Veni, Vedi, Vasectomy?

June 5, 2015 at 2:54 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, international relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, world politics | 1 Comment
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On June 3, when the President of the European Commission (EC), Jean-Claude Juncker conveyed the collective demands of Greece’s creditors—the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—to the embattled country’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, a member of his governing Syriza party said of the Greek delegation: “They came, they saw, and they had their balls handed to them.”

Five months after the anti-austerity party rode to victory in the Greek elections and had renounced efforts by previous Greek governments to impose austerity measures that had led the country’s debt grow from 124 per cent of GDP to 180 per cent and its unemployment rate soar to 25 per cent (and youth unemployment to 60 per cent) and its pensioners see their meagre pensions decline even faster, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited the IMF’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde and the President of the ECB, Mario Draghi to a previously scheduled meeting between herself, Juncker, and the French President Francois Hollande on June 1 to draft a common negotiating position among Greece’s creditors. Prime Minister Tsipras was notably not invited.

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Papering over their differences, the 5-page demands Juncker delivered to Tsipras made some concessions to Greece—lowering the demand that the primary surplus for 2015 be 1 per cent rather than the 3-4 per cent that had been the earlier demand—but also included “red lines” that the Syriza-led government had vowed never to cross such as generating 2 per cent of the GDP from cutting pensions and raising VAT to a uniform level (except on food, medicines, and hotels), not to reverse the labor market reforms that the ‘troika’ (the ECB, the EC, and the IMF) had forced down the throats of previous governments, and even to establish an ‘independent’ tax and customs agency and thereby making its operations beyond the ambit of elected officials.

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Yet, far beyond debates on primary surpluses and ‘red lines,’ the real struggle between Greece and its “European partners” is over politics. The positions are clear. Because of the single currency, an indebted country like Greece cannot devalue its currency and thereby cheapen its exports and with the increase in exports (and tourism) repay its debts. Hence the ‘troika’ (now renamed ‘the institutions’) were attempting to impose an ‘internal devaluation’ on Athens: forcing it to cut minimum wages and increase labor market ‘flexibility’ (making it easier to hire and fire workers and thereby also curb labor militancy) to force down the prices of Greek products to increase exports, to privatize government assets, improve taxation and efficiency in collecting taxes, and to sharply reduce government expenditures by severely cutting welfare programs and reducing public sector employment and pensions. Syriza and other opponents of the ‘austerity’ measures have argued that these measures actually impede Greece’s ability to repay its loans: if people don’t have money due to welfare cuts, job losses, etc., they cannot buy goods and hence more businesses fail. Indeed, Greece’s GDP has contracted by over 25 per cent in the five years of troika-mandated austerity and its unemployment remains high while its debt as a ratio of GDP has grown from 124 per cent to 180 per cent.

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As Robert Preston, the BBC’s economics editor puts it:

But although for the pride of the creditors, the question of whether Greece is obliged to generate a surplus on its budget, excluding interest payments, of a bit more than zero or 3%, feels like a world of difference – it is a rounding error compared with the money Greece owes them, which is equivalent to 180% of Greek GDP.

In the highly unlikely event that Greece could generate a 2% or 3% surplus year-in and year-out without its economy shrinking further (which few economists would anticipate), it would take around half a century for Greek public sector debt to fall to a level regarded as sustainable. gett A half century of austerity? In what modern democracy would that be regarded as a realistic option?

Most egregiously, sharp cuts in expenditure has meant that in some hospitals budgets have fallen by 94 per cent. How can this be sustainable in a continent as rich as Europe?

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It is clear that one way or another, as Nils Pratley wrote in the Guardian, there will have to be a debt write-down. What Greece’s European “partners” are unwilling to countenance is Syriza’s demands to reverse the “austerity” measures because they want to root out any left-wing challenge to the reigning neo-liberal orthodoxy. Once Greece caves in, subjects itself to ‘vasectomy’ in the words of one of its MPs, then debt-relief could be offered but not before. To offer a write-down of the debt is particularly terrifying to Spain where the governing party has already lost many local elections to a Syriza-like party, Podemos, which now controls the three major cities of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. It is also threatening to other EU economies like Portugal, Ireland, and Italy which have been compelled to implement austerity measures.

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Syriza has, however, done its cause no favors despite some eloquent posturing by its Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. It has not demanded a write down of the debt—and we must remember that when the troika made the first loan to Greece in 2010, Germany and France explicitly demanded that the austerity not be extended to the military—and Greece has been the best customer of the German arms industry. How is the cutting of pensions and salaries to workers while maintaining higher than the EU average in military spending morally justifiable?

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With Syriza maintaining the charade of negotiating with its European ‘partners’ over the last months, Greece’s position has rapidly deteriorated as frightened depositors have withdrawn their money from the banks and even transferred them outside the country. By the end of April, Greece’s bank deposits were at their lowest level since 2004 and by the end of last week deposits were being withdrawn at the daily rate of 1 billion euros.

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Interestingly, the Speaker of the Greek Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, has set up a Debt Truth Committee to report to parliament on June 18

is said to be on the point of finding some of Greece’s original bailout debt, from either 2010 or 2011, was unlawfully contracted. In addition, Ms Konstantopoulou is armed with a finding from experts that Germany owes Greece €350bn in war reparations – more than the whole of its debt to Europe.

This could open up a host of legal challenges even if Tsipiras was to finally cave into the troika’s demands. The question is whether the Left Platform within Syriza is strong enough to prevent a cave in when there is nothing the troika would like than to install a government of national unity with a rump Syriza. That would, temporarily at least till Spain’s November election, decapitate the European Left. Will it happen?

In the short run, if no resolution is found, Greece will be unable to make scheduled payments to its creditors and being declared to be in default would make its borrowing costs in private capital markets intolerable; Syriza’s reluctance to impose capital controls would lead to the swift collapse of its banking sector unless the government begins to issue a virtual currency against future revenues which could ease the liquify crunch domestically at least. But Greece cannot be thrown out of the EU without its consent as all decisions must be unanimous. Even if Greece were to exit the common currency—Grexit as it has been dubbed—it would call the whole European project into question. It is also unrealistic to expect a country as bankrupt as Greece to police its borders when hordes of refugees from Africa and the Middle East are streaming to Europe—and from Greece, they could move to any country in the Schengen area. Will this be enough for its European ‘partners’ to blink?

Reversing the Tide? Southern European People’s Challenge to Neo-Liberalism

September 28, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Earlier this week, confronted by massive street protests and criticism from his coalition’s junior partner, the center-right Portuguese Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, reversed his controversial plan for “financial devaluation.” When tax revenues fell by 3.5 percent in the first seven months of this year–due to unemployment rates spiking to above 15 percent–against a projected increase of 2.6 percent for the year, it became apparent that Lisbon would not be able to meet the budget deficit target of 4.5 percent of GDP imposed by the troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the Interantional Monetary Fund as a condition for disbursing the next tranche of the €78 billion bailout they promised.

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 Passos Coelho’s solution to this dilemma was to cut employer’s social security contribution by 5.75 percent and finance this by increasing workers’ contributions by 7 percent. This would have been tantamount to a currency devaluation by significantly reducing unit labor costs and was heralded as a “potential game changer” by the IMF’s Poul Thompsen.

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In the continued decline of the country’s GDP and high rates of unemployment, this proposal was condemned by members of the prime minister’s own party as well as by the leader of the junior partner in his coalition–the conservative People’s Party–and by many business leaders as well as of course by more than half a million people who marched in Portugal’s cities in the largest demonstrations since the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974.

 

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We are not the children of the revolution.” their posters said, “We are the parents of the next revolution.” Meanwhile, in Spain, the miners of Asturias have been battling the police for months with rocket launchers, and protestors jn Madrid were met with a fusillade of rubber bullets. With over half the youth unemployed, and the government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy planning to implement deeper austerity measures in order to say that these were taken by their own volition rather than imposed by the troika as a condition for a bailout, the right and the left united in opposition. In recognition of this united opposition, the riot police in Madrid hid their identity badges:

A startling example of police culture came in a tweet from José Manuel Sánchez of the Unified Police Union (SUP). “We support them not wearing badges for violent demonstrators,” he said during the demonstration. “Give it to them hard.” Television pictures of baton charges and rubber bullets suggest they did exactly that.

 And in Spain’s second city, a million and a half people led by the provincial government marched for Catalan independence–here it was not merely the demonstrators but the regional legislators who were challenging the post-Franco accord.

 

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 Athens exploded as well in a burst of flames as the unions called a general strike grounding flights, shuttering shops, museums, and monuments, and docking ships for hours as over 200,000 people demonstrated outside parliament protesting the new round of austerity measures the three-month old government of prime minister Antonis Samaras. Though details of the cuts were not made public, it was expected to slash pensions, wages and benefits even more.

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All across Europe, these riots seem a repetition of the ‘anti-IMF’ riots that raged across Latin America and Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. As Ha-Joon Chang writes 

it is ironic to see the European governments inflicting an old-IMF-style programme on their own populations. It is one thing to tell the citizens of some faraway country to go to hell but it is another to do the same to your own citizens, who are supposedly your ultimate sovereigns. Indeed, the European governments are out-IMF-ing the IMF in its austerity drive so much that now the fund itself frequently issues the warning that Europe is going too far, too fast.

Just as the IMF number crunchers did not take into account the people whose livelihoods would be crippled by the savage cuts being proposed by the troika and imposed by their puppets in Athens, Lisbon, Madrid. But as the Gurardian editorialized:

Amid all their talk of haircuts (on debt values) and tranches (of loans), European leaders have barely talked about the people who are bearing the brunt, first of the crisis and then of the throat-clearing that passes for firefighting in Brussels. This is not accidental. The euro project has relied upon draining the politics out of the inherently political: the very existence of a 17-nation economic union without a common treasury is testimony to that.

The protests are now inserting the politics back into the issue–demanding that those who had no part in the financial mess created by the collapse of housing bubbles, bad loans, and high deficits should not bear the price of these costly gambles made by bankers and politicians. it is not merely the question of bad financial regulations–it is the more the question of democracy that is at stake in Europe. The Portuguese reversal of its “financial devaluation” is the first step towards reversing the tide of neo-liberalism! A small step for Portugal, a giant leap for Europe!

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!

The Greek Challenge: Austerity or NATO

May 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Capitalism, democracy, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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In the Greek elections on Sunday May 6, 2012, the two main parties that had governed the country since the end of the dictatorship–New Democracy and Pasok–and both of which has subscribed to the stringent austerity measures imposed on Athens for a bailout suffered a stunning set-back. Used to dominating the polls, together they received just one-third of the votes. Two-thirds of the Greek electorate voted for parties–including a neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn–that rejected the austerity measures, though most Greeks still want to remain within the Eurozone. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Syriza coalition of green and left parties that placed second in the elections, and was the big winner declared the austerity plan dead. That is certainly what the Greek voters indicated though the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and the European Commission President, José Manuel Durão Barroso claimed that agreements are binding and cannot be negotiated after every election. By what perverted logic does this hold: last year, when the stringent bailout conditions were imposed on Greece by the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–the then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou wanted to hold a referendum. Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, forced him to rescind the referendum. The bailout agreement, then, was foisted on the Greek people not only without their consent, but on the explicit condition that their consent not be solicited. No such international agreement can have a shred of legitimacy and the Greeks voted, in their millions, to reject it!

 

Greece electionIt was, Albert Einstein I think who said that the clearest sign of insanity is to persist in doing something that has failed repeatedly. Clearly, austerity programs have not worked. In Greece, unemployment stands at 21 per cent and the OECD estimates that real wages have fallen by 25 per cent in the last two years.According to the IMF, this will be the fifth straight year of recession for Greece to be followed by a year of stagnation. Even if the Greek government were to implement the austerity measures, the IMF estimates that in 2017, the public debt to GDP ratio would be 137 per cent, higher than at the onset of the current crisis. And thus far, IMF projections have been overly optimistic!

None of this should be surprising! After all if incomes are slashed and taxes raised, people are not going to have the resources to buy as many goods and services as they did earlier. This will lead to a contraction of the market and greater unemployment–which in turn will lead to further contractions in demand and the economy will go into a tailspin. Even Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative New Democracy party and one who adheres to the austerity pact acknowledges that fully a fourth of all Greek companies have closed their doors since 2009 and a further third of the companies do not pay their workers on time

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What is surprising is that by insisting that Greece implement further austerity measures–and even suspend the rights of collective bargaining–the ‘troika’ has excluded Greece’s military expenditures from the scalpel. As Paul Haydon reported in the Guardian

In 2006, as the financial crisis was looming, Greece was the third biggest arms importer after China and India. And over the past 10 years its military budget has stood at an average of 4% of GDP, more than £900 per person. If Greece is in need of structural reform, then its oversized military would seem the most logical place to start. In fact, if it had only spent the EU average of 1.7% over the last 20 years, it would have saved a total of 52% of its GDP – meaning instead of being completely bankrupt it would be among the more typical countries struggling with the recession.

 In the five years to 2010, Greece was the largest customer for Germany’s arms industry. And in 2010, when the first bailout was being negotiated for Greece, Athens spent 7.1 billion euros on arms even as it slashed 1.8 billion in social spending. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the European member of parliament, even claimed that Papanreou had told him that German and French support for the bailout was specifically linked to continued military spending. In 2010, at 3 percent of its budget on military spending, Athens allocated a higher percentage of its spending to defense than any NATO state other than the United States.

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While it is obvious why Germany and France don’t want Greece to cut its defense spending, why are Greek politicians not raising this as an issue?

What Difference Will Hollande’s Victory in France Make for Europe, for the World?

May 6, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, World Politics | 6 Comments
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Francois Hollande has defeated Nicolas Sarkozy to become the first Socialist president of France in 17 years. He campaigned on a platform to renegotiate the austerity package that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy had championed, with the support of the British Prime Minister David Cameron and other ‘center-right’ politicians in Europe. The victorious Hollande argued that the way out of the fiscal crisis enveloping the Eurozone is to focus on growth rather than to reduce deficits. The austerity packages, by sharply curbing government expenditures not only leads to unemployment but also reduced payments to the elderly, the young, and the unemployed. They can therefore no longer consume at their previous levels leading to further unemployment as businesses curtail production and the economy continues its tailspin–as has already happened in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Ireland.

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But will Hollande be successful in reviving the Eurozone economies? Will this ‘marshmallow’ man (so-called because he hates fights) be strong enough to stand up to Merkel? His potential choice as prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. has suggested that rather than reopening the draft fiscal treaty driven by Sarkozy and Merkel., Hollande will seek to incorporate a minor amendment on growth. This would not be surprising as Hollande’s previous experience in government was as an aide to the last Socialist president of France, Francous Mitterand, who in his second term initiated a wave of neo-liberal reforms that de-regulated much of the French economy.

Socialist and Labor parties in Europe, as political expressions of trade unions since the late nineteenth-century, have floundered as manufacturing has shifted to lower-waged countries and trade unions have suffered a tremendous erosion of memberships. After Margareth Thatcher defeated the miners strike in 1984, European unions have steadily declined in political and social significance.

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What, too, is a ‘growth’ strategy has never been addressed except to say that it should not be based on austerity measures. As manufacturing is becoming increasingly automated–labor costs amounted to only $7.10 of a total production cost of $178.40 for Apple’s iPhone 4–high-paying jobs in industry are simply disappearing. In large, vertically-integrated industrial operations, workers going on strike in a singe shop can disrupt the entire assembly line and hence undermine corporate profits. If workers in a gear-box plant down their tools, the entire auto assembly line will soon grind to a halt. Workers in the service sector–in the fast food industry or tellers in banks–simply do not have this structural power and hence their ability to bargain for better wages are far more limited. And as industrial production relocates overseas, more and more workers enter the service industries.

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With lower incomes, their ability to consume is more limited. And this makes it less profitable to produce more goods and so industrial production continues to plummet as capital is increasingly allocated to financial speculation. This has the strange effect that whenever an election is held, the first question asked by the talking heads on TV is what would be the reaction of the markets to the results–because after the de-regulation of capital controls, the flows of capital into and out of a country are crucial to its economy and there is not government mechanism to regulate these flows.

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In these conditions, governments are compelled to maintain market-friendly conditions and this is not something Hollande is likely to change. So what does growth-oriented policies mean? This needs to be spelt out beyond saying that it is the opposite of austerity programs, How is the economy going to add well-paying jobs in a situation when manufacturing is being steadily downgraded in the hierarchy of economic activities?

Europe: The Democratic Deficit

April 12, 2012 at 10:45 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Free Trade, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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“A typical sight during the pre-election protests,” in Spain last year Katherine Ainger wrote in the Guardian, “was a respectable middle-aged man with a cigarette in one hand and a marker pen in the other going from municipal bin to municipal bin writing ‘Vote here’ on the lids.” A few months later, at the other end of the Eurozone, in return for loans from the European Union, leaders of all three major political parties in Greece were required to sign pledges not to rescind a savage austerity program cutting more than 3.3 billion euros from the budget, rendering these pledges concrete and irreversible regardless of the outcome of the general election in April 2012. If the ‘typical sight’ during last year’s Spanish elections suggested that all political parties are the same, the demand that the EU wrested from the Greek politicians proved that their general election, announced for May 6, was rendered meaningless as the victors could not implement a new program. Elections become meaningless.

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Paradoxically, just as French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron after a brief hesitation, abandoned their client dictators in North Africa–even violently  overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in Libya and chafing at the bit to do the same to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria–Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel abandoned all pretense of supporting democracy when they forced then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou to cancel a referendum he had proposed on the harsh terms imposed by the European Union for a bailout to Athens in November 2011. Threatening to expel Greece from the Eurozone, they effectively forced Papandreou to resign two days later and for him to be replaced by a national unity government headed by a former Vice President of the European Central Bank, Lucas Papademos.

Reporting in the Guardian, Helena Smith wrote:

For a country not only burdened by debt but closer to default than ever before, his appointment at the helm of a transitional government in Athens would be widely welcomed. An avuncular figure, Papademos is well respected in the European Union. In the corridors of power in Paris and Berlin, the capitals that count in deciding Greece’s fate, he is seen as a safe pair of hands, more capable than most at navigating the crisis-hit nation away from the shores of economic Armageddon.

Yet, this ‘safe pair of hands’ was the very one who, as president of the Greek Central Bank cooked the books so that Greece could enter the monetary union–and he was helped in this creative accounting by the European division of the Goldman Sachs—which is to be headed soon by the current president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi—for a fee of $300 million. Northern European governments only feign ignorance of their Mediterranean neighbors’ debts and subsidies, as Wolfgang Streeck notes, because their surveillance agencies could not “have failed to notice how countries like Greece saturated themselves with cheap credit after their accession to the Eurozone.” In fact, as government subsidies slowed down in conditions of budget consolidation, it was private flows that made up the difference–and it profited the export industries of the north because of the improved purchasing power among the Mediterranean countries—the prosperity of the north was predicated on the indebtedness of the south! Despite the fact that Eurostat had disclosed in 2004 that billions of euros had been shifted off public records in Greece, Athens continued to enjoy triple-A ratings.

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Even the money being borrowed by Greece may have been the money of wealthy Greeks sent abroad as the Greek upper classes were practically tax-exempt as Stathis Kouvelakis has pointed out. When PASOK took office in 1981, it began to institute a social welfare system but did not seek to enlarge the tax base and even the middle class and the moderately wealthy remained exempt. In a sense then it is the untaxed money of richer Greeks, recycled through European banks, that is the source of the Greek debt! Yet, precisely because these funds were recycled through European banks, a Greek default would undermine the whole European financial system.

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It is no wonder then that Sarkozy and Merkel refused to countenance a referendum in Greece and not only installed their own man at the helm of the government in Athens but placed officials from the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–to oversee the operations of the government. Unless the Greek government complied with the stringent terms of the agreement imposed on it, funds in the escrow account will be withheld from Athens: a 32 percent cut in the minimum wage for those under 25, a 22 percent cut for those above 25, a cut in pensions by 25 percent on top of the laying off of some 200,000 workers over the past 12 months.

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Given that politicians are hand-in-glove with the banks–from Goldman Sachs helping the Papademos shift billions of euros off the books to the Greek police beat up its Greek citizens to impose order for banks and hedge funds–it is no wonder that citizens are turning their backs on the politicians!

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.

Eurozone’s Woes

December 4, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Posted in International Relations, Political Economy, world politics | Leave a comment
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The Euro–the single currency adopted by 16 states–has been under siege for over a year beginning with the election of a new government in Greece in September 2009 which sharply revised the country’s public deficit from 6 percent of GDP to 12.7 percent. This led to a loss of confidence in the government’s ability to repay loans and raised the cost of borrowing, creating greater difficulties for the government to repay the 300 billion euro debt bequeathed to it by its predecessor in office. Normally, a government faced with high debts could devalue its currency and thereby increase the competitiveness of its exports and attract both foreign investments and tourists but the adoption of the common currency ruled out this option.

Eventually, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cobbled together a rescue package of €110 billion ($146 billion) in May 2010 in return for Greece implementing very severe austerity measures. European policy makers also set up a European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) to create a safety net of upto €750 billion to preserve financial stability among member states of the common currency.

These floodgates came under renewed threat when German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a statement that in future financial crises, creditors must also share in the losses rather than only the tax-payers. As Ireland was the most indebted economy within the Eurozone, this caused interest rates on Irish bonds to spike causing a further crisis in confidence. Unlike the Greek crisis which was caused by high public deficits, the Irish crisis was caused by a collapse of its housing bubble.

Soon after the introduction of the single currency, weak economic demand in the main Eurozone economies–Germany’s real domestic demand in 2008 was only 5 percent higher than in 1999–fueled an asset price inflation-especially in Ireland and Spain. As the former taoiseach (Prime Minister) Garret Fitzgerald noted, the house construction rate in the Celtic Tiger in the last two decades was six times that of Britain–leading to an extraordinary housing bubble stimulated by the Anglo Irish bank and a host of overseas banks. When the bubble burst, instead of the banks’ creditors sharing the losses, the government assumed their payment obligations, nationalizing the Anglo-irish Bank and creating the National Asset Management Agency to take over large loans from other banks, effectively transforming private debt into public debt.

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The ECB and IMF have once again cobbled together a rescue package of €85 billion ($115 billion) but this has not stopped a massive gap in the bond spreads (an increase in the cost of borrowing for the weaker members of the Eurozone, especially Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) and the fear is that if the crisis spreads to Spain and Italy, two of the largest economies, the EFSF would be inadequate and it would cause an enormous political conundrum: citizens of the stronger states will become increasingly unwilling to bail out the more ‘profligate’ states, and citizens of the latter would be unwilling to put up with increasingly stringent long-term austerity measures.

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Spain is fortunate because a large amount of its government debt is owed to its own banks rather than to overseas banks. At the beginning of 2010, Spain’s public debt was only 53 percent of GDP, about 20 percentage points below that of the Eurozone average and half that of Italy’s. Last year, when the budget deficit stood at 11.1 percent of GDP, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also pushed through an austerity package that led to the government’s deficit falling by 47 percent in the first ten months of 2010. The problem for Spain is its high private debt–especially the heavy borrowing from overseas banks to fund home construction in the years up to 2008, Before the start of the recession, Gilles Moec of the Deutsche Bank estimated that private sector debt was 210 percent of GDP compared to 130 percent for Germany, France, and Italy.

If the extent of the impending crisis have left many to wonder about the future of the euro, the problem surely is not in the common currency. As Philippe Legrain wrote in the Financial Times there is a lot to be said for

enabling capital to flow from one member country to another without exchange-rate risk is a key advantage of the euro. If this were possible globally, emerging economies would not feel compelled to amass huge reserves to protect against crises and could be net recipients of investment instead.

What was the problem was that capital from the stronger members of the Eurozone was channeled to fund asset bubbles in Ireland, Spain, and elsewhere. Tighter regulations of cross-border investments can mitigate this problem. But more importantly, why are lenders coddled in cotton wool while taxpayers are burdened with huge debts they had done nothing to incur? Ordinary Irish citizens, as Paul Krugman, has underlined are:

bearing a burden much larger than the debt — because those spending cuts have caused a severe recession so that in addition to taking on the banks’ debts, the Irish are suffering from plunging incomes and high unemployment.

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Earlier when Iceland and Kazakhstan faced financial crises, creditors shared in the pain. The external debt of Kazakhstan’s banking sector which had stood at 26 percent of GDP when the crisis struck in February 2009 had been cut almost in half by September 2010 by making creditors share in the losses and accepting various combinations of senior and subordinated debt. There is no reason to let banks off the hook. In Iceland, the crisis caused the election of a left-leaning government which also were able to get better terms.

If the current crisis enveloping the Eurozone leads to the election of more left leaning governments, and to a refusal to nationalize private debt and to greater regulations over the economy, it may be the final nail in the neoliberal coffin!

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