Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Why the current europhoria will likely fade

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 13, 2012 15:05 UTC

Does the German Constitutional Court ruling in favor of a European bailout fund, closely followed by the big win for pro-euro and pro-austerity parties in the Dutch general election, mark the beginning of the end of the euro crisis? Or were these events just a brief diversion on the road toward a euro breakup that began with the Greek government accounting scandals in 2009? Most likely, the answer is neither. This week’s political and legal developments have given European leaders just enough leeway to avoid an immediate collapse of the single currency, but not nearly enough to end the euro crisis.

In this respect, the German Constitutional Court has acted exactly in accord with the powerful speech delivered in Berlin this week by George Soros and published in the New York Review of Books. This accuses German policy of condemning Europe, albeit inadvertently and with the best of intentions, to “a prolonged depression and a permanent division into debtor and creditor countries so dismal that it cannot be tolerated.” Germany does this by always offering “the minimum necessary [support] to hold the euro together,” while blocking “every opportunity to resolve the crisis” once and for all.

From what he calls this tragic record of missed chances, Soros draws a conclusion similar to the one presented in my columns three months ago. Germany can continue as the economic leader of Europe only if it accepts the responsibilities of a “benign hegemon,” much as the U.S. did when it forgave Germany’s debts and launched the Marshall Plan after World War Two. If, on the other hand, Germany continues to identify debt with guilt (the German language, significantly, uses the same the word, schuld, for both concepts), it will continue blocking any resolution of the euro crisis that might involve the sharing of government debts across Europe. If, on top of this opposition to mutualizing debts, Germany retains its taboo against any monetary financing of government deficit, as practiced in the U.S. by the Federal Reserve, then Europe will be condemned to long-term depression and quite possibly a revival of national hatreds. In that case, it would be better for all concerned if Germany left the euro.

Whether Germany can, in practice, be persuaded either to leave the euro – or preferably, to abandon its opposition to mutualizing and monetizing debts – will depend, according to Soros, less on diplomacy and economics than on the pressure of public opposition to austerity in France, Italy and Spain. But unless and until such pressure prevails, the policy of minimalist and moralistic crisis management will continue to determine conditions in Europe – which brings us back to the decision of the German Constitutional Court.

Coming hard on the heels of the bond-buying plan announced by the European Central Bank, the court decision has created relief and even optimism in financial markets about a durable resolution of the euro crisis. But this optimism will probably prove as ephemeral as all the previous outbreaks of europhoria.

We’re coming into financial hurricane season

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 5, 2012 19:57 UTC

The North Atlantic hurricane season runs from mid-August to October, with a strong peak in storm activity around the middle of September. A less familiar but even more destructive pattern of disturbances is the financial hurricane season, which coincides with the meteorological one almost to the day.

Most of the great financial crises of modern history have occurred in the two months from mid-August: the Wall Street crashes of Oct. 22, 1907, Oct. 24, 1929, and Oct. 19, 1987; Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard on Sept. 19, 1931; the postwar sterling devaluation on Sept. 19, 1949; the collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary system on Aug. 15, 1971; the Mexican default that triggered the Third World debt crisis on Aug. 20, 1982; the breakup of the European exchange-rate mechanism on Sept. 16, 1992; the Russian default on Aug. 17, 1998, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15. 2008 – and this list could go on.

The coincidence between financial and meteorological hurricanes may not be entirely fortuitous. The global economy, like the world’s atmosphere, is a finely balanced complex system. In such systems, small perturbations can accumulate to trigger big effects. And just as the meteorological tipping points tend to occur when autumn air circulation starts to disrupt the humid air accumulated in the summer doldrums, something similar seems to happen to financial markets when trading becalmed by the summer holidays returns to normal. The result can be sudden and violent reaction to events accumulated over the summer that markets had seemed to ignore. The world economy does not, of course, experience hurricanes with the same regularity as the Caribbean. But when big events happen over the summer, financial disturbances become quite probable in the fall. This is probably the reason why September has historically been the worst month of the year for stock market performance. In fact, September is the only month in which Wall Street prices have, on average, declined since the 1920s.

The inverted hypocrisy of Republicans and Democrats

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 31, 2012 16:28 UTC

As the presidential campaign finally takes off with the party conventions, there seems to be only one point Republicans and Democrats agree on. This election will be about job creation and the role of government. But having defined this battlefield so clearly, neither side seems to have any credible ideas for dealing either of these supposedly decisive issues.

Let’s start with government. The Republicans claim to want smaller and less intrusive government. Yet they vehemently demand tighter government controls over abortion, immigration, marital arrangements and sexual behavior. On other politically less salient issues such as drugs, prison reform, alcohol use by young adults and doctor-patient privacy, Republicans consistently support government intervention, sometimes to a bizarre degree. For example, a law signed in 2011 by Florida’s Republican governor (though struck down promptly by federal courts) made it a crime for pediatricians to tell parents that they could endanger their children by keeping a loaded gun in their home.

The Democrats’ vision of government is equally paradoxical, but in the opposite direction. The Democrats, like left-wing parties in Europe, laud the economic role of government, and especially its importance in supporting public goods and regulating business abuses. But they deny the right of government to regulate, or even try to influence, private behavior, even when it impinges on community life in such areas, for example, as marriage, child-rearing or trade union activity, especially in the public sector.

Italy refutes the idea it’s on Europe’s “periphery”

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 22, 2012 14:50 UTC

The words “core” and “periphery” have become standard terms to describe the winners and losers in the euro crisis. But how could anyone with the slightest sense of history, or knowledge of art and culture, call Italy or Spain peripheral to Europe, while placing Finland and Slovakia, or even Germany and Holland, at Europe’s core?

As a part-time resident of Italy, with a home 100 km from Rome, the center of two millennia of European civilization, I could not be satisfied with this trite answer. Speaking to friends and neighbors in Italy this summer and observing the behavior of Europe’s leaders, I have been struck by a more interesting, and disturbing, explanation of the core-periphery split. These terms do not refer to the past or the present, but to plans for the future. Core and periphery are not geographic or historical descriptions, but euphemisms designed to legitimize permanent economic and political inequalities among the nations of Europe.

With every step toward a resolution of the crisis, the peripheral countries have lost political autonomy, economic opportunity and national self-esteem, while the core countries, especially Germany, have been enriched and empowered. By creating conditions in which the interest rates paid in Italy, Spain and the other Mediterranean countries are much higher than they are in Germany and its northern allies, Europe has imposed a large and permanent economic handicap not only on the governments of southern Europe but also on their private businesses and households.

Reject the politics of oversimplification

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 16, 2012 14:58 UTC

Whatever happens in the election and the euro crisis, the autumn of 2012 may go down in history as a pivotal moment of the early 21st century – a political season that may even be more transformational than the financial upheavals that started with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers four years ago. Paul Ryan’s nomination to the Republican ticket means American voters will feel forced to make a radical choice between two very different visions of the government and the market, in fact of the whole structure of politics and economics in a modern capitalist state. The choice facing Europe in the next few months – starting on September 12 with the Dutch elections and the German court decision on European bailouts – is in some ways even more dramatic: It is not just about the role of government, but about the very existence of the nation-state.

But do these decisions really need to be so radical? It is fashionable to proclaim that the future is a matter of black and white: bigger government or freer markets, national independence or a European superstate. But these extreme dichotomies do not make sense. The clearest lesson from the 2008 crisis was that markets and governments can both make disastrous mistakes – and therefore that new mechanisms of checks and balances between politics and economics are required. The second obvious lesson of the crisis was that economic problems ignore national borders and therefore that ever more complex mechanisms for international cooperation are needed in a globalized economy.

Given the historic importance of the decisions that have to be made this autumn on both sides of the Atlantic, it will be tragic if complex issues such as the role of government or the future of Europe are reduced to oversimplified choices between polarized alternatives.

Suddenly, quantitative easing for the people seems possible

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 9, 2012 18:24 UTC

Last week I discussed in this column the idea that the vast amounts of money created by central banks and distributed for free to banks and bond funds – equivalent to $6,000 per man, woman and child in America and £6,500 in Britain – should instead be given directly to citizens, who could spend or save it as they pleased. I return to this theme so soon because radical ideas about monetary policy suddenly seem to be gaining traction. Some of the world’s most powerful central bankers – Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank last Thursday, Eric Rosengren of the Boston Fed on Monday and Mervyn King of the Bank of England this Wednesday – are starting to admit that the present approach to creating money, known as quantitative easing, is failing to generate economic growth. Previously taboo ideas can suddenly be mentioned.

Rosengren, for example, suggested that the Fed should expand the money supply without any limit as long it sees unnecessary unemployment. Draghi has similarly promised to spend whatever it takes to prevent a euro breakup, although politically his ability to do this remains in doubt. Most interesting was a speech by Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority and leading contender to be the next governor of the Bank of England. This speech strongly challenged the pervasive complacency of central bankers and called for new ideas that might combine central-bank money creation with government decision making on how to bypass banks and inject this money into the non-financial economy of consumption, investment and jobs.

The radical alternative discussed here last week – QE for the People (or QEP, for short) – would bypass banks completely by distributing newly created money straight to the public. It is not yet on anyone’s agenda, but neither is it any longer dismissed as a joke.

How about quantitative easing for the people?

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 1, 2012 19:34 UTC

Through an almost astrological coincidence of timing, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the U.S. Federal Reserve Board all held their policy meetings this week immediately after Wednesday’s publication of the weakest manufacturing numbers for Europe and America since the summer of 2009. With the euro-zone and Britain clearly back in deep recession and the U.S. apparently on the brink, the central bankers all decided to do nothing, at least for the moment. They all restated their unbreakable resolution to do “whatever it takes” – to prevent a breakup of the euro, in the case of the ECB, or, for the Fed and the BoE, to achieve the more limited goal of economic recovery. But what exactly is there left for the central bankers to do?

They have essentially two options. They could do even more of what the Fed and the BoE have been doing since late 2008 – creating new money and spending it on government bonds, in the policy known as “Quantitative Easing.” Or they could admit the policies of the past three years were not working, at least not well enough. And try something different.

There is, admittedly, a third option – to do nothing, on the grounds that public bodies should stop interfering with the private economy and instead leave financial markets to restore economic prosperity and full employment of their own accord. This third idea is based on the economic theory that if governments and central bankers leave well enough alone, “efficient” and “rational” financial markets will keep a capitalist economy growing and automatically return it to a prosperous equilibrium after occasional hiccups. This theory, though still taught in graduate schools and embedded in economic models, is implausible, to put it mildly, especially after the experience of the past decade. In any case, experience shows that the option of government doing nothing in deep economic slumps simply doesn’t exist in modern democracies.

Britain is losing the economic Olympics

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 25, 2012 20:55 UTC

As London prepares for another display of British pageantry and good humor to match the unlikely triumph of last month’s rain-sodden Royal Jubilee, a less impressive aspect of Britain’s stoical “stiff upper lip” may detract from the national pride associated with hosting the Olympics. In the global race out of recession, Britain has just been revealed as a prime contender for the wooden spoon.

Not only was the shocking drop of 0.7 percent in Britain’s second-quarter GDP reported on Wednesday much bigger than investors and independent economists had expected but it almost matched the 0.8 percent fall in Italy’s GDP the previous quarter. And that Italian drop holds the record for the biggest quarterly contraction suffered by any G7 country since the immediate aftermath of the Lehman crisis. Much more important than such statistical trivia is the fact that Britain’s economic output is still 4.5 percent below the peak level it reached in the first quarter of 2008, more than four years ago. The U.S. and German economies, by contrast, are now significantly bigger than they were before the crisis and, in this sense at least, have left the recession behind them. And even the euro zone as a whole, despite the severity of its financial crisis, has done much better than Britain, with GDP just 2 percent below its peak in 2008.

National economic performance is not, of course, a competitive Olympic sport, and there is more to economic success than GDP growth. Still, there is a good reason for connecting the Olympics with economics: International competitions and comparisons can teach useful lessons and create incentives to improve economic management.

Can a real central bank save Europe?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 19, 2012 16:17 UTC

Why is it that the U.S., Britain and Japan, despite their huge debts and other economic problems, have not succumbed to the financial crises that are threatening national bankruptcy for Greece, Spain and Italy – and perhaps soon for France?

After all, even the strongest British and American banks, such as HSBC and JPMorgan Chase, have now admitted that they were as accident-prone as their continental rivals. Borrowing by the U.S., British and Japanese governments is well above European levels relative to the size of the economy. These governments are not even considering fiscal consolidation as ambitious as the 3 percent deficit targets now being written into national constitutions across most of Europe – and Britain has missed by a wide margin the much less demanding targets David Cameron set himself in 2010.

Given that financial markets are supposed to be dispassionate arbiters of economic management, why are they punishing Mediterranean countries with cripplingly high interest rates, while the British, U.S. and Japanese governments are left free to borrow without any apparent limits at almost zero cost?

Why is the response to economic crisis not more serious?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 12, 2012 14:46 UTC

The state of the world economy these days reminds me of the famous telegram from an Austrian general, responding to his German counterpart toward the end of World War One. The German described the situation in his sector of the Eastern front as “serious but not catastrophic”.  In the Austrian sector, the reply came, “the situation is catastrophic but not serious”. In much of the world today the economic situation is verging on catastrophic, but “not serious” seems a perfect description of the political response.

Four years after the Lehman crisis, economic activity and employment in the OECD has not yet returned to its pre-crisis level. Unemployment is at postwar highs in every major European country apart from Germany and, while the U.S. jobless rate is now a little below its postwar record, it has been stuck above 8 percent for longer than at any time since the Great Depression. And in Britain, the long-term loss of output assumed by the government’s latest budget forecasts implies, according to Goldman Sachs calculations, that the six months of the post-Lehman crisis did greater permanent damage to the country’s productive capacity than the Great Depression or World War Two.

Now consider the response. In the U.S., the four years since Lehman have been dominated by economic debates among politicians, media commentators and business leaders on issues that are almost totally irrelevant to unemployment and the pace of economic recovery: how to reduce long-term budget deficits and whether to tweak the top rate of income tax from 36 percent to 39.6 percent. In Britain, the biggest economic controversy this year has been the extension of value added tax to hot pies. Europe’s response to the deepest economic depression in living memory – and an even more alarming xenophobic nationalism that threatens the literal disintegration of the euro and the European Union – has been to debate the bureaucratic “modalities” of bank regulations, fiscal treaties and pension reforms in the next decade.

  •