factors, including poverty, poor health and nutrition, and lack of stimulation in home environments”. It is possible, the chapter’s authors have said, that this burden increases during times of crisis as poverty increases and food security is threatened. However, to investigate this claim more carefully it is necessary to understand the pathways through which poverty influences skill acquisition in children.

“The most severe condition affecting ECD (Early Childhood Development) is infant and early child mortality. Sharp economic downturns were associated with increases in infant mortality in Mexico, Peru and India. The mortality of children born to rural and less educated women is more sensitive to economic shocks, which suggests that the poor are disproportionately affected during most economic crises, and perhaps the poor face important credit constraints that bind in tragic ways during large contractions.

Weak relationship between economic growth and changes in health and education, UN Human Development Report 2010

The mortality of girls is also significantly more sensitive to aggregate economic shocks than that of boys. This gender differential exists even in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa that are not particularly known for son preference and indicates a behavioral dimension where households conserve resources to better protect young sons at the expense of daughters.”

Finally, a further note about the extremely valuable PLoS Medicine study ‘Neonatal Mortality Levels for 193 Countries in 2009 with Trends since 1990: A Systematic Analysis of Progress, Projections, and Priorities’. The authors are: Mikkel Zahle Oestergaard1, Mie Inoue1, Sachiyo Yoshida, Wahyu Retno Mahanani, Fiona M. Gore1, Simon Cousens, Joy E. Lawn and Colin Douglas Mathers (on behalf of the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation and the Child Health Epidemiology Reference Group – World Health Organization, Department of Health Statistics and Informatics; World Health Organization, Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development; London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; Saving Newborn Lives/Save the Children).

Children of poor households are more likely to die, UN Human Development Report 2010

The study found that of the 40 countries with the highest NMRs in 2009, only six are from outside the African continent (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Cambodia). Among the 15 countries with the highest NMRs (all above 39), 12 were from the African region (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Central African Republic, Burundi, Angola, Mauritania, Mozambique, Guinea, and Equatorial Guinea), and three were from the Eastern Mediterranean (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan). Throughout the period 1990–2009, India has been the country with largest number of neonatal deaths. In 2009, the five countries with most deaths accounted for more than half of all neonatal deaths (1.7 million deaths = 52%), and 44% of global livebirths: India (27.8% of deaths, 19.6% of global livebirths), Nigeria (7.2%, 4.5%), Pakistan (6.9%, 4.0%), China (6.4%, 13.4%), and Democratic Republic of the Congo (4.6%, 2.1%). The top five contributors to the 4.6 million neonatal deaths in 1990 were: India (29.5% of deaths, 19.8% of global livebirths), China (12.3%, 18.0%), Pakistan (5.4%, 3.4%), Bangladesh (5.0%, 2.9%), and Nigeria (4.8%, 3.3%).

As the risk of children dying before the age of five has fallen, the proportion of child deaths that occur in the neonatal period has increased. This increase is primarily a consequence of decreasing non-neonatal mortality in children under five from infectious diseases such as measles, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and AIDS. Globally, 41% of under-five deaths now occur in the neonatal period. Over the 20 y between 1990 and 2009, the proportion of global neonatal deaths that occurred in Africa increased. Although Africa is now the region with the highest NMR, the proportion of under-five child deaths that are neonatal remains relatively low in Africa—the fraction increased from 26% to 29% between 1990 and 2009. This apparent anomaly reflects the fact that Africa accounts for approximately 90% of child deaths due to malaria (0.7 million under-five deaths) and HIV/AIDS (0.2 million under-five deaths), resulting in relatively higher post-neonatal child mortality than other regions.

Economics is not physics

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From ‘India and the Global Financial Crisis What Have We Learnt?’, by Dr Duvvuri Subbarao, Governor, Reserve Bank of India, as the K R Narayanan Oration, at the South Asia Research Centre of the Australian National University, Canberra on June 23, 2011.

A few months into the crisis [the 2008-09 financial crisis], the Queen happened to be at the London School of Economics and asked a perfectly sensible question: ‘how come none of the economists saw the crisis coming’. The Queen’s question resonated with people around the world who felt that they had been let down by economics and economists. As economists saw their profession discredited and their reputations dented, the economic crisis soon turned into a crisis in economics.

What went wrong with economics? It now seems that by far the most egregious fault of economics, one that led it astray, has been to project it like an exact science. The charge is that economists suffered from ‘physics envy’ which led them to formulate elegant theories and models – using sophisticated mathematics with impressive quantitative finesse -  deluding themselves and the world at large that their models have more exactitude than they actually did.

Admittedly, in a limited sense there may be some parallels between economics and physics. But similarity in a few laws does not mean similarity in the basic nature of the academic discipline. The fundamental difference between physics and economics is that physics deals with the physical universe which is governed by immutable laws, beyond the pale of human behaviour. Economics, in contrast, is a social science whose laws are influenced by human behaviour. Simply put, I cannot change the mass of an electron no matter how I behave but I can change the price of a derivative by my behaviour.

The laws of physics are universal in space and time. The laws of economics are very much a function of the context. Going back to the earlier example, the mass of an electron does not change whether we are in the world of Newton or of Einstein. But in the world of economics, how firms, households and governments behave is altered by the reigning economic ideology of the time. To give another example, there is nothing absolute, for example, about savings being equal to investment or supply equalling demand as maintained by classical economics but there is something absolute about energy lost being equal to energy gained as enunciated by classical physics.

In natural sciences, progress is a two way street. It can run from empirical findings to theory or the other way round. The famous Michelson-Morley experiment that found that the velocity of light is constant led to the theory of relativity – an example of progression from practice to theory. In the reverse direction, the ferocious search now under way for the Higgs Boson – the God particle – which has been predicted by quantum theory is an example of traversing from theory to practice. In economics, on the other hand, where the human dimension is paramount, the progression has necessarily to be one way, from empirical finding to theory. There is a joke that if something works in practice, economists run to see if it works in theory. Actually, I don’t see the joke; that is indeed the way it should be.

Karl Popper, by far the most influential philosopher of science of the twentieth century, propounded that a good theory is one that gives rise to falsifiable hypotheses. By this measure, Einstein’s General Theory was a good theory as it led to the hypothesis about the curvature of space under the force of gravity which indeed was verified by scientists from observations made during a solar eclipse from the West African islands of Sao Tome and Principe. Economics on the other hand cannot stand the scrutiny of the falsifiable hypothesis test since empirical results in economics are a function of the context.

The short point is that economics cannot lay claim to the immutability, universality, precision and exactitude of physics. Take the recent financial crisis. It is not as if no one saw the pressures building up. There were a respectable number of economists who warned of the perilous consequences of the build-up of global imbalances, said that this was simply unsustainable and predicted a currency collapse. In the event, we did have the system imploding but not as a currency collapse but as a melt down of the financial system.

We will be better able to safeguard financial stability both at global and national levels if we remember that economics is a social science and real world outcomes are influenced at a fundamental level by human behaviour.

[The entire oration is here.]

The mad reign of the killer bankers

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Pretty charts by the IMF which make no sense to the newly impoverished in developing countries. After three years of G20 meetings to produce a new 'global harmony', the system is still intact: a mixture of deregulation, princely rewards for the brains behind 'financial innovations' and destruction paid for by state and taxpayer.

In the 2011 May issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, the comment ‘Immune and all-powerful’ by vetern observer of 20th century absurdity, Serge Halimi, is short, blunt and a new indictment of the global financial mafia. This mafia is represented on governments by its criminals-in-chief: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and J P Morgan. There are more such criminals-in-chief of course, and some are regional (in Russia, China, India, Brazil) as they preside over the movements of capital and the passing of legislation to disempower, impoverish and enslave tens of millions around the developing world.

It is in the interests of these folk, the humble wage earners in field and in the slums, that Halimi has written this cameo. He has pointed out that the International Monetary Fund has just admitted that “nearly four years after the start of the global financial crisis, confidence in the stability of the banking system as a whole has yet to be fully restored”. He then quotes US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke who described it as “the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression” but has reminded us that no-one in the US (or in its client and comprador countries for that matter) has been charged with any crime. [Bernanke was quoted by Jeff Madrick in “The Wall Street Leviathan”, The New York Review of Books, New York, 28 April 2011.]

Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and J P Morgan all stood to gain by the collapse of the high-risk investments they warmly recommended to their clients. They got off with a fine at worst; more often they got a bonus. In fact Halimi is needlessly polite, for the criminals-in-chief have not only got off with bonuses, they have continued to be permitted to ply their destructive trade in developing countries and in the commodity trading arenas.

Eight hundred bankers were prosecuted and jailed after the fraud-related US Savings and Loans failures in the late 1980s, said Halimi. “Now the power of the banks, increased and concentrated by restructuring, is so great that they seem immune to prosecution in any state impeded by public debt. Future White House candidates, including Barack Obama, are already begging Goldman Sachs to fund their election campaigns; the head of BNP Paribas has threatened European governments with a credit squeeze if they make any serious attempt to regulate the banks; Standard & Poor’s, the agency that awarded its highest rating of AAA to Enron, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and many junk bonds, plans to downgrade the US rating if Washington fails to deliver public spending cuts.”

What the IMF calls the World Economic Outlook, this is the 2011 April issue, as inconsequential as the last.

So, it is not only immunity. The criminals-in-chief are revealed as actually dictating social policy to the countries of the developed world. In France, the Socialists complain that “governments devoted more resources to rescuing the banks and financial institutions in the year after the subprime crisis than the world spent on aid to third world countries over 50 years” [this was in L’hebdo des socialistes, 16 April 2011].

But the remedies they propose are pathetic (a 15% bank surcharge) or pious hopes (abolish tax havens, establish a public rating agency, tax financial transactions), which rely on unlikely “joint action by the member states of the European Union”.

What should have been a crisis too far came to nothing, Halimi has concluded. He has quoted Andrew Cheng, chief adviser to the China Banking Regulatory Commission, as having said that this passive attitude is connected to a “capture problem”, which is states in thrall to their financial system [“Big Winners in Crises: the Banks”, International Herald Tribune, 13 April 2011]. Too often political leaders behave like bankers’ puppets, anxious not to spoil the party. I would have expected Monde Diplo to show some teeth here, for this is in most democracies called treason, and the punishment must match the crime.

A Christmas troika from the ILO

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Three excellent titles have been released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) since November, the Global Wage Report 2010-11, World Social Security Report 2010-11 and Extending Social Security to All.

Global Wage Report 2010-11. Social security represents an investment in a country’s “human infrastructure” no less important than investments in its physical infrastructure. At an early stage of economic development the priority is, of course, to put in place a basic level of provision; the evidence adduced in this Guide points to its affordability for, essentially, every country. While this message lies at the heart of the Guide, it is important to keep in mind that, at a later stage, the basic level can and should be augmented, and the ILO’s long-standing approach to social security offers the framework to do so.

While the financial, fiscal and economic affordability and sustainability of social protection systems has become – rightly or wrongly – a major concern for countries at all stages of economic development, the Guide provides testimony showing that some level of social security can be afforded even at early stages of national development. Social security systems remain affordable moreover when economies mature and population age. Hence, a country’s national investment in social security can be well justified, whether or not an extensive social security system has already been developed.

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World Social Security Report 2010-11. This is the first in a new series of biennial reports that aim to map social security coverage globally, to presenting various methods and approaches for assessing coverage, and to identifying gaps in coverage. Backed by much comparative statistical data, this first report takes a comprehensive look at how countries are investing in social security, how they are financing it, and how effective their approaches are. The report examines the ways selected international organizations (the EU, OECD and ADB) monitor social protection and the correlation of social security coverage and the ILO Decent Work Indicators. The report’s final section features a typology of national approaches to social security, with a focus on countries’ responses to the economic crisis of 2008 and the lessons to be learned, especially concerning the short- and long-term management of pension schemes.

Social security systems play a critical role in alleviating poverty and providing economic security, helping people to cope with life’s major risks and adapt to change. They can have a remarkable effect on income inequality and poverty in developing countries through income transfers. The 2008-09 financial crisis has shown that they are also powerful economic and social stabilizers, with both short- and long-term effects. However, there are serious problems of access to social security around the world which the crisis has shown into sharp relief, and the financing of systems has been put at risk by shrinking national budgets.

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Extending Social Security to All. The second in a series of ILO reports focusing on wage developments, this volume reviews the global and regional wage trends during the years of the economic and financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. In Part I, the report highlights the slow down in the growth of monthly average wages as well as some short-term fluctuations in the wage share. These changes happened against a backdrop of wage moderation in the years before the crisis and a long-term trend of rising wage inequality since the mid-1990s. Part II of the report discusses the role of wage policies in times of crisis and recovery. Collective bargaining and minimum wages can help achieve a balanced and equitable recovery by ensuring that working families share in the fruits of future economic growth.

At the same time, preventing the purchasing power of low-paid workers from falling can contribute to a faster recovery by sustaining aggregate demand. The report shows that policy strategies and design are crucial to ensure that low-paid workers benefit from union representation and minimum wages, and argues that wage policies must be complemented with carefully crafted in-work benefits and other income transfers. Part III concludes with a summary of the report and highlights issues that are critical for improving wage policies.

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Floating candy, micro loans and Chinese tomatoes

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One week of food for the Casales family in Mexico (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

One week of food for the Casales family in Mexico (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

This eclectic selection of reports does have one common theme. And that is a measure of desperation. The global triple crisis – that of finance and credit, of climate change, and of food and hunger – has pushed the poor to desperation, but it has also pushed companies and institutions to desperation. Desperate measures is what links the stories of a floating supermarket in Brazil, normally safe microloans going bad, fertiliser overuse in north India and Chinese tomatoes in Italy.

1. Nestlé’s ‘floating supermarket’ makes its voyages under Amazon skies. The ‘Terra Grande’ vessel is an investment by the Swiss food group designed to reach isolated riverside communities in the Amazon region. The vessel is designed to enhance Nestle’s reach among the lower income consumers that make up a core part of its market. The company has been in Brazil for 89 years and products like its powdered milk are staples among Brazil’s poorer consumers. As the economy continues to grow quickly, Nestlé is hoping that rising incomes among the poor will bring its higher priced goods within their reach, too.

2. Microfinance markets in Nicaragua, Morocco and Pakistan have seen default levels climb to more than 10 percent, the threshold that marks a “serious repayment crisis,” according to a February report from Washington, D.C.-based policy and research firm Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. Delinquencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina stayed below that level only because of “aggressive loan write-offs,” the report said. While there has been no evidence of a “widespread repayment crisis” in India, “a number of industry analysts have highlighted industry vulnerabilities,” the report said.

Here is a slice of Bloomberg’s reportage on the problem in India: “Savita Ramesh Rathore stood at the door to her dimly lit workshop in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, filled floor-to-ceiling with bundles of old clothes, and tallied up the cost of her son’s wedding last year. ‘Jewels, clothes, food, the town hall,’ said Rathore, 50, who makes towels from discarded clothes. She borrowed 30,000 rupees ($645) from moneylenders charging 60 percent interest and took additional loans from friends to pay for the wedding. Three months ago, she got a 10,000 rupee loan from urban lender Hindusthan Microfinance Pvt. to repay some of that debt.”

One week of food for the Ayme family in Ecuador (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

One week of food for the Ayme family in Ecuador (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

3. A new study by Greenpeace Research Laboratories shows that agriculture in Punjab is on the brink of an ecological catastrophe, the result of the overuse of highly-subsidised synthetic nitrogen fertilisers by farmers striving to step up their output. Dr Reyes Tirado, a scientist from the University of Exeter, sampled wells in 50 villages in the areas of Muktsar, Bhatinda and Ludhiana, and found that 20 per cent had nitrate levels above the World Health Organisation recommended safety limit of 50 mg per litre.

Farmers are aggressively using the nitrate fertilisers with the aim of boosting their annual yield. But scientists warn that this overuse is gradually exhausting the soil, which will eventually leave it unfit for food production. PepsiCo, the cola company which also makes potato chips, sources potatoes from farms in Ludhiana, and lost no time in claiming fatuously that it encourages its agricultural suppliers to use less nitrogen-based fertilisers.

4. Italy’s agriculture minister declared “We will defend the Italian tomato” in response to reports by Coldiretti, an agricultural association, that Italian imports of Chinese tomatoes had soared by over 170 per cent in the past year and now made up 10 per cent of the country’s processed tomato market. Chinese tomatoes are being imported into Italy for processing into paste and then re-exported with an Italian label to countries like Ghana which buys about 28,000 tonnes from Italy each year. Chinese exports of food and drink to the EU have doubled over the past decade, reaching 3.2bn euros in 2009.

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