Opinion

Edward Hadas

What is the morality of debt?

Edward Hadas
Oct 26, 2011 14:18 UTC

Debt is a moral matter. While most economic activity is concerned with the “is” of how things are (investment, consumption and so forth), debts are always entwined with an “ought” – to repay. In discussing controversial debts–for example government borrowing in the euro zone and the U.S.–the moral question should be addressed directly: should these debts be paid off in full, or is some forgiveness justified?

Aristotle can help frame the argument. The philosopher condemned all lending at interest because money cannot create wealth by itself; a loan is just a way for the lender to take advantage of the borrower. Some proponents of Islamic finance make a similar argument, but it is not quite right. Capitalism has shown that loans can indeed produce wealth. If the lent funds are invested well, enabling the borrower to improve his lot and the world’s, then interest payments are the lender’s just reward for providing the fruitful funds.

But Aristotle’s moral logic remains relevant; his condemnation is appropriate for loans which do not share wealth justly between borrower and lender. Unfair loans should not be made, and where they have been, full repayment only compounds the original injustice.

Libertarians, believers in the right of individual to make their own decisions, have another contribution to the moral discussion. They point out that loans are freely agreed contracts which should be honoured. Both sides should understand the possible consequences of their free choices. Borrowers should repay, even if that requires making sacrifices, and creditors who make bad lending decisions should suffer losses.

In the euro zone, some libertarians (and most Germans) consider the borrowers’ obligations to be paramount. The governments of Greece and the other over-extended nations can and should repay all their agreed debts. The citizens just have to work harder and pay more taxes.

Occupy Wall Street and the shallowness of discontent

Edward Hadas
Oct 18, 2011 15:51 UTC

By Edward Hadas
The views expressed are his own.

Occupy Wall Street can claim a tremendous heritage. In almost every generation – from the French Revolution of 1789 to the student revolts of the 1960s – popular movements have rejected a society which, they say, denies some sort of basic freedom. But for a protest to leave a lasting impression, it has to start or mark a significant cultural change. What could OWS signify?

The Occupy movement certainly expresses popular fury at high finance. But that sentiment is far from revolutionary. President Obama and many business dignitaries have expressed sympathy. There also seems to be anger at inequality created by unjust practices. In the words of an October 14 blog entry on Occupywallst.org, the “99 percent” of the population will “no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the one percent.” Such righteous indignation could perhaps spawn a revolution, but only if it came with a more positive agenda. As it stands, though, the manifestos and soundbites coming out of the leaderless groups are long on complaints and short on both intellectual coherence and suggestions for new arrangements.

Still, this movement must have something going for it. It has spread around the world and attracts much friendly attention from the mainstream media. I see three forces at work.

The dangerous power of negative thinking

Edward Hadas
Oct 12, 2011 16:35 UTC

Another recession could be about to arrive, or even be here already. Some people fear it will be as bad as the last one, which reduced output in the U.S., euro zone and Japan by 5.1, 5.5 and 8.9 percent respectively. Those GDP declines are often described in cataclysmic terms: staggering, disastrous or traumatic. Such words are vast – and dangerous – exaggerations.

Even at the trough of the last recession in 2009, real GDP in most rich countries was as high as it had been five or six years earlier – when economic conditions were not considered particularly bad. And that comparison is too harsh on the 2009 consumer experience, which included iPhones and the Airbus A380 super jumbo jets, both better than the comparably valued goods available in 2003.

Americans and Europeans have little enough reason to moan about their recessions; citizens of the world have much less. For mankind as a whole, the small travails of the wealthy are much less important than the entry of the truly poor into the modern economy. Industrial production in emerging economies, a good measure of that development, has increased at a heartening 6 percent annual rate over the last decade, according to the most recent data from Dutch consultants CPB. The recession reversed two years’ progress, but only briefly.

World moves closer to 2008-style cliff

Edward Hadas
Sep 30, 2011 22:39 UTC

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Edward Hadas

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) – What turns a financial mess into a deep recession? The answer to that question is crucial right now. There is a mess in the euro zone and signs that GDP has stopped increasing in much of the world, but neither the markets nor any large economies have fallen off a 2008-style cliff. Not yet, anyway.

Most observers were astounded by the speed and scale of the last collapse — in just a year industrial production in developed economies fell 17 percent and global trade fell by 20 percent, according to Dutch consultants CPB. The shock of the September 2008 failure of Lehman Brothers massively amplified the fear and credit tightening which were already slowing the global economy. The authorities responded with strong enough countermeasures to prevent a great global depression, but they were not fast enough to stop the economic decline.

Monetary moves have lost their magic

Edward Hadas
Sep 22, 2011 21:44 UTC

By Edward Hadas
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Financial markets are tiring of the Federal Reserve’s love offerings. The U.S. central bank has long been able to soothe nervous investors with rate cuts or newly-printed money. But markets spurned Wednesday’s announcement of the Twist, an operation to lengthen the maturity of $400 billion of the Fed’s $1.7 trillion U.S. Treasury.

Stock markets fell sharply and the price of bonds from governments still considered safe rose. Investors were right not to be impressed. The Twist is aimed primarily at the U.S. housing market. But even if the Fed’s rearrangement lowers mortgages costs, house prices will be held back by a weak economy and the massive oversupply left over from the bubble years.

Intel and Rio pull markets in opposite directions

Edward Hadas
Jul 14, 2010 21:17 UTC

It’s the beginning of a strong economic recovery. Just ask the folks at Intel. The chip producer is smiling because companies “have some breathing room in the economy and their budgets”, as chief executive Paul Otellini put it on Tuesday. Or maybe it’s the end of a weak recovery. Tom Albanese, the boss of miner Rio Tinto, subsequently noted “fears about a possible double-dip recession in OECD countries and a slight slowdown in Chinese growth”.

Both chiefs are optimistic for the long term. Why not? The enriching of most of the world’s five billion or so relatively poor people will be great news for suppliers, whether of the most basic raw materials or of the most sophisticated electronic components.

But for the next few quarters, investors have a lot to worry about. Tech companies may be doing better — Dutch chip equipment maker ASML increased its 2010 forecasts on Wednesday — but the macroeconomic data from the United States and much of Europe remains largely mediocre. Euro zone industrial production in May, released on Wednesday, grew less than expected.

Emerging markets teach developed ones grownup ways

Edward Hadas
Jul 8, 2010 21:02 UTC

The poor are teaching the rich a lesson. It used to be that the world’s less developed nations were the problem children — giving plutocrats too much power while running irresponsibly large budget deficits and failing to overcome deep internal imbalances. Now, rich countries look like the new poor.

Start with trade. China and middle income commodity exporters have most of the biggest trade surpluses while the world’s richest large economy, the United States, still runs the biggest deficit. With surpluses come financial clout and funds for investment. Deficits lead to dependency and, eventually, industrial weakness.

Fiscal deficits are too high everywhere, but after the financial crisis of 2008 the rich are in far worse shape than the poor. Deficits in developed economies like America and Britain have jumped by 7.7 percent of GDP, close to twice the 4.2 percent rise in middle-income countries, according to the International Monetary Fund.

BP’s governance lesson: don’t trust formulas

Edward Hadas
Jun 18, 2010 19:59 UTC

The Gulf of Mexico disaster has wrecked many reputations. BP, President Barack Obama and the whole offshore drilling business are all struggling under the weight of an uncontrolled flow of oil. A key feature of British corporate governance — a separation of the role of chairman and chief executive — is also under threat.

The two-at-the-top approach has some thoughtful defenders. Paul Myners, a high profile British critic of supine institutional shareholders, told students at Yale on Thursday that his board experience, on both sides of the Atlantic, supports the case for separation. He says a single leader can stifle “effective and challenging discussion”.

Myners does not discuss BP. But the oil company is certainly no poster child for the British way. The crisis has shown the current chairman and chief executive, Carl-Henric Svanberg and Tony Hayward respectively, to be a pair of relative weaklings.

EU has to choose its model: Italy or Yugoslavia

Edward Hadas
May 28, 2010 21:41 UTC

The European Union has rarely looked so united. The disparate members have joined up to mount a strong defence of the region’s single currency. But the EU has also never looked so close to dissolution, divided by tensions between more and less fiscally responsible and economically successful countries. The fate of the union could follow either of two historical precedents with starkly different outcomes.

Exactly 150 years ago, on May 27, 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi started to besiege Palermo. The city was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which had lasted in roughly the same form for almost six centuries. Most of the establishment at the time, including the Pope and Emperor Napoleon III of France, dismissed the notion of an Italian nation.

The romantic nationalist Garibaldi proved them wrong. Italy was unified under the Turin-based king of Sardinia. Huge regional differences in history, economy and culture have been diminished by the flow of people from south to north and of government money and bureaucracy in the other direction. The unified Italy has survived and prospered.

Korea embargo adds to market’s political fear

Edward Hadas
May 25, 2010 21:01 UTC

By Martin Hutchinson and Edward Hadas

Investors rarely like wars or rumors of war. But for global markets, the renewed military tension on the Korean peninsula comes at a particularly sensitive time. The threat to this fairly big economy — South Korea’s GDP is four times larger than Greece’s — adds to the impression of a world out of control.

South Korea’s response to confirmation that the North torpedoed a Southern naval vessel in March seems proportionate, merited and economically minor — sanctions will hit an annual trade of only $286 million, about 0.3 percent of South Korea’s GDP. The effect on the already impoverished Northerners may even be mitigated by China, Pyongyang’s traditional ally.

In more settled economic times, markets could probably absorb this increase in Korean tension without too much difficulty. Everyone knows North Korea is dangerously unpredictable. Investors usually respond to provocative actions with only a brief flurry of worry. They sometimes even interpret aggression as desperation, and dream of potential gains from eventual Korean unification.

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