The New “Passive” Wall Street Counterparts for States in the Global South

By Jan Fichtner and Johannes Petry

In the past, during the time of the “Washington Consensus” developing countries from the Global South faced the IMF and the World Bank as their main counterparts in important matters of global finance. Based on our recently published research paper “Steering Capital” we argue that due to an ongoing paradigm shift in financial markets this constellation is changing profoundly. A new breed of Wall Street firms is emerging that occupies a pivotal position in the relationship between (developing) countries and financial markets – index providers.

This rise of index providers is grounded in the global shift towards passive investment. Formerly, investors gave their money to funds where a well-paid fund manager was picking stocks (or bonds) with the aim to produce above average returns – to “beat” the market in finance parlance. But now more and more investors invest in cheap passive funds (which comprise both exchange traded funds and index mutual funds) that merely track financial indices. Unlike actively managed funds, however, the passive index funds industry is characterised by enormous economies of scale – in terms of technology it is not a big difference if a passive fund has ten million or ten billion US$ assets under management. In addition, there is a strong first mover advantage. As a result, BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street dominate passive funds as the “Big Three”. Excellent recent work has since focused on how this “new money trust” is shaping the emergent ”American Asset Manager Capitalism”.

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How pension funds shape financialisation in emerging economies in Colombia and Peru

By Bruno Bonizzi, Jennifer Churchill and Diego Guevara

In early spring 2020 emerging economies (EEs) were hit by the largest ever episode of portfolio outflows. Stock and bonds were sold as investors flight to safer investments in Europe and the United States, showing once again the fragile nature of EEs’ financial integration. To overcome this problem, one suggested solution is to allow for a larger base of domestic institutional investors, such as pension funds, which can stabilise financial markets. While having a large institutional investor base can be a source of demand for domestic financial securities, it is important to review the evidence from the experience of those EEs where pension funds have existed for more than two decades. 

As we show in our forthcoming article, the experience of Colombia and Peru can be instructive. Their pension system, while maintaining a significant parallel public Pay-As-You-Go structure, has a sizeable funded private component with assets that have grown to over 20% of GDP. These were established as part of the Washington Consensus reforms in the 1990s, following the prior example of Chile. 

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Economic Sovereignty for Developing Countries: What Role for Modern Money Theory?

With modern money theory (MMT) receiving impressive attention, the implications this theory has for developing countries have also been discussed more intensely. Emphasizing both its strengths and gaps provides a great chance to further develop macroeconomic strategies for poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

In brief, the theory starts from the statement that money is issued by the government and brought into circulation via its expenditures. The government does not rely on taxes to fund expenditures when it is itself the source of money. Therefore, money can be created upon demand, is not limited, and can be used by the government to finance all expenditures it considers necessary to achieve policy goals such as full employment or a Green New Deal. The reason why agents in the economy accepts this money only consisting of numbers without any intrinsic value is the obligation to pay taxes. Since the state has the power to impose taxes, individuals need to get hold of money as this is the only way to meet their obligations; this is how the currency is accepted as a means of payments. The government thus has the power to run unlimited deficits because the fact that money is needed to pay taxes guarantees its acceptance even if those taxes do not cover expenditures. In fact, the government should run deficits because it creates the demand required for full employment while a balanced budget constrains it. The government cannot go bankrupt because there is no lack of currency it issues itself. The conditions identified by MMT for the system to work are the following: 1) the country must be sovereign of its own currency and 2) inflation needs to be kept under control. Once the latter starts accelerating due to increased nominal demand stemming from government expenditures, taxes can be increased in order to withdraw money from circulation. However, as long as full employment is not achieved, prices are argued to remain stable.

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Covid-19 and The Myth of Convergence: The West, the Rest and the urgent need for fiscal space in the Remainder

Imagining recovery, while a pandemic rumbles on, is an ominous task. But governments around the world have been forced to contend with this challenge. Several African, Asian and Latin American economies were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic hit. Fluctuations in global commodity prices in recent years and mounting trade deficits had already forced several African countries to request the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a range of support mechanisms including credit facilities. Debt was already reaching alarming levels. The pandemic made economic dependencies more salient, with Zambia plunging towards becoming Africa’s first pandemic-related private debt default

The recent thrust of research championing possible convergence (often based on questionable and selective use of data) between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries ignores the vast range of economic trajectories of former colonies. In slapdash cross-country economic studies, a strategic use of averages and unreliable categorisation is often used to draw generalisations about large-scale change. Sweeping claims made about a rising ‘developing’ world often fail to isolate China’s rise. There is rarely any acknowledgment that most countries’ economies remain undiversified and deeply dependent on foreign actors. The data used to make the case for convergence often relies on GDP and human development indicators, rarely mentioning let alone measuring the structural transformation of economies. Structural transformation remains one of the essential facets of economies that have ‘caught up’ historically. Whether countries can retain fiscal space after this crisis will inevitably depend on the nature of structural transformation and how that has shaped national growth and dependency within the global economy.

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The perils of monetary policy in the global periphery during the Covid-19 pandemic

For several decades, countries of the periphery have been deeply in the grip of debt. The Covid-19-induced crisis has severely accelerated indebtedness and thus increased financial vulnerability. Recent policy measures by peripheral governments and central banks have brought momentary relief, but ultimately represent a manifestation of the interests of finance capital to get the most out of peripheral economies as long as it is still possible. 

Because of the dependence of their currencies on international capital flows, political autonomy in peripheral economies is extremely limited due to the possible effects of political decisions on the movement of such flows. The enormous power of financial markets over monetary policy in the periphery is again becoming evident during the current crisis. The crisis in the global periphery is generally much more severe than in the central countries, not only because of often inadequate health systems that have been abandoned under three decades of neoliberal policy. As peripheral assets do not serve as a store of value, “investors” withdrew almost 100 billion dollars from “emerging markets” within three months, constituting a historically unprecedented capital flight. Factors such as the deflation of prices of primary resources, the fall in external demand for manufactured products, and the fall in cash flows due to decreasing remittances and tourism mean that financial pressure has increased even more. Consequently, peripheral currencies significantly depreciated with the beginning of the crisis, in some cases by as much as 20-30%, as in the cases of Brazil and Mexico.

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Structural polarisation and path dependent development models in the EU

The macroeconomic consequences of the CODID-19 pandemic in the EU economy are materializing against the background of underlying structural challenges. Ensuring long-term convergence and stability between EU countries will require coordinated fiscal, wage and industrial policies. This blog post finds that EU countries are stuck on different trajectories in their economic development. Core countries, periphery countries, East European countries and financial hubs have responded differently to increasing European economic integration. This leaves Europe mired in structural polarisation, where political tension relates to diverging economic developments and increasing gaps in the evolution of technological capabilities. As a consequence, counteracting polarisation and promoting convergence requires a coordinated strategy that includes fiscal, wage and industrial policies.

Several EU countries were already on diverging macroeconomic development paths when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but the macroeconomic consequences of the crisis must be expected to further accelerate existing divergences. Even though large parts of the EU experienced an economic upswing in the years running up to the COVID-19 pandemic, this temporary upswing in the business cycle served to mask the underlying tendencies towards structural polarisation in Europe, which will become more apparent over the course of the current crisis.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Evolutionary Economics, I argue with Claudius Gräbner, Jakob Kapeller and Bernhard Schütz that essential factors for explaining the long-term polarisation between EU countries are to be found in the unequal regulatory conditions in the context of the European ‘race for the best location’ (for example, in the areas of labour market, tax and corporate law or financial market regulation), as well as in the different technological capabilities across EU countries.

We show that technological capabilities in EU countries are distributed unequally; EU countries remain structurally polarised, i.e. they are stuck on different developmental trajectories that contradict the political goal of ensuring convergence and stability in the EU. Notwithstanding short- and medium-term cyclical developments, existing differences in technological capabilities will continue to fuel a process of economic disintegration in the EU if policy-makers fail to counteract the polarisation trend by introducing a coordinated policy strategy that should include fiscal, wage and industrial policies.Read More »

Facing a liquidity tsunami? Profit, risk, and discipline in emerging markets

moneypower

In April 2012, at the White House on her first visit to the United States since her election in 2010, Brazilian president Brazil Dilma Rousseff scolded advanced capitalist economies for unleashing a ‘tsunami de liquidez’, a ‘liquidity tsunami’, onto the developing world. The expression liquidity tsunami suggests that the sheer scale and volume of financial capital flows to developing and emerging markets had become an issue. It indicates that these quantities were overwhelming and could trigger devastating damages. 

This in itself is puzzling. Have we not been told by development economists and practitioners that financial capital flowing into the poorer areas of the world economy is something good and desirable? That one of the main causes of underdevelopment is actually the lack of capital and domestic savings in developing countries, and that this should be compensated with foreign capital inflows? Following this line of reasoning, vast swathes of financial capital flowing into emerging markets surely should be seen as a boon.

And there was some truth to that. The capital flow bonanza from the mid-2000s to late 2013 (coupled with the primary commodity super-cycle) did deliver some benefits to emerging markets. It helped governments fund themselves at better conditions. It provided the material basis for significant redistribution via a number of social policies. It contributed to economic growth performances much higher than over the previous decade. It also made a minority of people much richer in a very short period of time. In sum, the capital flow boom temporarily helped deliver some economic and social gains, and this was instrumental in consolidating social contracts between governments and their populations.Read More »

Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019)

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Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh

Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, historical social scientist, anti-colonial militant, world systems theorist, intellectual provocateur and polymath, has passed – and with him has passed the last giant of the golden age of anti-Eurocentric history. Wallerstein was born in 1930, educated at Columbia, from where he successively received BA, MA, and PhD degrees by 1959. From his early adulthood, he was seasoned and beguiled by national liberation struggles, reading the texts of Nehru and Gandhi, attending youth congresses alongside participants from African countries in the heat of anti-colonial militance. His earliest works focused on colonial and post-colonial African governments, including a number of neglected monographs and co-authored document collections on the African liberation movements.Read More »