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.