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Bernard Hickey: Capitalism - top heavy and toppling

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The last fortnight's dramas on financial markets is really just the sound of investors waking up to some fundamental problems in the global economy.

It is now dawning on the world's biggest fund managers that there is too much debt weighing on households and governments in the developed world.

More importantly, they realise there will not be enough economic growth and income to repay those debts over the next 10-20 years.

That means governments might default or print money to repay the debt. Bank shareholders and bondholders may have to realise enormous losses or face high inflation. Growth will be much slower and for longer than expected. Slower economic growth might mean lower corporate profits and lower share prices.

After nearly four years of urgent fixes, emergency measures, bank bail-outs, debt shuffles and government pump priming without any real improvement, there is a dawning realisation that something is broken at the heart of the global economy.

It's surprising to hear where some of these doubts about the future of capitalism are coming from. Some of the world's biggest capitalists are now asking some fundamental questions about whether the type of globalised, free market-driven capitalism we have now is sustainable.

Bill Gross is the world's most important fund manager. He runs Pimco, which is the world's biggest bond fund with US$1.3 trillion ($1.5 trillion) in assets.

He commented this week that the hollowing out of the United States' free-spending middle classes was at the heart of the problem. He pointed out that for several decades the engine room of the US consumer economy had been starved of income as high-paid manufacturing jobs were exported to lower-paid factories in China and technological innovation replaced workers with machines.

For 20 years, the middle classes had made up the gap by borrowing more and governments had also borrowed more in recent years to supplement their incomes.

Meanwhile, the extra profits made because of these lower labour costs were shuffled up to those on higher incomes and increasingly to an ageing group of capital owners. Increasingly, wealth and income is being concentrated in the hands of those who can't or won't spend it. This is starving the consumer economy of oxygen it needs to keep growing.

Hedge-fund manager Jeremy Grantham also picked up on this structural problem this week.

He points out that the share of American income that goes to the top 1 per cent of earners has doubled to 20 per cent in the last 30 years. That richest group are now hoarding that cash in the safest things they can get their hands on. Increasingly that means gold and, ironically, US Treasury bonds, despite their credit-rating downgrade this month.

Grantham has put his finger on the core problem with unfettered capitalism. It works to shift wealth to the richest but can eventually topple over under the weight of itself when that wealth is hoarded and not reinvested or spent.

Grantham should know about how the rich work. His firm manages more than US$100 billion worth of funds and doesn't accept any amounts less than US$10m. Yet even he is saying it is now time to reset capitalism.

He wants to see mortgage debt for the US' overburdened middle classes forgiven. That means forcing bank shareholders and bondholders to take big losses. He wants to see tax rates on the wealthiest rise back to the levels seen in the 1950s and 60s.

He is harking back to a time when America's middle classes powered the growth of the world's biggest economy. They earned enough to buy the consumer goods their factories produced. Even Henry Ford, one of the most aggressive capitalists of the 20th century, increased his workers' wages so they could buy his Model T cars.

In New Zealand, the share of income going to the top 1 per cent also more than doubled after the mid-1980s to nearly 14 per cent of income by the early 2000s. Last year's tax cuts will have worsened that.

The trickle-down theory will not be enough to save capitalism. Even the biggest capitalists are realising that now.

- Herald on Sunday

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