War of the (Financial) Worlds
Sometimes things only make sense when seen through a magnifying lens. As it happens, I’m thinking about reality, the very American and global reality clearly repeating itself as 2021 begins.
We all know, of course, that we’re living through a once-in-a-century-style pandemic; that millions of people have lost their jobs, a portion of which will never return; that the poorest among us, who can withstand such acute economic hardship the least, have been slammed the hardest; and that the global economy has been kneecapped, thanks to a battery of lockdowns, shutdowns, restrictions of various sorts, and health-related concerns. More sobering than all of this: more than 360,000 Americans (and counting) have already lost their lives as a result of Covid-19 with, according to public health experts, far more to come.
And yet, as if in some galaxy far, far away, there also turns out to be another, so much more upbeat side to this equation. As Covid-19 grew ever worse while 2020 ended, the stock market reached heights that hadn’t been seen before. Ever.
Meanwhile, again in the thoroughly cheery news column, banks in 2021 will be able to resume their march toward billions of dollars in share buybacks, courtesy of the Federal Reserve opting to support such a bank-and-stock-market stimulus. The Fed’s green light for this activity on December 18th will allow mega-banks to return to those share buybacks (which constitute 70% of the capital payout that they provide shareholders). In June 2020, the Fed had banned the practice ostensibly to help them better navigate risks caused by the pandemic.
Those very financial institutions can now pour money into purchasing their own stocks again rather than, say, into loans to struggling small businesses endangered by pandemic-instigated economic disaster. As soon as Wall Street got the good news from the Fed as 2020 ended, JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s biggest bank, wasted no time in announcing its intent to buy a staggering $30 billion of its own shares in the new year. And as if by magic, those shares leapt 5% that very day. Other mega-banks followed suit, as did their share prices.
Now, for reasons you’ll soon understand, take a little trip back in history with me to the eve of Halloween, 1938, when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre dramatized his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 sci-fi-meets-dystopia-meets-imperialism novel, The War of the Worlds, on the radio. As Martians “invaded” New Jersey (it had been London in the novel) with mayhem in mind, panic evidently ensued among some radio listeners who thought they were hearing perfectly real reports about an alien invasion of Planet Earth. Later accounts suggest that the media blew that reaction out of proportion (“fake news,” 1938-style?), yet people who tuned in late and missed the set-up about the fictitious nature of the program did indeed panic.
And it’s not hard to understand why they might have done so at that moment. There had already been surprises galore. The world, after all, had barely recovered from the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed. It was also still reeling from the fiery Hindenburg disaster of 1937 in which a German airship blew up in New Jersey, as well as from the escalation of tensions and hostilities in both Asia and Europe that would lead to World War II. Perhaps people already equated or conflated the Martian invasion on the radio with fantasies about a potential German invasion of this country. In some papers, after all, reports on the reaction to Welles’s performance were set right next to news of war clouds brewing in Europe and Asia. With or without Welles, people were on edge.
Whatever the case, fear has been both a great motivator and an anxiety provoker when it comes to the media, whether in 1938 or today. At the moment, the focus is on economic and health-related fears in all-too-ample supply. It is also on the disconnect that exists between the real economic world that most of us live in and turbo-boosted stock markets. These distorted markets are the result of wealth inequality that once would have been unimaginable in this country. In a way, economically speaking, you might say that today we’re suffering the equivalent of an invasion from Mars.
From the Financial Crisis to the Pandemic
It’s not hard these days to imagine the chaos people would feel if their lives or livelihoods were threatened by an external, uncontrollable force like those Martians. After all, we’re in a pandemic age in which the gaps between the rich, the poor, and the middle class are being reinforced in endlessly stunning ways, a world in which some people have the means to remain remarkably safe, secure, and alive, while others have no means at all.
Covid-19 is not, of course, from Mars or sent by aliens, but in terms of its impact, it’s as if it were. And the pandemic is, in the end, only exacerbating, sometimes in radical ways, problems that already were bad enough, particularly economic inequality.
Remember that, long before Covid-19 hit, the financial crisis of 2008 was met by a multi-trillion-dollar Wall Street bailout. At the same time, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to zero, while purchasing U.S. Treasury and mortgage bonds from the very banks that had sparked the disaster. Its own assets then rose from $870 billion to $4.5 trillion between August 2007 and August 2015. On the other hand, the U.S. economy never quite reached a growth level of, on average, more than 2% annually in the years after that near collapse, even as the stock market regained all its losses and so much more. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, aided by an ultra-loose monetary policy, steadily rose from a financial-crisis low of 6,926 on March 5, 2009 to 27,090 by March 4, 2020, which was when Covid-19 briefly trashed its rally.
However, within a month of the market dip that followed widespread shutdowns, its climb was refortified by similar but larger maneuvers, as Federal Reserve policy was once again deployed to save the rich under the auspices of saving the economy. Rally 2.0 took the Dow to a new record of 30,606.48 as 2020 closed.
On the other side of reality, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that, according to recent Federal Reserve reports, the U.S. wealth gap continued to widen dramatically as economic inequality increased yet again in 2020 thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s because the health and economic devastation it inflicted affected low-wage service workers, low-income earners, and people of color so much more than the upper-middle class and elite upper class.
Meanwhile, as 2020 ended, the richest 10% of Americans owned more than 88% of the outstanding shares of companies and mutual funds in the U.S. The top 1% also controlled more than 88 times the wealth of the bottom 50% of Americans. Simply put, the less you had, the less you could afford to lose any of it. Indeed, the combined net worth of the top 1% of Americans was $34.2 trillion (about one-third of all U.S. household wealth), while the total for the bottom half was $2.1 trillion (or 1.9% of that wealth).
And yet, American billionaires scored monumentally during the pandemic, due particularly to their lofty position in the stock market. The planet’s 2,200 or so billionaires got wealthier by $1.9 trillion in 2020 alone and were worth about $11.4 trillion in mid-December 2020 (up from $9.5 trillion a year earlier). Twenty-first-century tycoons like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos raked it in specifically because of all the money pouring into shares of their stock. Even bipartisan congressional stimulus measures meant for necessary relief turned into a chance to elevate fortunes at the highest echelons of society.
If you want to grasp inequality in the pandemic moment, consider this: while the market soared, more than 25.5 million Americans were the recipients of federal unemployment benefits. The S&P 500 stock market index added a total of $14 trillion in market value in 2020. In essentially another universe, the number of people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and didn’t regain them was about 10 million. And that figure doesn’t even count people who can’t go to work because they have to take care of others, their workplace is restricted, or they’re home-schooling their kids.
The Martians and the Inequality Gap
In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells evokes a species — humanity — rendered helpless in the face of a force greater than itself and beyond its control. His depiction of the grim relationship between the Martians and the humans they were suppressing (meant to remind readers of the relationship between British imperialists and those they suppressed in distant lands) cast an eerie light on the power and wealth gap in Great Britain and around the world at the turn of the twentieth century.
The book was written in the Gilded Age, when rapid economic growth, particularly in the United States, bred a new class of “robber barons.” Like the twenty-first-century version of such beings, they, too, made money from their money, while the economic status of workers slipped ever lower. It was an early version of a zero-sum game in which the spoils of the system were increasingly beyond the reach of so many. Those at the top ferociously accumulated wealth, while the majority of the rest of the population barely got by or drowned.
A crisis of inequality had been sparked by the Industrial Revolution itself, which started in England and then crossed the Atlantic. By the late nineteenth century, America’s “robber barons” were insanely wealthy. As economist Thomas Piketty wrote, there was a steeper increase in wealth inequality during the Gilded Age than ever before in American history. In 1810, the top 1% of Americans held 25% of the country’s total wealth; between 1870 and 1910 that share leapt to 45%.
Today, the top 1% of Americans possess more wealth than the whole of the middle class, a phenomenon first true in 2010 and still the reality of our moment. By 2018, about 75% of the $113 trillion in aggregate U.S. household assets were financial ones; that is, tied up in stocks, ETF’s, 401Ks, IRAs, mutual funds, and similar investments. The majority of nonfinancial assets in that mix was in real estate.
Even before the pandemic, only the richest 20% of American households had recovered fully (or, in the case of the truly wealthy, more than fully) from the financial crisis. That’s mostly because since that crisis, fewer households had participated in the stock market or owned real estate and so had no chance to capitalize on increases in the values of either.
Much of the appreciation in stock market and real-estate values has been directly or indirectly related to the Fed’s actions. By the end of December 2020, its balance sheet had increased by $3.164 trillion, reaching a total of $7.35 trillion, 63% more than its book at the height of the decade following the 2008 disaster.
Its ultra-loose policies made it cheaper to borrow money, but not as attractive to invest it in low-interest-rate, less risky securities like Treasury bonds. As a result, the Fed incentivized those with extra money to grow it through quicker, often riskier investments in the stock market or real estate. By 2020, there were bidding wars for suburban houses by urbanites seeking refuge from coronavirus-stricken cities with all-cash offers, something beyond the reach of most traditional buyers.
Though Congress passed two much-needed Covid-related stimulus packages that extended unemployment benefits, while offering two one-off payments and a Paycheck Protection Program support for smaller businesses, the impact of those acts paled in comparison to the tax breaks and power of investment the stock market provided the well-off and corporate kingpins.
While markets leapt to record highs, poverty in the United States also rose last year from 9.3% in June to 11.7% in November 2020. That added nearly eight million Americans to the ranks of the poor, even as America’s 659 billionaires held double the wealth of the 165 million poorest Americans.
The Martians Are Here
The gap between incoming and outgoing federal funds rose, too. The U.S. deficit increased by $3.3 trillion during 2020. The size of the public debt issued by the Treasury Department reached $27.5 trillion. Total federal revenue was $3.45 trillion, while the corporate tax part of that was just $221 billion, or a paltry 6.4%. What that means is that in an ever more unequal America, 93.6% of the money flowing into the government’s till comes from individuals, not corporations.
And though many larger and mid-size corporations filed for bankruptcy protection due to coronavirus related shutdowns, the brunt of absolute closures hit smaller local businesses — from restaurants to hair salons to health-and-wellness shops — much harder, only exacerbating economic disparity at the community level.
In other words, the real problem when it comes to inequality isn’t the total amount of taxes received versus money spent in a time of crisis, but the composition of federal revenue that’s wildly out of whack (something the pandemic has only made worse). Take the defense sector, for example. The U.S. government doled out $738 billion to the Pentagon for fiscal year 2020. The contracts to defense-related private companies in the last year for which data was available, fiscal year 2018, totaled roughly 62% of a full defense budget of $579 billion, or $358 billion. Now imagine this: that amount alone dwarfed the total of all corporate taxes flowing into the U.S. Treasury in 2019.
Inequality is about the disparity between people and countries with respect to income, wealth, or power. The more that corporations keep relative to their bottom line when compared with ordinary citizens, the more the stock market rises relative to the real economy. The more that individuals, rather than corporations, shoulder the burden of tax revenues, the greater the inherent inequality in society. The more that financial assets appreciate on money seeking to multiply itself in the quickest way possible (think of it as like a virus), the greater the distortion created.
The Fed can focus on its inflation-versus-full-employment dual-mandate all it wants, while pushing policies that distort the value of the real economy compared to financial assets. But the reality is that the more those Fed-inflated assets grow relative to real ones, the greater the inequality gap. That’s plain math and it’s the ugly essence of the United States of America as 2021 begins.
The market doesn’t care about politics. It’s a creature that acts in accordance with the goals of its largest participants. The real economy, on the other hand, requires far more effort — planning, prioritizing, and executing programs and projects that can produce tangible profits. We’re a long way from a world that puts investment in the real economy ahead of those soaring financial markets. That gap, in fact, might as well be like the distance between Earth and Mars. In the midst of a pandemic, as billionaires only grow richer and the markets soar, can there be any question that we’re experiencing a Martian invasion?
Copyright 2020 Nomi Prins
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Nomi Prins, a former Wall Street executive, is a TomDispatch regular. Her latest book is Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World (Bold Type Books). She is currently working on her new book, Permanent Distortion (Public Affairs). She is also the author of All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power and five other books. Special thanks to Craig Wilson for his superb research on this piece.