Posts in category Buttonwood’s notebook


Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Donald Trump, trade and the new world order

TWO months into the Trump administration and we have had more sound and fury than concrete proposals about its economic agenda. The most alarming sign so far is that America forced the G20 to drop a pledge about resisting “all forms of protectionism” from a joint statement but this may be purely symbolic.

Nevertheless, Mr Trump’s determination to shake up the status quo may yet have global consequences. In a research note, Chris Watling of Longview Economics suggests that

Trump’s policies might inadvertently bring about a new international monetary order as the administration struggles to fulfil campaign promises in the light of the original misdiagnosis of the ‘trade deficit’ problem.

The current monetary system emerged from the downfall of Bretton Woods in the 1970s. Under the Bretton Woods system, devised in part by John Maynard Keynes (pictured, left), currencies were fixed to the dollar (with scope for occasional devaluations or revaluations) and the dollar was fixed against gold. But this required America to act as the anchor of the system; other…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The hole in Western finances

HAVE western governments, faced with angry voters, lost the ability to raise taxes? The question is raised by a farcical U-turn by the British government over a budget measure announced a week previously. The government retreated in the face of backbench opposition and the right-wing press. It seems eerily reminiscent of America, where Republicans have an absolute abhorrence of tax-raising measures.

The planned British increase (aligning the tax rates of the employed and self-employed) was perfectly sensible. Unless closed, this gap will erode the tax base over the long run. Most economists agree that differential tax treatments tend to distort behaviour for no long-term gains. But the government had promised at the 2015 election not to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT—three taxes that raise around two-thirds of revenues—and this (foolish) promise was used against it.

As the graph shows, British tax revenues have…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The hounding of Owen Jones

IN THE big scheme of things, the retreat of a Guardian columnist from social media is not a huge event—it will be drowned out by the latest antics of Donald Trump, the extraordinary diplomatic dispute between the Netherlands and Turkey, the triggering of article 50 by the UK and Scotland’s push for a second independence referendum.

Actually, though, I think that it’s possible to tie all these events together as evidence of a much wider trend; one that is corrosive to both global politics and economics. Let us start with the specifics. Owen Jones (pictured) is a left-wing writer; initially a great enthusiast for Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s Labour leader, he has become disillusioned. Those who previously agreed with his columns have denounced him on Facebook and Twitter. As he wrote in one final post (complete with language that may offend some)

On a daily basis I have angry strangers yelling at me, on the one hand, that I’m responsible for the destruction of the Labour Party, and on the other, I’m a right-wing sellout careerist who’s allied to Tony Blair and possibly in the pay of the Israeli government (and that I’m a Blairite cunt who needs to go fuck myself,…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The ouija-board theory of democracy

EVER since the June 2016 referendum vote in Britain on membership of the European Union, there has been a battle over the terms of departure. The government, and right-wing press, are averse to there being any kind of scrutiny over the process by either the courts or Parliament. Judges who ruled that Parliament should approve the triggering of Article 50 (the technical start of negotiations over exit terms) were dubbed “enemies of the people” by the Daily Mail, a term that has since been taken up by Donald Trump.

But the referendum posed a very general question—“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”—without setting out the manner of departure. Britain could have remained a member of the single market and customs union while being outside the EU (as was suggested by some members of the Leave campaign); the Conservative manifesto of 2015 (to which the government owes its legitimacy) talked about Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Who will lose when globalisation retreats?

THE new nationalists are on the march in Europe and America. They argue that globalisation has benefited the elites and penalised the ordinary workers and that governments should put America/Britain/France first. That means favouring domestic producers and restricting global flows of people, goods and (this gets mentioned less often) capital. The latest proposal came from the Trump White House last night—a threat to ignore World Trade Organisation rules and impose tariffs on countries with “unfair” trade practices.

previous column suggested that the world may have entered a third phase of the post-1945 economy, after the Bretton Woods phase (fixed exchange rates and recovery) from 1945-early 1970s and the globalisation phase from 1982-2007. Each phase ended in a crisis (stagflation in the 1970s, a credit crunch after 2008). The next era could see globalisation in retreat for the first time since 1945.

That…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

How quickly will the Federal Reserve tighten?

EVER since the Presidential election, markets have focused on the potential for fiscal policy—tax cuts and spending increases—to boost the American economy. But over the last few days, there has been a reminder that monetary policy, which has dominated investors’ thoughts for much of the period 2008, still has the potential to have a big impact. The possibility of a rate rise from the Federal Reserve this month overshadowed President Donald Trump’s speech to Congress.

William Dudley of the New York Fed said that the case for tightening had become a “lot more compelling in recent months” and that “the risks for the outlook are now starting to tilt to the upside”. John Williams of the San Francisco Fed said that a March hike was now getting serious consideration. Bloomberg reckons the markets are pricing in a 60% chance of a rate hike on March 15th; Brown Brothers Harriman reckons the probability is 74%. The acid test…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

William Jennings Trump and the monetary elite

DONALD Trump has been compared with many past politicians—Richard Nixon for his suspicion of the press and Warren Harding for his isolationism are two obvious examples. Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s alt-right hand man, has just compared him with William Jennings Bryan, who ran unsuccessfully for President in 1896, 1904 and 1908 on the Democratic ticket.

Mr Bannon said that Mr Trump was an orator in the class of Bryan, although that seems pretty hard to credit. The current President has displayed nothing like the eloquence used by Bryan in his most famous speech, to the 1896 Democratic convention.

You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favour of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

Having behind us the commercial interests and the labouring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Tony Blair is right on Brexit. Now he should get into the trenches or back off

TONY BLAIR’S speech on Brexit on the morning of February 17th has attracted a predictable storm of derision. The former prime minister has become a sort of Rorschach t`est for whatever the viewer thinks is wrong about Britain: to the left he stands for free-market capitalism and war, to the right he stands for a hyper-metropolitan internationalism, to some of his former acolytes he stands for how not to secure one’s political legacy after leaving politics. In parts of Westminster and Fleet Street nuanced opinions about Mr Blair meet with a mix of bafflement and distaste, like ordering veal at a vegan restaurant.

To be sure, some of the criticism is valid. Mr Blair presided over the build-up to Britain’s financial and economic crisis and the failure of the post-invasion period in Iraq. His globe-trotting, pro-globalisation breeziness clashes with the prevailing mood among electorates in much of the West. His money-making activities since leaving Downing Street (ten years ago this June, believe it or not) have done his domestic reputation significant harm.

Yet the shame of all this is that it detracts from the many things Mr Blair says that are worth heeding. He…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Euphoria returns to markets

LIKE the weather in Chicago, you don’t have to wait long for a new trend in the stockmarkets. Just a few weeks ago, investors seemed to have second thoughts about their Trump-related euphoria (which itself was a contrast to the widespread nervousness ahead of the election). Now they have been recording new highs again.

While the spark for the rally seems to have been a Presidential comment about forthcoming tax cuts, the causes have been much broader; the MSCI World Index has also hit new highs. Commodity prices have perked up, which may be a sign that the Chinese economy is holding up (if you recall, a Chinese slowdown was the big worry 12 months ago). Asian trade has perked up after a long period of sluggishness (the exports of South Korea, a bellwether in this respect, have risen for three months in a row). According to…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The problem that links business, finance and politics

THE problem is as old as mankind. The Roman author Juvenal encapsulated it into a phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” or “Who guards the guards themselves?” It was neatly illustrated in the classic BBC series “I, Claudius”. The infirm Claudius wants the return of the Republic. But the Praetorian guard, set up by his relatives, needed an Emperor to ensure their special status. So on the murder of Caligula, they drag Claudius from his hiding place behind a curtain, and make him Emperor.

Throughout history, dictators have faced this problem. They can surround themselves with men with swords or guns. But it only takes one guard with a sword or gun to turn into an assassin or to seize power for himself. The Shah of Iran had a huge army in 1979 but it did him no good; the soldiers had more sympathy with the revolutionaries than with the Shah himself. 

In business and finance, this is known as the “principal-agent” problem. Shareholders employ managers to run a company; investors use fund managers to look after their savings. That makes sense. It allows us to take advantage of the expertise of others, and of…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Making protectionism unpopular again

BACK in 1906, an insurgent politician called Joseph Chamberlain (once known as Radical Joe, he had switched to the Conservatives over home rule for Ireland*) lured the government into a campaign in favour of tariffs. The result was a devastating defeat for the Conservatives. The opposition Liberal party recognised that tariffs were a tax on the goods bought by the poor, particularly on food, and warned that the policy would lead to a “smaller loaf”. They portrayed tariffs as “stomach taxes”.

A hundred years ago, then, it was easy to make protectionism unpopular. Despite the prosperity brought by 70 years under a more open trading system, it now seems that opinion may have changed: tariffs are favoured by “populist” politicians.**

The trick for modern populists has been to focus on the positive benefits to American workers in terms of jobs, rather than the adverse impact on consumers. In fact, protectionism is highly unlikely to restore American manufacturing jobs, which are under threat from automation as well as globalisation, as our Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

The markets have second thoughts on Donald Trump

MARKETS are always full of surprises. In the run-up to the Presidential election, many investors were nervous about the possibility of a Trump victory. But on the night of the results, there was a dramatic turnaround. Within a few weeks, the market capitalisation of global equities had risen by $3trn and that of government bonds had fallen by the same amount. Markets were betting on “Trump lite”—that his tax cuts and infrastructure spending would be pushed through boosting growth and possibly inflation. By contrast, they downplayed the other “Donnie Darko” element of his policies—his threats to tear up trade agreements and heighten geopolitical risk in the middle east and Asia.

So far, however, we have seen more of Donnie Darko than Trump lite. First there was his “I have a nightmare” inauguration speech with its references to “American carnage” and protection. Then there were his early actions…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

You can’t be both a populist and a free-market conservative

IT WOULD be hard to find two more different characters than Theresa May and Donald Trump; the former a suburban vicar’s daughter, the latter a brash reality TV star. But they face similar problems—how to keep both the markets and their supporters satisfied.

For Mrs May, the problem is her dissonant rhetoric. On the one hand, she has used what was once known as “one nation” Tory rhetoric, arguing against the worst excesses of capitalism and the need to help those who are “just about managing”. So here she is in her Davos speech saying of her new approach that 

It means businesses paying their fair share of tax, recognising their obligations and duties to their employees and supply chains, and trading in the right way;
Companies genuinely investing in—and becoming part of—the communities and nations in which they operate, and abiding by the responsibilities that implies;
And all of us taking steps towards addressing executive pay and accountability to shareholders.

In practice, however, she has already retreated from a proposal to put workers on boards, plans to push ahead with…Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments
Business and financeButtonwood's notebook

Are big infrastructure projects castles in the air or bridges to nowhere?

IF THERE is a consensus right now in American politics, it must be that infrastructure spending is a good thing. It employs workers, improves economic efficiency and, at the moment, can be financed at rock-bottom bond yields. So why don’t governments get on with it?

The problem is multi-faceted. Although people tend to be enthusiastic about infrastructure in general, they are more critical of specific projects. If they are in the country, then they ruin the currency; if they are in the town, then they ruin neighbourhoods or impinge on private-property rights. When it comes to public infrastructure projects, the benefits are long term but the costs are short term. The politician that authorises the project is rarely the same one that opens it. So an elected leader gets all the flak from those who oppose this white elephant/blot on the landscape but none of the praise for the reduced traffic jams or cheaper power that ensue. Occasionally a leader might be tempted into authorising a big scheme (like Britain’s high-speed rail) but, as the Continue reading

Read more 0 Comments