Posts Tagged economics
The Labour Party was congratulating itself yesterday on having joined with Tory rebels to defeat the Tory-led government by voting to cut the EU budget. In truth, this was sheer opportunism. While the two Eds (Miliband and Balls) may believe that supporting belt-tightening in Europe is good populist politics, in truth, Labour has shot itself in the foot.
Why? Because the vote was not about whether the British hate Europe—doubtless many do and will continue to rally round the Daily Mail. Rather, it’s a vote about the principle of adopting further deflationary policies.
By voting to cut the EU budget, Labour is aligning itself with budget cutters throughout the EU—in the main, centre-right parties. With euro-zone unemployment now above 11% (in some member-states above 25%!) and Europe headed for even deeper recession, any sensible progressive politician should be shouting out for co-ordinated fiscal expansion. What’s needed is the opposite of budget cutting—a far larger EU budget which could be used to reflate the economy and transfer resources towards the neediest regions.
Granted, under current arrangements, the EU budget is nearly useless as a vehicle for driving reflation. Bright economics-trained shadow ministers like Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna—even the Pro-EU Shadow Minister for Europe Emma Reynolds—understand this and know what needs to be done, but sadly are forced to toe the party line.
But whether it’s about Britain or about Europe as a whole, it’s time to repeat the message loud and clear—balls to deflationary policies in the midst of recession!
Nouriel Roubini famously described the long decline of the euro as a ‘slow motion train wreck’. Mind you, economists disagree on exactly when the wreck will happen. Professor Vincente Nabarro has argued that the euro will survive for as long as it serves the purposes of the German (and European) elite while, in the Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau mischievously suggests the crisis could last another 20 years given Germany’s proclivity for muddling through. By contrast, Megan Green at RGE sees the confluence of crises in Greece, Spain, and Italy during September and October, 2012, as potentially lethal. But all agree that—sooner or later—it will happen.
In Greece, the coalition government will have to agree a package of measures with the troika to secure the latest tranche of bailout money. The problem is twofold: first, Mr Samaras has asked for an extra two years to impose further austerity measures required by the troika, a request which the Germans have already rejected. Secondly, the Greek Parliament must approve the measures, failing which another general election would almost certainly need to be called.
Even if one assumes that Greeks can be paper over their differences once again (or else that Greek default does not produce catastrophic contagion), Portugal is likely to remain locked out of the financial markets and thus forced into a second round of difficult negotiations with the troika. Because the ESM comes into existence in September—assuming the Germans Constitutional Court rules in its favour—Spain too will require negotiations with the new body both on bailing out its private banks and on sovereign bond purchases.
Elsewhere, the campaign in Italy for the April 2013 general election will begin in earnest and Mr Berlusconi can be expected to launch his political comeback on an anti-euro platform, having said quite plainly earlier this year that either Italy gets bailed out or it leaves the EZ. However one views Berlusconi, there should be no doubt about the seriousness of this threat. In September too, France’s President Hollande will advance a budget which is bound to be controversial, while at the same time the Dutch will hold a general election likely to lead to a euro-sceptic coalition.
The situation might not be so dangerous were it not for growing euro-scepticism in Germany. While a majority of Germans may still favour remaining in the euro, over a third of those questioned favour a return to the old currency, the highest percentage in the large EZ countries. Public opinion, moreover, is strongly against what is perceived as further German ‘aid’ to the Club-Med countries (which is reality is ‘aid’ to their own banking system). Spurred by such neo-liberal economists as Hans-Werner Sinn, centre-right German politicians continue to insist that: (a) neither commonly backed Eurobonds nor bank insurance are an option; (b) further ECB sovereign bond purchases are dangerous, and (c) there can be no bank recapitalisation without EZ banking union, and such banking union must be preceded by political union.
But the strong EZ banking union required is not what the German centre-right has in mind, and even were it to accede on this point, German actions (and inactions) to date mean that the chance of achieving political union is growing ever more remote. Nor can we expect much to change were the SPD to enter into a new grand coalition in late 2013. After all, it was the previous SPD-CDU coalition which embedded austerity into the German constitution in the form of the debt-brake law, and the then SPD Finance Minister Peer Steinbrük—now a strong candidate to lead the party into the 2013 election—famously dismissed the Keynesian notion of a pan-European economic stimulus package. Moreover, the ex-central banker, Thilo Sarazzin , whose 2012 book Europa braucht den Euro nicht (Europe doesn’t need the euro) has been a best-seller, is a well-known SPD member.
Without a fundamental shift in the German position—not just on the above issues but on domestic demand reflation and trade imbalances–the euro seems doomed. Since there is no sign of such a shift, Europe sits on its hands awaiting the inevitable economic shock. One source has put the cost to Germany in the first year alone as a 10 per cent collapse in GDP. Perhaps this is the sort of price which, sooner or later, all of us will pay as a result of accepting the deep flaws in the initial structure of the common currency.
While the punters speculate on the outcome of the Greek election on 17 June, in truth ‘Grexit’ is already happening. Because of massive withdrawals from the Greek banking system, the country is on emergency life support from the ECB. First, following the inconclusive May elections, the ‘troika’ decided that it would postpone the €48bn recapitalisation payment until after the June election. Then, a fortnight ago, the ECB stopped accepting collateral from the Central Bank of Greece (BoG) for several of Greece’s major banks. This collateral is required for weekly refinance operations required to keep the country’s private banks liquid.
In consequence, the central bank has had to seek €100bn from the ECB’s Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), whih is slowly being chanelled to four major private banks. The difference between money received through the ‘normal’ ECB refinancing channel and the ELA is that, in the former case, the loan from the BoG to the private Greek banks is guaranteed by all ECB members while in the latter case it is guaranteed by the Greek state. In the words of one commentator, ‘think of what this means about keeping your money in your local bank?’ Or in the words of another:
“Essentially, ELA represents the ECB passing the risk back to the sovereign. That could be the trigger for potential default … ”
Some think that Greece’s departure may be a good thing. The arguments are familiar enough: first, Merkel and her allies want Greece out ‘pour encourager les autres’. Secondly, a numbrer of prominent economists (eg, Nouriel Roubini) believe Greece will benefit from leaving now rather than later. With Greece gone, a deal can probably be done between Merkel and Hollande over Eurobonds or (minimally at least) ‘project bonds’. The latter would be construed as a victory for the anti-austerity camp. Until recently, that is certainly what I had thought.
As Martin Wolf and others have noted, Greece’s disorderly departure will in all likelihood shatter faith in the Eurozone forever. Given the slow motion bank run in Spain, a Greek bank run will almost certainly trigger massive flight from the single currency. We shall not return to the comfortable prosperity of post-war Europe soon or even later—in all probability, that world has now died.
At the moment, the Euro Area is stagnating, unemployment is rising and the entire banking system is dangerously fragile—in Nouriel Roubini’s phrase, we are watching a slow motion train wreck. But if the opinion polls are right, François Hollande will very soon be President of the French Republic and economic policy in the Euro Area (EA) could become decisively more progressive. ‘Austerity’ could be ditched and Europe could go for growth and jobs.
Hollande can talk the talk, but can he ‘walk the walk’? Whether genuine change is possible depends on a number of factors difficult to evaluate; eg, how markets will react, how Hollande manages the relationship with Germany in the coming months, whether the German SPD can form a government after the 2013 general election and, crucially, whether social-democrats in the EU scrap the current economic orthodoxy. Let us consider each in turn, bearing in mind the speculative nature of any such discussion.
How will markets react to a progressive government in France? The knee-jerk reaction is to invoke Mitterrand’s experience in 1981-3 when financial turbulence forced the social-democratic left to change course within two years and into ‘cohabitation’ within five. And, yes, it must be added that financial markets are far more powerful today. Nevertheless, there are important differences. First, the once-powerful French Communist party (PCF) is no longer of any significance, so there is no red revolution to fear. It is easily forgotten, too, that Mitterrand’s policy failed largely because of rising inflation which rocketed in 1983; inflation is no longer a serious threat today.
An even more important difference is that, with every passing day, politicians and financial ‘experts’ are becoming aware that fiscal austerity leads to a dead end. Far from leading to budget balance, deep expenditure cuts leads back to recession which makes things worse—as we see in Greece, Portugal and Ireland and will soon see in Spain too. Hollande’s message is simple: in a recession, fiscal rectitude is achieved through state-led growth—it is higher national income that generates higher savings, not the other way ‘round. Even the IMF appears to agree.
Doubtless there will be capital flight from France as a result of higher taxes on the rich, but it is unlikely to be massive. Young middle-class French people migrate not because of high taxes but because there are too few jobs, and the extra income from higher taxes on the rich—and from clamping down on tax dodges—can be used to create jobs. Unlike the early 1980s, the French today are far more aware of the inequities of neoliberalism and the time-bomb of unemployment. But if Hollande wants jobs and growth, his proposed ‘stimulus’ will need to be far more than 1% of French GDP.
Hollande’s most difficult task upon coming to power will be calming the Germans while renegotiating the so-called Stability Treaty. There are two issues here. First, Angela Merkel, by openly backing Sarkozy, has declared war on the Hollande camp, presumably because she believes that by so doing she can preserve her own brittle CDU-FDP coalition government. But even assuming she can remain in power until the German general election deadline of September 2013, her popularity is on the wane and numerous polls suggest the most likely electoral outcome to be either an SPD-Green coalition or else a ‘grand coalition’ without Merkel.
The second—and crucial— issue is that of the Stability Treaty. This Treaty requires countries wishing to borrow from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to adopt a German-style ‘debt brake’ law limiting their structural fiscal deficit to 0.5% of GDP. As shown in detail elsewhere , the debt brake law is only possible in Germany because of the country’s current account surplus—it is economic nonsense to think such a law can resolve the problem of deficit countries. (This is not a matter of Keynesian economics but follows from simple National Accounting identities.)
Although many EA governments are in the process of ratifying it, the Treaty is deeply unpopular—-and not just in Greece, Portugal and Ireland. In Italy, Signor Monti has made it clear that he thinks it foolish and that jointly-backed Eurobonds constitute a better solution. Belgium’s Guy Verhofstatd agrees and even Sr Barroso appears to support this position. In demanding that the Treaty be changed, François Hollande would have the support not just of the EA periphery but of some of its major players and many of its economic experts. One should bear in mind that the poll indications for Italian Parliamentary elections to be held next spring suggest a centre-left coalition will emerge. Whether the Germans and their Dutch and Austrian allies could long hold out against a majority of the larger EA economies is doubtful.
In short, the victory of François Hollande on the 6th of May might well mark a turning point for the economic future not just of France, but of the EU and of Europe as a whole. While the chain of events outlined above is necessarily speculative, what is certain is that the coming 15 months will see fascinating changes take place. After all, two centuries ago France’s revolution embedded the Enlightenment values of liberté, égalité, fraternité which inform the European centre-left today, values which today’s Europe disregards at its peril. Without a growth strategy, the euro—and the European project—is doomed.
The late Tony Judt once remarked that today’s young people have little sense of social collective public goods and services. The economist’s notion of a public good has lost currency in this age of commodities, not just in the EU but particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Two generations ago, economics undergraduates were taught that such goods were different from soap flakes and hamburgers. Public goods and services are things which need to be supplied—or at least regulated– by the public sector because they are by their very nature collective. Clean water, unpolluted air, education and law and order are obvious examples; there is no doubt that everybody should have such goods, not merely those who can afford to buy them privately.
Public Goods today
These days, because the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ has become blurred, and because amongst mainstream economists the consensus appears to be that the private sector is more efficient than the state, it is commonly thought we should limit the public role almost entirely to that of supervision. In Britain, for example, in the 1990s the railways were privatised and an ‘internal market’ was created within the National Health Service on the grounds that this improved the efficiency of service delivery for ‘customers’. In the USA, it has become common for everything from mass transport to prison services run for private profit. Indeed, there are some politicians who—as followers of the economist Friedrich Hayek— would abolish all forms of state supervision or control, and a few who would abolish all taxation.
Anti-state ideology has its roots in 18th and 19th century romantic libertarianism, but its major driver in the past century was doubtless the Reagan-Thatcher revolution and, at a global level, what became known as the ‘Washington consensus’; ie, the right-wing orthodoxy associated with the IMF and the World Bank. Amongst others, economists such as Anne Krueger and Jagdish Bhagwati helped popularise the notion that civil servants are really ‘rent-seeking’ bureaucrats whose contribution to society is nil.
Market fundamentalism, the best-known US apostle of which was Milton Friedman, was developed inter alia by Thomas Sargent into ‘rational expectations theory’ which argued that markets contain all available information and are populated exclusively by fully informed consumers and producers for whom all future risks are calculable. Such notions provided the intellectual foundation of the anti-Keynesian, anti-state views which came to dominate the profession.
The brief return of Keynes
For a short time after the financial collapse of 2008, it appeared that the Thatcher-era ideology of market fundamentalism—or ‘neoliberalism’ as it is known today—was in terminal decline, but this view proved to be an illusion. While Keynesianism was briefly rolled out to save the advanced countries from total economic meltdown, once disaster was seen to have been averted most politicians returned to the dreary game of peddling austerity to the poor while helping the rich to prosper.
Nowhere was there more enthusiasm for this dismal sport than in Europe in general—where a ‘transfer union’ was unthinkable and the welfare state was soon deemed ‘unaffordable’—-and Britain in particular. In Britain under David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, privatisation is set to reach new heights as private companies bid for fat contracts to build and manage hospitals, schools, roads and whatever else can be hived off to the private sector in the name of reducing public debt.
The privatisation of everything
Although there are some circumstances in which it is sensible to privatise, there are many good reasons why wholesale privatisation should be shunned. The first and most important reason is that abolishing universal free access to public services will make us less equal. For example, the notion of being ‘equal before the law’ is a hallowed principle which goes back to ancient Greece. Few would deny that where legal aid is denied to the poor while the rich can evade it with the help of clever (and very expensive) lawyers, not only does this make a travesty of justice, but it also threatens social cohesion.
By analogy, a major reason for providing universal health care as a public service is that decent medical treatment should not be a privilege reserved for the few. Equally, because capitalist business cycles result in economic downturns, all tax-payers contribute towards funding unemployment benefit for those unlucky enough to lose their job during such times. When there are ten job-seekers for every vacancy, ‘getting on your bike’ to find a job simply doesn’t work.
The same public logic holds for education. Universal literacy may be instrumental to developing a skilled work force—a notion much loved by Tories—but the real reason we value education is because it is a necessary (though insufficient) component of a well-functioning democratic society. Education is not a commodity to be purchased according to individual preference; it’s central to the meaning of civilised society.
The superior efficiency of the private?
What of the argument that the private sector is more efficient at running things because of competition? Although this may hold true for the production of many commodities (as we know from the sad experience of Soviet-style central planning), it is by no means a universal principle.
It used to be argued that publically-owned industries are necessary in the case of ‘natural monopolies’; ie, where long-term economies of scale in production make for ‘monopoly profits’. It is only fair that government—through ownership or regulation—captures such revenues for the public benefit. Also, because natural monopolies (eg, water, energy, transport) typically require very large initial capital outlays, often the state alone is in a position to finance them. What has happened in recent decades to many public utilities is that, having been established and run by the state often with a strong element of public subsidy, they have been sold to private interests at knockdown prices on the grounds of fiscal rectitude (and with the blessing of the IMF).
Another reason for preferring public provision is where ‘external’ costs or benefits exist. A contemporary example of such an externality is where an industry damages the environment. A private company might want to cut down swathes of forest to grow crops for biofuel, disregarding the long term environmental impact. Such companies typically have short time horizons—they must make profits for shareholders next year, not next century. Government needs to step in to take the long-tern environmental effect—or any other form of market failure—into account.
The notion that competition always makes the private sector more efficient than the public sector is therefore quite unjustified. Markets are not perfect, the future is uncertain, externalities are important and some goods and services by their very nature must be publically provided. What politicians typically mean when they speak of ‘greater efficiency’ is lower costs, typically achieved by employing cheap, non-unionised labour. This is the real reason so many public services are outsourced.
In short, arguments favouring private over public provision are not just theoretically flawed, but typically favour the few at the expense of the many. We may choose commodities at the supermarket, but public goods require collective choices; ie, choices made as citizens at the ballot box. Abolish well-informed collective choice and one abolishes democracy—little wonder Margaret Thatcher argued there was ‘no such thing as society’.
Despite Wimbledon week, the main centre court contest that many economists are watching is that between the German government and the ECB. An abbreviated summary of the action so far is as follows. The German Finance Minister, Herr Schäuble, initially appeared to gain the advantage by admitting that the Greek situation is so perilous that they should be allowed in effect to default—the phrase he used was ‘voluntary restructuring’. Monsieur Trichet then fought back hard arguing that a Greek default would be catastrophic and implying that eurozone governments (not the ECB) should continue lending. The ECB even threatened to stop accepting Greek Eurobonds as collateral for its continued lending to the Greek central bank, a move that would effectively pull the plug on the Greek banking system. Who will prevail?
On the face of it, Herr Schäuble has a strong case, albeit rendered more palatable to his critics by such sweeteners as having Greece sell off public assets, voluntarily ‘reprofile’ its sovereign debt and so forth. The real case for default, though, is that the retrenchment medicine is not working and risks killing the patient. Instead of extracting a vengeful levy entirely from ordinary Greeks, German and French banks should be made to pay their fair share—a ‘haircut’ variously estimated as between 35% and 70% of the bonds they hold. Indeed, given the dramatic turn of events in Athens in recent days, default now looks almost certain.
But here is the rub. A default—however sugar-coated—is still a default. The ECB argument is that if Greece is allowed to do so, other highly indebted members will follow suit and, as contagion spreads, the markets will cease buying members’ sovereign debt altogether. The ECB would be left to bail out not just the small peripheral economies, but probably Spain and Italy too. That would spell the end of the euro. That is partly why Jean-Claude Trichet will be replaced in October by another tough conservative, Italy’s Mario Draghi who famously prefaced an interview with the Financial Times by the phrase “The euro is not in question.”
On the face of it, then, the first set of the match will almost certainly end in a nail-biting tie break. But whoever wins, the match will be far from over. To borrow Wolfgang Münchau’s phrase, the existing union is too weak to function properly, but too strong to blow up. Assuming the eurozone does not blow up, how might it be strengthened?
The central pillar of a new economic architecture for the eurozone would be the creation of a Treasury Secretary with a secretariat; ie, an embryonic Eurozone Treasury (Ministry of Finance). Indeed, the idea was floated earlier in June by Monsieur Trichet himself who added that such a Ministry would also carry out “all the typical responsibilities of the executive branches as regards the union’s integrated financial sector, so as to accompany the full integration of financial services, and third, the representation of the union confederation in international financial institutions.”. The key points to retain are, first, that such a Ministry would have real power (ie, it could override national bickering in the Council); and secondly, that the Eurozone would have a single banking system.
Another pillar would be fiscal-financial. Like its US counterpart, a Eurozone Treasury would need to be able to emit E-bonds jointly guaranteed by all members. Not only would this enable the eurozone to supersede the now-discredited system of relying on national Eurobonds, it would greatly strengthen the euro as a reserve currency since euro-assets would be far more desirable (and available) to hold. Additionally, a Euro-Treasury might start by improved ‘co-ordination’ of member-states’ fiscal policy, but it would soon need to raise significant amounts of revenue. A useful mechanism would be to follow up on a suggestion by Spain a decade ago that a tax on member-states (ie, a share of their VAT receipts) be levied progressively in proportion to their per capita income.
The third pillar would be political. The eurozone cannot survive unless its citizens benefit from its existence. And here is where serious political courage is needed—the courage to set up a Eurozone unemployment benefit scheme, and/or for that matter, a Eurozone pension scheme. Initially such schemes would complement the national schemes already in place, but as they grew in size, they would come to play the same macroeconomic stabilisation and redistributive functions as the US Treasury.
How do these proposals relate to the current contest between the Germans and the ECB? The answer is straightforward. Although the Greeks, the Irish and other countries at risk will doubtless be offered further loans, at the end of the day what we are witnessing is a slow-motion default. Why? Because ‘internal devaluation’ and the fiscal straightjacket imposed upon the weakest members means they can never repay. Ultimately, Germany, France et al will have to bail out their own banks. If slow-motion default leads to another major financial crisis, we shall all pay.
In truth, Eurozone member-states already live in a ‘transfer union’, and the sooner members realise it and adopt a common macro-economic framework, the better. The practical details may take a long time, but one thing is certain: the gruelling match on centre-court is far from over.
 See ‘Interview with Mario Draghi: Action on the addicts’ http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/af24be36-03ca-11e0-8c3f-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz1PAShPhkq
 See Wolfgang Münchau ‘Ingredients of a European political union’ Financial Times, June 5 2011.
Five years ago I wrote a book supporting the euro, but saying inter alia that Eurozone governance was fatally flawed and that a European Treasury was needed. Although not taken very seriously at the time, this view has today gained wide currency. Like it or not, a US-style Treasury is needed to guarantee states’ financial system and to effect fiscal transfers within the Eurozone. Yes, the Eurozone is a ‘transfer union’ and the sooner the rich countries face up to this reality the better. The alternative could be collapse of the euro, followed by financial chaos.
Intra Euro debt: Claims between national central banks (£bn)
source: M Wolf, ‘Intolerable choices for the Eurozone’ FT, 31 May 2011.
In a series of excellent pieces in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf has spelled out a compelling case for fundamental reform. The eurozone, Wolf reminds us, started life as a reincarnation of the gold standard. Eurozone member states were meant to finance a trade deficit by borrowing abroad; ie, by emitting their own central bank bonds. If markets were unwilling to buy these, a member-state would have no option but to find the money internally by means of a squeezing labour costs, or what is euphemistically termed ‘internal devaluation’.
There are two problems here. One is that squeezing wages may have an unacceptably high political cost. While it is true that cutting aggregate demand sufficiently will balance the books at some (very much) lower level of national income, the patient may stop breathing as a result. (For example, Ireland has now experienced four years of recession and the young are emigrating in droves.)
The second problem is the banking system. Since private credit died up after 2008, the ECB (and the Bundesbank) have acted de facto as the Eurozone’s lender of the last resort, both in buying the sovereign debt of the periphery’s Central Banks and helping Europe’s large private banks to do so. Indeed, the accompanying figure illustrates the unnerving symmetry between Germany’s position as chief central bank creditor and the growing indebtedness of the Eurozone periphery—unnerving because the Germans are indirectly financing the periphery through the banking system rather than through explicit fiscal transfers. Although this has helped peripheral states to weather the storm, what happens if peripheral countries default?
Many commentators (including myself) believe that some form of default is now inevitable—but default could have dire consequences too. The insolvency of periphery governments would almost certainly threaten the solvency of debtor country central banks, leading to large losses for creditor country central banks (eg, Germany), which national taxpayers would need to shoulder. Doubtless this is a major reason for Signor Smaghi’s implacable opposition to default. And in the absence of support from the ECB and other creditor central banks, the threat of default by Greece or Ireland would hasten contagion and paralysis. Banks would not want to rink continued lending to any potential defaulter, credit would seize up and, ultimately, the existing financial transfer mechanism would collapse.
The options for the eurozone are narrowing. Either default will result in weaker countries leaving the eurozone—a lengthening list as contagion and financial collapse spreads—or the eurozone must undergo radical reform. This means tearing up the current system under which Greece and its banking system depend on selling sovereign bonds to the market and establishing in its place a Eurozone Treasury which would, like its US counterpart, guarantee the integrity of the Eurozone’s financial system as a whole. Needless to say, other key reforms would be necessary (true e-bonds, smaller trade imbalances) which I shall not dwell on here.
All this boils down to a single basic point: Europe already has a central bank ‘transfer union’, but it is under growing threat. Either Europeans bite the bullet and accept the need for true fiscal union and economic governance, or they can stand aside and watch the Eurozone disintegrate. Just as in the case of climate change, it’s too late to think that we can merely wish for the best and ‘muddle through’.
1 See George Irvin, Regaining Europe; an economic agenda for the 21st century, London: Federal Trust, 2007.
3 See http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/2011/05/10/564346/roubinis-guide-to-a-greek-debt-restructuring/.
Suppose that my rich neighbour down the road mortgaged his mansion up to the hilt to bet on the horses, ran up millions in debt and asked me, an ordinary punter, to pay off his debts plus interest. Suppose that foolishly I accepted, and while I struggled to pay it off while barely able to feed my family and pay off the mortgage, my super-rich neighbour acquired an even bigger mansion. To make matters worse, he used all sorts of clever dodges in the Caymans to pay negligible taxes, while if I failed to pay mine I knew I’d be sent to prison.
It may sound like total madness, but that’s pretty well what’s happening to a growing number of Europeans (including Brits) today.
How did we get here? In Britain, the 2008 credit crunch produced a massive recession which played havoc with government finances. In Ireland the government took over the entire debt of its banking system, while in Greece, the rich paid minimal taxes and successive governments, unwilling to challenge them, indulged in creative accounting. That’s somewhat simplified, but it’s the essence of the story.
Everywhere in Europe, voters are being told that decent pensions and universal welfare provision are no longer affordable and that we must all tighten our belts. Governments can no longer borrow because the credit rating agencies might downgrade their bonds. First it was Greece and Ireland, today it is Portugal, and tomorrow perhaps Spain, then Italy, and then … who knows?
But ordinary punters are starting to wake up. Instead of enduring years of economic depression, the Greeks and the Irish will probably have to default, as will the Portuguese if their economy reacts the same way to belt-tightening. And what if Spain has to be bailed out, still less defaults? That would spell a major hit for banks in Germany, France, the UK (and elsewhere), all of which could easily add up to another major financial crisis.
Are we really so vulnerable? The answer is indeed yes—-because so little has been done to address the underlying causes of the 2008 crisis.
While the recent Basle Three agreement requires banks to carry a slightly higher cash cushion, nothing has been done to re-establish the division between investment banking and commercial high-street banking, a division which disappeared with the repeal in the US of Glass–Steagall in 1999. Except for a temporary ban on naked short sales in Germany, the derivatives trade remains mainly unregulated. Credit default swaps (a form of insurance on risky financial products) are still sold over-the-counter rather than through an official market, the US President having failed to follow up his 2009 promise to re-regulate these.
Meanwhile, the trillions poured into the big banks since 2008, instead of going to cash-starved small business or being used to build infrastructure and to create jobs, have largely helped fuel a new stock market bubble. The extraordinary rise in the value of companies such as Facebook and Zynga provides a worrying parallel with the dotcom bubble of 2000.
Tax dodging is now a major growth industry—witness the latest GE scandal. As for making the bankers pay by introducing some form of Tobin tax, there’s been much talk but little action.
Perhaps most galling of all is the injustice of using Keynesian economics to justify the need for state intervention in banking bailouts while claiming today that the profligate state caused the problem, as politicians now argue in London, Brussels and Frankfurt. How long will sensible people go on accepting this nonsense before venting their anger on our ruling classes?
(An earlier version of this piece first appeared at http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/04/the-big-bailout-scam)
5 See Ha-Joon Chang, ‘The revival—and the retreat—of the state?’ Red Pepper, Apr/May 2011.
However circumspect Mervyn King may have been about raising interest rates in the Bank of England’s (BoE) quarterly inflation report issued in February, it is clear that the City wants him to do so. Indeed, judging from the fact that 12-month interest rate futures are now 1.4%, it is generally thought that there will be three to four quarter-point hikes over the next twelve months, while over the coming two years the rise may be twice that figure. One must ask, first of all, is such a rise justified by inflation; and secondly, if not, what damage will raising UK interest rates do?
The proximate cause of the problem is that the Retail Price Index (RPI) has jumped to just over 5% in the UK, mainly reflecting rising world food and energy prices, but also the effect of a sterling devaluation of over 20% in 2008 working its way through the economy as well as January’s VAT rise. Even the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which strips out housing costs, is rising at a rate of 4%, twice the BoE’s 2% target.
Of course, stripping out food and energy, core inflation is well below the BoE’s target, but inflation hawks would argue that several other factors must be taken into consideration. First, inflation is rising not just in the UK but in the US and the core Eurozone countries such as Germany and France, in part reflecting strong inflationary pressures in countries such as China and Brazil. Secondly, UK firms may be raising prices to recoup the profits lost during the credit squeeze, or even in anticipation of lower future profits. Finally, the fact that the recession has pulled down UK trend growth means that the weight of the structural deficit is all the greater; ie, a return to (lower) trend growth would leave a larger proportional gap between public spending and receipts than would have been the case before the recession. On this view, the larger the structural deficit, the higher are domestic inflationary expectations.
The counter-argument goes roughly as follows. First of all, the main domestic culprits—devaluation and the VAT rise—are once-and-for-all events, so their inflationary impact can be expected to decline over time. Secondly, with regard to the key imported components, mainly food and energy, it is not so much a case of gradual price inflation; rather, these prices have exhibited strong fluctuations. Energy prices peaked in 2008, then fell and have now risen again; there is every reason to believe that they will fall again. And even if imported inflation continues to rise, raising domestic interest rates will not seriously arrest this rise. Thirdly, there is no sign of wage inflation in the UK economy—indeed, with unemployment at 2.5 million and rising, real wages are falling. Moreover, with the bulk of government spending cuts still in the pipeline, unemployment will rise (and real wages fall) further. This being the case, ‘inflationary expectations’ are groundless. As one academic colleague put it, ‘there has been no Phillips curve [expectations augmented or otherwise] in the UK for a generation’.
Little wonder then that Mervyn King is being circumspect about raising interest rates when the prospects for UK growth are so poor and their impact on inflation is likely to be negligible. Nevertheless, it is equally clear that George Osborne wants higher rates and that the MPC, which has been dovish on the matter, is now split and edging towards hawkishness. Such hawkishness will come at a cost. In the words of one commentator:
‘charts in the Inflation Report suggest the Bank now believes the UK economy must grow by about 0.25 percentage points less than it thought in November to avoid sparking inflation. That is a loss to economic output which accumulates by roughly an additional £4bn every year, making fiscal consolidation even more difficult.’
Indeed, such a loss would come on top of the cuts. A recent report by the IMF suggests that, even if interest rates remain near zero, public sector cuts equivalent to 1.5% of GDP per annum over the next four years will subtract an equivalent amount from growth, or about £20bn every year.
According to the IFS ‘green budget’, between 2010 and 2015, the UK is forecast to have the third largest reduction (behind Ireland and Iceland) in the share of government borrowing in national income among 29 high-income countries. As Martin Wolf has noted, using the OBR’s latest figures, the implicit (compound) rate of growth of GDP between 2007 and 2015 is just 1.2% per annum. And if interest rates rise in response to a perceived inflationary threat, the growth rate will be even less.
In a word, Britain under the Tory-led government faces years of not merely stagnation, but quite possibly of something worse: stagflation. Perhaps Monsieur Trichet at the ECB should be pondering the lesson for the Eurozone.
*diagram source: N Cohen, ‘King denies interest rate rise certainty’ FT, 16 Feb. 2011
1 In private correspondence with Martin Hoskins.
2 David Blanchflower is more optimistic and believes the MPC will remain dovish; see http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/david-blanchflower/2011/02/mervyn-king-growth-inflation
3 See C Giles, ‘Slower growth seen as inflation buster’, FT, 16 Feb 2011; http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3279a6ee-3a0c-11e0-a441-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1EDbJnmWK
4 See Duncan Weldon ‘The danger of spending cuts: some advice from the IMF’; http://duncanseconomicblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/the-dangers-of-spending-cuts-some-advice-from-the-imf/
5 See http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/5460.
6 See M Wolf, ‘Britain’s experiment in austerity’ FT, 8 Feb 2011; http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5e5a6d1e-33c9-11e0b1ed-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1EDbJnmWK
We tend to forget that sovereign debts crises and banking crises are merely two sides of the same coin. At the end of 2009, for example, consolidated claims of French and German banks on the four most vulnerable members of the Eurozone were 16 per cent and 15 per cent of their GDP, respectively. For European banks, as a group, the claims were 14 per cent of GDP.
In the words of Martin Wolf, ‘any serious likelihood of restructuring would risk creating sovereign runs by creditors and, at worst, another leg of the global financial crisis.
Since 2008, the main difficulties for financial institutions have been in the UK, Germany, the Benelux countries and Ireland. Although the exact nature of each institution’s problems varied, broadly the difficult was a shortage of liquidity in the banking system. The Irish problem of extending a blanket government guarantee for a mountain of private bank debt is well known. In Germany and The Netherlands, names like Hypo and Fortis spring to mind. But what of all that shaky sovereign debt held by EU banks? As the ECB rcently warned, Eurozone banks will face refinancing needs of €1000bn over the next two years.
To understand this problem, have a look at a new piece by Professor Mark Blyth of Brown University in the US. Speaking of the European crisis, Blyth says:
What was a crisis of banking became, in short order, a crisis of state-spending via a massive taxpayer put, and with sovereign bondholders’ interests being held sacrosanct while their investments were diluted (if not polluted), the taxpayer had to shoulder the costs twice: once through lost output and new debt issuance; and then twice through the austerity packages held necessary to placate the sovereign bondholders.
Blyth goes on to point out that too little attention has been paid to the role of Europe’s banks, who in the past two years were happily dumping northern states’ sovereign bonds for high-yield Club Med bonds. But private actors will want to hedge their positions, buying equities, real estate and the like. A problem arises when these markets go south, leaving banks holding risky bonds with little cover. Their only option is to ‘dump good to cover bad’—but if all players do so together, the strategy yields perverse results. If I know you’ll dump Greece, I’ll dump Ireland, and you’ll then dump Spain to stay ahead of me, so I’ll dump Italy and so on.
With everyone trying to go liquid, liquidity suddenly becomes nearly impossible to achieve. As Blyth says, you can keep passing the ‘put’ around, but there comes a time when somebody has to pay up. The taxpayer cannot pay forever (because he or she is or soon will be on the dole), and the EFSF is just a special purpose vehicle with little cash and much rhetoric about which bondholders have grown deeply cynical.
There’s a limit … and it’s called Spain. Spain’s government and private bonds are held by banks all over Europe. Spain is ‘too big to save’. Blyth concludes that the Germans know this—their theatrical rhetoric is merely designed to postpone the mother of all bank runs.
1 See http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0c382c9c-0237-11e0a40-00144feabdc0.html #axzz1C2vbemOj
2 See http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6dba1338-03ac-11e0-9636-00144feabdc0.html #axzz17y7ZYFDz
3 See http://crookedtimber.org/2011/01/18/the-end-game-for-the-euro-german-rules-and-bondholder-revolts/