Tuesday 30 June 2009

New Zealand: Are the Banks helping?

by Bill Rosenberg from CTU Monthly Economic Bulletin June 2009 There has been much public debate as to whether the banks have dropped their interest rates enough in response to the Reserve Bank’s reductions in its Official Cash Rate (OCR). In May, Statistics New Zealand in its latest Producers Price Index, reported that in the March quarter “the margins that financial intermediaries [mainly banks] make on their borrowing and lending operations… increased due to the rates for borrowing falling more than the rates for lending.” This followed increases in the previous six months, and both the quarterly and annual increase were the largest since records began in 1994. Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee was told by Deputy Reserve Bank Governor Grant Spencer that “It is disappointing that banks have not dropped mortgage rates further as more people face loan defaults in the coming year”. The Committee reported that “We are concerned that New Zealand businesses find it increasingly difficult to access credit from the major Australian-owned banks, where lending decisions are reportedly now being made by offshore bank parties rather than onshore relationship managers.” There were calls (as yet unheeded) for an inquiry into the banking system. In its June Monetary Policy Statement, the Reserve Bank again complained that “it appears as though the most recent reductions in the OCR have not been passed on to borrowers to the extent that we would have expected. While there has been some increase in funding costs from higher retail deposit rates and longer-term interest rates offshore, this does not appear to fully explain the relative lack of movement of interest rates at shorter terms.” The following graph from Reserve Bank data illustrates the widening bank margins. Since about March, interest rates have levelled out or risen despite continuing cuts in the OCR. In defence, the banks say they have to borrow at higher interest rates domestically because of competition for bank deposits, and rates have risen overseas where they still source almost 40% of their funds, because of the state of those financial markets. In addition, they need to tighten up their lending conditions and raise interest rates because business risks have increased due to the recession. Clearly though, the Reserve Bank is not convinced. There are at least two explanations for what is happening, both of which may apply. The first is that the big four Australian banks are taking advantage of their dominant position and pushing out their margins between their borrowing and lending costs to protect or expand their profits. Statistics New Zealand and the Reserve Bank provide some evidence for that. However it is difficult to believe that is the full story. The small New Zealand banks – Kiwibank and TSB included – have increased interest rates almost as fast. Given their competitor status, they would be more likely to have taken advantage of the increasing margins to undercut the Big Four. A second explanation is that because we have virtually unregulated movement of funds between New Zealand and the rest of the world – open international capital markets – we to a large degree import the monetary conditions of the rest of the world (interest rates and availability of finance). To simplify, if interest rates offered to savers here are lower than the rest of the world, fund managers can take their money to where interest rates are higher, forcing banks here to raise the rates they offer. If our domestic rates go higher than international rates, the banks can (and will) borrow more cheaply overseas in order to lend for mortgages and business loans. There are complicating factors such as margins for risks in our economy and changes in the exchange rate, but it means that the Reserve Bank has much weakened ability to influence monetary conditions within New Zealand. It has some influence on short term interest rates, because the OCR is for short term lending. But longer term rates are much more connected to international conditions because they can be funded profitably from overseas. We saw an opposite symptom of the same cause when the economy was at its height – the Reserve Bank had to set the OCR punitively high to have any effect. Now, no matter how low it cuts the OCR, it seems that longer term rates won’t respond sufficiently. The result undermines the needed stimulus to a depressed economy, and contributes to a persistently overvalued exchange rate, penalising exporters. A revealing scenario is being played out at the same time. The Reserve Bank wants to wean the major banks off their risky habit of borrowing at short terms (like 90 days, often overseas) and lending for mortgages longer term, and in general to lengthen the terms of their borrowing. It is likely to be worried that another freeze in world financial markets would force it to repeat what it did last year: arrange overseas funding lines to be used to prevent New Zealand’s financial system from freezing up too. The new regulations it is putting in place have been delayed, presumably under pressure from the big four Australian banks which are the main perpetrators, and Westpac came out recently saying that being forced to borrow longer term would further increase costs, which they would pass on to borrowers in higher interest rates. We said these regulations are important, and the banks have a responsibility to keep interest rates down by absorbing some of the costs – if they exist – into their profit margins. It is interesting that, according to an article in the Reserve Bank of Australia’s June Bulletin, the same four banks when operating in Australia borrow overseas for longer terms (they borrow relatively little short term overseas). Yet a Sunday Star-Times survey of international interest rates reported on 14 June indicated that while interest rates on deposits are lower here, mortgage interest rates are already higher than Australia. The OCR is currently higher in Australia too (3.0 percent compared to 2.5 percent here). The banks have some credibility issues.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Chavez moves against corporate patent rights

by Grant Morgan 24 June 2009 Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is looking to move against corporate patent rights on medicines and other products essential to people's needs (see Reuters news report below). This is of the utmost importance for the world's anti-capitalists. Once patent rights are stripped from corporations, their state-mandated monopoly over cutting edge technology and production processes falls away. Monopoly is central to the maximisation of profits upon which late capitalism depends for its very survival. Almost nothing else this side of the complete socialisation of the economy would impact so heavily on the accumulation of capital by the monopolists as would the democratisation of patents on scientific and technological breakthroughs. And the anti-patent policies that Chavez is moving towards in order to safeguard people's health and well-being would be likely to garner massive popular support, further weakening corporate power on the political and ideological fronts. Go Hugo!
Chávez wants to end medicine patents from Reuters 22 June 2009 CARACAS - President Hugo Chávez has vowed to shake up the rules governing intellectual property rights on medicines and other products in Venezuela, the socialist’s latest move against the private sector. “A song is intellectual property, but an invention or a scientific discovery should be knowledge for the world, especially medicine,’’ Chávez said late Saturday. “That a laboratory does not allow us to make a medicine because they have the patent, no, no, no,’’ Chávez said. Chávez, who has nationalized many Venezuela industries and is critical of the private sector, ordered his trade minister to analyze the patent rules in the OPEC nation. “Patents have become a barrier to production, and we cannot allow them to be barriers to medicine, to life, to agriculture,’’ said the minister, Eduardo Saman, who previously headed Venezuela’s patent agency. “We are revising all the doctrines and laws related to patents, which should be compatible with the international treaties that we have signed and respect and honor.’’ Chávez recently criticized Swedish packaging maker Tetra Pak, saying its patents on cartons were limiting production in Venezuela.

Bank lending to dairy farmers NZ equivalent of US sub-prime lending

New Zealand farmers are in debt to the tune of $45 billion, 61% of which is in the dairy sector. This ballooning of debt over recent years is New Zealand's equivalent of the US sub-prime lending that sparked the financial crisis. This is the claim made by Fran O'Sullivan, leading business columnist for the NZ Herald, in her article White gold rush turns deep shade of red. She writes: "Where that farm debt is highly concentrated - eg, at least 20 per cent of New Zealand's dairy farm production - it is such that farms cannot, and will not ever, meet their debt servicing commitments even under the most promising payout and interest rate scenarios. This is New Zealand's equivalent to US sub-prime lending: reliant on continuing asset gains as income was never going to meet debt-servicing commitments." This bank driven "land bubble" is about to burst with dairy prices falling due to falling global demand, compounded by a high NZ dollar. The dairy industry is a huge part of the NZ economy, being the largest exported commodity. A big drop in rural income will drag the whole NZ economy downwards with a flow-on political impact.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

A global political and ideological campaign to wipe the debt

Michael Hudson has written a very important article on the debt bondage of Iceland for the excellent Global Research website. Iceland is an advance battleground in the war between the global finance oligarchs and grassroots people. The logical conclusion of Hudson’s article is that there needs to be a global political and ideological campaign to wipe the debt and bring credit under the control of governments in the interests of humanity and the planet.
The Financial War Against Iceland: Being defeated by debt is as deadly as outright military warfare by Prof Michael Hudson from Global Research 5 April 2009 Iceland is under attack – not militarily¬ but financially. It owes more than it can pay. This threatens debtors with forfeiture of what remains of their homes and other assets. The government is being told to sell off the nation’s public domain, its natural resources and public enterprises to pay the financial gambling debts run up irresponsibly by a new banking class. This class is seeking to increase its wealth and power despite the fact that its debt-leveraging strategy already has plunged the economy into bankruptcy. On top of this, creditors are seeking to enact permanent taxes and sell off public assets to pay for bailouts to themselves. Continue at http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=13055

De-Dollarization: Dismantling America’s Financial-Military Empire

by Prof. Michael Hudson from Global Research 13 June 2009 The city of Yakaterinburg, Russia’s largest east of the Urals, may become known not only as the death place of the tsars but of American hegemony too – and not only where US U-2 pilot Gary Powers was shot down in 1960, but where the US-centered international financial order was brought to ground. Continue at http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=13969

Calls for British left to come together after electoral wins by British Nazi party

The breakthrough for the Nazi British National Party in the European elections held earlier this month has sparked a renewed push to bring Britain's radical Left together. Significant statements have come from three of the main groups – Respect (the party of George Galloway MP), the British Socialist Workers Party, and No2EU:Yes to Democracy (an electoral coalition backed by the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party and the railway workers union). BNP victory shows the need for Broad Left to work together, by Councillor Salma Yaqoob, Respect Party leader. Left must unite to create an alternative: An open letter to the left from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Call for unity to Defeat BNP, press statement by No2EU: Yes to Democracy coalition convener Bob Crow.

Sunday 21 June 2009

Financial implosion and stagnation: Back to the real economy

by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff from UNITY Journal May 2009 [originally published in Monthly Review] But, you may ask, won't the powers that be step into the breach again and abort the crisis before it gets a chance to run its course? Yes, certainly. That, by now, is standard operating procedure, and it cannot be excluded that it will succeed in the same ambiguous sense that it did after the 1987 stock market crash. If so, we will have the whole process to go through again on a more elevated and more precarious level. But sooner or later, next time or further down the road, it will not succeed... We will then be in a new situation as unprecedented as the conditions from which it will have emerged.
- Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy (1988)
“The first rule of central banking,” economist James K. Galbraith wrote recently, is that “when the ship starts to sink, central bankers must bail like hell.” In response to a financial crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression, the Federal Reserve and other central banks, backed by their treasury departments, have been “bailing like hell” for more than a year. Beginning in July 2007 when the collapse of two Bear Stearns hedge funds that had speculated heavily in mortgage-backed securities signaled the onset of a major credit crunch, the Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Treasury Department have pulled out all the stops as finance has imploded. They have flooded the financial sector with hundreds of billions of dollars and have promised to pour in trillions more if necessary – operating on a scale and with an array of tools that is unprecedented.

Trade unions and New Zealand’s economic crisis

by Grant Brookes from UNITY Journal May 2009 Comparisons now abound between the global economic crisis of 2009 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Naturally, there are similarities and differences. The following bleak assessment of the role of trade unions in the early 1930s comes from the best known book by one of New Zealand’s foremost social historians of the 20th century: When their interests were attacked in 1931, they [the trade unions] passed resolutions. In March 1932, after a sec­ond civil service wages cut, a 10 percent reduction in all Arbitration Court awards, and the abolition of compulsory arbitration to bring wages down more rapidly, a confer­ence of the Alliance of Labour, the Trades and Labour Councils, and the civil service again sidetracked a strike proposal and spent a good deal of time in discussing forms of organization. The unions had been wet-nursed by an anaemic Arbitration Court, and now that this had gone their weakness was apparent. Union secretaries had become advocates before a court rather than militant leaders in collective bargaining with the strike weapon in the background and the organization experience and rank and file discipline that this entails... Union membership dropped to lower levels, for trade unions seemed to offer little protection. First published in 1942, The Quest for Security in New Zealand by W. B. Sutch was still in use as a history textbook at my high school in the 1980s. The vital questions today are whether the role of unions in 2009 will be similar to its authoritative assessment or different, and what union and radical activists can do about it.

Sunday 14 June 2009

The depression quietly deepens

by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard from The Telegraph 6 June 2009 Those of us who still question whether the world has purged its toxins are reduced to the same tiny band of moaning Druids from early 2007, when we shook our heads in disbelief as the carry trade swept Iceland to fresh madness and bankers laughed off sub-prime rot at Bear Stearns. We learned then to thicken our skins with walnut juice, lie down in dark rooms, and dissent from Goldman Sachs. Such seclusion is called for once again as Goldman replays its BRIC anthem and raises its oil forecast to $85 a barrel this year, betting that the world will roar back on a tidal wave of liquidity. It is perhaps unkind to mention that Goldman issued a $200 call at the top of the speculative frenzy last year, just before oil crashed, but they have broad shoulders. Continue at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/5461562/Merkels-inflationary-fretting-may-wake-the-bears-from-hibernation.html

It's Official: The Era Of Cheap Oil Is Over

by Michael T. Klare from Countercurrents 12 June 2009 Every summer, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy issues its International Energy Outlook (IEO) - a jam-packed compendium of data and analysis on the evolving world energy equation. For those with the background to interpret its key statistical findings, the release of the IEO can provide a unique opportunity to gauge important shifts in global energy trends, much as reports of routine Communist Party functions in the party journal Pravda once provided America's Kremlin watchers with insights into changes in the Soviet Union's top leadership circle. Continue at http://www.countercurrents.org/klare120609.htm See also Oil price leaps to year's high

Responding to the crisis: broad left parties or Marxist parties?

In the latest issue of UNITY Journal there is an article by Vaughan Gunson in support of Marxists joining together with other leftists in the attempt to build mass-based broad left parties, Responding to the crisis: Broad left unity to mobilise masses of people. Don Franks, from the Workers Party of New Zealand, was invited to respond. His reply is The rocks of opposing class interests. Th e question of how Marxists should politically organise in response to the global economic crisis, and dangers and opportunities the crisis presents, is a vital one. UNITYblog invites any responses to these articles or other contributions to the question of how we best organise today to give leadership to the grassroots masses. Send contributions to UNITYblog editor. Or post a comment directly.

Responding to the crisis: Broad left unity to mobilise masses of people

by Vaughan Gunson from UNITY Journal May 2009 Facing the left today are incredible challenges. The global economic meltdown, combined with the nightmare scenarios of runaway climate change and resource depletion, looms as a human disaster of an unimaginable scale. The question we are all asking ourselves: is how can we organise ourselves and grassroots people into a movement that has the strength and vision to set the world on a different course?

The rocks of opposing class interests

by Don Franks, Workers Party of New Zealand from UNITY Journal May 2009 In his article Responding to the crisis: Broad left unity to mobilise masses of people, Vaughan Gunson writes: Over the last decade Socialist Worker-New Zealand, a small Marxist organisation, has moved towards the realisa­tion that we need to be building alongside other activists a broad left party which has the breadth and reach to give leadership to masses of people. And that we need to begin now, not later. Socialist Worker-New Zealand may have come to this realization over the last decade, but I don’t think they have arrived at a new political discovery. There have been many socialist attempts to build – or infiltrate – broad left parties. In New Zealand the Alliance is a recent example. At least two Marxist groups were early participants in the Alliance, the Permanent Revolution Group and the Workers Communist League. Both groups were rebuffed. The PRG, more open about their politics, were tossed out very early. WCL comrades were more used to working in united front organizations and at that stage were particularly prone to compromise their politics in the process. So remnants of the WCL hung around unhappily inside the Alliance for a while, marginalized from any positions of power as the party steadily formalized into a standard issue parliamentary machine. It was clear from the start that there was to be no accommodation of anticapitalism in the Alliance venture. The endgame saw the Alliance indelibly disgraced by its association with support for US invasion of Afghanistan.

Monday 1 June 2009

Latest UNITY Journal available online

To read the full contents of the May 2009 issue of UNITY, 'The Great Implosion: Global crisis and the left', go to http://posthypnotic.randomstatic.net/sw/unity10.pdf

World Farmers’ Alliance Challenges Food Profiteers

31 May 2009

Review by John Riddell (Socialist Voice - Canada) of La Vía Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants by Annette Aurélie.

Historical background to the international of peasant farmers.

Go to http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=395  

See also Food Crisis: World Hunger, Agribusiness, and the Food Sovereignty Alternative by Ian Angus

Venezuela: ‘When the working class roars, capitalists tremble’

by Federico Fuentes from Green Left Weekly 30 May 2009 Addressing the 400-strong May 21 workshop with workers from the industrial heartland of Guayana, dedicated to the “socialist transformation of basic industry”, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez noted with satisfaction the outcomes of discussions: “I can see, sense and feel the roar of the working class.”