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Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Financialised Economy -- October 02, 2020


 

The Financialised Economy

By LARRY ROMANOFF – October 02, 2020

 



 

Extreme financialisation is a serious structural defect in the US economy, and which is unsustainable in the long run. As Richard Eskow noted in a Huffington Post article,

 

"... the US has financialised its economy to a frightening degree ... more than half of all corporate profits will soon be captured by banks and other financial institutions - from the movement and manipulation of money, rather than from goods and services".

 

In a report in 2013, the Chinese global credit rating agency DaGong made the following observation:

 

"Due to the high economic financialisation, more than half of the profits in the real economy come from the returns of financial activities. If we exclude the factor of the virtual economy, the U.S. actual GDP was about 5 trillion U.S. dollars in 2009, and per capita GDP about $ 15,000."

 

This compares to published figures of about $13 trillion for the US GDP and about $45,000 in per capita terms. What does this tell you? Americans live in the Matrix, in an artificial economy where people become rich by speculating on houses and derivatives and making book-keeping entries rather than performing productive work and producing real goods. In every case in history where finance had become the largest sector of the economy, the nation was in decline. The philosophy of the heavily-promoted model that favored finance over manufacturing has already collapsed - as is more than obvious in the destruction of its economy, but the Americans blindly continue to promote this cancer as the epitome of development. The reason is that this increasing financialisation permits the oligarchs and puppet-masters who control the financial sector and most of the MNCs to vacuum enormous amounts of cash out of the system. If continued, the American economy will of course self-destruct at some point, dry up and blow away, leaving an empty shell. The signs are so many and so apparent we cannot escape concluding this is the intent.

 

It hasn't been widely noted, but the Americans have committed precisely the same sin on a micro-economic scale by financialising their corporations and institutions. The head of an American university is no longer an academic but a Finance MBA whose responsibility is not education but endowment fund raising and investment. The entire concept of education and knowledge in the US is now rotting from the inside due to this financialisation, with students urged to prepare cost-benefit analyses to determine the "profit maximisation" of a proposed course of studies. A great many top corporate executives are no longer drawn from industry but from the fields of finance and accounting. It is this financialisation of industry that is responsible for much of the difficulty in US corporations today, and it is this warped and unsustainable management philosophy the Americans are desperately trying to push onto China, again repackaged as universal values and the will of God.

 

Another place where these venal and extractive vampires cause a serious misallocation of capital is the financialisation of commodity markets, and here we can include gold and currencies, all of which serve only to disrupt and inhibit a rational market operation by using the commodity landscape as a grand casino. These bankers, hedge funds and other intermediaries take the high moral ground and tell us their actions create and maintain orderly markets and are indispensable for the functioning of an orderly world, but these claims are outright lies. If we think of currencies, there is no reason whatever that anyone should be buying and selling foreign currency except when needed for international trade or payments. In fact, the practice should be outlawed because it creates mostly chaos and financial losses and sometimes the virtual destruction of a vulnerable economy. When George Soros interfered in the UK pound or in the Thai Baht, where was the evidence of 'orderly markets'? His efforts were designed entirely to produce personal financial profits through economic destruction. The entire "Asian financial crisis" was not some act of god as many like to pretend, but a deliberate attempt by a coterie of the US FED and some of its bankers, the IMF and various speculators, to create serious vulnerabilities in various nations and then prey on them. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites and money managers of varying degrees of expertise all encouraging speculation in the currency markets in the hope of making quick profits without ever a thought to the underlying chaos and difficulties incurred by the nations and commercial enterprises depending on those currencies. Nowhere, except in economics textbooks, does any benefit accrue to either "the market" or to the genuine participants in that market.

 

The vultures tell us they create orderly markets for commodities like cocoa or coffee, edible oils and other foodstuffs, metals and others, and claim further that their actions do not increase prices but instead create stability, but again these claims are lies. The markets exist with or without these amoral profiteers, and to claim they don't add to industrial prices is not only ridiculous but stupid. There are no middlemen anywhere who take positions in any commodity or product with the intention of only breaking even and never making profits, as if they were some kind of charity. Of course they make huge profits. When Goldman Sachs purchases thousands or millions of tons of aluminum, they do so only to control and influence the market price and make huge profits in doing so. There are volumes of reports of Goldman Sachs cleverly manipulating stocks of aluminum and other metals, surreptitiously shifting inventory from one location to another in order to manipulate the market and create larger profits. And of course basic industries and the consuming public all pay for these schemes. Speculation in all these areas, as in currencies, should simply be banned by law. And it would be, if these same vampires did not have such intricate control of Western governments. It would be a far better world if governments would amass the collective courage to once again drive the money-changers out of the temple and restrict banks and bankers to simple banking functions and get them out of all commodity markets under pain of death.

 

From an AP report in the Huffington Post in November of 2014, in an article written by Marcy Gordon, it was reported that three large Wall Street banks - Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley - had a heavy involvement in the business of owning and storing commodities like oil, aluminum, uranium and copper that gave them unfair trading advantages and permitted them to manipulate prices that markedly raised consumer costs. A US Senate Committee investigation claimed in particular that Goldman used its metals inventories to create shortages and inflate metal prices. It was investigating whether these banks and their related speculative vampire brethren should be permitted to control power plants, warehouse storage and commodities shipments, proposing banks should be restricted from activity in all commodities. Goldman Sachs claim their involvement "enhances their role as a middleman for producers and consumers", but that is just disingenuous double-talk. The only thing "enhanced" is their profits, at the expense of the rest of the world. They contribute nothing useful to the world, and are true extractive vampires, parasitic leeches feeding on almost every part of every revenue stream, looking to manipulate and control prices regardless of the harm caused. In 2013, JP Morgan paid $410 million in penalties for manipulating electricity prices in the US, using their financial power, insider knowledge and improper (illegal) bidding strategies to manipulate prices and produce excessive profits from the system. Senator Carl Levin warned of great risks to the US economy from these bankers, and stated there was a great need "to restore the separation of commerce and banking". I couldn't agree more.

 

On the subject of banks generally, most of the world has been infected by a long-term and cleverly-induced propaganda virus that tells us we should all cheer when we learn that banks are posting record profits, but the virus blinds us to the obvious question of why we should cheer. It has become almost an article of religious faith that all is well when banks are drowning in profits extracted from our own pockets, but in fact all is not well - except for the pockets of those same bankers. We have for generations been overwhelmed with what is essentially propaganda about the theological importance and unassailability of banks and bankers to the point where we (and our governments) seem to have lost the ability to realise the huge drain these institutions place on economies and consumers. Indeed, and in full support of these same bankers, we have now arrived at the point where Hollywood is actively promoting the scripture that "greed is good".

 

Banks in all nations are in a unique position in that they are able to levy taxes on a population, and indeed on governments as well. In any other kind of business, at least outside the US monopolies like mobile phone service, we have choices. But in no country do we have choices in banking because all banks act in concert and these banks affect almost every individual in every nation. When banks decide unilaterally to raise fees for ATM usage, they do so not because of increased costs but simply because they have the power to levy an additional tax on the population. While it may be true that a few dollars a month is insignificant to each customer, the banks have billions of customers and can arbitrarily and without recourse extract many more billions per month from vulnerable customers, in precisely the same way as a government levies a new tax. Many will argue that governments and their taxes are at least theoretically accountable to the people but we can make no such argument for the banks, and in fact banks are increasingly unaccountable even to governments. It seems that greed is not only good, but that increasingly few governments or even the police and law courts have the courage to challenge it.

 

Many emerging economies attempt to emulate "the big boys" in developing their financial sector as an engine of economic development, but of course it is no such thing. An economy consists of real goods, the money being only a measure of the value of those goods produced and traded. When the money becomes the economy, as in the US, the road is all downhill from that point and cannot be otherwise. The Americans promote it so heavily because financialisation is an efficient means for predatory vampire bankers to devastate national economies, not because it is in the interest of those economies. It is of extreme importance to understand that the financial sector inevitably plunders and bleeds an economy and serves only to misallocate capital in ways that benefit only the elites and bankers but inflicts serious harm on a nation and its people. There is absolutely no reason for China to go here. Contrary to all the American propaganda, it is not China's economic management that 'misallocates resources and capital' but the American pathologically financialised system that does this. The economic management by China's government has acted to prevent such disastrous misallocations, and once again China really needs to stop listening to the Americans. One need only look at the facts on the ground in the US today to realise the viciously anti-social agenda of the American system, and to see what lies in store for all Chinese if American influence on China is not resisted much more strenuously than has been done to date.

 

The Financialisation of H-P

 

As one example of many of the destructive financialisation of corporations, let's take a quick look at Hewlett-Packard. H-P was an outstanding firm when under the control of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, but was destroyed when turned over to the financial geniuses whose enlightened management changed it from a company that made computers to a company that made money. I will be surprised if H-P exists as a separate entity in another five years, and indeed the company has already committed itself to splitting off the entire computer and printer sections from its corporate services division, which will likely result in the disappearance of H-P consumer products, to be swallowed by Lenovo or Dell, just as Compaq was swallowed by H-P. In the end, this will be no great loss since the MBAs and Finance Managers have more or less trashed both H-P products and their reputations anyway. It is this financialisation of industry that is responsible for much of the difficulty in US corporations today, and it is this warped and unsustainable management philosophy the Americans are desperately trying to push onto China, repackaged as universal values and the will of God.

 

These break-ups and spin-offs are always couched in terms of "liberating trapped value", but that's just one more indication of the extent to which these firms have become financialised, to the point where the only remaining use of a company is the spigot for extracting cash or a scheme to increase the stock value of the parts to be greater than the prior whole. The notion of trapped value is almost entirely fiction in each case, a kind of capitalist propaganda to small investors who don't understand the intent of the large players. These actions will almost always enrich a few individuals while the other 99% will be deducting their losses. And of course these games take their toll: H-P has been losing market share and slipped to number two behind Lenovo while watching revenues decline. The much-vaunted break-up that one major investor called "a brilliant move" is only a smoke screen to permit more rapid cash extraction and perhaps delay the day of reckoning.

 

It is interesting that while H-P and other firms are breaking up, yet other large companies are merging, claiming an opportunity to produce essentially the same results as H-P claims from a break-up. As one indication of the thoughtless pathology involved in these stealthy boardroom maneuvers, only a few years ago H-P's CEO floated the idea of breaking up the company only to see the stock plunge by 20% the next day, with Meg Whitman swearing there was "no question" H-P was better off as one company. But the enormous temptation to spin all the cash from the printer division couldn't be resisted, and a short time later Ms. Whitman was eagerly supporting the split, perhaps encouraged by a media survey that nominated her as the worst-performing CEO.

 

Computer companies like H-P will tell you today the PC industry has little growth potential, that it has reached its limit and become a commodity with falling margins and a dim future. Their conclusion may be largely true, but that didn't occur by accident. It was brought about by these same people who decided to financialise their industry and become companies that made money instead of products. These people cannibalised themselves and their entire industry; they deliberately and consciously commoditised their own products. Driven primarily by greed, all firms joined in the race to the bottom and, when you reach the bottom, you have achieved the lowest common denominator and what you have is a commodity. In every case, the firms decided to stop innovating, to cut R&D to the bone, to avoid revolutionary developments, and to capitalise on their market positions by producing only more of the same. In effect, the decision-makers collectively decided to extract every cent of wealth from their holdings and in the end to dispose of the worthless carcass. It was all about the willingness to cannibalise the companies for the sake of immediate profit maximisation. Only the short term remained; the long term no longer existed.

 

When was the last time Microsoft produced anything decent? Windows X-P was the first and only time Gates got anything right, and consumers loved it. That wouldn't do, so Microsoft immediately killed X-P and produced buggy and hackable trash ever since, with no apparent effort even for evolution much less revolution in operating systems, and yet revolutions are possible and certainly much needed. It is the same with H-P (and perhaps other) printers. Once the financial wizards decided to extract the wealth, R&D disappeared along with innovation and the company proceeded to milk the printer cartridge teat as fast and hard as was possible, with ink volumes being reduced in stages but cartridge prices essentially unchanged or even higher.

 

It was not so many years ago that I could reliably obtain 600 printed pages from a black ink cartridge on an H-P printer. Today, 50 pages seems to be about the limit. Immediately upon Hewlett and Packard being out of the picture, the financial wizards reduced the ink supply from 120 mls. if I recall correctly, then to 60 mls, then 30 mls, 15 mls, and then 8 mls, while the retail price remained at the same level or higher. And even at the extreme price, most printers cease printing with as much as 40% of the ink supply remaining. Kodak claims that only 65% of its cartridge ink is used for printing, while the remaining unusable 35% is necessary to "protect optimal document quality". Form whatever conclusions you think appropriate.

 

To discourage customers from purchasing less expensive cartridges, H-P printers often either display out-of-ink messages or refuse to print. The printers themselves have become rubbish, made of the cheapest materials with cost driven almost to zero. This is so true that it is sometimes possible to purchase an H-P DeskJet on sale for $20, the customer then discarding the printer in the rubbish bin when the ink supply is exhausted. This is not the company Hewlett and Packard built, but a grotesque, decaying monster with vultures flocking everywhere. H-P has adopted other low-class restrictive (but initially profit-generating) policies like sealing a computer casing and threatening to void the warranty if a user wants to install a new card or hard drive, attempting to frighten customers into paying an H-P dealer for simple installations that anyone can do. In terms of computer warranty repairs in China, H-P did the same as Apple and other American firms by offering a substandard service and refusing the extended warranty given automatically to customers in the US. When publicly challenged, a company spokesman denied discrimination and claimed complaints arose from "confusion" over the terms of 'an enhanced service program'. After China's product-quality agency launched an investigation, the confusion suddenly disappeared and H-P offered Chinese customers the same warranty as in the US.

 

This process will of necessity self-destruct at some point, but by that time the "investors" will have milked untold billions out of H-P, and the carcass can dry up and blow away. This might be a good place to remind you that this is precisely what Israel said it planned to do to the US. Ariel Sharon was quoted as saying, "Once we have squeezed everything we can out of the US, it can dry up and blow away." You might want to think about that, because America as a nation is being cannibalised in exactly the same way as is Hewlett-Packard, and for the same reasons. Back to H-P, in the meantime, the vultures will continue to reduce staff by tens of thousands on a pretense of becoming efficient, eliminate R&D altogether, and increasingly turn to cheaper materials and components to enhance profits even further. Meg Whitman's task with the profitable printer portion as sacrificial lamb is to squeeze every possible drop of blood from those veins until only the corpse remains, at which point it will be swallowed by some hopeful competitor, though it won't be worth much because the brand is being cannibalised in the process. H-P has already gone from 100% loved to 50% despised; Whitman will complete the task in due course.



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Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He can be contacted at: 2186604556@qq.com

 

Larry Romanoff is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney's new COVID-19 anthology ''When China Sneezes''.




Copyright © Larry RomanoffMoon of Shanghai, 2020