George Soros: Blame Merkel

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN10 - George Soros, Cha...

George Soros knows money. A student of the great philosopher Karl Popper, he has become one of the most vocal critics of modern economics and capitalism. But he doesn’t just talk about the failings of the financial markets. He uses his insight to make a quite seriously incredible amount of cash from them. Out of this, he gives billions to worthy causes. A guy with an opinion worth hearing then.

So when, speaking at the Economics Festival in Trento, he lays responsibility for the Eurozone crisis squarely at Chancellor Merkel‘s feet, you sit up and take notice.

In a nutshell:

The first step was taken by Germany when, after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Angela Merkel declared that the virtual guarantee extended to other financial institutions should come from each country acting separately, not by Europe acting jointly. […] It took some time for the financial markets to discover that government bonds which had been considered riskless are subject to speculative attack and may actually default; but when they did, risk premiums rose dramatically. This rendered commercial banks whose balance sheets were loaded with those bonds potentially insolvent. And that constituted the two main components of the problem confronting us today: a sovereign debt crisis and a banking crisis which are closely interlinked.

In other words, people lent cheaply to Eurozone banks and governments because they believed that there was zero risk of a Eurozone country being allowed to default. But after Lehman, Merkel – unilaterally – declared that Eurozone countries would have to support their own banks. Markets eventually realised this implied that Eurozone countries might have to default, and so lending costs to them shot up – just when we needed to borrow in order to support our banks! It was a single, immensely short-sighted decision of Merkel’s administration that precipitated our current situation.

And their continuing failure to respond adequately is turning a crisis into a disaster for the EU:

Just as in the 1980’s [Third World debt crisis] all the blame and burden is falling on the “periphery” and the responsibility of the “center” has never been properly acknowledged.  Yet in the euro crisis the responsibility of the center is even greater than it was in 1982. The “center” is responsible for designing a flawed system, enacting flawed treaties, pursuing flawed policies and always doing too little too late. In the 1980’s Latin America suffered a lost decade; a similar fate now awaits Europe.

He does more than just lay blame of course. The power to save the situation, he argues, is also in the hands of the creditor nations. But it won’t be easy:

The German public cannot understand why a policy of structural reforms and fiscal austerity that worked for Germany a decade ago will not work Europe today. Germany then could enjoy an export led recovery but the eurozone today is caught in a deflationary debt trap. The German public does not see any deflation at home; on the contrary, wages are rising and there are vacancies for skilled jobs which are eagerly snapped up by immigrants from other European countries. Reluctance to invest abroad and the influx of flight capital are fueling a real estate boom. Exports may be slowing but employment is still rising. In these circumstances it would require an extraordinary effort by the German government to convince the German public to embrace the extraordinary measures that would be necessary to reverse the current trend. And they have only a three months’ window in which to do it.

We need to do whatever we can to convince Germany to show leadership and preserve the European Union as the fantastic object that it used to be. The future of Europe depends on it.

Three months, to get the EU back on the track of being a positive, voluntary association of nations. If we can’t do that, then the choice we’re faced with is basically between effective German control of an impoverished continent, or the sudden and messy disintegration of the Euro. So… We’d better find a solution to this thing. Stat.

I urge everyone to read the speech in its entirety, though if you’re in a rush The Journal.ie has a good summary.

We Need A Fiscal Compact

One size is not going to fit all

Sure we do. Just not this one.

It is good to have a clear plan for getting out of debt, and it is eminently reasonable to have a budgeting agreement between countries sharing a currency. We should all be playing by the same rules if we’re sharing the risks and benefits.

Just not these rules.

Let’s leave aside the pros and cons of the ESM if we can. Even if we never need it – and I don’t think we will – we should join it anyway; to support other vulnerable Euro members and discourage market speculation against the currency. We shouldn’t be looking at this mechanism as if we’re desperate to join. It’s a mutual benefit scheme that we should contribute to – if we can.

But if the price of joining the ESM is this Fiscal Compact, then the price is too high. And I don’t mean too high for what we get in return. I mean too high as in we can’t afford it, full stop.

Even if the ESM were a free rainbows and ponies club, even if membership entitled us to have cash sprayed over us from a hosepipe, we cannot join if we don’t have the price of admission. And we simply don’t.

We have a vast budgetary shortfall, imposed on us by the appalling financial mismanagement of the last government. Since then however we’ve been top of the class, attacking spending with a chainsaw, losing that deficit as fast as humanly possible. We’re suffering for it. We’ve seen employment, health services, education and welfare devastated. We gave away our pension reserve to save other people’s pension funds. But we have made exemplary progress.

The Fiscal Compact – which we join if this referendum is passed – requires us to redouble that cutting.

Look at the state of our public systems now. Imagine if we made cutbacks at nearly twice the current rate. I mean that, imagine it. What would it be like? What would you do, in a country like that?

Get out, mainly. Anyone who can will. We’re going to haemorrhage young, basically. The rest of us… Well, we’re pretty much buggered. We’re going to see an already shrinking economy fold like a ruptured Zeppelin, as further destruction of the tax base turns a nascent recovery into a plughole pirouette.

We’ll be another Greece.

Deficit spending can often be the wrong thing to do, a too-easy option in difficult times. But sometimes it is exactly the right thing, and it has paid off in the past. The Fiscal Compact however means that we can never do it again. No matter what the people vote for, no matter who is in government, even if we can borrow from other sources. It’s an economic straitjacket, one that no country could put on and still call itself free.

What’s more we have to force ourselves into that straitjacket, in far less time than is reasonable, humane, or indeed possible. If we pass this referendum we will be making a commitment that we simply cannot keep. We will be fined for being broke.

This Fiscal Compact was not designed for Ireland’s circumstances, but to stop major Euro economies like Germany and France from doing again what they did wrong before. It will punish us not for our sins but for theirs, prescribe diarrhoea medicine when we’re constipated, bring a wrecking ball when we need scaffolding.

Reject a treaty that will be our worst mistake since the bank guarantee.

So Where Do We Get The Money?

Cover of "Irish Gold (Nuala Anne McGrail ...They tell us we have to vote Yes to access ESM (European Stability Mechanism) funding, in case we ever find ourselves unable to meet current expenditure. But will it really be our only option? It had better not be – the ESM may never come into being after all. Would it be the best? Only in the sense that it might be cheapest. As I argued yesterday, in every other way it is probably the worst option conceivable, less a loan mechanism than a sort of national receivership. I do not believe we can meet its terms.

So what are the other, officially-denied options? You could categorise them in different ways, but I basically see five. I put them here in not my preferred order, but in what I think is roughly the order of likelihood that they’ll be resorted to (though likeliest of all I think is two or more in combination):

1) The EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility). This is the fund we’re currently availing of for the EU/IMF bailout, and though the ESM with its stricter and (it is hoped) more sustainable rules is meant to replace it, the EFSF will continue to exist for more than another year. Hopefully in that time it will become clear whether we need to borrow more.

2) The IMF (International Monetary Fund). The IMF may have a reputation for setting tough conditions on loans, but unlike the ESM it has no entrenched ideological opposition to countries investing in growth. Some argue that they would refuse to loan to countries that the EU had refused, but the organisation itself has not pronounced either way. And as a partner in our current bailout, the IMF has invested in us already. It is not known for letting its investments go bankrupt.

3) Leaving the Euro. Get out in some semi-ordered way, before we’re forced out precipitously like Greece could be any day now. Devaluing our currency rapidly would solve a lot of our problems, but it would not be painless; imports would leap up in price, effectively making us all poorer immediately. But it would be a huge boost for industry and jobs, sparking immediate actual growth. Indeed, much as I am in favour of the single currency in (broad) principle, it is virtually undeniable that we’d be better off now if we’d never joined. Its inertia has only served to exacerbate both boom and bust.

4) Debt Repudiation/Restructuring. The nuclear option to some, the obvious first step to others. In part this is because we have two main sources of debt, so morally different that they need to be taken separately:

(a) Bailout Debt. However pressured we may have been when we agreed to this, there is a strong moral imperative to, you know, do what we said we’d do. But that is not the highest of all values. Debt repayment does not trump such imperatives as, say, not letting people starve. You can always repay a debt later, but people die for good. No one claims it wouldn’t be a drastic step. It is bound to have negative consequences on other countries, and after we did it we’d be pretty much on our own. But remember the adage – if you owe the bank a million, they have a problem. We shouldn’t be afraid to contemplate default if it can win us better terms.

Most likely of course 3 and 4 would need to be done together, as debts denominated in Euros would be so much more painful if we’re paying in Irish Fairy Gold or whatever. (If we’re getting a new currency we may as well have some fun with it). And by the same token, if we aren’t repaying our debts I think the Eurozone would prefer if we got the hell out.

(b) Bank Bondholder Debt. This though we should have repudiated long ago. The taxpayer has no conceivable moral duty to repay this private debt. And if the European banking industry will collapse if they don’t, then quite frankly the European banking industry deserves to collapse. Let’s call their bluff on this one.

5) Taxing the rich. This is last on a list in order of likelihood because of course the rich have considerable influence over these decisions, though in a sensible democracy it would be first. It has been pointed out that with only a moderate tax on capital and/or a new upper tax bracket we could pay off our debts without making cuts at all. That may be unrealistic, but could very significant new revenue be raised without causing capital flight or discouraging investment? I think it could. There is money to be made here, all we’d be doing is raising the price of making it. I think the market can bear that.

And let’s not forget that the richest have been consistently increasing their share of the wealth, while simultaneously reducing their tax contribution, since the 1980s. If they don’t start paying their share again now when will they start?

~    &    ~

Well OK, the obvious next question is if all these alternatives exist, why does the government prefer the one that will wreak such havoc?

The answer has to be that they don’t really believe what they are asking us to sign. The draconian terms of the agreement are there to convince the money markets that they won’t profit by breaking up the Euro. In the real world exceptions will be made, just as they were made for Germany when they were in trouble. Right? Perhaps we can fudge what is and isn’t structural deficit; no one seems to know quite what that means so it’s a useful bit of ambiguity. Surely, when it comes down to it, we cannot be held to borrowing limits and repayment rates that would wreck our economy?

Perhaps they sincerely believe that, perhaps it’s even true. But to sign your name to a contract on the basis that you hope it will never be enforced is, to put it mildly, unwise.

Burning Our Future To Fuel The Past

The panel of Why You Should Vote No!, a discussion organised by the Campaign Against the Austerity Treaty in Galway.  Big budget stuff this ain’t.

Well the optimism of Tuesday has been smartly kneed in the crotch. I will still apply for the course, but any hope of actually being able to do it without starving to death is rapidly receding. There is basically no money now to help people do postgraduate studies. No wait, I tell a lie. The exception is postgraduate-level teacher training. There is no funding to employ teachers of course, but you can still train to be one.

Since the last budget there will be no further grants or other maintenance aid for students continuing to the fourth level. So much for the knowledge-based economy. Austerity trumps that, like it’s trumped every other strategy and aspiration.

And this is just a taster. The government plans something like a further eight percent in cuts next year to meet borrowing reduction plans. Where will this come from? It’s hard to say. We’re already cutting deeply into the things, like education, that led to our economic growth in the past. Sure, I can get by without investment in myself to improve my earning opportunities. But the country as a whole?

We’re burning the future to fuel the past. Whatever cuts we make further affect our opportunities to recover and so reduce our ability to pay off our debts. They’re essentially counter-productive, and it goes without saying that they will also cause real harm to real people as health, welfare, pensions and services come under increasing pressure. The more we cut, the worse lives become, and the longer it’s going to stay that way.

But note that I’m talking about the government’s current plan. This is without taking the Fiscal Compact into account. If we pass that, we will be committing ourselves to repay debts at a significantly faster pace than the government apparently thinks possible right now. They accuse the No campaign of offering no alternative strategy, without even beginning to attempt to explain how we can meet the criteria the Fiscal Compact sets for us.

The truth is, we simple cannot meet those criteria. How much more will we have to cut back compared to current reductions? Nearly twice as much. Who believes for a moment that’s possible humanely, never mind politically?

But wait, what’s politically possible doesn’t matter any more! Because the treaty provides that if we are too merciful on our own population and fail to cut deeply enough, the Eurozone will be able to impose budgets on us – essentially turning our democracy into a puppet administration. And as this outcome seems pretty much inevitable, voting for the treaty really is voting to wind up Ireland as a meaningful state. You think a foreign administration we can never vote out can’t do a worse job than our own shower? I invite you to consider how that worked out in the Great Famine.

I do believe that we’ll need some sort of budget management agreement if – an increasingly big if – we continue to have a common currency. But the one we’re being asked to swallow puts the interests of the larger Eurozone economies so completely before our own that it amounts to tyranny. For their sake we are being asked to take actions that run absolutely counter to our most urgent needs.

This is an anti-overspending compact just when we desperately need to spend. It exists because other countries overspent in the past, not us. Compared to the European average we underspent. Compared to Germany and France, we were choirboys. Our problem was that we took too little tax from far too few people, creating a tax base that was utterly, idiotically dependent on the boom. We need more tax income, desperately. Slowing down the economy instead – and so further reducing the tax base – is fighting fire with ostriches. It’s insanity.

But the larger countries do not give a damn because they have their own problems. All the really care about is that the Euro doesn’t fall in value, because basically that’s what their wealth is in. There are no two ways about this. We are being asked to sacrifice ourselves – really, do something quite suicidal –  in order to be a bulwark for the Euro. Our reward for this? The right to apply for loans we may or may not need, at rates that may or may not be better than we can get elsewhere, from a fund that we have no guarantee is ever going to exist.

Are we fucking mad?

Stand Back, We’ve Lit The 2012

English: A regular polygon of n sides with the...
How Long A Year Is

One day I’m going to take a stand against the division of time into arbitrary regular periods. It’s a delusion anyway. The periods aren’t regular – I’ve noticed throughout my life that they grow consistently shorter. A year is a trivial amount of time now. On current trends, by the time I’m 80 one will last about as long as a summer’s afternoon did when I was five. No doubt it’s healthy to stop and take mental stock every so often, but marking every single year that comes along feels like indulging them.

But then again, without this end-of-the-year show it could easily have escaped my ephemeral notice that 2011 was an extraordinary one. I doubt if we’ve had so much change – especially so much hopeful change – since at least 1989. In some ways we’ve seen the anti-2001; the greatest act of terrorism was carried out by a Christian extremist, the people fighting for democracy were Muslim. It went a long way towards repairing the damage perpetrated during the miserable presidency of George W. Bush.

Except of course that done to the world economy, which is still utterly buggered. At least people rioted in the UK. Yeah, I see that as a positive. If we create a society where the rich can blow it all gambling yet somehow still stay rich, meanwhile telling the poor that they have to be poorer now, then it is a good thing that some people say “OK, we’re not playing by these rules anymore”. This isn’t justifying theft, it’s pointing out that societies are made out of people and you can’t keep taking the piss.

Similarly I think the riots against austerity in the Eurozone were on balance a good thing. I’d sooner peaceful civil disobedience like the Occupy movements, but a riot is the next best thing. Certainly, either is better than the supine attitude we seem to have adopted in Ireland.

This then is my greatest hope and fear for 2012. How will we channel our anger? Here in Galway, city councillors are trying to close the little Occupy encampment that we have on the grounds that it’s bad for business. That is how much our politicians care for actual politics. Every challenge to the system in the last ten years, from organised terrorism to music downloading, has been used by the powerful as an excuse to give themselves yet more power over the individual. There are real threats in the world to democratic capitalism, it is true. The greatest is from undemocratic capitalism.

High-Speed Chicken Crisis

This is an actual serious real statue
This is an actual serious real statue

Today a pair of chickens that flew off in opposite directions came home to roost. I’m needlessly introducing the concept of flying chickens here, but bear with me. We are seeing two long processes reaching the crunch simultaneously: EU integration, and Thatcherism.

That these would reach a joint crisis point was perhaps predictable. They were two trains going to different destination while trying to use the same tracks. I’ve already given up on keeping my metaphors coherent. This has been on the cards for… Well, about thirty years. Ever since Margaret Thatcher brought a value-for-money attitude to bear on the idealism of the European process. Since then, Britain has been avowedly in Europe for what it can get out of it, and this has grown into a weird political schizophrenia as politicians, Tories especially, cynically portray a Britain-versus-Brussels conflict for domestic electoral advantage while their businesses reap the rewards of the Union.

The chicken of integration has come up against the buffers of political reality too though. It was never likely that a single currency would succeed without real central monetary authority, but the project was started – in typical political compromise fashion – with only the bits everyone liked. I’m sure deep down they knew it would take a crisis to complete the process; I doubt they envisaged this though.

That it should turn into a crisis over the direction and even definition of the Union was also perhaps foreseeable. Creating EU-wide financial controls that have a hope of stabilising the European economy would entail reversing some of the banking deregulation that, while bringing vast profits to relatively few, helped precipitate the recent crises. And which, since the Thatcher revolution, has been so championed by the UK – perhaps because that same few has a disproportionate influence over the Conservative party.

So we just saw the UK use its veto to block a decision that the Eurozone countries see as vital to their financial survival. Now there is no other option except an international, multilateral treaty between – it now appears likely – every EU country except Britain. A treaty that will, if you will, be a massive Fuck You, UK.

What Comes After The Euro?

Chance image: An alarm clock where a "sad...
Sad Alarm Clock Is Sad - But Not For Long!

So the euro is in ‘real danger of collapsing’, is it? We’re expected to worry about that, but I wonder what it actually means. Would it really matter if our currency was suddenly worth nothing at all?

I don’t know about you, but I’d be fine frankly. It’s true there probably isn’t a lot of work for a cartoonist in a collapsed economy, but I have other strings to my bow – which these days is getting to more resemble some sort of harp. Something I am not at all bad at is making broken things go again. I started as a small boy on alarm clocks, I do it now with computers and such. I reckon I’ll be getting plenty work after the currency collapses and no one has the means to buy new things. I will accept payment in food and body warmth.

What happens though if someone needs my services, but doesn’t have anything I can use right now? I can’t eat when I’m not hungry after all. It will be down to good old barter. You could give me some copper wire and I could exchange that with someone for, say, a big ball of wool, which someone else may be willing to barter for a bag of salt, which I could then swap for six bundles of sticks, which I can finally trade for the Blu-ray of The Adventures of Tintin I need.

It would be a lot easier though if we had some system of tokens, so you could trade with those instead of carrying goods with you everywhere. Say, special printed documents with distinctive designs on them. And as luck would have it, there’s one readily available. We could use all those unwanted euro notes.