Tag Archives: finance

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.

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.

If in doubt, regulate…

13 Jun

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

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

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 They noted that for two years now inter-bank lending in Europe has been replaced by a singular reliance on ECB financing.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

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

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

The problem with Eurobonds

7 Jun

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

François Hollande and the conservative critique of capitalism

29 Feb

In an earlier post, we criticized the French Socialist Party candidate, François Hollande, for his moralizing approach to economic policy. The ills of contemporary capitalism are, for him, a matter of evil intentions pursued by unscrupulous individuals. In his first major campaign speech, he declared that his real enemy was finance. Most recently, in a television interview for TF1, Hollande announced that if he was elected president he would introduce a new tax on high earners (Le Monde, 29 February). For those earning over 1 million Euros a year, the tax rate would be 75%. This would affect about 3000 people in France and would bring into the French treasury around 200 to 300 million Euros.

Upping the attack on the country’s rich and on its financial institutions seems in part a calculated response, in part a spontaneous reaction by Hollande and his entourage to the dynamics of the campaign. Whilst Hollande’s speech at the end of January was a carefully crafted affair, this latest announcement of a tax hike on high incomes seems entirely off the cuff. Announced by Hollande on TV and radio, even his taxation and budgets specialist within his own campaign team was unaware of the new policy. Hollande’s decision to crank up the anti-rich rhetoric is clearly both a strategy and an integral part of his world-view.

The problem with this moralizing approach to capitalism was put succinctly in a comment to The Current Moment: an ethical critique of capitalism leaves the system itself untouched and in fact only goes to legitimize the status quo further. It does this by attacking the present for being dominated by a materialistic, vulgar and anti-egalitarian culture, encapsulated in the figure of the bankster and the celebrity lifestyle of its political class. In its place, it proposes a deeply conservative alternative: austere, responsible, more egalitarian and less showy in its attitude to wealth and consumption. This is exactly François Hollande’s argument: he justified his new tax measure not on the grounds of how much money it can raise but in terms of morality and national patriotism. France’s rich elite, by paying more into the national coffers, will be doing its patriotic duty.

Instead of being asked to choose between different economic programmes, what Hollande is proposing is a different style of rule. In place of the crass materialism of Sarkozy, with his rich friends and rich wife, we are presented with François Hollande, a more ordinary and serious individual, with tastes that are less extravagant than those of Sarkozy. Here we can see very strong echoes between the campaign in France and developments in Italy. What Monti brings to Italian politics is more than anything a change of style: far removed from the glamour and glitz of Berlusconi, Monti represents the austere alternative, suited to times of generalized national austerity. When asked about the cost of his end-of-year celebrations, Monti replied by publishing a detailed list of his end of 2011 dinner party at the Chigi palace: 10 guests, all family members, a traditional New Year’s Eve menu, and a list of where Elsa Monti went shopping and how much it all cost.

This is in fact the key: this cultural shift proposed by Hollande and others such as Monti is what is required to legitimize the present age of austerity. Hollande’s moralizing critique of capitalism thus preserves the system in two ways: by proposing a set of conservative values, such as patriotism, duty and national responsibility: and by providing a closer fit between the downturn in France’s economy and the values and conduct of its political class. So far this is working for Italy, as Italians welcome an end to the Berlusconian orgy. Hollande’s bet is that it will work for him in the forthcoming elections. It may do, especially if the wealthy in France catch-on that Hollande isn’t out to get them, he is their saviour.

The problem with a Sarkozy-Hollande stand-off

15 Feb

By the end of this week, Nicolas Sarkozy will most probably have announced his decision to run for a second term as French president. The campaign itself has been running for number of weeks and some candidates, such as the Green’s Eva Joly, are already struggling to make themselves heard.

As already commented on this blog, the current crisis in Europe has pushed political life towards both technocracy and populism: more technocracy at the national and the European level, with large swathes of policymaking bound up with pan-European rules and regulations, and more populism at the national level as charismatic individuals rally against the loss of national sovereignty and the seeming capitulation of mainstream parties to the diktat of markets and private investors. National leaders in Europe tie their budget-setting powers to increasingly complex European deals: excessive spending becomes the concern of the European Court of Justice and governments expose their fiscal policies to a kind of pan-European naming and shaming exercise. Governments also inscribe into their constitutions rules about what they can and cannot do with the national purse and technocratic administrations rule in Italy and in Greece. At the same time, populist claims about challenging this hegemonic pan-European consensus proliferate at the national level. From the street violence and protests in Athens and Madrid to the anti-Euro rhetoric of the French National Front, the political fringe is growing in volume.

Greece is the extreme example of how the crisis is transforming national political life. The most recent vote on reforms intended to guarantee the next chunk of EU bail-out money has pushed political parties into freefall: around 40 MPs were thrown out of their parliamentary group because they refused to tow the party line on the vote. According to one report in Le Monde (15/02/12), the two main Greek parties – the rightwing New Democracy (ND) and the centre-left Pasok party – are splitting down two lines: support for the technocratic government on the one side, and a rejection of the whole bail-out/austerity package on the other. Legislative elections in April have been the focus of the ND leader, Antonis Samaras, whose criticisms of the EU package in the past have annoyed EU officials and other European governments. Samaras has moved from opposing the EU deal to supporting it in the most recent vote, his calculation being that this would be most likely to help him win the next elections. But it has cost him the support of many of his close collaborators and the party is deeply split.

A key question in France is to what extent any of these trends and pressures will reshape electoral politics. As already commented upon on this blog, the current economic crisis is having an uneven and erratic impact upon national politics and upon national electoral outcomes. Before the campaign kicked off in France, there was some suggestion that the real contest would be fought between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Martine Le Pen: the populist of the Left versus the populist of the Right. With the main parties indistinguishable in their fight for the political centre-ground, attention would turn to more colourful figures. In 2002, the surprise result of the first round was the success of the far Right National Front and the marginalisation of the Socialist Party. In 2007, it was the success of the centrist candidate Françcois Bayrou, who with over 18% in the first round, promised a radical shake-up of traditional French party politics.

In the end, the surprises of the elections did not translate into any fundamental change in the nature of the party system: the eruption of new faces was short-lived. So far, in 2012, a striking feature of the campaign has been return of traditional bipartisanship. This, of course, is the wish of Hollande and Sarkozy: they both want the campaign to become a two-horse race where from the start voters have to choose between their different programmes. A more varied landscape only makes their job more difficult. But the dominance of the Socialists and Gaullists thus far owes itself to more than campaign strategy. A feature of the current crisis has been the way it has struggled to give rise to fundamentally new political ideas or movements. 2011 was a year of protest in Europe: demonstrators filled the streets of Athens, Madrid, London and Amsterdam. But the electoral results have empowered mainstream figures and parties.

This is unfortunate give that neither side will really engage with the key questions of our time. Neither Hollande nor Sarkozy challenge the dominant reading of the European crisis as a problem of deficit spending. The Socialists want more focus on growth and to combine austerity programmes with a measure of Keynesian pump priming. Their justification, however, is tied to deficit reduction: only growth can cut government deficits, not austerity. The Gaullists are using the crisis as an opportunity to reform France’s labour market and to shift the burden of social contributions from the employer to the general taxpayer (Sarkozy’s famous “social VAT” proposal). Their commitment to the pan-European deficit reduction deal is demonstrated by Chancellor Merkel’s support for Sarkozy’s re-election.

At The Current Moment, we’ve argued that the debt problems faced by Western European and North American governments are not just problems of government profligacy, to be solved either by imposing more stringent rules on elected representatives or by trying to stimulate the economy through some kind of neo-Keynesianism. These problems express a particular set of social relations that form the basis of contemporary society, one rooted in both public and private debt. Debt is a relationship between individuals and collectivities, not just an amount that can be measured and quantified in an impartial way. Focusing merely on debt reduction policies leaves us none the wiser about how and why debt has become such a fundamental feature of contemporary capitalist societies. A Hollande vs Sarkozy election is unlikely to shed much light on these issues.

France’s heterodox economists

31 Jan

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

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

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

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

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