Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ideological blinders

The main thing about this current economic debacle that is so maddening is the fact that we live in a world where money can be created and destroyed in nanoseconds with a few keystrokes and yet the conversation about money hasn't progressed much, if at all, since the post-1873 fight over the gold standard.  In the real physical world this means the Greenbackers and Populists won all the battles.  In the cultural battle over how we think about money, however, the goldbugs and other hard-money types are still winning—even though their ideas are absurd when describing the reality of electronic money.

So we have the possibility of serious destruction to the real economy of Western Europe because the culture cannot absorb the ideas behind the new money.  I mean, how depressing is that?  What can possibly be gained by anyone—ESPECIALLY the mega-rich—by plunging the world into chaos because they can't handle the fact that money isn't gold anymore?

I find myself amused because people refuse to admit that money is just rearranged electrons in a memory chip somewhere.  The funs only lasts until the realization returns that this misunderstanding is literally killing people.  So I am gratified to see whenever the economic thinkers whose opinions I respect write about this problem.  After the jump, I have included parts of essays by Dean Baker, Paul Craig Roberts, James K Galbraith, and Michael Hudson.  Good stuff!

One other note.  Because I have been writing about monetary matters since the late 1980s, I tend to be a bit superficial in comments like this.  However, if you want the long version of a thoroughly researched monetary position, you can find it here.

Should the Fed Run the ECB?
The European Bank’s Ideological Zealots

The European Central Bank (ECB) has been working hard to convince the world that it is not competent to act as central bank. One of the main responsibilities of a central bank is to act as the lender of last resort in a crisis. The ECB is insisting that it will not fill this role. It is arguing instead that it would sooner see the eurozone collapse than risk inflation exceeding its 2.0 percent target.

It would be bad enough if the ECB’s incompetence just put Europe’s economy at risk. After all, there are tens of millions of people who stand to see their lives ruined because the bureaucrats at the ECB don’t understand introductory economics. But the consequences of a euro meltdown do well beyond the eurozone.

At the very least, the chaos following the collapse of the euro will mean a second dip to the U.S. recession. The loss of the European export market, and the likely surge in the dollar that will result from a worldwide flight to safety, would be enough to turn a weak positive growth number into a negative.

However, it is also likely that the financial panic following the collapse of the euro will lead to the same sort of financial freeze-up that we saw following the collapse of Lehman. In this case, we won’t be seeing unemployment just edge up by a percentage point or two, we will be seeing unemployment possibly rising into a 14-15 percent range. This would be a really serious disaster.

Fortunately, the Fed has the tools needed to prevent this sort of meltdown. It can simply take the steps that the ECB has failed to do. First and most importantly it has to guarantee the sovereign debt of eurozone countries. The Fed simply has to commit to keep the interest rate yields on debt from rising above levels where it risks creates a self-perpetuating spiral of higher debt leading to higher interest rates, which in turn raises the deficit and debt.

This doesn’t mean giving the eurozone countries a blank check. The Fed can adjust the interest rate at which it guarantees debt depending on the extent to which countries reform their fiscal systems. For example, if Greece and Italy crack down on tax evasion, this can be a basis for allowing a lower interest rate. If they allow their wealthy to freely evade taxes, then this can be a basis for raising interest rates. The difference between a 2.0 percent interest rate and 7.0 percent interest would be a powerful incentive to eliminate corruption and waste. more

Bankers Seize Europe
Just Another Goldman Sachs Take Over

On November 25, two days after a failed German government bond auction in which Germany was unable to sell 35 per cent of its offerings of 10-year bonds, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble said that Germany might retreat from its demands that the private banks that hold the troubled sovereign debt from Greece, Italy, and Spain must accept part of the cost of their bailout by writing off some of the debt. The private banks want to avoid any losses, either by forcing the Greek, Italian, and Spanish governments to make good on the bonds by imposing extreme austerity on their citizens, or by having the European Central Bank print euros with which to buy the sovereign debt from the private banks. Printing money to make good on debt is contrary to the ECB’s charter and especially frightens Germans, because of the Weimar experience with hyperinflation.

Obviously, the German government got the message from the orchestrated failed bond auction. As I wrote at the time, there is no reason for Germany, with its relatively low debt to GDP ratio compared to the troubled countries, not to be able to sell its bonds. If Germany’s creditworthiness is in doubt, how can Germany be expected to bail out other countries? Evidence that Germany’s failed bond auction was orchestrated is provided by troubled Italy’s successful bond auction two days later.

Strange, isn’t it. Italy, the largest EU country that requires a bailout of its debt, can still sell its bonds, but Germany, which requires no bailout and which is expected to bear a disproportionate cost of Italy’s, Greece’s and Spain’s bailout, could not sell its bonds.

In my opinion, the failed German bond auction was orchestrated by the US Treasury, by the European Central Bank and EU authorities, and by the private banks that own the troubled sovereign debt.

My opinion is based on the following facts. Goldman Sachs and US banks have guaranteed perhaps one trillion dollars or more of European sovereign debt by selling swaps or insurance against which they have not reserved. The fees the US banks received for guaranteeing the values of European sovereign debt instruments simply went into profits and executive bonuses. This, of course, is what ruined the American insurance giant, AIG, leading to the TARP bailout at US taxpayers’ expense and Goldman Sachs’ enormous profits.

If any of the European sovereign debt fails, US financial institutions that issued swaps or unfunded guarantees against the debt are on the hook for large sums that they do not have. The reputation of the US financial system probably could not survive its default on the swaps it has issued. Therefore, the failure of European sovereign debt would renew the financial crisis in the US, requiring a new round of bailouts and/or a new round of Federal Reserve “quantitative easing,” that is, the printing of money in order to make good on irresponsible financial instruments, the issue of which enriched a tiny number of executives.

Certainly, President Obama does not want to go into an election year facing this prospect of high profile US financial failure. So, without any doubt, the US Treasury wants Germany out of the way of a European bailout.

The private French, German, and Dutch banks, which appear to hold most of the troubled sovereign debt, don’t want any losses. Either their balance sheets, already ruined by Wall Street’s fraudulent derivatives, cannot stand further losses or they fear the drop in their share prices from lowered earnings due to write-downs of bad sovereign debts. In other words, for these banks big money is involved, which provides an enormous incentive to get the German government out of the way of their profit statements.

The European Central Bank does not like being a lesser entity than the US Federal Reserve and the UK’s Bank of England. The ECB wants the power to be able to undertake “quantitative easing” on its own. The ECB is frustrated by the restrictions put on its powers by the conditions that Germany required in order to give up its own currency and the German central bank’s control over the country’s money supply. The EU authorities want more “unity,” by which is meant less sovereignty of the member countries of the EU. Germany, being the most powerful member of the EU, is in the way of the power that the EU authorities desire to wield.

Thus, the Germans bond auction failure, an orchestrated event to punish Germany and to warn the German government not to obstruct “unity” or loss of individual country sovereignty.

Germany, which has been browbeat since its defeat in World War II, has been made constitutionally incapable of strong leadership. Any sign of German leadership is quickly quelled by dredging up remembrances of the Third Reich. As a consequence, Germany has been pushed into an European Union that intends to destroy the political sovereignty of the member governments, just as Abe Lincoln destroyed the sovereignty of the American states.

Who will rule the New Europe? Obviously, the private European banks and Goldman Sachs. more

The crisis in the eurozone
The continent is destroying the weak to protect the strong. But will that be enough?

The eurozone crisis is a bank crisis posing as a series of national debt crises and complicated by reactionary economic ideas, a defective financial architecture and a toxic political environment, especially in Germany, in France, in Italy and in Greece. 
Like our own, the European banking crisis is the product of over-lending to weak borrowers, including for housing in Spain, commercial real estate in Ireland and the public sector (partly for infrastructure) in Greece. The European banks leveraged up to buy toxic American mortgages and when those collapsed they started dumping their weak sovereign bonds to buy strong ones, driving up yields and eventually forcing the whole European periphery into crisis. Greece was merely the first domino in the line. 
In all such crises the banks’ first defense is to plead surprise – “no one could have known!” – and to blame their clients for recklessness and cheating. This is true but it obscures the fact that the bankers pushed the loans very hard while the fees were fat. The defense works better in Europe than in the U.S. because national boundaries separate creditors from debtors, binding the political leaders in German and France to their bankers and fostering a narrative of national-racism (“lazy Greeks,” “feckless Italians”) whose equivalent in post-civil rights America has been largely suppressed. 
Underpinning banker power in Creditor Europe is a Calvinist sensibility that has turned surpluses into a sign of virtue and deficits into a mark of vice, while fetishizing deregulation, privatization and market-driven adjustment. The North Europeans have forgotten that economic integration always concentrates industry (and even agriculture) in the richer regions. 
As this process unfolds the Germans reap the rents and lecture their newly indebted customers to cut wages, sell off assets, and give up their pensions, schools, universities, healthcare – much of which were second-rate to begin with. Recently the lectures have become orders, delivered by the IMF and ECB, demonstrating to Europe’s new debt peons that they no longer live in democratic states. 
The eurozone’s architecture makes things worse in two major ways. While the EU has long paid some compensation to its poorer regions, these structural funds were never adequate and are now blocked by unmeetable co-pay requirements. And the zone lacks the inter-regional redistribution channels to households that the U.S. has developed in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal government payrolls and military contracting among other things. Nor do German retirees settle in Greece or Portugal in large numbers as New Yorkers do in Florida or Michiganders in Texas. 
Second, the ECB refuses to solve the crisis at a stroke, which it could do by buying up the weak countries’ bonds and refinancing them. The argument against this is called “moral hazard,” buttressed by old-fashioned inflation fears, but the real issue is that to do so would admit loss of control by creditors over the central bank. Actions parallel to those taken by the Federal Reserve – nationalizing the entire commercial paper market, for instance – would repel the ECB, even though it does buy up sovereign bonds when it has to. So instead the zone has gone about creating a gigantic toxic CDO called the European Financial Stability Fund, which may shortly be turned into an even more gigantic toxic CDS (like AIG, they will call it “insurance”). This may defer panic at most for a little while. more

What is to be Done? Since You Ask…
First Steps in Reforming the U.S. Financial and Tax System

The Occupy Wall Street movement has many similarities with what used to be called the Great Awakening periods in America. Such periods always begin by realizing how serious the problem is. So diagnosis is the most important tactic. Diagnosing the problem mobilizes power for a solution. Otherwise, solutions will seem to come out of thin air and people won’t understand why they are needed, or even the problems that solutions are intended to cure. The basic problem today is that nearly everyone is in debt. This is the problem in Europe too. There are Occupy Berlin meetings, the Greek and Icelandic protests, Spain’s “Indignant” demonstrations and similar ones throughout the world.

When debts reach today’s proportions, a basic economic principle is at work: Debts that can’t be paid; won’t be. The question is, just how are they not going to be paid? People with student loans are not permitted to declare bankruptcy to get a fresh start. The government or collection agencies dock their salaries and go after whatever property they have. Many people’s revenue over and above basic needs is earmarked to pay the bankers. Typical American wage earners pay about 40 percent of their wages on housing whose price is bid up by easy mortgage credit, and another 10 to 15 percent for credit cards and other debt service. FICA takes over 13 per cent, and federal, local and sales taxes another 15 percent or so. All this leaves only about a quarter of many peoples’ paychecks available for spending on goods and services. This is what is causing today’s debt deflation. And Wall Street is supporting it, because it extracts income from the bottom 99% to pay the top 1%.

Half a century ago most economists imagined that the problem would be people saving too much as they got richer. Saving meant non-spending. But the problem has turned out to be just the opposite: debt. Overall, salaries have not risen in decades, so many people have borrowed just to break even. Instead of an era of free choice, very little of their income is available for discretionary spending. It is earmarked to pay the financial, insurance and real estate sectors, not the “real” production and consumption economy. And now repayment time has arrived. People are squeezed. So when America’s saving rate recently rose from zero to 3 percent of national income, it takes the form of people paying down the debts.

Many people thought that the way to get rich faster was to borrow money to buy homes and stocks they expected to rise in price. But this has left the economy financially strapped. People are feeling depressed. The tendency is to blame themselves. I think that the Occupy Wall Street movement, at least here in New York, is like what has occurred in Greece and also in the Arab Spring. People are coming together, and at first they may simply watch what’s going on. Onlookers may come by to see what it’s all about. But then they think, “Wait a minute! Other people are having the same problem I’m having. Maybe it is not really my fault.”

So they begin to see that all these other people who have a similar problem in not being able to pay their debts; they realize that they have been financially crippled by the banks. It is not that they have done something wrong or are sore losers, as Herman Cain says. There’s something radically wrong with the system.

Fifty years ago an old socialist told me that revolutions happen when people just get tired of being afraid. In today’s case the revolution may grow nearer when people get over being depressed and stop blaming themselves. They come to think that we are all in this together – and if this is the case, there must be something wrong with the way the economy is organized.

Gradually, observers of Occupy Wall Street begin to feel stronger. There is positive peer pressure to reinforce their self-confidence. What they intuitively feel is that the Reagan-Clinton-Bush-Obama presidencies have squeezed their lives. The economy has become untracked.

What’s basically wrong is that the financial system is running the government. For years, Republicans and Democrats have both said that a strong government, careful regulation and progressive taxation are markers on the road to serfdom. The politicians and neoliberal economists who write their patter say, “Let’s take planning out of the hands of government and put it in the ‘free market.’” But every market is planned by someone or other. If governments step aside, then planning passes into the hands of the bankers, because of their key role in allocating credit.

The problem is that they have not created credit to finance industrial investment and employment. They have lent for speculation on asset price inflation, using debt leveraging to bid up housing prices, stock and bond prices, and foreign exchange rates. They have convinced borrowers that they can get rich on rising housing prices. But this merely makes new homebuyers go deeper into debt to buy a home. And when banks say that rising stock and bond prices are good for the economy, this price rise lowers the dividend or interest yield. This means that pension funds and individuals have to save much more for retirement. Instead of improving their life, it makes them work harder and borrow more just to stay in place.

The banking system’s alternative to “the road to serfdom” thus turns out to be a road to debt peonage. This financial engineering turns out to be worse than government planning. The banks have taken over the Federal Reserve and Treasury and put their lobbyists in charge – men such as Tim Geithner and the others with ties to Rubinomics dating from the Clinton administration, and especially to Goldman Sachs and other giant Wall Street firms. more

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