Irish Finance Minister Noonan and Luxembourg Treasury Minister Frieden attend an EU finance ministers meeting in Brussels. Image source: www.reuters.com
I find it hard to write about the crisis in Greece….because the tragedy unfolding there is so reminiscent of the tragedies that unfolded in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia in the 80s and 90s – and I was very close to those. Seeing the same economic mismanagement replicated in well-armed Europe is scary. Watching as tensions rise between the peoples of Europe…given our bloody history….is frightening. So I have been silenced by rage.
But my outrage boiled over today, because of what the FT wrongly calls a ‘subtle’ change unveiled by EU finance ministers to the terms of the massive Eurozone bailout fund – a fund backed by European taxpayers. This is how the FT explains it:
Any bonds issued in future by the eurozone’s new €500bn rescue fund on behalf of Ireland, Greece or Portugal will not enjoy “preferred creditor status” – an alteration to the fund intended to help those nations return more swiftly to private capital markets.
For those who do not dabble much in sovereign debt, let me explain. Common to the whole of the international financial architecture/system for sovereign lending, there is one principle that overrides all others. That the IMF/World Bank are ‘preferred creditors’. Just as when a company goes bankrupt, the supplier that sold it widgets, is ranked lower than the bank that provided the overdraft – so in international ‘law’ – taxpayer-backed lending from the IMF and World Bank is ‘preferred’ when it comes to repayment – over all private commercial lending. And it is preferred because it is public money.
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(Photo: REUTERS / Yiorgos Karahalis )
A Greek riot policeman stands in front of graffiti written on the wall of a bank during violent demonstrations over austerity measures in Athens, May 5, 2010. Greece faced a day of violent protests and a nationwide strike by civil servants outraged by the announcement of draconian austeristy measures.
Dear readers….Recovering from ‘flu and a trip down to Hay on Wye…Thought you might be interested in this piece I have written for Prime.
“We should note recent developments in political economy, that – while understated – are, we hope, of significance. Last week, the OECD published their latest World Economic Outlook, which features chapters on each developed economy as well as an assessment of the world economy as a whole.
The report is schizophrenic. It clumsily offers an outlook of excessive optimism; makes a selective assessment of ‘risks’; but continues adherence to an economic policy doctrine that is clearly making OECD economists very uncomfortable.
While the OECD report contains the expected justifications and support for the ‘austerity’ approach, nevertheless the organisation’s ‘cold feet’ are becoming apparent, even before the full extent of austerity programmes has begun to impact. There is no better example of this unease than their approach to the UK.
The report commends UK policymakers for their “current fiscal consolidation (which) strikes the right balance and should continue.” At the same time, OECD economists hedge their bets by urging the UK government to embark on “higher infrastructure spending (that) would lower the short-term negative growth effects of consolidation without affecting its pace.” At a press conference last week, the OECD chief economist warned that the UK should be prepared to cool austerity in the wake of weaker growth.
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Much of the news of the last few weeks -
… can be explained by the need for banks to urgently raise money to fix their balance sheets. Unfortunately their activities are akin to the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. Just as they raise funds from e.g. commodity speculation to shore up balance sheets, those funds may be drained from some other part of the bank by e.g. a rise in mortgage defaults or company bankruptcies as economic activity stalls, house prices fall, foreclosures are held up by legal arguments, and the over-borrowed fail to repay.
This explains why the banking system may be broke, as well as broken.
Tin produced at a Glencore plant in Vinto, Bolivia
“Experience shows that when policies falter in managing capital flows, there is no limit to the damage that international finance can inflict on an economy.”
Yilmaz Akyüz, “Capital Flows to Developing Countries in a Historical Perspective: Will the current Boom End with a Bust?”
Today, as speculation and leverage in global, financialised commodity markets reach manic levels; as we witness an ‘epic rout’ (FT 5 May, 2011) in commodity prices, and as the boom in capital flows peaks, is another crash inevitable? And is it coming soon?
I know from experience that while it may be possible to analyse fundamentals, it is always difficult to predict precisely what dynamic will trigger the next crisis, and when it will happen. Back in 2003, together with colleagues at the new economics foundation in London, and with very little funding, I assembled and edited a series of essays on the ‘outlook’ for the global economy. We titled it: ‘Real world economic outlook’, and added a subtitle, ‘the legacy of globalization: debt and deflation’. We intended the report to be annual, and to act as a counter to the IMF’s annual World Economic Outlook, which in our view was irrationally optimistic about developments in the global economy.
We were pretty pessimistic about global imbalances, and predicted a crash. Sadly, our timing was way out: the crash was four years away. It does not always help to be right on the fundamentals. Given the inevitability of the then forthcoming crash, we argued that there was once more a need for a ‘great transformation’ of the global economy. The starting point we wrote ‘will be to reverse the most pernicious elements of the ‘globalization’ experiment’ by the ‘taming of financial markets through the re-introduction of capital controls; restraints in the growth of credit; the establishment of an International Clearing Agency; and a Tobin Tax’.
Back then it was hard to talk/write about these matters – and be heard. Our cheerfully-titled report and predictions did not hit the best-seller lists. Funding for the project was withdrawn, and the project wound down. It’s major flaw? We had breached areas of economic debate that at the time were carefully circumscribed. It took the financial crisis of 2007-9 to loosen the intellectual chains to which orthodox economics had so heavily tied economic debate. Today the Tobin Tax, or Robin Hood Tax is a high-profile issue, with some signs that EU governments are considering implementation of such a tax. (See point 8 of Euro leaders’ statement, March 11, 2011). So that taboo has been broken.
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Welcome readers, to my newly refreshed blog, and thanks to Georgia Lee and Maz Kessler for making it look so good, and work so well. I had thought that the title needed refreshing too. After all, I am fond of defining 9th August, 2007 as ‘debtonation day’, and that is now long past.
To refresh your memory: it was on that day that the world’s banks woke up to the scale of their debts, and to the simple truth that they may not all be repaid. On that day, the French investment bank BNP Paribas suspended three investment funds due to a “complete evaporation of liquidity” in the market. BNP’s announcement compelled the intervention of the US’s Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, which both pumped $90billion into the global banking system. As Larry Elliott notes, 9 August, 2007 ” has all the resonance of August 4 1914. It marks the cut-off point between “an Edwardian summer” of prosperity and tranquillity and the trench warfare of the credit crunch – the failed banks, the petrified markets, the property markets blown to pieces by a shortage of credit. ”
So ‘debtonation’ stands as a reminder of that day. However, we also know that the private debts of the individuals, households but also more importantly the corporate sector have not ‘debtonated’. They are still on the books, and in the case of the private sector in the UK, but also wider Europe, look set to rise further. As Douglas Coe and I have pointed out in a paper we have written for PRIME, “Private debt has risen relentlessly since the early 1980s. Most commentators focus on the extent of household debt, which rose from around 40 per cent of GDP before the 1980s to a peak of 110 per cent in 2009. But corporate debt is even more elevated, rising from 50-60 per cent to a peak of 130 per cent in 2009. The latest National Accounts show that both measures fell back in 2010, but only by a very small margin: households to 105 per cent of GDP and corporates to 125 per cent.”
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6th April, 2010
I wrote the piece below for the Labour Party site Labour List but it got bumped across to Left Foot Forward. While waiting for its publication I did some superficial research on the use of the term ‘banksters’.
It is a term in wide use in the US, where it is associated with progressive political forces, and where the debate pits ‘Wall St’ against ‘Main St’, or ‘Wall St’ against ‘the little guy’ or ‘taxpayer’. See for example, this piece by the wonderful Rolling Stone writer on finance, Matt Taibi, and the associated cartoon.
Two Irish authors, David Murphy and Martin Devlin have written a book titled ‘Banksters – how a powerful elite squandered Ireland’s wealth’. So the Irish are not precious about the term.
But here in the UK the word is not widely used. Its use tends to be associated with the far right, and their anti-Semitism.
Which might explain British nervousness with the term. On the other hand our fastidiousness may just reflect the collusion of our various elites – political, media and otherwise – with the finance sector, and the excessive deference bestowed on bankers, sorry banksters.
Anyway, here follows the piece on how banksters are standing as parliamentary candidates for the Conservative Party.
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4th March 2010
With Saturday’s Iceland referendum due in just a couple of days (6th March), Advocacy International’s directors have an op-ed article critical of the UK and Netherlands governments in today’s Morgunbladid, Iceland’s main daily newspaper.
English version> Icelandic version> Press release>
Full text of the article:
So the negotiations have broken down, British and Dutch “bullying” (FT 27 February, 2010) continues and the referendum goes ahead. What next?
We emphasize that this is not a sovereign debt crisis, even if the British and Dutch want us to think it is.
It is a crisis of EU regulatory failure, and of the Anglo-American economic model.
The people of Iceland have a deep democratic tradition, and through the referendum have the opportunity to assert their sovereignty and autonomy.
Their leadership and example will encourage people in other democracies to reject harsh cuts in public services and living standards made at the behest of the very people and institutions responsible for the crisis. For through the wholesale nationalisation of private losses, we are all – not only in Iceland – asked to pay the price of private, reckless risk-taking. Continue reading… ›
5th February 2010
My conversation earlier this week with Elena Sisti – of Italy’s Altreconomia on macro-economics, reform of the finance sector, money, and yes, how we women have left the all-important matter of finance to the boys. Big mistake. It’s time to get in there, and exercise influence. Too much is at stake. Continue reading… ›
15th January, 2009.
Patient readers this blog is triggered by Jeff Randall’s column in the Daily Telegraph today.
In it he inadvertently discloses the identity of the puppet-masters dictating the Tory political agenda around public spending cuts.
In a somewhat histrionic column in which he describes the public deficit as a ‘disaster’ ( he should mind his language: Haiti’s earthquake is a disaster) Randall quotes a piece of ‘research’ by the French bank, Société Générale. The paper is titled “Popular Delusions” and its authors explain some simple facts about government spending cuts to Telegraph readers:
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8th January, 2009
This piece appeared on the Guardian’s Comment site:
“Today the people of Iceland, a country whose population, at 317,000, is somewhat smaller than Leicester’s, are required by the British political, financial and economic establishment to carry the full burden of the losses suffered by Landsbanki’s depositor programme Icesave.
We consider this to be unfair, for the following reasons.
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