Tuesday, December 27, 2011

U. S. Businesses Shop Europe

“As Europe struggles with its debt crisis, American businesses and financial firms are swooping in amid the distress, making loans and snapping up assets owned by banks there—from the mortgage on a luxury hotel in Miami Beach to the tallest office building in Dublin.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/26/business/us-firms-see-europe-woes-as-opportunities.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=nelson%20schwartz&st=cse)

Where in our current understanding of macroeconomics does it indicate that a sovereign debt crisis might end up with foreign interests owning large chunks of a country’s physical assets?  How much of Ireland will United States interests buy?  How much of Spain will Middle Eastern countries end up owning?  And, how much of Italy will China possess?

Macroeconomics just cannot pick up the complexity of real economies.  Too much of the reality of an economy takes place at the micro-level and cannot be comfortably incorporated into the simple structures of the aggregate models of the economy. 

Macro-models just cannot include all of the incentives that are created within the total economy that lead to results that can even produce contradictory outcomes to what the macro-economists had been predicting. 

One of the most egregious results of the past fifty years is the prediction of the macro-economist that inflation can help the working classes and the middle classes.  Yet fifty years of credit inflation in the United States produced exactly the opposite effect in that the income/wealth distribution in the U. S. became highly skewed toward the wealthier in the society.

For one, the economists used aggregate models to show that there was a favorable tradeoff between employment and inflation.  The policy implication: if a little more inflation can be created then more people will be hired and unemployment will decline.

These models did not pick up micro-behavior that indicated that the “less wealthy” could not protect themselves from credit inflation whereas the “more wealthy” could not only protect themselves from credit inflation but could actually benefit from it.

Furthermore, these models did not include the fact that the credit inflation would provide incentives for manufacturing companies to move more into financial services while shifting their focus away from their historically productive enterprises.  Who would have thought in the 1960s that General Electric and General Motors would, by the end of the century, be earning more profit from their financial wings than from their manufacturing capacities?

Another macroeconomic idea that I have repeatedly used in discussing international financial arrangements has been that of the “trilemma”.  The “trilemma” analysis concludes that a country can only achieve two of the following three policy objectives: a free international flow of capital; a fixed exchange rate; and the ability to follow an independent economic policy.

Since 1971 when the United States went off the gold standard, many countries floated the value of their currencies in foreign exchange markets.  This had to occur, the argument went, because in the 1960s, capital began to flow freely throughout the world. 

Therefore, if governments wanted to gain the favor of those that worked in manufacturing and the labor unions by conducting a policy of credit inflation to keep unemployment low and, in many countries, housed in their own home, they had to be able to conduct an independent economic policy.  Within this effort, popular pension programs were also expanded to encourage people to retire earlier and governments became a large supplier of jobs to the economy.   

Thus, the value of the currency could be allowed to decline as governments created massive amounts of debt often financed by foreign interests.  Governments were able to keep the pedal to the floor during this period by generating a relatively steady flow of credit to their economies.

And, what was the micro-impact that the “trilemma” models did not pick up?  It was the declines that occurred in labor productivity that made many nations uncompetitive in world product markets. 

Here we see Greece…and Spain…and Ireland…and Portugal…and Italy…and, others...

And, corporate interests in the United States…and elsewhere…have lots of cash available…either on their balance sheets…or through financial markets that have been generously supplied by the Federal Reserve.

“At Kohlberg Kravis (Roberts), Nathaniel M. Zilkha, co-head of the special situations group, is expanding his London team to eight, from two, and hoping to take advantage of opportunities in Europe.  The firm is even considering potential investments in the country where the crisis began, Greece, despite headlines warning of a default by Athens or the possibility that Greece may withdraw from the eurozone…

Besides Greece, Kohlberg Kravis bankers have also been looking for deals in Spain and Portugal, where private companies are having a similarly hard time winning new credit or extending existing loans.”

As we see over and over again, the excessively loose monetary policy of the Federal Reserve is not helping the “working people”, those 20- to 25-percent of the labor market that are under-employed.  The Fed’s largesse is going to those that can use the money to “do the deal”.  Now, it seems that the flow of funds is going into the acquisition of assets formerly owned by Europeans.  Earlier, we saw Fed injections creating bubbles in commodity prices and in the stocks of emerging markets.   Even earlier than that, we saw Fed injections creating bubbles in the U. S. housing market and in U. S. stocks. 

The macroeconomic models are becoming less and less useful because the world works at a more micro-economic level.  It is at this micro-economic level that we can really observe the complexity of human behavior and also see how markets can self-organize and emerge to take on a life of their own.  Until governments become more sophisticated in their analysis of economic problems, they will continue to create opportunities that the wealthy and the better connected can take advantage of.  And, a Fed guarantee that short-term interest rates will remain at levels that are close to zero only exacerbates the situation.      

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