Tag Archives: banks

Microfinance and European Crisis Management

11 Mar

Guest post by Phil Mader, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany, and an editor of the Governance Across Borders blog, http://www.governancexborders.com

Microenterprises galore in India, soon too in Italy?

Microenterprises galore in India, soon too in Italy?

Well-established in low-income countries, microfinance is recently on the ascent as a crisis management tool in Europe. The parallels to Structural Adjustment in Latin America in the 1980s and 90s, where it played a key role in helping the bitter pill of austerity go down, are striking. But the experience of the global South over the past three decades warns against expectations of microfinance in the EU bringing anything but a glut of tiny, low-productivity, poverty-push enterprises which are likely to become entangled in debt traps.

2006 was the year small loans in developing countries were knighted as “the vaccine for the pandemic of poverty”, with the Nobel Peace Prize for Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus bringing international fame to the idea that financial markets could effectively combat poverty. But loans for peace? Staunch supporters like Bernd Balkenhol (formerly ILO) argue the Nobel prize actually honoured the effectiveness of small loans at upholding social peace – an idea which is gaining new traction in erstwhile-affluent countries whose social peace is threatened by crisis and austerity.

As the “pandemic” of poverty spreads to Southern Europe, policymakers are seeking to apply the lessons learned in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where microfinance has been established as a permanent pillar of social policy in many countries. As with prior aspects of neoliberalism, policies are often first tested in the Global South before their successive deployment in more advanced capitalist economies.

Microfinance is one of the instruments for “addressing inertia and social fragility, which is essential in safeguarding the quality of democracies” in order to prevent “material distress from encouraging populist deviation and citizen regression,”

the Italian Ministry of Foreign affairs recently quoted its minister, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata. The ministry noted Italy acting as a forerunner in Europe, having adopted a law on microfinance. The EU runs a number of microfinance programmes, expanded since 2010, aiming at getting the unemployed – particularly youths and ethnic minorities – into work through self-employment. A 2012 report argued that EU public funding should catalyse “the entry of private capital in order to create a self-sustainable market in the long run” – building new markets in times of crisis whilst keeping the poor busy and mollified via private credit; a most practical combination.

“People with ideas and projects they cannot realise as a result of not having access to credit need concrete answers; those who have lost their jobs and are having a hard time finding another; immigrants who risk social exclusion”, Terzi explained, underscoring how microfinance “expands business opportunities as it encouraged citizens’ participation in economic life”. Moreover, it “can also help contain public spending by contributing to the reduction of social buffers, the cost of which rises in times of recession”.

Terzi, of Monti’s interim crisis management committee/government, could hardly have made the case for microfinance as a device for austerity facilitation more clearly. Tiny loans may not work at creating economic growth or significantly alleviate poverty, as the experiences of microfinance-saturated countries like Bangladesh or Bolivia show and numerous scientific studies have underscored; but they have certainly proven their worth at tempering redistributional demands while facilitating structural adjustment. They work to “contain public spending” while preventing “material distress from encouraging populist deviation” (Terzi), tiny loans are a handy “political safety net” to uphold consumption and provide alternative (self-)employment, as political economist Heloise Weber observed more than a decade ago.

Working – up to a point, that is. India, with its focus state Andhra Pradesh (AP), in 2010 joined the ranks of Nicaragua and Bosnia as countries whose microfinance sectors recently melted down. Popular unrest and agitation forced the government of AP to curb all microfinance operations following a wave of suicides among borrowers. AP used to be India’s most microfinance-friendly state, earning the nickname “Mecca of Microfinance”, to whose highly profitable lenders international investors flocked like pilgrims.

While the microloan industry – which is now in protracted decline in India – has accused the government of foul play, the crisis’ causes ultimately lay not in a political attack, but rather in the original political support for microfinance as a tool in facilitating AP’s ambitious neoliberal restructuring. The loans placated the affected populations for some time, while opening up new outlets for capital markets, this recent paper finds, which led to the widespread overindebtedness which ultimately caused the suicides.

Politically enticing as a tool for austerity politics as the tiny loans may be, the experience of the Global South with microfinance doesn’t bode well for European countries attempting to bolster low incomes and drive economic growth. Perhaps this is why Terzi only claims that microfinance “expands business opportunities as it encouraged citizens’ participation in economic life”, rather than bringing real material benefits for borrowers. For the time it takes to embed reform agendas and austerity politics, at least, the expectation is that microfinance may serve as a regime-consistent tool of seemingly doing something for impoverished and precarious segments – keeping them busy and competitive as entrepreneurs – while preventing them from getting all too uppity.

The end of insolvency

10 Jan

An arresting fact published yesterday in the Financial Times: the lowest rates of insolvency in Europe in 2011 were in Greece, Spain and Italy, the countries that faced the brunt of the Eurozone economic crisis. The newspaper continues: fewer than 30 in every 10,000 companies fail in these three countries, at the same time as nearly one in three companies is loss-making. There couldn’t be a clearler proof of the fact that Schumpeterian creative destruction has taken leave of Europe.

There are various explanations for this. For instance, the low level of corporate insolvencies is partly a reflection of government action: companies that might otherwise have gone bust have been able to borrow from their governments at very low rates, making refinancing of existing loans possible. Fearful of the political fall-out from lots of businesses going bust, governments have kept them alive. The broader climate of cheap borrowing, made possible by central bank action, has also played its part.

According to the FT, however, action by public authorities is only partly to blame. The real culprit appears to be the banks. Faced with so much pressure on their balance sheets, and saddled with bad loans, banks have been very reluctant to force businesses into insolvency or restructuring procedures. Rather than take the hit, they have preferred to hang on, letting the bad loans sit on their balance sheets. This has been the case particularly in Spain, but also elsewhere across the continent. Here we obviously see the underlying causes of the crisis working their way back into its resolution. Central to the debt-financing that occurred prior to the crisis, it is the same debt that prevents a more decisive resolution of this crisis.

We should, of course, be wary of bullish talk about the constructive effects of insolvency. The FT quotes one company chairman who laments the fact that all the company’s revenues are being taken up by pension payments to retired employees. “We are unable to invest in new growth areas”, he complains, because of these pension obligations. One wonders what his solution would be: renegue on the payments and ask the pensioners to find alternative sources of income?

Clearly, the idea of creative destruction works less well in an age when corporations have welfare obligations. But is also rests upon an expectation that public authorities command enough authority to be able to weather restructuring storms. Evidently in Europe this is not the case. Alongside a fear of social unrest is also a fear and hostility towards change. In countries like Greece, Italy and Spain, and certainly in France, governments talk about supply side reform and a fundamental transformation of their economies but there is little idea of where they would like to go or of what they would like to do. This political impasse is matched at the corporate level. Creative destruction after all rests upon an optimistic attitude towards the future: something new can be built, new energies can be released if the old is torn down. Restructuring is often driven by hedge funds looking to buy up assets cheaply and sell them on for a profit. But in Europe’s current predicament, we also see hostility towards change present across the political and corporate elite. And the banks, supposedly the most gung-ho and reckless of the lot, are the most cautious of them all.

On politics and finance

30 Nov

Buried under the frenzy around the Leveson report was the British government’s coup of attracting Mark Carney, governor of the Canadian Central Bank, to London. Apparently ruled out of the running, much to the chagrin of those who felt he was the best man for the job, Carney has now been appointed as governor of the Bank of England and will take up the job next summer. For those who view these appointments as purely about expertise and experience, this is a great victory. Gone it would seem are the mercantilist days where nationality, wealth and government policy were so closely aligned. The cosmopolitan financial press, from the Financial Times to The Economist, are satisfied. Britain, it seems, is a pioneer in these international recruitments for national institutions: think of the English football team. That Carey was a Canadian certainly helped make him acceptable to the British establishment. He’s sort of one of us, after all, runs the sentiment. But the principle still stands that positions such as these are all about competence and expertise. There is no politics or partisanship here and the appointment of Carney, we are told, is proof of that.

It is also proof of a number of other things. One is that there is emerging a cadre of elite central bankers who move relatively seamlessly from one appointment to another. National boundaries seem less restrictive than in the past. This holds true to some degree at the global level, where competition for posts such as head of the IMF or the World Bank has become more intense. The old Bretton Woods division of the spoils between Europe and the United States is coming under serious pressure and may not survive the next round of appointments. And nationally, central banks are opening up with Britain leading the way. Curiously, the European Central Bank in this regard is behind the times: its appointments are rigidly based upon the principle of achieving balance between nationalities. The unfortunate Lorenzo Bini Smaghi was edged out of the ECB executive board because it wouldn’t do to have two Italians in there and no Frenchman. Draghi became director, Smaghi was out, and Benoit Coeuré was in. This seems rather old hat and overly political compared to the forward looking Bank of England. Whether other central banks follow Threadneedle Street’s example is unclear but the principle has been established and there is no short supply of expert central bankers.

It is also proof that the way we understand banking, finance and monetary policy today is entirely free of political principle. The struggle between banking and financial interests and those of elected representatives is a long-standing and epic struggle. There is nothing new there. But central banks have often been seen as exceptions. They are, after all, lenders of last resort and in that respect are eminently political institutions. Those critical of the ECB in the current crisis have often suggested that it’s role should become more, not less, political in so far as it needs to act in order to save the Eurozone from collapse. Yet the implication of Carney’s arrival is that the tie between central banks and national politics should be cut. This is a mistake. Carney may be Canadian but the Bank of England remains firmly part of the functioning and survival of the British economy. And the Bank of England should still be understood as an agent of national capital, in spite of who is running it.

Carney’s appointment also chimes with a more general feeling that politics is seeping out of macro-economic policy as a whole. Illustrative in this regard is the debate underway at the moment around who might replace Tim Geithner as US Treasury Secretary. One name that has been floated around, and who the FT considers a realistic outside contender, is Larry Fink. As head of the biggest asset management group in the world (BlackRock manages around 3.7 trillion US dollars of assets), Fink is a heavy-weight figure, as important as those running the big Wall Street banks. However, his entire background is in finance. He certainly has views about how the US economy should be run but to appoint Fink would be to give the job to an expert. And this is not a job as central banker but as Treasury Secretary, an ostensibly political appointment. Of course, experts have long been appointment to this position. There is even talk of Geithner stepping down and joining BlackRock and Fink moving in to take his place. Were this to happen, it would illustrate how firmly financiers dominate economic policymaking and how expertise in finance has become the baseline for political appointments within the US Treasury.

As we’ve argued before on this blog, expertise does matter in politics. But the overwhelming tendency today is to view macro-economic policy as a purely technical realm, rather than as one where technical questions co-exist alongside fundamental differences of political principle and alongside important moral questions. Such a tendency has the effect of shielding economic policy from public criticism and gives to public financial institutions like central banks a veneer of political and social neutrality. In fact, no amount of expert knowledge can obviate the need to make political choices. The most honest experts will say that various scenarios are possible and that the choices depend upon what outcomes we want. It is these outcomes that we should be debating, not which expert can magically solve our ethical and political dilemmas about what sort of society we want to live in.

The state of European banking

5 Oct


In his assessment of a new report published on banking reform within the EU, Martin Wolf starts off with an arresting statistic. In 2010, he writes, US banks had assets worth 8.6 trillion Euros. Banks in the EU had assets worth 42.9 trillion Euros. For the US, those assets represented 80% of GDP; in the EU, they represented 350% of GDP. The EU’s banking sector, claims Wolf, is too big to fail and “too big to save”.

Wolf’s fact raises interesting questions. Can we say that in Europe the expansion of the financial sector has been so significant that it dwarfs developments in the US and gives us an explanation for Europe’s current sovereign debt crisis? Explanations of the Eurozone crisis have in recent months increasingly focused on governance issues tied to the Eurozone itself and to poor economic performance of many Eurozone economies. Is the implication that the crisis is a European affair?

A useful place to look in order to answer these questions is the report that Wolf cites, put together by a group of experts and led by Errki Liikanen, governor of Finland’s central bank. Most of the coverage of the report has been about its recommendations: ones that are not so different from those of the Vickers report in the UK (see here for a comment on Vickers). However, the report itself gives a detailed account of the crisis and of the transformations in the European banking sector.

In general, it implies that whilst there is variation, there is no “European exception”. The origins of the crisis lie in the collapse in the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States, which put a number of lending institutions into serious difficulty. This localized crisis quickly fed through an internationalized financial system to affect non-US institutions. Many European banks were left with very bad loans on their books: the German bank, Deutsche Industriebank IKB, was one of the first to be bailed out by the Bundesbank. As early as August 2007, the interbank lending market in Europe dried up altogether: the ECB had to step in with an injection of 95 billion Euros. In December of the same year, it injected a further 300 billion. At issue here is the generalized dependence of US and European financial institutions on what turned out to be very bad loans.

On the size of the assets of European banks, compared to other parts of the world, the report also has a lot of good information. The report notes that the EU banking sector is very large when compared with other countries and regions, as the figures above make clear. However, it notes that this reflects the fact that bank intermediation plays a bigger role in Europe than elsewhere. What this means is that banks are the principal source of private sector financing in Europe in contrast to the US for example. Banks in Europe also have mortgages on their balance sheets, whereas in the US Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac soak up these mortgages and are government-sponsored institutions. The staggering difference in the assets of banks in Europe and the US is not automatically a sign of different trends in financialisation but points also to some more long-standing differences in the nature of private sector financing. The report also notes that the restructuring of the banking sector which occurred in the US post-Lehman, in particular the collapse of small and medium-sized banks, has not occurred in Europe. The level of total assets has thus remained constant, propped up by ECB and national government intervention in Europe. Here there is a marked difference between Europe and the US: interventions in Europe have prevented restructuring, in the US they were a conduit for change.

There is no particular European story to the growth of the financial sector in Europe. Some specific features of bank intermediation have interacted with more generic features of financialisation that we can observe in Europe and elsewhere. What is less clear from the report itself is whether the growth of the financial sector has been the result of changes within the non-financial sector, a freer regulatory environment or simply the working out of a speculative frenzy within financial institutions aiming to make more money in the short term, with little regard for longer term consequences. The recommendations of the report suggests it believes that the latter two factors are the most important.

On the LIBOR scandal

17 Jul

A feature of economic crises is that they propel into the spotlight the more obscure parts of markets and of capitalism. The Eurozone crisis has made everyone roughly conversant about government bonds and sovereign debt. Acronyms like the EFSF and the EFSM, triple A ratings and CDSs (credit default swaps), are regularly bandied about. The BBC’s website now has a handy online dictionary, the crisis jargon-buster, that defines various economic terms, from base rates through to liquidity traps. The murky world of lenders of last resort and the practices of seignorage have also entered into public discussion. Most recently, it has been the turn of LIBOR, otherwise known as the London inter-bank offered rate.

LIBOR, as its name would suggest, is the rate at which banks in London lend to each other. It is determined as a kind of average of the different estimates given by the banks of how much they think they would need to pay by way of interest to borrow money. Those estimates are given daily and LIBOR is calculated for different kinds of loan instruments and in different currencies. Banks in a bad way and likely to pay more for their loans would be expected to submit higher estimates. Banks with solid balance sheets would submit lower estimates. One would expect LIBOR in good times of financial calm to be low and steady. One would expect it to rise in dangerous moments of finance crisis (see here for the late 2008 movements of LIBOR).

The scandal is based on the rather intuitive idea that given that banks are setting themselves the rate at which they have to borrow and lend, they have a strong incentive to fiddle those rates. The discussion underway at the moment has a strong whiff of the unreal about it. Complaints are made about the temptation to manipulate and the lack of honesty in setting LIBOR. But what else do we expect to see? Are we meant to be surprised that banks are not the best judge of their own financial health, a least when such judgements will have self-fulfilling knock-on effects for them? And that they should shy away from honestly communicating the state of their balance sheets to other competing banks within the City? Is it not obvious that banks in a bad way would tend to systematically propose rates that are lower than what their troubled loan book would suggest? At the very least, the indignation betrays a seriously naïve view of how markets work. It is also not surprising that the Bank of England should have been complicit in the manipulation of this inter-bank rate given its proximity to the government’s involvement in mopping up the massive losses made by British banks after the Lehman collapse. It was after all in the Bank of England’s interest to make it as easy as possible for British banks to have access to liquidity. Otherwise, claim Bank of England officials, the inter-bank loans market would have dried up altogether and brought some banks down with it.

Making sense of this kind of scandal needs more than a bout of shoulder-shrugging “well, what do you expect?” from cynics. It needs a strong done of realism about the nature of markets and of capitalism. Redirecting private accumulation towards public ends has always been a matter of political struggle and state coercion. Political control over economic activity did not happen by accident. The indignation we see today about the LIBOR scandal needs to be transformed into a political movement capable of articulating a vision that goes well beyond the myth of munificent and self-regulating markets.

If in doubt, regulate…

13 Jun

Another idea that has gained traction in recent days is that of a European-wide banking union. This idea, as with Eurobonds, is not new but the most recent bail-out of the Spanish banking sector has put it back onto the agenda. Key figures – from the President of the European Commission to the head of the European Central Bank – have come out in favour of a banking union. The fact that the bank at the centre of Spain’s difficulties, Bankia, was for so long able to hide its problems, even to the point of being fêted as a success story until not very long ago, has made many doubt the ability of national regulators to properly keep a tab on what their banks are doing. Ergo, the turn towards a pan-European regulatory solution.

Exactly what a European banking union would look like or what powers it would have depends on who you ask. Maximalists tend to hover around the EU institutions as they believe such a union would further strengthen the EU. According to Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, a banking union could include an EU-wide deposit guarantee scheme, a rescue fund financed by banks themselves and the granting an EU authority the power to order losses on banks. Minimalists, from within national regulatory bodies, claim that only a small set of powers need be transferred to a Brussels-based body. They also stress that a European banking regulator already exists in the form of the London-based European Banking Authority. The EBA already has powers to make rules and to force banks to comply. It was behind this year’s stress tests of Europe’s biggest banks and the demand that they boost their capital ratios. Minimalists also say that only a small number of big banks should be supervised. What Merkel called the “systemically important banks”.

Over the weekend, two heavy-hitters (of a sort), Niall Ferguson and Nouriel Roubini, weighed into the debate. They noted that for two years now inter-bank lending in Europe has been replaced by a singular reliance on ECB financing. And some countries – Greece and Spain – are experiencing a steady rise in withdrawals from their banks. As well as a direct recapitalization of the European banking system, Ferguson and Roubini argue that an EU-wide system of deposit insurance needs to be established, alongside a European-wide system of banking supervision and regulation.

Some of the same criticisms made of Eurobonds can be made of the banking union idea. That the political conditions for its creation are absent is evident from the kind of discussions being had about how such a banking union would be set up. Cognizant as ever that national publics are unlikely to wave through any forward movements in integration, some suggest that instead of creating a banking union via an EU treaty change – a slow and complex process, fraught with opportunities for sabotage by recalcitrant domestic populations – it would be possible to simply give over the regulatory power to the ECB. And this could be done without a treaty change but just by a unanimous vote of the European Council. As Alex Barker on the FT Brussels blog writes, this “avoids the political headache of more treaties” and “is faithful to the unsaid rule of this crisis: central bankers should win more power, regardless of whether they deserve it”. That so much thought is given about how to push through such a banking union without going through democratic procedures of ratification suggests the solution itself lacks the public support it would need to be a success. Even short-term fixes such as providing banks directly with extra capital raise big questions about how the money being provided will actually be used. There is always a balance to strike between politics and expertise and giving new institutions the powers to make decisions based on expert judgement is not necessarily anti-democratic. But when the democratic authorization is entirely absent, or when new institutions are created in ways that explicitly avoid any wider public debate about their merits, we can be confident that the stick has been bent too far in the direction of expertise.

Another problem is that – in line with another unsaid rule of the present crisis – the banking union seems to represent a case of “if in doubt, regulate”. As already mentioned, a European Banking Authority already exists. But critically, a more muscled Brussels-based variant wouldn’t necessarily address any of the more fundamental questions about the financialisation of Europe’s economy and the way this financialisation has interacted with some of the structural features of the Eurozone. More regulation can simply mean refusing to look more closely at the root of the problem. It is unsurprising that the EU’s kneejerk reaction to a problem is to try to create new regulation. We should resist the temptation to regulate and think instead about the fundamental causes of the present crisis.

The problem with Eurobonds

7 Jun

As the Eurozone crisis deepens, some new ideas are emerging. Some have been aired for a while but are only beginning to be taken seriously. In this post, The Current Moment considers the issue of Eurobonds. In future posts, we will consider some of the other solutions being suggested, such as the idea of a banking union, the plans for which have been recently floated by the European Commission.


In a continued deepening of the Eurozone crisis, attention is focusing on Spain. Rather than investing in production during the boom years, bank capital in Spain was mainly channelled into property development. As the bottom fell out of the property market, Spanish banks have been left with worthless loans on their balance sheets. The regionalized nature of its banking system has made these problems less transparent than elsewhere and the scale of the problem has only recently emerged. Even now, there is considerable speculation about exactly how much it would take to stabilize Spanish banks. The IMF’s most recent estimate is that Spanish banks will need at least 40 billions Euros of new capital. In the meantime, loans are drying up for business and Madrid is being shut out of the international bond market.

There is some debate about whether in the longer term the Spanish economy will be able to raise competitiveness levels. The boom years were not entirely devoid of productive investment and optimists point to a weaker Euro boosting the country’s exports. Portugal, according to the FT (29/05/12) specializes in high end shoes and black toilet paper. Spain may find some of its exports benefiting from a falling Euro. But these competitive gains are not shared across the Eurozone as a whole: countries dependent on exporting to within the Eurozone will not benefit from a falling Euro. Any Spanish gains in competitiveness in the medium to long term are likely to come at the expense of the French, the Italians and other Eurozone member states.

For many, this all points to Eurobonds as the solution to the crisis. Far from exaggerating the differences between national economies within the Eurozone, Eurobonds are seen as a way of mobilizing these differences (especially German competitiveness) for the common good of the Eurozone as a whole. The basic idea of Eurobonds is that instead of national governments issuing bonds, the EU as a whole would do so. Those countries currently facing punitively high interest rates on new bond issues would find their borrowing costs falling. German bonds, currently serving as safe havens for international investors, would see a rise in interest rates, costing the German taxpayer but stabilizing the Eurozone as a whole. This idea was raised back in 2010 by the Bruegel think tank with its blue bond proposal. The idea here was that a Eurobond could be issued for debt of up to 60% of GDP for Eurozone members. Debt in addition to that would have to be financed by purely national government bonds. This would mean lower rates for sustainable debt levels and higher rates for excessive debt levels. The idea was batted away by Chancellor Merkel as a poor substitute for supply-side reform in crisis-stricken countries.

As opposition to austerity politics as strengthened, consolidated in recent months by the election of François Hollande in France and the inconclusive Greek elections, Eurobonds have come back onto the agenda. The term is used by Hollande as a rallying cry and as a measure of his success in Europe: if he is able to get the topic onto the EU agenda, he will have won his battle of wills with Merkel. Ever supportive of measures that may increase its own powers, the European Commission supports Eurobonds, as do leaders such as Mario Monti in Italy.

The more technical discussion about the exact modalities of any Eurobond issue asides, there are two major problems with this idea. The first is that as a solution to the Eurozone’s economic crisis, Eurobonds essentially rest upon the idea that borrowing more money can help Europe grow out of its current recessionary state. Given the performance of this particular growth model, that seems unlikely. As already argued on The Current Moment, Europe faces an impasse on growth: stuck between Hollande’s European neo-Keynesianism and Merkel’s insistence on national supply-side reforms, there are few alternatives to these two positions, neither of which inspire confidence.

The second problem is that Eurobonds present us with a direct clash between technocratic rationale and political reality. From the technocrat’s perspective, Eurobonds appear as a sensible solution to a thorny problem. Politically, they run against almost all the trends in place today in Europe. They would imply wealth transfers across national boundaries, something that is firmly resisted by national publics who would be expected to pay more. They would require considerable institutional strengthening at the European level in order to put in place the mechanisms needed to make decisions about how Eurobonds should be issued and how the funds raised should then be distributed. This comes at a time when the EU, according a recent Pew poll, is experiencing a “full blown crisis of public confidence” (see here for an overview of the poll).

Eurobonds would only exacerbate the democratic failings of European integration whilst at the same time they fall short of answering key questions about Europe’s growth model.

France’s heterodox economists

31 Jan

Back in June, The Current Moment blogged about a manifesto written by a group of “dismayed economists” in France whose critique of free market orthodoxies was beginning to gain ground. This past weekend, a long interview with one of the original signatories of this manifesto, the French economist André Orléan, was published in Le Monde. Focusing on the role of financial markets in macro-economic policymaking, Orléan makes a number of excellent points.

He notes that historically, the role of specific economic interests, such as those of finance or of specific sectors of the real economy (export industries, domestic farming interests etc.) have been contained by the wider concerns of governments. The universality of the general interests holds sway against the particularities of individual groups. He makes the good point that this battle has often been fought through national central banks. They have been the main tool used by the executive power to pursue the interests of wider society. This gives us a rather different perspective on what is often assumed to be the narrow partisanship of politically-controlled central banks. In the mainstream economic literature, independent central banks are the guardians of the public interest; central banks directed by national executives are prisoners of political short-termism. This may be the conventional view today but Orléan reminds us that the historical record supports the opposite view: politically-controlled central banks were the vehicles for the articulation of the public interest. The primacy of politics over economics, as Orléan puts it, has had as one of its main tools the power of the central bank. This might shed a different light on the Orban government in Hungary: attacked for its anti-democratic ambitions, one of Orban’s proposed reforms was to curtail the independence of the Hungarian central bank. Rather than welcome this as an attempt to regain political control over macro-economic policy, Orban was criticized for his nascent authoritarianism. In fact, the more powerful assault on the democratic control of macro-economic policy has been waged over the years by the European Court of Justice, particularly its attack on the notion that national public sectors should be shielded from the competitive pressures of the private sector.

Orléan also has an interesting reflexion on the nature of finance. Contrasting it with the market for goods or services, he notes that finance has a “directly collective dimension”: it is concerned not just with individual sectors but with the economy as a whole. He gives the example of the infamous downgrading of France’s triple A rating by the agency, Standard & Poor’s. In its report, S&P referred to the EU’s new fiscal compact agreed upon in December 2011 (which the UK and the Czech Republic are today refusing to ratify), which it judged inadequate to meet the demands of the Eurozone debt crisis. Orléan notes that it is exactly this kind of very general judgement that is typical of the financial sector; and yet such generality does not pass through – as with democratic decision-making – a system by which a variety of different views are confronted via the freedom of the ballot box. This curious combination of its very narrow representative claim along with its interest in the economy as a whole can go some way of explaining the rise of technocratic governments in Europe today: they express the same peculiar combination, with individual technocratic leaders such as Italy’s Mario Monti having a history of very close relations to the world of finance.

Orléan’s views on the way out of the current crisis are based around a reassessment of the idea of value in the economy and of value creation. He argues for a much greater focus on the creation of value within the real economy, as this is ultimately where jobs and growth are created. He suggests that a new law should be introduced that firmly separates savings banks from investment banks, an argument included in the French Socialist Party’s programme. There is nothing radically new in Orléan’s arguments but his attack on conventional assumptions in economics is both powerful and welcome.

Interview with Arthur Goldhammer

29 Nov

As part of our ongoing series of interviews, we have today responses from Arthur Goldhammer. Art runs the excellent French politics blog, is on the editorial board of French Society, Politics, and Culture, and chairs the Visiting Scholars series at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. He is a writer and translator of more than 120 books from French to English, including a translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He has written and commented on both the US and European dimensions of the recent financial crisis, and we have asked him to elaborate his views.

What are the stories right now that you think people either aren’t paying enough attention to, or about which we have the wrong view?

I think we need to pay more attention to how the expansion of lending was financed by what Hyun Song Shin, Joe Danielsson, and Jean-Pierre Zigrand call “passive investors,” namely, household savers, value-oriented money market funds and pension funds (see here). Ben Bernanke called attention to a “global savings glut” due to the US-China trade imbalance, but Shin points out that the Chinese by and large did not buy risky mortgage-backed securities. Instead, he notes the existence of a “global banking glut,” as passive investors provided cheap financing that allowed European banks to expand their lending dramatically during the early 2000s. It was this intermediation of US funds through global European banks that fueled both the US mortgage bubble and the various bubbles that occurred in Europe.

Let’s turn to the Eurozone debt problem. The dominant view is that Greeks and Italians are corrupt, inefficient and lazy, and that is why they find themselves in this mess. What is your view of what is going on?

Low productivity and laziness are not the same thing. Greek workers in fact put in more hours per year than German workers, but they do not produce as much per hour of work because the German and Greek economies are radically different in structure. Given the low cost of government borrowing before 2009, however, the Greek government increased its purchases over many years, which drove up unit labor costs relative to Germany while putting money into the pockets of workers, encouraging them to buy imported goods. In other southern-tier countries, the details of the picture vary but the overall pattern is the same: wage-inflation in the south combined with wage-stability in Germany, where unions and management cooperated to foster export-led growth. Inevitably, this structural disparity reached its limit. To be sure, deficiencies in Greek and Italian governance contributed to the crisis, but they are not its root cause.

The standard recipe for the recovery from the Eurozone crisis is austerity and structural reforms in the peripheries, plus some recapitalization of banks. Do you think this is the right way to go?

“Structural reform” can mean many things. Too often it is simply a euphemism for “scale back the welfare state” and “make it easier to fire unwanted workers.” Clearly, a more far-sighted structural reform, oriented toward education, job training, and productivity-enhancing investment is needed to put Europe on a more balanced growth path. In the short run, austerity is harmful because it will reduce aggregate demand. The theory of expansionary contraction is wrong: business confidence will be undermined, not increased, by simultaneous fiscal retrenchment across the Eurozone.

What do you think would address the trade and debt imbalances between Northern and Southern Europe? Do you think it can be done within the European monetary order?

Germans need to consume more, save less, and agree to a fiscal union that will allow for transfers of wealth to poorer regions. Politically, however, the latter will not be easy to achieve, since Germans were assured when the euro was created that they would never be part of a “transfer union.” The German Constitutional Court might even veto any such proposal. This could doom the Eurozone. But German gains from the euro have been so substantial, and the costs of a collapse of the Eurozone would be so great, that it is possible to envision evolution on this point. I am not sure that it can come fast enough, however, to save the system, especially if the European Central Bank refuses to purchase sovereign debt on the primary market to keep Italian borrowing costs within reason.

The hegemony of the demand for austerity is striking. It is offered as the solution to the Eurozone crisis, as well as to the American situation – the US Congress even created a supercommittee to find savings. Yet it seems odd to have such agreement around austerity in the midst of a potential double dip recession. What is wrong with the demand for austerity? How do you account for the strength of this common sense?

It is not easy for people to think in terms of a general economic equilibrium. Politicians often fall back on homely household analogies: “a family cannot indefinitely spend more than it earns,” etc. Other simple homilies abound: “Debt got us into this mess, we cannot get out by piling on more debt.” The paradox of thrift is difficult to grasp. It is hard, moreover, for many people to place confidence in “the Keynesian solution,” because there is so much controversy over what it means. Keynesianism was only dimly understood during the Great Depression, and the immense deficits incurred in World War II were not taken on in virtue of an intellectual conversion to Keynesian ways of thinking. The so-called Keynesian demand management that took hold in the 60s is really a separate body of doctrine from Keynesian teachings about the liquidity trap, and demand management policies were discredited by the stagflation of the 70s. The economics profession itself is so far from consensus about Keynesianism in either normal times or liquidity traps that it would take a leap of faith for the average informed voter to countenance the vast deficit spending that some theorists say is necessary to restore growth. So things will have to get worse before practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are willing to put themselves deliberately into the hands of some defunct economist.

In the US, there is an influential view that we need to have continued expansionary monetary policy but contractionary fiscal policy. That seems to be the recipe of the moment, with the Fed even contemplating another round of quantitative easing. What do you think of this approach to inadequate demand and balance sheet problems?

I think that quantitative easing is helpful but that its operation is too slow and will eventually have to be supplemented by a more expansionary fiscal policy. The latter must be accommodated by monetary policy, but monetary policy alone cannot do the trick. Without growth, the Eurozone debt crisis will worsen, and “quantitative easing,” which has already occurred there, will have to take the form of monetization of the debt, which the ECB has thus far staunchly resisted. But the gallows will concentrate the minds of central bankers, unless political chaos erupts first.

Debt, especially mortgages and student loans, have become a major issue over the past few years. What if anything do you think should be done about it? How should we understand the growing debt of American households in the past decades?

I think the housing market will correct itself but the damage to millions of lives could be limited if the government were to take a more aggressive line on mortgage modification. Student debt is another matter because expectations about the returns from education change very slowly. Too much hope is being invested in education, and inevitably many students will emerge with more debt than their future incomes can justify, imposing a durable drag on the economy. Law schools may have over-expanded, for instance, turning out more lawyers than the economy can remunerate at the levels students expected when their students took on heavy tuition burdens. On the other hand, the high cost of medical care might be alleviated if our medical schools produced more doctors, increasing competition and thus reducing fees for service, but unless there is a corresponding decrease in the cost of medical school, the burden will be borne by the students. But an over-indebted graduate is not like an underwater homeowner. The graduate’s freedom will be inhibited if she can’t service her debt, but the only appropriate bailout is sweeping social change.

One thing that seems to tie the American and European situation together is the considerable growth of financial activity. Is there anything to the view that the last decades can be understood as a period of financialization? If so, what does it mean to say the economy has become financialized?

There is no doubt that finance-related activities have accounted for a growing share of GDP and that much of this activity has been unproductive. But how much? It’s hard to know, because efficient economic growth does require intermediation between passive investors and active entrepreneurs. We have also learned that regulation of finance is not always helpful because it provides incentives for capital to seek unregulated niches in which to operate less transparently. For instance, the Basel II banking regulations appear to have contributed to the growth of the “shadow banking system” implicated in the mortgage financing debacle. Governments have nationalized banking systems in the past without always achieving more transparent or efficient financing. Nevertheless, I think increased public oversight of leveraged institutions is inevitable. And I’m not sure that there is any justification at all for hedge funds and other leveraged private equity firms operating largely outside the regulatory structure that applies to banks. Given the over-representation of financial operatives in the very highest income brackets, increased marginal tax rates on top earners, recently recommended in this paper by Peter Diamond and Emanuel Saez, might, if not curtail financial activity, at least yield revenues that could be put to alleviating the damage.

Related to that question, what do you think accounts for the ‘bubbliness’ of the US and European economies, and especially the scale of these bubbles? We have seen a number of different bubbles and credit crises – housing bubbles in the US, UK, Ireland, and Spain; sovereign debt events in Greece, Portugal, and Italy, perhaps even France. While there was the dot come bubble in the late 90s, and the East Asian financial crisis, those don’t seem to have had the magnitude and systemic character as the latest period. What is, or isn’t, different about what we’re experiencing now?

I think that the scale of the bubbles is related to the “banking glut” discussed above. There also seems to be a “herd mentality” at work in investment banking circles, perhaps owing to the way in which bankers are recruited, trained, and rewarded. But I don’t know enough about these matters to offer specific recommendations.

How optimistic/pessimistic are you about the ability of national democratic procedures to provide solutions to the current economic crises in Europe and in the US? What do you think of the recent proliferation of technocratic governments in Greece and Italy? Does the current crisis expose some basic tensions between capitalism and democracy? If so, how exactly?

I do not believe that so-called technocratic governments will survive for very long. The question of capitalism and democracy is larger than I want to take up here. To be sure, the crisis has exposed the power of financial institutions to insist on their due and to exert pressure on democratic institutions. But the money that has been lent includes the savings of millions of ordinary citizens, whose interests deserve protection as much as, if not more than, the interests of the borrowers, who after all have benefited from the use of the loaned funds over a long period of time. Our normal democratic procedures, which are intended to reconcile large-scale conflicts of interest of this sort, do not function well in an international context in which complicated technical issues are involved. We must not, however, throw up our hands in despair, lest the comprehensible rage of those whose trust has been abused give rise to some regrettable reaction.

What are your views of the nascent protests (Occupy Wall Street, Indignados) developing in response to the introduction of austerity packages in Europe and the US? Are these movements a continuation of or a break with the anti-globalization movements of the past? Are they likely to fundamentally change public perceptions and government policy or will they have only a very small lasting impact?

I think the protest movements have called attention to growing inequality, which excessive borrowing had in part masked. I believe that the movements are new and to a large extent independent of anti-globalization actions. They reflect a desire for increased voice, especially for the young, in democratic polities that had become overly focused on freeing markets, reducing taxes and preserving benefits for the old. If the movements are to have lasting impact, however, they need to influence the electoral process, and I am not sure that they have the numbers, leadership, or organizational skills to do so. Finally, the most recent protests are only one among many signs of a more general crisis of legitimacy throughout the democratic world. Elites have claimed too large a share of productivity gains and too great a monopoly of life opportunities for their children. Without reform, the center cannot hold. Even with reform it may be too late.

What, finally, do you think the appropriate political response is to both these crises and their aftermath?

Although there will inevitably be political responses of many kinds, what is really needed, I think, is an intellectual response to guide the politics: there is clearly something wrong with our understanding of economics, especially in the areas of monetary systems and macroeconomic stabilization. Until we achieve new clarity in these areas, politicians will flail at problems whose origins they do not fully grasp, and people will demand solutions that are incoherent and therefore potentially destructive. We must be wary of our own certitudes. As we saw in the Great Depression, statesman convinced of the virtues of the gold standard acted in ways they believed were right but that we know were wrong. We are similarly in the dark and should therefore proceed tentatively, experimentally, until we are confident that we are moving toward the exit. In the meantime, income must be redistributed downward and elites must loosen their stranglehold on upward mobility through education.

Why recapitalization is wrong

19 Oct

Recapitalization is the issue of the moment in Europe. It is almost taken for granted that it is the sensible next step. The question is less ‘if’ than ‘how’. Keen to avoid being seen as bailing out bankers, European governments are planning to impose upon Europe’s core banks a deadline of six to nine months after which these banks must have raised their core tier one capital ratio to 9%. In effect, banks are being asked to boost their reserves in order to be better placed to face down whatever losses will come about as part of the resolution to the Eurozone crisis. Predictably, as Patrick Jenkins recounts in his FT column, banks are resisting this move towards higher capital ratios: higher reserves means less lending and less lending means lower profits for the banks. In response, European governments are threatening to undertake recapitalization by force. The banks are upping the ante by saying that if they are forced to recapitalize, they will do so neither via shareholders nor via the state but by shrinking their balance sheets. This will mean a drying up of credit at a time when governments are trying to boost credit within the economy. Faced with this stand off, European governments may call in the banks’ bluff and force them to take state money.

There is something ironic about this round of bail-outs appearing as the victory of governments over the narrow interests of the banking industry. The reality is rather different. What is hidden by this debate about the modalities of recapitalization and the squirming of the banks over higher reserve requirements is the problem of recapitalization itself. We seem to have forgotten why Europe’s banks are in a weak position in the first place. The problem, as Mark Blyth explains very well, is the exposure of banks to the sovereign debt of peripheral Eurozone countries (Greece, Italy, Spain). This exposure is not the result of accident or misfortune. It comes from the determination of banks to make money out of the creation of the Euro. The peculiar features of the Eurozone meant that nations on the periphery were able to benefit from a credit rating identical to Germany’s. However, as Blyth points out, “while core/periphery yields narrowed there was still a spread, and if you were a core bank, you could dump all your boring low-yield German and Dutch debt, load up on periphery debt… and pocket the spread times a few billion exposures”. The banks’ current difficulties are thus the result of the risks they took previously in making profits off the uneven development of the Eurozone economy.

Instead of being recapitalized by governments, which will come with the bitter pill of higher reserve requirements, banks would rather the EU beef up its financial stability mechanism so as to avoid any sovereign defaults within the Eurozone. The alternative, namely recapitalization, still represents a dramatic subsidy from taxpayers to banks as it ensures that these banks are covered for the losses incurred as a result of their lending to peripheral Eurozone economies during the boom years.

These two alternatives – a bigger EFSF or recapitalization – are both significant wealth transfers from taxpayers to the financial sector and should be resisted for that reason. That these are the only two alternatives presently on the table shows how limited and narrow the debate on the current crisis has become.


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