The New Banking Crisis

On Wednesday, March 8, California-based Silvergate Bank announced it was voluntarily winding up operations. The same day, Silicon Valley Bank, the favorite bank of the area’s companies and venture capitalists, announced it was selling off its portfolio of government bonds to raise cash. This triggered a run on the bank, forcing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to shut it down on March 10. On Sunday, March 14, the FDIC announced it was shutting down New York-based Signature Bank. Both Silvergate and Signature were commercial banks heavily involved in lending to cryptocurrency companies. Problems leading to their collapse can be traced back to the collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX cryptocurrency exchange last year.

Under U.S. law, bank deposits are insured up to $250,000. The idea is to insure small and medium-sized deposits. They wasted little time announcing that all deposits would be fully redeemed. The sound (or not-so-sound) commercial banks will be asked to cough up the money to make up for the massive losses FDIC will incur by paying off large capitalist deposit owners who weren’t supposed to be insured.

The FDIC hopes to stave off a general collapse of the currency system, which is based on using bank deposits as currency instead of traditional dollar bills and coins. If the bank deposits as currency were to collapse, it would lead to an economic crisis worse than the bank runs of 1931-33. Those marked the transformation of the recession that began in 1929 into the Great Depression. In bygone years, in capitalist countries, spending money mainly meant using coins and some paper banknotes redeemable in gold (or silver) at the government treasury or the central bank. At this earlier stage of capitalist development, extreme monetary crises in the form of bank runs did not threaten the purchasing power of the basic currency.

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Where is the U.S. Economy Going?

In January, the U.S. Labor Department estimated that the non-farming sector of the economy created 517,000 new jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis. Reading the fine print, you see these new jobs exist only on the statistician’s worksheet. The estimate is that on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, the economy lost 2.5 million jobs. Just before the holidays, additional workers are hired to meet the extra demand and are laid off at the season’s end.

The variations are taken into account and smoothed over to reveal the underlying trend. This year, they figured about 3 million workers would be laid off. But these are estimates. Since only 2.5 million were let go on a seasonally adjusted basis, the economy created about half a million additional jobs. But how to make the seasonal adjustment is a complex subject. We are still in the aftermath of a collapse in the hotel and restaurant industries caused by COVID-19. Employment numbers tanked when people stopped traveling and eating out and have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Perhaps fewer workers than usual were hired this holiday season, so fewer workers were laid off when it ended.

Another factor was the unusually mild weather that occurred over the country in January. With little snow on the East Coast and Midwest, major storms were limited mainly to California. Wind-driven rain ravaged most of the state, except for higher elevations in the thinly populated Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. The economy was disrupted less by winter storms than usual. Weather is not accounted for in making seasonal adjustments.

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The Economic Outlook for 2023

As the new year begins, there is cautious optimism on Wall Street that the Federal Reserve will continue to moderate or perhaps reverse its moves to raise the federal funds rate. The Fed’s policies of increasing the rate target have led to expectations that a recession with rising unemployment will develop. What is the federal funds rate, and what is its relationship to the chances of a 2023 recession?

Federal law requires that commercial banks keep a certain amount of ready cash on hand either in the form of legal tender currency — paper money and coins — or deposits in one of twelve district Federal Reserve Banks making up the Federal Reserve System. The federal funds rate is the interest rate on loans commercial banks make to other commercial banks overnight.

When a bank is short of legally required cash reserves, it borrows from other banks that have a surplus over the legally required minimum. The money market is said to be tightening when the rate is rising. When the rate is declining, the money market is said to be easing. A tightening market precedes a recession, while an easing market points to an economic recovery. The Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve System (today headed by Chairman Jerome Powell) — through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — sets a target range for this interest rate, called “fed funds.” The fed funds target is currently between 4.25% and 4.50%.

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2022: COVID aftermath boom, overproduction, crypto downfall

The final two months of 2022 were full of events promising to lead to even more important ones in 2023. Here’s a list of some of the most important.

1. Railroad workers

What may be the most significant event of November-December 2022 was the Biden administration’s decision, backed by Congressional Democrats and Republicans, to force a contract on railroad workers without meeting their basic demand for sick days! This might be tolerable if workers never got sick. However, rail bosses and their government servants denied sick days despite the continuing global COVID-19 pandemic that’s taken more than a million lives in the U.S. and continues claiming victims here and around the world daily. Forcing workers to work sick spreads disease. This refusal of the railroad bosses and government is dangerous and potentially deadly to people beyond the railroad industry.

The great labor upsurge of the 1930s, represented by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), established industrial unions in basic industry outside the Jim Crow South, but the upsurge bypassed the railroad industry. Since rail’s origin, the government hasn’t recognized their right to strike. Since then, rail workers have been hobbled by weak craft unions. The need to organize along industrial lines — where all workers in an industry belong to a single union regardless of craft — was realized long ago by conservative craft unionist Eugene Debs. In the 1890s, he came to this conclusion not by reading books but through his daily experience as a rail worker and union leader.

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Election Results

On November 15, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Under the U.S. Constitution, the next election will be in November 2024. The victor will be inaugurated on January 20, 2025. The mid-term election held on November 8, 2022, did not go Trump’s way. There was no landslide for the Democrats either. There was little change in the composition of Congress. The Democrats managed to maintain a tiny majority in the Senate (1) while suffering small losses in the House of Representatives. The losses were sufficient to shift to a thin Republican majority. Republican control gives Democrats the excuse they need not pass any remotely progressive legislation. During the first two years of the Biden administration, party leaders blamed conservative Democrat Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joseph Manchin for failure to pass promised legislation. Now they’ll blame the Republican House of Representatives.

At the state level, Republicans suffered losses. Trump-associated Republicans did poorly, while Trump enemies — increasing in number — fared better. For example, those pro-Trump were defeated in races for Pennsylvania, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Maryland governorships. In Georgia, reactionary Governor Brian Kemp considered a Trump enemy since the 2020 election, won reelection. Kemp isn’t a liberal or moderate, but he refused Trump’s demand to find the few thousand votes to put him over the top in the race for Georgia’s electoral votes. In Florida, reactionary Ronald DeSantis sailed to victory over his Democrat opponent. DeSantis is widely considered Trump’s chief rival for the presidential nomination in 2024, more than enough to make him a Trump enemy.

On their face, the election results don’t seem particularly startling. They weren’t what pre-election polls indicated would happen — sweeping victories for Republicans with solid GOP majorities in both houses of Congress. This happened in the 1994 mid-term elections during the first term of President Bill Clinton, and the pattern was repeated in the 2014 mid-terms during Barack Obama’s first term. In the wake of these elections, Republicans dominated Congress and an increasing number of state governments throughout the remainder of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years.

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The Dollar System Shows its Fangs

On October 5, an article by Shawgi Tell appeared in the online publication “Dissident Voice” titled “The Rich and their Media Offer No Solutions to Economic Problems.”

Tell writes: “False choices, bad options, and mixed messages abound. Week after week, one news source claims that everything is great while another says that the economic forecast looks gloomy for the next decade. Economic concepts like inflation, interest rates, costs, prices, and unemployment are rendered in the most tortured manner over and over again, with different representatives of the rich constantly making unscientific and confusing claims about what is ‘the real problem’ and how to ‘get us back on track.’”

Anybody trying to make sense of what is happening in the economy by reading the analysis in the media will be hopelessly confused. For example, we are told the Labor Department reported that 263,000 jobs were created in September. While reported as fact, this figure is only an estimate. The media indicates that job creation slowed last month from the month before but not enough to prevent the stock market from falling sharply on the day the unemployment figures came out. Wall Street knows that under current circumstances, as long as employment continues to rise, so will interest rates.

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World Trade

Capitalist production is based on the world market. To understand the laws governing the capitalist system, one must understand those governing world trade. The orthodox or neoclassical theory of foreign trade is based on the theory of comparative advantage. [See “World Trade and the False Theory of Comparative Advantage” and “Comparative Advantage, Monopoly, Money, John Maynard Keynes, and Anwar Shaikh”]

The theory of comparative advantage holds that in national trade: the industrial capitalist with the lowest cost price when producing a commodity of a given use value and quality prevails in competition. In international trade: the capitalist with the comparative advantage prevails.

The view that different laws govern national and international trade precedes neoclassical economics. The originator of this theory is the classical British economist David Ricardo, who formulated the comparative law more clearly than neoclassical economists. This is because of his labor-based theory of value, where the value of a commodity of a given use value and quality is determined by the quantity of labor necessary to produce it.

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Fighting Bonapartism by Bonapartist Methods

On August 8, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the FBI was searching his luxurious palace-like mansion in Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump wasn’t in Mar-a-Lago. He was in his Trump Tower residence high above Manhattan in New York City, another one of his many residences. Trump claimed he observed the FBI search live on close circuit TV.  The FBI raid was ordered by U.S. Attorney-General Merrick Garland. President Joseph Biden claimed he didn’t know about the raid in advance.

The search warrant, soon made public with redactions, is a legal document U.S. police agencies — in this case, the FBI — need for a legal search without the approval of the person who is being searched. According to U.S. law, to obtain a search warrant, the police agency conducting the search must convince a judge — in this case, a federal judge — that there is probable cause of a crime. The alleged crimes being investigated center on Trump’s possession of secret documents with various degrees of classification. Documents with high degrees of classification are documents whose contents are hidden from the American people and everybody else, except for certain high-ranking government officials, for “national security” reasons.

The classified documents allegedly stored at Mar-a-Lago without authorization might include military secrets (including those of nuclear weapons), as well as information, if made public, embarrassing to powerful people. They are supposed to be stored in highly secure government buildings — it’s a crime to hold them in a private residence or other unsecured location. Only Trump and a handful of government officials know what’s in them.

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Money and Anwar Shaikh

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on June 24, 2022, to strip women of their right to abortion dominates the news. The Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right. The other event dominating U.S. politics was the congressional hearings into the events of January 6, 2021. These issues unfold against a background of high inflation, a looming recession, and disastrously low approval ratings for President Joseph Biden. On July 11, The New York Times/Siena College poll gave Biden a 33% approval rating. The same poll showed only 26% of Democrat voters support his renomination for a second term.

Democrats, appearing likely to lose control of the House and maybe the Senate, hope to recoup power by making abortion a prime issue. A bill to make abortion rights a federal law has gone nowhere. Democratic Senators Joseph Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refuse to suspend a Senate rule that effectively gives the Republican Party veto power over all legislation, the filibuster rule. Democrats hope the outrage felt by women and many men over the Supreme Court decision will cause them to vote Democratic in the November congressional elections. These elections will determine the make-up of Congress for the final two years of Biden’s term.

However, attempts by Democrats to profit from the outrage over the Court decision were undermined when it was revealed Biden made a deal with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to nominate anti-abortion Republican Chad Meredith to a lifetime federal judgeship. This deal — though it appears to have fallen through — is typical of Biden’s 50-year-long political career. As a young Senator, Biden played a crucial role in securing Senate approval of Republican President George H.W. Bush nominee Clarence Thomas to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court. Thomas joined the Court majority in throwing out the right of abortion as a constitutional right.

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The Fed Meets and Congress Investigates January 6

In June 2022, the news in the United States was dominated by two stories. One was the decision of the Federal Reserve System to raise its target for the federal funds rate by 0.75%. The new rate range is between 1.50% and 1.75%. The second story broke the same week: The congressional hearings into the events of January 6, 2021. On that date, a right-wing mob, supported and inspired by President Donald Trump, broke into the U.S. Capitol. It was an attempt to force Congress to reverse the 2020 presidential election results. Is there a connection between these two? Yes, even if it isn’t a direct one.

Let’s begin with the Federal Reserve story. For most people, Federal Reserve operations are a mystery. The federal funds rate is the interest rate charged on overnight loans that U.S. commercial banks make to one another. The law, as well as financial prudence, require commercial banks to maintain a certain minimum of ready money to cover their deposit liabilities. Many are surprised to learn that under the fractional reserve system, commercial banks maintain only enough cash on hand to redeem a small portion of the money the public has on deposit. If all depositors were to try to withdraw all their money at the same time, every bank would fail. The reason? Most of the money on deposit does not represent actual cash in the form of legal tender — bills and coins — but is imaginary money created by the banks themselves through their loans and discounts. To prevent collapse, a minimal cash amount backs up deposit liabilities.

Commercial banks are for-profit enterprises. To maximize profits, cash on hand is kept to a minimum as it earns no interest. To put it in more scientific terms: The cash commercial banks must keep on hand to redeem deposits does not entitle the bank’s shareholders to a portion of the unpaid labor — surplus value — performed by the working class.

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