Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

The age of austerity is ending

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 28, 2013 15:35 UTC

Whisper it softly, but the age of government austerity is ending. It may seem an odd week to say this, what with the U.S. government preparing for indiscriminate budget cuts, a new fiscal crisis apparently brewing in Europe after the Italian election and David Cameron promising to “go further and faster in reducing the deficit” after the downgrade of Britain’s credit. But politics is sometimes a looking-glass world, in which things are the opposite of what they seem.

Discussing the outcome of Friday’s “sequestration” of U.S. government spending is best left to the month ahead, when we see how the public reacts to government cutbacks. But in Italy, Britain and the rest of Europe, this week’s events should help convince politicians and voters that efforts to reduce government borrowing, whether through public spending cuts or through tax hikes, are both politically suicidal and economically counterproductive.

In Italy, and therefore the entire euro zone, this shift is now almost certain. After the clear majority voted for politicians explicitly campaigning against austerity and what they presented as German economic bullying, further budget cuts or labor reforms in Italy are now off the agenda, if only because they would be literally impossible to implement. If Angela Merkel demands further budget cuts, tax hikes or labor reforms as a condition for supporting Italy’s membership of the euro, a majority of voters have given an unequivocal clear answer: Basta, enough is enough. Most Italians would rather leave the euro than accept any further austerity – and if Italy left the euro, total breakup of the single currency would follow with an inevitability that might not apply if the country exiting were Greece, Portugal or even Spain.

Merkel surely understands this, and she is determined to avoid a catastrophic euro crisis just before her own election in Germany on Sept. 22. She is therefore almost certain to heed Italian voters’ refusal to accept further tax hikes, budget cuts or labor reforms. From now on, the European Central Bank will have to offer its support to Italy without any tough pre-conditions. In fact, Italy can realistically be expected to make only one economic promise: to maintain the existing taxes and reform laws already legislated under Monti. That promise should be easy enough to keep, since Italy’s new parliament will be no more able to muster a majority for repealing old laws than for introducing new ones.

The European Commission, meanwhile, can move the fiscal goalposts in Italy’s favor. Once that precedent is set for Italy, similar flexibility should spread across the euro zone – and at that point the ECB would be able to offer effectively unconditional guarantees of financial support for all members of the euro zone, while Merkel and German voters turn a blind eye. Once investors work all this out, European financial markets can be expected to calm down and Italian politicians to return to what they know and love: plotting, backstabbing and Machiavellian intrigue.

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.

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.

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.

A German exit from the euro could be relatively easy

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 27, 2012 19:00 UTC

The fundamental problem of the euro is widely seen as one of “herding cats” – the impossibility of coordinating complex policies among 17 discordant nations, each with different interests, traditions and ideas. This is not true. The dividing line in Europe is much simpler. On one side are France, Italy, Spain and every other significant country, backed by the U.S., Britain, the IMF, the European Commission and the leadership of the European Central Bank, proposing serious and complex technical solutions based on genuine fiscal federation, which means the sharing of national debts. On the other side is Germany, occasionally supported by Finland, Austria and Slovakia, always saying Nein!

Every new veto threat from Angela Merkel increases Germany’s embarrassing isolation, as Joschka Fischer, its former foreign minister, recently warned: “Germany destroyed itself – and the European order – twice in the 20th century. It would be tragic and ironic if a restored Germany … brought about the ruin of the European order a third time.” But if Germany’s role as spoiler is increasingly recognized, why don’t the other countries do what this column suggested last week: Tell Merkel to put up or shut up – either abide by majority decisions or leave the euro?

The standard answer is that Germany is the “paymaster” of Europe; so without Germany the euro zone would be “bankrupt”. Such metaphors are a lazy substitute for clear thinking. To see why, compare the consequences of Germany leaving with the Greek exit, which was described as “manageable” by European officials only a few weeks ago. German departure would be less disruptive than Grexit for three reasons.

Can the rest of Europe stand up to Germany?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 20, 2012 19:02 UTC

As financial markets slide toward disaster, scarcely pausing to celebrate the “success” of the Greek election or the deal to recapitalize Spanish banks, the euro project is finally revealing its fatal flaw. One country poses an existential threat to Europe – and it is not Greece, Italy or Spain. Every serious proposal to resolve the euro crisis since 2009 – haircuts for bank bondholders, more realistic fiscal consolidation targets, jointly guaranteed eurobonds, a pan-European bailout fund, quantitative easing by the European Central Bank – has been vetoed by Germany, and this pattern looks likely to be repeated next week.

Nobody should be surprised that Germany has become the greatest threat to Europe. After all, this has happened twice before since 1914. To state this unmentionable fact is not to impugn Germans with original sin, but merely to note Germany’s unusual geopolitical situation. Germany is too big and powerful to coexist comfortably with its European neighbors in any political structure ruled purely by national interests. Yet it isn’t big and powerful enough to dominate its neighbors decisively, as the U.S. dominates North America or China will dominate the Far East.

Wise German politicians recognized this inherent instability after 1945 and abandoned the realpolitik of national interest in favor of the idealism of European unification. Instead of trying to create a “German Europe” the new national goal was to build a “European Germany.” Unfortunately, this lesson seems to have been forgotten by Angela Merkel. Whatever the intellectual arguments for or against German-imposed austerity or the German-designed fiscal compact, there can be no dispute about their political import. Merkel’s stated goal is now to create a “German Europe,” with every nation living, working and running its government according to German rules.

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