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Signs of the Times for Mon, 10 Apr 2006

Signs Editorial:

Donald Hunt Signs of the Times April 10, 2006

Gold closed at 592.70 dollars an ounce on Friday, after having broken the $600 mark earlier in the day, representing an increase of 1.6% from last week's $583.50 price. The dollar closed at 0.8269 euros on Friday, up 0.2% from 0.8252 at the end of the previous week. That put the euro at 1.2093 dollars, compared to 1.2118 the week before. Gold in euros, then would be 490.12 per ounce, up 1.8% from 481.52. Oil closed at 67.38 dollars a barrel Friday, up 1.6% from $66.35. Oil in euros would be 55.72 euros a barrel, up 1.8% from 54.75 the week before. The gold/oil ratio closed at 8.80, up 0.1% from 8.79 at the end of the previous week. In the U.S. stock market, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 11,120.04 on Friday, down 0.1% from 11,109.32 for the week. The NASDAQ closed at 2,339.02, virtually unchanged from 2,339.79. In U.S. interest rates, the yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note closed at 4.98%, up 13 basis points from 4.85 the week before.
Last week we looked at the high rate of corporate profits realized lately.  With stocks strong, global growth rates high, and profits high, why does the economy feel so bad for most people?  The following article contains some clues:

Profits surge to 40-year high
When will corporations spend some of their hoard?

By Rex Nutting, MarketWatch
Mar 30, 2006

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- U.S. corporate profits have increased 21.3% in the past year and now account for the largest share of national income in 40 years, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

Strong productivity gains and subdued wage growth boosted before-tax profits to 11.6% of national income in the fourth quarter of 2005, the biggest share since the summer of 1966. See full story.

For all of 2005, before-tax profits totaled $1.35 trillion, up from $1.16 trillion in 2004 and just $767 billion in 2001.

Meanwhile, the share of national income going to wage and salary workers has fallen to 56.9%. Except for a brief period in 1997, that's the lowest share for labor income since 1966.

"It's a big puzzle," said Josh Bivens, an economist for the Economic Policy Institute. "If this is a knowledge economy, how come the brains aren't being compensated? Instead, the owners of physical capital are getting the rewards."
Despite the flood of cash coming in the door, corporations are investing comparatively little in expanding their operations. Capital spending has been below average, especially considering the strength of the economy, the level of profits and the special tax breaks given to boost investment.

In the fourth quarter, business fixed investment increased just 4.5%. In the past year, investment has risen 6.8%. The growth rate has been falling for the past four quarters.

Some economists are counting on the corporate sector to pick up their investments in the coming year, to replace the economic stimulus that will be lost as the housing market cools.

Profits have been so high because almost all of the benefits from productivity improvements are flowing to the owners of capital rather than to the workers.

While profits are up 21.3% in the past year, labor compensation is up just 5.5%. After adjusting for inflation, population growth and taxes, real disposable per capita incomes are up just 0.5% in the past year.

The economy is good for the very top of the system, and it is bad for the rest of us and likely to get worse. Neoliberal economics has a hard time understanding exploitation. See this, for example from the New York Times:

The Economics of Henry Ford May Be Passé

David Leonhardt
April 5, 2006

HENRY FORD was 50 years old, and not all that different from a lot of other successful businessmen, when he summoned the Detroit press corps to his company's offices on Jan. 5, 1914. What he did that day made him a household name.

Mr. Ford announced that he was doubling the pay of thousands of his employees, to at least $5 a day. With his company selling Model T's as fast as it could make them, his workers deserved to share in the profits, he said.

His rivals were horrified. The Wall Street Journal accused him of injecting "Biblical or spiritual principles into a field where they do not belong." The New York Times correspondent who traveled to Detroit to interview him that week asked him if he was a socialist.

But the public loved it. The country was then suffering a deep recession, and the Ford news seemed to offer hope. Within 24 hours, 10,000 men were lined up outside the Ford employment office in Michigan. The following year, Mr. Ford was mentioned as a future presidential contender.

The mythology around this story holds that Mr. Ford wanted to pay his workers enough so they could afford the products they were making.

In fact, that wasn't his original reasoning. But others made the point, and, in time, it became part of Mr. Ford's rationale as well. The idea became a linchpin in an industrial philosophy known as Fordism.

More production could lead to better wages, which in turn would lead to more spending by the public, yet more production and eventually even higher wages.
"One's own employees ought to be one's own best customers," Mr. Ford said years later. "Paying high wages," he concluded, "is behind the prosperity of this country."

This turned into a pillar of 20th-century economic wisdom. It's time to ask, though, whether Mr. Ford's big idea is as ill suited to this century as his car company seems to be.

By any reasonable standard, the last few years have been bad ones for most people's paychecks. The average hourly wage of rank-and-file workers - a group that makes up 80 percent of the work force - is slightly lower than it was four years ago, once inflation is taken into account. That's right: Most Americans have taken a pay cut since 2002.

But you would never know it by looking at the headline numbers on economic growth. From the standpoint of the broad national economy - the value of the goods and services the country produces - the last few years have been stellar. Despite two wars, soaring oil prices and business scandals, the economy has been growing more than 3 percent a year.

Henry Ford would have no idea what to make of this.

What was so comforting about Fordism was that it suggested that the economy operated on a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle. Only when the middle class did well could the country do well. And as the country grew ever richer, so would the middle class.

In the last few years, however, the economy has kept growing in large part because high-income families - the top 20 percent, roughly - have done so well and have been such devoted spenders. Globalization and new technology have helped many white-collar workers make more money, even as those same changes have closed factories and depressed wages for others. Stock portfolios and houses on the coasts, meanwhile, are much more valuable than they once were, making their owners more willing to spend.

In fact, well-off families, not cash-short ones, have been the ones increasing their borrowing and cutting their savings the most in recent years, according to the Federal Reserve. In 1992, the top fifth of households, as ranked by income, accounted for 42 percent of consumer spending. By 2000, the share had grown to almost 46 percent, and it is probably not much different today. That may sound like a small change, but it's an enormous amount of money, a shift of $300 billion a year in spending from the poor and middle class to the affluent.

In Michigan, Ford and General Motors have been cutting thousands of jobs, creating the country's sickest local economy and hurting even well-to-do suburbs. Yet the Suburban Collection, a car dealership north of Detroit, sold 90 Bentleys last year, up from 70 in 2004. David Butler, a manager there, said he expected to sell more than 100 Bentleys this year. The car costs at least $180,000. The dealership also opened a Lamborghini showroom in January. It is true that Rolls-Royces aren't selling very well, but the main reason seems to be that Mr. Butler's customers don't feel comfortable being seen in a $300,000 car when the state is suffering so badly. "It's not that they can't afford it," he said. "It's because of the image it would give."

Wages are likely to rise slightly in 2006, but stagnation seems to be the norm over the long term. Except for a span of a few years in the late 1990's, the hourly pay of most workers has done no better than inflation for the last 30 years. Even some Democrats, who have long embraced Fordism, are coming to the conclusion that Mr. Ford's reassuring cycle is not the only thing that can keep the American economy humming. "You don't need an equitable distribution to have a sustainable recovery," said Jared Bernstein, a liberal economist in Washington.

Politically, though, I am not so sure that the current trends are sustainable. Before the 1990's boom lifted wages, stagnating pay had helped cause a series of upheavals: Bill Clinton's election, the Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan phenomena, the Republican takeover of Congress. Today, with the boom fading from memory, protectionism is on the rise, and President Bush's approval ratings are miserable.

So it seems as if now would be a good time to start talking about what to do. There has never been a shortage of ideas: helping more teenagers to finish college, training middle-age workers to switch careers, embarking on public projects like better highways and high-speed trains. Or we could pretend it's still 1914.

I guess wanting all workers to be paid well means we think we are in 1914.  To be 21st century, according to the New York Times, means to acquiesce in an economy based on a few rich families. The rest of us will be their servants. The logic is strange: because wages haven't been rising in the United States in the last thirty years, then there is nothing we can do about it, it is a fact of nature, and we should only try to re-train people to do jobs that are being offshored anyway.

In order to eliminate any successful model of high pay, strong economies, the globalizers, in coordinated action, are striking at the heart of social democratic Europe, going after French and German workers, perhaps the best-off in the world.  The fact that large majorities in both countries favor maintaining social insurance and worker protection matters to ruling groups only to the extent that such support requires those directing change to change tactics:

CPE à la Merkel: Job protection laws to be gutted in Germany

By Dietmar Henning
4 April 2006

With millions of people in France taking to the streets against attacks on the job security of young people, the Grand Coalition government in Germany is quietly attempting to push through parliament its own version of the CPE (First Job Contract), with provisions that go far beyond those in France.

The coalition pact which the government parties - the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its sister organisation the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) - signed last year when they took office specified the extension of the current probationary period for new employees from six months to two years.

During the probationary period, employers can dismiss workers with two weeks' notice, without cause. The right to compensation or redundancy payments is more or less excluded. If the employment contract does not specify a probationary period, the general dismissal period (i.e., four weeks) applies.

At the heart of the French CPE is the establishment of a two-year probationary period during which employees 26 years of age and younger can be terminated without cause. The regulation specified in the German coalition pact is essentially the same, except that it would apply not only to young workers, but to all new hires, regardless of age.

The fact that no protests have occurred against this measure, and that most people are not even aware of its existence, is to be attributed to the German trade unions. They tacitly supported the creation of the Grand Coalition and are doing everything they can to prevent a mobilisation against it.

At the same time, the events in France are leaving their mark on Germany. On the one hand, the tough stance taken by the French government has encouraged the German employer associations and elements within the CDU and CSU to push for a more rapid dismantling of the social security system and the implementation of "reforms" outlined in the coalition pact. The SPD, on the other hand, is growing nervous over the prospect of mass resistance developing in Germany.

Speaking of Germany, Der Spiegel published an interview with Joseph Stiglitz about the true economic cost of the Iraq War:

Interview with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz
"The War Is Bad for the Economy"

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, 63, discusses the true $1 trillion cost of the Iraq conflict, its impact on the oil market and the questions of whether the West can afford to impose sanctions on Iran. 

SPIEGEL: Professor Stiglitz, at the beginning of the Iraq war, the United States administration was hoping to almost break even in terms of the costs ...
Stiglitz: ... they truly believed the Iraqi people could use their oil revenues to pay for reconstruction.

SPIEGEL: And now you are estimating the cost of war at levels between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. How do you explain this difference?

Stiglitz: First, the war was much more difficult than President Bush and his government expected. They thought they were going to walk in, everybody would say thank you, and they would set up a democratic government and leave. Now that this war is lasting so much longer, they constantly have to adapt their budget. It rose from $50 billion to $250 billion. Today, the Congressional Budget Office talks about $500 billion or more for this adventure.

SPIEGEL: That's still by far lower than your own calculations.

Stiglitz: The reported numbers do not even include the full budgetary costs to the government. And the budgetary costs are but a fraction of the costs to the economy as a whole. And compare this to Gulf War number one, where America almost made a profit!

SPIEGEL: Because Germany paid for it?

Stiglitz: Because Germans paid, because everybody paid. We got our allies to pay full price for used equipment, and we got to refurbish our military. This time, most of the other countries were not willing to do so again.

SPIEGEL: Did Bush just miscalculate, or was he misleading the public about the true costs of war?

Stiglitz: I think it was both. He wanted to believe it was not going to be expensive, he wanted to believe it would be easy. But there's also enormous evidence now that information channels into the White House were distorted. Bush wanted only certain information, and that's mostly what they supplied him with. Larry Lindsey ...

SPIEGEL: ... the White House's former top economic adviser ...

Stiglitz: ... gave -- back in 2002 -- a number of up to $200 billion. I think that was the most accurate inside information at the time. He was dismissed. They didn't want to hear it.

SPIEGEL: In the US, the financial costs of war are seldom discussed. It used to be considered a sacrifice to achieve common goals. Why is it different today?

Stiglitz: This is not like a world war where you're attacked. We were attacked in Pearl Harbor, we had to respond. This time, we had a choice, we had to decide how and who we are going to attack ...

SPIEGEL: ... and if you can afford it.

Stiglitz: Well, we can afford it, that's not the issue. The issue is: $1 trillion or $2 trillion is a lot of money. If our objective is to have stability in the Middle East, secure oil, or extend democracy, you can do a lot of democracy buying for this sum. To put it in context: The whole world spends $50 billion a year on foreign aid. So what we're talking about is multiplying the foreign aid budget 20-fold. Wouldn't you say this could do more for peace and stability and security?

SPIEGEL: Bush would argue it's worth spending that much to decrease the probability of a major terrorist attack on the US.

Stiglitz: Nobody takes that seriously. Instead, most people think the Iraq war has increased the probability of an attack. However, it's difficult to put this aspect into financial terms.

SPIEGEL: How did you calculate the costs of the war?

Stiglitz: The official figures are only the tip of an enormous iceberg. For instance, one of the costs of the war is that soldiers today get very seriously injured but stay alive, and we can keep them alive but at an enormous price.

SPIEGEL: Is this the biggest item in your calculations?

Stiglitz: It's very important. The Bush administration has been doing everything it can to hide the huge number of returning veterans who are severely wounded -- 17,000 so far including roughly 20 percent with serious brain and head injuries. Even the estimate of $500 billion ignores the lifetime disability and healthcare costs that taxpayers will have to spend for years to come. And the administration isn't even generous with veterans, widows and their kids.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean?

Stiglitz: If you're injured in an automobile accident, and you sue the driver, you get much more for your injury than if you're fighting for your country. There's a double standard here. If you happen to put your life at risk fighting for your country, you get a little. If you walk across the street and get injured, you get a lot more. Similarly, payments for a dead soldier amount to only $500,000, which is far less than standard estimates of the lifetime economic cost of a death. This statistical value of a life in the US amounts to circa $6.5 million.

SPIEGEL: How much will a severely brain-damaged soldier cost the US government?

Stiglitz: My moderate estimate is about $4 million. For this group alone there will be a total cost of $35 billion that nobody is talking about. But look at the broader picture: The Veterans Administration originally projected that roughly 23,000 veterans returning from Iraq would seek medical care last year. But in June 2005, it revised this number to an estimated 103,000. No wonder the Veterans Administration had to appeal Congress for emergency funding of $1.5 billion last year.

SPIEGEL: If this is a $1 trillion war, why couldn't the US provide its soldiers with safer body armor and better protected vehicles?

STIGLITZ: Obviously, the US can afford to pay for body armor. Rumsfeld, our Secretary of Defense, said you have to fight with the armor you have, but that's unconscionable. The military is focusing only on the short run costs. If they don't provide appropriate body armor, they save some money today, but the healthcare cost is going to be the future for some other president down the line. I view that as both fiscally and morally irresponsible.

SPIEGEL: This war could have been both safer for the troops and cheaper for the country?

Stiglitz: Exactly.

SPIEGEL: Is war no longer affordable even for countries as rich as the United States?

Stiglitz: You have to remember we are an economy of $13 trillion a year. The issue is not whether you can afford it but whether this is the way you want to spend your money. In using the limited resources that we have for fighting this war, we have less resources to do other things. You saw on your TV what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The Reserves or National Guard are usually the people we use for those national emergencies. They weren't here, they were over in Iraq, and so we were less protected.

SPIEGEL: Before the invasion of Iraq, the US administration said the best way to keep oil prices in check is a short and successful war. A barrel was at $25 at that time, and now it's over $60. What of this increase is due to Iraq?

Stiglitz: In our analysis about the cost of war, we only assumed a modest $5 to $10 caused by the war. We wanted to keep our study conservative, so no one would dispute our numbers, and no one did. But I believe that's a vast underestimation of the true cost.

SPIEGEL: But why? China and India are increasing their demand, real global growth has been going on. This is driving the prices.

Stiglitz: When demand rises so does supply -- that's how markets usually work. Now we're seeing that demand for oil is rising but we're not getting a commensurate increase in supply. And there's a simple answer, it's Iraq. But it's not just because it production has been down.

SPIEGEL: Why else?

Stiglitz: The Middle East is the lowest cost producer in the world. They can produce oil for $10, $15 or $20 a barrel. Now we have the technology to produce oil elsewhere for $35 to $45. But who wants to develop fields or invest in new technologies elsewhere if they know that in five years' time, the Middle East may be supplying oil at previous prices?

SPIEGEL: In other words, were peace and stability re-established in the Middle East, the oil price would be back to maybe $25, despite the huge global hunger for energy?

Stiglitz: Yes. By the way that's the price level oil traders were speculating on in futures trading before the outbreak of war.

SPIEGEL: There should be huge economic pressure on Bush to end this conflict.

Stiglitz: The only people benefiting in this war are Bush's friends in the oil industry. He has done the American economy and the global economy an enormous disfavor, but his Texan friends couldn't be happier. The price of oil is up, and they make money when the price of oil goes up. Their profits are at record levels.

SPIEGEL: You don't like this president very much.

Stiglitz: Oh, it's nothing personal. It's all about his politics.

SPIEGEL: There is an old saying: War is good for the economy.

Stiglitz: Listen, World War II was really unusual, because America was in the Great Depression before. So the war did help the US economy to get securely out of this decline. This time, the war is bad for the economy in both the short and long run. We could have spent trillions in research or education instead. This would have led to future productivity increases.

The liberal wing of the neoliberal movement always seems puzzled by events.  It stems the fact that they don't understand malevolent exploitation.  Stiglitz can detail the Bush administration's mistakes and profligacy with great effectiveness without understanding the deeper reasons, reasons may mean that seemingly stupid moves may actually have been shrewd ones.  Here is Salon's Andrew Leonard on Stiglitz and Robert Reich, both liberal/left globalizers.  Notice how they assume that those setting economic and trade policy have the best interests of their constituents at heart, when in fact they don't:

The zero-sum globalization game nightmare
Robert Reich asks Joseph Stiglitz a hard question.

Andrew Leonard
Apr. 03, 2006

On Sunday, the New York Times finally got around to reviewing a book that I've been talking about here since January, Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton's "Fair Trade for All." Maybe the reviewer, Robert Reich, the former Clinton administration labor secretary, had issues with his deadline. But better late than never -- the review is excellent and it nails a point that has come up with increasing frequency in the ongoing conversation at How the World Works about globalization.

Specifically, Stiglitz and Charlton's vision for fair trade is one in which rich nations are obligated to open their markets to poorer nations, but poorer nations enjoy the privilege of protecting their markets against the rich. This is because rich nations can adapt much more effectively to the competition unleashed by free trade.

"Surprisingly, though Stiglitz has spent some years in Washington, he doesn't answer the obvious next question: How can this commendable agenda be sold to richer nations?" writes Reich. "Their political leaders are in a bind since so many of their own citizens are also losing jobs and experiencing declining incomes and, rightly or wrongly, blaming globalization for their plight. This is one of the major reasons the antiglobalization movement is as strong in the developed world as in the developing.

"While Stiglitz and Charlton nobly assert that trade agreements should be viewed as presumptively unfair if they bestow disproportionate benefits on richer nations, they fail to acknowledge that within richer nations free trade is already disproportionately benefiting the best educated and best connected. The wealthy are growing much wealthier while the middle class is being squeezed. In fact, the adjustment mechanisms the authors find lacking in most developing economies -- good public schools, modern infrastructure and adequate social safety nets -- are coming to be less and less available even in America. Free trade surely generates the gains Ricardo claimed for it. But until those gains are more widely shared -- within richer countries as well as between richer and poorer -- we can kiss any further round of trade liberalization goodbye."

I think it's unfair to assert that Stiglitz and Charlton fail to acknowledge the inequality of the distribution of benefits from free trade in the developed world. My own guess is that this is so mind-bendingly obvious to them that they don't feel the need to belabor it.

But Reich's review does set the table for a challenging question. Liberal economists like Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs have focused their energies on trying to make globalization work for the world's poorest regions. In doing so, they run the risk, like Stiglitz here, of demonstrating a lack of concern for the poor and less well-off in their own, highly developed nations. But finding a solution that responds to globalization's pressures, as Stiglitz suggested in the Nation last week, without "trying to enhance the well-being of our citizens at the expense of those abroad who are even poorer" is a desperately hard nut to crack.

In How the World Work's darker moments, we recall an epiphany experienced by Frank Holliwell, the protagonist in Robert Stone's great novel about the U.S. and Central America, "A Flag for Sunrise." Contemplating the mess made by the U.S. in Latin America, he fears that the affluence of the rich countries of the North requires the poverty of the poor nations of the South. In Holliwell's nightmare, globalization is a zero-sum game: Luxury in New York mandates starvation in Zambia.

There's got to be a better way.

The following AP article details a simple fact, one that can only be puzzling to those who don't understand greed and exploitation.  If every economic trend of the past thirty years is concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the following should come as no surprise:

Labor Official Notes Pension Disparities

By WILL LESTER, Associated Press Writer
Thu Apr 6, 7:00 PM ET

The AFL-CIO, pushing for more federal regulation of lucrative corporate salaries and pensions, released information Thursday about some of the sweetest executive retirement deals in the country.

"As corporate America is slashing workers' pensions left and right, we think investors and the public should know about the huge pensions these CEOs are raking in," said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

The labor federation, which represents more than 9 million workers, posted updated information about executive salaries and pensions on its Web site.

Trumka said average executive pay at a company on the Standard & Poor's 500 is already more than 400 times the average worker's wages. And many executives now get multimillion-dollar "supplemental executive retirement plans" at a time that many companies are cutting back on reliable "defined benefit" retirement plans for workers, he said.

Those retirement deals could run as high as $6.5 million annually and may not reflect a company's performance, Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO Web site,, looks at 25 of the richest executive pension plans in the country, based on research done with the Corporate Library.

Trumka said the Securities and Exchange Commission is pushing for more public disclosure of executive pay and other benefits, an area that has angered company investors. He noted that some companies that have cut worker retirement several times in recent years have some of the richest pension deals for their chief executive.

He urged union supporters to push the SEC to improve disclosure of executive pay and benefits. The labor federation, he said, is urging the SEC to also require companies to publicize their standards for tying strong job performance to executive pay.

On the economic collapse front, a disturbing news item surfaced yesterday in the Financial Times:

Europe simulates financial meltdown

By George Parker in Vienna
Sun Apr 9, 4:10 PM ET

Europe's financial regulators have held a "war game" exercise, simulating a continent-wide financial crisis, amid fears they are ill- prepared to stop a problem in one country spreading across borders.

The exercise involved simulating the collapse of a big bank with operations in several large countries to see whether the European Central Bank, national central banks and finance ministries could work together to contain the crisis.

It is understood the exercise took place at the headquarters of the ECB in Frankfurt at the end of last week. One person involved said: "It is like checking whether a nuclear power plant can survive a plane crashing into it."

The exercise took place on the eve of a meeting of European Union finance ministers and central bank chiefs in Vienna, at which the bloc's financial stability was high on the agenda. Officials at the meeting confirmed that ministers had discussed the ECB crisis management exercise.

The aim was to test the ability of national regulators to share information with other national bodies in a crisis and to overcome "differences in culture" and other practical obstacles. The results are being analysed and will be reported to the Ecofin council in June.

Europe's vulnerability to a cross-border financial crisis was revealed in a confidential report prepared by officials for the Ecofin council. Regulators are particularly worried about the risks to financial stability posed by the growth in hedge funds and credit derivatives.

It said that "progress has been insufficient in most of the member states" in putting in place national structures for crisis management, and urged national regulators to stage their own crisis simulation exercises.

The EU has rejected the creation of a single European financial regulator to manage cross-border risks, and has instead placed its faith in national authorities working together.

Last year regulators signed an agreement that they would share information openly and speedily in the event of a crisis in a national financial institution, in an attempt to stop the contagion spreading across Europe's single market.

The report submitted to the Ecofin council identified a possible housing market crash, a bird flu pandemic and high oil prices as potential sources of risk, but said that the situation in the banking sector was "solid".

However, the report warned that hedge funds and credit derivatives were sources of concern "as related risks remain opaque and they have become extremely relevant in assessing financial stability both across borders and across all financial sectors".

It said that, while hedge funds could contribute to market efficiency, they "can also be sources of systemic risks".

Credit derivatives markets were said to have grown by 128 per cent in 2005 compared with the previous year, with a nominal value of EU12,430bn ($14,900bn, £8,700bn) in June last year….

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