Home > Uncategorized > The coming middle class revolt

The coming middle class revolt

As the world plunges into a long term bear market that could last another two years or more, it has become obvious that there are no easy or quick fixes to the current set of problems that bedevil the world economy. The hope that the world’s central bankers could rekindle growth with their ‘Keynesian’ stimulus packages is fading. The debt created by the stimulus packages is too large in relation to the underlying GDP of most developed countries to permit easy refinancing from bond markets. The developed world now faces grim prospects wherein real cuts in living standards are necessary, at least for a while, before normal growth returns. The burden that this entails needs to be shared optimally and equitably if social tensions are not to explode. So far little thought has been given to the problem of how these might be shared without impairing future growth prospects or further deepening social fissures.
The run-up to the market crash of 2008 was characterised by a banking system that had run amok in terms of credit creation, credit quality and trading little understood credit derivatives. This binge was underpinned by a lax Federal Reserve System (Fed) under Alan Greenspan that believed the market could do no wrong, practically abdicating its regulatory role to the markets themselves. The credit bubble was left to collapse on its own. Therefore, when the collapse came in 2008, it was after credit had run through two decades of uninterrupted expansion. The crash in the markets, particularly bank stocks, laid bare the full extent of the havoc wrought by unrestrained lending and credit creation. Hundreds of banks would have failed. More were threatened. The authorities chose to save the banking system instead of letting the bad ones fail and the rest regroup and consolidate. Much of the so-called “Keynesian stimulus” that the central banks created has gone towards ‘replacing’ impaired bank capital rather than asset and job creation. No wonder then that trillions of dollars poured into banks neither created new jobs nor stimulated growth. Banks have simply used the money to replace capital that had been paid out earlier as dividends in good times to distribute unreal paper profits.
As the Fed drives interest rates to zero, or even negative, it impacts the wealth and wellbeing of people profoundly. These changes in wealth are neither obvious nor is their impact on society uniform. If the changes are for a short period as in a normal recession of 2-4 quarters, society is able to cope with them without much pain and things return quickly to normal. However, when the recession lasts longer, savings are not enough to tide over disruptions and very painful adjustments are required. The Fed’s use of a blunt instrument like interest rates further aggravates the problem by distributing the burden unfairly, and almost exclusively, on the middle class. It is not as though the Fed has a grudge against the middle class. The reality is that the poor have no savings that the Fed can tap into, and the super-rich escape its regulatory ambit by using hedge funds to park their savings, which in turn follow global returns. The only people with savings that the Fed can access through its hold on the banking system is the middle class that uses domestic asset classes to park its savings. This class, unfortunately, bears most of the burden of adjustment. The net result of the Fed’s effort to shore up bank capital has resulted in huge wealth transfer from the middle class to the banks. Barring a few lucky bondholders, most middle class savings, whether in 401k equity schemes, bank deposits or housing equity have simply vanished or diminished beyond repair. No wonder then that people past their 60s are looking for jobs and any hope of putting the third kid through college no longer seems practical. The level of pain being inflicted on the middle class invites revolts against the system. That is more obvious in Europe where the banking system took a larger share of the toxic mortgage losses than in the US.
What can be done to mitigate middle class pain and ensure more equitable burden sharing that also helps foster growth in the real economy? Warren Buffett has pointed to the way forward by suggesting taxes on the super-rich. It is necessary to understand the particular context of this suggestion before condemning it as a return to the evils of socialism.
The super-rich escape hidden levies imposed on savers through an artificially low interest rate regime, by parking their funds in hedge funds that follow global returns and pay no taxes in the US. Further, note the levies imposed by zero or negative returns are on accumulated savings of people and not current income so we are not talking of taxing incomes but accumulated wealth. More than that, much of the losses incurred by the banking system in trading credit derivatives resulted in humongous profits to hedge funds that went short in toxic mortgages. Nothing wrong with that. Trading is a fair, if zero-sum game, and if the banks were foolish and hedge funds smart, it is not anybody’s concern. But there is a caveat. Had the Fed not bailed out the banks, there is no way by which the hedge funds could have collected on the bank obligations due to them. Their profits, howsoever fairly earned, would have remained paper profits and would have had to be written off as unrecoverable. Net net, but for the Fed bailout for banks in full, there would be no real profits to hedge funds and their super-rich clients. These are the profits that Warren Buffett wants to claw back, not fully but in some measure.
Can it be done? Indeed as social tensions rise precisely because of the invidious nature of burden sharing, meaningful action to ameliorate the aggravation becomes less likely. Note the route taken by the UK to adjustments by reducing transfer payments to the have-nots has already led to unprecedented rioting in London and elsewhere. Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy are not finding the money required to fund their deficits and may have to cut back on subsidies. The US is better off because of the dollar’s safe haven status. But it too will find social tension spiral upwards. It is society’s goodwill that gives currency to the wealth of the super-rich. Charity is one way to recycle some of the profits back to the have-nots. Under normal circumstances that is the preferred way to do things. In extraordinary times like the present, the way suggested by Warren Buffet may be the only viable way to go, albeit for a limited period of two to three years.
To us Indians, this form of less than fair returns on savings through artificially low interest rates is nothing new. It was standard practice from the 70s to the 90s and was one of the bad habits that the government of India kicked in as part of reforms. Pranab Mukherjee brought it back with a vengeance upon his return to the Ministry of Finance (MoF). After two years of being relentlessly fleeced stealthily, the middle class is out on the streets screaming for blood. It may not know why it feels let down, and maybe protesting generalised corruption, but in reality it has seen its wealth and options erode considerably under the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA-2) government. That angst may be the underlying discontent that Anna Hazare has tapped into.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Harish Puri
    August 22, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Sonali, I read your blogs and articles, and also follow you on twitter. Hence am being presumptuous enough to make a small suggestion. Have shorter paragraphs please, with line breaks between paragraphs – makes for easier reading.. The content, as always, is top class!

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