Two years ago, Russian officials discussed plans to privatize a group of national enterprises headed by the oil producer Rosneft, the VTB Bank, Aeroflot, and Russian Railways. The stated objective was to streamline management of these companies, and also to induce oligarchs to begin bringing their two decades of capital flight back to invest in the Russia economy. Foreign participation was sought in cases where Western technology transfer and management techniques would be likely to help the economy.
However, the Russian economic outlook deteriorated as the United States pushed Western governments to impose economic sanctions against Russia and oil prices declined. This has made the Russian economy less attractive to foreign investors. So sale of these companies will bring much lower prices today than would have been likely in 2014.
Meanwhile, the combination of a rising domestic budget deficit and balance-of-payments deficit has given Russian advocates of privatization an argument to press ahead with the sell-offs. The flaw in their logic is their neoliberal assumption that Russia cannot simply monetize its deficit, but needs to survive by selling off more major assets. We warn against Russia being so gullible as to accept this dangerous neoliberal argument. Privatization will not help re-industrialize Russia’s economy, but will aggravate its turn into arentier economy from which profits are extracted for the benefit of foreign owners.
To be sure, President Putin set a number of conditions on February 1 to prevent new privatizations from being like the Yeltsin era’s disastrous selloffs. This time the assets would not be sold at knockdown prices, but would have to reflect prospective real value. The firms being sold off would remain under Russian jurisdiction, not operated by offshore owners. Foreigners were invited to participate, but the companies would remain subject to Russian laws and regulations, including restrictions to keep their capital within Russia.
Also, the firms to be privatized cannot be bought with domestic state bank credit. The aim is to draw “hard cash” into the buyouts – ideally from the foreign currency holdings by oligarchs in London and elsewhere.
Putin wisely ruled out selling Russia’s largest bank, Sperbank, which holds much of the nation’s retail savings accounts. Banking evidently is to remain largely a public utility, which it should because the ability to create credit as money is a natural monopoly and inherently public in character.
Despite these protections that President Putin added, there are serious reasons not to go ahead with the newly-announced privatizations. These reasons go beyond the fact that they would be sold under conditions of economic recession as a result of the Western economic sanctions and falling oil prices.
The excuse being cited by Russian officials for selling these companies at the present time is to finance the domestic budget deficit. This excuse shows that Russia has still not recovered from the disastrous Western Atlanticist myth that Russia must depend on foreign banks and bondholders to create money, as if the Russian central bank cannot do this itself by monetizing the budget deficit.
Monetization of budget deficits is precisely what the United States government has done, and what Western central banks have been doing in the post World War II era. Debt monetization is common practice in the West. Governments can help revive the economy by printing money instead of indebting the country to private creditors which drains the public sector of funds via interest payments to private creditors.
There is no valid reason to raise money from private banks to provide the government with money when a central bank can create the same money without having to pay interest on loans. However, Russian economists have been inculcated with the Western belief that only commercial banks should create money and that governments should sell interest-bearing bonds in order to raise funds. The incorrect belief that only private banks should create money by making loans is leading the Russian government down the same path that has led the eurozone into a dead end economy. By privatizing credit creation, Europe has shifted economic planning from democratically elected governments to the banking sector.
There is no need for Russia to accept this pro-rentier economic philosophy that bleeds a country of public revenues. Neoliberals are promoting it not to help Russia, but to bring Russia to its knees.
Essentially, those Russians allied with the West—“Atlanticist Integrationists”— who want Russia to sacrifice its sovereignty to integration with the Western empire are using neoliberal economics to entrap Putin and breach Russia’s control over its own economy that Putin reestablished after the Yeltsin years when Russia was looted by foreign interests.
Despite some success in reducing the power of the oligarchs who arose from the Yeltsin privatizations, the Russian government needs to retain national enterprises as a countervailing economic power. The reason governments operate railways and other basic infrastructure is to lower the cost of living and doing business. The aim of private owners, by contrast, is to raise the prices as high as they can. This is called “rent extraction.” Private owners put up tollbooths to raise the cost of infrastructure services that are being privatized. This is the opposite of what the classical economists meant by “free market.”
There is talk of a deal being made with the oligarchs. The oligarchs will buy ownership in the Russian state companies with money they have stashed abroad from previous privatizations, and get another “deal of the century” when Russia’s economy recovers by enough to enable more excessive gains to be made.
The problem is that the more economic power moves from government to private control, the less countervailing power the government has against private interests. From this standpoint, no privatizations should be permitted at this time.
Much less should foreigners be permitted to acquire ownership of Russian national assets. In order to collect a one-time payment of foreign currency, the Russian government will be turning over to foreigners future income streams that can, and will be, extracted from Russia and sent abroad. This “repatriation” of dividends would occur even if management and control remains geographically in Russia.
Selling public assets in exchange for a one-time payment is what the city of Chicago government did when it sold the 75 year revenue stream of its parking meters for a one-time payment. The Chicago government got money for one year by giving up 75 years of revenues. By sacrificing public revenues, the Chicago government saved real estate and private wealth from being taxed and also allowed Wall Street investment banks to make a fortune.
It also created a public outcry against the giveaway. The new buyers sharply raised street parking fees, and sued Chicago’s government for damages when the city closed the street for public parades or holidays, thereby “interfering” with the rentiers’ parking-meter business. Instead of helping Chicago, it helped push the city toward bankruptcy. No wonder Atlanticists would like to see Russia suffer the same fate.
Using privatization to cover a short-term budget problem creates a larger long-term problem. The profits of Russian companies would flow out of the country, reducing the ruble’s exchange rate. If the profits are paid in rubles, the rubles can be dumped in the foreign exchange market and exchanged for dollars. This will depress the ruble’s exchange rate and raise the dollar’s exchange value. In effect, allowing foreigners to acquire Russia’s national assets helps foreigners to speculate against the Russian ruble.
Of course, the new Russian owners of the privatized assets also could send their profits abroad. But at least the Russian government realizes that owners subject to Russian jurisdiction are more easily regulated than are owners who are able to control companies from abroad and keep their working capital in London or other foreign banking centers (all subject to U.S. diplomatic leverage and New Cold War sanctions).
At the root of the privatization discussion should be the question of what is money and why should it be created by private banks instead of central banks. The Russian government should finance its budget deficit by having the central bank create the necessary money, just as the US and UK do. It is not necessary for the Russian government to give away future revenue streams in perpetuity merely in order to cover one year’s deficit. That is a path to impoverishment and to loss of economic and political independence.
Globalization was invented as a tool of American Empire. Russia should be shielding itself from globalization, not opening itself to it. Privatization is the vehicle to undercut economic sovereignty and increase profits by raising prices.
Just as Western-financed NGOs operating in Russia are a fifth column operating against Russian national interests, so are Russia’s neoliberal economists, whether or not they realize it. Russia will not be safe from Western manipulation until its economy is closed to Western attempts to reshape Russia’s economy in the interest of Washington and not in the interest of Russia.
More layoffs and the economy continually collapses. Housing permits decline as housing continues to deteriorate. Trucking, shipping and port containers all decline as inventories build. Industrial production declines year on year. Obamacare will rob people of more money this year. Obama pushes the TPP, everything the people do not want.
Understanding why there are all those hands in your wallet
by Adam Taggart
If you don’t understand what’s causing a particular problem, then it’s pretty difficult to come up with an effective solution.
Author, commentator and longtime friend-of-the-site James Howard Kunstler returns to our podcast this week to discuss the importance of accurate diagnosis — in this case, of the scourge he sees as accelerating America’s downslide into economic and social decline: Racketeering.
More associated with the organized crime bosses of a century ago, it’s not a word used often these days. But that doesn’t diminish in any way its relevance to and impact on our lives today:
The disorders in politics that we’re seeing now are really expressions of the larger disorders in our economic life and our financial life. That just happens to be the avenue that the expression is coming out of. Another point I’d like to make is that the reason that people are against Hillary or dumping on Hillary or don’t like her, is because she’s a poster child for racketeering. I encourage people who are talking about our circumstances and people who are interested in the news and election, to use the word racketeering to describe what’s going on in this country. You really need the right vocabulary to understand exactly what’s going on.
Racketeering is just pervasive in all of our activities. Not just in politics but in things even like medicine and education. Obviously the college loan scheme is an example of racketeering. Anybody who has to go to an emergency room with a child whose broken their finger or something, is going to end up with a bill for $20,000. You know why? Because of medical racketeering. And so, these are really efforts to money-grub by any means necessary, often in ways that are unethical and probably illegal. Let’s use that word racketeering to describe our national situation.
And let’s remember by the way, the activities of the central banks is just another form of racketeering. Using debt issuance and attempting to control interest rates in order to conceal our inability to generate the kind of real wealth that we need to continue as a techno-industrial society.
Societies have a really hard time understanding what they’re doing, articulating the problems that they face and coming up with a coherent consensus about what’s happening, and coming up with a coherent consensus about what to do about it. Combine that with another quandary, the relationships between energy and the dead racket for concealing real capital formation. I like to reduce it to one particular formula that is pretty easy for people to understand. It’s a classic quandary: that oil priced at over $75 a barrel in today’s dollars tends to crush economies, and oil priced under $75 a barrel in today’s dollars tends to crush oil companies. There is no real sweet spot between those two places. We’re ratcheting between them and each one of them entails a lot of destruction. That’s a terrible quandary that we’re in and it’s being expressed in banking and finance…and the people in charge of those things don’t really know what else to do except continue the deformation of institutions and instruments.
Medical schools benefit fromAssociated Press Many U.S. medical schools are seeing a surge in the number of people leaving their bodies to science, a trend attributed to rising funeral costs and growing acceptance of a practice long seen by some as ghoulish. The increase has been a boon to medical students and researchers, who dissect cadavers in anatomy class or use them to practice surgical techniques or test new devices and procedures. “Not too long ago, it was taboo. Now we have thousands of registered donors,” said Mark Zavoyna, operations manager for Georgetown University’s body donation program. Weak economy, as Body Donations on the Rise.
If the Economy were a car, productivity would be the engine. Heated seats, on-demand 4-wheel drive and light-sensitive tinted windshields, are all very nice. But they mean little if the engine doesn’t turn and the car just sits in the driveway. The latest productivity data from the Commerce Department confirms that our economic engine is sputtering.
If you strip away all the bells and whistles of economic analysis, the simple truth is that the increased living standards that have taken us from the stone age to the digital age happened because we increased our productivity. Better plows, windmills, bulldozers, factories and, more recently, better software, technology, and automation have allowed economies to produce more output with less human effort. This means there are more goods and services for more people to share and workers can work less to acquire those goodies. When productivity stops increasing, no amount of financial gimmickry can compensate.
With this in mind, the latest batch of productivity data should have significantly changed the conversation. But like other pieces of evidence that point to a weakening economy, the news made scarcely a ripple. The fact that few opinions about our economic health changed, as a result, confirms just how big our blinders have become.
Most of the economic prognosticators were fairly confident about the Second Quarter numbers. After all, productivity had unexpectedly declined for the prior two-quarters, and given the optimism that is ingrained on Wall Street and Washington, a big snap back was expected. The consensus was for an increase of .5%. Instead we got a .5% contraction. That’s a huge miss. The contraction resulted in three consecutive declines, something that hasn’t happened since the late 1970’s, an era often referred to as the “Malaise Days” of the Carter presidency. That time, which spawned such concepts as “stagflation” and “the misery index,” was widely regarded as one of the low points of U.S. economic history. Well, break out your roller disco skates, everything old is new again.
But it gets worse. Productivity declined by .4% from a year earlier, marking the first annual decline in three years. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total magnitude of the three-quarter drop was the largest decline in productivity since 1993. The last three-quarters mark a significant decline from the already abysmal productivity growth we have since the Financial Crisis of 2008. According to the Wall Street Journal, during the 8 years between 2007 and 2015 productivity growth averaged just 1.3% annually, which was less than half the pace that was seen in the seven-year period between 2000 and 2007.
The talking heads on TV can’t seem to offer any real reason why productivity has gone missing. Some feebly suggest that globalization is the problem, or that automation has moved so fast that the benefits usually offered by technological improvements have lost their power. But it would be hard to come up with a reason why trade, which has universally benefited local, regional, and international economies through comparative advantage and specialization, has suddenly become a problem. Similarly, when does greater efficiency become a problem rather than a solution? So they are stumped.
But these economists ignore the major change that has befallen the world over the last eight years, a change that has coincided neatly with the global collapse in productivity. The Financial Crisis of 2008 ushered in an age of central bank activism the likes of which we have never before seen. All the worlds’ leading central banks, most notably the Federal Reserve in Washington, have unleashed ever bolder experiments in monetary stimulus designed to reflate financial markets, push up asset prices, stimulate demand, and create economic growth. And while there is little evidence that these policies have produced any of the promised benefits, there is every reason to believe that the scale of these experiments will just get larger if the global economy doesn’t improve.
But very few brain cells have been expended about the unintended consequences that these policies may be creating. But let’s be clear, there is nothing natural or logical about a set of policies that result in an “investor” paying a borrower for the privilege of lending them money. So in this strange new world, we should expect some collateral damage. Productivity is a primary casualty. Here’s why.
Another set of statistics that has accompanied the decline in productivity is the severe multi-year drop in business investment and spending. Traditionally, businesses have set aside good chunks of their profits to invest in new plant and equipment, research and development, worker training, and other investments that could lead to the breakthroughs and better business practices. The investments can lead to greater productivity.
But the business investment numbers have been dismal. But it’s not because corporate profits are down. They aren’t. Companies have the cash, they just aren’t using it to invest in the future. Instead, they are following the money provided by the central banks.
Ultra-low-interest rates have encouraged businesses to borrow money to spend on share buybacks, debt refinancing, and dividends. They have also encouraged financial speculation in the stock market, the bond market, and in real estate. Investors may believe that central bankers will not allow any of those markets to fall as such declines could tip the already teetering global economies into recession. The Fed, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, and the European Central Bank have already telegraphed that they will be the lenders and buyers of last resort. These commitments have turned many investments into “no lose” propositions. Why take a chance on R&D when you can buy a risk-free bond?
Higher interest rates are actually healthy for an economy. They encourage real savings, with lenders actually concerned about the safety of their loans. Without the backstop of central banks, speculators could not out bid legitimate borrowers who make capital investments that produce real returns. But with central banks conjuring cheap credit out of thin air, supplanting the normal market-based credit allocation process; the result is speculative asset bubbles, decreasing productivity, anemic growth, and falling real wages. Welcome to the new normal.
If the cost of money is high, people think carefully about where they want to put their money. They select only the best investments. This helps everyone. When money is cheap, they throw darts against a wall. This is not the best use of societies’ scarce resources. Is it any wonder productivity is down?
Many economists are now saying that the Fed won’t be able to raise rates until productivity improves. But productivity will never improve as long as rates stay this low. This is the paradox of the of the new economy.
When will central bankers conclude that it’s their own medicine that is actually making the economy sick? They will not make that connection until they succeed in killing the patient…and even then they may continue to administer the same toxic medicine to a corpse. The political pressure is just too great to ever admit their mistakes, so they repeat them indefinitely.