The Emperor’s New Coins – Don’t Let BaitCoins Lure You Down A Rabbit Hole

As the public discourse around Bitcoin reaches a crescendo, a number of learned commentators are comparing the current Bitcoin mania to the Tulip mania of the 17th century or even to the South Sea Bubble, where a great number of British people lost huge amounts of wealth in the 18th century as a result of purchasing the stock of companies that didn’t actually generate any value.

However, I beg to disagree. In the case of those who physically bought tulips (rather than the futures contracts attached to tulips), when the crash came, they at least owned a bunch of beautiful flowers. In the case of Bitcoins, people will be left with a string of 0s and 1s which will never be seen, admired, enjoyed or felt.

The Bitcoin high priests (because there is a certain level of almost theological fundamentalism one senses when one speaks with Bitcoin proponents) will argue and explain that Bitcoin is a fairer way of redistributing wealth and how it will be the currency of the world because it is free of central bank influence.

Except when you ask them to explain how:

  • There will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins – because that is the theoretical maximum limit
  • It can ever be a transparent when 1 million of those coins are owned by possibly one person or a small group of people (Satoshi Nakamoto) – who is unknown and whose origins are shrouded in mystery
  • It can be considered equitable when 40% of all Bitcoins are owned by 1,000 peoplein the world who are all linked to each other and can collude to move the Bitcoin markets at once.

There are some real fundamental problems with Bitcoins which I’m highlighting below and which I hope gives food for thought.

The real issues with Bitcoin and the arguments made by Bitcoin proponents

What is the intrinsic value of Bitcoin?

 The single biggest issue about Bitcoin is around what the intrinsic value of Bitcoin is. There will be any number of convoluted answers about what people think the inherent value of Bitcoin is, but it gained the greatest usage by merchants and purveyors of illegal merchandise on the dark web through sites like the Silk Road where you could buy anything from crack cocaine to knuckle dusters.

I was reflecting on the factors driving the valuation of Bitcoin valuation, 4 years ago in 2013 (when Silk Road was at its peak) and now and reflecting on the drivers leading to Bitcoins valuation. The figure below is my view of some of the factors driving Bitcoin valuation.

Figure 1 – Factors driving Bitcoin valuation

In the very early days, when you required a few Bitcoins to pay for pizza, the usage of Bitcoin was limited to a very small group of individuals who wanted an anonymous mode of exchange. The bearer nature of Bitcoin meant that it provided the level of anonymity that one requires in order to transact bravely in all forms of drugs (except it didn’t and a whole bunch of people were caught when Silk Road was shut down – and also because the founder of Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht aka ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, chose to use his actual name to set up his anonymous site….and boasted about it in his LinkedIn profile!). Crime generates US$2.1 trillion worth of economic activity, or 3.6% of the world’s GDP. This suggests a sizeable market for anyone who wants to move on from transferring large amounts of US dollars physically or electronically towards a virtual, anonymous currency which can be transferred across borders through anonymous digital wallets.

There were also small groups of Libertarian vendors who were accepting Bitcoin as a means of exchange but Bitcoin’s perception, be it as a commodity or currency, was fairly limited. However, through the hype generated through the valid use cases of the underlying technology driving Bitcoin, Blockchain, Bitcoin hit the public domain in a much bigger way and a small group of individuals started creating the hype around it, which increased people’s perception of what the value of each Bitcoin should be.

That is what figure 1 above suggests – the value of Bitcoin has been driven by the irrational and exuberant perception of some of the market around what the value of Bitcoin ought to be, rather than on any sound fundamentals or basis.

This then leads to my original question: What is then the inherent value of Bitcoin?

Why should anyone consider it as a store of value and the most fundamental question of them all is, when all is said and done, what is a Bitcoin backed by?

Paul Krugman said it best when he explained that, “To be successful, money must be both a medium of exchange and a reasonably stable store of value. And it remains completely unclear why Bitcoin should be a stable store of value.”Krugman’s interview with BusinessInsider is also hugely instructive for those interested in learning more about his thoughts on Bitcoin.

‘Ah,’ the Bitcoin high priests will exclaim, ‘what then is any currency in the world backed by?’ and use that as an argument to argue the value of Bitcoin.

Let’s be clear, a Bitcoin has no underlying value. It generates no value, except in its own exchange, and there is nothing to back the price of a Bitcoin, except only the trust of the purveyors of Bitcoins, which in turn is backed by nothing but hope and the promise that there will be another sucker who will come along to buy the coin at a price higher than they were duped into buying.

Other fiat currencies, say the US dollar, the Chinese renminbi, or any other national currency are essentially backed by the underlying economic output of the country. Governments are able to defend and protect a currency on the back of the strength of its reserves or economy. These currencies are accepted as a means of exchange and faith in the economic system is implicit.

If Bitcoin goes into a free fall, what authority or government is going to step in to prop it up and ensure the confidence within the underlying asset? What economic output does Bitcoin generate that underpins its value?

No underlying value – not like a fiat currency backed by the underlying economic output and governments are able to defend and protect a currency on the back of the strength of its reserves and the currency is accepted as a means of exchange and faith in the economic system is implicit.

The naiveté of Bitcoin high priests

Bitcoin enthusiasts proclaim how Bitcoin will become the de facto currency of the world.

Let’s be clear. The moment anyone or anything comes close to threatening the national sovereignty of a country, they will be shut down and shut out.

Over time, I foresee national economies and regulators killing Bitcoin outright (the way China banned it outright) or killing it through a thousand cuts (or regulatory burdens such as considering Bitcoins to be commodities rather than currencies and taxing holders of Bitcoins for capital gains – as the IRS are seeking to do in the US). The IRS in the US is also hunting down Bitcoin users and breaking their shield of anonymity so as to find them and tax them.

The British government, through the UK Treasury, is also looking at greater regulation of Bitcoin in an effort to bolster anti money laundering or the countering of the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT). Australia is following suit in a similar vein, and it’s a matter of time this becomes a wider campaign, driven by concerted regulatory authorities.

The moment governments introduce sufficiently high capital gains taxes – and they will because they will be able to justify it as a tax on something that has been made purely through speculative channels and with no underlying economic activity – and over time, this will destroy Bitcoin’s value?

The reason why governments will, over time, not allow for Bitcoin’s operations is because it threatens the sovereignty and integrity of their national borders. Governments will never cede their ability to use monetary policy to control and influence economic activity. This is precisely what Bitcoins do as they fall beyond the reaches of central banks and regulators and how can a country aim to control inflation, employment, underlying economic activity, if a currency that they cannot control is influencing their economy? This is the challenge economies like Vietnam or Indonesia face because of the pervasive influence of the US dollar on their economy and they are unable to exercise monetary policy tools.

The race to regulate Bitcoin has begun, and ultimately, this is what will lead to the moderation or possibly the demise of a currency that is not backed by underlying value, economic activity or output.

It’s all about finding the next sucker

The way the Bitcoin market is moving now, nobody is actually using Bitcoin as a medium of exchange or as a currency. It is a commodity or an asset that people are holding on to, and hopefully selling it off to somebody else before the whole thing implodes.

Since the start of the year, Bitcoin’s price has jumped more than 1,000 percent since the start of the year, and Bitcoin futures just began trading at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (what happens when you bring together a fake currency and a financial weapon of mass destruction??)

The shadowy nature of Bitcoin’s true controllers

The other real issue with Bitcoin is the completely opaque structure of Bitcoin’s ownership structure. Satoshi Nakamoto, the founder of Bitcoin, allegedly owns up to 1 million Bitcoins, or roughly 5% of the theoretical maximum number of Bitcoins (21 million). If and when Nakamoto chooses to cash out, it will lead to a collapse of the currency as we have it.

Another estimated 1,000 people own up to 40% of the total Bitcoins in circulation – most of them who are connected to each other. There is a persistent, and reasonable concern, that if these Bitcoin owners choose to ‘pump and dump’ the Bitcoins (given the lack of any real governance or regulation around Bitcoin trading at present), then those shouldering the fallout will be the investors who came in without understanding what it is and without an ability to influence the market or hope for some form of regulatory/governance mechanism to support them.

Collusion, which is generally illegal for almost any other asset class, can take place with impunity amongst the Bitcoin community (the majority of coins which are controlled by a very small group of individuals). The Bitcoin whales (or those who control significant portions of the Bitcoin world) are under (currently) no regulation, there is little anonymity, and there is no oversight – so how will this lead to the type of transparency that one requires in order to be the de facto currency of the world?

Bitcoin’s widespread acceptability isn’t all that it is cracked out to be

Bitcoin enthusiasts will claim that Bitcoin is going to be the new digital gold that will overhaul the existing global monetary system – overhaul to what exactly is not something they are able to answer. They will cite it’s widening acceptability as a medium of exchange – but it ain’t.

Bitcoin’s acceptance as a mode of exchange is still hugely limited. Last year, 1% (or 5) of the top 500 online businesses accepted Bitcoin as a medium of exchange. Given the fanfare Bitcoin has had, you would expect there to be an increase in its acceptability. But actually, only 3 of the top 500 (or less than a percent) online retailers are now accepting Bitcoin – so the number has fallen.

The single biggest traded commodity each given day, is oil. It is oil that drives the strength and value of the US dollar. There is almost never going to be a time where anyone will sell oil in Bitcoin. Nobody (sane) will seek to sell their home or property in Bitcoins. Everyday life will rarely include Bitcoin in its path – and it is not going to become the ‘de facto currency of the world’ which is part of the excuse individuals use to explain the current price levels.

Furthermore, it is also important to note that, even in the world of cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin isn’t the only non-value generating currency or show in town. There are numerous other cryptocurrencies (including DarkCoin – which has increased in value exponentially over the last few months, Litecoin, Ethereum, etc), all with the same level of vulnerabilities and issues. Why should any of the currencies be THE cryptocurrency of choice?

This is remarkably similar to the conditions that led to the South Sea Bubble, a period of history where even Sir Isaac Newton lost a fortune which led to his famous quote, “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.”

Incidentally, Venezuela just launched Petro, their own national cryptocurrency – and to be fair, at least Petro is backed (allegedly) by the national oil reserves of Venezuela, which is more than can be said for Bitcoin.

It’s a secure trading currency

 The Bitcoin enthusiasts argue about the security Bitcoin offers. It doesn’t.

South Korean Bitcoin exchange was hacked and has gone bust in recent days – with North Korean hackers being blamed. There is a continuous stream of reports of digital wallets and coins being stolen and with little recourse for individuals who have lost their earnings. This is what happens in a world without regulation.

These are not isolated incidents either. In a report delivered in 2016, Reuters argued that a third of all cryptocurrency exchanges have been hacked.

The fact that authorities are routinely seizing Bitcoins (see examples of SwedenBulgariaUS) suggests that a concerted drive by determined individuals can also take control of the Bitcoins you think you own.

Beware and be careful

From the time I started on this article 3 days ago, to the current time, I note that the Bitcoin valuation has gone from close to US$20,000 to just over US$13,000, with no real change in underlying world economic conditions in those 3 days.

It just goes to prove my point that a currency based on nothing, will move due to anything.

Ultimately, one should never buy what one doesn’t understand. Of course, the likes of the Winklevoss brothers will argue that Bitcoin will grow by twenty times – but that’s of course only because they own a huge chunk of Bitcoins and will only benefit from a price increase.

I worry greatly when I see young people take out credit card debt to buy these coins or in some insane cases, take out second mortgages!As I’ve said earlier, nobody’s going to sell their homes for Bitcoins, so why bet your savings on it?

People are going to be at the mercy of forces they can never hope to control or understand, and should not be investing in what essentially a fad based on no real underlying value or economics. Aswath Damodaran’s (Professor at NYU Stern School of Business) warning about it being a potentially lucrative but dangerous pricing game with no good ending is one that people should do well to heed.

People also often make a mistake in assuming a paper profit translates to actual cash surplus. We already are reading about the lack of liquidity in the market place alongside cases of individuals who are unable to liquidate their Bitcoins for cash, especially during a downturn.

Nobel Prize winner Joe Stiglitz argues that Bitcoin should be outlawed because it doesn’t serve any real useful function but ultimately it may not require any legislative forms of control because it will disappear into the margins of society where it began once people realise the lack of substance or value that one can attach to it and after people realise in the end, it comes down to a bunch of digital bits they can never see or touch and which is not backed by anything real.

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Robots! Clear and Future Danger For Economies

I was at a conference recently and there was a speaker who was extolling the power of robots, technology, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in the modern workplace and how it was going to revolutionise the global economy.

There was quite a catalogue of achievements as a result of increased robotics and AI including lower ‘FTE’ (or ‘Full Time Equivalent’ of human labour) requirements and greater efficiency, productivity and decreased errors and mistakes. These were achievements that were backed by undisputed statistics and data.

The ability to create consistently high economic value using systems, robots and AI which do not make mistakes, which do not break down often, which can even be self-correcting becomes very appealing.

However amidst the glories of robotics and AI, I felt increasingly concerned about where the world was heading with the increased introduction of automation, robotics and AI and the impact this was going to have on employment, social mobility and income equality.

My concerns

Technology as a displacer of jobs.

Technology, automation and robotics initially replaced blue-collar jobs and roles from the economies. Increasingly greater sophistication of AI means that white-collar jobs are also being replaced. We read various reports about the jobs of the future being technology-related roles that help create, maintain and repair robots and their related technology, but I postulate that robots can fix themselves (and their ‘peers’) better than people ever can and over time, robots can create other robots to do the tasks which they need done.

In the past, technology was an enabler. It was a great source of enhanced productivity for nations’ economies.

However, technology has now become a replacer or displacer – of jobs, of people, of roles. It has now become a tool to enhance economic output but ends up depleting people and their earnings.

This is going to be a longer-term fundamental problem and challenge to societal and economic growth and development.

The impact on developing economies

Let us consider Philippines and India. They have spent billions of dollars investing in the infrastructure and ecosystem to help create thriving shared services and business process outsourcing (SSCs / BPOs) businesses. This was to help meet the needs of multinational companies. However, with AI and automation increasingly taking on a majority of the roles and jobs that are currently being done by millions of people in both countries, it is going to lead to a significant job loss and risk the potential collapse of the SSCs and BPO sector in both countries.

Over time, with increasing automation and AI, multinationals need not outsource various roles to locations of lower labour cost. They will instead seek to outsource the roles to nations with the lowest tax and the best technology infrastructures in which they can base their systems and robots. 

The moral obligation and income inequality

With increasing AI and automation, I struggle to see how the job losses faced by millions as a result of robots taking on their roles are going to be mitigated. There also seems to be little alternative sources of formal employment.

Whilst it is easy to highlight how automation can reduce expenses by 66% and reduce ‘FTEs,’ I think we need to look at people beyond merely being an ‘FTE’ or as a mere factor of production.

 

Over time, it is going to also exacerbate the issues of income inequality which is already one of THE pressing moral issues of our time. I’ve covered this topic at length previously.

The factors of production, the technologies, the AI and robots are going to be in the control of a very small segment of society. Whilst it may create vast economic growths, it does not lead to growth in income or wealth for the majority of the people. This will lead to societal fractures which can be devastating to nations and society.

What then the moral obligation to people and society?

Possible solutions?

Leaving this issue to be dealt with purely by market forces will not result in resolution and frankly will be disastrous in my opinion. There needs to be a concerted governmental approach to resolving this and finding solutions that work.

Using levers such as tax policies will be ineffective, particularly in a world with little tax harmonisation. For instance, increased taxation for robotics-led solutions will only encourage a beggar-thy-neighbour policy and in a world with little tax harmonisation, it becomes a useless endeavour.

 

If we accept that robotics and automation are an inalienable part of the development of society, then we need to accept that the current economic models  will not be best suited for what the world needs. Maybe it is time for us to seriously consider and contemplate universal income as a way to mitigate and tackle some of the problems coming our way as a result of robotics and automation.

Universal income is something a number of countries are experimenting with to tackle income inequality which as I’ve explained earlier will only be growing with greater automation and robotics. Finland for instance has started a pilot programme, the Swiss held a referendum in June 2016 to consider universal basic income which did not pass as only a quarter of the Swiss agreed with it, the Dutch will be carrying out a pilot programme this year, and this is just a start.

What is increasingly clear is that it is not enough to simply hope the challenges brought on by AI and robotics are going to go away, there needs to be a concerted and strident efforts made to mitigate them.

China / Japan? History repeating itself?

japanchina2

Too far fetched?

Let’s consider briefly the facts and also some important caveats.

Population demographics

The results of a census taken in 2015 has placed Japan’s population at just over 127 million – a decline of about 1 million in about 5 years. Japan’s birth rate has been long below the total fertility ratio of 2.1 (currently 1.4) and nearly a third of all Japanese citizens are now over 65. This is already a source of policy and economic challenges for Japan and one that is likely to keep growing.

China’s one-child policy starting in the 70s has had a major impact. Whilst the policy has now been relaxed, the population control genie, once out of the bottle can rarely be controlled. Changing economic trends, mindset shifts, and a movement towards an urban citizenry means less people are keen on having children. The United Nations estimates that that the number of Chinese over 65 will increase by 85% to 243 million in 2030 (from the current 131 million). The Chinese working population saw its biggest decline in 2015 – a fall by a record 4.87 million.

Both Japan and China have very restrictive and insular immigration policies which will only serve to further exacerbate the population and demographic challenges. These demographic issues will also impact economic growth and development as in time both economies will have inverted population pyramids, where one active working individual will be supporting two parents and four grandparents – and better medical facilities and healthcare will lead to a greater demand on the working population.

Perhaps the spur in investment in robotics will help alleviate these challenges?

Economic growth history

Japan’s economic growth started with the development of its manufacturing base following World War Two with support from the USA and other Allied nations. Japan’s growth was an average of 9% between 1955 and 1973 (when the first ‘oil shock’ impeded growth).

In the case of China, following a debilitating post-war economic situation and the challenges of the Cultural Revolution, the opening up and reformation of the economic system from 1978 was instrumental in China’s economic story. China’s growth has averaged between 7% and 10% since.

The main engine of growth both in the case of Japan and subsequently China was manufacturing. It will surprise users of top-notch Japanese products today to learn that from the 1950s to around the 80s, ‘Made in Japan’ meant low-quality and cheap and people preferred to use American or European produced goods. However, the Japanese investment into their manufacturing processes, research and development over time meant that they started developing high-value and high-quality goods and products. It’s a process that took decades and systemic investment into innovation.

In the case of China-made products, there are still some challenges around quality and value, but this is something that is being addressed as we now increasingly see greater investment into research and innovation.

Funding world’s developing needs

Japan became development donor from as early as the mid-50s and by the early 90s, Japan became one of the largest officual development assistance (ODA) providers in the world. Grants, aids and soft loans were provided through agencies such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Japan then became instrumental in the establishment of the Asian Development Bank (an institution for which it has maintained presidency since inception in the 60s).

This allowed Japan to project its soft-power and help foster policies favourable to Japan across recipient nations.

If we examine China’s development assistance, aid and grants – it has grown from less than US$1 billion in 2002 to over $25 billion in 2007 to currently over US$100 billion. Due to differences in the way ODAs are valued, it is possible that China’s current aid and grants may be undervalued.

China also was instrumental in the set-up of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with an express aim of building infrastructure across Asia-Pacific. Whilst both ADB and AIIB officials have been at pains to stress that they do not see each other as competitors (indeed they have already co-financed a number of projects), a primary reason why the AIIB was set up so as to have greater autonomy by China and other partners in multilateral banking institutions.

Slowing growth and liquidity trap

In the late 80s, Japan was running a very large trade surplus and the stock market and property prices were booming (there were properties which were valued at US$1.5 million per square meter – or ten square feet in Ginza!) which collapsed in the 90s. There was an asset bubble across both the stock and property markets and when the bubbles burst, it led to the loss of trillions of dollars of value.

Deflation set in and whilst the Japanese government tried its best to promote spending (including setting interest rates at near zero levels), there was little effect. Growth has been anaemic and in 2009 the GDP fell by 5.2%.

Japan found itself stuck in a classic liquidity trap where where its monetary policy had little or no impact on economic output and production levels. This led to the ‘tragedy of Japan’s lost decades.’

Let us now consider China. Relatively easy loans made by banks? Check. Booming property prices? Check. Booming stock market? Check. Corrections across all three areas? Check.

China’s economy has been slowly significantly and it’s GDP growth rate has fallen to a level not seen since 1990. A report from the Wall Street Journal indicated that investors are hoarding cash rather than investing – a classic sign of a liquidity trap. The stock market debacle in Shanghai in 2015/2016 has also dampened investor enthusiasm.

The Chinese Communist Party Politburo has also cautioned against debt-fuelled growth and rising asset bubbles. There is also evidence to suggest that the stimulus packages initiated by the government are having little impact.

Some key differences.

Whilst there are some similarities, it is important to note a number of major differences and caveats before any quick conclusions are made. Firstly, China starts off with a much bigger population base and the reverberations from the impacts will take a much longer time before they are felt.

Secondly, China’s political system lends itself to a greater continuity in policies which may be effective in warding off economic downturns and avoid ‘lost decades’ the likes which Japan went through. Japan on the other hand went through nine prime ministers in the 11 years between 1989 and 2000 which hardly allows for lasting measures and policies.

In order to avoid the liquidity trap challenges, the Chinese government will need to focus on its war against graft and corruption and instil trust in the public institutions. Long-term and difficult policy decisions in the areas of state-owned enterprises reform need to be made in order to boost productivity. There needs to be continued efforts to keep narrowing the inequality gap and create greater employment opportunities which will in turn boost spending and help deter deflation.

The road ahead is a difficult one but there is no reason for history to repeat itself as long as the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

 

The Wheels Are Off – the Italian Referendum Results

The majority of Italians have voted against the constitutional reforms proposed in a national referendum and Italian Premier Matteo Renzi’s “experience of government” is now over as he steps down.

The Italian economy has been like a Ferrari with its wheels slashed – its economic performance has been the worst amongst any of the Eurozone country with the exception of Greece; it’s government loans sit at 130% of GDP and unemployment exceeds 11%.

This failure of the referendum is now akin to the Ferrari with its wheels completely off the axle – and the casualties won’t just be the Italians in the Ferrari but indeed the whole of the Eurozone.

Early indicators are that the Euro has fallen sharply against the Dollar and the Asian markets are spooked by what is to come from Europe.

What does this result mean for Italy, Europe and the world?

1. Brace for a hard landing of the banking sector.

We could see the demise of a few banks in Italy, starting with the Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) – the world’s oldest bank – which has already lost almost 90% of its value this year. MPS is already one of Europe’s weakest banks and they are subject to a bailout plan which may now not come to fruition.

Italian banks are struggling with about €360 billion of bad loans and are significantly undercapitalised. There will be a huge sell-off of Italian and European banking stock once the markets open.

The problem is that the scale of interconnectedness means that a hit to the Italian banking system will leave a trail of destruction across the rest of the European and global banking sector starting with the largest European lenders such as Deutsche Bank.

2. The EU and Euro are both going to go through an existentialist phase

Brexit dealt a big blow to the EU project. The rise of the Five Star Movement, a Eurosceptic opposition which has already claimed ‘victory’ in this referendum means that over time their views on EU and the Euro are going to gain even further traction. Even if the Five Star Movement do not win in any early elections called as a result of this referendum (they have a campaign promise to hold another referendum on Italy’s membership within the EU), their views are going to be, over time, become mainstream.

3. Imposition of capital controls?

In 2015 we saw capital controls applied in Greece to stop a run on the banking system and see a flood of capital out of the country. A run on the Italian banking sector will have a colossal impact and a pre-emptive series of capital controls, though damaging from a reputational perspective, may be required for reasons of survival.

4. An Italian sneeze will cause an European contagion.

This result will no doubt cause another slump in the Eurozone economy and will cause a negative investment sentiment. Unemployment will continue rising and living standards will fall, not just in Italy but across Europe.

The people have spoken and have demonstrated a willingness to face a hard landing. Whether they are prepared for a hard reset is another matter altogether and this is going to be the start of a period of extreme uncertainty, economic uncertainty and hardship.

What Italy needs now is an expert driver who is going to be able to manouvere the Ferrari with no wheels skillfully so that it causes the least damage both to the Ferrari’s passengers and other Eurozone travellers.

 

 

 

FW: INCOME INEQUALITY RE: MAJOR PROBLEM

 

“I believe this [income inequality] is the defining challenge of our time.”
Barack Obama (2013)

 

“One of the leading economic stories of our time is rising income inequality, and the dark shadow it casts across the global economy.”
Christine Lagarde (2015)

 

There is a clear recognition of the risks, dangers and the pain which income inequality imposes on society. Despite the recognition, it is a problem which seems to constantly be forwarded on to successive generations to resolve rather than finding a decisive set of solutions.

We will all do well to pay heed to the US Senator John Sherman who in 1890 when he introduced his landmark Sherman Antitrust Act said that he sought to “put an end to great aggregations of capital because of the helplessness of the individual before them” and also because he fundamentally believed that amongst all of the nation’s problems, “none is more threatening that the inequality of condition, of wealth and opportunity.”

So why does inequality matter? Why is it important that we all strive towards resolving it? Societies that are hugely imbalanced and unequal ultimately become fractured which in turn lead to painful social and economic consequences that affect everyone. Neither the rich nor the poor will be able to avoid the huge social costs of a fractured society.

The stark facts

  • 62 of the richest people in the world own what the bottom 50% of the world’s population own.

  • 1915: The richest 1% of Americans earned 18% of the national income.
    1930s to 1970s: The share plummeted and remained below 10%
    From the 1970s: The share has increased to almost 30%

  • 1980: The top 0.1% wealthiest Americans controlled about 9% of all household wealth
    2015: The top 0.1% own 22% of all household wealth.

  • USA: The top 1% of America control 40% of America’s wealth

  • Germany: Poverty has risen by half since 2000.

  • 1965: CEO pay at the largest 350 U.S companies was 20 times as high as the pay of the average workers
    1989: The figure is 58 times as high
    2012: The figure is now an astounding 273 times as high.
    (It is worth bearing in mind that Peter Drucker argued that the pay ratio between the top executive and the humblest worker should be no greater than 20 to 1.)

  • OECD: The gap between the rich and poor is now at its highest level in OECD economies in 30 years according to a report produced in 2014. The overall increase in income inequality has been driven by the richest 1%.
  • 2008: The United Nations University (UNU) and the World Institute for Development Economic Research (WIDER) estimate that the global Gini coefficient (a measurement of inequality between 0 – representing complete equality and 1 – representing complete inequality) was 89.

    An alternative way to interpret this is that in a population of 10 people, if one person had $1000, the other nine have only $1 each.

  • 2014: The Credit Suisse Global Wealth report estimates that that the richest 0.7% (who hold over US$1 million in wealth) held 44% of the global net worth.

Some context

The economic success stories of many countries hides a dangerous truth – that a significant majority of economic gains are going to those at the very top of the income distribution whereas those lower down have seen real incomes stagnate or diminish.

This has in turn perpetuated further inequality as those in a position of privilege often use their wealth and influence to shape policies that further increase their concentration of power. These policies have not necessarily been in the interests of those lower down the income ladder.

A research conducted by Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton, lends credence to the notion that the US government responds more positive to the most affluent ten percent of Americans whilst “the preferences of a vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.” (A video of Gilen’s lecture can also be viewed here.)

The erosion of the social compact

This wasn’t always the case though. Whilst there has always been inequality, it has never been to this extent or been as pervasive. There was also more concerted effort to reduce the level of inequality and dampen its deleterious impact on society.

The experience of the First World War revolutionised American attitudes towards taxation and redistribution of income. When the War Revenue Act of 1917 was passed, there was talk of “conscription of income” and “conscription of wealth” at a time when young men were enlisting en masse. “Let their dollars die for their country too,” one congressman said. The call for fiscal patriotism helped legitimate the progressive income tax in the United States, and by 1944 the top marginal rate had risen as high as 94 percent.

Across Europe, a fear that the lack of reform could lead to social and political turmoil and the horrors of two World Wars meant that policies such as social insurance, minimum wage, a strong welfare state and progressive income tax were implemented leading to more egalitarian societies and economies.

inequality 2The experiences of global ears produced visions of a social bond holding countries together and nurtured the notion that every single person owed a debt to the welfare of the broader community and society.

However since the 70s, the disappearance of these conditions has meant that the support for egalitarian public policies has also diminished.

We now live in a world where even high skilled jobs are being commoditised so that even highly educated workers are not making sufficient progress as gains in economic growth are limited to a very elite group of financiers, entrepreneurs and managers. In the past only unskilled workers lost jobs to automation, now even highly skilled occupations are at risk with the advancement of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation.

The social structure of Silicon Valley provides us with an instructive view of the future: One where expert systems have replaced the majority of people and a tiny but well-remunerated minority direct the economy whilst the majority exist to serve them alone.

The conflict is no longer just between the working class and the middle and upper classes – it is now between a tiny elite and the great majority of citizens. As the majority develop a sense of common interest, or what Marx may have termed ‘class consciousness’, the need to resolve inequality will become more acute as the resentment of it intensifies.

 

What happens when income inequality starts to become entrenched?

  • Health: Societies that are more unequal tend to have lower life expectancies, higher infant mortality, higher levels of infant mortality and high levels of diseases and conditions such as HIV/AIDS.
  • Human capital development: As inequality rises, scores on the UNICEF index of child well-being become significantly worse. Literacy rates are also lower and youth unemployment also becomes a major issue. A higher level of equality also leads to a greater level of innovation as a result of greater access to opportunity.
  • Social mobility: Inequality restricts social mobility – equality of opportunity is enhanced by greater income equality. Reduced social mobility further exacerbates income inequality and this becomes a vicious spiral from which an effective functioning economy becomes more and more difficult.

    inequality1 2
    (C) Walt Handelsman
  • Economic progress and stability: An IMF report highlights that by reducing inequality and bolstering longer term economic growth are “two sides of the same coin.” In both rich and poor countries, inequality is strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and growth over time. Unequal economies are also more susceptible to severe boom-and-bust cycles leading to greater volatility and crisis. Extreme levels of income inequality depress economic growth. An OECD report estimates that inequality has had a cumulated loss of GDP across OECD economies of 8.5% over twenty-five years.
  • Social challenges and issues: Inequality breeds corruption. Unequal societies also lead to greater economic instability. If one considers the root causes of the Arab Spring, the lack of economic opportunity or equality is one of the main drivers leading to revolt.

A blueprint for change and resolution

The solution and change required for income inequality is not a zero-sum game. There will be those who are impacted more than others, but it is essential in calibrating the world in a more equal way.

It is very easy to be dangerously complacent and ignore equality, but chronic economic inequality hurts everyone, both the rich and the poor.

Resolution of a problem like inequality requires a revolutionary approach. We need to accept a fiscal revolution or risk a social one.

I’ve highlighted below briefly some key practical steps that need to be considered as we seek an urgent resolution to the problem of income inequality.

  1. Tax reforms – Income taxes need to be more progressive (the way they were previously in times of greater equality). There needs to be a reform in the way the transfer of wealth is also taxed. The OECD has suggested that attempts to reduce inequality tax and transfer policies will not harm growth as long as the chosen policies are well designed and implemented. The OECD further argues that redistribution efforts should focus on families with children, on the youth and the improvement in human capital investment through the promotion of skills learning and development.
  1. Continued focus on economic growth and employment – Policies targeting economic growth need to continue as growth ensures jobs are created and ensures employment. Employment will support social mobility which is essential to the reduction of inequality.
  1. Ensure emphasis on social mobility – Social mobility is a key driver towards the reduction on inequality. Emphasis on education, skills learning and development is vital to support social mobility.
  1. Support small savers and small businesses – Policies should not be tilted towards just merely taxing the rich but also be aimed at increasing the wealth of small savers and businesses. For instance we should consider the introduction of accounts for small savers and businesses that guarantees positive returns in excess of inflation. It is also a widely observed phenomenon that lower income families borrow more to support their consumption and this in turn creates a systemic risk.
  1. Enhanced social policies – Governments and policy makers should also consider more directed interventions to enhance the social conditions of lower income families. For instance, in the UK, the Child Benefit offers a weekly allowance to parents for every child they raise. The transfer could be better targeted by making the income taxable as personal income, which will reduce the size of the benefit for those in higher tax brackets or who do not have face any other mitigating circumstances. In the UK, child poverty has dropped sharply whilst in the USA; it has risen by a third between 1969 and 2013. A child-benefit programme will help make a major dent in child poverty and also represent a powerful investment in the future. Introducing a child-benefit program in the US will make a major dent in child poverty and represent a powerful investment into the future.
  1. Minimum wage – Governments should also take an active review of the minimum wage policies in their countries and recalibrate them to local conditions. There is always a temptation to keep minimum wage lower because neighbouring countries are keeping theirs lower, but this beggar thy neighbour policy will not benefit anyone in the long run. Countries that make the effort to ensure greater equality will be healthier in the long term.
  1. Automation and technological change – Governments should take an active interest in the direction of technological change. It is mostly governmental grants and labs that are responsible for the underlying research that has led to the progress in automation and technology and they therefore have the right to ensure a clear review is undertaken to mitigate the social impacts of technological change through appropriate fiscal and taxation policies.

It is crucial that we as a collective rise up to face the challenges of income inequality and work closely to create a more equal society. The corrosive impacts of inequality will affect us all and the sooner we can find solutions to achieve an equal society, the better, for all.

Seven beneficiaries of UK’s Brexit

Following the  proxy class war that was the EU referendum, I was reflecting on who I think will be some of the beneficiaries of UK’s Leave or Brexit result besides the obvious parties like the Leave campaigners and Boris Johnson.

As a slight aside my personal view is that the root cause of this result is inequality which has led to a disenfranchised populace that is reacting against the increasing economic marginalisation an increasing majority of citizenry are facing. Even the issues of migration are being amplified against this backdrop of growing economic inequality. This is one of THE policy challenges of our time. Resolve this huge issue of rising economic inequality and I suspect we will find in it the panacea to a large number of other issues we are facing.

So on to who I suspect will be benefiting from this:

  1. Scottish independence campaigners – The will of the Scottish people is reflected in the results – they want to remain in the EU. During the last independence referendum, there was a clear statement that any exit from the EU by the UK may trigger another call for independence. Whilst 2014’s independence referendum was deemed a once in a generation campaign, I suspect the result of the 24th of June 2016 may bring forward the next independence referendum to as soon as the next two years.
  2. The United Irish brigade / and IrelandSinn Fein have been quick off the mark to argue their case for a union of the Northern Irish with the Republic of Ireland. Similar to the Scots, the Northern Irish were also in favour of remaining with the EU and there is a case for them to argue for independence and fulfil the long-held dreams and aspirations of Irish nationalists.

    Any push towards reunification will also lead to the levels of investment and pump-priming of both Irish economies leading to further growth. Furthermore, in the near term, I suspect some of the investment meant for the UK may be diverted to Ireland, particularly in the financial services and outsourcing sectors.

  3. First time home buyers – With the expected fall in asset prices, it may finally become easier for people trying to get onto the property ladder. Furthermore, a reduction in immigration will also dampen demand for housing and rental yields, leading to more affordable homes. It is also widely expected that the Bank of England will not be hiking rates any time soon to carry on fostering demand as well, making the overall cost of home ownership more affordable.
  4. Lawyers and accountants – Over the next two years, as major UK enterprises and companies seek to understand their legal, tax and financial planning positions vis-à-vis the EU, they will rely on an army of lawyers and accountants to make sense of their obligations and required strategies to maximise profit and minimise liabilities (legal and financial).
  5. Management consultants – I am fairly sure BCG, McKinsey, Booz (PwC), and other management consultants heard a loud ker-ching of cash registers going off collectively as they seek to become the ‘experts’ in EU law and supporting both the public sector (particularly as they become overnight subject matter experts in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that governs EU exit) and private enterprises as they help organisations make sense of what Brexit means for them (by first asking them what it means for them and then re-writing it into 100 PowerPoint slides and charging them a fortune for it…).
  6. Trump’s policy advisors and US isolationist/protectionist campaigners – The Donald will point to UK’s EU referendum results to his domestic base and use it as an argument about why his protectionist and isolationist policies are for the best and will help “Make America Great Again (TM).” It could also be a powerful argument against the likely Democrats’ positions about open economies and trade reforms.
  7. UK exporters – At least in the short to medium term, as there is a downward rebalance of the UK Sterling, I suspect it will help improve UK’s exporters (particularly seeing as 50% of UK’s 15 export partners in volume are outside the EU). However, it has to be also noted that UK’s net deficit is roughly £300 billion and given the higher level of imports, it is also likely there will be a strong inflationary pressure with little monetary tools or options at the Bank of England’s disposal.

Muzzling a rockstar central banker – the Indian way

This article reflects only my own personal thoughts and do not reflect the official position of any other organisation. Responsibility for the information and views expressed this article lies entirely with me. 

The news of the resignation of India’s central banker Raghuram Rajan has unsettled Indian investors, and rightfully so.

Rajan was one of India’s best central bankers and was a cornerstone in driving the Indian economy over the last three years.

Here is a man who in 2005 at a conference in Jackson Hole made some prescient statements about how financial developments have made the world a riskier place and called out the systemic risks posed by banks to the global economy. (His speech can be found here: https://www.imf.org/external/np/speeches/2005/082705.htm). He was derided as a luddite who was misguided. However, the developments of the 2008 financial crisis proved him right and a number of his proposed safeguards have since been implemented.

Some may question why the current Indian administration has removed a man who is widely recognised as an architect of India’s growth story.

It goes back to 2014, when Rajan questioned Modi’s “Make in India” campaign and cautioned against “against picking a particular sector such as manufacturing for encouragement, simply because it has worked well for China. India is different, and developing at a different time, and we should be agnostic about what will work.”

Last year, Rajan also questioned the rising of sectarian tensions and intolerance propagated by factions associated with the currently ruling government.  In a speech to the Indian Institute of Technology last October, Rajan lambasted the rising intolerance and stated: “India has always protected debate and the right to have different views. Excessive political correctness stifles progress as much as excessive license and disrespect.”

This is consistent with the pattern of behaviour displayed by the current Indian administration .

What have Modi and his administration achieved in the last two years:

 

So what does this administration do in response? Remove one man who can help make a difference and help improve matters.

Another great article here: By getting Raghuram Rajan out, Modi may have won, but India has lost

I am genuinely concerned at the state of affairs in India and despite the sometimes effective PR campaign Modi’s government may run, the cracks are beginning to show.

India’s always been a home to alternative thoughts, ideas, ideologies, religions, faiths, beliefs, ethnicities and ways of life. We have been a beacon of hope and democracy for all and it is very sad to see the very edifices of inclusivity and secularism crumbling.