The Guardian reports: Five years of failed austerity policies in Greece and a total breakdown in trust between the leftwing Syriza alliance and the political leaders of its creditors climaxed in a national vote in which Greeks said no to the spending cuts and tax increases demanded by its lenders.
As the magnitude of the result became clear, thousands of no vote supporters began pouring into the central Syntagma Square in front of the parliament in Athens to celebrate, waving Greek flags and chanting “No, No.”
The sweeping victory for Tsipras, who challenged the might of Germany, France, Italy and the rest of the eurozone, represented a nightmare for the mainstream elites of the EU. With Greek banks closed, withdrawals limited, capital controls in place and the country rapidly running out of cash, emergency action will be needed almost immediately to stem the likelihood of a banking collapse. But it is not clear whether the European Central Bank will maintain a liquidity lifeline to Greece and whether the creditor governments of the eurozone will sanction instant moves to salvage Greece’s crashing financial system.
Germany’s vice-chancellor and social democratic leader, Sigmar Gabriel, said Tsipras had burned his bridges with the rest of the eurozone. But the Greek leader believes he has strengthened his negotiating hand.
Tsipras campaigned for a no vote, arguing that this was the best way to secure a better deal, keeping Greece in the euro while obtaining debt relief from its creditors. The leaders of Germany, France and others stated the opposite, that a no vote meant the Greeks were deciding to become the first country to quit the currency, membership of which is supposed to be irreversible.
It is not clear which view will prevail. The EU mainstream hoped for a yes vote, not only because it would have represented democratic assent to the euro and acceptance of austerity, but also because the Tsipras government would have come under strong pressure to stand down. Negotiations between the two sides have gone nowhere for five months and have become particularly rancorous in the past month as bailout and debt repayment deadlines came and went, with Athens missing a €1.5bn repayment to the IMF. The country now faces a €3.5bn payment to redeem bonds at the European Central Bank in two weeks.
Eurozone confidence in Tsipras is at rock bottom and there is virtually zero faith that he will implement reforms needed to secure cash even if he agrees to them. For his part, the fiery Greek leader as recently as Friday accused his eurozone creditors of blackmail, extortion, and seeking to humiliate his country.
What happens next in the five-year saga that has shaken the eurozone to its foundations is sheer guesswork.
But the Greek vote is a huge blow to EU leaders, particularly the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has dominated the crisis management through her insistence on fiscal rigour and cuts despite a huge economic slump, soaring unemployment and the immiseration of most of Greek society.
“The failure of the euro means the failure of Merkel’s [10-year] chancellorship,” said the cover of the latest issue of Der Spiegel, the German weekly. It depicted her sitting atop a Europe in ruins. [Continue reading…]
Alex Andreou writes: “They have decided to strangle us, whether we say yes or no”, said a Greek woman to me yesterday. “The only choice we have is to make it quick or slow. I will vote “oxi” (no). We are economically dead anyway. I might as well have my conscience clear and my pride intact.”
Her view is not atypical among friends and relations I have canvassed in the last few days. Trust has evaporated. Faith in European Institutions is thin on the ground. Lines have been crossed. At times of financial strain, a country’s currency issuer, its central bank, should act as lender of last resort and prime technocratic negotiator. In Greece’s case, the European Central Bank, sits on the same side as the creditors; acts as their enforcer. This is unprecedented.
The ECB has acted to asphyxiate the Greek economy – the ultimate blackmail to force subordination. The money is there, in our accounts, but we cannot have access to it, because the overseers of our own banking system, the very people who some months ago issued guarantees of liquidity, have decided to deny liquidity. We have phantom money, but no real money. There is a terrifying poetry to that, since the entire crisis was caused by too much phantom money in the first place. [Continue reading…]
On the surface, it seems the Greek crisis is all about money. The Greek government has defaulted on a €1.6bn loan repayment to the IMF and is seeking a new bailout programme. Meanwhile, the Greek people are to take part in a referendum that is being billed as a choice between the euro and the drachma.
In fact this crisis is not about money. Greece’s creditors are well aware that Greece cannot repay or even service its debt. They are happy to keep finding ways to refinance it, so long as Greece agrees to punitive austerity policies. They aim for punishment, not repayment. They care about honour and vengeance, not money.
Modern Europe is witnessing an enactment of an ancient law known as wergeld. Greece is expected to continue paying, not until its financial debt has been cleared, but rather until its creditors think it has suffered enough.
Clive Cook writes: There’s no doubt that Greeks want to stay in the euro system — though I find it increasingly difficult to see why. If Greece leaves the system, it won’t be because Greeks decide to leave; it will be because Europe decides to kick them out.
This isn’t just semantics. There’s no reason, in law or logic, why a Greek default necessitates an exit from the euro. The European Central Bank pulls this trigger by choosing — choosing, please note — to withhold its services as lender of last resort to the Greek banking system. That is what it did this week. That is what shut the banks and, in short order, will force the Greek authorities to start issuing a parallel currency in the form of IOUs.
A truly independent ECB, willing to do whatever it takes to defend the euro system, could have announced that it would keep supplying Greek banks with liquidity. If the Greek banks are deemed in due course to be insolvent (which hasn’t happened yet), that doesn’t have to trigger an exit, either. Europe has the wherewithal and a bank-rescue mechanism that would allow the banks to be taken over and recapitalized. These options are foreclosed because the supposedly apolitical ECB has let Europe’s finance ministers use it as a hammer to extract fiscal concessions from Greece.
Nobody ever imagined that a government default in Europe would dictate ejection from the euro zone. The very possibility would have been correctly recognized as a fatal defect in the design of the system.
If the Greeks vote no, a Greek exit is a possible and even likely consequence. But if it happens, the reason won’t be that Greece chose to go. The reason will be that the European Union and its politicized central bank chose to inflict exit as punishment. [Continue reading…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…
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…]
One of the first indications of just how bad it would get was the slew of abandoned Ferraris and Porsches ditched in the Dubai Airport parking lot by foreigners fleeing the country — and the debts they’d incurred there — as the 2008 global economic crisis descended with full force. Within months, housing prices in this small Persian Gulf nation crashed. Overnight, developers halted the construction of half-finished luxury high-rises. The government even drafted a law to criminalize any reporting that would “damage the country’s reputation or economy.” The self-proclaimed “emerald city” quickly took on a new identity as a ghost town.
Before the crash, Dubai had been a unique place: a capitalist’s paradise rising out of the desert, complete with dust-kicking fast cars, privately owned islands, and a population sharply divided between wealthy expatriates and trafficked workers held in near slavery. It was a country shaped by staggering dreams (including a $14 billion plan to build a replica of the world on 300 man-made islands) that often failed just as staggeringly. And in the years after the crisis, Dubai grew only stranger as the fleeting nature of such wealth became obvious and, according to rumors, turning on the tap in certain luxury hotel rooms might yield only a flood of cockroaches.
Yet, despite Dubai’s uniqueness, if this corner of the world has any precedent on Earth, it is certainly Las Vegas.
As TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit explains in a haunting new piece, in the late 1990s, the bright-lit casinos of Las Vegas’s strip yielded pride of place to a new, far more breathtaking national gambling scheme. The bet would be on luxury housing developments, even though, as Solnit explains, the one thing those in Las Vegas should have known was “that the house always wins.”
When that particular house of cards collapsed, Las Vegas became ground zero for a spreading economic crisis, while its built-up desert suburbs turned into a graveyard of subdivisions, filled with half-built and abandoned luxury homes vividly on display in the exceptional aerial photos in Michael Light’s new book, Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain (which includes Solnit’s essay and one by art critic Lucy Lippard). In many cases, no one ever lived in those sprawling houses dotting the outskirts of that city. But if their walls could talk, they would tell a tale of an American Dream far more unsettling than those that play out under the neon lights of the Strip, one built on stolen territories and slippery promises, where the only permanence is, as Solnit writes, in the land itself. Laura Gottesdiener
Anywhere but here
Las Vegas and the global casino we call Wall Street
By Rebecca Solnit
[The following Rebecca Solnit piece is slightly adapted from photographer Michael Light’s new book, Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain, and appears at TomDispatch.com with special thanks to his publisher, Radius Books.]
“Oh my God, I’m in hell,” I cried out when the car that had rolled for hours through the luscious darkness of the Mojave night came to a jolting stop at a traffic light on Las Vegas Boulevard, right by the giant oscillating fuchsia flowers of the Tropicana. Back then, in the late 1980s, the Strip was the lasciviously long neon tongue a modest-sized city unfurled into the desert. Behind the casinos lining Las Vegas Boulevard was the desert itself — pale, flat, stony ground with creosote bushes here and there, a vast expanse of darkness, silence, and spaciousness pressing in on the riotousness from all directions.
Der Spiegel reports: What should one expect from a country in which the sentence, “What an asshole!” is a compliment? Icelanders say “asshole,” or “rassgat,” when they tousle a child’s hair or greet friends, and they mean it to be friendly.
While trudging through a lava field within view of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, the guide says: “Iceland is the asshole of the world.” That, too, is a positive statement. It’s also a geological metaphor. In Iceland, which lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and thus on the dividing line of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the earth has a tendency to relieve itself through various geysers, volcanoes and hot springs.
The island, an unlikely geological accident, has existed for some 18 million years, but has only been inhabited for 1,100 years. A pile of lava pushed out of the Atlantic that could eventually disappear again, it’s affectionately called “The Rock” by residents. Icelanders were traditionally fishermen and farmers until they decided to turn their country into a casino for global capital around the turn of the millennium.
But now they have returned to fishing, and gladly talk about their journey back to financial health. SPIEGEL spoke with an investor, a finance minister and a fisherman, in addition to an economist who says apologetically: “Icelanders are just daredevils.” And then there was a sex and knitting expert who says she believes Iceland has “found its way back to itself.”
What happened in Iceland from 2008 to 2011 is regarded as one of the worst financial crises in history. It seems likely that never before had a country managed to amass such great sums of money per capita, only to lose it again in a short period of time. But Iceland, with a population of just 320,000, has also staged what appears to be the fastest recovery on record. Since 2011, the gross domestic product has been on the rise once again, most recently at 2 percent. What’s more, salaries are rising, the national debt is sinking and the government has paid off part of the billions in loans it received in 2008 from the International Monetary Fund ahead of schedule. It’s a sign of confidence.
But how did they do it when others cannot? Can we learn something from Iceland? [Continue reading…]
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…]
Michael Lind writes: More than half a decade has passed since the recession that triggered the financial panic and the Great Recession, but the condition of the world continues to be summed up by what I’ve called ‘turboparalysis’ — a prolonged condition of furious motion without movement in any particular direction, a situation in which the engine roars and the wheels spin but the vehicle refuses to move.
The greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression might have been expected to produce revolutions in politics and the world of ideas alike. Outside of the Arab world, however, revolutions are hard to find. Mass unemployment and austerity policies have caused riots in Greece and Spain, but most developed nations are remarkably sedate. Scandal and sputtering economic growth appear unlikely to prevent another peaceful transition of power within the Communist party of China. And in the US, the re-election of President Obama and the strengthening of his Democratic party in the US Senate reflect long-term demographic changes in an increasingly non-white and secular American electorate, not the endorsement of a bold agenda for the future by the Democrats. They don’t have one.
In the realm of ideas, turboparalysis is even more striking. On both sides of the Atlantic, political and economic debate proceed as though the bursting of the global bubble economy did not discredit any school of thought. Right, left and centre, the players are the same and so are their familiar moves. Public debate is dominated by the same three groups — market fundamentalists, centrist neoliberals, and mildly reformist social democrats — who have been debating one another since the 1980s. Someone who went to sleep like Rip Van Winkle in the 1980s when Reagan and Thatcher were in power and awoke today would find nothing new in the way of economic theories or political doctrines.
By now one might have expected the emergence of innovative and taboo-breaking schools of thought seeking to account for and respond to the global crisis. But to date there is no insurgent political and intellectual left, nor a new right, for that matter. In the US, the militant Tea Party right, many of whose candidates went down to defeat in this year’s elections, represents the last gasp of the Goldwater-Reagan coalition, not something fresh. The American centre-left under Obama is intellectually exhausted and politically feeble, reduced to rebranding as ‘progressive’ policies like the individual mandate system (‘Obamacare’) and tax cuts for the middle class which originated on the moderate right a generation ago. In Britain, the manifestos of various ‘colour revolutions’ — Blue Labour, Red Tory and so on — have the feel of PR brochures promoting rival cliques of ambitious apparatchiks rather than the epochal thinking the times require.
Why has a global calamity produced so little political change and, at the same time, so little rethinking? Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the collapse of the two-way transmission belt that linked the public to the political elite. Institutions such as mass political parties, trade unions, and local civic associations, which once connected elected leaders to constituents, have withered away in more individualistic and anonymous societies. One result is a perpetual crisis of legitimacy on the part of political elites, who owe their electoral successes increasingly to rich donors and skilful advertising consultants. New political movements are hard to found. At the same time, anachronistic movements can continue to raise funds or entertain audiences, even if, like America’s conservative movement, they lose election after election.
But there is a deeper, structural reason for the persistence of turboparalysis. And that has to do with the power and wealth that incumbent elites accumulated during the decades of the global bubble economy. [Continue reading…]
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…]
Minxin Pei writes: Financial collapses may have different immediate triggers, but they all originate from the same cause: an explosion of credit. This iron law of financial calamity should make us very worried about the consequences of easy credit in China in recent years. From the beginning of 2009 to the end of June this year, Chinese banks have issued roughly 35 trillion yuan ($5.4 trillion) in new loans, equal to 73 percent of China’s GDP in 2011. About two-thirds of these loans were made in 2009 and 2010, as part of Beijing’s stimulus package. Unlike deficit-financed stimulus packages in the West, China’s colossal stimulus package of 2009 was funded mainly by bank credit (at least 60 percent, to be exact), not government borrowing.
Flooding the economy with trillions of yuan in new loans did accomplish the principal objective of the Chinese government — maintaining high economic growth in the midst of a global recession. While Beijing earned plaudits around the world for its decisiveness and economic success, excessive loose credit was fueling a property bubble, funding the profligacy of state-owned enterprises, and underwriting ill-conceived infrastructure investments by local governments. The result was predictable: years of painstaking efforts to strengthen the Chinese banking system were undone by a spate of careless lending as new bad loans began to build up inside the financial sector.
When the Chinese Central Bank (the People’s Bank of China) and banking regulators sounded the alarm in late 2010, it was already too late. By that time, local governments had taken advantage of loose credit to amass a mountain of debt, most of it squandered on prestige projects or economically wasteful investments. The National Audit Office of China acknowledged in June 2011 that local government debt totaled 10.7 trillion yuan (U.S. $1.7 trillion) at the end of 2010. However, Professor Victor Shih of Northwestern University has estimated that the real amount of local government debt was between 15.4 and 20.1 trillion yuan, or between 40 and 50% of China’s GDP. Of this amount, he further estimated, the local government financing vehicles (LGFVs), which are financial entities established by local governments to invest in infrastructure and other projects, owed between 9.7 and 14.4 trillion yuan at the end of 2010.
Anybody with some knowledge of the state of health of LGFVs would shudder at these numbers. If anything, Chinese LGFVs are known mainly for their unique ability to sink perfectly good money into bottomless holes in the ground. So taking on such a huge mountain of debt can mean only one thing — a future wave of default when the projects into which LGFVs have piled funds fail to yield viable returns to service the debt. If 10 percent of these loans turn bad, a very conservative estimate, we are talking about total bad loans in the range of 1 to 1.4 trillion yuan. If the share of dud loans should reach 20 percent, a far more likely scenario, Chinese banks would have to write down 2 to 2.8 trillion yuan, a move sure to destroy their balance sheets. [Continue reading…]
Charles Eisenstein writes: Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s pledge at Jackson Hole last Friday to “promote a stronger economic recovery” through “additional policy accommodation” has drawn criticism from economists, liberal and conservative, who question whether the Fed has the wherewithal to stimulate economic growth. What we actually need is more spending, say the liberals. No, less spending, say the conservatives. But underneath these disagreements lies an unexamined agreement, a common assumption that no mainstream economist or policy-maker ever questions: that the purpose of economic policy is to stimulate growth.
So ubiquitous is the equation of growth with prosperity that few people ever pause to consider it. What does economic growth actually mean? It means more consumption – and consumption of a specific kind: more consumption of goods and services that are exchanged for money. That means that if people stop caring for their own children and instead pay for childcare, the economy grows. The same if people stop cooking for themselves and purchase restaurant takeaways instead.
Economists say this is a good thing. After all, you wouldn’t pay for childcare or takeaway food if it weren’t of benefit to you, right? So, the more things people are paying for, the more benefits are being had. Besides, it is more efficient for one daycare centre to handle 30 children than for each family to do it themselves. That’s why we are all so much richer, happier and less busy than we were a generation ago. Right?
Obviously, it isn’t true that the more we buy, the happier we are. Endless growth means endlessly increasing production and endlessly increasing consumption. Social critics have for a long time pointed out the resulting hollowness carried by that thesis. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly apparent that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. Why, then, are liberals and conservatives alike so fervent in their pursuit of growth? [Continue reading…]
Anatole Kaletsky writes: Through an almost astrological coincidence of timing, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the U.S. Federal Reserve Board all held their policy meetings this week immediately after Wednesday’s publication of the weakest manufacturing numbers for Europe and America since the summer of 2009. With the euro-zone and Britain clearly back in deep recession and the U.S. apparently on the brink, the central bankers all decided to do nothing, at least for the moment. They all restated their unbreakable resolution to do “whatever it takes” – to prevent a breakup of the euro, in the case of the ECB, or, for the Fed and the BoE, to achieve the more limited goal of economic recovery. But what exactly is there left for the central bankers to do?
They have essentially two options. They could do even more of what the Fed and the BoE have been doing since late 2008 – creating new money and spending it on government bonds, in the policy known as “Quantitative Easing.” Or they could admit the policies of the past three years were not working, at least not well enough. And try something different.
There is, admittedly, a third option – to do nothing, on the grounds that public bodies should stop interfering with the private economy and instead leave financial markets to restore economic prosperity and full employment of their own accord. This third idea is based on the economic theory that if governments and central bankers leave well enough alone, “efficient” and “rational” financial markets will keep a capitalist economy growing and automatically return it to a prosperous equilibrium after occasional hiccups. This theory, though still taught in graduate schools and embedded in economic models, is implausible, to put it mildly, especially after the experience of the past decade. In any case, experience shows that the option of government doing nothing in deep economic slumps simply doesn’t exist in modern democracies.
Returning, therefore, to the two realistic alternatives, central bankers and financiers are overwhelmingly in favor of the first: keep trying the policy that has failed. [Continue reading…]
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…]