When the Bank Has a Problem

In last week’s column, I wrote about the Orwellian Economics of Indian banking. The basic premise of the column came from something that George Orwell wrote in his book Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

This is clearly being seen in Indian banking, in the way the banks treat loan defaulters. The small borrowers including small businesses, feel the full force of the bank’s system, in case they end up defaulting on the loan. Banks make all the effort to sell the collateral offered against the loan in order to recover the loan. In comparison, big corporates who default on the big loans, are treated with kid gloves.

A few readers emailed and wanted me to write a little more on this issue. So, here we go.

John Kenneth Galbraith writing in The Culture of Contentment makes an excellent point about the structure of the banking system. As he writes: “The man or woman who borrows $10,000 or $50,00 is seen as a person of average intelligence to be dealt with accordingly. The one who borrows a million or a hundred million is endowed with a presumption of financial genius that provides considerable protection from any unduly vigorous scrutiny.”

And how does this impact the way the banks lend money to prospective borrowers? As Galbraith writes: “This individual deals with the very senior officers of the bank of financial institution; the prestige of high bureaucratic position means that any lesser officer will be reluctant, perhaps fearing personal career damage, to challenge the ultimate decision. In plausible consequence, the worst errors in banking are regularly made in the largest amount by the highest officials.”

This is the self-destructive nature of the system. What this essentially means that the managers running banks are in awe of the promoters and managers of large corporates, who come to them to borrow money.

In the Indian context, what also does not help is the fact that public sector banking makes up for close to three-fourths of the banking system. A major part of the public-sector banks are ultimately owned by the central government. In this scenario, politicians end up influencing who the banks lend money to.

This at times includes companies and promoters whom the politicians are close to. The lending has nothing to do with the investment potential of a project for which money is being borrowed. This is a sort of a quid pro quo for the corporates financing the electoral costs of politicians and political parties.

In fact, sometimes the corporate promoter taking the loan brings in very little of his own money into the project. As former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan said in a November 2014 speech: “The reason so many projects are in trouble today is because they were structured up front with too little equity, sometimes borrowed by the promoter from elsewhere. And some promoters find ways to take out the equity as soon as the project gets going, so there really is no cushion when bad times hit.”

What this means in simple English is that lenders with political connections invest very little of their own money into the project they are majorly financing through the bank debt. This is something that the banks should catch on to during the time they carry out the due diligence of the project. But they clearly don’t due to the reasons offered above and that is why the Indian banks are currently in the mess that they are.

So, what is the way out of it? The long-term solution lies in the fact that politicians stop interfering with the lending process of public sector banks. And that can only happen if most even if not all these banks are privatised.

Until then, it is worth remembering what John Maynard Keynes said about banks: “If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe your bank a million pounds, it has.”

 

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on April 7, 2017

Why Bill Gates is Right About Robots Paying Taxes

Bill_Gates_June_2015

In the recent past, there have been a spate of predictions about robots taking over human jobs.  One such prediction was made on October 3, 2016, by the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, when he said in a speech: “Research based on World Bank data has predicted that the proportion of jobs threatened by automation in India is 69 percent, 77 percent in China and as high as 85 percent in Ethiopia.”[i]

As per predictions being made, it is not only jobs in the developing countries that are at risk. As Rutger Bergman writes in Utopia for Realists: “Scholars at Oxford University estimate that no less than 47 per cent of all American jobs and 54 per cent of those in Europe are at the high risk of being usurped by machines. And not in a hundred years or so, but in next twenty years.” He then quotes a New York university professor as saying: “The only real difference between enthusiasts and skeptics is a time frame.”[ii]

I have view which is different from robots destroying human jobs and I wrote about it in late January 2017. The fear of robots or automation destroying human jobs is not a new one and has been around for a while. So, what is it that makes this fear so believable this time around?

As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrow: “This is not an entirely new question. Ever since the Industrial Revolution erupted, people feared that mechanisation [which is what robots are after all about] might cause mass unemployment. This never happened, because as old professions became obsolete, new professions evolved, and there was always something humans could do better than machines. Yet this is not a law of nature and nothing guarantees it will continue to be like that in the future.”[iii]

The question is: What has changed this time around?

Human beings essentially have two kinds of abilities: a) physical ability b) cognitive abilities i.e., the ability to think, understand, reason, analyse, remember, etc. As Harari writes: “As long as machines competed with us merely in physical abilities, you could always find cognitive tasks that humans do better. So machines took over purely manual jobs, while humans focussed on jobs requiring at least some cognitive skills. Yet what will happen once algorithms outperform us in remembering, analysing and recognising patterns?

And given this, robots will takeover human jobs is the conclusion being drawn. This conclusion has one basic problem—it assumes that human beings will sit around doing nothing and let robots take over their jobs. Now that is a very simplistic thing to believe in. Hence, if and when, it seems likely that robots are really look like taking over human jobs, it is stupid to assume that the governments will sit around doing nothing. There will be huge pressure on them to react and make it difficult for companies to replace human beings with robots.

Over and above this, governments will lose out on tax. When an individual works, he earns an income and then pays an income tax on it to the government. Income tax is a direct tax. Over and above this, in India, when he spends this money, he pays other kind of other taxes, which are largely indirect taxes, like excise duty, service tax, etc. A similar structure works all over the world.

Now let’s say this individual paying taxes gets replaced by a robot. So, the government does not get the income tax that it was getting in the past. Over and above this, the individual who has lost his job, will not spend as much as he was in the past. He will go slow on spending in order to ensure that his savings last for a longer period of time, or at least until he finds another job. If a substantial number of individuals lose their jobs to robots, in this scenario, the government will lose out on a portion of indirect taxes that it was earning earlier. It will also lose out on direct taxes.

So, what is the way out of this?

In a recent interview to Quartz.com, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, said: “Certainly there will be taxes that relate to automation. Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.

Basically, taxing the robot means, taxing the company which owns that robot. And how will this help? It will help the government to finance other jobs. As Gates put it: “And what the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs. You know, all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique. And we still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there… So if you can take the labor that used to do the thing automation replaces, and financially and training-wise and fulfillment-wise have that person go off and do these other things, then you’re net ahead.”

What Gates has explained is perhaps a solution to the problem that too much automation or too many robots are going to create. There is a basic law in economics which goes against the entire idea of robots destroying human jobs. It’s called the Say’s Law. One of my favourite books in economics is John Kenneth Galbraith’s A History of Economics—The Past as the Present. In A History of Economics, Galbraith writes about the Say’s Law.

This law was put forward by Jean-Baptise Say, a French businessman, who lived between 1767 and 1832. As Galbraith writes: “Say’s law held that out of the production of goods came an effective aggregate of demand sufficient to purchase the total supply of goods. Put in somewhat more modern terms, from the price of every product sold comes a return in wages, interest, profit or rent sufficient to buy that product. Somebody, somewhere, gets it all. And once it is gotten, there is spending up to the value of what is produced.”

Say’s Law essentially states that the production of goods ensures that the workers and suppliers of these goods are paid enough for them to be able to buy all the other goods that are being produced. A pithier version of this law is, “Supply creates its own demand.”

What does this mean in the context of robots destroying human jobs? If robots destroy too many human jobs, many people won’t have a regular income. If these people do not have a regular income, how are they going to buy all the products that robots are going to produce? And if they are not going to buy the products that robots are producing, how are these companies driven by robots going to survive?

Gates has offered a solution where he says that the government taxes the companies using robots, more. That money can then be used to retrain people and deploy them in areas where people are still needed.

This means that such people will be paid by the government. And when they are paid by the government they will pay income tax as well. Over and above this, these workers will also spend that money and pay several indirect taxes to the government. Hence, the government will use the money generated from taxing robots to generate more taxes for itself.

Gates suggestion is also in line with what I had said earlier about the fact that once automation becomes a real danger to human jobs, the governments will not just sit and wait it out, but will do something about it, given that there will be tremendous pressure on them from people who elected them. It will also work towards protecting its tax revenues. Hence, any government taxing the output of robots, will be in line with this.

Gates suggestion depends on several assumptions. First and foremost is that people who lose their jobs to robots will be trained for other professions. While, this sounds simple enough, it clearly isn’t. Second, it expects the governments to do the right thing. That as we all know, is easier said than done. Third, it assumes that companies will willingly pay tax on their robots and not look at loopholes to avoid making these payments.

Having said that, Gates’ suggestion still shows one way of getting through the economic mess that the robots are likely to create.

To conclude, if my job doesn’t get replaced by a robot as well, I hopefully will be around to keep writing about this trend in the months and the years to come.

Watch this space!

[i] Speech by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim: The World Bank Group’s Mission: To End Extreme Poverty, October 3, 2016

[ii] R.Bergman, Utopia for Realists—The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders and a 15-Hour Workweek, The Correspondent, 2016

[iii] Y.N.Harari, Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harper, 2016

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on February 23, 2017

The Indian Hustler

Ramalinga_Raju_at_the_2008_Indian_Economic_SummitVivek Kaul

At the heart of it most scams are very simple—Satyam was no different. Sometime in 2003, B Ramalinga Raju, the founder and chairman of Satyam Computer Services started over-declaring revenues of the company. The process continued till 2008. On January 7, 2009, Raju in a letter to the board of directors of the company admitted to fudging the accounts of Satyam.
Between 2003 and 2008, Raju over-declared revenues of the company by creating fictitious clients. Once he had over-declared revenues he automatically ended up over-declaring profits. Over-declared profits had to be invested somewhere. This led to the creation of fictitious bank statements and fixed deposit receipts. With a rapid advancement in the quality of colour printers, creating fictitious bank statements wouldn’t have been very difficult.
In his letter to the board, Raju admitted that the cash and bank balances were hugely overstated. The cash and bank balances of the company as on September 30, 2008(the last time the company declared quarterly results) were at Rs 5,313 crore. Th actual number was at a much lower Rs 273 crore. More than half a decade of declaring fictitious profits had led to a massive jump in the cash and bank balances of the company. But the number, like the profits of the company, was fictitious.
The company was guzzling whatever “real” cash it had at a very fast rate. By the time January 2009 started, the company’s actual cash and bank balance of the company would have been much lower than Rs 273 crore.
One of the theories put forward after Raju admitted to all the wrongdoings in the letter was that only when he realized that the company wouldn’t have enough money to keep paying salaries to its employees did he decide to come out with the truth. As Raju said in his letter: “The company had to carry additional resources and assets to justify higher level of operations…It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”
The irony is that Raju had to get off the tiger, and he still hasn’t been eaten. Like all big businessmen in India, Raju is also a survivor. A special court in Hyderabad has found him and nine others guilty of cheating, criminal breach of trust, destruction of evidence and forgery. The court pronounced a seven year-jail term for the founder and also imposed a Rs 5 crore fine on him.
It took the judicial system six years and three months to sentence Raju. And this is not the end of it. The decision will be challenged in higher courts and the process will continue for a while.
The question I want to explore in this column is the timing of Raju’s confession. Raju sent a tell-all letter to the Satyam Board in January 2009. Why didn’t he do the same in January 2008? Or even earlier, for that matter, is a question worth asking.
The probable reason is that Raju was confident enough of pulling off the scam till he wasn’t. And why is that? It is worth remembering that between 2003 and 2008, the stock market in India had a huge bull run. The economy was also booming. And in such a scenario, when the financial system is flush with money, it is easy to keep a scam going.
As economic historian Charles Kindleberger writes in
Manias, Panics and Crashes: “The propensities to swindle and be swindled run parallel to the propensity to speculate during a boom.” This precisely what Ramalinga Raju was busy doing.
The stock market started crashing from early 2008, due the advent of what we now call the global financial crisis. And because of this, money wasn’t as easy to raise as was the case earlier. Raju tried to plug the huge gap in Satyam’s balance sheet by buying out two real estate firms Maytas Properties and Maytras Infra. Both these firms were owned by his family (Maytas is the opposite of Satyam).
But by late 2008, an era of easy money had come to an end. And sham transactions were not as easy to pull through. The idea here was to use Satyam’s fake cash and bank balances to buy out the real estate firms and thus have “real” assets on the balance sheet. As Raju wrote in the letter: “ The aborted Maytas acquisition deal was the last attempt to fill the fictitious assets with real ones…Once Satyam’s problem was solved, it was hoped that Maytas’ payments can be delayed.” But this deal fell through after the independent directors on the Satyam board raised issues about an IT company taking over real estate assets. In fact, if Raju had tried to push this deal through a year earlier, chances are that the board might have agreed, given that the going was good at that point of time. And when the going is good no one wants to spoil the party by asking inconvenient questions.
As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith writes in
The Great Crash 1929: “At any given time there exists an inventory of undisclosed embezzlement. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. In good times people are relaxed ,trusting, and money is plentiful. … Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression all this is reversed. … Just as the (stock market boom) accelerated the rate of growth (of embezzlement), so the crash enormously advanced the rate of discovery.”
Interestingly, the Satyam scam was the first of many scams that were to hit the nation starting in 2009. It was followed by the 2G, Commonwealth games and the coalgate scam. Sahara, Saradha, Rose Valley and many other big Ponzi schemes came to light. The National Spot Exchange scam came to light as well. These scams were mostly executed during the period between 2003 and 2008, when the economy was doing well and the stock market was going from strength to strength, but they were only revealed after the good days came to a stop.
In that sense Raju set the trend of things to come. We have to give him credit for at least that.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The article originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on April 12, 2015

Raghuram Rajan no longer a rate cut virgin, but 25 bps amounts to little

ARTS RAJANVivek Kaul

Raghuram Rajan is no longer a virgin—he has just announced his first repo rate cut as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Rajan cut the repo rate by 25 basis points (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage) to 7.75% and in the process took everybody by surprise. Repo rate is the rate at which the RBI lends to banks.
“To some extent, lower than expected inflation has been enabled by the sharper than expected decline in prices of vegetables and fruits since September, ebbing price pressures in respect of cereals and the large fall in international commodity prices, particularly crude oil. Crude prices, barring geo-political shocks, are expected to remain low over the year. Weak demand conditions have also moderated inflation excluding food and fuel, especially in the reading for December. Finally, the government has reiterated its commitment to adhering to its fiscal deficit target,” Rajan said in a statement explaining why the RBI had chosen to cut the repo rate.
Most economists and analysts who follow the moves of the RBI had been saying that a rate cut would come only after the budget was presented in the month of February. “I am very surprised because it goes against the whole current governor’s philosophy that monetary policy should be predictable. It shows the governor is very pragmatic and can look at his own position and can change,”
NR Bhanumurthy, Economist, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy told Reuters. Since taking over in September 2013, Rajan has raised the repo rate multiple times to rein in inflation and to protect the crashing rupee. Nevertheless, increases in the repo rate are boring. They only spell gloom and doom. As interest rates go up, corporates don’t invest and you and I don’t borrow to spend, making things a tad unexciting.
Repo rate cuts on the other hand are fun—look at the smiles that have come back on the faces of business news anchors for one. The Sensex has also rallied big time. And as I write this, it is up 622.28 points or 2.3% from yesterday’s close. The government bond yields fell sharply.
The bankers are all happy. And so are the corporates. At least, that’s how things are being portrayed in the media in general and on television in particular. Don’t be surprised tomorrow morning to read newspapers with headlines “your home loan EMIs are ready to fall,” and how real estate companies expect home sales to pick up again.
Or to put it in a language that everybody understands these days: “
acche din aane waale hain”. “It will provide some fillip to the economy both directly and indirectly,” Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Adviser to the ministry of finance said.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley, who over the last few months has vociferously been demanding a RBI rate cut said “[the rate cut] will put more money in hands of consumers. [It will be] positive for the Indian economy will help revive investment cycle.”
These are fairly simplistic statements. Just because the RBI has cut interest rates by 25 basis points does not mean that corporates and consumers will start borrowing.
As John Kenneth Galbraith points out in 
The Economics of Innocent Fraud: “If in recession the interest rate is lowered by the central bank, the member banks are counted on to pass the lower rate along to their customers, thus encouraging them to borrow. Producers will thus produce goods and services, buy the plant and machinery they can afford now and from which they can make money, and consumption paid for by cheaper loans will expand.” This is the logic that has been offered by both Subramanian and Jaitley.
But things play out a little differently in the real world. “The difficulty is that this highly plausible, wholly agreeable process exists only in well-established economic belief and not in real life. The belief depends on the seemingly persuasive theory and on neither reality nor practical experience. Business firms borrow when they can make money and not because interest rates are low,
Galbraith points out.
So, corporates are not just going to start borrowing and investing because the repo rate has been cut by 25 basis points. As
Bhanumurthy told Reuters: “I don’t think it will have too much impact because investment is not dependent on interest rates alone.” Further, the Indian corporates are heavily leveraged and they are really in no position to borrow more. Banks have already lost too much lending to them and will be very careful lending more.
What about consumers? Will they borrow and spend more? Here it is important to go back again to what Galbraith writes in
The Affluent Society: “Consumer credit is ordinarily repaid in instalments, and one of the mathematical tricks of this type of repayment is that a very large increase in interest brings a very small increase in monthly payment.” And vice versa—a large cut in interest rate decreases the monthly payment by a very small amount.
I have often made this argument in the past, nevertheless its worth repeating here. An individual decides to take a car loan of Rs 4.25 lakh at 10.5%, repayable over a period of five years. The monthly payment or the EMI on this loan amounts to Rs 9,134.9. Now let’s say the RBI decides to cut the repo rate by 25 basis points.
The bank decides to pass on this rate cut to the consumers (something that doesn’t always happen) and cuts the car loan rate by 25 basis points to 10.25%. The EMI now falls to Rs 9082.4 or Rs 52.5 lower. If the cut is 50 basis points as is being speculated on television channels right now, the EMI will fall by around Rs 105. Is someone going to go buy a car just because the EMI has fallen by a little over Rs 50 or Rs 100? I am sure it takes a lot more than that. For loans of lower denominations the difference in EMIs will be even lower.
What about home loans? In that case there is some fall in EMIs, but the basic problem with real estate is that its way too expensive and unless a big fall in price happens, people are not going to buy homes, even if the EMIs come down significantly.
So what does that leave us with? Not much. Monetary policy impact is over-rated. There are many other factors that need to go right for the economy to be up and running again.
The expectation is that Rajan will cut continue to cut rates in the days to come.
Shubhada Rao, Chief Economist, YES Bank told Reuters: We are expecting 50 basis point rate cut between now and June.”
Rajan in his statement said: “Key to further easing are data that confirm continuing disinflationary pressures.” This means that if inflation keeps falling, RBI will cut the repo rate more. Nevertheless Rajan also said that “also critical would be sustained high quality fiscal consolidation.”
This is where things get interesting. What Rajan is essentially saying is that he is waiting for next financial year’s budget to see what sort of fiscal deficit number does the government come up with. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
While, the finance ministry mandarins have taken great pains to say that this year’s fiscal deficit target is sacrosanct, no such statements have been made regarding the next year.
In the Mid Year Economic Analysis, Subramanian wrote that: “Over-indebtedness in the corporate sector with median debt-equity ratios at 70 percent is amongst the highest in the world. The ripples from the corporate sector have extended to the banking sector where restructured assets are estimated at about 11-12 percent of total assets. Displaying risk aversion, the banking sector is increasingly unable and unwilling to lend to the real sector.” This has led to a situation where banks aren’t interested in lending and corporates aren’t interesting in investing.
In order to get around this problem Subramanian suggested that: “it seems imperative to consider the case for reviving public investment as one of the key engines of growth going forward, not to replace private investment but to revive and complement it.”
If this were to be implemented it would mean more government spending and a higher fiscal deficit. Higher government spending typically leads to a prospect of high inflation as more money chases the same volume of goods and services. This is something that Rajan will keep a lookout for before deciding to continue with the repo rate cuts.
To conclude, for monetary policy to drive private investments and consumer spending, interest rates need to come down by a huge margin (at least around 300-350 basis points). A 25 basis point cut really amounts to nothing.

The column originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on Jan 15, 2015

(Vivek Kaul is the writer of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

A 200 year old economic theory tells us what is wrong with the developed world today

Jean-baptiste_SayVivek Kaul

I like to quote a lot of John Maynard Keynes in what I write. The reason for that is fairly simple—Keynes is the Mirza Ghalib of economics. He has written something appropriate for almost every occasion.
Nevertheless, I’d like to admit that even though I have tried to read his magnum opus
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money a few times, over the years, I have never been able to go beyond the first few chapters.
The economist whose books I find very lucid is the Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Galbraith unlike other economists of his era was a prolific writer and was one of the most widely read economists in the United States and other parts of the world between the 1950s and 1970s. He was even the US Ambassador to India in the early 1960s.
His most popular book perhaps was
The Great Crash 1929, a fantastic book on the Great Depression, which he wrote in the mid 1950s. His other famous work was The Affluent Society published in 1958.
But the book I am going to talk about today is
A History of Economics—the past as the present. In this book Galbraith looks at the history of economics and writes it in a way that even non-economists like me can understand it.
One of the laws that Galbraith talks about is the Say’s Law. This law was put forward by Jean-Baptise Say, a French businessman, who lived between 1767 and 1832. “Say’s law held that out of the production of goods came an effective aggregate of demand sufficient to purchase the total supply of goods. Put in somewhat more modern terms, from the price of every product sold comes a return in wages, interest, profit or rent sufficient to buy that product. Somebody, somewhere, gets it all. And once it is gotten, there is spending up to the value of what is produced,” wrote Galbraith explaining Say’s Law.
The Say’s Law essentially states that the production of goods ensures that the workers and suppliers of these goods are paid enough for them to be able to buy all the other goods that are being produced. A pithier version of this law is, “Supply creates its own demand.”
And this law explains to us all that is wrong with the developed world today. As Bill Bonner writes in his latest book
Hormegeddon—How Too Much of a Good Thing Leads to Disaster “French businessman and economist, Jean-Baptiste Say, discovered that “products are paid for with products,” not merely with money. He meant that you needed to produce things to buy things; you could not just produce money…has anyone ever mentioned this to the Federal Reserve?”
The central banks in the developed world have printed
close to $7-8 trillion in the aftermath of the financial crisis which broke out in mid September 2008, with the investment bank Lehman Brothers going bust. The Federal Reserve of the United States has printed around $3.6 trillion dollars in the aftermath of the crisis to get the American economy up and running again.
The standard theory that has emerged in the aftermath of the financial crisis is that consumer demand has collapsed in the Western world and this has led to a slowdown in economic growth. In order to set this right, people need to be encouraged to borrow and spend. As John Maynard Keynes put it: “Consumption—to repeat the obvious—is the sole end and object of economic activity.” (There I have quoted him again!)
To get borrowing and consumption going again central banks have printed a lot of money to ensure that the financial system remains flush with money and interest rates continue to remain low. At low interest rates the chances of people borrowing and spending would be more. And this would lead to economic growth was the belief.
Now only if economic theory worked so well in practice. Also, it was “excessive” borrowing and spending that led to the crisis in the first place.
Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales explain this very well in a new afterword to
Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists, “For decades before the financial crisis in 2008, advanced economies were losing their ability to grow by making useful things. But they needed to somehow replace the jobs that had been lost to technology and foreign competition… So in an effort to pump up growth, governments spent more than they could afford and promoted easy credit to get households to do the same. The growth that these countries engineered, with its dependence on borrowing, proved unsustainable.”
It is worth pointing out here that the share of United States in the global production of goods has fallen over the last few decades. Thomas Piketty makes this point in his magnum opus
Capital in the Twenty First Century. Between 1900 and 1980, 70–80 percent of the global production of goods happened in the United States and Europe. By 2010, this share had declined to around 50 percent, around the same level it was at in 1860. Also, faced with increased global competition, Western workers were unable to demand the pay increases they used to in the past.
Piketty further points out that the minimum wage in the United States, when measured in terms of purchasing power, reached its maximum level in 1969 and has been falling since then. At that point of time, the wage stood at $1.60 an hour or $10.10 an hour in 2013 dollars, taking into account the inflation between 1968 and 2013. At the beginning of 2013, the minimum wage was at $7.25 an hour, more than 28 percent lower than that in 1969.
This slow wage growth has led to Western governments following an easy money policy by making it easy for people to borrow. As Michael Lewis writes in
The Big Short—A True Story: “How do you make poor people feel wealthy when wages are stagnant? You give them cheap loans.”
In case of the United States, trade with China had an impact as well. As the historian Niall Ferguson writes in
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World: “Chinese imports kept down US inflation. Chinese savings kept down US interest rates. Chinese labor costs kept down US wage costs. As a result, it was remarkably cheap to borrow money.”
Ironically, what worked earlier is not working now. What has happened instead is that financial institutions have borrowed money at low interest rates and invested it in financial markets all over the world, in search of a higher return. Despite the central banks printing a lot of money, Japan recently entered a recession, with two successive quarters of economic contraction.
Europe is staring at a deflationary scenario. And the economic recovery in the United States continues to remain fragile.
Further, over the coming decades, a billion more people are expected to join the work force in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This will apply a downward pressure on costs and prices in the years to come and hence, wages in developed countries aren’t going to go up in a hurry.
Moral of the story: Western nations need to go back to making things, if they want a sustainable economic recovery. But as the American baseball coach Yogi Berra once famously said “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

The article originally appeared on equitymaster.com as a part of The Daily Reckoning, on Nov 28, 2014