Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis: ‘If I weren’t scared, I’d be awfully dangerous’

Helena Smith writes: Varoufakis is muscular, fit, amiable, slightly off-centre, everything he seems on camera. But what film does not capture is his energy, focus and intensity. An hour in his company will take you places; in our case, from Marxist theory to the joys of jazz; the eurozone and its incomplete architecture; sartorial tastes; Nazism; the bigness of America; austerity politics; debt traps; poetry; exercise and Varoufakis’ tendency to keep his hands in his pockets (the result of a shoulder injury).

The academic, who had a faithful following on the lecture circuit, despite being a self-described accidental economist, subscribes to the view that one should have an opinion about all and sundry. It is, he says, something he picked up long ago. “I was told, once, by a leftwing scholar that as a Marxist you have to do two things: always be optimistic and always have a view about everything. That advice still sounds good to me.”

At 53, Varoufakis is still clear that he “understands the world better” as a result of having read Marx. But he no longer considers himself a diehard leftie, whatever others may think. Rather, he says, he is a libertarian or erratic Marxist, who can marvel at the wondrousness of capitalism but is also painfully aware of its inherent contradictions, just as he is “the awful legacy” of the left. “It is a system that produces massive wealth and massive poverty,” proclaims the economist who taught at the universities of East Anglia, Cambridge, Glasgow and Sydney after gaining his doctoral degree at the University of Essex. “I don’t think you can understand capitalism until and unless you understand those contradictions and ask yourself if capitalism is the natural state. I don’t think it is. That’s why I am a leftwinger.”

More than that, Varoufakis is an iconoclast, a self-styled “contrarian” who is also an idealist, “because if you are not an idealist, you are a cynic”. And he has, he laments, lost a lot of friends on the left who believe that Grexit, Greece’s exit from the currency bloc, would be the country’s best course.

“It’s one thing to say you shouldn’t have gotten into the euro, it’s quite another to say you should get out of the euro. If we backtrack, we fall off a cliff. This is my argument to everyone.” Europe, he insists, is stuck with Greece because Athens is never going to ask to leave the euro. Fittingly, perhaps, the new MP, who has dual Greek-Australian citizenship, is not a signed-up member of Syriza, the party he now represents in the rambunctious Athens parliament. Syriza’s militant wing wants nothing more than to get out of the monetary union. [Continue reading…]

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A finance minister who doesn’t serve the banks

Simon Jenkins writes: A yawning gulf has opened in the world of financial diplomacy. It is not whether to bail out Greece yet again. It is how a Greek finance minister should dress when visiting a chancellor of the exchequer. Yanis Varoufakis arrived in Downing Street yesterday in black jeans, a mauve open-necked shirt that was not tucked in, and the sort of leather coat Putin might wear on a bear hunt. If George Osborne still didn’t get the point, Varoufakis had a No 1 haircut. What was going on?

What was going on was real life. If I were a banker and had seen Varoufakis arrive in the same dark suit as Osborne was wearing, what would I think? I would think here was a man eager to be accepted into the club. He dresses like a banker, therefore he thinks like a banker, which is how today’s finance ministers are supposed to think. I would be reassured.

We don’t want bankers to be reassured by Varoufakis just now. We want them to be terrified. Don’t mess with me, he is saying. I have a sovereign electorate behind me, and I have a bankrupt country. When your banks go bankrupt you bail them out. When your businesses go bankrupt you write off their debts and let them start again. Do the same to me. Your banks have lent my country crazy sums of money, way beyond the bounds of caution or common sense. Now you honestly think you will get it back. You can’t. Read my lips, look at my jeans, feel my stubble. You can’t. Get real. [Continue reading…]

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Angela Merkel must accept that her austerity policy is now in tatters

Joschka Fischer writes: Not long ago, German politicians and journalists confidently declared that the euro crisis was over; Germany and the European Union, they believed, had weathered the storm. Today, we know that this was just another mistake in a continuing crisis. The latest error, as with most of the earlier ones, stemmed from wishful thinking – and, once again, it is Greece that has broken the reverie.

Even before the leftist Syriza party’s overwhelming victory in the recent Greek election it was obvious that, far from being over, the crisis was threatening to worsen. Austerity – the policy of saving your way out of a demand shortfall – simply does not work. In a shrinking economy, a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio rises rather than falls, and Europe’s recession-ridden crisis countries have now saved themselves into a depression, resulting in mass unemployment, alarming levels of poverty and scant hope.

Warnings of a severe political backlash went unheeded. Shadowed by Germany’s deep-seated inflation taboo, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government stubbornly insisted that the pain of austerity was essential to economic recovery; the EU had little choice but to go along. Now, with Greece’s voters having driven out their country’s exhausted and corrupt elite in favour of a party that has vowed to end austerity, the backlash has arrived. [Continue reading…]

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Yanis Varoufakis — Greece’s new finance minister

The New York Times reports: The leftist-led coalition that won Greece’s elections unveiled its government on Tuesday, with the crucial post of finance minister going to an economist who has called the eurozone’s austerity policies “fiscal waterboarding.”

The new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, a professor and avid blogger, will confront Greece’s international creditors in tough talks over the austerity policies, widely despised by the Greeks. Those talks could have profound consequences for Greece, the future of the euro currency and the financial integration of the European Union.

Twenty-two ministries have been streamlined to 10 in the new cabinet, all but one held by members of Syriza, the radical-left party that won the most votes in the Sunday elections and that has vowed to renegotiate the country’s onerous debts.

The Defense Ministry post went to Panos Kammenos, the leader of Syriza’s coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks, and a handful of deputy posts went to his colleagues.

But the most important post filled by the new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year-old leader of Syriza, was his choice of finance minister: Mr. Varoufakis, 53, who left a teaching post at the University of Texas to join Syriza’s election campaign. [Continue reading…]

Yanis Varoufakis interviewed by Johanna Jaufer: You have been a politician for only three weeks now…

Two weeks.

Have you had to think it over very much? In your blog you wrote that you were frightened, too.

It was a major decision. Primarily, because I entered politics in order to do a job that I always thought should be done and I was offered the opportunity to do it. It has to do with the negotiations between Greece and the European Union if Syriza wins, which is an extremely scary project and prospect. At the same time I am an academic, I am a citizen, an active citizen, so I am used to dialogue where the point of the conversation really should be that I learn from you and you learn from me – we are going to have disagreements, but through these disagreements we enrich each other’s points of view.

It’s not about winning the other one over…

That’s right – actually in politics, it is worse: each side tries to destroy the other side – in the eyes of the public – and that is something that is completely alien to me and something that I didn’t want to get used to.

What about your university job? Have you put it on hold?

Yes, indeed. I have resigned from University of Texas. I still retain my chair at the University of Athens – without pay – and hopefully it won’t be too long before I return to it.

Wouldn’t you be ready to stay in a government for a longer time?

No, I don’t want to make a career out of politics. Ideally, I would like somebody else to do it, and to do it better than I. It’s just that this was a window of opportunity, because Syriza rising to power is a precedence. So, it was a small window of opportunity to get something done that would not have been done otherwise. I’m not a prophet, so I can’t tell you where I will be in two, three, five, ten years. But if you’re asking me now, my ideal outcome would be that our government succeeds in renegotiating a deal with Europe that renders Greece sustainable, and then other people, you know… power should be rotated, no one should grow particularly fond of it. [Continue reading…]

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The eurozone’s delayed reckoning

Nouriel Roubini writes: The risks facing the eurozone have been reduced since the summer, when a Greek exit looked imminent and borrowing costs for Spain and Italy reached new and unsustainable heights. But, while financial strains have since eased, economic conditions on the eurozone’s periphery remain shaky.

Several factors account for the reduction in risks. For starters, the European Central Bank’s “outright monetary transactions” program has been incredibly effective: interest-rate spreads for Spain and Italy have fallen by about 250 basis points, even before a single euro has been spent to purchase government bonds. The introduction of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which provides another €500 billion ($650 billion) to be used to backstop banks and sovereigns, has also helped, as has European leaders’ recognition that a monetary union alone is unstable and incomplete, requiring deeper banking, fiscal, economic, and political integration.

CommentsBut, perhaps most important, Germany’s attitude toward the eurozone in general, and Greece in particular, has changed. German officials now understand that, given extensive trade and financial links, a disorderly eurozone hurts not just the periphery but the core. They have stopped making public statements about a possible Greek exit, and just supported a third bailout package for the country. As long as Spain and Italy remain vulnerable, a Greek blowup could spark severe contagion before Germany’s election next year, jeopardizing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chances of winning another term. So Germany will continue to finance Greece for the time being. [Continue reading…]

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Video: The human cost of austerity

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The tragedy of the European Union and how to resolve it

George Soros writes: I have been a fervent supporter of the European Union as the embodiment of an open society—a voluntary association of equal states that surrendered part of their sovereignty for the common good. The euro crisis is now turning the European Union into something fundamentally different. The member countries are divided into two classes—creditors and debtors—with the creditors in charge, Germany foremost among them. Under current policies debtor countries pay substantial risk premiums for financing their government debt, and this is reflected in the cost of financing in general. This has pushed the debtor countries into depression and put them at a substantial competitive disadvantage that threatens to become permanent.

This is the result not of a deliberate plan but of a series of policy mistakes that started when the euro was introduced. It was general knowledge that the euro was an incomplete currency—it had a central bank but did not have a treasury. But member countries did not realize that by giving up the right to print their own money they exposed themselves to the risk of default. Financial markets realized it only at the onset of the Greek crisis. The financial authorities did not understand the problem, let alone see a solution. So they tried to buy time. But instead of improving, the situation deteriorated. This was entirely due to the lack of understanding and the lack of unity.

The course of events could have been arrested and reversed at almost any time but that would have required an agreed-upon plan and ample financial resources to implement it. Germany, as the largest creditor country, was in charge but was reluctant to take on any additional liabilities; as a result every opportunity to resolve the crisis was missed. The crisis spread from Greece to other deficit countries and eventually the very survival of the euro came into question. Since breakup of the euro would cause immense damage to all member countries and particularly to Germany, Germany will continue to do the minimum necessary to hold the euro together.

The policies pursued under German leadership will likely hold the euro together for an indefinite period, but not forever. The permanent division of the European Union into creditor and debtor countries with the creditors dictating terms is politically unacceptable for many Europeans. If and when the euro eventually breaks up it will destroy the common market and the European Union. Europe will be worse off than it was when the effort to unite it began, because the breakup will leave a legacy of mutual mistrust and hostility. The later it happens, the worse the ultimate outcome. That is such a dismal prospect that it is time to consider alternatives that would have been inconceivable until recently. [Continue reading…]

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Fear grows of consequences of euro collapse

Der Spiegel reports: It wasn’t long ago that Mario Draghi was spreading confidence and good cheer. “The worst is over,” the head of the European Central Bank (ECB) told Germany’s Bild newspaper only a few weeks ago. The situation in the euro zone had “stabilized,” Draghi said, and “investor confidence was returning.” And because everything seemed to be on track, Draghi even accepted a Prussian spiked helmet from the reporters. Hurrah.

Last week, however, Europe’s chief monetary watchdog wasn’t looking nearly as happy in photos taken in front of a circle of blue-and-yellow stars inside the Euro Tower, the ECB’s Frankfurt headquarters, where he was congratulating the winners of an international student contest. He smiled, shook hands and handed out certificates. But what he had to tell his listeners no longer sounded optimistic. Instead, Draghi sounded deeply concerned and even displayed a touch of resignation. “You are the first generation that has grown up with the euro and is no longer familiar with the old currencies,” he said. “I hope we won’t experience them again.”

The fact that Europe’s top central banker is no longer willing to rule out a return to the old national currencies shows how serious the situation is. Until recently, it was seen as a sign of political correctness to not even consider the possibility of a euro collapse. But now that the currency dispute has escalated in Europe, the inconceivable is becoming conceivable, at all levels of politics and the economy.

Investment experts at Deutsche Bank now feel that a collapse of the common currency is “a very likely scenario.” German companies are preparing themselves for the possibility that their business contacts in Madrid and Barcelona could soon be paying with pesetas again. And in Italy, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is thinking of running a new election campaign, possibly this year, on a return-to-the-lira platform.

Nothing seems impossible anymore, not even a scenario in which all members of the currency zone dust off their old coins and bills — bidding farewell to the euro, and instead welcoming back the guilder, deutsche mark and drachma.

It would be a dream for nationalist politicians, and a nightmare for the economy. Everything that has grown together in two decades of euro history would have to be painstakingly torn apart. Millions of contracts, business relationships and partnerships would have to be reassessed, while thousands of companies would need protection from bankruptcy. All of Europe would plunge into a deep recession. Governments, which would be forced to borrow additional billions to meet their needs, would face the choice between two unattractive options: either to drastically increase taxes or to impose significant financial burdens on their citizens in the form of higher inflation.

A horrific scenario would become a reality, a prospect so frightening that it ought to convince every European leader to seek a consensus as quickly as possible. But there can be no talk of consensus today. On the contrary, as the economic crisis worsens in southern Europe, the fronts between governments are only becoming more rigid.

The Italians and Spaniards want Germany to issue stronger guarantees for their debts. But the Germans are only willing to do so if all euro countries transfer more power to Brussels — steps the southern member states, for their part, don’t want to take.

The discussion has been going in circles for months, which is why the continent’s debtor countries continue to squander confidence, among both the international financial markets and their citizens. No matter what medicine European politicians prescribe, the patient isn’t getting any better. In fact, it’s only getting worse. [Continue reading…]

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Video — Europe: To be or not to be

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This time, Europe really is on the brink

Niall Ferguson and Nouriel Roubini write: Is it one minute to midnight in Europe?

The failure of German public opinion to grasp the dire state of affairs in Europe today is inviting a repeat of precisely the crisis of the mid 20th century that European integration was designed to avoid.

With every increase in the probability of a disorderly Greek exit from the monetary union, the pressure on the Spanish banks increases and with it the danger of a Mediterranean-wide bank run so big that it would overwhelm the European Central Bank. Already there has been a substantial re-nationalization of the European financial system. This centrifugal process could easily continue to the point of complete disintegration.

We find it extraordinary that it should be Germany, of all countries, that is failing to learn from history. Fixated on the non-threat of inflation, today’s Germans appear to attach more importance to the year 1923 (the year of hyperinflation) than to the year 1933 (the year democracy died). They would do well to remember how a European banking crisis two years before 1933 contributed directly to the breakdown of democracy not just in their own country but right across the European continent.

Astonishingly few Europeans (including bankers) seem to remember what happened in May 1931 when Creditanstalt, the biggest Austrian bank, had to be bailed out by a government that was itself on the brink of insolvency. The ensuing European bank crisis, which saw the failure of two of Germany’s biggest banks, ushered in the second half of the Great Depression. If the first half had been dominated by the American stock market crash, the second was all about European banks going bust.

What happened next? The banking crisis was followed by President Hoover’s one-year moratorium on payment of World War I war debts and reparations. Nearly all sovereign borrowers subsequently defaulted on all or part of their external debts, beginning with Germany. Unemployment in Europe reached an agonizing peak in 1932: In July of that year, 49 per cent of German trade union members were out of work.

The political consequences are well known. But the Nazis were only the worst of a large number of extremist movements to benefit politically from the crisis. “Anti-system” parties in Germany — including Communists as well as fascists — had won 13 percent of votes in 1928. By November 1932, they won nearly 60 percent. The far right also fared well in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Communists gained in Bulgaria, France and Greece.

The result was the death of democracy in much of Europe. While 24 European regimes had been democratic in 1920, the number was down to 11 in 1939. Even bankers know what happened that year. [Continue reading…]

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The accidental empire

George Soros writes: It is now clear that the main cause of the euro crisis is the member states’ surrender of their right to print money to the European Central Bank. They did not understand just what that surrender entailed – and neither did the European authorities.

When the euro was introduced, regulators allowed banks to buy unlimited amounts of government bonds without setting aside any equity capital, and the ECB discounted all eurozone government bonds on equal terms. Commercial banks found it advantageous to accumulate weaker countries’ bonds to earn a few extra basis points, which caused interest rates to converge across the eurozone. Germany, struggling with the burdens of reunification, undertook structural reforms and became more competitive. Other countries enjoyed housing and consumption booms on the back of cheap credit, making them less competitive.

Then came the crash of 2008. Governments had to bail out their banks. Some of them found themselves in the position of a developing country that had become heavily indebted in a currency that it did not control. Reflecting the divergence in economic performance, Europe became divided into creditor and debtor countries.

When financial markets discovered that supposedly riskless government bonds might be forced into default, they raised risk premiums dramatically. This rendered potentially insolvent commercial banks, whose balance sheets were loaded with such bonds, giving rise to Europe’s twin sovereign-debt and banking crisis.

The eurozone is now replicating how the global financial system dealt with such crises in 1982 and again in 1997. In both cases, the international authorities inflicted hardship on the periphery in order to protect the center; now Germany is unknowingly playing the same role. [Continue reading…]

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