Tag Archives: debt

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.)

The time inconsistency of austerity politics

18 Mar

Mario Monti

 

At his last European Council summit meeting, at least for the time being, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti gave some parting advice to his fellow leaders. Written up as a four page letter and reported on in the FT, Monti argued that the main problem with austerity policies is that there was too big a lag between the positive effect of reforms and their negative bite. Giving his own version of the old adage that things have to get worse before they get better, Monti explained that this doesn’t fit very well with the rules of the electoral cycle. The promise of austerity and supply-side reforms is that they bring gains by way of employment and growth in the long term. The difficulty is that politicians are judged according to pain they bring in the short-term. Something needs to be done to bridge the gap in order that reform agendas are not derailed, as he thinks they have been in Italy. From the perspective of the European Commission or the German Bundesbank, the issue is how to make sure that in the time in between enacting reforms and feeling their positive effects, susceptible policymakers are not tempted to give up on earlier promises and go for quick fixes, like expansionary fiscal policy or other Keynesian pump-priming tricks.

This discussion raises a number of issues. As a trained economist, Monti no doubt knew that his argument was a restatement of what macro-economists call the problem of time inconsistency. This is the notion that policy rules – such as a commitment to balance budgets over the medium term – lack credibility when they are made sequentially. As soon as a firm commitment is spread over a length of time, the possibility arises that short-term considerations will assert themselves. Such policy commitments are thus time inconsistent – they fail to hold over time and thus need to be insulated as much as possible from political pressures.

If this is Monti’s analysis, two questions arise. The first is what if the policy rule has no credibility in the first place – irrespective of whether we are talking about the short, medium or long-term? The commitment of EU member governments is that austerity combined with supply side reforms equals a return to growth. We are into our fifth year since the outbreak of the current crisis in 2008, austerity policies have themselves been in place for a number of years, up to three to four years in some countries. Austerity is nothing new, nor is the idea that supply side reforms boost growth and employment, and yet these policies are not being seen to deliver. Monti’s analysis of current difficulties in Italy and elsewhere, that rests upon the idea of extended lag between introducing reforms and securing their rewards, in fact places a great deal of faith on the idea that these reforms will eventually work. At issue today is not people’s short-termism. It is the more fundamental issue of whether cutting spending and raising taxes in a recession is any way to stimulate growth.

The second question is about what Monti suggests we should do. If we return to the idea of time inconsistency, then we find a very clear recommendation. Institutions should be created that make it as difficult as possible to renege on a policy commitment. This is the famous recommendation to favour rules over discretion. These institutions should be given the responsibility for contentious political agendas – like keeping down government spending, being hawkish on inflation, reform labour markets – in order that legislatures and electorally accountable executives are not tempted to go for short-term fixes.

The problem is that we are not in the 1970s anymore. Profligate legislatures have not been driving today’s budgetary crises. The contrary is true, as we see from the Netherlands through to the UK and Spain. Moreover, today’s crisis happened in a world of rules, not of discretion. Problems of sequential policymaking were hived off to independent central banks, independent budgetary offices, fiscal councils and an array of European rules and regulations in the field of macro-economic policy. As a result, the problem surely lies in something deeper and more fundamental than simply the institutional environment for elected policymakers. This won’t stop European commissioners and national politicians arguing for the strengthening of European rules. In fact, as the Fiscal Compact has shown, this seems to be the dominant framework with which European policymakers are working today. We should be wary of such explanations. A policy framework dedicated towards the curtailment of expansionary policies has given us a European continent saddled with debt and a global debt crisis. There is something more to this than the theory of the time inconsistency of optimal policy rules.

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.

The problem with Peugeot-Citroën

25 Oct

There are some classical components to the problems faced by one of France’s best-known car-makers, Peugeot-Citroën. An economic downturn has hit Peugeot-Citroën’s sales. Its dependence on car-buying in the Southern European markets of Spain, Italy and Greece was higher than some of its rivals and so it has been harder hit by the Eurozone crisis. It hasn’t so successfully relocated production to cheaper parts of Europe, as Germany’s Volkswagen has done for instance, meaning that labour costs remain high. The decision to close its large plant North-East of Paris, at Aulnay-Sous-Bois, was an obvious case of shifting manufacturing activity out of France to places where wages are lower. Overall, margins are tight in an incredibly competitive industry and the downturn has pushed the less competitive players to the edge.

Looking more closely, though, the picture is more complex. This week, the French government intervened in the company’s crisis. Having long spoken about the need to limit the famous “plan sociaux” of big French firms, the government’s intervention was not directly aimed at limiting the number of jobs to be lost through the closure of the Aulnay plant. In fact, the government seems largely to have accepted that Aulnay will close. Instead, the intervention took the form of a bail-out of Peugeot-Citroën’s financial arm, Banque PSA Finance (BPF). Faced with the threat of a credit downgrade of 5.6bn Euros of its debt, owing to the declining fortunes of the car firm, the bail-out is reported to involve a guarantee of around 4bn Euros of debt and the supply of new credit lines of up to 1.5bn Euros.

It is no coincidence that the government intervention is in the form of a bail-out to the financial arm of Peugeot-Citroën. In recent years, the car-maker has made money not just out of making and selling cars but also out of financial activities associated to its car business. Involving itself in the provision of credit to potential car-buyers has been one way the company has managed to stay in the black. In the third semester of 2011, the total revenue of the company rose by 3.5%. However, this growth did not come from car sales as such. It came mainly from the company’s component manufacturing arm (Faurecia), its manufacturing logistics arm (Gefco) and from its bank, BPF. As with other automobile companies, Peugeot- Citroën has had to rely on revenue streams other than just those of car manufacture. As the company began to rely on financial activities, it became increasingly vulnerable to any rise in its borrowing costs. This is what is happening today, hence the government bail-out. Paradoxically, the very success of Gefco means that may be sold by Peugeot-Citroën in an asset fire-sale intended to raise much needed cash (for details on the Gefco sale, see here).

The events at Peugeot-Citroën appear as a classic case of government intervention in an ailing manufacturing sector. In fact, the government is bailing out a bank owned by the car company, set up as a way of profiting from credit provision. This suggests that it is easier for a government to channel funds in ways that keep a financial subsidiary afloat than it is to prevent mass redundancies and factory closures. It also tells us of the extent to which car-makers today rely on more than just selling cars to balance their books.

Varieties of finance?

17 Oct

In a previous post, we looked at the structure of the European banking system. We asked whether there was a particular European story that can help explain the sorry state of the current European economy. It was noted that the size of the European banking sector, so much larger than in the United States, reflected the central role banks in Europe play in financing the private sector. In the US, there is more reliance on capital markets than on banks and so the assets to GDP ratio of US banks is much lower than in Europe.

Can we transform those differences into something more systematic? Do differences in financial markets point to deeper and broader differences between different types of societies? The question here is whether there exists the same kind of variety in financial sectors as there does in capitalist economies more generally. A popular way of classifying capitalist systems is according to type: liberal market economies, coordinated market economies and mixed market economies. This is the famous “varieties of capitalism” approach. Can we say that the financial sectors in Europe are shaped by these national institutional factors? One basic distinction, for instance, is between market-based and relationship-based borrowing and lending. In more liberal market economies like the UK, companies are expected to rely more on the open market as a source of finance. In a coordinated market economy, corporate financing is fed through bank-to-business relationships.

Finding out whether any of these patterns exist in the date on financial markets is not easy. Interest has tended to be in the ties between business and politics, not in the correspondence between differences in financial markets and broader varieties of capitalist production. But there is some data out there. In the Liikanen report on the European banking industry, we see little evidence for these kinds of patterns. In terms of the balance between stock market capitalization, total debt securities and bank assets, we do see differences between Europe and the US. But within Europe, a supposedly liberal market economy like the UK has bank assets that massively outstrip any other European country and offsets its larger stock market capitalisation (p119 of the Liikanen report). The data on financial institutions and markets collected by Thomas Beck, Ash Demirgüç-Kunt and Ross Devine (available here) is extensive but suggests that the biggest difference is between income levels, not between varieties of capitalism. Another way of thinking about the varieties of financial markets is whether it can help explain different national government responses to the current economic and financial crisis. One study of this by Beat Weber and Stefan Schmitz (available here) found that institutional factors did not in fact influence very much the rescue packages put together by European governments. They point instead to other factors. The degree of inequality in society, which they take as an indication of the fact that policymakers in those countries use access to credit as a substitute for higher wages (what Colin Crouch calls “privatized Keynesianism” – see here), is for them one element that explains the form the government bail-outs took. On the varieties of capitalism, they note that as an approach it is focused more on production and not on financial systems. It has therefore little to say about financialization as such.

National differences remain important and a feature of the current crisis is the difference in the national responses. Behind efforts to build a common European response are national bail-out packages that differ greatly in terms of size and in the strictness of their conditions. But financialization as such, and the boom of the late 2000s, was common to many high-income countries. By way of explaining the current crisis, Beck and his colleagues write that “the lower margins for traditional lines of business and the search for higher returns were possible only through high-risk taking” (p78 of this paper). The implication here is that the lack of profitability in the real economy drove the expansion of financial activity in the 2000s. This explanation isn’t perfect but it certainly helps us understand why it has been so difficult for governments to return to positive growth. If financialisation was itself more symptom than cause, then we are still left with the causes of the crisis today.

Aglietta on the crisis

26 Sep

In a comment last week on George Soros’ well-publicized essay on the Eurozone crisis, we noted his fixation with the European roots of the present crisis. In his view, the combination of the Eurozone’s curious institutional design (a common currency without a fully empowered central bank) and the overly cautious approach of European policymakers together explain the European sovereign debt crisis. Whilst there is a specific European dimension to the crisis, we argued that it is also a crisis of capitalism, not just of the Euro.

In a piece published in the New Left Review in May 2012, the French economist Michel Aglietta gives his account of the European crisis. His account is more general and wide-ranging that Soros’. His explanation of the debt build up in Western economies is tied to the emergence of a new “accumulation regime”: one that demands a maximisation of returns for shareholders and downward pressure on labour costs. The gap between stagnating wages and the demand needed to maintain growth levels is provided through credit. The availability of credit in Western economies was made possible by various factors, including financial innovations and the recycling of large dollar surpluses built up by East Asian economies. These surpluses were an outcome of the East Asian crash of the late 1990s: a traumatic event that pushed governments in the region to insulate themselves from further instability by focusing on export-led growth.

Whilst generating a great deal of liquidity within the global financial system, these developments in East Asia also help explain why European economies failed to capitalize on the boom years of the 2000s when borrowing rates across the continent fell steeply on the introduction of the Euro. Aglietta notes that the intention in the early 2000s was that the mobility of capital within Europe would lead to a convergence of national economies. Productive investments would be sought out and the differences between national economies would slowly disappear. Capital certainly flooded to those countries that had the highest interest rates prior to 1999 – Greece, Spain etc – but there was no evening out of competitiveness across the region. In fact, as Aglietta notes, divergences grew. This was because at the same time as capital was moving into Europe’s periphery, so were East Asian economies beginning a concerted export drive as a response to their 1997-1998 crisis. Unable to compete with these imports, industrial activity in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere shrunk. Capital was channelled into a property and services boom, with growth becoming dependent upon rising house prices. In a better starting position and not faced with the temptations of sudden influxes of capital, countries like Germany and the Netherlands faced up to East Asian competition and were able to generate their own export surpluses. Aglietta also notices that given the poor performance of the German economy in the first half of the 2000s, the country was not sucked into the property boom that affected countries like Ireland and Spain. Divergences within Europe are thus not only an internal European story but have a global dimension as well.

Aglietta makes a number of other important points. His discussion of the options open to Greece and to Europe makes for interesting reading. He notes that Europe cannot really afford a Japanese-style era of deflation and high public debts. A reason for this is that Japan has a large industrial sector and is in a very dynamic part of the world. Aglietta also observes that Japanese debt is financed by Japanese savers, meaning that the risk of spiralling debt refinancing costs is kept low. In Europe the situation is different on all counts, making it difficult to replicate the Japanese model. On Greece, Aglietta gives a detailed breakdown of how “Grexit” would work, arguing that the long-term benefits outpace the short-term costs. Argentina, he argues, did the right thing but it did it badly. Greece could learn lessons from it and exit the Euro in a more orderly manner.

For all the elegance in his exposition, Aglietta’s solution to the crisis is surprisingly apolitical. He argues that “the euro must be constituted as a full currency, which means it must be undergirded by a sovereign power” (p36). This means transferring competences to the European level, fiscal union, and a long-term development strategy based on the idea of permanent transfers from one part of Europe to another. Aglietta’s recommendations are obvious but the problem today is that public opinion across Europe is moving in the opposite direction, against the idea of further transfers of power to European institutions. In practice, pursuing Aglietta’s recommendations means deepening the gap between national politics and European-level policymaking, thus compromising democracy in the name of economic emergency. Whilst that may provide some palliative to the economic crisis, it will only make the political crisis even greater.

A comment on Soros

18 Sep

For a long-time a bête noire amongst pro-Europeans because of his status as the financier that forced Britain out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and thus cemented the UK’s outsider status in European monetary integration, George Soros has recently emerged as one of the most authoritative commentators on the ongoing Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. His most recent article in the New York Review of Books was one in a long line of alarmist but thoughtful interventions into the debate.

Soros’ main argument is that Germany needs to choose between either fully backing the Euro or leaving the Eurozone altogether. Lacking the will to act as paymaster, but determined to keep the Euro together, Germany has been accepting the bare minimum that is needed to keep the currency union together. According to Soros, this is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. By insisting on national responsibility for EU-incurred debts, Germany risks recasting the egalitarian European integration project around the twin poles of creditor and debtor. Debtors are pushed into deflationary traps as they struggle under debt burdens and national antagonisms deepen as debtor states survive on a Euro drip provided by miserly creditors. All in exchange for deep cuts in social protection and welfare.

The novelty of Soros’ argument lies in his claim that a German exit from the Euro would save rather than sink the currency. His reasoning is clear. When a debtor – like Greece – leaves the Euro, the benefits of a depreciating new currency are offset by the strangling effect of Euro-denominated debts rising dramatically in value. When a creditor like Germany leaves the Euro, however, the situation is different. The creditor, of course, faces a loss. But those remaining in the currency zone benefit enormously: depreciation of the Euro would bring competitiveness back to Eurozone members and the main political obstacle to further political integration –German obstructionism – would have disappeared. The Eurozone would be free to introduce key measures – debt mutualisation, for instance – that would exist were it not for Germany.

By blaming Germany, Soros’ argument appears as part of a more generalized anti-German sentiment popular all across Europe. In fact, Soros himself seems rather comfortable with the idea of a German-dominated Europe. He would just rather that Germany accept the responsibility that comes with empire. As he puts it, “imperial power can bring great benefits but it must be earned by looking after those who live under its aegis”. Soros’ advocacy of German paternalism is hardly a compelling vision. But his focus on the German origins of the crisis are welcome as they challenge the notion that profligate spending by Southern cone European governments is at the heart of the current mess. But there are limits to the blame game.

It is certainly the case that German banks and businesses benefitted from the introduction of the Euro. In particular, it meant that consumers in Southern Europe could – via public or private borrowing made possible by the low risk premiums brought about by monetary union – buy German exports. But it is also the case that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Germany was – as The Economist put it – the “sick man of Europe”. The changes put in place by Chancellor Schroder were far from socially neutral: labour markets were liberalized and wages were frozen or cut in real terms. Only the Social Democrat’s hold over the trade unions made this possible. Germany underwent an internal devaluation with the burden of adjustment squarely pushed onto the German working class. It was in this period that Die Linke, a party to the left of the SPD, was created. The sentiment driving German caution in this crisis is thus a complex one. It certainly involves some miserliness and a good dose of anti-Southern prejudices. But it also includes an understandable fatigue on the part of German workers at having to bear the burden of adjustment. When we read that in recent weeks banks have been holding over 700 billion Euros in surplus liquidity at the ECB, it seems that there is ample room for some adjustment on the part of German capitalists.

Soros’ account of the crisis is also curiously Eurocentric. As someone aware of the global dimensions of the current economic and financial crisis, he chooses to focus on the unique features of Eurozone governance. Had the Eurozone been armed with a common treasury, and not just a European central bank, Soros suggests that there would have been no Eurozone crisis. Policy mistakes, tied to the short-sightedness of Eurozone policymakers, have caused the crisis. This is at best a partial explanation. Outside of the Eurozone, the British and US economy are struggling to exit a major economic downturn. The crisis itself – beginning with the Lehman Brother’s collapse – originated in the US. Popular mobilization against the inequalities that have build up in recent decades is not European either. It was unwise to create a common currency without institutions capable of exercising the required political discretion in a time of crisis. But the crisis is one of capitalism, not just of the Eurozone. Were the right institutional fixes to be introduced, we would still be faced with the twin problems of financialization and debt-financed growth. And endlessly replicating an export-based growth model raises the question of who will be the “market of last resort”? In focusing on the Eurozone, Soros misses the wider dimension of the crisis.

Betting on austerity

12 Sep

Recent announcements by the European Central Bank have suggested a renewed round of activism for the Frankfurt-based institution. On The Current Moment, we have commented on how the Euro has become a material constraint for a regional economy still marked above all by national variations and diversity. Previously, during the 1990s, national governments across Europe invoked the constraints of the Maastricht convergence criteria as reasons to cut spending and to elevate macro-economic policymaking to a quasi-constitutional status and thus untouchable by the masses. At that time, the Euro was more a political strategy than it was a real material constraint. Today, this has changed. Ideas become entrenched in institutions over time and are subsequently more difficult to challenge or to transform.

Looking at Draghi’s recent decisions, and seeing how promptly France has entered into the austerity camp, we can also see that the Euro serves as a sanction for the lack of political experimentation in Europe today. The claim that “there is no alternative to the Euro”, made by Draghi, Merkel and others, is shorthand for saying that there is no alternative to the approach adopted so far in response to the Eurozone crisis: backhanded financial transfers to Europe’s ailing financial sector combined with much more public austerity measures designed to reassure markets about the long-term viability of European economies.

Draghi’s speech last week – taken by some as leap into new terrain for the ECB – was a reiteration of this same approach. Though the ECB’s announcement appeared to transform the ECB into a lender of last resort, it was in fact just one big bet on austerity. The novelty of Draghi’s announcement was that bond purchases – hitherto tightly limited to precise and timely interventions – would be unlimited. The head of the ECB also promised that the ECB would rank itself as equal to other creditors, meaning that its bond buying would not result in private creditors finding themselves unceremoniously pushed behind the ECB in the pay-back queue. Taken at face value, Draghi seemed to be doing what many have argued should have been done a long time ago: transform the ECB into an institution with the powers to print money in the event of real crisis.

Looking at the decision more closely, we see that Draghi was more cautious (see here for a useful discussion of how previous bond-buying efforts by the ECB have failed to have their intended effect). What he was in fact proposing was unlimited bond purchases on the condition that needy economies commit themselves to the conditionality set by the EU creditors. His promise also rests on the very big assumption that the austerity measures being introduced across Europe will in the medium term lead to a return to growth. Because if not, then there is no amount of ECB backing that will do the trick. On conditionality, there are reasons why some governments may balk at accepting the terms coming from Brussels. Cooked up by national and European officials, these conditions are likely to be far-reaching and Spain’s leader, Mariano Rajoy, has quite a bit to loose by accepting them. On the effect of austerity, the assumption seems to be that if governments make the tough cuts necessary to get back to budgetary balance, they will also return to positive growth. Looking around Europe, this is difficult to believe.

Draghi’s move is firmly within the European consensus about the need for bailouts to the financial sector combined with drastic cuts in government spending everywhere else. This approach, unsuccessful so far, sits as the only idea pursued by policymakers of all political stripes. The Euro appears as both a material constraint upon an uneven and diverse regional European economy and an obstacle to any kind of political experimentation in macro-economic governance.

Still no alternative to austerity

24 Aug

An interesting post on austerity over at the Economist’s Free Exchange blog. It makes the point that British business – generally in favour of austerity measures when they were first introduced back in 2010 – is now beginning to change its mind. It’s not difficult to work out why: Britain is facing a third quarterly decline in GDP, with a 0.5% contraction in the British economy expected for the second quarter of 2012. For the UK this is particularly galling given the fiscal boost of the Olympics and the expectation that this would mean a heady summer for at least some British businesses. Perhaps it is true that as many people left the UK as entered it for the Games, making the net effect close to zero.

The Economist’s post suggests that the tide is perhaps turning in the UK, with austerity giving way to a new consensus around pro-growth measures. It notes that Cameron’s government is considering an “economic regeneration bill” for the Autumn and that Boris Johnson – with an eye perhaps on the Tory leadership – is talking up the need for big government infrastructure projects (based around London, of course).

The difficulties faced by the UK economy should give food for thought to those arguing that the route to economic growth lies via an exit from the Eurozone. One might have expected the UK to boost competitiveness through cheapening its currency but – on the contrary – the British pound has become something of a safe haven for those with lots of cash. Life outside the Eurozone may mean currency flexibility and low borrowing costs but that isn’t helping the British economy. The debt burden for individuals and businesses, incurred in the heady pre-2008 years, is still depressing growth and holding back new investment plans.

The idea that the tide is turning at the level of elite opinion is difficult to substantiate. There were always voices calling for moderate fiscal stimulus alongside cuts in government spending. Back in 2010 the debate between the Tories and Labour was not about whether the government should drastically reduce spending – both agreed that it should – but it was all about timing. Shock treatment versus gradual reductions eased along via some discretionary spending. Austerity was the backdrop with the debate focused on how, not if. Little, it seems, has changed.

As noted on The Current Moment last week, the debate in the US presidential campaign is also about how the government’s deficit can be reduced, with both camps fighting over who is more credible in their deficit-cutting plans. In France, a government was elected with an ostensibly pro-growth agenda. In his campaign speeches, Hollande regularly fulminated against austerity politics, claiming he represented an alternative. And yet – bar the few measures introduced that are intended to put a little more money in people’s pockets – the real challenge for the Hollande government is the 2013 budget and finding the money to meet its balanced budget obligations. Much to the chagrin of the left of the Socialist Party, Hollande has signed off on the EU’s fiscal compact with little regard for the growth measures he had promised. Budget cuts will be financed in part via higher taxes but also via spending cuts. The Greek premier, Antonis Samara, is about to undertake a desperate trip to Paris and Berlin where he will ask for a bit more leeway in his efforts at balancing the Greek deficit. Merkel and Hollande are shifting all responsibility for the decision on whether to grant Greece an extension to the Troika, as if the issue was a technical one to be decided by accountants from the European Commission. From the US through to Europe, there is little evidence that the tide is turning.

Even though economies are stagnating under the burden of austerity measures, the intellectual case for an alternative still needs to made. Until then, it will be more of the same.

Stat of the day

9 Jul

In an otherwise curious article critiquing traditional Keynesian policies, British peer – and Labour guru – Maurice Glasman writes that:

“Of the £1.3 trillion lent by banks in the British economy between 1997 and 2007, 84% was in mortgages and financial services”.

This clearly suggests a change in the function of the banking system in the UK: rather than lending in ways that contribute to large-scale capital and labour intensive projects, it has been the facilitator of a debt-dependent growth model.

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