Niall Ferguson Full Marx

Financial Times, August 16 2002. Not many MBA courses include readings from Marx's Capital. Not many CEOs could quote from The Communist Manifesto. But there are times when it pays even the most passionate believers in capitalism (and I count myself among them) to heed the bearded Cassandra. Times like these: the worst bear market since the Great Depression - although Marx himself would have preferred to call it a "crisis of capitalism".

As a prophet, Marx was, of course, a washout. He was also a class traitor, taking the side of the proletariat when he himself was the quintessential 19th century bourgeois. His socialist utopia turned out to be a corrupt tyranny, which expropriated the wealth of the middle class only in order to enrich a new class of apparatchiks. Even so, Marx's insights into capitalism can still illuminate. From his unlikely     vantage point in the old British Library Reading Room, inspired by an   idiosyncratic mixture of German idealism and British political economy, Marx got one thing right. Behind the bubbles and busts of the capitalist system there is a  class struggle; and that class struggle is the key to modern politics. This may read like heresy, especially in the pages of the Financial Times. But a little reflection on the current crisis of capitalism will show otherwise. Not that today's class struggle bears much relation to that of Marx's day. The present
conflict is not between grasping factory owners and the immiserated working class. It is a conflict within the bourgeoisie - a class which has grown hugely since Marx's day, in ways he never anticipated, but which has divided even as it has expanded.

First, a crash course on Capital. Long, verbose, abstruse, this ranks as one of  the most unreadable books of all time. Much of it is intended to demonstrate that labour is the source of all value. Skip that. The bottom line is chapter 32, in part VIII of volume one, where Marx argues that the history of capitalism is the history of expropriation and the concentration of wealth - the means of production - in the hands of an ever-decreasing minority.

      For Marx, the defining characteristics of capitalism in his own time included "the  centralisation of capital", "the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few    usurpers" and "the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market,  and
with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime". In other  words, widening inequality and globalisation.

      These characteristics, however, were precisely what made capitalism crisis-prone. Its periodic busts, he hoped, were the preliminary tremors heralding a final and violent collapse. Forget Marx's utopian prophesy that capitalism would be succeeded by
socialism, with all property redistributed according to the workers' needs. The    real point is that many of the defects he identified in 19th century capitalism are  again evident today. In the last20 years, there has been a significant increase in inequality in the
pre-eminent capitalist economy, the United States. In 1981, the top 1 per cent of households owned a quarter of American wealth; by the late 1990s, that single percentage owned more than 38 per cent, higher than at any time since the 1920s.

      At the same time, the world's commodity, labour and capital markets have become significantly more integrated: in particular, the vast scale of today's international capital flows recalls the first age of globalisation in the late19th century.

      As for the susceptibility of our own capitalism to crisis, the figures speak for themselves. The Dow Jones index is down 26 per cent since its peak back in   January 2000. Just a few months before that peak, a couple of notorious bubble-blowers published a book predicting that the Dow Jones would reach 36,000 in the foreseeable future. Far from tripling your money, if you were naïve enough to follow their recommendation and track the Dow from the day their book came out, you would have made an average inflation-adjusted annual return of minus 11 per cent.

       True, we are still a long way from a new Great Depression: between 1929 and 1932 the Dow Jones fell by some 89 per cent. Nor can it be said that the US is
going through a Japanese-style collapse: between December 1989 and July 1992 the Nikkei 225 fell by just under 60 per cent. Nevertheless, the fact is that at one point
last month the Standard & Poors Total Return Index was more than 46 per cent  below its peak. And even after the recent rally, the Nasdaq is still down 74 per cent from its peak.

     We have yet to see what the macroeconomic ramifications of this asset price slump will be. The chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, Glenn Hubbard, last month estimated that the fall in American share prices could reduce economic growth by up to 0.7 per cent over the next year. Unemployment in the US has already risen from 4 per cent to just under 6 per cent. Retail sales  sagged in the first half of 2002.

          Certainly, it is hard to believe that American consumers will be able to carry on saving at the amazingly low rates we have seen since the mid-1980s. By 2000, net private savings had fallen from a long-run average of between 9 and 12 percent of net national product to less than 4 per cent. This was one of the hidden motors of the 1997-2000 boom. But as Americans contemplate losses on their investments of between a quarter and three-quarters, they are likely to start saving again. And that can only mean a decline in their hitherto prodigious consumption. The global implications of a slowdown in the vast American economy are alarming. The other key element of the late-90s bubble was the willingness of foreign investors to pour money into the US, funding an enormous balance of payments deficit. These foreign investors are now staring at income statements spattered with red ink. And they have more to worry about than American investors, because a slide in the dollar exchange rate threatens to make those losses even bigger. If the experience of the 1980s is anything to go by, the dollar could fall steeply as foreign investors sell off. The resulting reduction of American imports would further hurt the rest of the world.

Not that you should prepare for the death-knell of capitalism just yet. I was in New York during the very worst week of the recent sell-off and came away with a consoling list of reasons to stay cheerful.

First, the US stock market has simply retraced its steps back to mid-1997, when Alan Greenspan coined the phrase "irrational exuberance". Everyone secretly agreed with him, so no one is too surprised that the subsequent bubble has burst.

Second, compared with the last great bear market of the 1970s, we are free from the spectre of inflation. Annual consumer price inflation in the US is barely 1 per cent. The Fed's target interest rate is down below 2 per cent, the lowest level for 40 years and a boon for borrowers, not least those on flexible mortgages.

Third, the American financial sector is in far better health than its Japanese counterpart back in the 1980s. The balance sheets of US banks carry fewer durable assets and bad debts. Just to put his money where his mouth was, a New Yorker friend of mine told me over breakfast - after one of the worst days in recent stock market history - that he had just invested tens of million dollars in the shares of big American banks.

Above all, the Fed is not the Bank of Japan. It wasn't until July 1991, more than 18 months after the Nikkei began to nose dive, that the Japanese central bank started to cut interest rates. By contrast, the chairman of the Federal Reserve started to cut rates back in October 2000, and they have been going downwards ever since.

 So relax: the recession was last year, and you barely felt it. Growth this year is still on course for 3.5 per cent. This is the kind of crisis of capitalismArgentinians can only dream about.

 Still, you don't need to believe in another Great Depression to take a neo-Marxist view of the current crisis. For there is no question that the bubble economy of the last decade has brought about a quite astonishing transfer of wealth from one
class to another: not from the working class to the bourgeoisie, but from one part of the middle class to another. To be precise, from the sucker class to the CEOcracy.

The sucker class is a large one. More than half of American households now own shares; in 1987 the proportion was about a quarter. Much of this expansion in share ownership happened between 1997 and 2000. So a substantial fraction of American households bought shares at or close to the peak of the market. Their portfolios are now worth significantly less than their original investment.

The beneficiaries of the bubble are the CEOcracy – men such as Andrew Fastow, who was chief financial officer of Enron, and Bernie Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom. But the CEOcracy includes not just the chief executives of collapsed companies, but the whole range of insiders who knew enough to cash in their shares and share options before the bubble burst.

During his testimony before the Senate Banking Committee last month, Alan Greenspan provided a convenient list of the other members of this class: "lawyers, internal and external auditors, corporate boards, Wall Street security analysts, rating agencies, and large institutional holders of stock".

With each fresh revelation of fraud and fiddled accounts, the extent and nature of this vast expropriation of the suckers by  the CEOs becomes more apparent. The key devices were share options, which simultaneously gave executives an incentive to boost share prices by fair means or foul and allowed them to understate what was in effect remuneration in the company accounts. Related to this were the lax rules governing auditing and accounting, which encouraged firms like Andersen to cook the books in
return for the promise of future fat fees. Nor should we forget the spurious independence of non-executive directors.

          Marx would also have appreciated the intimate links between the CEOcracy and the Bush administration. This truly is one of those moments in history when the nexus between economic interest and policy is laid bare. Consider the case of
George Bush and the Harken Energy Corporation, which sold a Hawaiian
subsidiary, Aloha Petroleum, to a group of Harken insiders for $12m, all of which it booked as income - despite the fact that $10m was simply an unsecured IOU from Harken to itself. Less than three months after the Harken accounts were published, George Bush sold 212,140 of his shares in the company, netting a tidy $849,000. If the full extent of Harken's losses had been known, those shares would certainly have been worth far less.

          When quizzed about this last month, Bush replied: "There was an honest difference of opinion . . . Sometimes things aren't exactly black-and-white when it comes to accounting procedures."

          True enough when your accountants are Arthur Andersen. But as far as US watchdog the Securities and Exchange Commission was concerned, the deal was all black. In the words of Princeton economist Paul Krugman: "The current crisis in
American capitalism . . . is about the way the game has been rigged on behalf of insiders." Back in the 1990s, "crony capitalism" was the label smug Americans stuck to the former tiger economies of Asia. But if ever there was a crony capitalist, it is the current US president.

        The crisis of American capitalism is therefore more social than economic, more moral than material. It is not that the US economy is about to collapse into a 1930s-style slump. Enough has been learnt from the past to avoid repeating the fiscal and monetary policy errors that turned recession into depression (though
after the Bush administration's recent decisions to raise steel tariffs and farm subsidies, the same cannot be said for trade policy).

       It is the social structure of American capitalism that is in real need of attention.You do not have to be a Marxist to see that something is amiss. Indeed, it is precisely those who believe most fervently in capitalism who should be most insistent indemanding a shake-up. As Marx might have said, had he taken the right side in the class war, the bourgeoisie united will never be divided. But right now the American middle class is split unevenly between suckers and CEOs. What's more, history suggests that when the suckers strike back, they  usually demand regulations far stricter than is good for capitalism itself.

       After all, Marx himself was once an unlucky day trader, whose dreams of making a "killing on the Stock Exchange" in the 1860s came to nothing. And look at the revenge on capitalism he took.
Picture : i.telegraph.co.uk

Niall Ferguson is Professor of Political and Financial History at Oxford and Visiting Professor at the Stern School of Business, New York University.





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