Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Das Kapital, Finance & Imperialism

Below are copies of slides from my presentation today to the conference in London on the 150th anniversary of Marx's Capital.

Use them as you wish, but do the decent thing and credit your source if you republish this information elsewhere. The telegrammatic points below are more fully elaborated in other articles on this blog, especially in those on Apple, Amazon and Facebook.

Tony Norfield, 19 September 2017

Friday, 1 September 2017

Facebook’s Advertising Machine

When Mark Zuckerberg is interviewed, the founder of Facebook can barely put a sentence together without using the word ‘connect’. This looks like a case of Tourette’s syndrome that spouts business buzz words not curses. But it is based on his understanding of the source of his company’s revenues and almost all of these come from advertisers. They pay to put their offerings to Facebook’s two billion users, since it claims to know about these people and what they like. This is Facebook’s business model: to monetise connections to its platform.
In this way, Facebook has made it into the top 10 of corporations on global stock markets. Its business throws light on the way the imperialist economy works.

The advertising game

It is not much good making a product or service for sale if people do not know about it and buy it. Hence, advertising. From TV commercials and sponsorships, to pages in newspapers, to the ubiquitous logos on sportspeople, on billboards, on the clothing people buy and on images online, this is no small business. Global advertising expenditure in 2016 was estimated at $493bn.[1] A huge sum of money is available for the right destination.
Advertising is key feature of the capitalist market, especially when that market is global and not just down the road. Major corporations use advertising to put their brands in the public eye and fight for their market share. Spending millions or billions on advertising is a necessary part of becoming, and staying, a monopolist, since economic power is about market domination.[2]
But the right destination for advertising spending can still be difficult to determine. In general, the bigger the audience for advertisers, the better, although it still might be the wrong audience for what is being sold. As the business cliché puts it: ‘half of our spending on advertising is useless, but we don’t know which half’. This is where the growth of online media has become more important in the past decade or so: it can claim to provide a better answer to that question.
Television, with the largest audience coverage, still dominates ‘offline’ sales of adverts, totalling $186bn in 2016. A long way behind television advertising revenues are those for print media and radio. Offline advertising also accounts for the bulk of total revenues, with last year’s share estimated at 64%, or $315bn. But offline advertising growth has been stagnant in recent years, and is being rapidly caught up by the newer digital media.
From a small starting point, spending on digital media has been growing quickly. Digital advertising now accounts for 36% of the total spending, at $178bn, and its share will grow further, especially on mobiles and especially via search, such as Google, and on social applications, such as Facebook.
The economics of those media companies relying on the offline advertising market is being slowly undermined by digital communications, especially in the case of newspapers. In the digital advertising world, Google and Facebook are the dominant forces, together having more than half the digital advertising revenues. Google has a much bigger share than Facebook, and also has a stock market capitalisation of around $650bn compared to Facebook’s at just below $500bn, helped by the fact that its system accounts for 90% of all Internet searches. But Facebook is a sizeable member of this giant duopoly.[3]
Facebook has two big advantages over offline media. It can just provide a platform, and rely upon other people to produce the content that is shared on its system, rather than having to produce that content itself. It also has a more detailed view of the profile, likes and inclinations of its users than is possible for television companies or newspapers. This is the core value it offers to potential advertisers: not just a big and growing audience, but one differentiated by age, gender, location and likes.

The big connector

Facebook differs in a number of respects from the other major corporations covered on this blog in recent months – Apple, Alibaba and Amazon. It has far less investment in financial securities and derivatives than Apple, and I will not cover these aspects here.[4] It also has a more geographically diverse client base than either Alibaba or Amazon. However, one feature of its business that is critical, as for Apple and Amazon, is that it was founded in the large and rich US market.
In mid-2017, Facebook’s average revenue per user in the US and Canada was $19.38, nine times that for Asia, which was just $2.13. But Facebook’s audience in Asia is growing fastest, and accounted for 34% of the average daily number of users by mid-2017, compared to 14% for the US and Canada and 20% for Europe.
The US market evidently has a powerful influence on social trends elsewhere in the world. It has been shown not only by the popularity among youth of wearing low-hanging trousers and baseball caps backwards – although, thankfully, these trends have, like, faded – but also by how a system designed for an elite US university, Harvard, could end up becoming the world’s largest social media site. The Bullingdon boys of Oxford University in the UK have not come anywhere close to this, although they have distinguished themselves on a much smaller scale by providing politicians who help fill the UK news media.
With 97% or so of Facebook’s revenues derived from advertising, and with the bulk of those advertising contracts being subject to cancellation within one month, one would think that financial markets would look upon this business model as very shaky indeed. That impression would be endorsed by the fact that Facebook has not paid any dividends on its shares since these were issued to investors in 2012. But the share price has nevertheless risen dramatically and an early investor would have made a stupendous capital gain from holding them. When they were first sold publicly in May 2012, the initial share price was around $18; it rose to more than $50 by early 2013 and was over $160 in the past week or so.

Valuing people

Facebook had less than 500m monthly active users of its system in 2010; by mid-2017 it had hit two billion users. Even if one allows for duplicate/fake profiles and for company accounts, that is almost a quarter of the world’s population and the number is still growing rapidly. Those figures do not include many users of other Facebook-purchased companies, WhatsApp and Instagram, although there will be some overlap. While the popularity of social media websites can be short-lived, especially among young people, there is no sign yet that this is happening to Facebook.
Strong customer growth and potential market domination have been features of several big, US-based, tech-related companies. Since the 2007-08 financial crisis, low interest rates have helped boost all equity prices, because low yields on government bonds and low interest rates from bank deposits look less attractive to investors by comparison. But these companies’ valuations have also jumped more than the market average. The returns from the equities of established blue-chip companies – from their dividends and share price growth – cannot compete with the prospect of buying into a relatively new global market winner. That applies even for one that pays no dividend at all, as has also been true for Amazon.
Facebook has a similar value on the stock market to Amazon. Amazon is favoured for its potential to be the market in which goods and services are bought and sold, setting the price and taking a cut from suppliers – although it also has a key revenue source from its web services operation. Facebook, like Amazon, has to expand its clientele, and this is an even bigger imperative since almost all its revenue comes from selling advertising based upon this audience, one investigated and filtered by its algorithms. Hence Zuckerberg’s focus on how everyone should ‘connect’ via Facebook, which is Facebook’s attempt to maximise market coverage.

Business growth and WhatsApp

Facebook’s business growth shows the success of the company’s strategy so far. Revenue jumped from $7.9bn in 2013 to $27.6bn in 2016. Net income after various costs and taxes grew more than sixfold, from $1.5bn to $10.2bn over the same period. The background to this growth reveals some interesting points.
As one might expect, Facebook has invested a lot in research and development, committing more than 20% of its total revenues to this, amounting to nearly $6bn in 2016. Like other large corporations, Facebook has also tried to secure its market position through takeovers of companies that could complement its business, or ones that might in future be troublesome competitors in areas that it needs for further growth. Since 2005, Facebook has taken control of more than 60 companies in 10 countries – including India, Israel, Canada, the UK and Ireland, although most were from the US. These company acquisitions cost anything from a few hundred thousand to many billions of dollars.
Facebook’s biggest acquisition by far was in October 2014, of WhatsApp, the smartphone messaging, voicecall and video service. This underlined Facebook’s aim to get into this rapidly growing form of social connection – and of potential advertising revenue.
There have been conflicting media reports of the total price paid for WhatsApp, but it spent ‘only’ $4.6bn in cash. A much larger amount was also paid for the takeover in terms of Facebook shares, probably worth close to $15bn, giving a total of around $19-20bn. This shows how a key ‘social media’ company was well versed in using the financial system to establish its market power. That might surprise those who are critical of capitalist financiers, but who pay little attention to how the capitalist system actually works.
The WhatsApp acquisition was striking in another way. Facebook’s extravagant price for WhatsApp was despite that company having made losses in previous years. At the end of 2014, the ‘acquired users’ of the WhatsApp system were valued at $2bn, ‘trade names’ were valued at close to $450m and ‘acquired technology’ was nearly $300m, but there were tax liabilities of around $900m that made the net assets acquired equal a mere $1.9bn. The remaining $15bn or so that Facebook paid was accounted for as ‘Goodwill’.
Goodwill is a feature of company accounts that reflects the value of something that cannot be pinned down in terms of the business assets acquired. It is defined not as a physical asset, eg buildings and equipment, or even technology and existing customer business. It boils down instead to the ‘business reputation’ or ‘brand value’ of the company, and basically to its ability to generate revenues as a trusted enterprise. More precisely, it represents the capitalist market’s valuation of a company’s market presence and potential power, one that is especially highly valued as a takeover target by a budding monopolist with access to funds, like Facebook! The term Goodwill sounds like a transient favourable opinion; it reflects the monetary assessment of contemporary imperialist markets.

Staying on top of the sugar mountain

Business books have long discussed how managers might control a company although they do not own it, or perhaps have only a small stake in its equity. Marx raised this point in Capital and it was popularised in James Burnham’s 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution. Mark Zuckerberg offers an interesting take on this phenomenon.
Zuckerberg has managed to overcome the usual capitalist norms, where the money invested in a company’s shares determines how much power the owner has in company decisions. Such capitalist rules still mean that a small group of larger shareholders can determine the outcome if they can get more than 50% or more of the total. This is not difficult when there is often a very large group of very small shareholders who have negligible voting power. But Zuckerberg has gone much further, as shown by Facebook’s issuance of different kinds of shares with very different votes, something also done by other capitalists in the technology sector and elsewhere. [5]
Zuckerberg owns mainly Class B shares, with 10 votes each. The bulk of Facebook’s marketed shares, the ones listed for trading on Nasdaq, are Class A shares. These might sound better, since everyone prefers A to B. However, the A shares have just one vote each. The outcome is that Zuckerberg controls 60% of the voting power of Facebook shares although he owns ‘only’ 28% of the company. Facebook’s 2016 annual report is at least honest enough to spell out that he is
“able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock and therefore has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets.”
So, the owner with 28% of the shares has complete control of all company decisions! If this were not enough of a challenge to the capitalist market’s supposed ideology of equal status before money, Facebook/Zuckerberg managed to top this in 2016. Helped by Zuckerberg’s own voting power, Facebook took the decision to issue a new class of shares with no voting rights at all. These were Class C shares, ones that, this time, should give investors a clue that they will now be sitting in the bad seats.
Zuckerberg’s plan is to issue these new Class C shares in exchange for Class A and B ones, including ones that he holds. This would allow him slowly to sell his shares and thus, piece by small piece, to donate funds to his Chan-Zuckerberg charity, so chipping away at his $100bn-plus mountain of wealth, but still retaining control of decisions at Facebook. The latter charity is his family’s philanthropic initiative; based upon him having more money than any sane person could ever possibly spend.
Zuckerberg’s charity scheme is one of many examples where a few of the ultra-rich ‘give something back’, from John D Rockefeller, to Howard Hughes, to Bill Gates, George Soros and Warren Buffett. The donations go to what the plutocrat happens to like, not according to what society needs.

Adverts, just for you!

The personal details of its two billion users are the raw material from which Facebook creates an attractive platform for advertisers. Filtered further by Facebook tracking ‘likes’ and clicks into other Internet sites, it can offer a defined audience far better than news media and TV companies, so it can claim to focus more than others on the relevant age group and inclinations of consumers.
The traditional media has not managed to keep up, even when it has gone online, as shown in the problems newspapers have had deciding whether to set up paywalls for their content, or whether to try and maximise viewers and boost advertising revenues by giving free access to that content. Even though Facebook’s ‘click through rate’ from the advertisements it shows is very low, with younger people better at ad blocking, so far that has not been a problem for the growth of its advertising revenues.
Nevertheless, Facebook does worry about future revenues. Has the core site now reached ‘saturation point’ for advertising? Will new ventures into virtual reality products, via its acquisition of Oculus for $2bn in 2014, help out? Can the WhatsApp acquisition generate enough money when it starts charging users?


Facebook’s core area of business has been the US and Canada, from which roughly half its global revenues are generated. The availability of wealthy US investors to fund Facebook’s early investments and growth has also been critical for the company.[6] As in the case of Amazon, this highlights how the global success of a commercial enterprise is boosted by it starting up from a big, rich country, with the US having the pre-eminent position.
Facebook's growth has absorbed some of the advertising revenues of other businesses and helped undermine them. But it is a better example of capitalism’s conflict between the forces and relations of production. The forces – the development of an easy global transmission for all kinds of data, ideas and information – are channelled by a system that accumulates the personal and social information of billions of people for private profit. Facebook is basically an advertising platform, and advertising is intimately related to the rise of mass production and the generation of monopolies, even in areas of new technology.

Tony Norfield, 1 September 2017

[1] See the MAGNA Global Advertising Forecast report, December 2016.
[2] Even the advertising sector, paid to publicise the goods and services of industry, commerce and finance, has become monopolised. Just five big players run it. In order of size by revenues, they are: WPP (UK), Publicis (France), Interpublic Group (US), Omnicom (US) and Dentsu (Japan). Each of them has tens of thousands of employees and lots of subsidiaries in many countries.
[3] In the text here I use the better known company name ‘Google’, although the company was reorganised in 2015 and its holding company is now called Alphabet. Google takes more than half of the digital advertising revenues in the US in 2016. Facebook is the junior partner in this game, with just 20% or so of US revenue, but it has been growing at least as fast as Google.
[4] Nor will I discuss the question of ‘fake news’ on Facebook, its abuse of privacy or its filtering of news. These issues have been covered in many reports, ones that often miss the more important points about what Facebook represents.
[5] Facebook is far from being the only company that has sold shares with different voting rights. News Corp, for example, runs a similar scheme so that Rupert Murdoch’s family has a higher percentage of votes on decisions than its share ownership would indicate. The Facebook/Zuckerberg ploy seems to follow the 10-1 scheme of Google/Alphabet’s founders.
[6] See the 2012 report, http://whoownsfacebook.com/

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The Military Transport Network of Azerbaijan

If you are a jihadist or a rebel needing some military hardware, then you have two problems. Countries that would be very happy to buy the equipment for you, such as the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, do not want to be identified. It can also be trouble to get the supplies through, unless the mechanism can be hidden. Is there a solution? Step forward Silk Way Airlines, a state-run cargo airline based in Baku, Azerbaijan!

A fascinating report from a Bulgarian journalist, Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, documents how Silk Way did more than 350 flights delivering hundreds of tons of weapons. The weapons were mainly from East European states, including Bulgaria and Slovakia, and also from Israel. The destinations were mainly into Iraq and Syria. Flights were given diplomatic status, so that the 'luggage' would not be checked or stopped, and the financiers of these operations were principally the US and Saudi Arabia, but also included the UAE (and, I would guess, other Gulf states too). A key country in which the weapons were unloaded for later shipment on to Syrian and Iraqi rebels was Turkey.

US military-related companies were often involved in the transport deals, but they were facilitating the delivery of non-US origin weapons - an advantage to cover up the US role. Bulgarian weapons were found by the journalist to have turned up in an Al Nusra Front (the Al Qaeda affiliate) arms cache in Aleppo, Syria, and the Iraqi army also uncovered an ISIS warehouse of these weapons in Mosul, Iraq.

Tracking such a supply network is difficult, but the observations are supported by documents and also by other corresponding sources. This was just one network, based mainly from Bulgaria and Azerbaijan; others will also be used by the various powers involved in this deadly game, including those from Libya.

Gaytandzhieva's report was filed on a Bulgarian newspaper site in early July. This led to protests from Azerbaijan and to her questioning by Bulgaria's security services. She was dismissed from her job a few days ago, according to her interview on Al Jazeera news network today, a report from which is here.*

Tony Norfield, 27 August 2017

Note: * Al Jazeera was happy to make a lot of this report since its focus directly implicated Saudi Arabia and the UAE in financing terror networks but had no mention of Qatar's role in such things.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Partition of India

The partition of India took place seventy years ago today. British media coverage of the event focuses on the bloodshed that followed and, not surprisingly, ignores the role of the British in fomenting divisions between Muslims and Hindus. Narendra Singh Sarila's book, In the Shadow of the Great Game: the Untold Story of India’s Partition (Harper Collin, 2005 and 2009), fills this gap.

This is the only book I have found that explains what was in it for the British when India was partitioned in 1947. It shows how the British backed Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his opposition to the Indian National Congress, and how they encouraged the formation of Pakistan as a dependent state that they could better rely upon to be anti-Russian than an independent India. Historians usually avoid this and instead explain partition by claiming that there were deep-rooted ethnic/religious differences that demanded a Muslim Pakistan separate from a Hindu India.
A highly recommended book that highlights another crime of British imperialism, and one that has had repercussions long after the formal end of colonial power.
Tony Norfield, 14 August 2017

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Lenin in London #2

I first wrote about Lenin’s stay in London in May. By chance, I have just come across a book first published in 2000 that gives some interesting details of Lenin’s visits to London from 1902.[1] My previous article provided the solution to that author’s question about what happened to the bust of Lenin, first put up in 1942. Here I note some of the points she makes about Lenin’s visits. I am not usually one to dwell on such details, but it is a nice irony of history that the UK, a centre of anti-communism in the 20th century, and still today, was also a minor aid to the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Lenin’s visits to London were more by necessity than choice, with political restrictions on operating in Russia under the Tsar or in some other, closer European countries, such as Germany and Belgium. London housed a number of radical Russian émigrés, but also a small group of UK radicals with a printing press. So Lenin wrote to Harry Quelch of the Social Democratic Federation, asking if he could print Iskra (The Spark, the revolutionary journal) from their offices in Clerkenwell.
In April 1902, Lenin moved to 30 Holford Square in Islington, renting two rooms with his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya. Pamela Shields notes that they breakfasted on bacon and eggs, washed down with beer because the poor water quality was a health risk. Lenin worked on Iskra in the Twentieth Century Press offices at 37a Clerkenwell Green, the building which is now the Marx Memorial Library, and which was not far to walk from Holford Square. He sat at a desk in a tiny office close to Harry Quelch, while Krupskaya was busy at Holford Square, deciphering cryptograms and sending coded messages to agents in Russia.
From April 1902 to May 1903, the Clerkenwell printers were responsible for Iskra numbers 22 to 38. During this period, a certain Lev Bronstein, later known as Leon Trotsky, arrived at Lenin’s home and told him that Iskra, for various reasons, was not getting through to Russia. The decision was taken to smuggle in the four-page Iskra into Russia on thin paper wrapped inside the knee-high boots of supporters!
In 1902-03, with his comrades, Lenin organised meetings of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), usually in pub rooms and with them pretending to be trade unionists. One room was also booked in the name of the ‘Foreign Barbers of London Association’, which was just as well since they were speaking Russian. On several occasions, the London Metropolitan Police attempted to eavesdrop or find out what was going on, but they had little luck, not least because their fluency in Russian left much to be desired. Lenin made further visits to London, including in 1907 and, the last one I believe, in 1911.

It is not known what Lenin liked to drink in the various London pubs he frequented, including the Crown and Woolpack, which closed some years ago, and the Old Red Lion, both in St John Street EC1. This was before his work on imperialism, so it is possible that he sampled India Pale Ale. However, one suspects that he would have rejected light and bitter as a typical Menshevik compromise.

Tony Norfield, 9 August 2017

[1] Pamela Shields, Essential Islington, Sutton Publishing. It is not clear that there were as many as six separate visits to London as she claims. Her book is available on Amazon.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Brexit & the City of London

Brexit is a big economic and political mess for British imperialism. It also undermines some of the previous plans to boost the City of London’s operations, especially in deals with China. The City will not collapse. But it will lose business as other European Union countries are already aiming to divide up the soon to-be-deceased member’s estate while the body is still stumbling around.
A large proportion of City financial dealing is with the rest of Europe, although London has been pre-eminent because of its worldwide links – including with offshore financial centres, many of which sing God Save the Queen as their national anthem. These European ties formerly helped underpin the City’s growth, but have since been a factor in decline, even before the Brexit vote in June 2016. So problems for British-based finance due to Brexit now add to those resulting from a drop in European economic strength.

Shift in economic power from Europe to Asia

IMF data show that the European Union’s share of world GDP fell from 25 per cent to 22 per cent from 2011 to 2016, a sharp fall in just five years. This was offset by a higher share for the US, and especially so for China, based on their faster growth. Weak economies, massive debts and bad loans also undermined Europe’s banks and led to a cut in their dealing operations – most of which are in London.
A good example of the impact is seen from the global foreign exchange market, which reflects the cross-border deals in the currencies used for investment in bonds, equities and real estate, and the buying and selling of goods and services. From 2013 to 2016, the size of the foreign exchange market had declined for the first time in more than a decade, based on low world growth and problems in banks. The UK’s share of the foreign exchange market fell from 41 per cent in 2013 to 37 per cent in 2016. Although the City still remained by far the world’s biggest FX dealing centre, and the US in second place had a much lower 19 per cent, the US share rose a bit, helped by the better position of its banks.
By contrast, Asian financial trading centres were the clear winners. Singapore’s share of trading rose from 5.7 per cent to 7.9 per cent from 2013 to 2016. Taken together, China’s and Hong Kong’s rose from 4.8 per cent to 7.8 per cent. Though still a small share, this is an astonishing result for China, one backed by the near-doubling in the use of the renminbi in global FX dealing to 4 per cent. This made the renminbi the eighth largest trading currency in 2016, just behind the far more established Canadian dollar and the Swiss franc. Meanwhile, the euro, now the currency of nineteen countries, saw its share slip to the lowest since its inception.

UK politicians: dumber than you might think

The City had a falling share of a falling market even before Brexit,[1] but now faces the prospect of Brexit. A key problem it faces is how far will UK-based financial companies be able to conduct business with the European Union once the UK leaves. Implausible as it may seem, despite UK governments having promoted the financial sector for more than three decades, there is no sign that the current UK government has given this much attention.
Under the Labour governments from 1997-2010, there was also a clear pro-finance policy. This was seen as one of the few competitive UK ‘industries’, one that also provided lots of tax revenues to fund public spending, from income taxes on the high paying jobs and the various duties imposed. Finance supported millions of jobs related to trading in foreign exchange and all kinds of financial securities and insurance services. It also provided international revenues that covered nearly half of the UK’s record-breaking trade deficit in goods that in 2016 amounted to 7% of GDP. Even non-financial UK business services, from accountancy to information technology, are very closely tied into the financial sector, and offset another chunk of the trade deficit. Basically, without the City’s financial business, UK living standards would be lower.
In more recent years, the UK political class has had trouble maintaining support from a disgruntled electorate. Voters worried about pressure on living standards focused on immigration from the EU, so this has led the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, to accept the referendum vote and reject EU membership. They obviously want free access for all UK business to the EU market, but this is not possible under EU treaties for a non-member, unless, at a minimum, that country also accepts the free movement of labour, ie no restrictions on migration from the EU. UK politicians can grandstand as much as they like, declaring what they want from a deal, but the end result will come from a negotiation
With the UK a member of the EU, City-based financial firms can freely do business across the rest of the EU single market, due to so-called ‘passporting’. This means that banks or other financial institutions in the UK can sell their services in all other EU countries, as these are considered part of the same market. Without the ‘passport’, or something very similar when the UK leaves the EU, that ability will either cease or become much more restricted.
More than 5,000 UK-based firms rely on these passport agreements, and some 8,000 European companies also need them to offer services in the UK. So there may be some compromise. But it is in the interests of the remaining EU-27 countries not to make this a favourable one for the UK, or else the longstanding European Union project would risk being unravelled as others considered the exit too.

How to get a piece of the financial action?

Whatever the wider economic and political issues for the UK and the rest of Europe, the UK’s financial business is an area coveted by some of the major EU players. Already, many UK and international banks and other financial institutions have said that they plan to relocate some business into the EU-27. So far it is only on a small scale, and as a precaution so as not to be left high and dry if there are barriers to their UK-based operations doing business in the EU. If it becomes clear that full access to EU financial markets will be difficult, more will follow.
The likely outcome is a piecemeal lopping off of some parts of City business into several other EU locations rather than into one new rival centre. Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank, is one of the favoured alternatives, but there is also Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Luxembourg and others, depending upon where a financial company might already have some existing business.
Ironically, Frankfurt, the main financial centre for Europe’s largest economy, Germany, is a rather provincial town, not particularly attractive to financiers, and is based in country whose politicians have shown little orientation to finance. They have instead been able to benefit from the prowess of German engineering business and have had other ways of promoting German capitalists on their minds.
I do not think that the Brexit effect by itself is likely to add up to a dramatic reduction in the City’s operations. London has built up a series of reinforcing advantages that are difficult to replicate elsewhere, as shown by the several directions in which alternatives are sought. For now, at least, London has very many more international connections than rival financial centres, plus a broad range of financial services and personnel skills that other centres lack. English is the main business language and English commercial law is the foundation for many financial contracts, for example interest rate swaps, the largest traded financial derivatives contract.
The commercial law issue is more important than one might think. Lawyers based in other countries, or sent from the UK, might be trained in the relevant aspects of English commercial law, but legal judgements are based on court decisions. Being part of the relevant legal network is important. It would also take a long time before contracts are changed into another legal system, and that system may not have the specific aspects necessary that have been developed over decades within the UK legal set up.
Furthermore, most other possible centres have also had governments that have been advocates of a financial transactions tax. This will not help them make a convincing case for expanding their role as a financial business centre. Nevertheless, the incompetence of the present British government could make them question favouring London.

What next for the City?

Despite the impact of Brexit and the recent decline in the growth of financial dealing, it will not be easy to dislodge the City of London from its pre-eminent position. London will almost certainly lose business to other financial centres, but it is costly for banks to move even some operations from London to the rest of Europe, estimated at anything from $30-$50bn.[2]
As these decisions play themselves out, British financial elites are planning to secure for the London Stock Exchange the flotation of Saudi Aramco’s shares. This state-owned Saudi Arabian oil company is the world’s largest and the deal would produce big revenues for the exchange and banks handling it. Around five percent of the company might be on sale, but even this is expected to raise some $100bn.
Only a major stock exchange could handle such a large deal. But although New York is the biggest, and Trump’s pro-Saudi politics are supportive, US financial regulations could be a barrier since the Saudis do not like giving much information. London is more lax on that score and has also changed its rules to help its bid for the deal. Furthermore, there could be US legal claims against the Saudis regarding the 9/11 attacks that would impact Saudi Aramco, and this kind of trouble looks more likely to occur in a US court than any such thing in British courts.
One deal, no matter how big, would not point to sunlit uplands ahead for British finance. But the outcome for Saudi Aramco’s deal will be an interesting signal of how far a Brexit-hobbled City can have a future outside the European club. It would also indicate how far Britain’s status as a key player in world politics has been damaged, since the Saudi decision will certainly have that in mind.

Tony Norfield, 1 August 2017

A fuller discussion of City finances in relation to British imperialism, plus Brexit and Trump is available in the paperback edition of my book, The City, available from these sources.
For a brief article on this blog covering the background to the City’s business relating to British imperialism, see here.

[1] The Bank for International Settlements surveys from which this information is taken are conducted in April of the relevant years, so in 2016 it was before the June Brexit vote. Similarly, the UK’s share of the trade in financial derivatives fell back between 2013 and 2016, based largely upon a drop in the volume of dealing in euros.
[2] See this Bloomberg story: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-31/banks-may-be-hit-with-50-billion-capital-needs-after-brexit

Monday, 31 July 2017

Facebook, etc

For reasons I have only recently, if belatedly, begun to fathom, quite a lot of people like Facebook. Being reasonably open minded about such things, I have also just set up an account in my name on Mr Zuckerberg's domain, with a Group page 'Imperialism Today'.* No surprise there, anyway. The link (I hope) is here. Work on this is in progress. (If the link does not work, let me know!)

In practice, my own Facebook entries will likely deliver more than the material available on this blog, although these extra items will be much the same as what I might put on my Twitter account, StubbornFacts, located here. The main articles will appear on this blog, nevertheless, this being my favoured method of presenting an explanation of what is going on.

Tony Norfield 31 July 2017
Note: * The name of the Facebook Group page was changed from 'Economics of Imperialism' to 'Imperialism Today' on 1 August, but should have the same link.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Amazon: Becoming the Market

Most people have heard of Amazon.com, at least most in the richer countries. [1] People like it for its low costs and the efficient delivery of consumer goods; people hate it for its ruthless cost cutting, with the impact on warehouse workers, delivery drivers and any business that competes with it, from bookshops to electrical goods stores and many others. But the key thing about its business is not that Amazon aims to move into all markets for goods and services. Amazon’s business is to be the market. Looking for something? Check the price on Amazon!
Exploitation aside, Amazon is an unusual company. It is very big, with a market capitalisation just over $500bn on 25 July, so putting it within the top five corporations on world stock markets. Yet it hardly makes any profit. In the five years from 2012 to 2016, it made a loss in two of those years; in 2015 its net income was a mere $596m, although in 2016 that rose to $2.4bn. While these are big numbers to have in your personal bank account, they are peanuts for a major corporation. The 2016 net income was only around $5 per share, when the average price of a share in that year was $700, giving a return of less than 1%. Even this potential return was negated by the fact that Amazon has never paid any cash dividends on its common stock.[2]
But don’t shed any tears for Amazon’s capitalist investors. Despite the lack of dividend payments, they will have found the price of the shares they held rising rapidly. So they could turn a blind eye to the lack of regular income from the shares and instead marvel at the fact that Amazon’s share price has risen from less than $100 ten years ago, and less than $240 five years ago to over $1000 now. The capital gains from these moves have been dramatic, increasing the wealth of shareholders, if not directly their incomes.
What has made Amazon attractive in stock markets is that its business has also been growing rapidly, recently at some 20-25% per year, with net sales of $136bn in 2016. Still, a big business with little profit now can only remain in favour if the capitalist market’s implicit bet on Amazon’s future turns out to be true. That bet is whether Amazon can gain a stranglehold on the markets it has chosen and be the market to which everyone goes, even just to check prices. In other words, it would be a bet on how far Amazon can own the arena in which millions of companies sell to consumers.

Scaling up

From the outset in 1994-95, Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos had planned that it would become a major commercial enterprise. Its rapid expansion from bookselling into each new market was always seen as a small step to bigger things. Bezos was able to use his previous financial connections and his links into a network of wealthy individuals, including family and friends, to help fund his ambitions. The company had its stock market listing on Nasdaq in 1997. Despite the need for ever more funds from investors and the postponement of any profit at all appearing on these in the early years, he was able to use his model of being an online innovator in consumer markets to gain both market share and investor confidence.
The business logic of Amazon is to scale up, as it is for any major commercial company. This strategy is only avoided if a company aims to become only a niche player, for example in luxury goods. That is far from being Amazon’s perspective, and it depends upon many benefits of scale:
  • Consumers pay for products before Amazon has to pay suppliers, so the rising volume of sales also gives Amazon a rising volume of available revenues.
  • A huge volume of business, even at a low rate of return, can still generate a high amount of profit to fund investments and also to cross-subsidise new areas of business.
  • Once Amazon becomes a major route through which other companies sell their products, then it is able to negotiate lower supply prices, part of which goes into lower consumer prices, building more business volume, and the rest becomes potential profit for Amazon.
  • Economies of scale are also a key feature of its many warehouse ‘fulfilment centres’, in which a surprising amount of technology is used to speed up shipments and reduce costs.
  • High volumes of package deliveries to consumers also enable Amazon to negotiate lower rates with postal service and delivery companies.
  • A large and growing business also boosts Amazon’s brand recognition, both in consumer markets and in the stock market, where its size makes it a major corporation with full access to financial markets, and one in which the big investment funds are encouraged to invest.
Another aspect of Amazon’s business is to cut down on its fixed investment costs. Not surprisingly, being principally an online seller means that it can avoid the costs of setting up physical stores in convenient locations for consumers. Although it has begun recently to move into the latter area, as a major commercial company it held a relatively minuscule footprint of just under 180,000 square feet for office space, fulfilment centres and data centres in the US and other countries in 2016. Only four percent of this space was actually owned, the rest was leased. This gives it some extra flexibility for threatening a local state that it will move if conditions are not favourable, as well as working out as a cheaper option or one where costs are balanced better against the flow of revenues.
Understanding capitalist companies demands attention to how they operate. Especially for companies involved in buying and selling, scale is clearly an important factor for their viability. In Amazon’s case, the rapid growth of the size of its business has also been able to overcome what has been traditionally seen, by Marxists at least, as the real hurdle for capitalist companies: profitability. The dramatic growth of business volume has generated a higher share price for investors in the company, even if they do not benefit from dividend payments, ones that would have been difficult to finance from the relatively small volume of profits available.

Commercial power

A starting point in the huge US market cannot be over-estimated as a key advantage for Amazon. Home to numerous millionaires and billionaires with spare cash to invest, a pool of skilled technicians and a large supply of pliable cheap labour, a relatively uniform system of commercial laws and secure property rights, and a population of over 320 million people with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, it is no wonder that the US is home to most of the commercial behemoths today. Competition may be fierce, but success in this market can be a springboard for gaining commercial power worldwide.
There are many ways in which to measure the relative size of companies, but one simple measure of size is stock market capitalisation: the total market price of the company’s outstanding shares. Although based upon the latest prejudice of capitalist investors, it has the advantage of being a clear vote, though a changeable one, on how a company ranks in Mammon’s beauty contest. Amazon’s claims to capitalistic beauty are dependent upon the image it projects for future market domination. The reason that, at around $500bn, it has more than double the market capitalisation of US retail giant Walmart is that it has a potential commercial power lacking in the latter company that is much more focused on its physical stores.
There are three dimensions of Amazon’s commercial power. One is how Amazon’s US-based business has subsidised its expansion into foreign markets. Another is how it uses its position in the US domestic market and elsewhere to exert pressure on suppliers. The third is how it manages to use its resources to expand into new business areas, the promise from which has so far kept the accumulation machine running.

The American base

Of Amazon’s business in North America, the US accounts for very much the largest chunk. The growth of the US market has been most important for the company and, even in more recent years when it has expanded overseas, the pace of American growth has been fastest. Amazon Web Services (AWS), an important and rapidly growing area of business ‘which offers a broad set of global compute, storage, database, and other service offerings to developers and enterprises’ is difficult to pin down geographically, but it will very likely also have much of its revenue coming from the US. Sixty-six percent of Amazon’s total net sales of $136bn in 2016 came from the US. This share was up from 61% in 2014, showing the continued, even higher, importance of the US base.
Amazon’s operating income (loss), 2014-2016, year to 31 December ($ million) [3]

North America
AWS (Amazon Web Services)
The growth of US (North American) operating income, and especially that of AWS, has outrun increasing losses in Amazon’s international business, as shown in the table. Higher international losses are mainly due to higher operating expenses as Amazon expands its ‘fulfilment centres’, technology infrastructure and marketing in these countries. But that still means Amazon has faced prolonged losses on its international business, financed by its North American (mainly US) operations.
So Amazon’s magic has not yet worked elsewhere, although it is continuing to invest in that prospect. Germany, Japan and the UK, in declining order of importance, are its major foreign markets at present, generating a combined 25% of its total net sales in 2016, with the rest of the non-US world making up another 8%. But Amazon has hardly been able to penetrate another major market, China, where it has less than 1% of e-commerce business there – minuscule compared to the local company, Alibaba, which has nearly 60%.

Power to pressure suppliers and targets

The first companies to feel Amazon’s competitive pressure were book publishers, which had previously operated in a cosy cartel keeping high book prices for consumers. Amazon’s volume of sales enabled it to demand price discounts from them, ones that it could pass on to purchasers given that it had relatively low costs for warehousing and delivery. This squeezed the margins of publishers and also spelled the end of many bookshops, including Borders in 2011. Pressure was also put on those publishers or booksellers offering eBooks. Amazon dominates eBooks, with around three-quarters of the US market, and close to half of other main ones, helped by its development of the Kindle, which became a favoured method of reading eBooks.
One of Jeff Bezos’s famous aphorisms is ‘your margin is my opportunity’. That certainly applied to books. It has also been applied to other products, such as CDs, DVDs and other more specialised goods. Because other offline companies found it difficult to match the scale and efficiency of Amazon’s commercial operation, they sometimes tried to use its system for their sales to consumers. But they often lost out, such as Target and Circuit City in the US, with Circuit City eventually going bust. Others have had mixed fortunes, using it, boycotting it, and then coming back again.
Amazon was also able to undermine the arrangements that some producers had with their offline retailers to maintain a ‘minimum advertised price’ that would help secure both their and their sellers' profit margin. Amazon could use its Marketplace option as a means of delivering products at below these prices, and could also threaten producers that it would put advertisements of lower-priced rival sellers next to any of those showing the producer’s own products.
Amazon’s monopolistic power also extends beyond its purely commercial strength. The best example, one from Brad Stone’s book, The Everything Store, was where Amazon wanted to develop video sales and streaming, and was in competition with Netflix, Google and others. Netflix was strong in the US, but another company, Lovefilm, had a big operation in the UK and Germany, focused on DVD-by-mail and streaming video on demand. In 2008, Amazon did a deal with Lovefilm, exchanging its UK and German DVD rental business and investing cash to become its biggest shareholder, with a stake of around 30%.
Lovefilm later had to get more funds for expansion, but to do that it would need to do a stockmarket IPO (initial public offering). Normally, that is what the shareholders aim for, so they can make a big capital gain on their holding as the company floats on the market and they also have an opportunity to cash in some of their stake. But Amazon had different plans. It had enough influence on the company to prevent Lovefilm from doing the IPO, and this was the leverage that made them sell out to Amazon in 2011, for a low price of some £200m, since their alternative was to stagnate. The monopolist’s bet turned out well, since video streaming – rather than downloads or deliveries – has grown strongly.

Expanding Amazon

Amazon has moved very far from being just a US-based book, CD and DVD warehouse, into many other markets and other countries. Its financial resources have helped it undertake more than 70 mergers and acquisitions since 1998, principally in the US but also in the UK, Germany, Israel and China. It has also expanded into India with its own investment. The largest recent deal was to buy Twitch, a live streaming and gaming platform, for $970m in 2014. But the biggest ever Amazon deal is currently under way and subject to regulatory approval, its purchase of Whole Foods Market Inc, a US-based premium grocery chain, for $13.7bn. If finalised, this deal would add to Amazon’s other forays into groceries, such as Amazon Fresh. It goes against the company’s normal business model, being based in stores on the street, but this is seen as a useful physical footprint from which to pressure other premium retailers.
Such expansion helps Amazon sell more or less everything, presumably creating openings for new business from anyone attracted by just one of its many tentacles. But the data (see the previous table) show that the bulk of its earnings come from its web services arm, AWS, not from the more visible retail business.
AWS was built from the core commercial online business that also depended upon an effective technology infrastructure of software and computer servers. It now has a very strong position in the ‘cloud’, that euphemism for the physical, very much on the ground set of computer facilities, often located in the US, which is accessed via the Internet, and which has become an important source of services for everything from data storage to building applications and website development. AWS reportedly has a million customers, including not just General Electric, Kellogg’s, McDonalds and Netflix in the US, but also BMW, Canon, Nokia, Philips, Siemens, Sony, Tata Motors, the UK’s Guardian and the UK Ministry of Justice.
Recent surveys show Amazon has around 40% of cloud business, well ahead of Microsoft, Google/Alphabet and IBM. Amazon’s business revenue and profits from this source have also grown very rapidly in recent years. As with most other areas of new markets in the global economy, this is one in which only the largest companies, with the best access to finance, can compete. A Wall Street Journal story reported that Amazon, Microsoft and Google/Alphabet alone spent $31.5bn in capital expenditures last year on cloud-related items.

Economics of imperialism

Amazon’s business operations highlight many of the paradoxes of modern imperialism. It provides an efficient delivery of a wide range of goods and services to satisfied customers, but the workers involved in the process are stretched to the limit, and businesses competing with them are liable to come off badly, or may have to do a deal that undermines their viability. It exemplifies how economies of scale and good technology can provide low cost products to the mass of consumers, and how this also undermines previous areas of market privilege (books, music, specialist products, etc) from which sections of the population had formerly benefited. This is the ‘market disruption’ lauded by proponents of capitalism, but is one that inevitably leads to monopolistic power. For now, Amazon is valued by the stock market as a company that is able to use its huge scale and scope of business to eventually produce the required profits. Amazon does not necessarily want to destroy the competition, but to absorb other companies into the market system it has built.

Tony Norfield, 27 July 2017

[1] This is the third of my analyses of major corporations highlighting key features of capitalism today. Previous articles were on Apple and Alibaba.
[2] At end-2016, Amazon had outstanding 497m shares in common stock.
[3] Business accounting definitions can be tricky to follow, but note that Operating income is defined as Net sales minus Operating expenses minus Stock-based compensation and other items. Also, Net income is defined as Operating income minus Non-operating income/expense, Provision for income taxes and Equity-method investment activity, net of tax. So the total net income in 2016 of $2.4bn, mentioned earlier in the article, is much lower than the operating income of $4,186m shown in the table.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Capital.150: Marx's Capital Today

Here are details of the two-day conference in September, with the relevant links:

Location: London WC1E 7HY, Malet Street, Student Central (formerly ULU)
Conference attendance fee £10.
Date/time: Tuesday 19 September (11am-8pm) – Wednesday 20 September 2017 (10am – 4pm)
Registration URL: http://bit.ly/2uhukxO
King's College website details here

Tuesday 19 September

Crises (11am–1:30pm)
  • Guglielmo Carchedi – The old is dying and the new cannot be born: the exhaustion of the present phase of capitalist development
  • Rolf Hecker – Marx’s critique of capitalism during the 1857 crisis
  • Paul Mattick jr – Crisis: abstraction and reality
  • Ben Fine, discussant
Imperialism (2:30pm–5pm)
  • Marcelo Dias Carcanholo, Dependency, super-exploitation of labour and crisis – an interpretation from Marx
  • Tony Norfield, Das Kapital, finance, and imperialism
  • Raquel Varela (& Marcelo Badaró Mattos), Primitive accumulation in Das Kapital
Mapping the terrain of anti-capitalist struggles (6pm–8pm)
  • David Harvey, Perspectives from the Circulation of Capital
  • Michael Roberts, Perspectives from the Accumulation of Capital

Wednesday 20 September

The future of capital (10am–12:30noon)
  • Alex Callinicos, Continuing Capital in the face of the present
  • Hannah Holleman, Capital and socio-ecological revolution
  • Fred Moseley, The rate of profit and the future of US capitalism
  • Eduardo Motta Albuquerque, Technological revolutions and changes in the centre-periphery divide
Labour and beyond (1:30-4pm)
  • Tithi Bhattacharya, Social reproduction theory: conceiving capital as social relation
  • Michael Heinrich, Communism in Marx's Capital
  • Lucia Pradella, Marx’s Capital and the power of labour: imperialism, migration, and workers’ struggles
  • Beverly Silver, Marx’s general law of capital accumulation and the making and remaking of the global reserve army of labour

Friday, 7 July 2017

Eric Hobsbawm’s 20th Century Self-Censorship

Eric Hobsbawm was a famous Marxist historian and member of the Communist Party who died in 2012. Recently I read his autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life, first published in 2002. He overcame Cold War-inspired barriers to his early career and contributed much to our understanding, so his story looked to be fascinating. Instead, it was rather dull. What struck me as most interesting was interesting for bad reasons.
Not to be accused of quoting out of context, I will cite a relatively long passage of text. It occurs in Chapter 17, ‘Among the Historians’, on pages 291-292, and discusses post-1945 developments in historiography:
“Explosive subjects such as Russia, especially in the twentieth century, and the history of communism were, of course, ideological battlefields, although the debate was one-sided, since the orthodoxies enforced in the Soviet Empire crippled both their historians and their interpretations. If one was a serious Soviet historian, the best thing was to stick to the history of the ancient East and the Middle Ages, although it was touching to see how modernists rushed to say (within the constraints of the permissible) what they knew to be true every time the window seemed to be slightly opened – as in 1956 and in the early 1960s. I myself became essentially a nineteenth century historian, because I soon discovered – actually in the course of an aborted project of the CP [Communist Party] Historians’ Group to write a history of the British labour movement – that, given the strong official Party and Soviet views about the twentieth century, one could not write about anything later than 1917 without the likelihood of being denounced as a political heretic. I was ready to write about the century in a political or public capacity, but not as a professional historian. My history finished at Sarajevo in June 1914.
“Luckily, I abstained from twentieth century history until it was almost over, but it went against the grain of the historiographical movement, which was away from the remote past and towards the present. Until well past 1945 ‘real’ history finished, at the latest, in 1914 after which the immediate past reverted to chronicle, journalism or contemporary commentary. Indeed, since the archives remained closed in Britain for several decades, it simply could not be written to the standards of traditional historians. In most countries, even the nineteenth century had not yet been fully absorbed by academic history departments, except by the economic historians. The great historiographical debates had not been about it, although political radicalism, not least in the form of a new passion for labour history, now drew attention to an era which had been seriously neglected by historians in a number of countries. Even in Britain, until the 1960s politicians, serious journalists, relatives and essayists wrote the biographies of the great figures of Victorian Britain, not the professors. Nevertheless, the gap between past and present narrowed, perhaps because so many professional historians had actually been involved in the Second World War.”
While these are interesting biographical details, they are also an apologia for a lack of intellectual integrity. Hobsbawm starts out by noting the key point, Soviet censorship of dissident political views. Then he notes his capitulation, but tries to support his stance by arguing that, because ‘the archives remained closed’, he could not have analysed the post-1914 period until the late twentieth century ‘to the standards of traditional historians’. Ah yes, those ever so incisive and objective traditional historians!
Notably, his Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, was first published in 1994. In its Preface, he makes the same basic point as in the later autobiography, distinguishing his ‘professional historian’ scholarly position from those cases where he wrote about post-1914 events in ‘other capacities’. There he also says: ‘I think it is now possible to see the Short Twentieth Century from 1914 to the end of the Soviet era in some historical perspective’ (p ix). This is the telling point: he could now exercise his historical scholarship on the post-1914 period because of the end of the Soviet Union in 1991!
In one book, Revolutionaries, published much earlier in 1973, Hobsbawm does cover post-1914 developments in a number of ‘contemporary essays’. But there his Preface makes the point that ‘speaking as a historian, these are not fields in which I would claim professional expertise’. His essays were written in a general style, and one that would be safe from political censure.
Hobsbawm’s argument about ‘closed archives’ meaning that historians cannot analyse a historical period to a sufficient standard is just ridiculous, especially so for the UK. Yes, more information of all kinds may well surface in future, and possibly it will provide a different perspective. But neither that future information, nor the present sources to analyse, need necessarily be the government’s officially released archives. Nor is one only limited to ‘chronicle, journalism or contemporary commentary’. Let me take one example from the supposedly barren, pre-1991 days of insufficient material.
In 1975, Partha Sarathi Gupta published a book on the labour movement in Britain, a topic close to Hobsbawm’s favoured subject area. Gupta was a professor of British and European history at Delhi University and president of the Indian History Congress, who died in 1999. His book, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 1914-64, was published by Macmillan as part of the Cambridge Commonwealth Series. So he was well within the realm of the ‘traditional historians’. Gupta’s focus was not on the British working class as such, although he makes a number of pertinent comments on its political outlook. Instead, the book focuses on ‘the attitudes and policies of the British Labour Movement towards the British Empire and Commonwealth’.
Gupta recognises a limitation due to British government records after 1945 being closed at the time he was writing. However, he still makes a thorough analysis of the available private papers and public documents. The latter for the post-1945 period include House of Commons debates, statements by policymakers and advisers, and records from the conferences of the major political parties. Having read Gupta’s book only a few years ago, I was not aware of anything that has since emerged from the ‘archives’ to question his basic conclusions written some three decades earlier. My citation from his work is in an article on Labour’s colonial policy, on this blog.
I do not blame the late Eric Hobsbawm for the weak analysis of (British) imperialism after 1914. Yet it is a pity that someone of his abilities could not have applied himself more effectively, and much sooner, to this subject.

Tony Norfield, 7 July 2017