Tag Archives: European Central Bank

The effects of QE

21 Oct

Of all the new terms that have been invented since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, quantitative easing is perhaps the most bizarre. A purely technical term, it has entered into everyday language as ‘QE’. Monetary policy has taken centre stage as the main tool governments have to do something about growth and QE is it.

Tucked away in the small money supplement of the FT weekend was a long piece on QE. Its discussion of the effects of quantitative easing is worth commenting on. QE is basically a monetary stimulus programme, where central banks create money and use it to buy assets from banks and other financial institutions. The main thing central banks have bought are government bonds. Holders of bonds have therefore exchanged them for cash and that cash is what the governments hope will be spent in ways that stimulate the economy. QE was dreamed up at a time when interests were so low that they couldn’t really go any lower, making a traditional monetary policy response to an economic downturn impossible. The standard approach had been to cut interest rates in a downturn, raise them when the economy seemed to be overheating. Unable to do that with rates so low, QE was the radical alternative.

QE has been striking by its ubiquity: it has been the key policy response of the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan. What is surprising is how prevalently it has been used but how sceptical people are of its effects. The idea is that cash injected into the economy would generate new economic activity. There is little evidence, however, that QE has done that. Banks have tended to use the money to boost their capital ratios rather than to increase lending to businesses. Companies have sat on increasing piles of cash. QE in general is seen as having had little effect on the real economy.

Where has its impact been felt? After all, the US Federal Reserve has been buying $85bn a month of US government bonds since it started its QE. Intervention on such a huge scale cannot be free of effects. According to the FT, the main impact of QE has been on asset prices rather than on the real economy as such. These prices have risen considerably, boosting the wealth of those who own such assets. Predictably enough, that means the already very wealthy. The FT cites a Bank of England study that finds that in the UK, the top 5% of households hold 40% of the assets whose price has risen most because of QE. The central banks’ policy of printing money has inflated some asset prices, to the great benefit of those that hold them.

For everyone else, the effect has been more mixed. By keeping interest rates at very low levels, QE has obviously favoured the lenders over the savers. All those hoping to earn some return on their savings have been disappointed. Home owners, especially those with big mortgages, have been happy.  This view of QE helps us understand some of the curious features of this current economic downturn: as the real economy data continues to give cause for real concern (unemployment remains high, growth is anaemic, business investment remains very low), the price of fine art, the best wines and the high end properties in London, Paris and New York have all soared. With low interest rates and with central banks injecting so much liquidity into the bond markets, investors are looking for some return wherever they can. And that includes in a Monet or a large house in Neuilly or Richmond.

The best defence of QE cited by the FT was that things could have been worse without it. It returned confidence to markets and investors, and so helped us avoid the complete collapse that could have occurred in 2008 or 2009. As the FT admits, this argument is difficult to prove: “we just don’t know what would have happened without QE”. It is surprising that a policy with such obvious distributional effects has not been the subject of greater debate or disagreement. This is perhaps because the term itself is so euphemistically technical. Or because it has been carried out by central banks whose place is somewhat outside the terrain of partisan politics. It may also be that governments have been good at convincing people that there is no alternative to QE, which is tantamount to saying that they have no way of tackling problems in the real economy directly but can only work through asset prices.

This, of course, is not true. Governments could intervene far more directly in the economy. However, QE sits alongside the view that governments are fiscally constrained and need to reduce their outgoings as much as possible. Fiscal austerity combined with QE gives us the policy mix for the current period: a massive boost in the prices of assets owned by the wealthiest section of society and extensive cuts in government spending on public services. However technical it may sound, there is nothing ideologically neutral about QE and its effect.

 

Buying time and running out

11 Apr

Guest book review of Wolfgang Streeck’s „Gekaufte Zeit: Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus“. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2013.

By Philip Mader, Governance Across Borders editor and postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany

streeck cover

Democratic capitalist societies have been “buying time” with money for the past four decades – first via inflation, then public debt, then privatised Keynesianism – but are running out of resources for postponing the inevitable crisis. As a result, we now find ourselves at a crossroads where capitalism and democracy part ways. That in a nutshell is the thesis of Wolfgang Streeck’s new book, currently only available in German, but being translated for publication with Verso.

The book is based on a series of three “Adorno Lectures” given by the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in the summer of 2012 at the renowned Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt (other lecturers in recent years included Judith Butler and Luc Boltanski). Its radical language and conclusions may be surprising for those who remember Streeck’s days as advisor to the “Bündnis für Arbeit” initiated by Germany’s former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, which precipitated far-reaching labour market and social security reforms, or of Streeck’s demands for institutional reforms to forge a more competitive and flexible low-wage service sector in Germany modelled on the USA (Der Spiegel, 1999). But crises bring new beginnings, and Streeck’s defense of democracy against its subjugation to the market is auspicious. His analysis of the economic, political and ideological straightjacket that states have found themselves in, not just since the crisis but certainly more pronouncedly in its wake, ties together a revamped analysis of capitalism with a compelling critique of the “frivolous” politics of European integration. With some wit, a characteristic taste for good anecdotes, and above all great clarity, Streeck studies the processes of the moyenne durée which produced the “consolidation state” as the supreme fulfilment of a Hayekian liberal market vision, and which brought us to the impasse of the current period.

The book begins with a critical appraisal of how useful the Frankfurt School’s crisis theories from the 1960s and 1970s still are for explaining today’s crises. While their works are by no means invalidated, Streeck contends that yesteryear’s crisis theorists could scarcely imagine how long capitalist societies would be able to “buy time with money” and thereby continually escape the contradictions and tensions diagnosed by their theories of late capitalism. He explains the developments in Western capitalism since the 1970s as “a revolt by capital against the mixed economy of the postwar era”; the disembedding of the economy being a prolonged act of

successful resistance by the owners and managers of capital – the “profit-dependent” class – against the conditions which capitalism had had to accept after 1945 in order to remain politically acceptable in a rivalry of economic systems. (p. 26)*

By the 1970s, Streeck argues, capitalism had encountered severe problems of legitimacy, but less among the masses (as Adorno and Horkheimer had expected) than among the capitalist class. Referring to Kalecki, he suggests that theories of crises have to refocus on the side of capital, understanding modern economic crises as capital “going on strike” by denying society its powers of investment and growth-generation. The 1970s crisis, and the pathways that led out of it, thus were the result of capital’s unwillingness to become a mere beast of burden for the production process – which many Frankfurt theorists had tacitly assumed would happen. Capital’s reaction to its impending domestication set in motion a process of “de-democratising capitalism by de-economising democracy” (Entdemokratisierung des Kapitalismus vermittels Entökonomisierung der Demokratie). This ultimately brought about the specific and novel form of today’s crisis and its pseudo-remedies.

The rest, as they say, is history. In the second part, Steeck outlines how public debt rose with the neoliberal revolution, something mainstream economics and public choice quickly and falsely explained away as an instance of the “tragedy of the commons” with voters demanding too much from the state. However, the rise in debt came in fact with a curtailment of the power of democracy over the state and the economy. First, the good old “tax state” was ideologically restrained – starving the beast – and gradually found itself rendered a meek “debtor state” increasingly impervious to any remaining calls for redistribution by virtue of its objective impotence. Then, the resulting power shift to what Streeck calls the state’s “second constituency” – the creditor class, which asserts control over its stake in public debt and demands “bondholder value” – generated a standoff which Streeck observes between the conflicting demands of Staatsvolk und Marktvolk. The fact that the debtor state owes its subsistence less to contributions from the taxpaying “state people” and more to the trust of its creditor “market people” leads to a situation in which debtor states must continually credibly signal their prioritisation of creditors’ demands, even if it harms growth and welfare. Creditors, in their conflict with citizens, aim to secure fulfilment of their claims in the face of (potential) crises. The ultimate power balance remains unclear, but the “market people’s” trump card is that they can mobilise other states to fulfil their demands, leading to a kind of international financial diplomacy in their interest.

The archetype of such a transnational financial diplomacy, Streeck contends in the third and final part, is Europe under the Euro, where we encounter an even more wretched type: the “consolidation state”. Consolidation, Streeck argues, is a process of state re-structuring to better match the expectations of financial markets, and the consolidation state is a sort of perverse antithesis to the Keynesian state, acting in vain appeasement of the financial markets in hope of one day again being permitted to grow its economy. Its story begins with Friedrich Hayek, whose 1939 essay The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism Streeck presents as a strikingly accurate blueprint for the modern European Union, complete with references to the common market as assuring interstate peace. The European “liberalisation machine” slowly and successively reduced national-level capacity for discretionary intervention in markets; but it was European Monetary Union which ultimately rendered one of the last powerful (yet blunt) instruments available to states impracticable: currency devaluation. The resulting multi-level regime, a regime built on an unshakable belief in European “Durchregierbarkeit” (roughly: the capacity to govern Europe) and driven by a bureaucratic centre (or centres) increasingly well-insulated from democratic meddling, completes the actual European consolidation state of the early 21st century. Within this kind of hollowed-out supra-state individual countries have to fulfil their duties to pay before fulfilling any duties to protect, and recent “growth pacts” like Hollande’s are mere political showmanship. In the present framework even more substantial programmes would be likely to fail, Streeck argues with reference to Germany’s and Italy’s huge and hugely unsuccessful regional growth programmes. Stemming the decline of the southern Europe with transfer payments while adhering to monetary union with Germany is as much an impossibility as it is fuel for future discord.

Now, with tighter financial means, the cohesion of the Brussels bloc of states depends on hopes invested in neoliberal ‘structural adjustment’ with a parallel neutralisation of national democracies by supranational institutions and a targeted cultivation of local support through ‘modern’ middle classes and state apparatuses, who see their future in western European ways of business and life. Additional packages for structural reform, stimulus and growth from the centre are mainly of symbolic value, serving as discussion fodder for the greater public and for the mise-en-scène of summit decisions, as well as for politically and rhetorically absorbing whatever is left over of social democracy. Finally, puny as these may be financially, they can also be used to distribute loyalty premiums and patronage to local supporters: instruments of elite co-optation by doling out advantages in the Hayekisation process of European capitalism and its state system. (p. 203)

What can be done? It would be wrong to describe Streeck’s conclusions as optimistic. The capacity of populations or politicians to resist the imperatives of the consolidation state appears small, even where he argues that popular opposition is key, pointing to some rays of light in recent social movements. Streeck characterises present capitalist society as a “deeply divided and disorganised society, weakened by state repression and numbed by the products of a culture industry which Adorno could hardly have imagined even in his most pessimistic moments” (p. 217). It is furthermore politically held in check by a transnational plutocracy which has far greater sway over parliaments and parties than citizens. Given the likely failure of the consolidation state at restoring normality, we have thus arrived at a crossroads where capitalism and democracy must go their separate ways.

The likeliest outcome, as of today, would be the completion of the Hayekian social model with the dictatorship of a capitalist market economy protected against democratic correctives. Its legitimacy would depend on those who were once its Staatsvolk learning to accept market justice and social justice as one and the same thing, and understand themselves as part of one unified Marktvolk. Its stability would additionally require effective instruments to ensure that others, who do not want to accept this, can be ideologically marginalised, politically dis-organised and physically kept in check. […] The alternative to a capitalism without democracy would be democracy without capitalism, at least without capitalism as we know it. This would be the other utopia, contending with Hayek’s. But in contrast, this one wouldn’t be following the present historical trend, and rather would require its reversal. (p. 236)

Small acts of resistance, Streeck notes, can throw a spanner in the works, and the system is more vulnerable than it may appear; the Draghis and Bernankes still fear nothing more than social unrest. For Streeck, projects for democratising Europe, calls for which have recently gained momentum, can hardly work in a Europe of diverging interests. They would have to be implemented top-down, and furthermore have to succeed both amidst a deep (public) legitimacy crisis of Europe and against an already firmly embedded neoliberal programme with a decades-long head-start.

Streeck places his highest hopes in restoring options for currency devaluation via a kind of European Bretton Woods framework; “a blunt instrument – rough justice –, but from the perspective of social justice better than nothing” (p. 247). Indeed, a newly flexible currency regime would re-open some alternatives to so-called “internal devaluation” – nothing but a euphemism for already-euphemistic “structural adjustment” – and thereby permit a more heterogeneous political economy within Europe which could better match cultural differences (the book’s references to which sometimes seem to teeter on the edge of calls for national liberation). The Euro as a “frivolous experiment” needs to be undone, Streeck claims. But would that really mean a return to social justice? States like Great Britain or Switzerland hardly suggest a linkage, least of all an automatic one. Furthermore, declines in real wages from currency devaluation can mirror those of internal devaluation, merely with the difference of how politically expensive the process is (and it would still likely be central bankers, not democratic institutions, taking the decision). A return to national currencies looks like an all too easy way out, falling short of political-economic transformations for restoring some semblance of social justice to capitalism – let alone social justice as an alternative to capitalism.

Nonetheless, Streeck’s is a forceful argument in favour of preserving what vestiges remain of national sovereignty in face of capitalism’s attacks on democracy, as tools for gradually pushing back the transnational regime of market sovereignty. He concludes that the greatest threat to Western Europe today is not nationalism, but “Hayekian market liberalism” – whether the one could be the dialectical product of the other remains another question. Above all his analysis of capital as a collective player capable of acting with guile (Williamson) to ensure capitalism remains in its better interests – intellectual traces of Streeck’s days as a scholar of collective bargaining, perhaps – is clearly one of the most innovative approaches to understanding the class dimension of the political economy of the present crisis. His anatomy of the type of regime we increasingly have to deal with, the consolidation state moulded to address capital’s own legitimacy crisis yet sacrificing democratic legitimacy in the process, perhaps offers the most cogent picture of the present multi-level political economy of debt in Europe (and beyond). Taking back the consolidation state and re-appropriating democracy from capitalism’s clutches at the crossroads, of course, is a task beyond the reach of any book.

(*All quotations are the reviewer’s own translations from the German original.)

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 Zombie Currency and the Fetters of Europe

4 Sep

Hobbes once said that money is the “Sanguification of the Commonwealth” Wherever it circulates, so it brings goods from those who produced them to those who need them, and in the process sustains the life of the body politic, the same way blood sustains the life of the body. If Hobbes was right, that is a bad sign for the euro. The euro was supposed to be the lifeblood of the European Union, circulating through and nourishing the political institutions of the Euro-Leviathan. Instead it is sucking the life out of it.

Part of the problem is that the euro was not just supposed to nourish existing institutions but conjure into being a set of institutions that had not yet been fully created. It was a political project through and through. It was supposed to compensate for the EU’s democratic deficit and confusion of powers: a kind of European version of post-Tiananmen China – economic vitality in the place of more democratic institutions. But, unlike China, the EU never went all the way to creating a highly coordinated, if undemocratic, Euro-Leviathan. What the euro promised was financial integration, macroeconomic stability, and technocratic peace. A common currency managed via European Central Bank monetary policy would bring borrowing costs down, given the implicit continental wide guarantee. This is exactly what happened at first. Sovereign debt yields converged rapidly, such that where Greek yields had been almost 25% in 1992 compared with German 7% yields, by the end of 2000, two years after the introduction of the euro, their yield were nearly the same. Credit flowed freely across borders, as did capital, consumer goods, and even labor.

But as we have seen over the past months, the background guarantee of supranational monetary support was not actually there, the Leviathan was a many-headed hydra, and the underlying economies diverged rather than converged. The ECB’s mandate is to control inflation not save banks or engage in fiscal transfers. There is no coordinated continental-wide fiscal policy. The responses to the recent crisis have been short-term, ad hoc moves, like the Long Term Refinancing Operations, in which the ECB loaned money to national banks to buy sovereign debt, in an attempt to keep yields low and increase liquidity.

The effect has been to extend the sclerotic features of the European political system into the economy, rather than to have that economy breathe life into the political institutions. Consider the following three facts, which together reveal just how rapidly the European economy has financially dis-integrated, even as the euro ghosts along preventing this dis-integration from becoming an economic reorganization:

  1. First, as everyone has noticed, sovereign debt yields have radically diverged to reflect not the strength of a continental economy with a coordinated economic policy, but rather dramatic differences in national economic potentiality. Germany is safe, France moderate, the PIIGS increasingly risky. (Note both the convergence from 1999-2009, and the rapid divergence from 2009 onwards. Graph from the ECB)

  1. Second, as Gillian Tett reported in May, cross-border private lending has seized up. An essential feature of eurozone financial integration had been the willingness of banks to make loans in one country backed by assets from another. Lending to Greek consumers were matched by German funds; lending to Spanish borrowers covered by French assets. Now, as Tett observes, “banks are increasingly reordering their European exposure along national lines…the fracture has already arrived for many banks’ risk management departments.”  Banks now demand that any loan to a particular country be backed by funding from that country. Where the economic strength of Germany thus facilitated borrowing, speanding and investment in weaker economies, it now subtracts from that same provision of credit. Given the economic contraction, Greece, Spain, Italy now have fewer good assets to put up against loans that now has to be backed nationally. This “asset-liability matching” is an indication that banks are already treating the european economies as breaking up, even if this break up is not registered at the level of different currencies able to register these different economic potentials. An April ECB report on financial disintegration notes that the standard deviation in interbank lending rates across countries has continued to grow and fluctuate wildly since 2009, and an August report confirms continuation of the trend in various financial markets: “the pricing of risk in the repo market…has become more dependent on the geographic origin of both the coutnerparty and the collateral, in particular when these stem from the same country.”
  1. Recently, the Financial Times reported corporations have had to seek financing from the corporate bond market, because bank loans are in short supply, and that the yields on corporate bonds are nationally divergent. According to the FT, “Interest rates paid by companies in the eurozone’s weaker economies have surged, highlighting the bloc’s fragmentation as the European Central Bank loses control of borrowing costs.” Further, this particular instance of fragmentation heavily favors large businesses that can sell bonds on corporate bond markets, and some countries have many more corporations with access to these markets than others. Money is going into already established avenues for investment, not new growth areas. Once again, financial markets are reflecting the fragmentation of the European economy.

In sum, diverging national bond yields, diverging bank loan structures, diverging corporate borrowing costs. The blood is running through the arteries of a foreign host.

The ECB is not so much keeping the euro alive as keeping it from dying. Public funding by the ECB is replacing private funding at the cost of sinking more and more money into going concerns, suppressing new avenues for investment. Banks are not lending to companies, they are investing in their own sovereign debt or parking cash back at the central bank. Major companies are sitting on cash hoards rather than investing.

The Euro is a zombie currency – a monetary undead, wandering around feeding off the flesh of living economic entities. Of course, there is an alternative to trying to goad skittish banks and bearish companies into investing. One could sequester savings and force investment through a massive, European wide investment plan. But that would require decapitating the zombie, or however else one finally kills the walking dead. The fetters of the EU political structure weigh too heavily on the economic forces of the Eurozone to allow such a radical act. There may be a European solution to the continent’s economic malaise, but it won’t come from the EU.

The Van Rompuy draft

28 Jun

This evening, heads of government will discuss a draft proposal put together by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, and his team, prepared “in close collaboration” with the heads of the European Commission, the Eurogroup and the European Central Bank. Though it seems the terrain is already being prepared for an inconclusive summit, it worth looking at Van Rompuy’s draft to see exactly what is to be discussed.

The draft is striking by virtue of its conditional wording: there are many ifs, coulds, possiblies and maybies. The whole draft reads as a tentative and rather speculative account of what reforms the EU could take on board if it wanted to move forward with fiscal and monetary integration. There is none of the hubris or confidence one might find in earlier drafts produced by European institutions, confident of their authority and of member state compliance.

There are nevertheless a few measures that seem a bit more thought out and have a whiff of probability about them. One is the integrated supervision of banks, the so-called banking union. This measure seems likely largely because member states can all agree on the point that national regulators have been found wanting. Instead of national regulators that sign off on generous assessments of the state of national banks, something more robust is needed. What is surprising is that the draft – with the presumed agreement of ECB head, Mario Draghi – singles out the ECB as the institution most likely to take on this role. This is surprising because – as Dermot Hodgson as shown – the ECB is generally rather reticent about any attempt at expanding its competences. Far from being a power-hungry supranational actor, the ECB has shied away from taking on new roles. Its sole concern is its price stability mandate: anything else smacks of back-handed attempts at imposing some sort of political oversight onto the bank, a terrible idea according to mainstream central bank thinking. Either it has accepted this new role because it does see it as an opportunity to increase its power or it has had this forced upon it in some way. One reason may be a convergence between Draghi, Van Rompuy, Barroso and Juncker, on the need to set up this banking union in a way that avoids any messy involvement with domestic politics. By placing it within the ECB, Van Rompuy notes in his draft, existing treaty law (“the possibilities foreseen under Article 127(6) of the TFEU”, to be exact) should be sufficient. A tidy legal solution to a thorny problem, and one that Draghi can no doubt appreciate even if it means a slight expansion in the ECB’s remit.

On the “integrated budgetary framework”, another important chunk of Van Rompuy’s draft, it is obvious what might be accepted by national leaders and what remains pretty unlikely. The key suggestion is that stronger measures to control the upward end of government spending need to be introduced. Van Rompuy suggests that in the end “the euro level area would be in a position to require changes in budgetary envelopes if they are in violation of fiscal rules”. This begs the question of what the sanction would be exactly – probably, fines of some sort – but it also makes clear how the evolution of economic governance in Europe is following well-trodden lines. What is being suggested here is really a constitutionalizing of limits to what governments can spend: exactly what national governments have been discussing for some time and what former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had proposed in France.

The push to make excessive spending truly illegal is hardly new and the ideas are familiar to anyone who followed the events of the 1990s and the Maastricht criteria. Overwhelmingly, economic growth is assumed to come from private sector activity, supply-side reform and from a focus on exports. There is to be a minimal role for public spending in any national growth strategy. National government discretion with regard government spending, and especially the idea that market instability should be compensated by discretionary uses of the public purse, has little role to play in the draft. That the fiscal excesses were more consequence than cause of the present crisis, and were initially the result of massive wealth transfers in the form of bank bail-outs after the Lehman Brothers collapse, is not taken into account. Even the part of the draft that mentions a “European resolution scheme” to be funded by bank contributions – “with the aim of orderly winding-down non-viable institutions and therefore protect tax payer funds” – pales in comparison to the tax-payer funded European Stability Mechanism that is vaunted as a possible “fiscal backstop to the resolution and deposit guarantee scheme”.

What remain far more tentative are the parts that describe the issuance of common debt and the creation of a fully-fledged European treasury: ideas that are being firmly resisted by Chancellor Merkel. And the mention of strengthening democratic legitimacy is an afterthought in a draft that focuses on measures intended to restrict as much as possible the room of manoeuvre for nationally-elected representatives.

There is little evidence of federalizing ambition in Van Rompuy’s draft. The most likely measure – the banking union – is proposed in a way that avoids having to rewrite any existing laws. The suggestions about common budgetary rules are driven by national governments so lacking in authority that they need binding external frameworks in order to impose any sort of fiscal discipline on their own societies. The reaction to this end of week summit will most likely be disappointment at what is not in the final communiqué. But judging from Van Rompuy’s draft, the real problem is what is in it.

Europe’s implementation problem

26 Apr

In recent days, we have seen an unravelling in the political foundations of the Eurozone’s fiscal compact. The most recent casualty was Mark Rutte’s government in the Netherlands. Precarious at the best of times, the government’s proposed budget cuts of up to 16 billion Euros failed to win over the Freedom Party leader, Geert Wilders. Wilders withdrew his support for the government, leaving it to rely on a spattering of small parties across the Dutch parliament. Rutte claims that the country must pass the new budget by the 30th April, the deadline given to the Hague by the European Commission, the latter donning its hat as agent of budgetary approval for national governments. Many in the Netherlands disagree and any election is likely to be cast as a referendum on the Euro.

In France, the success of the far right National Front in the first round of the Presidential elections last Sunday has put France’s role in Europe under the spotlight. One of Marine Le Pen’s most publicized demands was that France leave the Euro. Turning their attention to National Front supporters, both second round candidates – Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande – have taken the anti-EU sentiment on board. Hollande promises to redesign the fiscal compact so that it focuses more on growth and job creation. Sarkozy has begun to speak about politically controlling the European Central Bank and has taken a tough line on Europe’s immigration laws.

In Ireland, as a referendum on the fiscal deal approaches, a large part of the population is undecided. Recent polls suggest that up to 40% of the population is unsure how it will vote on the 31st May. And in Greece, the forthcoming elections may well challenge the political consensus built up behind the country’s deal with its creditors.

This unravelling of political support for Eurozone agreements is not just a product of a far right surge across Europe. Many of the criticisms of the austerity measures reflect divided opinion at the very top of public life. That more austerity only leads to lower growth, which in turn leads to higher debt levels and thus a need for even more austerity, is recognized by many as a downward spiral associated with extreme cost-cutting by governments. The IMF has for a long time warned against draconian cuts in government budgets that could stifle rather than encourage growth. In Greece, we have heard this argument coming from the opposition for some time and in the UK the Labour and Conservative Parties agreed in the run up to the 2010 election on the need for balanced budgets but disagreed about how quickly budgets should be brought back into balance. Elite opinion lacks consensus on the modalities of austerity policies and today’s disagreements reveal some of the problems with the deficit-reduction assumptions of the EU’s fiscal compact.

It is also clear that implementation problems are an inherent feature of European governance. Taking the case of the Eurozone, the fiscal compact reflects the way in which political decision-making has become separated from the ugly business of implementing unpopular policies. EU crisis management concentrates policymaking powers within the hands of executives. In the form of agreements between heads of state, brokered behind closed doors and in ways that are intended to mutually support each other in the difficult task of ruling in uncertain times, these policies are then passed down to the level of national ministries where the cuts and belt-tightening takes effect. And it is not coincidental that the focus at the EU level is on government spending. The far more difficult and longer term task of raising competitiveness is left up to national governments.

Such a radical separation between the decisions made and their implementation is evidence of the weak authority national governments command across Europe. They hope that by presenting at the domestic level something that has already been agreed by most member states, implementation will be made easier. The pan-European nature of the deal thus reflects the crisis in authority felt by national governments. They need this separation of policymaking from implementation in order to make implementation easier at the national level. We are seeing today that it does not always work.

The Unholy Alliance of Monetary Expansion and Fiscal Austerity: More for those who have, less for those who don’t

16 Jan

Anyone observing the course of macro-economic policy in industrial countries over the past few years cannot help but notice an over-riding pattern: monetary expansion, fiscal austerity. This is an unholly alliance, in which the most regressive form of stimulus tacitly underwrites a fiscal contraction that punishes the least well off for the financial crisis and subsequent economic stagnation. (Skip the next two paragraphs if you already know the basic facts.)

Consider first some well-known facts. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has pushed interest rates about as low as they will go, and says it will keep them at the lower bound until 2013. It has also engaged in two rounds of quantitative easing, first buying in 2008-2009 over $1 trillion worth of MBS (Mortgage Backed Securities) and agency securities, then in 2010 it bought $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds, as well as the less significant Operation Twist. These measures have, in a narrow sense, been somewhat successful, with the Fed making profits on its original asset purchases, recently returning $77 billion to the Fed. The easing of the 2008-2009 credit constraints has acted as a kind of stimulus to the US economy by increasing the money supply, though strong doubts persist as to any further marginal improvements the Fed can make (e.g. Here and here). Meanwhile, while the Fed has pumped like crazy, state spending has come under serious attack. To be sure, there was the initial roughly $800 billion stimulus in late 2008, but this was almost entirely offset by contractions at the state and local level. The contractionary trend continued in 2011 such that government employment was “down by 280,000 over the year. Job losses in 2011 occurred in local government; state government, excluding education; and the U.S. Postal Service.” And then there is the whole super-committee, trillions of dollars in savings issue waiting in the wings.

We find a similar story in Europe. There have been in some cases multiple rounds of austerity in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and so on, despite record level Eurozone unemployment and economic economic stagnation, verging on recession. Meanwhile, despite initial recalcitrance, the ECB not only has pushed interest rates low, it has begun quietly expanding its balance sheet, offering nearly $500 billion in cheap 3-year loans, and after the recent success of Italian and Spanish bond auctions, has suggested it will loan more money in February. Fiscal austerity, monetary expansion.

Now one perfectly reasonable response to this relationship between central banks expanding the money supply and central governments contracting demand is to say “thank God for the Fed/ECB! At least there is one sane institution left intervening in the economy.” And as a response to those banging the drums of austerity, who believe in ‘expansionary austerity’, or to those who think the Fed is the root of all evil, this is a perfectly reasonable response. Austerity makes things worse, and displaces the costs of the crisis onto the worst off; the Fed, though it is not a progressive institution, is not the root of all evil. However, there is more going on here than that.

For one, in the European case, the tradeoff has been explicit. Draghi held out for as long as he could, on the grounds that Europe had to get its fiscal house in order before the ECB would become more adventurous. Moreover, as Henry Farrell has pointed out, while the raison d’etre of central banks to be insulated from political pressure, what this really means is that they are insulated from the kinds of political pressure felt by elected representatives, i.e. democratic political pressure. They are not from political pressure tout court. Instead, they are influenced by those like them, who speak their language of expertise and money. This makes it much easier for them to propose ‘solutions’ that hurt the majority – who do not so easily understand financial matters, nor tend to produce expert knowledge about it. Which is why it is easy for them to be so nonchalant about fiscal austerity, and why one hears very little about how regressive stimulus through loose monetary policy is relative to fiscal policy.

Just a refresher on that last point because it is relevant. Those best able to take advantage of low interest rates are those with positive net worth, not to mention financial savvy, which is for the most part the wealthy. And it does so without forcing them to invest in any particular way (one of the reasons why it can be of limited use as stimulus – borrowers can just park their money in T-bills, Swiss francs, or some other safe asset, rather than invest in job-creating enterprises). Additionally, it indirectly helps the wealthies by boosting the stock market, and thus those who gain most from increases in stock values (regardless of the underlying employment situation.) Moreover, as Doug Henwood has pointed out, monetary stimulus does the least to disrupt the existing class structure. It increases the ability of private borrowers to spend without actually altering the ability of average workers to earn or increasing their bargaining power with employers. Fiscal policy, on the other hand, especially something like jobs programs, puts a floor under wages, increases demand for labor, and thus changes labor-capital relations. On top of which, it challenges employers’ claims that they should possess exclusive control over investment.

The unholy alliance between monetary expansion and fiscal austerity is more intricate yet. A further response to those who want to present central banks right now as the only sane actors is that their expansionary activity deadens the impact of the insanity. That is to say, even when central bankers argue there should be more fiscal expansion, as Bernanke is reputed to want, their expansionary monetary policy conceals the full damage of the fiscal policy. It gives even greater room for fiscal irrationality. In all, the unholy alliance amounts in practice to a kind of policy combination that serves to redistribute upwards: fewer social services and public benefits for majority, alongside a monetary policy that directly or indirectly benefits the wealthy. And this combination does little to address the underlying sources of the crisis and continued lack of employment/stagnating wages.

Finally, and this is the most difficult part of the unholy alliance to tease out, there is a deep-seated, tacit ideological dimension here. The willingness of central banks to engage in massive pump-priming seems to us to be conditional in certain ways on a certain balance of class forces. The balance is one in which working class demands are weak, expressed not just in more passive unions with lower membership, but in the wider ideological defeat of the idea that public power could be used to meet the basic needs of all and even to socialize investment. Central bankers, once called in to lower the American standard of living by raising interest rates, have been freely keeping interest rates low now that weak labor bargaining power practically eliminates fears about inflation (a reality to which German bankers have yet fully to adjust.) It is harder to imagine an expansionary monetary policy, at least of the magnitude that we have seen, in the midst of a more robust fiscal response by the state to protect the bargaining power and living standards of workers, not to mention in the midst of significant labor militancy. Insofar as the absence of strong political support for expansionary fiscal policy registers the wider political weakness of the Left, the unholy alliance speaks to the ideological hegemony of conservative economic views (despite the hand-wringing of certain Austrians and ‘end-the-Fed’ Randians.) While the credit crunch was supposed to have discredited economic orthodoxy, in fact it seems to have created the conditions for its consolidation. The result: easier money for those who have, less for those who don’t.

Sturm und Draghi

23 Dec

The announcement that the ECB “unleashed a wall of money” to prop up ailing European banks has been greeted with general positive noises, and some confusion. The money is €489 billion in three-year loans, meant to inject liquidity into a tightened banking system, and to allow the banks to, among other things, buy up sovereign debt that the ECB won’t buy directly. The confusion arises from the relationship between the words and actions of Mario Draghi, the recently arrived president of the ECB. Draghi has been at pains to say that the ECB will not act as a lender of last resort, buying up sovereign debt that nobody else wants, without a major EU treaty-change that includes enforced austerity. As he said in an interview with the Financial Times “We have to act within the Treaty. In general, there must be a system where the citizens will go back to trusting each other and where governments are trusted on fiscal discipline and structural reforms.” Yet, as any number of commentators have noted, providing this wall of money seems to be a kind of end-run around the treaty problem. Though it might not work in the long-run, it is taken by the likes of Paul Krugman as the admirable ‘subtlety‘ of eurocrats, finding solutions within the legal arrangements.

There is of course something positive about the head of an unelected, somewhat secretive, yet enormously powerful institution formally stating that he must follow existing law – the EU treaty in this case. Indeed such affirmation of the treaty is especially important given that many have called on Draghi simply to ignore the treaty and backstop the sovereign debt of southern European countries, or argued that it wouldn’t really violate the treaty. But there are deeper, more widespread political problems here, not least with Draghi’s own political game. If, in fact, Draghi and the ECB were merely playing the responsible Big Bank, keeping its head down and following the rules, and leaving the politics to the politicians, then that would be…something. But it is quite evidently not what Draghi has been doing.

The two-timing – saying one thing, and coming up with new, inventive ways of doing the other – illuminate something of a power game that the ECB is playing. Publicly, Draghi is holding back the ECB backstop under conditions – namely, judicially or politically enforceable limits on fiscal policy of European states, inscribed in a new treaty. That is a straight-up political demand, backed by the power that only the ECB possesses: the economic power to bail-out the southern states and European banks. It is a political demand, moreover, made upon already hurting European publics to endure not just a period of contraction, but a major restructuring of the relationship between their states and their economies. The idea behind the rewritten treaty, in other words, is not just to impose the pain of austerity measures, nor even to dismantle the welfare states, but to inscribe the logic of constraint and lowered expectations into the new supranational and by extension national political institutions.

Draghi, of course, is not the only political agent here – Merkel has led the charge for treaty-change with austerity written in. But her actions are unabashedly and professedly political, and understood to be so.  Draghi’s statements and positions are taken to be somehow the words of an expert, nevermind the ‘subtle’ coercions of offering a continental bailout only on strict terms. Draghi’s views are supposed to be the limited advice of an economic expert, and one who in some sense a neutral actor, outside and above politics – like the institution he runs. What makes the political ploy here worse is the power that backs it. As noted, the ECB is the only one with the potential to offer a bailout, or at least commit to printing enough money to buy up debt, which might calm the bond markets and save the banking system. In certain ways, then, Draghi is not just more German than the Germans, but has a power they don’t have.

Of course, the two-timing – such as the wall of money – reflects the fact that the ECB is not all powerful. Or at least, that it is not so flush with power resources that it can wait out this game of financial chicken longer than those unwilling to make the sacrifices Draghi demands. After all, waiting too long makes backstopping a whole lot more expensive, risky and potentially less effective – no doubt one reason Draghi felt compelled to engage in this recent refinancing operation. But it has to be said that Draghi is playing a political game, one that favors certain interests over others, with potentially far-reaching consequences depending on the ultimate political and legal changes.

Of course, as mentioned, the point is not that Draghi is some all powerful financial witch-doctor, who can wave his magic wand – or not – and get the world to do his bidding. In fact, the other striking feature of the debate around ECB actions is the way in which it speaks to the restoration of a certain status quo ex ante. Although the financial crisis of 2008, and its potential sequel in Europe, produced numerous arguments that mainstream economics had been discredited, and that a “new economic paradigm” was needed, what is striking is just how little has changed. Before the crisis, the dominant view was that a period of Great Moderation had been achieved, largely thanks to the machinations of expert central bankers who fiddled with interest rates. One of the background assumptions of this view was that monetary, rather than fiscal, policy was a finer instrument of economic engineering, not least because ‘less political’ and thus less prone to the messy distortions of democratic politics. Central bankers were gods, or at least master governors, to be appreciated and listened to (despite their continued interest in things like wage suppression). Little moves with interest rates were guessed at and awaited; the public divined, parsed, and poured over statements by the likes of Greenspan a bit like Kremlinologists looking for the relevant post-Cold War obtuse institution of power. Everybody knew that their economic fate was largely out of their hands, but thankfully in trusted hands.

Now we are supposedly on the other end of that paradigm, yet caught in the Sturm und Draghi of another bewildering central bank’s enigmatic words and actions. It is hard to accept how it is that so little could change. Or worse yet, how much the old pattern in certain ways has become even more entrenched. The most significant economic decisions are placed in the hands of undemocratic figures, even when this means toppling national governments (Italy, Greece) to replace them with technocrats. And the dominant common sense is in favor of austerity, rather than rational, democratic control of the economy. The dead-weight of ideological conformity and (hopefully changing) public passivity is what stands out most strongly. At the end of the day, the power of a figure like Draghi is a back-handed reflection of the relative absence, or at least weakness, of alternatives. The truth in the conspiracies about bankers manipulating everything is so much that central bankers favor certain interests but dress up their policies as the public interest (which they certainly do). Conspiracies are a distorted registration of the weakness of the Left, a distortion dangerous because it replaces the political weakness of a potential movement with the comforting illusion that power is beyond anyone’s reach in the first place. Draghi and his ilk should be put in their place and own up to the political game that they play. But they won’t do it voluntarily, and it will take another kind of politics to expand rather than shrink the horizon of economic possibility.

Interview with Peter Hall

6 Dec

Continuing the series of The Current Moment interviews, today we are publishing an interview with Peter Hall, Krupp Foundation professor of European studies at Harvard University. Peter Hall has published widely in the field of European political economy and comparative politics. His published books can be viewed here. One of his recent papers explores the political origins of the current economic crisis.

 

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?

On this side of the Atlantic, we are mesmerized by the fiscal dimensions of the global economic crisis and not nearly attentive enough to what will be required to ensure the U.S. remains competitive and capable of robust economic growth over the longer term.  Above all, that will require large investments in human capital and public infrastructure, since these are the resources on which all kinds of businesses depend for success.  Despite the efforts of some analysts, such as Michael Spence, and of President Obama himself to argue that, by focusing on these issues, we can address the immediate problem of unemployment and long-term growth together, these issues have not yet become central to public debate.  I wish Americans could see how rapidly China is moving on these fronts and how fruitful such strategies have been in parts of Europe, such as Finland.  We are so obsessed with the short-term, on both economic and electoral fronts, that we are moving far too slowly to lay the basis for renewed growth over the long term.

In Europe, discussion of the Euro crisis is dominated by many myths.  But the one yet to be questioned at all seriously is the myth that deregulating markets in labor and goods so as to intensify competition in them will regenerate growth in the southern European economies.  Such moves are typically described as ‘structural reform’ – a term that has become the mantra of the EU and IMF.  In the long run, structural reform may make some economies more competitive, but to pretend that it will revive economic growth in the short to medium term is an illusion.  Yet this illusion is at the center of most of the plans concocted to revive the southern European economies and resolve the Euro crisis.

For obvious reasons, this is a convenient myth, but it is an empty slogan, all the more pernicious because it diverts attention from the role that government has to play in the revival of economic growth.

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?

For the most part, this is a canard, encouraged far too quickly by many politicians in northern Europe who reacted to the sovereign debt crisis as if it were an issue of morality rather than a crisis with economic and political foundations that threaten the viability not only of the Euro but of the EU.  Those politicians now realize the full dimensions of the crisis, but their initial reactions has made the task of persuading their electorates to accept measures that might genuinely cope with it much more difficult.

The difficulties from which Greece and Italy are suffering have something to do with problems of political, as well as economic, development.  Both countries would be better off with public institutions less prone to corruption.  But to suggest that that their people are not working hard enough or retiring too early is to misrepresent the problem altogether.  Comparative data suggest that the de facto retirement age is not very different in most of southern Europe than in northern Europe and that the southern European countries have taken just as many steps as those in the north to make their markets more competitive over the past ten years.

The roots of the Euro crisis lie, at a much more basic level, in asymmetries in the organization of the political economies in the north and south of Europe.  In general, as David Soskice and I observed in Varieties of Capitalism (2001), the organization of the political economies of northern Europe gives their firms capacities for wage coordination, skill formation and continuous innovation that suit them well to operate strategies of export-led growth, and EMU provided them with guaranteed markets in the rest of Europe.  By contrast, history has left the southern political economies with fissiparous trade unions and limited capacities for concerted skill formation or continuous innovation.  In the past, they coped with that by operating growth strategies led by domestic demand and then devaluing their currencies to offset the inflationary effects of such strategies on their external competitiveness.  In EMU, they were unable to do that.  Instead, not unreasonably, they took advantage of the cheap credit flowing from northern Europe to promote economic growth.  But, unable to offset the inflationary effects through devaluation, they lost competitive advantage to the north.  The result can be seen in the gross imbalance of payments between the two parts of the Eurozone.

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?

To appreciate the Euro crisis, we have to realize that there are two sides to it.  On the one side, there is the longer term problem of how to devise a structural adjustment path that will restore prosperity to both the south and the north.  On the other side, this is a crisis of confidence, notably in the markets for sovereign debt but spreading over time to the European financial system as a whole.  The European Union has remarkable capacities for muddling through, and, given enough time, I believe it can resolve this long-term problem adequately if not perfectly.  But it is never going to get to the long term if it does not effectively address the immediate crisis of confidence and, as everyone now acknowledges, its efforts to do that over the past year have consistently offered too little, too late.

The immediate crisis is what worries me.  With respect it, there are two issues.  Is there a way for the members of the Eurozone to restore confidence in the markets?  And, if that can be identified, will the member states and the ECB be willing to take the requisite measures.  At this point, I think, as do many others, that the only way to restore confidence in the bond markets is for the ECB to guarantee the sovereign debt of its member states against default, except perhaps for Greece where the markets have already priced in a default.  Various schemes have been mooted whereby the ECB might do this, indirectly if not directly.

The problem is that it will not be easy for the ECB or the member governments to do this.  Mario Draghi and the German government currently oppose such a step.  It is forbidden by Article 123 of the Treaty establishing EMU, and the German Constitutional Court likes to take that Treaty seriously.  The only ray of light here is that the relevant resolution passed by the German CDU at its recent conference does not entirely rule out such a step, describing it as ‘a last resort’.  I think the time for last resorts has come, and I could imagine a deal in which the member governments agree to much stricter enforcement of fiscal targets and long-term support for the ECB in return for a measure of this sort.  However, it is an entirely open question whether the Eurozone governments have the political wherewithal to make this move.  If they do not, I think the crisis of confidence is likely to persist and strengthen until an Italian, Spanish or even Belgian default looms, and then it may be too late to save the Euro.  It takes a confidence trick to resolve a crisis of confidence and the sooner one acts, the less costly the resolution.

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?

This is a question about whether balanced structural adjustment is feasible over the long term within the confines of EMU.  Certainly, the current approach of imposing all the costs of adjustment on southern Europe (of which Ireland can be considered an honorary member) is likely to fail.  Except possibly in Ireland where growth is gradually picking up, there is no reason to expect that rapid enough growth can emerge from such austerity to render the debt load of these countries sustainable.  At a minimum, long-term stability depends on a more coordinated set of fiscal policies in which some reflation in northern Europe is married to a softer adjustment path in southern Europe.  However, this will not be easy to secure.  In particular, as Wendy Carlin and David Soskice have observed, reflation poses risks to the wage coordination on which the northern European economies depend for their competitiveness.

Even then, for reasons I have noted, there is some question about whether the southern European economies can prosper within EMU.  Portugal and Greece, in particular, do not have especially strong export sectors and are not likely to grow them overnight.  These countries have long depended on growth strategies that are accompanied by moderate levels of inflation and, because the ECB has to pursue a monetary policy of one-size for all of Europe, it cannot always dampen down that inflation effectively.  In the wake of the sovereign debt crisis, borrowing costs are likely to remain higher in the south, which will help.  But the danger is that, if the southern European governments cannot pursue growth led by domestic demand for fear of its inflationary consequences, they may experience only low levels of growth for the foreseeable future.  Structural reform will help in the long run but likely only a little.

It may well be that Europe can live with persistent imbalances of payments at some level, but the question is whether more effective coordination of fiscal policies will be enough to allow the southern European economies to grow at rates that are politically acceptable to their electorates.

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?

The demand for austerity can be explained to some extent by the fact that we have just lived through a period in which financial innovation married to inadequate financial regulation made possible much higher levels of leveraging of assets, leading to higher levels of debt, whether in the public or private sectors of the U.S. and Europe.  To some extent, we are paying today for what we ate yesterday.

The best way to pay back these debts, of course, is from the fruits of more rapid economic growth and that is most likely to be secured, as John Maynard Keynes argued, by reflationary policy. Thus, in the context of global recession immediate austerity does not make good economic sense.

To explain why so many are advocating it, then, we have to recognize that economic policy, whether at the national or international level, is rarely driven entirely by concerns about how to improve overall economic well-being.  It is made by actors, who may be political parties or governments, who are also seeking distributive benefits for their constituents, and, in many cases, these distributive demands are cloaked beneath calls for austerity.  Thus, the demand of several northern European governments, including the Finns and the Dutch as well as the Germans, for austerity in southern Europe is motivated, to a significant extent, by a concern to ensure that they do not pay the costs of adjustment in the wake of the Euro crisis.   I see the demands for austerity of many Republicans in the U.S. as an effort to cut public spending programs that they think serve Democratic rather than Republican constituencies.  If distributive concerns were not at the heart of those demands, those Republicans would be much less reluctant to raise taxes in order to balance the budget.

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?

As the French would say, I am willing to accept this for lack of something better.  Something better would be a coordinated reflation in which more expansionary fiscal policy was now playing a larger role.  We have arrived at this situation, I think, because central banks, including the Federal Reserve and the ECB, have been willing over the past three years to do what governments have been unwilling or unable to do.  For that, they deserve considerable credit.  One can reasonably ask whether the best way to respond to an era marked by a large expansion in lending is to pump even more money into the system, but, since inflation remains low in most of Europe and North America, partly because the trade unions have been so weakened and unemployment is high, this seems to be an appropriate strategy.  In the absence of a substantial fiscal stimulus to aggregate demand, however, it is unlikely to lower unemployment much.

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?

As Ragurham Rajan and others have pointed out, in the United States, during the 1980s and 1990s, easy consumer credit and home equity loans became a substitute for social policy.  They have been the means ordinary people with little in the way of savings used to survive adverse life events and fluctuations in the economy.  Student loans can be seen, in similar terms, as a substitute for publicly-funded education.

They can also be seen as a key component of the growth model operated in the United States over that period.  Growth in this country was led by domestic demand and the only way to sustain demand in an era when disposable income for households at or below median incomes stagnated was to promote the kind of asset boom in housing that gave many the illusion that their wealth was increasing even if their income was stagnant.

In the past two years, as home prices declined and some forms of credit became harder to secure, American households increased their savings and that, in itself, is gradually reducing the debt burden of the private sector. I do not see any need to take steps to further reduce that debt.  Indeed, it is difficult to see how the American economy can continue to grow without the availability of such credit.

However, there are serious longer-term problems on the horizon.  More than half the American populace has no savings for retirement at a time when larger cohorts can be expected to retire and health-care costs continue to rise exponentially, eating into the disposable income of many families.  Part of the problem is that most of the fruits of economic growth over the past three decades have gone to people in the top 1 percent of the income distribution.  In the long run, the solution will have to entail engineering a more equitable distribution of wealth so that ordinary working families have the means to increase both their savings and their spending.

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?

Seen from a long-term perspective, this does indeed look like an era of financialization.  The share of profits in the economy going to the financial sector expanded dramatically.  With the invention of new financial derivatives and the development of financial markets, many firms ostensibly devoted to manufacturing, such as General Motors, have made an increasing share of their profits from financial activities that leverage their capital.  That has contributed, in turn, to rising income inequality at the high end of the distribution, as those skilled at financial engineering generated profits large enough to allow them to demand astronomical levels of compensation.

In my view, it would be an exaggeration to say that the economy has become ‘financialized’.  There are still many productive components of the American economy that do not turn on finance.  However, it is apparent that we are all vulnerable to the systemic risks that a large financial sector, increasingly devoted to speculation, entails, and that is a serious cause for concern.  Although some of the financial innovation of recent decades has made some markets more liquid and borrowing easier for some productive firms, I doubt that this type of ‘casino capitalism’, to borrow a phrase from Susan Strange, ultimately contributes enough to economic prosperity to justify those risks.  We are currently paying serious costs for this and, unless financial regulation becomes more stringent than is currently anticipated, I think there will be more to pay.

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 do not believe that any single set of factors can explain these diverse developments.  The housing bubbles can be explained, at least in basic terms, by a long period of easy credit, made possible, as I have noted by the expansion of the financial markets in various kinds of derivatives.  That was made possible, in turn, by what I consider lax financial regulation.  It is ironic that economists liked to describe this period as an era of ‘great moderation’.  In each case, however, some ancillary factors were at work.  In Spain, the cost of borrowing was greatly reduced by the confidence effect associated with entry into EMU.  In Ireland, it was encouraged by rapid rates of economic growth.

The sovereign debt crisis has more complex roots.  In Greece, which enjoyed the same easy access to credit as Spain, the fiscal fecklessness of the government is notable.  In Ireland, some of the problems can be attributed to the government’s mistaken decision to guarantee the bonds of its banks.  In different ways, Portugal, Spain and Italy remained creditworthy on the fundamentals but fell afoul of the spreading crisis of confidence in the markets, which has yet to take its last victims.  There are some parallels with the East Asian financial crisis.  The current crisis is worse partly because it has struck the major financial sectors of the western world and we now face the question of who will rescue those who normally do the rescuing.

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?

In this as in every other case, as Winston Churchill once said ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.  The notion that governments led by geriatric Eurocrats will resolve their countries economic problems more readily than elected governments is another of those illusions that bedevil the Eurozone.  They have legitimacy in Brussels but imposing austerity is ultimately a task that demands domestic political legitimacy.  I see this as a stop-gap solution that might, at best, persuade officials in Brussels and Berlin that everything has been tried and they must pay more heed to the pain and demands of national electorates.

It is obvious that the cumbersome decision-making procedures of the European Union are not up to the task of heading off a crisis in the financial markets.  But that is not a problem with democracy.  It is a problem of international negotiation.  Democracy enters the picture to the extent that the views of national electorates limit the willingness of their governments to share the costs of adjustment, and that is admittedly a problem for Europe.  A continent so proud of the ways in which its social policies reflect ‘social solidarity’ has been unable to summon up the sense of continental solidarity that would justify a more equitable and efficient solution to the crisis.  But social solidarity does not simply bubble up from below.  It is created by inventive political leadership and we are still waiting to see if the political leaders of Europe are capable of that.

On the larger question, my view is that the global financial crisis has thrown into stark relief the importance of the state in any democratic system.  The crisis itself is rooted in failures of financial regulation that can be linked to the unwillingness of governments to assert the authority of the state on behalf of the people against powerful financial interests.  And the inadequacy of the response to the crisis, especially in the U.S., can be attributed, in some measure, to the widespread reluctance on the part of many people to trust the state with their resources.  In many respects, that is the legacy of the neo-liberal era that followed the economic crisis of the 1970s, when many policy-makers and citizens became disillusioned with the capacity of governments to direct the economy.  Hence, the American government faces the current crisis hobbled by rising levels of distrust in government.  It is not acting more forcefully on the fiscal front partly because large segments of the American population are willing to vote for politicians who claim that government is the problem rather than the solution.

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?

There have been two notable political responses to the current economic crisis.  One is marked by a backlash against immigration, in both the U.S. and Europe, reflected in the growing popularity of radical right parties in Europe and the salience of immigration to national political debates in the United States.  This is a familiar feature of economic crises.  The U.S. has a long history of nativist movements.  The other is reflected in the Occupy Wall Street movement and its European analogues.  I can only hope that the former is contained and the latter encouraged.

It is difficult to see how these sporadic protests can be translated into any immediate changes in policy, not least because they have yet to articulate clear political demands.  However, I think they are having an impact.  They have struck a chord in popular opinion.  They bring issues of unemployment and inequality to the fore.  In the short term, I think that may influence voters in American elections next year, and, over the medium term, I believe that even these limited protests will help to shift political discourse in directions that favor those seeking to address issues of inequality and unemployment.

Democracy versus debt sustainability

23 Nov

Debt sustainability has emerged as one of the key issues of the day and one that brings the different poles of the rich world together: the United States, European economies and Japan are all struggling with the problem of how to cut public debt. There are few better accounts of current thinking on this matter than the recent report published by the International Centre for Money and Banking Studies (ICMB), run by Charles Wyplosz.

Written by some of the world’s leading economists (Wyplosz, Eichengreen etc.), the report gives a simple explanation for today’s problems: individuals prefer to free ride on goods rather than to pay the full cost for them. Given half a chance, even when from a collective perspective this is not rational, individuals will shirk from paying for something themselves. The result is that in the provision of public goods, governments have been forced to borrow in order to meet public expectations. The authors of the report call this the common pool problem.

In a telling graph (p49), the authors show that the problem has tended to be manageable in when GDP growth is strong. As both the US and Europe exited from the post-war Golden Age of national Keynesianism in the 1970s, governments turned to borrowing in order to make up the gap between transfer payments and tax revenues. The authors cite the cases of Germany and the Netherlands: in Germany, the ratio of spending on transfers and subsidies rose by 9.5% of GDP between 1970 and 1995 whilst total revenues rose by 6.1%; in the Netherlands, transfers and subsidies rose by 7.1% of GDP, total revenues only by 5.6%.

The report identifies four ways of reducing public debts: default, inflation, cutting spending/raising taxes and growth. It does not consider defaulting as a serious policy option and dismisses the chance of advanced economies experiencing a sudden spurt in GDP growth. This latter point is striking: only those economies catching up are likely to experience high growth levels, they claim. After that, when you are close to the technology frontier, it’s all low growth (pp56-59). That leaves only inflation and restrictive fiscal policy as serious policy options. Inflating away the debt they argue is unlikely in Europe’s case given the ECB’s stringent price stability mandate. The only option left is the one that hurts people most: cutting government spending or raising taxes.

The authors argue that the better option is to cut spending since raising taxes only lays the basis for more spending later on. The report then outlines the institutional fixes that are needed in order to undertake spending cuts. There are many different solutions proposed here, each tailored to fit with the national political system in question (presidential, parliamentary etc.). However, what the institutional reforms all have in common is that they seek to distance decision-making and implementation over government spending from political discretion. Politicians must either have their hands tied or be disinvested of responsibility for spending decisions. In the case of the Eurozone, the authors suggest that the European Commission should be given the powers to judge whether a country’s institutional framework is appropriate for the goal of reducing public debt. Countries that fail to win the Commission’s support would find that its debt is no longer accepted as collateral by the European Central Bank in money market operations.

It is difficult to know what is most chilling about the report: its skepticism regarding the growth prospects for advanced industrial economies or its willingness to curtail democratic procedures in the name of eliminating “deficit bias”. Either way, its recommendations fit well with the prevailing wisdom in national capitals. In Italy and Greece, national democracy has given way to technocratic administrations charged with implementing government spending cuts in the face of massive public opposition. In the Eurozone, the focus is on monitoring government spending and beefing up sanctions to be imposed on those members unwilling to curtail their debt. Outside of the Eurozone, in the UK and in the US, more inflationary policies are considered. There, however, the focus is still primarily on reducing spending.

What is most striking about the report is its starting point. In explaining the crisis, there is no reference to the international economy or to domestic politics as such. Today’s problems are not put in any historical context or tied to any particular decisions or set of interests. No mention of global imbalances. No mention of financialization. Instead, their explanation is one that holds across all time and all societies: the selfish irrationality of individuals and how that translates into dysfunctional representative institutions. Under those assumptions, capitalism can only be saved from itself if the running of it is given up to technocrats.

This gets the problem the wrong way round: since the 1970s, we have seen a steady accretion of political power away from majoritarian institutions. We have seen the birth of what some call “the regulatory state”. Political discretion has shrunk and yet advanced industrial economies today face severe public debt crises. To blame individual selfishness and the difficulty of properly pricing collective goods in a democracy is too easy. It shifts the blame away from capitalism and puts it squarely on the shoulders of ordinary people. Compelling reading for the ICMB’s audience perhaps; less so for the rest of us.

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