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Kirk Houghton

Author of The Dividing Lines and Bad Things to Good People

Kirk's Book Reviews

Kirk's Book Reviews

Review of Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets by John Plender

Posted on September 5, 2015 at 8:35 AM

Capitalism: Money, Morals and MarketsCapitalism: Money, Morals and Markets by John Plender

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title might mislead you into thinking this is an epistemological study of Capitalism, but John Plender’s reflections on the civilisation that has lifted millions out of poverty is an enjoyable read. Though more likely to inform debate in the convivial atmosphere of the Middle Common Room rather than in a Postgraduate Economics Seminar, this book has a lot to offer both the layman and the scholar.
Taking a specific theme in twelve different chapters from a discourse on the money ‘as the root of all evil’ to the public perception and economic function of the entrepreneur, Plender’s work has the feel of a loose collection of essays rather than a monumental study into the dynamics of capitalism in the mould of Joseph Schumpeter. Nonetheless, this does not detract from the quality of the writing and imagination of the source material, with Plender using a multitude of literary passages to illustrate the workings of the ‘dismal science’ through the eyes of Dickens, Zola, John Steinbeck and many others.
Perhaps the best sections of this book focus on the world of banking, namely its purpose, the persistence of moral failings since the nineteenth-century, and its extraordinary capacity to survive despite being a gigantic confidence trick. Plender reminds us that banks are inherently unstable because they perform a paradoxical function of taking deposits from customers (and guaranteeing their withdrawal at a moment’s notice) and lending them to debtors at interest. In effect both depositor and borrower have claims to the same money and the whole system could collapse if the former decided to withdraw their savings. This explains why banking is usually accepted as a necessary evil. Though a bank run can damage the wider economy and even imperil the solvency of a nation state, most people accept that a modern economy relies on the availability of credit for commerce and industry – without it economic growth would stagnate.
The turning point where banks became riskier enterprises is traced to the nineteenth-century when many banking partnerships became limited liability ventures. This protected shareholders from incurring losses beyond the amount they put in and prevented creditors from making a claim on their personal assets. The potential for enormous gains remained, yet the exposure to losses diminished. Naturally, this encouraged bigger risk-taking.
Despite being pro-capitalism and pro-business Plender is keen to stress how banks have imperilled the moral standing of the capitalist system. Ethics have sunken to a new low with bankers continuing to award themselves exorbitant bonuses in the aftermath of the devastating global recession of 2008/09. The recklessness is best embodied in his observation that some of the major banks had capital cushions of just 2% in 2007. This is surely related to America’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, which allowed banks to expand their balance sheet four-fold and do away with the ring-fencing of retail and investment banking that had been in place since 1933. As the author laments, ‘To put it crudely, capitalism has been hijacked by the banks. That is not how it is meant to work. The only question is how long it will take before the system blows up again.’
Nevertheless, Plender is right to analyse other forces that motivated the insane leveraging before the 2008 crash. The Basel II accord of 2004 is not without blame. This regulatory agreement for central banking rules did more harm than good and encouraged banks to bump up their mortgage lending operations because of the low risk status accorded to these products. Likewise, Basel II also exacerbated imbalances between northern and southern nations in the EU by awarding privileged status to sovereign debt holdings (e.g. Greek bonds) while removing capital buffer requirements. No wonder German investors bought up so many Greek bonds and have been quick to remind Chancellor Merkel that a Greek default will imperil their own banking system (and leave them with huge losses).
Of course, no discussion about capitalism can be complete without a discourse on manufacturing, and Plender is keen to tackle one of the persistent anxieties of the modern Anglo-American age – the correlation between deindustrialisation and national decline. Yet as the author shows, there’s no reason why a shrinkage of the manufacturing sector as a proportion of the national economy will lead to a fall in living standards in the twenty-first century. In fact, the decline of manufacturing as a percentage of the workforce can be seen as a good thing as it usually means productivity gains are freeing up labour for other sectors of the economy. Output can go up if industry is shrinking, and even China has passed its late 1990s peak of manufacturing, where 33% of the workforce now toil behind machines.
The main danger is when the financial sector becomes disproportionately large in relation to the economy and is too remote from servicing industry and commerce. This is the dilemma Britain faces, but the likes of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn are in cloud cuckoo land if they think wide-scale manufacturing can return to these shores without a massive depreciation of wages to keep up with Chinese competition. Plender does not predict what types of service jobs can attract rocket scientists and engineering graduates away from high-finance and back into productive enterprises, but this book is more a work of History than Economics, and historians are not expected to predict the future. Therefore, the balance between manufacturing and the service sector remains one of the questions of our age.
Like any general survey, Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets relies on prescient observation and myth-busting to retain your attention. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this is Plender’s reflections on speculation in the market place. His view that speculators taking up long positions on agricultural commodities ‘bring real resources more closely into line with the future balance between supply and demand’ still sounds hollow and unconvincing in its merits. That said, his defence of short-selling is more articulate, and he’s right to say there’s nothing wrong with an investor buying up the IOUs of a financially-stressed company while hedging the investment with a short position on the company's shares. And, of course, short-sellers played a positive role in the demise of Enron, the most notorious example of corporate fraud in the modern age.
One major surprise of this book is the downbeat conclusion. Though capitalism has raised living standards and fostered unimaginable scientific and technological developments, the tendency of boom and bust has become entrenched into the system and leads to cyclical depression and bouts of widespread misery. Accepting this as a necessary evil is hard enough, but future recessions are likely to be even more damaging because of the changing dynamic between nation states and banks. Where once medieval monarchs used to destroy banks by defaulting, the opposite is now true. Now it’s the government, using taxpayers’ money, that props up the institutions that are too big to fail. But productivity and innovation in the western world has slowed since 1970 and the governments that maintain generous welfare states, pensions and education budgets are struggling to meet the cost of provision based on overly-optimistic forecasts of forty years ago. No one doubts the banks will have a useful role to perform in keeping consumer spending at acceptable levels, not to mention a key role in expanding credit to tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. Which makes it all the more likely that governments penalised with higher borrowing costs on the international bond markets will resort to inflation to erode the real value of their debts. Something will have to give, and price stability may come under threat.
The only thing militating against a 5-star review is the tempo of the book. Yes, it’s easy to read and commendable for its clarity and recourse to classical antiquity when needed, but it feels more like an easy-going chat with a professor at a high-table dinner rather than a lecture from a superstar academic. Plender is a journalist at The Financial Times, so that’s understandable, but those expecting something similar to a Francis Fukuyama book may be disappointed. That being the case, let me assure you this is still worth a read and may be a good precursor to Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

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