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.

The Company Store

What is the strange hold she has over Enda Kenny?

One reason a lot of people will vote for the upcoming “austerity amendment” is that they assume it must, when it all comes down to it, be good for us. Sure it’s going to hurt, but in the long run it will help us have a stronger, better economy – right? It’s a natural assumption. And it would be dead wrong. The wholesale destruction of government spending if we succeed in making its insane deficit-slashing timetable – or the fines if we fail – will shrink the economy precipitously. Disastrously.

But why would the EU want to do that to us? It’s puzzling, but it’s not out of any personal animosity. We are but a small cog in this, and we don’t squeak half enough. It’s just that it’s a one-size-fits-no-one set of strictures that would burden even the healthiest European economy.

The Fiscal Compact has two main objectives. The more obvious one is to outlaw the sort of behaviour that got Greece into trouble – essentially, excessive public borrowing and spending. But note that that’s absolutely not what we did. We were good. We paid back debts when we had the money, we ran a surplus. And though our public spending rose, the highest it ever went was still only the Eurozone average. Very arguably we should have been spending well above that, our public services were still grossly underdeveloped even at the height of the boom. Yet this referendum will have the effect of cutting public spending more drastically than ever. And aside from hurting our most vulnerable, that will of course crush the economy even further. As I said a few days ago, it is the cure for the opposite disease to the one we have.

The second and more covert purpose of the compact though is, putting it as crudely as it deserves, to save Angela Merkel’s political future. In order to win her next election – she has about a year and a half left to go – she needs to convince the German people… Not that the Euro is good for them, no. That’s not enough. That the Euro is the Deutsche Mark. A currency run to Germany’s peculiar rules, for Germany’s peculiar circumstances.

Which are peculiarly set against Keynesian economics, the (well-proven) theory that the best thing a government can do in times of economic depression is borrow and spend to promote recovery. This technique lost favour in Germany essentially because it was employed by Hitler. In the Post-War era a new orthodoxy was needed, and they found it in “Ordoliberalism“, a system in which government must play only the most minimal role. It has worked for Germany so far, but Germany has been in almost continuous growth since it started. That might seem a recommendation, but ordoliberalism is a theory for the good times, utterly lost when facing a crisis of these proportions.

It seems likely that only the introduction of the Euro averted the failure of the German system. From being overburdened by the costs of Reunification with the post-Communist East, Germany went rapidly back to being the richest and most productive economy in Europe. Essentially, by selling more goods than ever before to the rest of Eurozone – while simultaneously lending us the money to buy them.

Germany had become Europe’s company store.

It is worth noting that Merkel’s approval rating is at an all-time high back home. She’s getting to project herself as tough by beating us up. So why is Enda Kenny agreeing to this? Is there some secret backroom agreement where he gets to be her bitch now in return for favours down the line? It’s the only way you can make sense of his apparently acting against the country’s interests. But we can’t depend on the existence of covert deal. Even if it exists, it can so easily be repudiated. And in return we are being asked to write vows of poverty into our own Constitution.

If this referendum passes, the best thing you could do would be to get out of the country as soon as you can. And be sure to bring your more vulnerable relatives with you.

Psychodrachma

Photo of a young Hoagy Carmichael, published b...
My name is Bond. Collapsing Bond

I woke up this morning with just one thought in my head: As James Bond does most of his work outside his home country, he should apply for an International Licence to Kill.

The subconscious mind is weird, yet annoyingly trivial.

Anyway, the G20. Thought this is basically just another of those international showcase conferences where everyone makes the right noises and little of real substance is done, it did act as a deadline for the EU leaders to have their house looking pretty. Like a station mass, if you will. So they – Sarkozy in particular, as host – were not well pleased when Greece crapped on the doorstep. Batting the EU leaders’ kind offer back with a referendum threat has sent the markets into turmoil once more, just when Sarkozy and Merkel wanted to impress the world with their authoritative grip on the situation. It makes them look helpless and incompetent, so naturally they are enraged. It is now all right therefore to talk openly about dumping Greece unceremoniously out of the euro.

Greece will probably not hold the referendum – there is severe doubt that Papandreou could win the parliamentary vote necessary to hold one anyway – but I am making plans in case the opposite manifests, and it returns to its own currency. It’s a nice place to live. It has weather and wine, as well as all the olives and history you can eat. And when its currency is free to float again it will float ever downwards, as their relaxed taxation chases after their optimistic expenditure. So if I move there, but live on what I’m making here, I’m going to be relatively wealthy – increasingly so indeed. I’ll hardly need to work at all.

So that’s my retirement sorted. Unless Ireland leaves the euro too, in which case I’m buggered.