Poverty of Political Imagination

August 17, 2012 at 11:48 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Though it should not have caused any surprise, the news that Eurozone economies had contracted by 0.2 percent in the second quarter of 2012 underscored the deepening economic crisis faced by the 17-state bloc. Though the German economy may have grown by 0.3 percent, France recorded a third straight quarter of no growth, and the Finnish, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish economies all fell sharply. Greece, of course, suffered the steepest fall: 6.2 percent in the second quarter–and was 18 percent below its GDP level in the April-June quarter of 2008.

There is little doubt that the declines have been aggravated by a failure of political imagination. Confronted by budget deficits brought about by high levels of government borrowing and by the collapses of housing bubbles, the creation of a common currency has meant that indebted Eurozone economies have not been able to resort to a currency devaluation to gain a competitive edge. Consequently, the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund sought to impose an “internal devaluation” on these economies by forcing budget cuts to lower government deficits and wage cuts.

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It follows as the night the day that if budgets and wages are cut, the economy will shrink. Lower government spending due to budget cuts means welfare and pension benefits fall, the cost of health care rises, and educational opportunities vaporize. These impact far more adversely on the elderly and the young. With wage cuts, people have less money to spend and this will depress all sectors of the economy–as sales reduce because of lower spending, companies will slash their work forces leading to greater declines in sales and to further cuts in employment. In the most severely affected of the southern European economies, unemployment rates for the youth are already at 50 percent or more. By May 2012, unemployment in the euro zone had already reached 11.1 percent or 17.5 million people and the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that it would rise to almost 22 million in the next four years. And if the euro zone were to break up, the ILO estimates unemployment in the 17-state bloc could reach 17 percent.

The adverse conditions created by the stringent cuts mandated by the troika are aggravated by the greater interest rates imposed on the weaker economies by international financial markets–thus for instance, while Austrian banks and other financial institutions can borrow at 2 percent, Italian banks have to pay 6 percent. As these higher interest costs are passed on by the banks to their borrowers, the cost of doing business in Italy, Spain, Portugal, or Greece increases correspondingly and could even negate the wage cuts imposed by the troika!

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The effects of economic contraction will spread to the better performing economies. After all, Germany has been able to have a strong industrial sector because cheaper credit to other eurozone members had allowed them to buy German products while the German small-scale sector–which employs 60 percent of the country’s labor force–did not have to worry about currency movements in other European countries or fear that a strong German mark will price them out of the market in other countries.

As Susan Watkins has written, German lessons on debt repayment are especially galling to the Greeks.

Under the Nazi occupation, a hefty monthly payment was extracted from the Greek central bank to cover the Wehrmacht’s expenses; in March 1942 an additional forced loan of 476 million Reichsmarks was levied by the Axis powers. Greek partisans put up some of the toughest military resistance to the Nazis in Europe; the damage wreaked by the occupiers’ revenge was commensurate. Reprisals were exacted on the civilian population at a rate of fifty Greeks for every German killed. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed; forced exports and economic collapse helped bring about one of the worst famines in modern European history.

German occupation (strictly a tripartite occupation since the Italians and the Bulgarians also participated) of Greece also led to hyperinflation–Richard Clogg says it was

five thousand times more severe than the Weimar inflation of the early 1920s. Price levels in January 1946 were more than five trillion times those of May 1941. The exchange rate for the gold sovereign in the autumn of 1944, shortly after the liberation, stood at 170 trillion drachmas.

After the war, the question of German reparations were deferred till German reunification and in the so-called 2+4 (Bonn and Berlin with the US, the USSR, the UK and France) agreement of 1990, Greek claims were excluded. Though several Greek politicians including the current prime minister, Antonis Samaras when he was the foreign affairs minister in 1991, had raised the issue of 476 million marks with the Germans, their demands were summarily dismissed. If this money had, in fact, been paid as the Germans are legally obliged to do, with interest for more than half a century, Greece would no longer be a problem economy.

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It is galling too because while ancient historical myths as Greece being the ‘birthplace of democracy’ are routinely trotted out in discussions of the contemporary situation, recent history that people over 70 remember are carefully hidden from view! Be that as it may.

What is crucial is that the crisis demonstrates that capital and finance markets need to be regulated more stringently. It was irresponsible lending that led to high government deficits in Greece and to the housing bubbles in Spain and Ireland, to the subprime crisis in the US, and to the meltdown of the Icelandic economy to mention just the most obvious cases. Financial markets are continuing to demand punitive rates of interest from the weaker economies. The unchecked power of finance must be corralled–or we will enter another great depression just as the obsession with the gold standard led to the depression as Karl Polanyi showed in his Great Transformation.

What is required is a new political imagination not the shrill advocacy of measures that have already aggravated the situation!

Iceland–An Independent People

April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Posted in democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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In the midst of the NATO campaign against Libya and the budget deal between Republicans and the Democrats in the US, a far more historically significant event appears to have fallen off the radar. On April 9, 2011, the people of Iceland voted for the second time to reject a government proposal for Iceland taxpayers to repay some €4 billion to the governments of Britain and the Netherlands which had compensated their domestic depositors in the collapsed online bank, Icesave. Initially, the British and Dutch governments had pressured the Iceland government to agree to repay them over fifteen years at a 5.5 percent annual interest–which was estimated to cost each household in the tiny island nation about €45,000 over the period. This was rejected by 91 percent of the voters in a referendum in March 2010. After subsequent negotiations, London and Amesterdam agreed to lower the interest to 3.2 percent and stretch the repayment period to 30 years between 2016 and 2046. The deal was accepted by a large majority of 44 in favor and 16 opposed in the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, which also rejected a clause to submit the bill to another referendum. Nevertheless, as the President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to sign the bill, it was automatically subject to a referendum wherein it was rejected by almost 60 percent of the voters.

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The Dutch and British governments–which had used anti-terrorist legislation to seize assets of the failed Icelandic banks–have threatened to scupper Iceland’s application to join the European Union and to take the island nation to court. Reykjavik has insisted that the two governments would get most of their money back and the assets of the Landsbanki bank which set up the Icesave operation would be sold and was expected to realize 90 percent of the Icesave debt. What was at issue in the referendum was not whether London and Amsterdam would be compensated or not–but whether private citizens should be expected to shoulder the burden of repayment of a bank’s debt in which they had no hand in incurring and from which they did not benefit. The threat to take Iceland to court is important because it is to frighten off other states which also face indebtedness due to the financial crisis like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. It is simply the question of whether the bankers have to bear the burden of the bad loans they have extended.

Iceland is, in fact, a case study of neo-liberalism gone awry. Before the late 1990s, Iceland’s financial sector had been small and the banks were largely government-owned. In 1998, the two leading parties–the Independence Party and the Centre Party–embarked on a privatization of the banking sector, assigning Landsbanki to grandees of the Independence Party and Kaupthing to the Centre Party. A new private bank, Glitnir, was also set up merging several smaller banks. None of these banks had much experience in international finance, but like South Korean banks a decade earlier, these banks tapped into abundant cheap credit and easy capital mobility. Unlike the South Korean banks, their strong ties to political parties, the merger of commercial and investment banking, and low soveriegn debt meant that they got extremely high grades from the credit ratings agencies and as Robert Wade and Silla Sigurgeirsdottir note: “government policy was now subordinated to their ends.”

With the government relaxing mortgage rules to permit loans up to 90 percent of value, the banks rode the wave–by buying shares in each other they inflated share prices and enticed depositors to shift their savings to shares. In less than 10 years after the privatization of banks, Iceland had the fifth highest GDP in the world, 60 percent higher than that of the United States, and the assets of their banks was valued at 800 percent of Iceland’s GDP. As land prices soared, Icelanders loaded up on lower-interest yen- or Swiss-franc debt.

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By 2006, Iceland’s current account deficit had soared to 20 percent of its GDP. Late in that year, Landsbanki established an online bank, Icesave, to attract deposits from overseas clients and by offering highly attractive interest rates, it raked in millions of pounds from England, and later millions of euros especially from the Netherlands. This was soon copied by the two other banks. These were established as ‘branches’ rather than as ‘subsidiaries‘ which meant that they were to be supervised by the icelandic Central Bank rather than regulators in Britain or the Netherlands. Because of Iceland’s obligations as a member of the European Economic Area to insure bank deposits, no one thought to worry about whether the Icelandic Central Bank had the capacity to oversee the vastly extended operations of the island’s three major banks.

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This happy bubble burst in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed, within a fortnight of which the three big Icelandic banks collapsed and by November of that year the krona had fallen from its pre-crisis level of 70 to the euro to 190 to the euro, so sharply cutting the islanders’ purchasing power that the three McDonald’s franchises were forced to close as the cost of importing ingredients made the price of burgers prohibitive! The country’s stock market lost 98 percent of its value! If ever there was a definition of crisis, this was it. It was the first time in over 30 years that a ‘developed’ state had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

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In the light of all this, Iceland’s voters have had the courage to face up to the crisis. It was the first country to kick out the government which had failed so spectacularly. Unlike its neighbor in the North Atlantic–Ireland which underwrote its own banking collapse and loader every household with €80,000 in debt–Iceland let the three banks go under and they imposed capital controls to prevent the flight of capital. Though unemployment in Iceland today is 7.5 percent in Iceland–up from 2 percent in 2002–but just over half of Ireland’s 13.6 percent. Though the krona lost almost half its value, inflation is down sharply and without having to pay back foreign creditors, its government finances are in much better shape than those of Greece, Ireland, or Portugal.

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