When Big Data Becomes Bad Data

Corporations are increasingly relying on algorithms to make business decisions and that raises new legal questions.

Protesters participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Among the visible signs are those advocating for equal rights, integrated schools, fair housing and fair employment. (Marion S Trikosko/PhotoQuest/Getty)

A recent ProPublica analysis of The Princeton Review’s prices for online SAT tutoring shows that customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents are often charged more. When presented with this finding, The Princeton Review called it an “incidental” result of its geographic pricing scheme. The case illustrates how even a seemingly neutral price model could potentially lead to inadvertent bias — bias that’s hard for consumers to detect and even harder to challenge or prove.

Over the past several decades, an important tool for assessing and addressing discrimination has been the “disparate impact” theory. Attorneys have used this idea to successfully challenge policies that have a discriminatory effect on certain groups of people, whether or not the entity that crafted the policy was motivated by an intent to discriminate. It’s been deployed in lawsuits involving employment decisions, housing and credit. Going forward, the question is whether the theory can be applied to bias that results from new technologies that use algorithms.

Asians Are Nearly Twice as Likely to Get a Higher Price from The Princeton Review

One unexpected effect of the company’s geographic approach to pricing is that Asians are almost twice as likely to be offered a higher price than non-Asians, an analysis by ProPublica shows. Read the story.

The term “disparate impact” was first used in the 1971 Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power Company. The Court ruled that, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it was illegal for the company to use intelligence test scores and high school diplomas — factors which were shown to disproportionately favor white applicants and substantially disqualify people of color — to make hiring or promotion decisions, whether or not the company intended the tests to discriminate. A key aspect of the Griggs decision was that the power company couldn’t prove their intelligence tests or diploma requirements were actually relevant to the jobs they were hiring for.

In the years since, several disparate impact cases have made their way to the Supreme Court and lowercourts, most having to do with employment discrimination. This June, the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. affirmed the use of the disparate impact theory to fight housing discrimination. The Inclusive Communities Project had used a statistical analysis of housing patterns to show that a tax credit program effectively segregated Texans by race. Sorelle Friedler, a computer science researcher at Haverford College and a fellow at Data & Society, called the Court’s decision “huge,” both “in favor of civil rights…and in favor of statistics.”

So how will the courts address algorithmic bias? From retail to real estate, from employment to criminal justice, the use of data mining, scoring software and predictive analytics programs is proliferating at an exponential rate. Software that makes decisions based on data like a person’s ZIP code can reflect, or even amplify, the results of historical or institutional discrimination.“[A]n algorithm is only as good as the data it works with,” Solon Barocas and Andrew Selbst write in their article “Big Data’s Disparate Impact,” forthcoming in the California Law Review. “Even in situations where data miners are extremely careful, they can still affect discriminatory results with models that, quite unintentionally, pick out proxy variables for protected classes.”

It’s troubling enough when Flickr’s auto-tagging of online photos label pictures of black men as “animal” or “ape,” or when researchers determine that Google search results for black-sounding names are more likely to be accompanied by ads about criminal activity than search results for white-sounding names. But what about when big data is used to determine a person’s credit score, ability to get hired, or even the length of a prison sentence?

Because disparate impact theory is results-oriented, it would seem to be a good way to challenge algorithmic bias in court. A plaintiff would only need to demonstrate bias in the results, without having to prove that a program was conceived with bias as its goal. But there is little legal precedent. Barocas and Selbst argue in their article that expanding disparate impact theory to challenge discriminatory data-mining in court “will be difficult technically, difficult legally, and difficult politically.”

Some researchers argue that it makes more sense to design systems from the start in a more considered and discrimination-conscious way. Barocas and Moritz Hardtestablished a traveling workshop called Fairness and Transparency in Machine Learningto encourage other computer scientists to do just that. Some of their fellow organizers are also developing tools they hope companies and government agencies could use to test whether their algorithms yield discriminatory results and to fix them when necessary. Some legal scholars (including the University of Maryland’s Danielle Keats Citron andFrank Pasquale) argue for the creation of new regulations or even regulatory bodies to govern the algorithms that make increasingly important decisions in our lives.

There still exists “a large legal difference between whether there is explicit legal discrimination or implicit discrimination,” said Friedler, the computer science researcher. “My opinion is that, because more decisions are being made by algorithms, that these distinctions are being blurred.”

 

http://www.propublica.org/article/when-big-data-becomes-bad-data?utm_source=et&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter&utm_content=&utm_name=

Is Silicon Valley in Another Bubble . . . and What Could Burst It?

CITY BY THE FROTH
In the U.S. alone, nearly 100 tech start-ups are currently considered unicorns.
Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe.
With the tech industry awash in cash and 100 “unicorn” start-ups now valued at $1 billion or more, Silicon Valley can’t escape the question. Nick Bilton reports.
One Thursday morning in early June, the ballroom of the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel, in Menlo Park, was closed for a private presentation. The grand banquet hall appeared worthy of the sprawling resort’s five-star designation: ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling; silk panels with a silver stenciled design covered the walls. Behind a stage in the 2,800-square-foot room, a large sign bore the name of Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most revered venture-capital firms.As breakfast and coffee were offered, the company’s partners mingled with the men and women who endow their $1.5 billion fund. The investors were dressed invariably in business casual, with the top button of their dress shirts noticeably undone. (A mere handful of men stood out in a suit and tie.) Off in the distance, you could make out the faint purr of Bentleys and Teslas ferrying along Sand Hill Road, depositing the Valley’s other top V.C.’s at their respective offices—Greylock Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Sequoia Capital, to name just a few—for another day of meetings with founders, reviewing the decks of new start-ups, and searching for the next can’t-miss company.

After some chitchat (Mitt Romney had addressed the group the previous night), Scott Kupor, a managing partner, took the stage to tell the assembled investors what was going on with their money. A16z, as the firm is commonly known in the Valley, had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in some of the industry’s biggest companies—Instagram, Facebook, Box, Twitter, and Oculus VR—along with a number of upstarts, such as Instacart, a grocery-delivery business that had been recently valued at about $2 billion. After the guests found their seats, Kupor began moving through a series of slides depicting the past and present of the tech sector, using data that would help inform the firm’s investments in the future. Each set of numbers had been meticulously researched and culled from sources that included Capital IQ, Bloomberg, and the National Venture Capital Association.

Yet the presentation, which adhered to a16z’s gray-and-deep-orange palette, seemed to have an ulterior motive. Kupor, his hair neatly parted, was eager to assuage any worry about the existence of a tech bubble. While he conceded that there were some eerie similarities with the infamous dot-com bubble of 1999—such as the preponderance of so-called unicorns, or tech start-ups valued at $1 billion and upward—Kupor confidently buoyed his audience with slides that read, “It’s different this time,” and charts highlighting the decrease in tech I.P.O.’s, the metric that eventually pierced the froth in March of 2000. Back then, a company went public almost every single day; now it was down to about once per week. This time around, he noted, the money was flowing backward. Rather than entering a company’s coffers in the public markets, it was making its way to start-ups in late-stage investments. There was little, he suggested, to worry about.

And then, toward the end of his reassuring soliloquy, the ANDREESSEN HOROWITZ sign fell from the wall and landed on the floor with an ominous thud. As the investors looked on, some partners in the Rosewood ballroom laughed awkwardly. Others did not seem so amused.

KIM JONG UN VS. HITLER

While the rest of the country has spent the past year debating gay marriage, policing tactics, Obamacare, and Deflate-gate, the inescapable topic of discussion in Silicon Valley is whether we are in a technology bubble. Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of his eponymous venture firm, is perhaps the leading advocate against the bubble chatter. On his Twitter feed, he has referenced the word “bubble” more than 300 times, repeatedly mocking or refuting anyone on his radar who even hints at such a possibility. One of his arguments, as the slides in the Rosewood ballroom suggested, is the exponential growth of mobile phones, which have fundamentally changed the way we buy and sell virtually everything, from groceries to taxi-like services, and created unprecedented disruption. Also, in contrast to the days of the dot-com boom, many tech companies are creating revenue—in some instances, lots of it.Andreessen’s points are all valid, but the bubble chatter is still impossible to quell, in part, because the signs are increasingly ubiquitous. When I moved to the Bay Area to cover the tech industry for The New York Times,in the summer of 2011, the Valley was still reeling from the bursting of the last bubble, which led to more than $6 trillion in losses, and sent the NASDAQ on a downward spiral similar to the Dow’s amid the Wall Street crash of 1929. In 2000, some start-up C.E.O.’s lost millions of dollars in a matter of hours. Others saw their entire net worth fall to zero in months. People vanished; commuting times were sawed in half; private investment ossified. At the time I arrived, LinkedIn was the only publicly traded social-media company. A little-known upstart with a catchy name, Uber, had just raised a seemingly staggering amount ($11 million) in venture capital. Postmates, Tinder, Instacart, Lyft, and Slack didn’t exist. Silicon Valley was an actual place, not an HBO show.

But within months I noticed that private money was returning and a cavalcade of start-ups were reshaping the city in their image. Engineers from companies I hadn’t yet heard of began showing up at open houses with checks written out to cover rent for the first few months (a recruiting perk, I later learned). I attended a jungle-themed Halloween extravaganza featuring acrobats, a 600-pound tiger, and other wild animals in order to bolster photo moments that people were posting on a hot new start-up, Instagram. Meanwhile, I was pitched countless apps to find a parking space, or messaging services to tell someone that you are running late. The founders told me their companies were worth tens of millions of dollars. When I asked for their logic, they looked at me as though I were the crazy one. Shortly after the Facebook I.P.O., I learned about a secret group within the social-network company called “T.N.R. 250”; it was an abbreviation of “The Nouveau Riche 250,” comprising Facebook’s first 250 employees, many of whom had become multi-millionaires. The members of T.N.R. 250 privately discussed things they wanted to buy with their windfall, including boats, planes, Banksy portraits, and even tropical islands.

Whenever I even suggested the word “bubble” in my reporting, I became a punching bag. After I scrutinized the ethics (and preposterous valuation) of Path, an ill-fated social network, Michael Arrington, once a nexus of power in Silicon Valley who had invested in the start-up, called me a “pit bull” and said I wasn’t a very noble person. But lately the worries have spread. There are now fast approaching 100 unicorns based in the U.S. alone, and counting. The NASDAQ recently closed at an all-time high, surpassing a record set right before the dot-com crash in 2000. The Shiller P/E ratio, a measure of the ratio of price to earnings, has a number of investors worrying, with The Wall Street Journal noting that it shows stocks are “frothy.”

Lately, in fact, even some of the most aggressive V.C.’s have cowered. Not long after the Andreessen Horowitz presentation, Roger McNamee, co-founder of the private-equity firm Elevation Partners, told CNBC, “We are going to have a correction one of these days.” Bill Gurley, a partner at Benchmark Capital and Andreessen’s nemesis (“my Newman,” as he recently put it, referring to the Seinfeld character), echoed this sentiment on Twitter, venture capitalists’ preferred platform of communication. (Many are staked in it.) “Arguing we aren’t in a bubble because it’s not as bad as 1999,” Gurley tweeted, “is like saying that Kim Jong-un is fine because he’s not as bad as Hitler.” (Gurley declined to comment for this story.)CONTINUED:

http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/08/is-silicon-valley-in-another-bubble

Central banks step in to prop up global financial bubble

King-World-News-Man-Who-Predicted-The-Collapse-Of-The-Euro-Against-The-Swiss-Franc-Time-Is-Running-Out-For-Global-Financial-System

31 August 2015

Early last week, global stock markets experienced their worst selloff since the 2008 financial crisis. At the opening of US markets on Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down more than 1,000 points, its largest intraday fall in history. By the end of the week, however, the markets in the United States and Europe had staged a major rally, recovering much of what they had lost.

The reason for the turnaround in global stock markets was not hard to find. As the New York Times put it: “Once again, the Federal Reserve helped save the day for investors” who were “inspired by soothing words from an influential Fed policy maker.” By “soothing words,” the Times means the promise of further infusions of cash into the financial system, which has fueled the continual rise in equity prices.

In particular, the Times was referring to the comments of William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a key ally of Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen, who said that the deterioration of the US economy made the case for raising interest rates “less compelling.”

Whether or not the Fed actually raises interests rates a small amount at its meeting next month, these statements were a pledge to do whatever it takes to keep the Wall Street asset bubble inflated.

The same day, European Central Bank Executive Board member Peter Praet made clear that the ECB stood ready to go even further by expanding its ongoing “quantitative easing” money printing operation. “There should be no ambiguity on the willingness and ability of the Governing Council to act if needed,” he declared.

These announcements compounded the moves by the Chinese central bank Tuesday to cut its target interest rate and reduce banks’ reserve requirements simultaneously, sending yet another flood of money into the economy on top of the 900 billion renminbi ($140 billion) it is estimated to have injected in June and July.

It is striking that, largely on the basis of a few hints dropped by monetary policy officials, the biggest global stock market sell-off since 2008 was at least partially reversed.

These developments underscore a basic reality of the contemporary capitalist economy: the ongoing stock market surge, which has seen all three major US stock indexes triple in value since 2009, is the product not any genuine economic “recovery,” but of continual infusions of cash from global central banks.

The present situation is the outcome of an extended process. Over the course of decades, the creation of wealth for the financial elite has become increasingly divorced from any productive activity and tied ever more directly to speculation in financial bubbles—a process most nakedly expressed in the United States. As Raymond Dalio, head of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund put it, “The money that’s made from manufacturing stuff is a pittance in comparison to the amount of money made from shuffling money around.”

Significantly, Dalio, whose wealth has tripled since 2008, this week called for the Federal Reserve to respond to growing turmoil in financial markets with a new round of quantitative easing.

In fact, so dependent has the global economy become on free money that former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers conceded in a column last week that, “Satisfactory growth, if it can be achieved, requires very low interest rates that historically we have only seen during economic crises,” concluding that “new conditions require new policies.”

Of course, the wealth of the financial elite cannot come from nowhere. Ultimately, the continual infusion of asset bubbles is the form taken by a massive transfer of wealth, from the working class to the banks, investors and super-rich. The corollary to the rise of the stock market is the endless demands, all over the world, for austerity, cuts in wages, attacks on health care and pensions.

Nowhere are these processes more clear than in the US. In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the Obama administration and the US Federal Reserve made trillions of dollars available to the banks and major financial institutions. As a result, the share of wealth held by the richest 0.1 percent of the population grew from 17 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2012, while the wealth of the 400 richest families in the US has doubled since 2008.

The same period has witnessed an unprecedented decline in the incomes of working people. According to the latest Federal Reserve survey of consumer finances, between 2007 and 2013 the income of a typical US household fell 12 percent. The median US household now earns $6,400 less per year than it did in 2007.

The threatened bursting of the asset bubbles is driven by concern that the easy money policy is reaching some form of denouement, that the ammunition of central banks is drying up. All the more ferocious will be the ruling elite’s assault on the working class, in the United States and internationally.

As the WSWS wrote in 2009, “The most essential feature of a historically significant crisis is that it leads to a situation where the major class forces within the affected country (and countries) are compelled to formulate and adopt an independent position in relationship to the crisis.”

The ruling class responded to the crisis with a drive to vastly expand its own social wealth and privileges at the expense of the great majority of society. This drive will only intensify in the coming months and years. The working class must advance its own worked out program, based on an understanding of the forces that it confronts: a ruthless financial aristocracy, political institutions that are bought-and-paid for by the banks and giant corporations, and a global social system, capitalism, that has reached a historic dead-end.

Andre Damon

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/31/pers-a31.html

China’s economic downturn raises concerns about political instability

China-debt-crisis-581x435

By Peter Symonds
28 August 2015

Amid continuing global share market volatility, the financial elites around the world have been intently focussed on the movement of Chinese stock markets and more broadly on the state of the Chinese economy. Yesterday’s rise of the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index, after falls in six successive trading sessions, produced an almost audible sigh of relief as share prices responded by rising on major markets internationally.

The deluge of media commentary on the Chinese economy reflects the degree to which the world economy as a whole is dependent on continued growth in China. Speaking on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Lateline” program last night, Ken Courtis, chairman of Starfort Holdings, pointed out that “this year we’re expecting 35 to 40 percent of all the world’s growth to come from China.” If that did not happen, “then we have a real problem.”

Concerns in ruling circles that China’s economic slowdown will lead to political instability were evident in an article published in the Financial Times (FT) on Tuesday entitled, “Questions over Li Keqiang’s future amid China market turmoil.” Analysts and party insiders who spoke to the FT suggested that the Chinese premier was “fighting for his political future” after the Shanghai Composite Index plunged by 8.5 percent on Monday—its largest decline since early 2007.

Analyst Willy Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong told the newspaper: “Premier Li’s position has certainly become more precarious as a result of the current crisis. If the situation worsens and if there comes a point where [President Xi Jinping] really needs a scapegoat, then Li fits the bill.”

Li and Vice Premier Ma Kai were closely associated with efforts in early July to stem the falling share markets, including a ban on short selling and new stock offerings and share sales by large investors. According to the FT, state-owned institutions pumped an estimated $200 billion into the share market, only to see it plummet over the past week.

The Chinese leadership is more broadly under fire. A lengthy article in the New York Times last weekend reported that Xi had been told by powerful party elders to focus more on restoring economic growth and less on his anti-corruption drive.

Xi, however, has exploited high-profile anti-corruption cases to consolidate his grip on power, jail potential rivals or challengers, and intimidate factions critical of his government’s accelerating pro-market reform and further opening up to investment. A shrinking economy will only fuel tensions within the isolated and sclerotic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime and open up the prospect of renewed factional infighting.

Having all but abandoned its socialistic posturing, the CCP leadership has depended for its legitimacy on continued high levels of economic growth. The fear in Beijing and major financial centres around the globe is that rising unemployment and deepening social inequality will lead to social unrest, particularly in the working class, which is now estimated to number 400 million.

The official growth figures have fallen this year to 7 percent—well below the 8 percent level that the CCP long regarded as the minimum required for social stability. Many analysts, however, regard even 7 percent as significantly overstating actual growth. A recent Bloomberg survey of 11 economists put the median estimate of Chinese growth at 6.3 percent.

Others put the figure far lower. Analyst Gordon Chang told the Diplomatwebsite that “influential people in Beijing” were “privately saying that the Chinese economy was growing at a 2.2 percent rate.” He pointed to other indicators of declining economic activity: rail freight (down 10.1 percent in the first two quarters of 2015), trade volume (down 6.9 percent), construction starts by area (down 15.8 percent) and electricity usage (up by just 1.3 percent).

While the Beijing leadership is under pressure to boost the economy, the slowdown in China is bound up with the broader global crisis of capitalism. The restoration of capitalism in China over the past three decades has transformed the country into a vast cheap labour manufacturing platform that is heavily reliant on exports to the major economies.

In highlighting China’s contribution to world growth, Ken Courtis noted on “Lateline” yesterday that “Japan is contracting or in great difficulty still, the US is growing at 2, 2.5 percent, [and] Europe is slugging around at 1.5, 1 percent.” These economies, however, are precisely the markets on which China depends. The latest figures for July showed that exports slumped by 8.3 percent year-on-year, with exports to Europe and Japan down 4 percent, partially compensated by a rise of 7 percent to the US.

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, the CCP leadership only maintained economic growth through a massive stimulus package and the expansion of credit. However, with exports and industrial production stagnating, the money flowed into infrastructure spending, property speculation and, more recently, stock market speculation. Notwithstanding occasional rallies in response to government measures to ease credit, falling property prices over the past year, and now plunging share prices, underscore the fact that these speculative bubbles are unsustainable.

The Chinese regime is under international pressure to accelerate its pro-market reform agenda, including privatisation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the further liberalisation of the financial sector to open up new profit opportunities for foreign investors. Such measures, however, will only heighten the social gulf between rich and poor and provoke wider social unrest. The last round of privatisations in China resulted in the destruction of tens of millions of jobs.

The Beijing regime, which represents the interests of the tiny layer of Chinese millionaires and billionaires, is deeply fearful of the emergence of a movement of the working class. The fact that questions are being raised about the future of Prime Minister Li Keqiang is an indicator of the existing sharp tensions that will only intensify as financial and economic turmoil worsens and impacts on the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/28/chin-a28.html

What’s Behind the Stock Market’s Rollercoaster Ride?

ECONOMY
The real problem is that we’re in a nonrecovery in America, and Europe is in an absolute class war of austerity.

In an interview with Democracy Now!. economist Michael Hudson talked about the wild ride on Wall Street Monday that saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average initially fell a record 1,100 points before closing down nearly 600 points. “The real problem is that we’re still in the aftermath of when the bubble burst in 2008,” he told Amy Goodman, “that all of the growth in the economy has only been in the financial sector, in the monopolies—only for the 1 percent. And it’s as if there are two economies, and the 99 percent has not grown. And so, the American economy is still in a debt deflation. So the real problem is, stocks have doubled in price since 2008, and the economy, for most people, certainly who listen to your show, hasn’t grown at all.

Below is an interview with Hudson, followed by a transcript:

http://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2015/8/25/casino_capitalism_economist_michael_hudson_onAMY GOODMAN: “Black Monday.” That’s how economists are describing yesterday’s market turmoil, which saw stock prices tumble across the globe, from China to Europe to the United States. China’s stock indexes fell over 8 percent Monday and another 7 percent today. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average initially fell a record 1,100 points before closing down nearly 600 points. The decline also caused oil prices to plunge to their lowest levels in almost six years.

Joining us now to try to make sense of what’s really behind the fluctuations in the market is economist Michael Hudson, president of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends, a Wall Street financial analyst and distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. His latest book, Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

Thanks for having me again.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Hudson, talk about what happened in China and what happened here in the United States.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, what happened in China doesn’t have very much to do at all with what happened in the United States. Wall Street would love to blame China, and the Obama administration would love to blame China, and Europe would love to blame China. But most of the Chinese stocks went down because small Chinese investors were borrowing from, let’s say, the equivalent of payday loan lenders to buy stocks. There was a lot of small speculation in Chinese stocks pushing it up. But this was an internal Chinese phenomenon. And China, as a whole, doesn’t really have the problems.

The real problem is that we’re still in the aftermath of when the bubble burst in 2008, that all of the growth in the economy has only been in the financial sector, in the monopolies—only for the 1 percent. And it’s as if there are two economies, and the 99 percent has not grown. And so, the American economy is still in a debt deflation. So the real problem is, stocks have doubled in price since 2008, and the economy, for most people, certainly who listen to your show, hasn’t grown at all.

So, finally, the stocks were inflated really by the central bank, by the Fed, creating an enormous amount of money, $4.5 trillion, essentially, to drop over Wall Street to buy bonds that have pushed the yields down so high—so low, to about 0.1 percent for government bonds, that pension funds and investors say, “How can we make money?” So they buy stocks. And they borrowed at 1 percent to buy up stocks that yield maybe 4 percent. But who are the largest people who buy the stocks? They’re the companies themselves that have done stock buybacks. They’re the managers of the companies that have used their earnings, essentially, to push up stock prices so they get more bonuses. Ninety precent of all the earnings of the biggest companies in America in the last five years have gone for stock buybacks and dividends. It’s not being invested. It’s not building new factories. It’s not employing more people.

So, the real problem is that we’re in a nonrecovery in America, and Europe is in an absolute class war of austerity. That’s what the eurozone is, an austerity zone. So that’s not growing. And that’s really what’s happening. And all that you saw on Monday was just sort of like a shift, tectonic shift, is people realizing, “Well, the game is up, it’s time to get out.” And once a few people want to get out, everybody sees the game’s up.

AMY GOODMAN: And China?

MICHAEL HUDSON: In China, it’s largely small borrowers who borrowed from intermediate lenders, that have borrowed from the big banks. So a lot of individuals in China that tried to get rich fast by riding the stock market all of a sudden find out that they have a lot of debt to intermediate, you know, non-bank lenders, insiders, people who banks will lend to. It’s like the British banks lending to real estate speculators to lend out to homebuyers. So this is essentially the attempt to get rich by riding the stock market in China went way overboard. Chinese stocks are still above what they were at the beginning of the year. This is not a crisis. This is not very much. It’s just that the artificial increase in the market has now ended some of the artificial push-up. And it’s still artificial, and it will still go down some more.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m surprised you say that what happened in China and what happened in the United States are not related.

MICHAEL HUDSON: They are related in a way, but the U.S. funds have not invested very much in the Chinese stocks. Most of the China fund stocks are inHSBC, which lends to China—the bank. The break first happened in China, but the break itself was within China. And this showed investors—this is a symptom—that what happened in China is going to happen in Europe, and it’s going to happen in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about China as the world’s second largest economy, and what you think would be the healthiest relationship between China and the United States.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, the economy is not the stock market. China’s economy had to accumulate a large amount of foreign reserves just to withstand the kind of American financial war that brought the Asia crisis of 1997. So China acted defensively. It exported a lot, developed huge international reserves to make itself independent of the West. And now it’s in the middle of shifting away from an export economy to begin to produce for its own people. I mean, why should Chinese workers spend all their lives making goods for Wal-Mart to sell in the United States and Europe? Why don’t they make goods for themselves to raise their own standard of living? That was what China’s doing, and that means that China doesn’t have to export more, and there’s really nowhere to export to, if Europe isn’t growing and the U.S. consumers aren’t spending. Obviously, the attempt is to make China itself grow. But the Chinese took the money; instead of consumer goods, they bought stocks.

AMY GOODMAN: As markets in China plunged Monday, former U.S. treasury secretary and president emeritus of Harvard University, Larry Summers, tweeted this dire prediction: “As in August 1997, 1998, 2007 and 2008 we could be in the [early] stage of a very serious situation.” Is he overstating what’s going on?

MICHAEL HUDSON: The question is: What does he mean by “situation”? When he says “situation,” he means his constituency, the 1 percent. He doesn’t mean the economy as a whole, the 99 percent. He’s been wrong on almost everything that he’s called. What he’s calling for now is: You have to cut taxes on the 1 percent more; you have to give the 1 percent more money, and it will all trickle down. This is part of his patter talk, trying to support his usual right-wing position. But you have to be very careful when you listen to Larry Summers.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hudson, your book is titled Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy. Explain what you mean.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, most people think of parasites as sort of just taking, taking money from the economy, and the 1 percent is sort of sucking up all the income from the 99 percent. But in nature, what parasites do, they don’t simply take. In order to take, they have to take over the brain of the host. And economists have a word, “host economy.” It’s for a foreign country that lets American investors in. Smart parasites help the host grow. But the parasite, first of all, has to make the host believe that the intruder is actually part of the body, to be nurtured and taken care of. And that’s what’s happened in national income accounting in America and in other countries. The newspapers and the media—not your show, but most of the media—treat the financial sector as if that’s really the economy, and when the stock market goes up, the economy is going up. But the economy isn’t going up at all.

And the financial sector somehow depicts itself as the brains of the economy, and it would like to replace government. What Larry Summers said is what—governments have to pay their debts by privatizing more, essentially, by doing what Margaret Thatcher did in England. That’s his solution to the crisis: All the governments have to do is balance the budget, sell everything to Wall Street on credit, and we won’t have any more problem. And that’s basically—the financial sector is almost at war, not only against labor, as most of the socialists talk about, but against governments and against industry. It’s cannibalizing industry. So now most of the corporations in America are using their income not to do what industrial capitalism did a century ago, not to build more factories and employ more people and make more profits; they’re just using it, as I said, to push it to pay dividends and to buy back their shares and to somehow manipulate the financial sector in the stock prices, not the economy as a whole. So there’s been a divergence between the real economy and what I call the—economists call the FIRE sector—finance, insurance and real estate. And they’re going in separate directions.

AMY GOODMAN: You are—you have been an adviser to the Syriza party in Greece. You’re a friend of the former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Can you talk about what’s happening there now and what that bodes for the economy, not only in Greece, but in Europe, maybe even here?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, the story begins, actually, about four years ago, when Greece had a very large foreign debt, taken on basically by the military government and what followed. And it was obvious that as soon as thePASOK, the socialist party, came in, they said, “Look, the debt’s much larger than we thought. We can’t pay it.” And they were going to write it down. TheIMF looked in and said, “Greece can’t pay the debts. We’ve got to write them down.” The board looked in, said they can’t pay the debts. But then the European central banks came in and said, “Look, our job as central bankers is to support the banks. Greece owes the debt to the, essentially, French banks and German banks, and we’ve got to support them.” So, despite the fact that the IMF was pushing for a debt write-down four years ago—the head of theIMF at that time, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, wanted to run for president of France, and he was told by French President Sarkozy, “Well, wait a minute, if French banks hold most of Greek debts, you can’t, at the IMF, say that we’re going to write down the debts.” So they didn’t. And meanwhile, the eurozone said, “We won’t let you, the IMF, be part of our program, the troika, if you don’t pretend that Greece can pay the debt.”

So Greece was left with a huge debt. It was pushed into depression. The GDP fell worse than it did in the 1930s. Finally, the Syriza party came in, in January, and Varoufakis and Tsipras thought, “Well, then, OK, we can explain to the finance ministers of Europe that you can’t expect to push Greece into a depression, push more austerity, and somehow austerity will enable us to repay the debt. That’s crazy.” And he thought that he could reason with them. And the Europeans, who he was reasoning with, the central bankers, said, “We’re not here to talk about economics. We’re lawyers. We’re here to collect money. It doesn’t matter that you’re going to go into a depression. It doesn’t matter that you’re going to have to have another 20 percent of your population emigrate. We’re only here to collect the payments. And if you don’t pay, then we’re going to pull the plug.”

And they pulled the plug on the Greek banks a few months ago and said, “We’re not going to accept any of the bank transfers, payments with Greek banks here. So, if you’re exporting and you want credit for export, you’re not going to give it to you. We’re going to treat Greece like America treated Cuba and America treated North Korea. You’re going to be the North Korea of Europe if you don’t succumb, surrender and pay.” And that’s why Tsipras said, “Oh, my—we don’t want to bring an absolute, you know, total breakdown, because that would bring the right wing to power.” Varoufakis said, well, he agrees that there’s no alternative but to sort of surrender for the present and try to join hands with Italy, Spain and Portugal, but he wasn’t going to be the administrator of the depression. So you had the referendum, and the Greeks now say, “Well, no matter what, we’re not going to pay.” And the eurozone says, “Then we’re going to just wreck you, or smash and grab.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you very quickly about presidential politics, about two of the Republican presidential candidates, Jeb Bush and John Kasich. Both worked for Lehman Brothers, Kasich after he ran for—after he was a congressman; Jeb Bush, according to The Wall Street Journal, Bush signed on with Lehman after leaving the Florida Governor’s Mansion, making it clear he wanted to work as a hands-on investment banker. I believe he made something like $14 million working for Lehman and then Barclays.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, almost—both parties are basically run by Wall Street. The Democratic Party, ever since Bill Clinton, was run by Robert Rubin. And all of the secretaries of the treasury, the officials, have basically come from Goldman Sachs, especially Tim Geithner. One of the problems in Greece, by the way, was that Obama and Geithner, coming from the Rubin group, met at the Group of Eight meetings and told—were told, basically, Greece, “You have to pay, because the American banks have made so many big bets on Greek bonds that if Greece doesn’t repay”—this is back in 2011—”then the American banks will go under, and if we go under, we’re going to pull Europe down.” So, the American banks basically—we’re talking about Wall Street investment firms. They don’t—they’re called investment bankers, but they don’t invest. They gamble. And we’re really much more in casino capitalism than finance capitalism.

So you have Wall Street people basically running politics, whether they’re the actual politicians—Obama didn’t work on Wall Street, but he worked with the real estate families. No matter who the president is, they’re going to appoint Treasury heads and Fed, Federal Reserve, heads from Wall Street. Wall Street has a veto power on all the major Cabinet positions, and so, essentially, the economy is being run by the financial sector for the financial sector. That’s the problem with politics in America today.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hudson, thank you very much for being with us, president of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends, a Wall Street financial analyst, distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. His latest book, Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy.

 

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now! and the co-author of The Silenced Majority.

 

http://www.alternet.org/economy/whats-behind-stock-markets-rollercoaster-ride?akid=13420.265072.agKDr2&rd=1&src=newsletter1041522&t=18

Fed acts to push US stocks higher

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By Barry Grey
27 August 2015

A top official of the Federal Reserve Board broadly hinted Wednesday that the US central bank, contrary to previous indications, would not begin to raise its benchmark interest rate at the September meeting of its policymaking committee.

The statement by William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and vice chairman of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), was timed to buttress and expand an early morning rally on US stock exchanges, which had seen over $2 trillion in market capitalization wiped out in massive declines over the previous six trading sessions. Over those six days, the Dow lost 11 percent of its market value.

Speaking in New York about one hour after the 9:30 a.m. start of trading, Dudley said, “From my perspective, at this moment, the decision to begin the normalization process at the September FOMC meeting seems less compelling to me than it was a few weeks ago.” “Normalization” is Fed-talk for beginning to gradually lift the federal funds rate from near-zero, where it has remained since shortly after the September 2008 Wall Street crash.

Dudley’s remarks carry additional weight because he is known to be a close ally of Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen. His statement was a calculated signal to Wall Street banks and other financial interests that the US central bank and government were prepared to open the cash spigot even wider and provide whatever public funds were necessary to shield the financial elite from the consequences of a new eruption of the global capitalist crisis.

When Dudley made his remarks, an opening bell surge of 430 points on the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen back to 300 points and fears were mounting of a repeat of Tuesday’s session, when an opening gain of 442 points turned into a rout in the final 30 minutes of trading, with the Dow closing down 205 points, or 1.3 percent.

Dudley’s intervention had the desired effect. Major investors went on a buying spree and drove the rally higher, resulting in massive gains for all three major indexes—the Dow, the Standard & Poor’s 500, and the technology-laden Nasdaq. The Dow finished with a gain of 619 points (3.5 percent), the S&P 500 closed 73 points higher (3.90 percent), and the Nasdaq gained 191 points (4.24 percent). These were the biggest one-day gains for all three indexes since the second half of 2011.

The surge on US markets came despite another down day on Chinese markets. An early rally on the Shanghai Composite Index collapsed, leading to a 1.3 percent loss at the close of trading. It was the fifth consecutive down session, during which the main Chinese exchange has lost more than a quarter of its value.

The loss was all the more significant in that it followed Tuesday’s announcement by the Chinese central bank of major moves, including a quarter percentage point cut in the benchmark interest rate and a reduction in bank reserve capital ratios, designed to push hundreds of billions of dollars worth of new cash into the country’s financial markets.

The surge on Wall Street came as well against the backdrop of new losses on European markets. On Wednesday, the French CAC 40 closed down 1.40 percent, the German DAX lost 1.29 percent, and Britain’s FTSE 100 index declined by 1.68 percent.

There were other signs that the global deflationary pressures underlying the recent stock market selloffs were continuing unabated. The protracted fall in commodity prices continued, with oil prices falling in both the US and Europe. The drop in the US market followed the release of weekly US inventory data showing a drop in gasoline demand and record-high stockpiles of crude oil and petroleum products.

Copper prices were down 3.1 percent.

Besides the sharp slowdown in Chinese economic growth and collapsing commodity prices, the other acute expression of a worsening world slump and mounting financial problems is the crisis in the so-called emerging market economies. Countries ranging from Brazil, to Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Thailand, and South Africa are reeling from falling stock and bond prices, plunging currencies, and increasing indebtedness.

They are being hit particularly hard by the slowdown in China, a major market for commodity exports, and the broader combination of plunging commodity prices and glutted markets. On Tuesday, South Africa, the biggest economy on the African continent, unexpectedly reported that its economic output contracted by 1.3 percent on an annualized basis in the second quarter. Economists had predicted a gain of 0.6 percent, itself a sharp decline from the country’s first-quarter 1.3 percent expansion.

In his morning remarks to reporters, Dudley alluded to the recent global stock market and currency turmoil. “International developments have increased the downside risk to US economic growth somewhat,” he said. “The slowdown in China and the sharp fall in commodity prices are increasing the strains on many emerging market economies and this could lead to a slower global growth rate and less demand for US goods and services.”

While implicitly acceding to demands from prominent financial figures, such as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, to delay any increase in interest rates, Dudley rebuffed the call made Tuesday by Summers and Ray Dalio, head of hedge fund giant Bridgewater Associates, for a new round of “quantitative easing,” i.e., Fed bond purchases, to directly pump additional billions of dollars into US financial markets.

“I’m a long way from quantitative easing. The US economy is performing quite well,” he said. He also held out the possibility of the Fed raising rates before the end of 2015, saying, “I really hope we can raise interest rates this year.”

But in signaling the Fed’s determination to do whatever is necessary to rescue the financial aristocracy from the consequences of its own speculative and semi-criminal activities, Dudley is making clear that the ruling class will continue to carry out the very policies that, far from producing a genuine recovery, have deepened the crisis announced by the Wall Street meltdown of 2008.

The US central bank and government, and their counterparts internationally, have focused all of their efforts on rescuing the financial oligarchy and creating the conditions for it to further enrich itself at the expense of the working class.

The primary means has been the provision of unlimited funds to subsidize and underwrite the parasitic activities of the banks and hedge funds. The main mechanism for promoting what the Fed calls the “wealth effect,” i.e., the enrichment of the financial-corporate elite, has been the stock market, with the Fed financing a massive inflation of share values by means of zero interest rates and money-printing in the form of quantitative easing.

Before the latest market turmoil, share values on US markets had tripled from their lows at the height of the financial crisis in early 2009, and stock markets internationally had hit record highs.

This has gone hand in hand with a relentless attack on the conditions of the working population by means of mass layoffs, wage-cutting and the gutting of social programs. Governments have been bankrupted by the diversion of funds to bail out the banks and speculators, whose debts have been shifted onto the balance sheets of the capitalist state, with the working class made to foot the bill.

Meanwhile, the real economy has been starved of productive investment and left to stagnate. The current stock market turmoil reflects the growth of deflationary forces in the global economy that threaten to overpower the efforts to inflate and maintain financial bubbles for the benefit of the rich.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/27/econ-a27.html