Global Current Issues and Trends: December 2018
Total US nonfarm payroll employment increased by 155,000 in November. After revisions, gains in September and October were 12,000 less than previously reported and the average job gains were 170,000 over the past 3 months. The national unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.7%. In 2016, job gains totaled 2.2 million compared with 2017 job gains totaling 2.1 million. Jittery markets seem to read the November jobs slowdown as a sign that the US fed will pause on further interest rate increases. Unemployed persons was little changed at 6 million. This performance might be jeopardized as Trump’s tariff wars escalate further and global markets weaken or threats trigger reprisals. The “blue wave” of 40 new Democrats in Congress on January 1st 2019 will bring many changes in domestic and foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Trump’s administration widened the vacuum in global geopolitics, with China rapidly expanding its influence and investments including in the Tran-Eurasian Belt and Road and across Africa. The US withdrawal from the Iran 6-party nuclear agreement and the Paris Climate agreement, see “Climate Risking the Trump Brand” had little effect on the COP23 Climate Summit in Germany and COP24 in Katowice, Poland. The newly renamed NAFTA deal restored certainty with few changes. Germany’s Angela Merkel will step down as Chancellor, leaving France’s Emmanuel Macron still viewed as a leader of the free world despite domestic turmoil over now cancelled diesel taxes. President Xi of China is recognized without term limits as a leader of the world’s second most powerful country. Trump’s unorthodox behavior vis-à-vis Russia can now be seen in light of recent revelations in special Counsel Mueller’s indictments of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen and his debts to Deutsche Bank arranged by its executive who is also the son of retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and that he was also negotiating to build a Trump Tower in Moscow since 2015 and during the 2016 campaign. Continued US political uncertainties are likely to keep stock market volitality high and many analysts see signs of recession in 2019.
South Korea’s rapprochement with North Korea continues with the USA taking a back seat to China. The Trump-Kim Jong Un talks produced US concessions to North Korea and are considered a win for China. The “decertification” of the Iran nuclear accords by Trump seems largely due to his National Security Adviser John Bolton. This sets a higher bar for any eventual de-nuclearization with Kim Jong Un, as well as a destabilizing effect on world security. The other 5 nations who are staying in the agreement still hope Iran also will stay in compliance. New evidence of Russian propaganda on social media and interference in November elections arose in September 5 Hearings by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the need to re-design social media to protect US elections and users’ rights. Testimony from Facebook and Twitter top executives is seen as inadequate while Google failed to appear and now faces walkouts by staff at its facilities worldwide on fairness issues. Senator Warner, ranking member opined that social media’s “Wild West days” were ending.
The US labor force participation in November was unchanged at 62.9% while the employment population ratio remained at 60.6%. While the official unemployment rate is 3.7%, it was 5.9% for African Americans, with Asians 2.7%, adult women at 3.4% and Hispanics at 4.5%. GDP growth in Q1 of 2018 was 2.2%, and the 4.2% in Q2 was due to the expected “sugar high” jolt of the tax cuts and may be short-lived. Labor market statistics are notoriously subject to revision. In November there were 453,000 discouraged workers with another 1.7 million marginally attached to the labor force. Wall Street is continuing to absorb the Fed’s long-awaited gradual rate increases from zero in 2015, and now closely watching Jerome Powell, Fed chairman, criticized by Trump and how these higher rates are continuing to stress emerging economies.
The markets rally after Trump’s electoral college victory is now fading with tax cuts priced in but political uncertainties and the new tariffs causing huge spikes in volatility. Expectations are on hold for an infrastructure plan in the new Congress, focusing on green technologies, see “Greening Trump’s Infrastructure Plan”. The Electoral College instituted by US founders to keep small states, some slave-owning, in the Union ratified Trump’s electoral win over Hillary Clinton’s almost 3 million popular vote advantage. The Republican Party is facing its own internal disputes over trade and tariffs with many congressmembers not seeking re-election. Republican donors worry about trade wars but continue funding including from gun-loving hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and others. Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination process for the Supreme Court has politicized this 3rd branch of the US government. Many in the US, Europe and in worldwide polls are concerned over Russia’s hacking and propaganda in many countries designed to weaken democratic values and exacerbate political divisions. (“Concern Over Trump’s Tweets Grow”). The cultural change over revelations of unfair treatment of women in their workplaces and the “Me Too” movement brought many women candidates into Congress in the November elections.
Some growth forecasts and market optimism persist despite debt levels and global weakness which could be expected in 2019, due to Europe’s refugee crisis, Brexit, US political uncertainty, Brazil’s rightwing government and still-turbulent oil markets in spite of OPEC’s pledge to cut production. Meanwhile high net-worth investors, family offices and private equity funds shun public markets now dominated by ETFs, indexes and robo-investing by algorithms (see my video presentation to Family Office Forums in Asia, Europe and San Francisco, Sept.13). Business Week reports on “The Brexit Short” on how Nigel Farage and an associated polling firm sold early results to a group of hedge funds, enabling them to make millions on shorting the UK pound. Markets see a brighter outlook in spite of the trade wars, volatility and global debt issues.
Global public markets often resemble casinos as LSE professor Nick Silver describes in Finance, Society and Sustainability,and investor Joel Solomon discusses in the “The Clean Money Revolution” (2018). They are dominated by index funds, ETFs and models focusing on narrow groups of “fashionable” stocks, all of which drives up excessive valuations while ignoring the broader market. These markets are not reflective of the real economies in the USA. We supported the new IEX exchange in the USA with its “speedbump” blocking the electronic-front running of high-frequency traders. Markets are now faced with new regulations under the EU, see “Who’s Afraid Of MiFID 2: Fixing Wall Street’s Broken Plumbing”, as well as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) affecting social media giants. Payrolls changed little: average hourly earnings were $27.35 while the average for non-supervisory private sector was $22.95. Market players now focus more on wage growth, while up 2.9% since 2017, still on its inadequate historic trend of 2.5% annually with the average work week declined to 34.4 hours. Many jobs remain unfilled due to regional mismatches and lack of trained workers. While job totals appear high, many are low-paid or in the gig, part-time economy and pay less than living wages. Amazon’s announced increase to $15 and hour was welcome news. Many across all political ideologies, are now recognizing that wage growth is key to maintaining aggregate demand, and that economic reforms addressing inequality will be needed to stem the global tide of “populist” backlash against money-obsessed globalization, measured only by GDP. Grassroots groups and many companies worldwide now prefer the UN’s new metric SDG to steer real, more equitable progress, as tracked in GlobeScan polls.
Financial markets are still avoiding real world risks of fresh water shortages and climate change as I reported in Risks! What Risks?. Central banks’ tools are exhausted as I discussed in Ben Bernanke and Milton Friedman Were Right: Helicopter Money or Qualitative Easing? and many calls for governments to step up with fiscal spending, particularly on infrastructure were echoed by the OECD. Financiers and media reporting daily roller-coaster volatility are still ignoring the destabilizing role of computers, increased human training of machine learning, miscast as artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms. Our report on high-frequency trading’s many “flash crashes” and the need for Reforming Electronic Markets and Trading, is now an official UN document. This UN Inquiry covered the disruptions to traditional finance by fintech and IT startups in which Ethical Markets participated (see my “FINTECH; The Good and Bad News for Sustainable Finance”). New threats on social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter of Russian fake news and propaganda, as well as terrorist sites examined by both Houses of the US Congress continue as the scandals of data breaches and misuse of Facebook users’ personal information by Cambridge Analytica come to light. Cambridge Analytica funded by hedge fund mogul Robert Mercer, with Steve Bannon on its board, declared bankruptcy on May 2, while its US-based holding company replicated its activities with launching five similar new companies for such divisive psychographic targeting of citizens. Meanwhile Steve Bannon advises right-wing electoral compaigns in many countries and stays in contact with Donald Trump regularly.
The USA economy is still unevenly shared as I note in “Facing Up to Inequality”. The economy is still the top worry of voters as well as the growing inequality gap between Wall Street and Main Street, with these anxieties still drive much of the debate. For example, they are concerned as to what extent corporations are fair as found in the survey by JUST Capital founded by hedge fund executive Paul Tudor Jones, who announced recently that his firm will lower its fees. Just Capital’s 100 Leading Companies, 2018. Job losses from automation and global outsourcing are dwarfed by economic concentration as big companies merge, driving small businesses into bankruptcy and algorithms take over decisions in many areas of our lives: who gets hired or fired —leading to the new “bias in-bias out” update of the old computer phrase “garbage-in-garbage out”.
Rising sea levels along the US Eastern seaboard and in South Florida concerned the The Palm Beach Post, showing picture of water-logged roads around Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and other properties on this “billionaire’s row”. Bloomberg reported that pessimistic owners are selling to optimists. This augers losses of jobs and population in Florida. The new IPCC scientific report on climate change and that mandated by Congress affirms human activities driving the still rising levels of CO² in the Earth’s atmosphere. See: 2017 EPA Government Climate Change Indicators.
It has been difficult to find information on government jobs, but they are now included in the main BLS summary. Changes in government jobs are key to understanding the state of the economy. Total government jobs in November 2018 were estimated at 22,378,000. As FEMA and other local governments still tackle the devastation of hurricanes Michael, Harvey and Irma and the tragic deaths of up to 3,000 citizens due to lax response to Maria in Puerto Rico as well as losses the Virgin Islands — these jobs may increase. We report on these government jobs to correct misstatements by some politicians that “government doesn’t create jobs – only the private sector creates jobs”. Political uncertainty in Congress and the unprecedented political shifts among voters will likely continue through 2019. The Economist report on May 26, 2018 cast doubt on the use of Household Surveys since response rates are plummeting. Trade issues are in focus for voters and both parties acknowledge the plight of those dis-employed by corporations offshoring jobs, such as announced by General Motors, as well as increasing US trade deficits. The goods and services deficit in October rose to 55.5 billion from $54.6 billion in September, revised. October exports were $211 billion while imports rose to $266.5 billion. Off-shoring and jobs losses via automation are a growing concern, discussed in our TV program Robot’s Taking Over: What Will Humans Do?
The politicization of the Supreme Court after the death of Justice Anton Scalia with the Senate seating Neil Gorsuch by changing its rules, and the sudden exit timing of July 31st of Justice Anthony Kennedy and the rush to install Trump’s nominee Kavanaugh reached a zenith in the mid-term election debate. The deeper issues remain as discussed in Time To Re-Balance The Corporate-Friendly Supreme Court and Aligning the Supreme Court with the US Constitution, well as in the magisterial history “We The Corporations” (2018) on how companies took over in the USA. Further adverse consequences beyond gridlock are continuing unrest across the USA over the degraded public election debate influenced by Russian hacking now confirmed by 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, fake news, police brutality and shootings of unarmed African American citizens, unresponsive legal systems as well as Trump’s still contested travel ban – all damaging the USA’s reputation worldwide. The USA lag in internet access and broadband ranks the USA at 28th worldwide behind many emerging economies. (See also my “New Trends in Globalization”)
Public debates turn to Trump’s tariffs which are already hurting farmers and some workers. Bonuses after the tax cut—promised for employment and new investment instead have led to most companies using their tax windfall to buy back share and raise dividends. Meanwhile wages for middle class families still need to close the gap between most workers and the 1% winners. California became the first state to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, while Los Angeles City Council will ask voters to approve a municipally-owned bank to by-pass Wall Street. The some ten percent of Americans invested in the stock markets were doing well with financial activities and professional, technical and business services adding 32,000 jobs in November and 561,000 jobs over the year. The rest who rely on lower-wage jobs in the real economy for their income had their spending constrained.
Job growth in healthcare added 32,000 in November adding 328,000 jobs this year. Job cuts if Obamacare is ever fully repealed are estimated at some 900,000, with many rural hospitals closing. Now the individual mandate is gone, undermining the program, more proposals for single-payer and “Medicare for All” are emerging in The American Prospect, Jan. 2018. Demand for restoring purchasing power to minimum wages was widely supported even in the “red” states for the White House increase to $10.10 an hour. A survey of the US public in October by JUST Capital found majorities supporting better pay and conditions for US workers. Seattle became the first city to offer $15 an hour in June. So far Los Angeles and New York City have followed suit, along with Amazon.
Mining sector jobs grew by 53,000 over the year, almost entirely in support services. While this reflects global commodity prices, some mining activities such as coal are phasing out as with the bankruptcy of coal companies including giant Peabody. As we at Ethical Markets point out with our EthicMark® GEMS standard, global gem mining is now obsolete and unnecessary since science now creates cultured diamonds and other gems in laboratories in many countries, as also reported in The Economist, July 1, 2016 and NPR, December 1, 2016. De Beers reported a 32% decline in its diamond sales in 2015 and announced in May that it too will begin selling cultured diamonds. The human and environmental hazards of mining gems are recognized in several UN resolutions on “blood diamonds,” while Russia recently dumped a large quantity of mined diamonds – tanking the global market, as documented in “Beyond Bloodstained Gems: New Science and Standards”.
Consequences of budget cutting, and “austerity” are seen in the job losses we have witnessed in Europe. The US tax cut lowering corporate rates to 21% is now followed by Republican calls to cut safety nets and so-called, “entitlements”. These tax rate cuts have already kicked off a new “race to the bottom” as other countries cut their rates to compete “Trump Just Kicked Off a Global Tax War”, AlterNet, Dec. 2017. The migrant crises are forcing EU decision-makers to choices about the costs of absorbing these refugees fairly in member countries or a loss of solidarity in the EU itself. Many British voters still express remorse on Brexit as well as much consternation in the EU. The populist victory in Italy rattled the euro and bond markets. Enthusiasm for the EU was initially rekindled by France’s election of Macron and his alliance with Angela Merkel of Germany, see “Can Finance Save the World?” France passed laws in 2018 requiring Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media sites to monitor fake news and hate speech or be fined, similar to the EU-wide GDPR rules now in force. Unilever announced that it would have to pull its ads from social media unless reforms to its toxic content were made. Meanwhile the 2018 winning ads for the EthicMark® Awards inspired participants at the annual SRI Conference Nov. 1-4, 2018. The US Congress hearings in 2017 auger similar laws in the US and possibly “Restoring Net Neutrality” on Internet providers, as both Houses voted in May to overturn the FCC ruling and restore net neutrality. Many states are now suing the FCC and, like California, creating their own net neutrality statutes.
The wage gap in the US continues, fueling the national debate on inequality and that among professional economists over Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century, which concludes that this inequality is endemic and requires global taxes on wealth (Pikettymania, cover of Businessweek, June 2, 2014). TIME’s former business editor, now with the Financial Times, Rana Foroohar’s Makers and Takers (2016) overviews details on how Wall Street is now preying on businesses on Main Street rather than serving them. Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of special interests in Washington, has become the butt of jokes as “the Trump Swamp”. The Trump administration and its cabinet members largely insiders with many Wall Street billionaires are accused of multiple conflicts of interest, corruption and violation of the Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution with several suits, now pending against Trump by the Washington Group CREW and others. Advisors with “America First” views on trade Peter Navarro and immigration advisor hawk Stephen Miller remain, while Chief of Staff John Kelly is expected to resign. Former Fox News executive Bill Shine, who left Fox under a cloud of sexual harassment lawsuits is now Trump’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications, who must deal with the Mueller investigation and with the furor over Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” and the anonymous Op-Ed in the New York Times by a Trump administration insider on September 5th.
More realistic approaches to inequality include those by business leader/economist Peter Barnes in With Liberty and Dividends for All which calls for user fees on exploitation of all commonly owned resources: e.g., air, water, the electronic spectrum and rebated to all citizens-owners as dividends. Unemployment rose to 6.1 million people still with 4.6 million part-time workers looking for fulltime jobs and 506,000 discouraged workers no longer counted in the unemployment rate of 3.7%. The debate concerns whether the “sharing economy” (Task Rabbit, Mechanical Turk, Uber, Lyft, et al) can provide decent jobs or whether it will lower wages, since its “freelancers” accept these part-time jobs along with uncertain hours, no benefits or security. Such companies are less about sharing and cooperation and more about extending and re-organizing labor markets in what is now called the “gig economy”. Recent books make such critiques: Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus (Rushkoff, 2016) and Raw Deal (Hill, 2015) which I reviewed in www.SeekingAlpha.com. Self-employment remains a growing trend, with many unemployed people preferring to remain independent, often home-based consultants or joining such social, office-sharing sites as WeWork. Meanwhile, many of these Silicon Valley startups and the lofty valuations of the “unicorns” are now slipping and with many which went public trading well below their IPO prices. The bitcoin bubble and its speculators and miners now use 23 terawatts of fossil electricity annually—adding to CO2 levels; see “Hey COP23: Bitcoin Miners Exploding CO2 Emissions!”. There are now over 1,500 cryptocurrencies listed in Coinbase, some like Ripple issued by Goldman Sachs competing with bitcoin discussed in Marc Strauch’s Report for us on the “Future of Money and Technology” conference, San Francisco December 2017.
Policy wonks and statisticians set of revisions announced back in July 31, 2013, and back cast to 1929 have begun accounting for the evolution of the US economy from manufacturing to services. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) finally entered the 21st century. GDP now includes much of the intangible production and services which make up over 70% of mature 21st century economies: software, R&D, entertainment, trademarks, copyrights, design and other creative innovation. The BLS now breaks out employment in Information Technology, such as computer services. Back to the July 31, 2013 report from the BEA, US GDP then rose 1.7% (with the revised accounting method adding 0.41% of the total). Italy and Britain now inflate their GDP growth by including prostitution in Services! So far, the shifts of these intangibles from “costs” to “investments” is slight. At last, The Economist weighed in on the deficiencies of GDP, offering its own somewhat improved GDP-Plus. Better late than never! Still not included is the most important investment all societies make in their future: education, still categorized as an “expense”! With student debt now at over $1.2 trillion and too few jobs available, many are now opting for online courses now exploding as MOOCs offer free access. Ethical Markets now provides its free MOOC at www.ethicalmarketsexploratorium.com for global citizen activists and lifelong learners.
Ethical Markets 2018 update of the Green Transition Scoreboard® focuses on “Capturing CO2 While Improving Human Nutrition & Health” while finding a total of $9.3 trillion now invested in green sectors worldwide since 2007. Our report in 2017 Green Transition Scoreboard® “Deepening Green Finance”. Earlier reports cover Energy Storage & Batteries and in the 2016 report on “Ending Externalities: Full-Spectrum Accounting Clarifies Transition Management”. Other reports have focused on the growing market for green bonds, as reported in the Institutional Investor, September 2014. The February 2015 report focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now ratified by its 195 member countries. Current cumulative total of private investments in green sectors tracked worldwide since 2007 now at $9.3 trillion, indicate that the global green transition is now unstoppable. As more cuts in government jobs are deemed necessary by Republicans, the need to continue growing new jobs in renewable energy, smarter infrastructure and cities as well as in R&D and education will be critical. The official unemployment rate of 3.7% shows the number of unemployed persons at 6.0 million is still too high. Climbing out of the 2008 financial crisis where GDP dropped by 9% has proved to be the long climb back most analysts expected. As President Obama left office he provided Trump with a sound economy and healthy job growth. Few can acknowledge a key problem: the US domestic money supply, which is created by banks’ lending and securitization, has shrunk. Since our money is created by private banks when they make loans, “Money Is Not Wealth: Cryptos v. Fiats!” after 2008, lending dried up and securitization of loans which had ballooned during the housing bubble collapsed. Today, hedge funds are buying up foreclosed homes and renting them at high rates and beginning a new round of securitization of these rental incomes into backing more bonds. Congress began in 2016 investigating the huge spike in drug prices and the role of hedge funds and lack of competition. As hedge funds entered Puerto Rico to take advantage of its financial crisis, they were renamed “hedge-hogs”. Since hurricane Maria’s now death toll of up to 3,000, President Trump’s statement in his controversial visit to Puerto Rico in early October 2017 that the former debt would need to be “wiped off the books” seems more likely. Many private efforts are installing distributed solar panels in many rural areas including Barrio Solar founded by our Advisory Board member, physicist, Fritjof Capra, Co-author of the “Systems View of Life”.
Looking back, the 2009 $789 billion stimulus (mostly individual tax cuts, infrastructure and help to states) did create and save over 1 million jobs along with 1.1 million saved in the auto company bailouts as reported in The New New Deal. The money supply shortfall remained which former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke recognized in his QE1, QE2 and other unusual measures of taking toxic assets onto the Fed’s balance sheet. At last, mainstream critiques offering alternatives appeared in Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014, urging direct QE with stimulus cash to citizens rather than banks. Now many central banks talk of “helicopter cash” as Milton Friedman recommended as the fastest, most effective stimulus as I describe in “Bernanke and Friedman Were Right: Helicopter Money or Qualitative Easing?”. New efforts in many countries to bolster purchasing power and aggregate demand with basic incomes emerged, after the success of Brazil’s “Bolsa Familia” in bringing 40 million out of poverty (Brazil’s Antipoverty Breakthrough, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2016) . The current crises in Brazil over endemic corruption and losses in GDP-measured economic growth led to the election of Jair Bolsonaro in a swing to the right. This obscured the country’s natural capital riches and creative human energies. Recognizing such opportunities Britain’s top financial minister announced along with Brazilian bankers, the issue of green bonds to expand solar and renewable resource: Initiative Climate Bond. Meanwhile leadership among grass-roots Brazilians continue, for example, see our Brazilian partner Sinal do Vale’s latest news.
Like most Republicans, Bernanke’s reliance on the textbook “trickle down” model gave almost free money to the big banks at the Fed’s discount window which never trickled down to Main Street. Instead, the old theory failed to account for the globalization of finance and that the banks sent most of the QE’s new money into asset bubbles offshore, some creating jobs in China and Brazil, while much ended up in speculation on European bonds, derivatives, commodity ETFs, rising food prices and unwanted asset bubbles in BRIC countries. Lawyer Ellen Brown analyzes all this in her Even the Council on Foreign Relations Is Saying It: Time to Rain Money on Main Street. The head of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn now advocates a similar “Peoples QE.” Positive Money published “A Green Bank of England” in May 2018. Providing purchasing power to stimulate aggregated demand has now produced a new global movement for universal basic incomes (FORBES).
A computer model links speculation to food price spikes, (“The Economics of Curbing Speculation in Food”). Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen brought a slightly broader view beyond the domestic economy, looking at the global effects of the strong dollar on emerging economies. This view outside the economics box is sometimes provided by IMF head Christina Lagarde and in my analysis of “Abenomics” in Japan at the Crossroads. Unorthodox policies continue in the US administration, for example Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Club, where members’ dues were raised to $200,000 annually is still the favored venue for many official visits and no records are public on these or on those to the White House. The large number of State Department professionals departures have left our diplomatic forces depleted, as described by Ronan Farrow in “War Against Peace” (2018). The progress at the UN COP 21 Climate Conference in Paris now ratified and in effect after COP23 in Bonn, Germany in December 2017 was ratified by the G20 in Hamburg, while at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, most participants were ignoring the US withdrawal. This augers the end of the fossil fuel era, but cannot prevent more mega-storms like Michael, Harvey, Sandy in the USA and Bohpa, Haiyan and others which hit the Philippines, or the increase in droughts and wildfires. Whatever the speculative changes in the price of oil, mostly used in transport, future demand may be flat due to the spread of electric vehicles “Assessing Risk of Fossil Reserves”. The UN Summit on Climate Change in New York City in 2017 and all subsequent summits continued to see citizens marching peacefully for progress on climate change, similar to the larger, women-led demonstrations in cities worldwide, on January 21st, 2017. The global cryptocurrencies craze continues adding to CO2 emissions, as I reported in “Hey COP23: Bitcoin Miners Exploding CO2 Emissions!”
The SDGs ratified in the UN General Assembly, New York, in September 2015, at which Pope Francis spoke, usher in the new paradigm of sustainable development beyond money-denominated GDP growth, reinforced by the UN Inquiry’s report The Financial System We Need. During COP21 in Paris, December 2015, Ethical Markets co-hosted events with HELIO International on their new indicators, HIFI which fits well with our 2015 Green Transition Scoreboard® Report. The World Economic Forum 2018 Report on Global Risks goes beyond financial risk models to look at the real risks our human family faces, such as fresh water shortages. The world was shocked by October’s IPCC report waring that humanity has only another 10 yers to keep CO2 emissions from warming the planet below 1.5 degrees Celsius. At President Macron’s “One Planet Summit” in Paris, December 2017, leaders in all sectors pledged to accelerate shifting from fossilized sectors. Billions of green bonds for renewable energy and more efficient sustainable futures are now issued worldwide. The new: Transition Risk-O-Meter and Drawdown offer concrete plans for 2018 and beyond, following with further pledges by institutional investors and heads of state.
The ECB is keeping its interest rate low and its own brand of quantitative easing – to the delight of global markets and likely to continue due to uncertainties over Italy’s future. Many EU bonds and banks now join in offering negative interest rates. Ellen Brown looks at the implications in “Hang Onto Your Wallets: Negative Interest, the War on Cash, and the $10 Trillion Bail-in”. Cyprus’ problems in 2013 produced the most radical bail-out plan, focused on haircuts to bank depositors as well as their equity-holders (“It Can Happen Here: the Confiscation Scheme Planned for US and UK Depositors”). This has resulted in a 2-tier euro – as well as the flight to volatile bitcoins and many other cryptocurrencies and other digital forms of payment, as described in The Age of Cryptocurrency (2015) and many alternative investments, including farmland and forests in developing countries, and the growth of crowdfunding. My overview of these trends at the Family Office Forum in San Francisco, Sept. 13, 2018, as well as in Singapore in December 2017 is available in these videos Family Office Forum- San Francisco, Family Office Forum-Singapore.
Britain’s central bank President Mark Carney announced that climate change is a key world issue and that many reserves of fossil fuels will not be burned and need to be written down. This has shifted asset allocation models and augers the mainstream shift to low-carbon economies. As we explained in “Assessing Risk of Fossil Reserves” we advocate re-classifying fossil reserves a “feedstocks” for future use in plastics, construction and materials, so that they remain valuable and in the ground unburned. Meanwhile, the IMF estimates global subsidies to fossil fuels now tops earlier estimates at $5.3 trillion. Lord Adair Turner, Britain’s former preeminent financial regulator, in Between Debt and the Devil called for an end to allowing private banks to create the nation’s money supply at interest and recommended this vital function should be returned to Britain’s public treasury (video). This debate reached the British House of Commons in November 2013 and a civic coalition called for “Transforming Finance” January 2015. In the USA stock markets rise and incomes stagnate and companies continue to hoard cash. Tax avoidance by “reversions” of US companies relocating in other countries remains a hot issue, and new rules by the US Treasury may be a curb on these practices. Will central bankers rethink theory-induced blindness in their “trickle down” policies and focus on the real economies? Deeper reforms of finance are needed as exposed recently by Michael Lewis in Flash Boys (2014), as earlier in Broken Markets, Dark Pools and Bailout. These were discussed earlier at the conference “Fixing the Banking System for Good” at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, April 2013, and at the annual conference of the Public Banking Institute, June 2013. Ethical Markets expert seminar in New York City on “Reforming Electronic Markets and Trading” was reported on CSRWire.
Former US FDIC chair Sheila Bair, author of Bull by the Horns, joined former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in announcing support for a financial transactions tax of well below 1%, to help curb high-frequency trading, also advocated by Independent Bernie Sanders to fund higher education. This echoes growing calls in eleven EU countries, including Germany, France and pension funds in France and Holland. A bill in the US Congress called for a financial tax for all US transactions as well. In January 2013, the European Union approved a 0.1% financial transaction tax for member countries. The focus as a “cancellation fee” targets high frequency traders who place thousands of orders each millisecond then cancel most of them immediately. These taxes can curb this speculation and help raise some $400 billion annually for public needs. Pushback by banks and the mainstream financial press continues. Meanwhile, market-based approaches to reforming HFT such as the IEX platform continue to gain volume and new investors, including Interactive Brokers while its application to the SEC as a national exchange was initially opposed by incumbents NYSE, NASDAQ and other big players. Ethical Markets and our allies supported IEX before the SEC, in its authorization approval in 2016. (See our comment). A new standard for electronic trading was launched by KOR Group, LLC, in September, the Best Execution Accreditation (BestEx), whereby broker-dealers eschewing the “maker-taker” kickbacks for placing their clients’ order flow can claim their higher ground practices (www.ethicalmarkets.com). KOR Group founded the non-profit, Healthy Markets (www.healthymarkets.com ) and Ethical Markets have linked their sites.
The G20’s 2016 meeting in China boosted interest in the transition to green finance continued in 2017 as more investors accepted the new model of sustainable development: SDGs beyond the mismeasurement of “growth” perpetuated by GDP. This still causes mis-pricing of sovereign bonds, energy, food and most goods due to externalizing of social and environmental costs and business models still based on “profits” based on passing on such unrecorded costs to taxpayers and future generations as “externalities”. My Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age: from Economism to Earth Systems Science critiques economics from wider scientific research and calls for cranking into financial models all our new knowledge from Earth-observing satellites. In company accounting, better models are provided by SASB and IIRC. The UNEP global inquiry on designing financial markets for long-term sustainability steered by a high-level advisory group of global financiers, government and business leaders will now continue its excellent research and global networking of best practices. The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) focuses on values and the six forms of capital: financial, built, intellectual, social, human and natural. They will measure the performance of companies by the extent to which they enhance or degrade all six forms of capital. www.cimaglobal.com
Measuring societies’ “progress” beyond GDP became a hot topic at Rio+20, and Ethical Markets’ 2013 “Beyond GDP” survey by Globescan in eleven countries, co-sponsored by the Institute for Chartered Accountants of Britain and Wales (ICAEW) and Tomorrow’s Company (www.tomorrowscompany.com), followed the 2007 and 2010 results in continued finding of wide majorities favoring addition of indicators of health, education and environment (www.ethicalmarkets.com) released May 2013. The Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) devised by the UN University, the International Human Development Program and UNEP, while advancing considerably beyond GDP, suffers from too much baggage from obsolete economics: relying on prices and willingness-to-pay, while acknowledging their inaccuracies due to “externalities.” The Social Index from Harvard’s Michael Porter ignores infrastructure, employment, income and wealth, national security and recreation, which are all covered in our Ethical Markets Quality of Life Indicators originally launched in cooperation with the Calvert Group in 2000. Most economists fail to examine the deeper problems with price systems, inflation, money-printing and the politics of money-creation and credit allocation – arguably deeper sources of un-sustainability in global financial systems (see the Transforming Finance statement).
A useful overview of the issues relating to GDP and comparisons with other indicators is the BrainPool Project, funded by the European Commission, concluding that a “quality of life” approach is likely to find acceptance, confirming the three surveys by Globescan for Ethical Markets (2007, 2010, 2013) mentioned earlier. Other approaches such as “happiness”, “wellbeing”, and “welfare” were less accepted. “Beyond GDP: Measuring and Achieving Global Genuine Progress” Ecological Economics vol. 93, 57-68, covers similar issues.
Another early effort is London-based new economics foundation’s Happy Planet Index (HPI), which has garnered much publicity and helped focus on the need to correct GDP. Launched in 2006, The UK Office for National Statistics covers broader changes in living standards, Dec 2017 and the Gross National Happiness measured in Bhutan has captured the imagination of millions and received widespread publicity, including at the UN and Rio+20. However, “happiness” is open to widely different definitions, is subjective and culturally-biased, while being appropriate for a small Buddhist nation. The approach chosen by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) (I serve on its Advisory Board) measures outcomes, an approach we take, as well as avoiding aggregation of the many “apples” and “oranges” aspects of well-being into a single index. The Ecological Footprint, a well-researched, science-based approach used by the WWF in its Living Planet Index, is now the pre-eminent measure of ecological systems and is employed in the HPI along with official life-expectancy statistics. Our Ethical Markets Quality of Life Indicators, pioneered by Calvert and Hazel Henderson, cover 12 unbundled indicators “dashboard” mounted on the web platform launched in 2000. This “dashboard” model is now the preferred approach of the OECD’s Better Life Index and in measuring progress toward the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), pioneered by statistician Jochen Jesinghaus.
The debacles of 2008 reinforced the need for higher capital reserves and deeper reforms at the TBTF banks as I and D. Wayne Silby, founder of the Calvert Group, remark in our “End TBTF: Some Skin Please!” Bi-partisan passage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS Act) in 2012, after delays at the SEC, is continuing to democratize access to capital as we report on crowdfunding with many websites used by small investors. The new support for the US Postal Service and debate may relieve it from onerous financial burdens to pre-fund health insurance imposed by Congress in 2006. Without these burdens, the US Postal Service shows a profit and is up-dating its services. Many groups share my view and that of Ralph Nader which support allowing the Post Office to expand its services to include savings accounts as in many OECD countries. The US Postal Service Inspector General’s whitepaper on “Providing Non-Bank Financial Service for the Underserved” (Jan. 27, 2014) is a pragmatic look at how US post offices can expand to serve millions of Americans without bank accounts, as in Japan and many European countries.
Ethical Markets focuses on the new green sectors growing unnoticed by Wall Street and mainstream media’s fossilized asset allocation models. The idea of returning to plain vanilla “public utility” style banking is promoted by the Public Banking Institute, and the model of state-owned banks like the Bank of North Dakota to be approved by voters in Los Angeles is catching hold in 14 states. The oil-shale boom has turned to bust in North Dakota still requiring huge public spending on schools, services and infrastructure. The state’s earlier sound performance was due to its public bank (“North Dakota Economic Miracle: It’s Not Oil“).
Since my Creating Alternative Futures: The End of Economics (1978) now republished on the University of Florida’s Digital Library and on our MOOC, I have long explored the entire range of distortions that make GDP a perverse measure of US progress. TIME’s article agrees, pointing to our Ethical Markets Quality of Life Indicators and others including the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI). In CSRWire “GDP: Still A Grossly Distorted Picture” (June 5, 2013), I show how GDP can mis-price sovereign bonds of Greece, Ireland and Portugal by omitting their real wealth: educated workforces, efficient infrastructure and productive ecosystems all count for zero in GDP. As mentioned, better measures of human progress are gaining mainstream media attention: the excellent Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) at www.ciw.ca and the report in Spirit Level (2010) by British researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett linking equality with quality of life within and across countries. They find that countries with the most equal income distribution (by GINI) have the largest socially and politically prosperous middle class while unequal countries do worse on most quality of life indicators (www.equalitytrust.org.uk).
UK economist Mariana Mazzucato points out that most of the patents underpinning Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon were funded by US taxpayers through the Small Business Administration, National Science Foundation and other agencies, The Entrepreneurial State (US edition 2015). The “hollowing out” of US manufacturing has continued for two decades at the behest of global corporations and their investment bankers. President George H. W. Bush famously held that it did not matter whether the US manufactured computer chips or potato chips, while President Bush II’s chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Gregory Mankiw, maintained that outsourcing was good for American workers who could take their severance pay and 401Ks and become day traders on the stock markets. In spite of the growing protests in America’s streets, and the rise of populism most politicians, corporate leaders and their academic advisers don’t get it. People see movies like The Big Short and watch money being printed on TV and their signs from left to right say “Where’s My Bailout?”
Conventional measures of output per capita masked this technological unemployment as beneficial “increases in productivity” for decades, as we have pointed out. Two books now illuminate this issue further: Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier, and Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Happily, the movie “Inside Job,” documenting economists’ conflicts of interest, won an Oscar and the University of Massachusetts now exposes these ethical lapses.
A revealing look at these issues is A Demon of Our Own Design (2007) by former hedge fund manager Richard Bookstaber and Fools Gold by Gillian Tett of the Financial Times showing how financial engineering of ever-more exotic swaps, derivatives, options, etc., are themselves adding to market instabilities worldwide. Another market institution, the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC) has a backlog in handling the huge volume of derivatives trading. Much of the volatility on Wall Street is due to high-frequency trading as we reported, and the failure of these exotic “quant” models and the need for hedge fund managers to sell assets to cover margin calls from their bankers. Yet other challenges to Wall Street’s conventional wisdom are the best-seller The Black Swan, by veteran options trader and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Lecturing Birds on Flying by Paulo Triana, who critique risk assessment models used by investors and banks. I made similar critiques of such models as Value At Risk (VAR) used so widely that unanticipated events could lead to system-wide crises in The UN: Policy & Financing Alternatives which I co-edited (Elsevier Scientific, UK, 1995, 1996).
Meanwhile, behind all the headline numbers, average wages for non-supervisory workers have remained stagnant for decades and many deeper structural problems in the USA go unaddressed. The growing green economy worldwide is overlooked by Wall Street’s obsolete asset-allocation models dominated by the fossil fueled sectors (see my The Sustainability Sector at www.seekingalpha.com). The growing gap between rich and less affluent citizens is still worrying Democrats and Republicans – but their concerns offered the familiar remedy: more GNP-based economic growth.
For more on the current trends in US and global finance and economics, visit ethicalmarkets.com and browse the categories on Beyond GDP, Reforming Global Finance, Green Prosperity and Trendspotting. For discussion of solutions, visit ethicalmarkets.tv and browse the Ethical Markets series Transforming Finance, distributed globally to colleges at www.films.com, and look for our upcoming TV special “Evolving Markets, Money, Finance and You!” in 2019.