Monday, 29 May 2017

Warming Up

After the mixed martial arts Handshake[1] bouts between The Donald and France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, there have been further signs of strain between the US and Europe. Speaking after last week’s NATO and G7 meetings, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel called the G7 meeting ‘six against one’. You can guess who the latter was. In a separate speech, Merkel also remarked:
‘The times in which we could completely rely upon others are more or less over. That’s what I have experienced in the last few days … We Europeans have to take our destiny into our own hands … of course in friendship with the US, in friendship with Great Britain, also with Russia and other countries, but we have to know that we fight for our own future as Europeans, for our destiny.’
Notably, this was an ex-UK ‘Europe’.
Trump’s America First policy questions how far the US can still pretend to act both as the referee and as the biggest player in the imperial game. But the election of Trump is not the only thing that has called into question the ‘western alliance’ of major powers. Britain’s rejection of EU membership is also a big worry for the European members, ironically including Britain itself. While Brexit does not quite hurl the UK into the mid-Atlantic, the Brits are finding it difficult to keep a happy family together by using anti-Russian propaganda and posturing at NATO. Not surprisingly, since Brexit has upset the European institutions established over decades.
Merkel’s call for Europeans to take charge of their own destiny basically means that the major continental European powers need to prepare for the breakdown of the former international order from which they had benefited. It is a striking comment from a German conservative leader, and one that fits well with a more general European concern about Trump.
Things are warming up in the oven of imperial rivalry, not just on the fringes of the imperial system.

Tony Norfield, 29 May 2017

[1] Macron won on points. The Handshake is a relatively new sport in diplomatic circles. It blends a rictus smile, white knuckle grips and macho, fake bonhomie arm slapping. The player with steadiest stance and gaze, showing the least perturbation throughout the 1-2 minute contest, wins. Points are given by the international news media and on Youtube. See here for example.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Libyan Connection

Time and again Western security services have been shown to be up to their necks in promoting, training and giving operational support for Islamists to do their dirty work. It started in the 1950s as a strategy to mobilise the most backward and conservative sections of society against nationalist, independent and mostly progressive currents in the Middle East. They managed to destroy every single one of these currents, leaving a politically barren landscape dominated by political options that have no future and, despite their ultra-anti-Western rhetoric, which cannot fight against Western imperialism.
Then came the CIA’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with the US funding Osama bin Laden’s group and other jihadis to fight the Russians. Then there was the training and deployment of thousands of jihadis to fight Serbia in the war in the former Yugoslavia. Then the training and deployment of thousands of jihadis to fight in Chechnya with the sole purpose of destabilizing Russia. Many of the latter had previously fought in Serbia. Then came Libya, where the security services sent hundreds of these operatives to undermine Gaddafi in 2011. Then came Syria, where the security services sent in hundreds of armed Libyan jihadis to fight Assad.
Not a lot of people know that many of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay’s US military prison was or is a former CIA- or MI6-trained fighter. They sent them there because they knew they were committed jihadists, as opposed to the less dangerous Iraqi or Afghan nationalists who were just fighting to oust foreigners from their countries and had no global or ideological pretensions.
Now the web site MiddleEastEye lifts the lid on the Libyan connection to this week’s Manchester bombing that the British authorities do not want to talk about. It explains why, within hours of the attack, the security services were already declaring that a network was involved. They knew whom they were dealing with!

Susil das Gupta, 26 May 2017

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Apple’s Core: Moribund Capitalism

Apple Inc is the world’s largest company by market capitalisation, with a value of nearly $800bn on 19 May 2017. It does not produce most of the world’s smart phones, coming in a poor second behind Korea’s Samsung, and it is not that far ahead of China’s Huawei in terms of market share. Neither is it necessarily the biggest player in other consumer electronics markets. But so far it has managed to corner the premium section of these markets, managing to get enough loyalty from customers who will pay a lot more for a product that is not so different from the (much) cheaper ones that are not quite so ‘cool’.
That is principally why Apple, with fewer than 120,000 staff and itself producing very little of the final product that it sells to consumers, can be worth in capitalist markets so much more than Foxconn. Also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, the latter Taiwan-based company is its main assembler, employing more than one million workers, and is currently valued at a relatively minuscule $60bn in terms of market capitalisation. In 2016, Apple’s operating income was $60bn compared to some $4bn at Foxconn, endorsing the market valuation ratio ($800/$60bn).
These points are another sign of the distortion of social value by imperialism, and another day I may write more about the social and economic mechanisms behind this. For now, though, I want to focus on the financial aspects of Apple’s business, mainly using information from its latest annual report.
Most radical, critical commentaries on Apple focus, reasonably enough, on how it uses cheap labour in Asia to boost its profits. What I want to deal with instead are the details in Apple’s accounts that show how its close integration with the world of finance complements and reinforces its commercial power. For example, its use of bond market issuance and equity buybacks to boost revenues for its investors; its huge investments in financial securities, ones that rival the holdings of major investment funds; its use of financial derivatives for both hedging and speculating in financial markets; and its large cash holdings, which are explained both by the nature of its business operations and by developments in world markets.

Debt issues, equity buybacks

Apple has been one of the corporations that has found it more advantageous for its shareholders to raise cash via issues of bonds and other debt securities rather than to issue new equity. Issuing new equity means that a given amount of profit has to be shared between a larger sum of shares held by investors, potentially reducing the rate of return for existing investors, and also their percentage holding in the company unless they buy more shares. However, with interest rates on corporate debt so low, it has made sense for Apple to issue debt, pay the interest and use the new funds to buy back existing equity. Assuming that the rate of return on its regular business was higher than the yield on the bonds, this also helped to keep the payments to shareholders buoyant.
Apple repurchased common stock in each of the 2014-16 financial years: 489 million shares in 2014, 325 million in 2015 and 280 million in 2016. Share issues also took place in those years, but they were small scale, only some 10-15% of the buyback totals. The net effect was for the total number of outstanding shares to fall from 6.3 billion in September 2013 to 5.3 billion in September 2016, a significant drop of 15% in just three years.
Funds for the share repurchases should be seen as principally coming from the debt issues, including short-term commercial paper, although the numbers for the whole gamut of business operations are interlinked. For example, Apple reports that in its 2016 financial year funds worth $29.7bn were used to repurchase common stock, $12.2bn were used to pay dividends and the net proceeds from issuing longer-term debt were $25.0bn.
The scheme of share buybacks continues and, as of September 2016, ‘only’ $133bn out of a total of $175bn authorised by Apple’s board had been completed – a total that was raised from $140bn in April 2016, and could be raised yet again. In addition, Apple has another element of this plan, something it calls a ‘capital return programme’, which is expected to reach $200-250bn by March 2018. The missing element is the (strongly implied) promise to boost dividend payouts. In 2013, total dividends paid were $10.6bn, rising to $12.2bn in 2016. So, with the falling number of shares, earnings per share have been rising rapidly: from $6.49 in 2014 to $8.35 in 2016, a rise of nearly 30%.
This helps explain the astronomical stock market valuation for Apple, one that has increased by some 60% over the past year. It can use the financial markets to boost the returns to its owners, quite apart from the other commercial and political means available to it as a leading corporate power. But what this really reflects is the nature of moribund capitalism today. Having got in a pickle with a big drop in operating income (down 16% to $60bn in 2016), and with net sales declining by 8% in 2016 – led by a 12% slump in the value of sales for Apple’s main product, iPhones – the company adapts to these setbacks more by financial operations than by innovation or investment.

Investment in securities

While iPhones do not generate for Apple as much revenue as before – just $136.7bn in financial year 2016 compared to $155bn in 2015 – the company has been able to depend upon its financial investments to try and fill the gap. As of September 2016, it held $20bn of cash, $47bn of short-term marketable securities and a massive $170bn of long-term marketable securities, including US Treasuries and corporate bonds. In 2016, these generated $4bn of interest and dividend income. In the same year, Apple’s accounts also benefited from an extra $1.6bn of unrealised gains on marketable securities it held.
Apple uses its subsidiary, Braeburn Capital,[1] an asset management company based in the low-tax US state of Nevada, to manage its vast security holdings. These assets rival those of the biggest financial companies, and Braeburn has been called ‘the world’s biggest hedge fund’,[2] and also the world’s biggest bond fund.[3] Another angle on Apple’s operations in this area is shown by considering its financial dealings: in its 2016 year it bought $142bn of marketable securities, received $21bn of funds from those it held that had matured and also sold another $91bn of securities, no doubt keeping Braeburn’s dealers busy.
Compare these numbers to Apple’s investment in research and development. In 2016, it spent $10bn, up from $8bn in 2015 and $6bn in 2014. Big money, and big increases, but still pretty small for a so-called IT company, given that it was less than 5% of total net sales revenue.

Financial derivatives dealing

It is also worth noting Apple’s involvement in financial derivatives to give an example of how all major capitalist corporations use these, not just the supposedly peculiarly evil banks. Apple, like other corporations, uses financial derivatives to hedge against unfavourable moves in interest rates and exchange rates, and also for more speculative purposes. Accounting rules try to separate the two uses, but in reality there is no distinct dividing line.
In the case of derivatives used for hedging, they may make gains or suffer losses. But these should roughly balance the losses or gains on the underlying assets, liabilities or cash flows that are being hedged by the derivatives. For example, if Apple owns a fixed income asset (a corporate or government bond security), then its market price will fall if interest rates rise. However, it could use financial derivatives to hedge against this risk. It would take a derivative position (in swaps, futures or options) whose market price will rise as interest rates rise, so that it would generate a gain in its derivative position to offset the monetary loss on the bond. It is a similar thing for foreign exchange exposures. Simply put, if Apple’s US dollar-based accounts would be hit badly if the value of the US dollar rises against the Chinese renminbi, the euro, or sterling and the Japanese yen, then it makes sense for Apple to hedge the risk with derivative contracts. It would take derivative positions whose value would rise as the dollar’s value rises in the market, thus offsetting, or at least reducing, the potential loss on its underlying business.
The basic idea behind hedging is to offset the likelihood of a loss, but this usually also means giving up on any further potential gains beyond what the existing structure of market prices allows. For example, interest rates or the US dollar’s value might fall, but the extra gains for Apple from these developments will be lowered or eliminated if it hedges against their rise with financial derivatives. The underlying business would gain, but the derivative contracts being used as a hedge would show a loss, cancelling this out.
On 24 September 2016, the notional value of foreign exchange derivatives contracts held by Apple for hedging purposes was $44.7bn. There was also $24.5bn of interest rate contracts. This gives a measure of the scale of the financial risk that was being hedged.
So much for hedging. Speculation with financial derivatives is also a possibility for large corporations. It is one they often use, since their finance departments are commonly seen as profit centres that also have to make a dealing profit in addition to playing their financial function for the firm. Here the word speculation is not used for these derivatives transactions, and they are put under the more polite designation of ‘derivative instruments not designated as accounting hedges’. As of 24 September 2016, Apple held a notional value of $54.3bn of foreign exchange contracts under this heading.
In Apple’s 2016 ‘consolidated statement of comprehensive income’, the accounts record that while it lost $734m on its financial derivatives positions, net of tax, it gained a greater $1,638m in the unrealised extra value of the marketable securities that it held. The balance is not always positive – it was a negative $424m in 2015 – but that’s just one of the risks of dealing in capitalist markets.

Big cash assets, but many liabilities

Apple’s huge cash holdings have gained a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, since at the end of its 2016 financial year it held a little over $20bn in cash and cash equivalents (meaning cash and securities with less than 3 months to maturity), and another $47bn in short-term marketable securities (less than 12 months). The other big chunk of assets held consists of its long-term (more than 12 months) marketable securities, at $170bn. These figures make Apple’s ‘property, plant and equipment’ asset value of $27bn look like a very small part of its overall business. More than six times the value of Apple’s ‘production’ assets is held in financial securities!
But let us not ignore Apple’s various liabilities. An implicit one, an obligation for survival not an accounting item, is the need to keep shareholders happy with dividend payments and share buybacks, as noted above. Then there is Apple’s formal accounting liability resulting from its issuance of debt, valued at $75.4bn on 24 September 2016. These debts have to be serviced and eventually repaid. It also had a ‘non-current’ liability of $36bn (mainly tax that was owed) and total current liabilities of $79bn for accounts payable, accrued expenses, commercial paper outstanding, etc.

Moribund Capitalism

It looks like Apple has a lot of cash available, something that, in another universe, might enable it to reduce its premium prices from their near-absurd levels or to pay more taxes. However, when the full scope of its operations is understood, the constraints of the capitalist market can be clearly seen. Apple’s business is not only one of trying to secure its position in a segment of the consumer technology market. More and more it has become a major financial player, and one that has run out of ideas to develop its formerly core business. Instead it keeps its investors happy with share buybacks and a ‘capital return programme’. It remains the biggest capitalist corporation by market value, although as a monopolistic player it has a lack of incentive to expand production. These features illustrate the moribund nature of contemporary capitalism.

Tony Norfield, 24 May 2017

[1] The name seems to have been chosen because it sounded better than Granny Smith, Cox, or other varieties of apple.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Lenin in London

Lenin stayed in London during 1902-03, using the time to write for and edit Iskra, while also studying in the British Museum library, riding around on buses, learning English and trying to avoid proletarian food. An address he stayed at, perhaps the only one, was 30 Holford Square, WC1, in Islington, while he also worked in the office of a socialist publisher in Clerkenwell that is now the Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, EC1.
Holford Square was bombed during the Second World War, and the building in which Lenin once lived no longer survives. What does survive, however, is a commemorative bust of Lenin that in 1942 the Soviet Ambassador to the UK, Ivan Maisky, unveiled in the square, facing number 30. This was a time when Britain’s relations with the Soviet Union had thawed, following Germany’s breaking of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact with Operation Barbarossa in mid-1941. With Russia now an ally in the war, it was time for Britain to be friendly. Nevertheless, the memorial to Lenin was repeatedly vandalised and it had to be moved.
Russian émigré architect, Berthold Lubetkin, was commissioned to build a block of flats on the bomb-damaged site for working class accommodation. It was an ambitious and effective design, although its scope was later limited by lack of sufficient funding. The name for the block was going to be the Lenin Court, but the Cold War had made this impossible by the time it was opened in 1954. Instead it was named to commemorate the pugnacious, pro-imperialist, anti-communist Labour statesman, Ernest Bevin, who had died in 1951.
Here is a link to a Pathe News report on the 1942 Lenin commemoration at Holford Square, with a hilarious upbeat, upper class commentary.
This is the Lenin bust, now held in the Islington Museum, St John Street, EC1:

This is Bevin Court today:

Tony Norfield, 14 May 2017

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Capital 150

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of Volume 1 of Marx's Capital, there is a two-day conference to discuss the importance of this work for understanding the world today. This international conference is held on 19-20 September 2017, sponsored by the Department of European and International Studies, King’s College London, and blog.

Venue details: Student Central (formerly ULU), Malet Street, London WC1E 7HY

Speakers include:
  • Tithi Bhattacharya
  • Guglielmo Carchedi
  • Eduardo da Motta e Albuquerque
  • David Harvey
  • Michael Heinrich
  • Paul Mattick Jr
  • Fred Moseley
  • Tony Norfield
  • Lucia Pradella
  • Michael Roberts
  • Beverly Silver
  • Raquel Varela
The cost of attending is £10 for the two days. Other details including booking can be found here.

Tony Norfield, 26 April 2017

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

A May Election in June

Prime Minister Theresa May has called a UK general election on 8 June. Given the 2011 law on fixed term elections, which means that it should have instead been in 2020, this was a surprise announcement. The brought forward date has to be agreed by Parliament first, but this will very likely happen, given that the Labour Party must back it or else appear afraid to go to the electorate. However, the bigger questions are what this election will be about and what it reflects about British politics today.
The news media were puzzled, if not annoyed, in the hour or so ahead of May's Downing Street statement. Why did they not know before what was going to happen, or even have any clue? Surely this was not a declaration of war, or the UK’s own missile strike somewhere?! Could it be a resignation? Her slightly unsteady gait and frail looking pose had already led to gossip that she might be about to step down due to ill health. Surely, sacking Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary would not demand a Downing Street declaration. A few minutes ahead of time, the tip off came to limit the media’s blushes of ignorance: it was to call a snap UK general election!
Outside 10 Downing Street, May did another of her performances trying to look a determined and decisive leader. But she remained unconvincing to anyone who has paid attention to events. The snap election was claimed to be necessary to bring about a more strongly positioned government to secure successful Brexit terms with the EU – more of a majority than the comfortable Conservative Party one of 17 House of Commons seats.[1] She claimed there was too much opposition to her planned good deeds in this negotiation within the existing parliament. This rather overlooks the problem that it does not matter what the Brits want, whether 100% of their MPs or not. What matters in the Brexit negotiations is what deal will be agreed by the 27 countries in the rest of the EU.
The UK election has instead been called for another reason, basically the dire state of the British Labour Party. Unable to act as an opposition, Labour has slipped in UK opinion polls and May stands well ahead of Labour’s Corbyn. Labour looks unlikely to win back any seats in Scotland after its huge losses to the Scottish National Party in 2015, and the Conservatives have little more to lose there. Changes in Wales or Northern Ireland will make next to no difference to the UK result. Meanwhile, in the main voting country, England, Labour is in dire straits, having been eaten by UKIP and the Conservatives in 2015, and still looking vulnerable to the Conservatives in the lead up to June 2017. The latest polls show the Conservatives with around 44-46% of the UK vote and Labour with 25-26%.
Tactics based on the latest opinion polls are not the best strategic guides, and things could go wrong for May’s latest gambit. Although probably not much wrong, given the politics of the populace. While just under half the UK voting population is not pro-Brexit, and this could grow now that some of the economic consequences for jobs are dawning, there remains a strong base of anti-immigration Brexiteers among English voters, one to which the Labour Party adapts rather than challenges. For example, so far Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has avoided talking much about immigration: saying it is OK loses him votes; saying it is not OK would embarrass his conscience. A view on Brexit also gets little look in, apart from how it must be the best deal possible, for similar reasons. The trial of moving from being an inconsequential backbencher shuffling in the dust of a moribund left to leading, or even managing, the views of the electorate has clearly been too much for him.
The forthcoming UK general election will be both low level tragedy and farce, and tales told by many media idiots, full of sound and invented fury, signifying nothing new.

Tony Norfield, 18 April 2017

[1] It is possible, nevertheless, that this majority might have been reduced in coming months. Police investigations are taking place into Conservative Party overspending in a number of constituencies in 2015. This could have rendered invalid some Conservative victories, produced new by-elections and cut their majority.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Trump, Syria & the Middle East

The US has hit Syria’s Shayrat military air base near Homs with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Whether there is any more to come nobody can say because the strikes do not appear to have much logic to them and so war aims cannot be drawn from political objectives.
But the central weakness flows not from Trump’s knee-jerk response but from the dubious nature of the event that provoked it. A chemical attack by Syria simply does not make sense. Assad has virtually won his war by sheer perseverance, western incompetence and Russian help. At the least, he has no viable opponents on the ground. His strategy is to sit it out while his opponents exhaust themselves, realise the futility of their actions or just leave the country. The West, when it tried at last to put down some sort of marker in a war it could do nothing about, defined the use of chemical weapons as a red line. The Russians agreed and Assad followed through. He gave them up in a quid quo pro negotiated by the Russians. In return, the West abandoned ‘regime change’ in all but words. Both sides kept to the agreement. Why would Assad now use a weapon that could only provoke the West and which is of very limited military use, and one day ahead of a major international meeting on Syria held in Brussels? Former Congressman Ron Paul, a leading, although sometimes critical Trump supporter, argues that the chemical attack is ‘false flag’ operation: “It doesn’t make any sense for Assad under these conditions to all of a sudden use poison gases – I think there’s zero chance he would have done this deliberately”.
Far from showing Trump’s willingness to ‘go to war’ – reversing his supposed ‘isolationism’ which, in any case, was a silly and unrealistic proposition – the bombings instead show the West’s very limited options in Syria. If the West really wants to eliminate Assad, why slam 59 missiles into an isolated airfield? Why not do some real damage, and show ‘global leadership’, by destroying Assad’s military command and control structure?
The plain fact is that while America has the military means to obliterate whatever it likes, both America and the West as a whole has very little power to influence events.
The West would not be able to contain the fall out if Assad were forcibly removed
The US probably has the capacity to ‘take out’ Assad in a surgical strike, or seriously to degrade his already limited military capacity, though his regime is pretty smart and also has Russian assistance. But how would his removal by force affect regional players?
For example, Iran is currently a stabilising force in the region since it wants to rebuild its relationship with the West and wants to show that it can be a trusted, competent and effective regional manager. A significant section of the Iranian elite, and the Shia community in the region, do not believe this can be pulled off and that such a strategy will only weaken Iran in the long run since Western imperialism cannot change its nature.  How would killing Assad alter this critically-balanced situation? Almost certainly not in the interests of the West. Eliminating Assad by force, and the fall out that comes after it, would significantly alter Iran’s position as a regional manager.
Furthermore, Turkey is currently playing a very dangerous game in pursuit of establishing itself as the main player and arbiter in the region. Its overriding goal had been to join the European Union. But it has abandoned all hope of joining by negotiation. It has realised instead that potential EU entry is not about reason or willingness to be reasonable, but about power. It thinks it has a much better chance of forcing a better long-standing deal with Europe by establishing its status as the region’s key pacifier and manager, which Europe desperately needs. This has led it to meddle in regional politics in hugely irresponsible ways that are often counter to western interests and alarm the West. Indeed, Turkey is now the main obstacle to a settlement in Syria.
It is very likely that Assad’s removal would embolden Turkey to be even more reckless. Turkey would almost certainly want to take a major position in a post-Assad Syria, if not to subjugate Syria under its control, which would immediately snarl up all regional relations. This would reproduce Turkey’s inability to reach a settlement with the Kurds on a much grander scale.
Then there is Russia. The West has been forced to establish an uneasy and very limited ‘partnership’ with Russia, given that it has been unable to handle on its own the mess it has made of the Middle East. This has obliged the West to accept that Russia is a legitimate regional player and to accept its more active military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean – something unthinkable in the Cold War years. Russia plays a peculiar role in the region. Most of the regional players are anti-Russian, but they want Russia to serve as a counterweight to the power of the West. Iran is by no means a Russian ally, but it benefits greatly from Russia’s presence in the region. Assad’s violent removal would not only be a defeat for Russia, it would perturb regional relations.
What replaces the Assad regime?
If the Iraq war and its fall out has shown the West anything, it is that military action alone cannot achieve stability and war has unexpected consequences. As Napoleon once said of the limitations of war, “you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them”. War can be the continuation of politics by other means if there is a plausible political settlement at the end of it. Clausewitz in reverse does not work.
Perhaps all this explains the almost apoplectic Western response to Syria, including that of western liberals and former radicals. It is a response born of their frustration about the absence of a military or political solution they can be in charge of, rather than a willingness to go to war.

Susil Gupta, 7 April 2017