June 2019

Trade war – bad polls & bad economic numbers pressure Trump

By John Ross

US share markets rose sharply on news of the announcement that Presidents Xi and Trump would meet at the G20 summit – as the Financial Times simply summarised it ‘Trump plan to meet Xi on trade sends US equities sharply higher’. This was a welcome piece of goods news for President Trump after a period during which he had been receiving bad news both on the opinion polls for his re-election and for the US economy. Naturally there are many aspects of the planned meeting that only those involved in the negotiations will know, but it is worth noting the objective pressures which are now bearing down on Trump.

Negative polls for Trump at the beginning of the Presidential election campaign

The first, and probably most important pressure on President Trump, was that opinion polls leading to the official launch of his re-election campaign on 18 June had been unfavourable for several months. Days before his official relaunch event his campaign dismissed three of his five polling advisers after leaks of internal polling showed the president had been trailing former Democrat Vice President Joe Biden in key states which would decide the outcome of the 2020 election – for example in Minnesota Trump trailed Biden 40% to 54% and in Michigan by 40% to 53%. Analysing 17 states, polling taken in March showed Trump trailing Biden by double digits in key swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan. More recent polls on 9-12 June, released by Fox News, a strongly pro-Trump TV channel, showed Trump nationally trailing nine percent behind Democrat Bernie Sanders (40% to 49%) and ten percent behind Biden (39% to 49%).

In summary as the Presidential election campaign was launched Trump was trailing badly behind Democratic rivals. In that political situation, evidently, the prospects for the US economy in 2019-2020 were crucial for Trump.

Prospects for the US economy in 2019-2020

Regarding these economic prospects for the US in 2019-2020 two substantially different perspectives for the US economy in 2019-20 had been put forward. The first, that of the Trump administration itself, echoed by some media in China, argued that due to the US tax cuts, or other reasons, the US economy would speed up in 2019 – which would evidently be good political news for Trump. In March 2019, in its official budget forecasts, the Trump administration projected 3.2% GDP growth in 2019 and 3.1% in 2020 – both faster than the 2.9% in 2018 and in line with President Trump’s claim that the US economy would grow at least 3% a year during his presidency.

The second perspective, held by the IMF, the present author, and others, was that the US economy would experience downward pressure in 2019 – not that there would be a recession but that the US economy would slow. The most recent US economic data has clearly confirmed this latter perspective.

US total industrial production, including the oil and gas sector, had stalled since the end of 2018 – by May US total industrial production was 0.9% lower than in December 2018. The decline in US manufacturing production, 1.5% in the same period, was sharper. In May 2019 US manufacturing production was still 4.8% lower than its level more than 11 years previously in December 2007 – the Trump policy to attempt to strongly revive US manufacturing production had been a failure.

In terms of Purchasing Managers Indexes (PMI), the US Composite PMI stood at 50.9 in May 2019 sharply down from 53.0 in April and the weakest expansion in the private sector since May 2016. The US manufacturing PMI in the same month fell to its lowest level since 2009 – a manufacturing PMI of 50.5 vs 52.6 in April, while the services PMI slowed to a 39-month low – at 50.9 at vs 53 in April.

US jobs data showed the same slowing trend. In May the US added only 75,000 non-farm payroll jobs compared to 224,000 in April and an average 144,000 in the three previous months.

Analysts who believe there will be a recession

Some important Western and US analysts believed that this slowing was so severe it indicated the US would enter a recession – that is at least two quarters of negative growth. For example, John Authers, Senior Bloomberg Editor for Markets and former Chief Markets Commentator for the Financial Times, made the following analysis on 18 June under the self-explanatory headline ‘Markets Are Acting Like a Recession Is Unavoidable’ with the subheading ‘It’s not just the bond market that’s signalling a severe economic slowdown.’

‘Would it be possible to explain what is going on in markets without making reference to the deteriorating U.S.-China trade relations? I am beginning to suspect that it would. Bond markets may be behaving as though they are bracing for something terrible to happen because traders are, indeed, scared that something terrible is going to happen.

‘Exhibit A is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Empire State Manufacturing Index that was released Monday. It was terrible, showing the biggest monthly decline since the last recession…  it doesn’t drop this low for long without presaging a true recession to come.

‘Conditions for the U.S. trucking industry, often regarded as a leading indicator for manufacturing, look no better…. the FTR Trucking Conditions Index… combines several different factors about demand for trucking. Figures below zero show a risk of contraction.

‘Industrial metals provide another strong market-based recession indicator. The Bloomberg Industrial Metals Subindex suggests that the optimism on growth that accompanied the first year of the Trump administration has dissipated.

‘Looking at the U.S. stock market, we see the type of relative performance that would be expected in the run-up to a recession, even if the overall market continues to show robust performance…  Investors tend not to buy utilities on the scale that we have seen lately unless they are pessimistic. There are technical factors in the bond market that have driven the current deflation scare, but there do appear to be a number of factors pointing toward an economic slowdown.’

A slowdown not a recession

The analysis of the present author is that the view that the US economy will move into recession this year are exaggerated, for reasons which are analysed at length in my book ‘Don’t Misunderstand China’s Economy’.

US growth in 2018 was 2.9% – at the peak of the upswing of a business cycle. It would be an extraordinarily sharp decline, approaching the scale of the international financial crisis of 2008, for the US to fall from the peak of a business cycle to a recession in a single year. Conditions for such a repeat of the greatest financial crisis for 80 years, since the Great Depression, are not indicated at present. Instead a slowdown of the US economy, not an actual recession, will occur in 2019. The IMF itself projects a fall in US growth from 2.9% in 2018 to 2.3% in 2019 – I would estimate that growth could be slightly higher, but the IMF figure is not unreasonable. But what such a trend indicates is that the Trump administration’s claims that US growth would accelerate are false. Instead growth in 2019 would fall. And growth in 2020 would be lower than in 2019 – a serious issue for Trump as 2020 is an election year.

Certainly, information which leaked on the same day that the Xi Jinping – Trump summit was announced indicated clearly the Trump administration felt seriously concerned about the state of the US economy. It was leaked to Bloomberg that, in an unprecedented move, the Trump administration had explored if it was possible legally to dismiss their own appointed Chair of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell – who had only take up office in February 2018.  This was immediately understood to indicate that the Trump administration feared the downward pressure on the US economy.

It is important not to exaggerate. It is still 17 months to the US presidential election. This means the bad polling numbers for Trump can still be overcome – but they are clearly a negative for him. While some US analysts project a recession in 2019, for the reasons given here it is much more likely that the US economy will slow in 2019 rather than a recession occur – although if the economy slows significantly in 2019 a recession in 2020 is entirely not impossible, which would clearly be ultra-negative for Trump. But even without an actual recession what this combination of bad polling numbers and economic deceleration does produce is clearly pressure on the Trump administration.

This is not the only factor in the situation, but it is clearly part of the background to the Xi-Trump summit at the G20.

Author’s Note: This article was finished before it was made public that the US side requested the phone call with China which led to agreement on the Xi Jinping-Trump summit. This information is in line with the analysis in the article.

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This article was previously published at Learning From China, and originally appeared in Chinese at Guancha.cn.

Public sector finances – new developments highlight why the Corbyn-McDonnell are right on fiscal policy

By Tom O’Leary

The changes to public finances following 9 years of austerity are very significant, and deserve greater attention as they were the purported reason for the attack on the living standards of workers and the poor. The changes also highlight both the superiority of Corbyn’s fiscal policy and the scope to immediately begin its implementation. The beginning of the end of austerity ‘only’ requires the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government.

The cloak of austerity

The hue and cry over the state of public finances at the outset of the economic crisis in 2008 was always a cloak for a transfer of incomes from workers and the poor to big business and the rich. The real content of austerity was an offensive to boost profits at the expense of both wages and the necessary funding for public services.

Like monetarism and ‘shadowing the DeutscheMark’ before it, austerity was a government-led project on behalf of the entire ruling class that was meant to restore profitability by increasing the rate of exploitation.  The rate of exploitation is here meant in the Marxist sense, the ratio between the proportion of total output that are retained by labour and proportion claimed by capital. In mainstream economics this is referred to as ‘share of national income’, but total incomes are equal to total production in aggregate.

As in the previous cases noted above, a spurious reason (inflation, currency stability, public finances) was offered to mask the real content of the project. In all cases, the social surplus generated through taxation was redistributed in favour of business through lower corporate taxes and away from public services and the funding of social security. There was a public sector pay freeze and an outright cut in welfare entitlements.  

The project has only had limited success. Fig.1 below shows the rate of return on capital employed by UK companies, a key component of profitability. This was initially boosted after austerity policies were imposed. But those policies were eased a little in the run-up to the 2015 general election to help engineer a Tory victory, and the boost to profits has dissipated ever since, even as austerity policies continued. The clear implication is that austerity policies will be extended unless and until there is a full-scale recovery in profitability, and that they are now highly unpopular.

Chart 1. Rates of Return on Capital Employed by UK Companies

Public finances now

Yet there has been a significant change in public finances since austerity was first imposed in June 2010 in the Tory/LibDem Coalition emergency budget. As the latest Financial Year (FY) has recently ended, it is possible to make very direct comparisons. The key aspects of this significant change include:

  • Public sector net borrowing (excluding the bank bailout) in FY2018/19 has fallen to £23.5 billion, compared to £136.5 billion in FY2010/11
  • This is a fall in public borrowing from 8.4% of GDP to 1.1% of GDP over that period
  • Within that total borrowing, the public sector current budget balance  (excluding the bank bailout) has switched from a deficit of £90.7bn to a surplus of more than £19 billion in the latest Financial Year
  • Crucially public sector net investment is virtually unchanged in nominal terms, at £45.7 billion in FY 2010/11 to £43.3 billion in FY 2018/19. But this represents a significant fall in net public sector investment from 2.8% of GDP to 2.0% of GDP.

Naturally, Tory ministers and their supporters in the media would suggest that this demonstrates the ‘success’ of austerity and continue to claim it was unavoidable. This nonsense is not widely aired currently, because of the deep unpopularity of austerity.

The project has been an attempt to resolve the capitalist crisis by shifting the burden of it onto the workers and poor.  But, while they have suffered badly and living standards have fallen outright, a resolution of the crisis still seems a distant prospect.

This attack on workers and the poor is shown in the public finances themselves.  Fig.2 below reproduces the chart from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) showing total government receipts and spending as a proportion of GDP.  In 2010, public sector current receipts have risen from 35% of GDP to 36.9% of GDP while total managed expenditure has fallen from 44.9% to 38% of GDP.

Chart 2. Total government receipts and spending

From 2010 public sector receipts have seen their slowest rise in the entire period since World War II. This reflects repeated tax cuts for business and the highest earners, as well as the general stagnation of the economy. At the same time total managed expenditure has seen fallen sharply, only less sharp than the introduction of ‘monetarism’ first by Denis Healey and then taken up with a vengeance by Margaret Thatcher.

Also from 2010, public sector investment has been cut even more severely, falling outright in real terms from £60 billion in Financial Year 2009/10 to £42.5 billion in FY2018/19. This is shown in Fig.3 below.

Chart 3. Real Public sector finances, receipts, expenditure and net investment, £ billion

It is important to note that the rate of inflation has been very high over the period, as repeated falls in the value of the pound have pushed import prices higher. The total rise in prices over the period from when austerity was first implemented (June 2010) has been just under 20% (using the CPI measure). 

This has produced an improvement in government finances in two ways. First, VAT receipts, which account for one-fifth of all government tax revenues have risen as a result of these price increases.  Secondly, the government freeze on public sector pay has produced an extraordinary ‘windfall’, by cutting public sector workers’ pay very sharply in real terms. Of course, in the opposite direction government procurement costs will also have been increased by the surges in inflation over the period.

Corbyn/McDonnell fiscal framework

The British economy clearly remains in a crisis, and is stagnating. A radical change in policy is therefore imperative.

John McDonnell has set out an entirely new fiscal framework for Labour, which is far superior to Labour’s post-World War II policy of ‘keynesian’ demand management.  That policy collapsed with the end of the long post-war boom in the 1970s. Subsequent attempts to recreate it by low interest rates and high government borrowing for Consumption from the turn of this century laid the basis for the banking crash and recession in 2007/08.

Instead, Labour’s fiscal credibility rule (pdf) aims to balance spending and receipts on the current budget, and borrow only for Investment. As Investment is the most important factor in generating economic expansion, this is a decisive shift. It allows Labour to borrow in the most effective way to raise living standards sustainably over the long-term. Enduring rises in prosperity, which are or should be the ultimate aim of all progressive or socialist economic policy are not sustainable unless preceded by an increase in the productive capacity of the economy through Investment.

This important change in Labour’s policy was initially attacked by those wedded to the old, failed ‘keynesian’ framework on the ridiculous grounds that Corbyn and McDonnell were intending to implement austerity.  In fact, Labour’s 2017 election manifesto was accompanied by a separate document itemising a costed commitment (pdf) to increase spending by £48.6 billion. This represents a 5.8% increase over current total government current spending, or approximately 5.3% over projected total current spending by the time of a 2022 general election. The commitments are funded through taxes on big business, tax evaders and the very highest earners. This is not austerity, but the beginning of reversing it.

Crucially, the fiscal framework allows for an increase in borrowing for Investment.  Investment increases the productive capacity of the economy and is defined (in government terms) as providing a financial return on government outlays.  In Labour’s plans, the average annual outlay for this increased Investment is £25 billion per annum, which is equivalent to approximately 1.2% of GDP.  This is in addition to the level of Investment inherited from the Tory government.  As noted above, the average private return on capital is currently approximately 12.5%. There is no reason why public sector returns on capital Investment should not be as least as great.

To be clear, this is not the introduction of socialism, or anything resembling it. But is a series of significant reforms which are feasible and will improve the lives of millions of workers. It runs counter to the entire project of the British ruling class, and so will face extremely determined and powerful opposition.

The new situation

But there are two important developments which have changed backgrounds for the application of this correct fiscal approach.

The first is the state of public finances themselves. As noted above, the balance on current spending has swung into a surplus. Secondly, at the same time, the economic outlook is increasingly gloomy.

This is not simply a short-term or Brexit-related development, although it is clear that firms have been stockpiling produce and cutting Investment over the course of several months.  Instead, it is the slowdown in the world economy, the deceleration in business investment throughout the advanced industrialised economies and the fact that the British economy will suffer prolonged damage from Brexit which together offer a very negative outlook.

Fig.4 below reproduces a chart from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing the level of real business investment since the recession began. Business investment has contracted throughout the whole of 2018 and seems set to deteriorate sharply, based on survey evidence. In total, business investment is less than 6% higher than prior to its recession high-point in the 2nd quarter of 2008. On current trends there is a risk that the modest rise in business investment since the recession will dissipate altogether.

This combination of factors provides both a threat as well as an opportunity. Clearly, if profits have not recovered, austerity will be resumed.  But the state of public sector finances means that there is also increased scope for an incoming Labour government to tackle the crisis. The surplus on the current budget for the FY just ended was over £19 billion. The OBR (which admittedly has a poor forecasting record) assumes the surplus on this measure will widen to £77 billion in FY2021/22, the last possible year for a general election.

Certainly, some of this surplus could be used to supplement the £48.6 billion in taxation revenues that Labour intends to spend to reverse austerity.  But not all of it should be.  Because Investment creates new means of production, the higher the sustainable level of funds allocated to Investment, the greater the growth in the means of production and in living standards that will follow.

Of course, no-one in the Labour leadership or elsewhere can know precisely how the economy will fare over the next period, nor how the new Tory leader may change either government current spending or government net Investment before then.  So, any commitments must take account of that uncertainty. But the existence of the surplus on the current budget means that increased commitments are possible without increased borrowing, while still meeting the fiscal rule.

Given its decisive role in creating new productive capacity of the economy, optimising the level of Investment should be the first priority. Taking the lower sum of approximately £20 billion in surplus of the current budget balance, this should be reallocated between current and Investment outlays for an incoming Labour government. In the current framework, the approximate ratio between increased current spending (£49 billion) and increased Investment (£25 billion annually) is 2:1. Using this as ceiling, a rule could be introduced that the ratio of additional spending between the current budget and Investment goes no higher than this.  So, of the latest current budget surplus of over £19 billion, a minimum of £6.5 billion (one-third of the total) should be allocated to additional Investment.

At the same time, the Tory government continues to cut net public Investment.  This is part of the austerity offensive, which includes removing the state from any part of the economy that could be conducted by the private sector, even at much greater cost.  On Labour’s current plans, the additional £25 billion in net investment is in addition to the current government’s £43 billion Investment for a total of £68 billion. This is currently equivalent to approximately 3.4% of GDP. This is the same as at the outset of and in response to the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008.

As the Tories may well cut net public Investment even further, as a safeguard Labour could also commit that its total commitment will not fall below 3.4% of GDP.

In summary, austerity will continue while the recovery in profits remains elusive. What is required is a government with entirely different priorities, ending austerity and raising living standards by a combination of increased taxation and borrowing for Investment. That means a Corbyn-led government. 

The current state of public finances also means that Labour’s plans can be applied in new circumstances, as the current budget is now in surplus. Without any additional increase in public borrowing, the current budget surplus can be used both to take further steps in reversing austerity and in raising the level of Investment.