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Michael Hudson: Thatcher deregulated banking and made London the center of speculation and financialization

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher has passed away, and of course around the world people are debating her legacy. Henry Kissinger said she was a great defender of Western interests. She’s known as the woman who stood her ground, the Iron Lady. I guess the question is: stood her ground for whom?

Now joining us to give his take on Margaret Thatcher is Michael Hudson. He’s a former Wall Street financial analyst. He’s a distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His latest books are The Bubble and Beyond and Finance Capitalism and Its Discontents.

Thanks very much for joining us, Michael.

MICHAEL HUDSON, RESEARCH PROF., UMKC: Thank you very much, Paul.

JAY: So what’s your take on Margaret Thatcher’s place in history?

HUDSON: Well, her legacy wasn’t what she started out to do. She’s obviously most famous for privatizing British industry, starting with British telephone and introducing what she called labor capitalism, a term that she took over from General Pinochet in Chile.

And at the time she became prime minister, most of the conservative party was against privatization. This was not part of the program she ran on. When I was in England, I saw the proposals by various Conservative Party members that were put to her, and it took about half a year for her to be convinced that privatization would actually help raise the working class into the middle class and help cut costs and industrialize England. And of course what it did was exactly the opposite. So she’s going to go down in history as internal contradiction par excellence.

What she was convinced to do was essentially to break the labor unions in England, which were centered on the large public utilities. The largest investment in England and every other country were in the public utilities, the roads, the real estate, the bus lines, railroad system, the communications system. These were unionized. And she set out ostensibly with a fairly simple objective. She wanted to break the labor unions, thinking then that would help the working class evolve into the middle class. And she said, if we achieve decentralized planning, then the magic of the marketplace is going to raise productivity.

Well, the result of what she did was to centralize planning in the hands of the City of London, its financial district, the biggest giveaway in England history. She presided over the giveaways in England that were the counterpart of the great American railway giveaways after the Civil War in this country. She started by privatizing British telephone, then water, then the bus lines, all on credit.

And she thought: how am I going to get a population of voters to actually support privatization when it’s against what most voters believed and against what her own party believed? Within her own party, Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister, said, wait a minute, if you–privatization is selling off the family silver. And she thought, well, we haven’t got the North Sea oil online yet. We’ve got to balance the British budget. So, in other words, she was the prototype of Barack Obama. But more accurately, she was England’s Boris Yeltsin.

She said, let’s sell off the private domain and get the government balanced budget. The private buyers are going to raise productivity, and prices are going to go down in keeping with productivity.

So, for instance, one thing she did that made people famous [sic], she said, it’s possible for the working class to rise into the upper class. So one person, working-class person was Mrs Gloag’s–a bus driver, Mr. Gloag. And for about GBP 12,000, he bought the right to a bus line that became Stagecoach. And he bought the bus line for very little because bus lines weren’t making very much money, but it did have the bus terminal right in the center of London. So as soon as they bought the bus line, for just a cash outlay of GBP 12,000, they sold the bus terminal, you know, for a huge amount of money. They bought up all the other bus lines, were accused of monopolizing, creating monopolies over the transport system, raised the prices and the cost of British transportation, and Mrs. Gloag became, next to the Queen of England, the richest lady in England, all by financializing and privatizing the bus line. Unfortunately for most of Londoners, they now had to go outside the city to catch a bus, the schedules were all scaled back, and you had an enormous decline in public service that was all counted by Mrs. Thatcher as increased productivity because you needed so much less labor to actually do things. The same thing [crosstalk] water.

JAY: Michael, Margaret Thatcher’s contemporary with Reagan and is part of this whole development of neoliberalist policies, as the term’s been coined. But it’s particularly the time of the coming to even more power–I shouldn’t say the coming to power, but the coming to even more power of finance. What’s the role of Thatcher in this?

HUDSON: Well, what she did was turn over the largest organizations in England, like the water, the gas, to the investment bankers to underwrite. Now, normally the investment bankers in England would underwrite a new company. They’d charge 3 percent of the amount of money they made, and the 3 percent was for judging what the market would be, doing research on the company. But in this case the market was already there. People knew what British Telecom was. They knew what British Gas was. And yet Margaret Thatcher went along with giving the bank underwriters 3 percent of an enormous deal. And what she did was say, okay, we want you to vastly underprice British telephone by so much that people who buy at a low price can quadruple their money in a single week, and we’re going to make it appear as if small investors can quadruple their money by buying up–by carving up Britain’s public domain.

So, obviously, underwriters consider–made a killing by issuing the stock at a very low price and then selling to the very rich investors in England with a little bit of money taken by these small customers. And the wealthy financial investors made a killing on buying the biggest industries in England, the public domain, the public utilities–water, gas, railroads–all at literally pennies on the pound, and then made a killing as the price rose when they were privatized without monopoly price controls, without any regulation. There–a market in train wrecks quickly developed in England as a result.

The end product of this privatization was, for instance, privatizating real estate by making it possible for council houses, people essentially on what in America would be welfare, council houses–by giving this to the occupants, she would take what became, let’s say–a GBP 20,000 apartment when she became prime minister now sells for GBP 350,000. There everybody made a killing.

But when you say everybody was able to make a killing, this means that Londoners can no longer afford–people who work in London can no longer afford to live in London. If you worked in London today, so much of London has been bought up by foreign money launderers and kleptocrats and the foreigners that you have to live way outside London, because by privatizing housing, without taxing the gains, without having any windfall [incompr.] tax, all of a sudden Mrs. Thatcher created a gigantic real estate market for the banks of England. And, of course, they weren’t regulated either, and the largest real estate mortgage banks went bankrupt after 2008, the northern company [‘EsbOdz], the Bank of Scotland. The whole of England became a deregulated free-for-all [crosstalk] markets.

JAY: Well, I was about to ask you about that. There’s been–recently in the press has been filled with these results of this collaboration of journalists around the world naming names of people in tax havens. But when you look at the list of tax havens, quite a few of them are under British authority. What has Thatcher got to do with that?

HUDSON: Well, that was part of the deregulating. What happened was by the late 1970s, English industry was sort of on the rocks. It wasn’t competitive anymore. And the British Labour Party under Prime Minister Callaghan tried to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund to rebuild industry, and he was told by U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Bill Simon, the IMF doesn’t lend to rebuild industry. We lend money to the financial sector to pay off bondholders. And your comparative advantage, England, has always been really in the financial sector, not industry.

So Margaret Thatcher said, okay, the way to build up the financial sector is a free market. We’re not going to regulate the banks. So she became sort of the progenitor of what ultimately flowered as Gordon Brown’s notorious light touch, deregulated the banks.

And because they were deregulated and untaxed, all of a sudden you had the Russian kleptocrats living in London. I think there are more Russian billionaires in England now than there are in Russia. Somebody quipped that the other day. And you had the African dictators. You have dictators and drug dealers and kleptocrats all over the world moving their money into London. And in fact, if you notice in America, when AIG went bankrupt, it was because of its London office bankrupting it. It was because the London office was where all of the unregulated derivatives trades were and the others.

So by deregulating British banking, Margaret Thatcher led a race to the bottom of international finance. She said, we’re going to be the ground floor, we’re going to be the absolute bottom, deregulated, everything goes. She opened the doors for what became really the criminalized financial system that ended up wrecking AIG in America, pushing, if you noticed, the Wall Street firms like Lehman Brothers. It was all their London office where all of the real fraud and the gambling occurred.

She was the one who opened the floodgates, saying, we don’t need labor. We need–industry, we don’t need industry, because industry employs labor. If you’re going to put the class war in business, the banks don’t need industry. The banks don’t need labor. And she created what has become vast unemployment. And in the name of creating a more equal society of upward mobility, she made England more unequal than it’s been in a century.

JAY: What were some examples of that?

HUDSON: Well, the degree to which England has become polarized between the very, very rich City of London (the financial district) and the average working class in Manchester, Birmingham, and the other cities. England now has a rust belt just like America has a rust belt. In Manchester, the industrial buildings have basically been turned into gentrified apartment buildings. For instance, the old print publishing building became a luxury apartment building.

And essentially what Thatcher said was, well, finance and real estate can create a lot of wealth without any industrial base and without an employment base. So now you have a very large unemployment in England. You have unemployment spreading. And England’s falling into austerity. So all of a sudden what it thought was going to be an efficient, streamlined, low-priced economy has become the highest-priced economy in the world. Its retail sales–if you go to a food store, the food in England costs much more than anywhere else in Europe. The telephones cost more. Every kind of public utility that was privatized costs much more, the railroads and the buses.

JAY: I see in an article you wrote, Michael, you give the statistic that when she came to power, one in seven children were living in poverty; when she left power, it was one in three.

HUDSON: Yup. She’s doubled the poverty rate there. And yet the voters approved this at the time. Her genius was in–able to convince the voters that even though they were losing their jobs and getting ground down in poverty, in effect her slogan was, sorry you’ve lost your job. I hope you made a killing in the house and in the stock market. So she convinced the English public to make a tradeoff. They could make a killing by buying a British telephone and watch the price raise as their telephone rates were all raised. They made a killing, as they could sell their house for twice what they paid for. And then the new buyers multiplied it ten times more over that. So that made a short-term gain and ended up essentially being excluded from the privatized free-enterprise economy that she created.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Michael.

HUDSON: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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