Capitalism and its critics

Rage against the machine

People are right to be angry. But it is also right to be worried about where populism could take politics

Oct 22nd 2011
from the print edition




FROM Seattle to Sydney, protesters have taken to the streets. Whether they are inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York or by the indignados in Madrid, they burn with dissatisfaction about the state of the economy, about the unfair way that the poor are paying for the sins of rich bankers, and in some cases about capitalism itself.


In the past it was easy for Western politicians and economic liberals to dismiss such outpourings of fury as a misguided fringe. In Seattle, for instance, the last big protests (against the World Trade Organisation, in 1999) looked mindless. If they had a goal, it was selfish—an attempt to impoverish the emerging world through protectionism. This time too, some things are familiar: the odd bit of violence, a lot of incoherent ranting and plenty of inconsistency.
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The protesters have different aims in different countries. Higher taxes for the rich and a loathing of financiers is the closest thing to a common denominator, though in America polls show that popular rage against government eclipses that against Wall Street.


Yet even if the protests are small and muddled, it is dangerous to dismiss the broader rage that exists across the West. There are legitimate deep-seated grievances. Young people—and not just those on the streets—are likely to face higher taxes, less generous benefits and longer working lives than their parents. More immediately, houses are expensive, credit hard to get and jobs scarcenot just in old manufacturing industries but in the ritzier services that attract increasingly debt-laden graduates. In America 17.1% of those below 25 are out of work. Across the European Union, youth unemployment averages 20.9%. In Spain it is a staggering 46.2%. Only in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria is the rate in single digits.


It is not just the young who feel squeezed. The middle-aged face falling real wages and diminished pension rights. And the elderly are seeing inflation eat away the value of their savings; in Britain prices are rising by 5.2% but bank deposits yield less than 1%. In the meantime, bankers are back to huge bonuses.

History, misery and protest


To the man-in-the-street, all this smacks of a system that has failed. Neither of the main Western models has much political credit at the moment. European social democracy promised voters benefits that societies can no longer afford. The Anglo-Saxon model claimed that free markets would create prosperity; many voters feel instead that they got a series of debt-fuelled asset bubbles and an economy that was rigged in favour of a financial elite, who took all the proceeds in the good times and then left everybody else with no alternative other than to bail them out. To use one of the protesters’ better slogans, the 1% have gained at the expense of the 99%.


If the grievances are more legitimate and broader than previous rages against the machine, then the dangers are also greater. Populist anger, especially if it has no coherent agenda, can go anywhere in times of want. The 1930s provided the most terrifying example. A more recent (and less frightening) case study is the tea party. The justified fury of America’s striving middle classes against a cumbersome state has in practice translated into a form of obstructive nihilism: nothing to do with taxes can get through Washington, including tax reform.


Worryingly, politicians are already in something of a funk. The Republicans first denounced the occupiers of Wall Street, then cuddled up to them. Across Europe social democratic parties have tended to lose elections if they move too far from the centre ground, but leaders, like Ed Miliband in Britain and François Hollande in France, still find the anti-banker rhetoric enticing. Why not opt for a gesture—tariffs, a supertax on the rich—that may only make matters worse? A struggling Barack Obama, who has already flirted with class warfare and business-bashing, might well consider dragging China and its currency into the fray. And it will get worse: austerity and protest have always gone together.


Tackle the causes, not the symptoms


Braver politicians would focus on two things. The first is tackling the causes of the rage speedily. Above all that means doing more to get their economies moving again. A credible solution to the euro crisis would be a huge start. More generally, focus on policies that boost economic growth: trade less austerity in the short term for medium-term adjustments, such as a higher retirement age. Make sure the rich pay their share, but in a way that makes economic sense: you can boost the tax take from the wealthy by eliminating loopholes while simultaneously lowering marginal rates. Reform finance vigorously. “Move to Basel 3 and higher capital requirements” is not a catchy slogan, but it would do far more to shrink bonuses on Wall Street than most of the ideas echoing across from Zuccotti Park.


The second is telling the truth—especially about what went wrong. The biggest danger is that legitimate criticisms of the excesses of finance risk turning into an unwarranted assault on the whole of globalisation. It is worth remembering that the epicentre of the 2008 disaster was American property, hardly a free market undistorted by government. For all the financiers’ faults (“too big to fail”, the excessive use of derivatives and the rest of it), the huge hole in most governments’ finances stems less from bank bail-outs than from politicians spending too much in the boom and making promises to do with pensions and health care they never could keep. Look behind much of the current misery—from high food prices to the lack of jobs for young Spaniards—and it has less to do with the rise of the emerging world than with state interference.


Global integration has its costs. It will put ever more pressure on Westerners, skilled as well as unskilled. But by any measure the benefits enormously outweigh those costs, and virtually all the ways to create jobs come from opening up economies, not following the protesters’ instincts. Western governments have failed their citizens once; building more barriers to stop goods, ideas, capital and people crossing borders would be a far greater mistake. To the extent that the protests are the first blast in a much longer, broader battle, this newspaper is firmly on the side of openness and freedom.


Germany and the Euro

Currency Crisis Heightens Trans-Atlantic Tensions

By Charles Hawley

10/21/2011 06:18 PM


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The US is becoming increasingly impatient with Europe's seeming inability to solve the ongoing euro crisis. Many in the United States think they know who is to blame: Germany.

For once, US President Barack Obama sounded satisfied. "Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy fully understand the urgency of the issues in the euro zone and are working diligently to develop a comprehensive solution that addresses the challenge," reads a White House press office statement on a Thursday video conference involving the three leaders, in addition to British Prime Minister David Cameron.


The message could, of course, be seen as one of many such White House statements issued each year expressing confidence in allies as they face difficult problems. But Thursday's statement stands in sharp contrast to the trans-Atlantic bickering that has accompanied Europe's search this autumn for a solution to its growing common currency crisis. And it obscures the truth: Many in the US think Europe -- and Germany in particular -- has taken a wrong turn.

"It's hard to detect which matters more: German behavior over Libya or its course in the management of the euro crisis," writes Ulrike Guérot of the European Council on Foreign Relations in a recent essay. "But, in short, most US analysts believe that Germany got both wrong."


As if to highlight the impression of European bumbling, the EU on Thursday announced that a second summit was to be held next Wednesday in addition to the one scheduled for Sunday. Paris and Berlin have simply been unable to agree on how best to maximize the impact of the euro backstop fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), and need a few more days for talks.


The debate over the EFSF has been going on for months, as has a concurrent and equally rancorous discussion over how best to approach Greece's ongoing reliance on outside financial assistance. The solution, as leaders across the European Union have said in recent months, is more Europe. Greater integration, they say, is the only way to provide the kind of political framework necessary to ensure the stability of a currency like the euro.


That will take time, though. What is needed now, however, is a quick fix -- one that will reassure the markets that Europe has the problem under control.


European Dawdling


With global financial markets becoming increasingly nervous, the US has been watching closely. In September, Obama had finally had enough. In a speech in California, he said that European dawdling was "scaring the world." He added that "they're trying to take responsible actions, but those actions haven't been quite as quick as they need to be."


Berlin's response has bordered on impolitic. "It's always much easier to give advice to others than to decide for yourself. I am well prepared to give advice to the US government," said Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. In an interview with the tabloid Bild am Sonntag last Sunday, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "I can't understand some of the critical comments from our American friends regarding our policy of reducing debt."
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Even Merkel herself joined in, blasting the US for its unwillingness to support an international financial transaction tax. "It can't be that countries outside the euro zone, which continuously push us to solve the debt crisis, comprehensively reject a financial transaction tax," she said. "I don't think that's okay."


The US isn't alone with its growing discomfort. Last week, Cameron told the Financial Times that European leaders should take a "big bazooka" approach to tackling the crisis. The piecemeal tactics must come to an end in order to finally resolve the future of the euro zone. "Time is short, the situation is precarious," Cameron warned.


Unusually Large Stakes


It seems likely that Europe will indeed find a way out of the current impasse by Wednesday's summit. Merkel and Sarkozy have always found last minute resolutions to similar disagreements in the past. And with financial chaos looming, the stakes are unusually large.


But, says Guérot, the debate has been instructive regarding Germany's current role in the new Europe and frustration with which the US has viewed that role. Germany is insisting on a solution to the debt crisis which does not involve positioning the European Central Bank as the funder of last resort. That means no euro bonds. And it means no banking license for the EFSF.


The debate, though, says Guérot, has gone beyond a rational discussion of the issues at hand. "If it is a carrot and sticks game, Germany is only on the sticks side," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I think it has become a real war of orthodoxy. It is a real tragedy for Europe."

Both Cameron and Obama, to be sure, have clear domestic political motivations for pointing their fingers at the Continent. The British economy has once again come to a standstill after experiencing a mini-upswing, and Cameron is under pressure to soften his government's austerity measures. He benefits from the suggestion that a possible recession is not the result of Conservative policy, but of the political chaos across the English Channel.


Governance Problems


For Obama, the situation is even more dire. His re-election next year could depend on the state of the US economy. And should the euro stumble, the already stagnant US economy -- complete with stubbornly high unemployment -- is sure to take a dive too.


"If Europe does not deal with the problem of undercapitalized banks, it could easily blow up and turn into another worldwide conflagration," said Obama's former chief economic advisor Austan Goolsbee in a recent interview with SPIEGEL. "Europe as a whole has certainly been too hesitant. Germany is part of the leadership in the euro area -- and it has not yet stepped up and done what has got to be done."


The message from Guérot is similar. Adjusting European structures to where they need to be to ensure the euro's success will not be easy, she says. "The US has real economic problems," she says. "The EU has governance problems."


With reporting by Carsten Volkery in London and Sebastian Fischer in Washington



The capitalist network that runs the world

19 October 2011

by Andy Coghlan and Debora MacKenzie – New Scientist

The 1,318 transnational corporations that form the core of the economy. Superconnected companies are red, very connected companies are yellow. The size of the dot represents revenue.



AS PROTESTS against financial power sweep the world this week, science may have confirmed the protesters' worst fears. An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.


The study's assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts contacted by New Scientist say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.


The idea that a few bankers control a large chunk of the global economy might not seem like news to New York's OWS movement and protesters elsewhere. But the study, by a trio of complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is the first to go beyond ideology to empirically identify such a network of power. It combines the mathematics long used to model natural systems with comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world's transnational corporations (TNCs).


"Reality is so complex, we must move away from dogma, whether it's conspiracy theories or free-market," says James Glattfelder. "Our analysis is reality-based."


Previous studies have found that a few TNCs own large chunks of the world's economy, but they included only a limited number of companies and omitted indirect ownerships, so could not say how this affected the global economy - whether it made it more or less stable, for instance.


The Zurich team can. From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company's operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.


The work, to be published in PloS One, revealed a core of 1,318 companies with interlocking ownerships (see image). Each of the 1,318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What's more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1,318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world's large blue chip and manufacturing firms - the "real" economy - representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.


When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a "super-entity" of 147 even more tightly knit companies - all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity - that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. "In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network," says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.


John Driffill of the University of London, a macroeconomics expert, says the value of the analysis is not just to see if a small number of people controls the global economy, but rather its insights into economic stability.


Concentration of power is not good or bad in itself, says the Zurich team, but the core's tight interconnections could be. As the world learned in 2008, such networks are unstable. "If one [company] suffers distress this propagates," says Glattfelder.


"It's disconcerting to see how connected things really are," agrees George Sugihara of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, a complex systems expert who has advised Deutsche Bank.


Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), warns that the analysis assumes ownership equates to control, which is not always true. Most company shares are held by fund managers who may or may not control what the companies they part-own actually do. The impact of this on the system's behaviour, he says, requires more analysis.


Crucially, by identifying the architecture of global economic power, the analysis could help make it more stable. By finding the vulnerable aspects of the system, economists can suggest measures to prevent future collapses spreading through the entire economy. Glattfelder says we may need global anti-trust rules, which now exist only at national level, to limit over-connection among TNCs. Bar-Yam says the analysis suggests one possible solution: firms should be taxed for excess interconnectivity to discourage this risk.


One thing won't chime with some of the protesters' claims: the super-entity is unlikely to be the intentional result of a conspiracy to rule the world. "Such structures are common in nature," says Sugihara.


Newcomers to any network connect preferentially to highly connected members. TNCs buy shares in each other for business reasons, not for world domination. If connectedness clusters, so does wealth, says Dan Braha of NECSI: in similar models, money flows towards the most highly connected members. The Zurich study, says Sugihara, "is strong evidence that simple rules governing TNCs give rise spontaneously to highly connected groups". Or as Braha puts it: "The Occupy Wall Street claim that 1 per cent of people have most of the wealth reflects a logical phase of the self-organising economy."


So, the super-entity may not result from conspiracy. The real question, says the Zurich team, is whether it can exert concerted political power. Driffill feels 147 is too many to sustain collusion. Braha suspects they will compete in the market but act together on common interests. Resisting changes to the network structure may be one such common interest.
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The top 50 of the 147 superconnected companies


1. Barclays plc


2. Capital Group Companies Inc


3. FMR Corporation


4. AXA


5. State Street Corporation


6. JP Morgan Chase & Co


7. Legal & General Group plc


8. Vanguard Group Inc


9. UBS AG


10. Merrill Lynch & Co Inc


11. Wellington Management Co LLP


12. Deutsche Bank AG


13. Franklin Resources Inc


14. Credit Suisse Group


15. Walton Enterprises LLC


16. Bank of New York Mellon Corp


17. Natixis


18. Goldman Sachs Group Inc


19. T Rowe Price Group Inc


20. Legg Mason Inc


21. Morgan Stanley


22. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc


23. Northern Trust Corporation


24. Société Générale


25. Bank of America Corporation


26. Lloyds TSB Group plc


27. Invesco plc


28. Allianz SE 29. TIAA


30. Old Mutual Public Limited Company


31. Aviva plc


32. Schroders plc


33. Dodge & Cox


34. Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc*


35. Sun Life Financial Inc


36. Standard Life plc


37. CNCE


38. Nomura Holdings Inc


39. The Depository Trust Company


40. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance


41. ING Groep NV


42. Brandes Investment Partners LP


43. Unicredito Italiano SPA


44. Deposit Insurance Corporation of Japan


45. Vereniging Aegon


46. BNP Paribas


47. Affiliated Managers Group Inc


48. Resona Holdings Inc


49. Capital Group International Inc


50. China Petrochemical Group Company


* Lehman still existed in the 2007 dataset used


Graphic: The 1318 transnational corporations that form the core of the economy


(Data: PLoS One)