Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions

In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision to refrain from increasing the country’s extensive social grant payments—which now reach 18 million impoverished citizens—beyond the growth in inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a larger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt—which has now breached 80% of the debt/GDP ratio—and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30%.

Those familiar with the financialization scholarship pertaining to developing countries—that strand which portrays the global financial markets as a force that can alter committed policy trajectories on a whim (Koelble, 2004), as well as the more nuanced literature (Mosley, 2000; Hager, 2017; Streeck, 2014; Ansari, 2017)—may recognize the Treasury’s framing of South Africa’s fiscal dilemma. However, as much of the international development literature on industrial upgrading and state policy has noted (Wade, 2018; Alami, 2019; Rodrik, 2006), there is a third option available to policy-makers in developing countries beyond the binary of debt build-up vs. austerity; namely, comprehensive, employment generating state-led development.

This is precisely the case I make in my new book, published by Palgrave (2021), Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions. In addition to documenting the onset of a financialized accumulation regime in post-apartheid South Africa since the democratic transition and the ANC’s adoption of economic liberalization, the monograph also highlights the missed opportunities that could have allowed the country to embark on a self-sustaining path of industrial up-grading, inclusive development, and internal revenue generation. Such missed opportunities include the early rejection by party leaders of the heterodox “Macro-Economic Research Group” (MERG) policy cluster, the removal of the trade unions from broader macro-policy-making processes, the rejection of a modest reconstruction and wealth tax, and the abandonment of much of the “Reconstruction and Development Program” (RDP) platform in favor of the orthodox “Growth, Employment, and Redistribution” (GEAR) package in 1996. Had some of these missed opportunities been pursued, South African state officials would likely be in a much better position to currently adopt expansionary fiscal policies, and perhaps could have lifted their citizens out of poverty via inclusive development instead of cash-transfers.

Yet, as my monograph further documents, since the democratic transition Treasury officials have continued, despite recommendations from other government ministries such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), to veto or oppose heterodox policy proposals that could potentially offer South Africa a path away from the current neoliberal quagmire. Such proposed polices include capital controls, export taxes on raw materials, the utilization of foreign exchange reserves to capitalize State-Owned-Enterprises (SOEs), and targeting specific industrial sectors for subsidies and state promotion.

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Financialisation of healthcare in Brazil: new evidence

By Norberto Montani Martins, Carlos Ocké-Reis and Daniel Drach

The covid-19 pandemic is showing how important universal health systems are. As the virus continues to devastate communities and economies, many governments have started to look at them with different lens. Investing in public health systems should be mandatory, but austerity policies in peripheral countries are still the priority. Moreover, the increasing financialisation of the health sector produces conflicts that constraint the achievement of a truly universal and comprehensive public healthcare. This is what we address in our recent paper, where we argue that lead firms in the provision of healthcare plans seem to have become platforms for the accumulation of wealth by financial investors, a process that is making shareholder value the main guiding principle of firm behaviour.

A good example of such contradictions is Brazil. A universal health system called the Unified Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde, or SUS) was established in the 1988 Constitution. However, it would be misleading to affirm it has provided universal access and comprehensive care: since its inception, SUS faced an inadequate low level of public spending that jeopardized its mission. In the 2000s, the Brazilian government eventually increased public spending in healthcare, but a kind of paradox emerged as it also set up many policies to foster private healthcare and private accumulation in that sector (e.g., health-related tax expenditures).

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Latin America: still caught in the capital flows trap

In a recent article, I discussed the poor state of Latin American economies drawing on some rather obscure works by Raúl Prebisch, explicitly addressed to the disturbing role of capital flows on (primarized and open) Latin American economies. I find that the post-2008 cyclical trend of capital flows is an exacerbated version of what has been affecting Latin America since the days of Prebich .

Mainstream literature on capital flows to developing countries has shared two important commonalities since the 1990s. This literature, for example in the tradition of New Institutional Economics,  tends to assume a beneficial effect of capital inflows, which leads to an improvement of peripheral institutions, whose deficiencies are ostensibly the main cause of economic turmoil and/or failure in attracting capital flows. In doing so, however, mainstream economists deliberately overlook the asymmetric characteristics of the international monetary system and the persisting hegemony of the US Dollar. 

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The Strategic Logics of State Investment Funds: Beyond Financialization

State capital has increasingly taken on marketized forms. From state enterprises to sovereign wealth funds, it is increasingly difficult to find much difference at the operational level with cognate organizations in the private sector. Manager cadres have become professionalized, with many having spent significant time honing their skills in the private sector before taking up their positions in state entities. Business practices and corporate governance standards typical of private capital and the syllabi of elite business schools have become the norm. This includes, as to be expected, an embrace of a shareholder value logic. State entities in doing so are becoming increasingly financialized, not dissimilarly to their peers in the private sector.

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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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Where Is the Risk in the COVID Economy? A look at shadow banking

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By Janet Roitman and Andrew Moon

We are witnessing a public bailout of the private sector that dwarfs the bailout response to the 2007­–2008 Great Recession. Compared to the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) implemented in 2008, today’s mobilization of public funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act amounts to a whopping $2.3 trillion, thus far.

As we know from media coverage of the CARES Act, today’s relief programs are intended to support payrolls, corporate operations, and small business overhead. What we don’t hear from the mainstream media is news on how these relief programs serve, once again, to privatize profits and socialize losses.

Unfortunately, few people are training their sights on that process — that is, on the actual mechanisms by which public funds are being used to underwrite not payrolls or job creation, but rather new sites of capital accumulation.

Just where are these new sites?Read More »

Oikonomia is Back, for Now

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Plato and Aristotle, at The School of Athens. Photo by By Raphael – Web Gallery of Art.

The current pandemic is a human tragedy on an enormous scale, not only in terms of death and illness but also in loss of employment, disruption to education and increased anxiety. Perhaps of most concern to politicians, the various restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have had large negative effects on national and regional economies. 

As a result, many leaders have opted to ‘re-open’ their economies prematurely, partly since economic performance affects electoral cycles. In some cases there have been disastrous consequences to such loosening of social distancing restrictions, with spikes in infections in various countries or states. This has led to a discussion of a false dichotomy – between protecting human life and reviving the economy. 

This dichotomy is false for several reasons. At the most basic level, if large parts of the population get infected and either die or are unable to work, this would not bode well for the economy either. But more fundamentally, what we think of as ‘the economy’ is really broader than just profits and asset values. Read More »