Posts Tagged ‘financial crisis’

The Thin Controller

March 21, 2016

Osborne weight loss

George Osborne, who I used to call The Fat Controller, has become the Thin Controller after eating less and running more. But he is still Sir Topham Hat, insensitive nemesis of poor Thomas the Tank Engine (and all other members of the working classes).

In case you missed the Thin Controller’s latest, last week he decided to reduce taxes for the rich and the middle classes at the same time as chopping a further £4.4 billion over five years from the budget to support disabled people. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that 370,000 people with a disability would lose an average of £3,500 a year. This comes on the back of an already-implemented big squeeze on various direct and indirect forms of welfare support for the disabled.

Most of the groundswell of anger at the Thin Controller — he has already abandoned the disability benefit cut in a standard ‘oh my god, what have I done this time?’ volte-face  — focused on his increase to the level at which higher earners begin to pay the 40 percent income tax rate. However this change has at least the merit of rewarding middle class work.

What gob-smacked me in the Thin Controller’s budget was the decision to make big cuts to already ridiculously low rates (compared to income tax rates on work) of Capital Gains Tax (CGT). Britain is fast becoming a rentier society, but the Thin Controller’s determination to turn us into some proto-feudal squirearchy seems to know no bounds. He cut the lower band of CGT from 18 percent to 10 percent, and the higher rate from 28 percent to 20 percent.

The old rates do remain in force for profits on one’s second, third, fourth and fifth, etc homes (i.e. for non-primary real estate). However the adjustment is a huge bung to the share- and bond-owning leisure class, of which I regard myself as an aspiring member. Thinking today about whether I should not perhaps take the next three months off and go on safari, I decided to check the HM Revenue and Customs web site and learn more about the Thin Controller’s commendable policy to encourage my indolence. Here is what I found:

<Policy objective>

<The government wants to create a strong enterprise and investment culture. Cutting the rates of CGT for most assets is intended to support companies to access the capital they need to expand and create jobs. Retaining the 28% and 18% rates for residential property is intended to provide an incentive for individuals to invest in companies over property.>

This statement has three great qualities. First, it is pure gibberish. Companies (the supposed subject of the second sentence) do not pay CGT, they pay Corporation Tax. Second, it is dishonest. Following from 1., what the Thin Controller really means is that he wants to support the stock-owning rentier class, who don’t need to work because tax rates on passive capital invested in shares and bonds were already low, and are now even lower. Annoyingly, he can’t actually say this, but we know who we are. Third, the statement is misguided. This is because no British rentier with half a brain is going to invest much of their unearned capital in British companies when the Thin Controller has created such an anaemic growth environment. One gives one’s capital to American companies like Apple, Amazon, Skyworks, Gilead, Amtrust Financial Services, American Express, American Tower, Verisk Analytics, and so on. (Disclaimer: oh yes, I own them all.) And then one pays sod all tax to the Thin Controller on the profits. Of course, in the final analysis this doesn’t matter because the Thin Controller doesn’t need the tax because he’s dismantling the welfare state.

Got it?

 

A warm-up for Italy?

July 13, 2015

So, the Med Men caved. They didn’t have the balls to leave the Euro, which might have been their best option. However I am cautiously optimistic, because a fudge scenario in which Greeks are left in charge of structural reforms and they don’t take place (again) may have been avoided. The Med Men caved to such an extent that it looks like Commission bureaucrats and the IMF will be standing right over them as ‘they’, the Greek politicians, write and implement reform legislation. Like doing your homework with Mummy Merkel leaning down with two hands on the kitchen table. That suggests the reforms and the privatisations could actually get done. The trick is for the EU to ease the pain while the change is happening. A lot of drivel is being written about how the deal is ‘worse than Versailles’ and involves no debt forgiveness. Rubbish. Debt is a combination of principal, the interest you have agreed to pay and the term limit over which you have agreed to pay. There have already been big haircuts on the latter two (in the second, 2012 bailout), and more will come. But Mummy Merkel will have to find ways to finesse a bit of extra current spending to ease the pain of the reforms. This is far from impossible if you believe, as I do, that she is a basically decent person (I’d far rather owe her money than the British government, or indeed the average Greek politician). So let’s see. Assuming of course that those who voted No in the referendum and won don’t — not unreasonably — impose their decision by protest. If the reforms go through and Greece starts to grow that way (rather than as a result of devaluation), it is a warm-up for the Siege of Rome. Doubtless Matteo Renzi, who said he was going to Brussels to tell Frau Merkel how to behave, noted the observation of one person party to the negotiations that Tsipras had been ‘crucified’. Ouch. If, as someone once observed to me, Italians fear pain but not death, that is a horrible prospect.

More:

If you have an FT subscription, read Gideon Rachman’s column. He thinks the Greeks won’t do their homework whatever Mummy Merkel does.

Med Men

July 10, 2015

So less than a week after the Greek people reject a creditor austerity package in a referendum, the Greek prime minister offers a more comprehensive austerity package on their behalf.

And most of the media expect the Syriza coalition in parliament to support the austerity package.

The cost of the referendum, the massive disruption to the Greek banking system and real economy were for precisely nothing.

Go figure!

Still, I doubt that the Greeks, like the Italians, will deliver on the structural reforms that are required (they haven’t so far). They will continue to do the austerity, because budget cuts are easier than fixing institutional problems. But the basic issue of low growth/no growth in unreformed, over-indebted Greece and Italy will remain. Those two countries, and particularly Italy because its economy and debt are so much bigger, are the nub of the Euro-area problem.

 

Goodbye Greece

July 5, 2015

The Greeks have just voted ‘no’ to the terms of a new deal with their creditors. So what happens next?

I think that Germany-led Europe will let them fall out of the Eurozone. The Greeks think they are going to negotiate a better deal, but any improved deal just invites the likes of Italy to think they can get one. So I can’t see any way forward other than letting the Greeks go.

There will be some chaos in the financial markets, and plenty of short-term chaos in the Greek economy. But within a year a Greece run on drachmas will stabilise and start to show some growth at a more realistic exchange rate.

The bigger problem for Germany and the Eurozone core will then come into a view in a couple more years when an Italy that has not delivered structural reforms and is still barely growing sees that Greece is stabilised and starts to flirt more aggressively with leaving the Euro.

That, however, is two years away. In politics, you deal with intractable problems by kicking the can down the road. And that is why I think Greece has to go. So that Germans can try to imagine, for another couple of years, that the Euro project hasn’t been a monumental disaster.

Unfortunately it has.

That said, Spain and Ireland should be in much better shape in a couple of years which at least reduces the list of countries that might be looking for big debt hair-cuts from German and French banks.

I continue to believe that it is in Italy where the Euro mess will reach its apogee.

A little clear thinking

November 18, 2014

I am posting a number of documents by Adair Turner relating to the concept of ‘helicopter money’. The term was coined by Milton Friedman and refers to the idea of simply dropping money into an economy to expand the monetary base without any commitment by a government or central bank to ‘pay’ for the money. Indeed, the point is to increase money supply, possibly permanently, in order to pay for government expenditure.

Printing money to cover a government’s bills is never going to be an easy policy to sell. But Turner has bravely put this option on the table because the place to which the major economies of the world are heading under current policy may actually be worse.

How so? Turner’s point is that the policy of central banks expanding their balance sheets and flooding financial markets with cash to force down interest rates to zero is merely fuelling asset bubbles – in real estate, in stocks, and even now in things like fine art. What the world needs is a return to somewhat higher interest rates to head off another speculative bubble and bust (selling some Apple shares yesterday at 18 times earnings and more than four times what I paid for them reminds me we may already be in bubble territory). The problem, of course, is that higher interest rates cannot come at the expense of another collapse in the demand in the real economy and hence a spiral of 1930s-style deflation. Logically, as Turner argues, the only option may therefore be to expand the monetary base, create a bit of inflation to allow a meaningful rate of interest, and simultaneously use the printed cash pay off some government debt and fund expenditures that maintain real economic growth.

Such a policy would (probably) put the fiscal boot on the other foot compared with the past six years. Almost all UK and US policy since 2008 has favoured those with assets – real estate, stocks and bonds — as asset values have been restored by the near-zero interest rate policy. If rates rise, those who hold assets under leverage will pay more debt service and asset prices will come under pressure. On the other hand, a positive real interest rate gives those with only a bit of cash (the young, the poor) some return on their money in the bank, while money creation can pay for lower taxes on work and investment in things like infrastructure. In other words, such a policy tilts the table away from those with assets and towards those without assets but with a willingness to work for a living. You begin to see quite how outrageous this proposal is…

The proposition is indeed shocking. However it is a measure of the times in which we live that you really should read what Turner is saying. He is not a red, and nor are the economists (like Milton Friedman and Irving Fisher) whom he cites in support. Turner is pretty much an Establishment figure…

The lightest iteration of what Turner is saying is an FT opinion piece from last week. I have not done this before, but I am reproducing it in the hope the FT won’t pursue me for breach of copyright. (Having only been paid £250 for my recent opinion piece for them, perhaps they will decide they owe me a bonus; one notes that deflation is already haunting the Pink’Un.)

November 10, 2014

Printing money to fund deficit is the fastest way to raise rates

By Adair Turner

No technical reasons exist for rejecting this, only the fear of breaking a taboo, writes Adair Turner

What is the right course for monetary policy? The International Monetary Fund seems to answer with forked tongue. Its latest World Economic Outlook urges that monetary policy should stay loose to stimulate growth. Yet its Global Financial Stability Review warns that loose monetary policy risks creating financial instability, which could crimp growth. In fact the best policy is to print money and raise interest rates. That sounds contradictory, but it is not.

The global economy is suffering the hangover from many decades of excessive private sector credit growth. In 1950 private credit in advanced economies was 50 per cent of gross domestic product; by 2007 it was 170 per cent.

After the 2008 crisis, households and companies began trying to pay back what they owed. This depressed consumption and investment, generating large fiscal deficits as tax revenues fell and social expenditure rose. It then seemed essential to balance public sector accounts, which has depressed growth further and made deleveraging harder.

Debt owed by the public and private sectors has actually increased as a proportion of GDP, from 170 per cent five years ago to 200 per cent today. Weak demand has led to below-target inflation in all major economies.

Economists agree that this is how we got into the current mess, but they disagree about how to get out of it. Some, such as Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers, argue for more relaxed fiscal policies. Cutting taxes or increasing public expenditure is the most certain way to stimulate demand. In Milton Friedman’s words it is an injection directly “into the income stream”. But this route out of recession would increase public debt even further. It seems blocked.

Instead, most countries have opted to combine fiscal tightening with ultra-loose monetary policy, setting short-term interest rates close to zero and using quantitative easing to reduce long-term rates and boost asset prices.

There are no technical reasons to reject such measures, only the fear of breaking a taboo.

But there are dangers. Sustained low interest rates create incentives for highly leveraged financial engineering. They make it easier for uncompetitive companies to survive, which could stymie productivity growth. And they work by restarting growth in private credit – which is what led to our current predicament. The Bank for International Settlements therefore argues that monetary policy should be tightened as well as fiscal, but that would depress demand yet further.

We should indeed seek a swift return to higher interest rates, to remove the dangerous subsidy to high leverage. But paradoxically, the best way to do that, particularly in Japan and the eurozone, would be to deploy a variant of Friedman’s idea of dropping money from a helicopter. Government deficits should temporarily increase, and they should be financed with new money created by the central bank and added permanently to the money supply.

Money-financed deficits would increase demand without creating debts that have to be serviced. This would lift either real output or inflation and allow interest rates to return to normal more quickly. True, banks might amplify the stimulus by creating additional private credit, but they can be restrained with higher reserve requirements.

There are no technical reasons to reject this option, only the fear that once we break the taboo, money-financed deficits will be used on too large a scale.

Despite that fear, de facto monetisation is inevitable in some countries, even if policy makers deny it.

Japan’s official policy involves using sales tax increases to make government debts sustainable, while massive monetary stimulus spurs inflation and growth. In fact there is no believable scenario in which Japan will generate fiscal surpluses sufficient to pay back its debts, nor one in which the Bank of Japan will sell all its holdings of government debt back to the market.

All the same, the pretence undermines the effectiveness of the policy. Japan should either delay the next sales tax increase, or announce a temporary fiscal stimulus financed with new money. It should make clear that the debt the government owes the central bank will never need to be repaid, dispelling fears of a massive future fiscal tightening.

Orthodox theory sees helicopter money as risky. But current quantitative easing policies are at least as risky, and have produced adverse side effects. In the UK the Bank of England has bought £375bn of government bonds to try to stimulate the economy through swollen asset prices and rock-bottom interest rates. It could instead have created new money to finance a smaller one-off increase in the fiscal deficit. If it had done so, a return to normal interest rate disciplines would now be nearer.

 

More. Turner for grown-ups:

Turner’s original CASS business school speech on this subject (2013)

And the slides that go with the CASS speech. (Lots of them, but many worth having if you live in the UK and are about to have people knocking on your door in the run-up to the May national elections asking you to vote for them. ‘Come in,’ you can say. ‘Have a seat and let’s look at the slides together!’)

A bit of Q&A with Turner and Michael Woodford from the Institute For New Economic Thinking blog.

Finally, on Thursday 20 November, the UK parliament will hold a backbench debate on the topic of ‘money creation and society’. It will be the first time that the issue has been addressed in a full debate in the House since the 19th century. You can watch here on Parliament TV and discover just how ill-equipped our politicians are to deal with the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

 

 

Actually Dave, you are still rubbish

October 1, 2014

This feels cruel. But I have read Cameron’s ‘greatest ever’ speech to today’s party conference, and it is not very good.

Here is a late-night attempt to parse it and to translate it into plain English (pace Boris, who I don’t much like either).

 

Cameron puffycameron on housing estatecameron hague osborne

 

 

The full text is here.

1. ‘William Hague…greatest living Yorkshireman.’ Obviously not true. I plump lazily for David Hockney. Does he vote Tory?

2. ‘I am not a complicated man.’ This is the problem, Dave.

3. ‘I believe in some simple things.’ You mean simplistic things. File under ‘Farage’.

4. ‘It’s pretty simple really.’ No it is not. See above.

5. ‘The highest employment rate of any major economy.’ Try: the lowest productivity gains of any major economy.

6. ‘£25 billion is actually just 3% of what government spends each year.’ He is talking about proposed new welfare savings. The truth: yes, but you have already backloaded the cuts you promised in this parliament into the next parliament so you would need cut at least double what you are saying. It is undoable short of civil war.

7. We have a new new policy called ‘Starter Homes’. Dave, you are already providing this subsidy. It is growth by asset inflation. It is not sustainable in the absence of productivity gains. Ask George, at least he took a 101 economics course.

8. Some stuff about ‘My 3 young kids go to prole school, we are all in it together.’ Yes, Dave, but not for long. You will move them out of the National Education System at 13 and do your bit in undermining the Big Society you claim to represent.

9. The £41,900 tax-free plus lower-rate threshold will rise to £50,000. Already dealt with in today’s earlier blog post. As I said in the update it is somewhat devious/sloppy accounting. But the main point is that it is undeliverable in combination with a rise in the tax-free rate to £12,500 and all the other stuff that you and George have promised/are promising. George has already reneged on his deficit cutting plan so many times I cannot count and is now running the original Alastair Darling plan. It begins to seem as if all you care about is power, Dave, not honesty.

10. Ed Balls is… ‘a mistake’. This is in fact true.

11. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, went to a private school but does not agree with the existence of private schools in an optimal education system. That makes him — here is the key term — a ‘hypocrite’. No it doesn’t, Dave. It makes you either a retard or a liar. At least George has the dignity to send his kids to private school the whole way through and publicly not give a fuck.

12. ‘I’ll tell you who we represent.’ No, I will. The ignorant, the angry, the greedy, and people who are having a nice time and don’t notice the world around them.

13. ‘From the country that unravelled DNA…’ DNA was unravelled in Cambridge, not Oxford, Dave, and nobody here votes Tory.

14. ‘It’s about getting people fit to work.’ Exercise for poor, fat cleaners, Dave. Exercise for poor, fat cleaners.

15. ‘Our crime-busting Home Secretary, Theresa May.’ Imagine any Tory Home Secretary as your next-door neighbour. I fucking dare you.

16. ‘I know you want this sorted out so I will go to Brussels.’ Why not just say it: ‘I can’t speak a foreign language — bit like Farage — and I don’t understand history. Even if I like holidays in Italy, they are still wogs.’

17. ‘Our parliament… the British parliament.’ It was created to curtail the antics of inbreds like you. Best not mentioned.

18. ‘If you want those things, vote for me.’ You are going to lose, Dave. You will then spend the next 10 years wishing you had had bigger balls, and ideally a bigger brain too. George will visit you.

19. ‘Our exports to China are doubling.’ Dave, I am losing the will to live. Look at the baseline.

20. ‘I don’t claim to be a perfect leader.’ Ok, all is forgiven. Emigrate.

 

Amazing that it should be 20 things.

I am going to bed and not reading this through, so apologies for typos.

 

Later:

A pretty funny video of Brave Dave following his speech has been posted to Youtube. Here it is. 1.2 million hits already. It contains profanity.

Brave Dave gets his mojo back

October 1, 2014

Cameron 1014

 

Dave Cameroon just gave his Tory party speech. After his imperial weights moment, he is back on form. Cometh the hour, cometh the Etonian.

* £12,500 zero income tax threshold (up from £10,000 in fiscal year 2014-15).

* £50,000 40% income tax threshold (up from £31,866 plus £10,000 tax-free in fiscal year 2014-15). [See update on this.]

Both ‘in the next parliament’.

Just one problem.

It is totally and utterly unaffordable by any rational analysis of the numbers. If you are vaguely economically literate, work your way through these slides from the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. Note that this was a personal presentation by Chairman Chote, and does not reflect any OBR ‘line’. But the numbers and the trend lines are the hardest ones we have. I guess that Brave Dave hasn’t seen them.

Off the top of my head, Brave Dave’s election-pitch cocktail would require GDP growth over 4%, no increase in the cost of borrowing, and further massive cuts to welfare in order to meet the Fat Controller’s debt load targets.

Now breathe in and savour the moment.

Pure Tory Bullshit.

You have got to love it.

But will you vote for it?

 

CHOTE SLIDES1  (pdf. Should open up)

CHOTE SLIDES2  (powerpoint. Should come to you as a download)

 

Update:

I hadn’t read Cameron’s speech directly, relying on Guardian coverage. After a couple of emails I now realise that part of Cameron’s putative higher rate threshold increase is spin. Unlike HMRC, which states tax bands separately (for good reason because there is no single tax-free band at the bottom, it varies slightly for different groups) Cameron’s promise of a £50,000 threshold for the 40% rate is actually a two-band sandwich — the main tax-free band, plus the up-to-40% band. So it has to be compared with fiscal 2014-15’s £10,000 tax free (the standard exemption) plus the current £31,866 40% threshold.

Still, I am not changing the text above. The cuts are undeliverable without completely fanciful assumptions about growth, interest rates and how much more welfare can be cut without widespread civil unrest. And, yes, that is even if Cameron were to wait until the final year of the next parliament, 2020, to deliver the cuts.

What is truly revolting about the Tories is that you could, just about, begin to get towards reasonable assumptions for these cuts — which millions of people would welcome and benefit from — if you increased the two rates of capital gains tax (currently 18% and 28%), and introduced some level of capital gains tax on sales of first homes. But this government, just like the Blair one, is committed to taxing capital less heavily than work. What kind of message does that send to society?

More:

Well I wrote this on 1 October and on 9 October the FT runs a column saying exactly the same thing, also citing OBR numbers. Here it is, but you will need a sub. Of course, the FT is more polite than me, merely accusing Cameron of ‘arrogance’, ‘deceit’, and ‘cooking the books’.

More on 10 November 2014:

The FT has now run a deeper analysis of the OBR numbers, plus latest Treasury receipts, and concludes that to meet Osborne’s austerity targets welfare cuts will have to be massively increased from 2015. This contrasts with recent comments by Brave Dave Cameron — who is either very stupid or a brazen liar — that the worst of austerity is over. In reality, only half of the cuts promised by Osborne have been made. It is all here in the FT, but you will need a subscription. Cameron and the Fat Controller were also told in July by the International Monetary Fund that the UK has no apparent choice but to raise taxes from 2015. And Cameron and the Fat Controller have more recently been severely criticised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (FT sub needed) over their constant efforts to diddle the numbers.

Sounds like my book

October 31, 2013

A long trip through Malaysia, Indonesia and China leaves me more convinced than ever that east Asia has two distinct destinies in economic development terms, and that the south-east Asian states are on the wrong side of the tracks.

I start off in Malaysia, where the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) holds power despite winning a slightly smaller vote share than the opposition in May’s elections. The effect has been a skittish, neurotic administration confronted with deep-seated developmental problems it has no desire or capacity to address. The government commissions reports from the likes of McKinsey as if believing foreign management consultants are likely to come up with some brilliant idea to solve the nation’s problems. In reality, locals know all too well what the issues are — a coddled plantation sector and ignored smallholders in agriculture, low levels of indigenous industrial competitiveness, an untamed army of oligarchs that does almost nothing to promote national economic development and recycles its cash flows offshore, a financial system that pushes out consumer debt rather than supporting industrial development, and resurgent speculation in high-end real estate. Despite oil and gas revenues that cover around two-fifths of the national budget, the government still runs a budget deficit of 5 percent of GDP as it strives to buy off discontent.

In Malaysia today, there is a general sense of malaise, compounded by a recently much increased crime rate — particularly theft, burglary and violent crime. This was never a country that you associated with crime (other than expropriation by godfathers), but that seems to have changed.

On 9 October, a nearly 90-year-old Mahathir was kind enough to grant me a meeting. After corresponding with him during the writing of How Asia Works, I was looking forward to sitting down with him. However the experience did nothing to change the conclusions I had already reached.

Here are the highlights: On agriculture, Mahathir insisted that plantations always produce better yields than smallholders. On Malaysia’s tycoons staying out of manufacturing and not contributing to industrialisation, he commented: ‘They do what they think they can do best. We don’t direct them.’ On the future of economic development, he said he never did, and does not now, see ASEAN as a vehicle for economic policy cooperation and joint development. ‘Economic cooperation is secondary in ASEAN,’ he said. Instead Mahathir talked of the tourism potential of millions of Chinese visitors and of China as a source of cheap manufactured products for Malaysia; he favours buying a Chinese high-speed rail line to run the length of the country.

For me, the takeaway was that Mahathir doesn’t think a country like Malaysia ‘ought’ to be able to compete with a country like China. His parting shot was to say that it was unfair of me to compare the manufacturing development of Malaysia and Korea in How Asia Works: ‘We are not a single ethnic country. We are a multi-ethnic country. That makes it more difficult. They [Malaysia’s ethnic groups] are not at the same level.’ It was the race-based outlook that I describe in How Asia Works as having been so devisive and detrimental to effective policy in every south-east Asian country.

Would Indonesia be any different? I spoke at an event generously hosted by Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who read How Asia Works soon after it was published and announced himself ‘a fan’. However, while he might agree with the analysis of south-east Asia’s problems, at the event he offered no clear statements as to policy changes he believes are required if Indonesia is to improve its development prospects. All I picked up in Jakarta was the same, general sense of discontent after 15 post-Asian crisis years of partial economic recovery based on commodity trade (principally with China) and zero industrial progress.

On this topic, I spent the day before the Trade Ministry event at what used to be called IPTN in Bandung, now known as Indonesian Aerospace. People I asked in Jakarta assumed that the aircraft-building industrial policy adventure sponsored by BJ Habibie — which the IMF insisted be cut off from further state funding as a condition of providing credit to Indonesia in 1998 — is long dead.

But not so. IPTN/IAe lends a little support to my assertion in the book that even failed industrial policy will produce some tangible benefits (just very expensive ones compared with well organised industrial policy). Up in Bandung, IPTN had 15,600 employees, including 3,500 engineers, before the Asian crisis hit. The firm was receiving monthly government remittances to cover development costs for Indonesia’s indigenous N-250, 50-seat turbo-prop aircraft. With almost no cash reserves, when the cash was cut off the firm went into freefall. Management did not stabilise the business until the headcount had been cut by more than 12,000, to just 3,000. They did so by turning what had been an aircraft building business into a low-cost parts supplier, particularly to Airbus.

Today, the two N-250 prototypes sit disconsolate in a parking area of the 80 hectare site (the one at the bottom is three metres longer and can seat 70, so was really the N-270, as in two engines, 70 seats). Suharto himself launched the first prototype in 1995, naming it Gatotkoco after a character in Hindu-Javanese legend. Something of the order of US$1 billion had been pumped into the N-250 programme by 1998. The renamed Indonesian Aerospace kept flying its prototypes — racking up 1,200 test hours — until 2007 in the vain hope of finding cash to finish the project. The outside technical reviews were generally positive, but the will and capacity of the government to back the project were gone.

IPTN N250 GatotkocoIPTN N250IPTN N270

After the state cash flow was cut, Indonesian Aerospace first obtained work making wing ribs for the Airbus A380. Then it obtained contracts for the A320, and for Boeing and other aircraft. There was no way for the firm itself to invest in development projects because residual government debt made it unbankable. Only in 2011 did the government agree to a debt write-off (technically a debt-equity swap). This was followed in 2012 by a Rupiah1.2 trillion (circa US$100m) ‘goodbye’ capital injection from the state.

Indonesian Aerospace continued to assemble small aircraft after the crisis that it had assembled before 1998 in a joint venture with a Spanish firm — now owned by Airbus Military. Gradually it has managed improve the terms of its cooperation with Airbus, moving, for instance, to profit sharing on the most popular model it builds. Critically, the post-crisis era focused Indonesian Aerospace on selling aircraft as well as making them. It currently exports around one-fifth of the small aircraft it assembles — to Thailand for rain-seeding, to South Korea for coastal surveillance, to Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey. Exports, however, are still nowhere near as strong as they were in Embraer’s formative stages in Brazil, before that firm went on to be truly globally competitive. Indonesian non-weaponized defence procurement is the current backbone of Indonesian Aerospace’s order backlog, which stands at US$1 billion.

Perhaps most interesting is that the firm, after conducting five years of market studies (what would have been an unthinkably long period of analysis in the pre-crisis era when it was rushing straight from the N250 to the N2130, a 130-seat jet aircraft), has committed to develop a new civilian aircraft of its own. Indonesian Aerospace managers say they have 150 non-binding commitments for a very small, 19-seat passenger aircraft designed for low-cost travel between second-tier cities in the provinces. Indonesia, like the rest of south-east Asia, already has a booming low-cost sector between key cities based on Boeing and Airbus aircraft. This is an attempt to grab a bit of market share below the radar of the big boys. The aircraft will work off short landing strips, be able to carry substantial amounts of freight relative to passengers, and is designed for use with minimal air traffic control; a prototype will fly in 2015.

Indonesia’s industrial policy was badly conceived, with too little competition, no involvement of leading entrepreneurs, and almost zero export orientation. Even today Indonesian Aerospace has failed to build a supplier cluster around Bandung. But it looks like the firm may in the end produce a marketable aircraft worthy of the name of indigenous technological capacity.

The big point of contemporary comparison, of course, is China. Earlier in 2013 there was a mild panic among foreign observers that that country’s accumulation of bad debt — largely a result of the aggressive industrial policy orientation of its financial sector — could lead to imminent financial melt-down. But not so. Unlike Indonesia, which had no capital controls in 1997, China is protected from changes of sentiment about its banks by capital controls that trap money in the country and keep the system liquid. China’s capacity to grow away from debt is declining as its growth rate gradually falls, but the basic fact of capital controls still meant that this year’s panic was a storm in a teacup. There is always a lot of waste involved in industrial policy, but control of the domestic financial system allows a government to socialise the cost.

Riding the high-speed rail system (HSR) from Shanghai to Suzhou to Xuzhou to Beijing, visiting firms, I also reflected how massively greater is China’s technological capacity today than was Indonesia’s when that country hit the skids in 1997-8. The entire Chinese economy makes stuff that the world economy is willing to pay for. Manufacturing activity is not confined to one or two bellwether projects like IPTN or Malaysia’s Proton. If crisis struck China today, the country would be way more competitive, in more value-added activities, once the crisis abated than was Indonesia after 1998. And China doesn’t face a crisis today because it has not been dumb enough to abandon capital controls. I suspect the country only has one more economic cycle to go before its control over capital is insufficient to escape crisis — the irony of its present stage of development is that China must begin to deregulate finance in order to waste less capital in an era of slowing growth. But by the time crisis does strike, China’s technological competitiveness and its roster of globally competitive large firms will be substantially higher again that it is today.

So what I came back to England thinking is that there is just a lack of political will and political self-belief in south-east Asia to do things differently. I am not sure it was ever really any different. Even Mahathir, who talked the best game in the region in terms of promising a shift to a Japanese-Korean model when he was premier, says that Malaysians cannot really follow the model because they are not racially up to it. On that view, you have lost before you start.

FT Longlist

August 8, 2013

The Financial Times published its longlist for the FT/Goldman Sachs Book of the Year today and I am honoured that How Asia Works is on it. Below is the full list of 14 titles.

 

After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead, Alan Blinder, The Penguin Press

The Alchemists: Inside the Secret World of Central Bankers (UK subtitle); Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire (US subtitle), Neil Irwin, Headline Business Plus; The Penguin Press

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, John Murray; Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of The Indian-American Elite and The Fall of The Galleon Hedge Fund, Anita Raghavan, Hachette Book Group/Business Plus

The End of Competitive Advantage: How to keep your strategy moving as fast as your business, Rita Gunther McGrath, Harvard Business Review Press

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, Moisés Naím, Basic Books

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Brad Stone,Transworld/ Bantam Press; Little, Brown

Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant, Weidenfeld & Nicolson; Viking (Penguin)

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, Angus Deaton, Princeton University Press

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, Joe Studwell, Profile Books; Grove Press

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, WH Allen/Random House Group; Knopf

Making it Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men Who Blew Up the British Economy, Iain Martin, Simon and Schuster

The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, Tim Sullivan and Ray Fisman, Twelve

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Allen Lane; Times Books/Henry Holt

Mutual society robber barons

July 16, 2013

I have had an account at the Nationwide Building Society in the UK for 30 years. I believe that mutual societies offer the best way to serve the retail banking needs of ordinary citizens, and that they could and should do more to provide a working capital lending function for industry. I also believe that Lloyds and RBS, most of the equity in which belongs to the public as a result of the global financial crisis, should be mutualised. Sadly, no one in politics has the cojones to propose this.

Nationwide is the biggest building society in the UK, but the people who run it don’t think much like mutual society types. Mostly they impersonate bankers. Right now they are writing down hundreds of millions of pounds of bad loans from their speculation in commercial real estate activity pre-2008. Commercial real estate is a notoriously cyclical sector in which a mutual society has no business playing with its members’ money. The management is only able to pay off this folly because of the state’s provision of nearly free funds via quantitative easing, a policy that will have a fiscal cost for the whole of British society down the road when the Bank of England sells for less the bonds it has bought for more. However the people who run Nationwide are so gormless, or so self-serving, that they believe the profits that QE makes possible reflect their management genius (they being the same people who lost billions in commercial realestate speculation).

So the top boys and girls are paying themselves millions of pounds a year and jacking up their bonuses (details here). They run a bonus structure that operates over periods of 12 months and 36 months when banking cycles in the post-war era have been more like 10-15 years. Are they stupid, or just greedy? I hope they are just stupid.

Whichever, in the Nationwide AGM whose voting closes on the 22nd, I am voting against the remuneration report and the whole miserable lot of them. If you have a Nationwide account I would urge you to consider doing the same thing. If you vote online, do NOT use their immoral and deceptive ‘Quick Vote’ button which lets the chairman vote for you. The chairman, Geoffrey Howe (no relation), trousers £300,000 just for chairing the board. If you have read Asian Godfathers, you will be interested to know he is also chairman of Jardine Lloyd Thompson, which is the modern incarnation of the insurance business of the Keswick/Jardine godfather family of shafting minority shareholder fame…

Nationwide on your side


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