As PBS extolls arbitrage, is wealth looting next?

I didn't intend to have my next post focus on arbitrage and rentiers, but as I prepared to deal with several items I have put off in favor of sleeping the last few days, I just couldn't resist.

Last night, my wife was watching Market Warriors, a PBS show that seems to have been spun off from Antiques Roadshow. Various intermediate buyers/sellers comb flea markets and try to get the best price they can on the antiques they buy so in order to sell them at auction for a higher price. They have various constraints they have to abide by. In between the haggling, the narrator makes comments on the buying/selling process, negotiations and something about the items the participants have chosen.

They should have just called the show Arbitrage, as striped of the commentary, that is all the participants are doing. As they Marxists' M-C-M' equation says, they are using money to buy commodities to make more money. Watching stock or bond traders negotiate their deals would have been far more exciting and illuminating about the inner purpose of financial capitalism.

Which brings me to the latest Q&A with Michael Hudson about his book The Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation and Global Crisis. In the Q&A, he ties the huge debts (especially private debts) we have developed since 1980, with the increasing amount of money the financial sector is siphoning off from the goods economy. The following excerpt summarizes our current march on the road to debt servitude:

But instead of supporting productive industry by extending credit to increase tangible capital investment, the banking system has extended credit mainly (about 80 percent in the United States and most English-speaking countries) to buy real estate and load it down with debt. The result is that rental income is used to pay interest to the banks rather than to pay taxes. This forces governments to tax wages, profits and sales. That increases the cost of living and doing business, on top of the interest charge.

In search of this loan market, banks have come to back untaxing real estate and deregulating monopolies, so that their economic rent can be paid to the banks as interest by customers eager buy these rights – and charge even higher rents or raise prices even further without making a new capital investment of their own. Instead of financing industry, U.S. banks don’t make loans for what can be produced in the future. They make loans against collateral already in place – including entire companies with high-interest “junk” bonds. The target company is obliged to pay the debt that the corporate raider takes on. The raider then is “free” to downsize and outsource the work force, squeeze the budget and hope to come out with a capital gain after paying off the banks and bondholders. The process is more extractive than productive.

While the financial industry has led the way in extracting economic rents from their customers and other sectors of the economy, other sectors are catching up.  Increasingly we see patents being used to extract economic rents, whether with the Apple-Samsung ruling or with patent trolls, rather than by actually innovating and creating more useful products. 

With artbitrage covered, perhaps PBS will come up with a new show that extolls the virtues of rent seeking.  I think Wealthy Looters would be a good title.

The question for us, though, is whether we want an economy that encourages invovation and spreading the wealth we all create as widely as possible or whether we want a rentier tollbooth economy controlled and milked by the wealthy.

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