Turmoil in China

31 August 2015 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

FINANCIAL TURMOIL IN CHINA

Not Just a Bubble

Sometimes, we seem to be surprised and alarmed that financial markets in China are troubled, as if we expected that capitalism there was going to be different. Sometimes we are condescending about it, as if we knew all long it was going to be exactly the same.

It’s not surprising that the Chinese themselves were caught off guard. They have not had our lengthy experience with capitalist boom and bust cycles. Moreover, their pride in the remarkable progress their economy has made in just over 35 years may have blinded them to the risks. They might well have believed it could go on forever.

The Wall Street Journal put it rather smugly: “the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders have now been forced to confront a creature of their own making as it rises up and goes its own way, immune to their attempts to bend it to their will.”

But as The Economist pointed out, there has been an extraordinary amount of state intervention: “a spectacle of ever-more drastic actions to save the market. Regulators capped short selling. Pension funds pledged to buy more stocks. The government suspended initial public offerings, limiting the supply of shares to drive up the prices of those already listed. Brokers created a fund to buy shares, backed by central-bank cash.” And so on.

The puzzle is why so much effort and alarm? China’s economy’s over-all growth is stable and asset markets are performing well. Turmoil in financial markets is not the same thing as economic collapse.

As The Atlantic observed: “the Chinese economy is more insulated from stock market fluctuations than those in developed countries like the United States. The stock market just isn’t a huge driver of economic activity in China: According to The Economist, less than 15 percent of overall household assets are invested in it.”

We, on the other hand, the poster child of Investor Capitalism, are almost fully invested with our mutual funds, mortgages, retirement accounts, hedge funds, college funds, etc. Moreover, our businesses are constantly resorting to financial markets to fund a steady stream of buy-outs, mergers, acquisitions, and restructurings.

So why the alarm in China?

To be sure, many Chinese were lulled into the belief, a common feature of financial bubbles, that investments can only go up. And some investors in the west, mesmerized by China’s economic miracle, rising so quickly to become the world’s second largest economy, might have been convinced that China is an exception – as, in the past, digital technology once seemed an exception, and sophisticated financial instruments seemed to make subprime mortgages safe.

But what China is experiencing is no different from the many episodes of turmoil in financial markets we have experienced repeatedly over the years, most recently, of course, in 2008. That is the conviction of Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard, who has written extensively about the long history of market meltdowns and our susceptibility to the erroneous conviction that This Time Is Different, as he and Carmen Reinhart put it in their prize-winning history.

What is different this time, though, is that China is troubled by extensive corruption in its ruling class, severe environmental pollution and dramatic failures to monitor safety, as witnessed by the devastating explosions in the port of Tianjin.

As Rogoff put it recently in The Times, “Financial meltdown leads to a social meltdown, which leads to a political meltdown. That’s the real fear.”

ANXIOUS AMERICA

23 August 2015 | By ken in Society | 1 Comment

The Fear of Depression

We spend over 2 billion dollars a year on anti-anxiety medications. What are we so anxious about?

Three years ago, Ruth Whippman, a British writer who moved to the US, noted that Americans “taking part in ‘happiness pursuits,’ as a rule, don’t seem very happy.” Unlike her fellow Brits, it seemed we cared too much and tried too hard.

“This obsessive, driven, relentless . . . daily application of the Declaration of Independence . . . is creating a nation of nervous wrecks. Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime.”

T. M. Luhrmann, writing in The New York Times, more recently, quoted similar statistics, and commented on Pixar’s new film “Inside Out,” in which an 11-year-old girl forced to move across the country, leaving behind her old friends and her beloved hockey team, struggles between the pressure to be Joyful and the reality of Sadness. Unable to resolve the conflict, the girl is taken over by Anger, to everyone’s dismay. Eventually Joy discovers how important Sadness is for human connection.

It’s a cute movie, if a bit abstract and boring at times, and it does illustrate Luhrmann’s point about our culture. How could anyone think that the girl, dislocated from her community and struggling with the loss of friends, should possibly continue to be the happy person she had always been? The parents in the movie are alarmed by her state of mind – but what were they thinking? And they add to her anger, it seems to me, by not being able to accept or understand her unhappiness. They need her to be perpetually joyful.

To be sure, optimism is useful as it inclines us to keep on trying. If we believe we will succeed, we are less likely to give up and accept disappointment and defeat – and giving up could easily lead to depression. That may be the underlying point.

Like the family in “Inside Out,” we are afraid of unhappiness. We need others continually to affirm our optimism, our belief that things will get better, that solutions to problems will surely be found. Our happiness is a sign of our success.

Sadness is not depression. Indeed, feeling acute sadness while understanding why we are sad is quite the opposite. It is a sign of life, often an adaptive connection with reality. In fact “Inside Out” is saying something like that at the end. Luhrmann puts the underlying problem succinctly: “Americans believe that excessive sadness makes us sick.”

And we have reasons enough to be disappointed, frustrated and sad. Opportunities for success are diminishing, as the gap between the rich and poor widens. Our political system is deeply flawed, making it harder to address problems like climate change, our decaying infrastructure, human rights, and terrorism. In fact, it often seems that the levels of fear and hatred are rising, fanned by politicians looking to score points. And the world is looking increasingly dangerous.

It’s more and more of a challenge to keep from feeling helpless and depressed.

Controlling CEO Pay

15 August 2015 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

How Will It Play Out?

The SEC recently established a new rule requiring most companies to disclose the ratio of CEO pay to that of their average employee. “Fifty years ago, chief executives were paid roughly 20 times as much as their employees, compared with nearly 300 times in 2013,” according to a study cited in The New York Times.

The rule in no way dictates what the pay should be, but it gives investors a window into the compensation practices of publically traded firms. The new rule is designed to help investors compare pay scales in companies. But it also promotes awareness of growing income inequality. Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose best-selling book helped fuel a global debate on income inequality, notes “higher wages for top earners in corporate America had been among the main drivers of the widening income differences in the United States.” He added in an interview last year: “The system is pretty much out of control.”

On the other hand, as The Times noted, “Representatives of corporations were quick to assail the new rule . . . saying that it was misleading, costly to put into practice and intended to shame companies into paying executives less.” It is probably all of those things – but that does not mean it is a bad idea. How will it play out?

Gretchen Morgenson at The Times looked into it and found a number of experts on who thought the rule might actually succeed in curbing “over-the-top pay.” The numbers, easy to grasp and probably shocking to many, could possibly galvanizing employees as well as state governments to act. Even so, the official ratios probably will underestimate the true extent of the disparity as the numbers will not include pensions and supplemental retirement plans – which most executives and almost no other employees enjoy.

Investors won’t care, and the large mutual funds, like Vanguard and Fidelity will “vote their clients’ shares routinely in support of lush pay practices whether they like it or not.” As Morgenson notes, “These voting policies help keep corporate boards clubby and executive pay aloft.”

So the new rule is unlikely to be effective by itself, without significant efforts to influence public awareness. That may well occur as the presidential campaign heats up.

But a more immediate effect, according to The Wall Street Journal is that “businesses will spend more time explaining to employees at all levels how they set pay.” When lower level employees know what the averages are in their companies, as a result of the rule, they can and no doubt will agitate for increases.

That’s the real issue, shining a light into the black box of corporate compensation. Charles Elson, Director of the Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, commented that the “pay ratio was designed to inflame the employees.”

That is no doubt what so profoundly agitates the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporate lobbying groups who are opposing the rule. “When they read that number, employees are going to say, ‘Why is this person getting paid so much more than me?’” Elson speculates: “I think the serious discontent will force boards to reconsider their organizations’ pay schemes.”

So in the end, the new rule may not mean that CEOs will get paid less, but that other high level employees will end up getting more. Paradoxically, that will increase the cost of management and, no doubt, widen that gap between the rich and poor.

Seeing Inequality — or Not

08 August 2015 | By ken in Society | 2 Comments

Can We Do Anything About It?

The rich not only tend to care less than the poor about our growing economic inequality, but also they just don’t see it. According to recent studies, reported in Psychological Science: “Attitudes to redistribution and the economic status quo appear to be subject to (informational) biases in the environment as well as biases in the mind.”

This is a stiff and academic way of saying that the environment itself tends to screen out discordant perceptions about many “anomalies,” including perceptions of the very rich and the very poor. So it is not just that the rich do not want to see economic inequality, according to these studies, they actually can’t see it.

The same goes for the poor, but that matters far less as they have virtually no influence on the public policies that might address the problem. As the authors of the studies put it, these inherent limitations on the perception of differences, “may lead to increasingly dissociated enclaves of political perception and preference.”

It is no surprise, of course, that self-interest leads us to ignore or forget uncomfortable facts. That’s just human nature. Those who have money want to hold onto it, and tend to be unsympathetic if not uncomprehending of arguments against that. And it is also true that we all experience pressures to conform to the beliefs of the groups to which we belong. We depend upon those groups to confirm our identities and support our self-esteem. Rich as well as poor tend to coalesce around those that share their perceptions and ideas. That too is an aspect of human nature. But this is yet another wrinkle.

The authors suggest what seems a virtually hard-wired inability to see some aspects of reality. Their focus in these studies was on economic inequality, but it would be easy to extrapolate their findings to racial or ethnic differences, differences that tend to disappear or lose their significance in the eyes of the beholders, as they become simple, unalterable “facts” about the environment.

The authors don’t say anything about social class, but that is exactly what comes to my mind in reading about these studies. It may be that the cognitive limitations they describe may be the result of class differences among segments of society that exist in “dissociated enclaves.” Or, perhaps, the authors have stumbled upon the psychological mechanism underlying the formation and persistence of social classes.

We tend to think of class as determined by economic factors, and that is true, no doubt. Whether one thinks of social stratifications into low, middle and upper income groups, or into groups that are distinguished by their relationships to the means of production (i.e. salaried workers, managers, professionals, and owners), class differences tend to become ossified, rigid and hard to alter. This theory suggests that, apart from the forces that establish classes and assign members to them, their persistence may be due in part to cognitive factors that exert a steady and controlling influence.

That, in turn, suggests how difficult it would be to dismantle our class system. This may be the perfect example of what the English poet William Blake called “mind forged manacles.”

[My appreciation to Jeff Axelbank who called my attention to these studies.]

SHOULD WE WORK HARDER?

24 July 2015 | By ken in Society | 2 Comments

CAN WE?

In America, we tend to think that success is all about individual effort. And recently Jeb Bush reinforced that idea in suggesting that our economy could be more robust if each of us worked harder.

That’s a truism, at best, but deeply misleading. Actually according to statistics collected by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, we already work harder than others in first world countries.

Americans now put in an average of 112 more hours per year than the British, and 426 hours (over 10 weeks!) more than Germans. And there is no doubt that we feel it as, typically, our corporations, averse to hiring new workers, will redistribute workloads among existing employees whenever they can. And those that take on the extra work, as those who already have, are fully aware of the risk that, no matter how hard or effectively they work, they also face the risk of being downsized themselves.

So, yes, if we work more hours we will be more productive, but then we would need to factor in the costs of overwork: illness, alienation and anger, stress, inattention, less time with our families, resentment and, even, sabotage. Moreover, as T.M. Luhrman pointed out recently in The New York Times, workers in the U.S. already have one of the world’s highest levels of anxiety. (See “The Anxious Americans.”)

Work is perhaps the most meaningful and important of our activities. In the modern world, work is not only how we support ourselves but also how we are connected with each other, how we gain self-esteem, and how we define who we are. But, at the other extreme, when the conditions under which we work are not protected, we face the risks of exploitation and helplessness.

There is yet another risk stemming from the fact that not all work is equal or equally rewarded. The benefits of work are distributed disproportionately, as things stand, and will become even more so, as we become an even more stratified society. As a result we will become a progressively less unified, coherent and just society.

It’s better to have a job, of course, but it matters significantly what kind of job. Those who work at McDonalds or Walmart are underpaid. So it is crucial to have social safety nets and minimum wages, as well as guarantees against exploitation. Those who work in the banking and technology industries are less likely to care about the disparities – or even notice them. But we will all end up paying the cost in terms of illness, accidents, and social friction.

But thinking on that scale seems to take place in a zone that is dead to consciousness, a kind of stagnant sea, where awareness of our deeply interconnected lives tends to disappear. We don’t think about it. The media doesn’t usually report it. It doesn’t register.

That is what makes Jeb Bush’s comment plausible. And he is not alone in thinking that way.