The Great Debate UK
The UK, USA, the PIIGS (Ireland and Italy are together in the same stye), France is in poor fiscal shape – OK, Germany is ostensibly living within its means, but it looks a lot less solvent when you remember that it has underwritten the rest of the euro zone (in large part, to protect its own irresponsible banks). In any case, as I have argued in previous blogs, this or a future German Government is likely to cave in to the pressure from its own electorate and from inflationist economists at home and abroad to join the party and spend, spend, spend. Only Australia and Canada, riding high on the commodities price boom, and a handful of small countries, look stable.
Where will it all end?
With inflation, almost certainly, but beyond that, it is hard to say. However, there is one prediction I would offer for the medium to long term outcome, and it applies not only to the euro zone, but to Britain and America too – in fact to the whole of the comfortable, complacent industrialised world – and it is this.
We are living through the death throes of an ideal, a dream which has turned into a nightmare – it is the end of the social democratic welfare model.
I am referring to the whole panoply of benefits (entitlements, as they are called in America), labour market regulations (employment protection, minimum wage legislation, limits on the length of the working week etc. etc.) and other social democratic devices intended to inflate like airbags to protect us all from shocks from any possible direction. The whole edifice built up in Western countries to shelter us from the need to earn a living is now clearly unsustainable. We can no longer afford a regime which allowed, indeed encouraged us to live permanently beyond our means both as individuals and as a society.
By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.
As I write this blog, it looks as though the U.S. Congress is going to pass a bill raising the debt ceiling and making modest cuts in Federal Government spending over the coming years. Although it is, quite rightly, being presented as a somewhat hollow victory for the forces of reason, there is one extremely puzzling aspect of the crisis.
It is being reported on all sides that the credit rating agencies may well downgrade U.S. sovereign debt in spite of this “happy ending” – indeed, Egan-Jones, one of the smaller agencies, cut its rating of U.S. debt some weeks ago, and there is much talk of Moody’s and S&P following suit in the very near future.
Whenever I see photos of Chancellor Merkel these days, I’m reminded of the lugubrious features of the creature in the Restaurant at the End of the World, as it recommended to guests which part of its own anatomy they should eat. The details of the “Deal to Save the Euro” are still mysterious and have been given a misleading spin in the official releases, but one or two points seem clear.
First, the package is a compromise – a little bit of default (as required by a reality check) plus assistance to Greece which looks very generous but is still not enough to give it a realistic chance of paying its remaining debts. So the can has been kicked further down the same road yet again.
By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.
Here we go again – the same sickening feeling, as stock markets reel amid a flight to “safety”. For months, there have been worries about contagion from the Greek imbroglio, and now the nightmare seems to be coming true, as one after another the weak European economies are put to the sword.
First came Greece and Ireland, then Portugal, now it’s the big league – Spain and, even bigger, Italy (and don’t forget Belgium, an accident waiting to happen for many years now, not very important in pure economic terms, but psychologically significant as the home of the whole sorry euro disaster).
As the Greek tragedy goes into what looks like its final act, there is increasing talk of the country leaving the euro zone and refloating the drachma. Perhaps the Athens street mobs favour this “solution”, but what would it involve, and would it work?
It is a bizarre situation, without precedent as far as I am aware (though I am no economic historian). Usually, new currencies are introduced to replace old ones which have become discredited (typically after hyperinflation), whereas here we are talking about the absolute opposite: abandoning the euro because it is too strong, in favour of a new drachma, which will be a weak currency by design – rather like launching a ship, in the hope it will sink!
Last night’s two big Mansion House speeches were impressive when they dealt with the macroeconomy, but depressing (if unsurprising) on the subject of reforming the banks, representing final confirmation of the gloomy conclusion of a blog I posted here in September 2009: It’s All Over – the Banks Have Won.
Of course the banks will squeal – why wouldn’t they? After all, they daren’t be seen cracking open the bubbly.
Having just got back from a couple of days in Hannover, I couldn’t help but be struck by the dominance of the local news agenda by two topics – and the almost complete absence of a third. Taking the British media at face value, I might have expected a city in near-panic, with people nervously scanning menus for safe dishes to order and maybe antiseptic handwashing facilities being hurriedly installed in public places. In fact, the town looked exactly as I remembered it from my last visit a few years ago, with E.coli rarely mentioned either in conversation or on the 24-hour TV news channels.
In fact, apart from endless replays of the goals from Tuesday night’s football (Germany versus Azerbaijan, a real clash of the Titans that must have been!), the news was all about the remote risk of a meltdown in the country’s nuclear power plants, and the anything-but-remote risk of meltdown in what is left of the Greek economy.
It seems barely a week goes by without another shock report about the ever-widening gap between those at the top of the earnings distribution and the rest of us. The facts are by now well-established. Throughout the Western world, but most noticeably in Britain and America, the earnings of the top one or two percent are accelerating into the stratosphere, leaving the middle class a long way behind, and the working class completely out of sight. How can one explain this global phenomenon?
Academic economics seems to be taking a surprisingly long time to reach a definitive answer, but I suspect there will turn out to be two long term trends at work here.
By Laurance Copeland
After one year, the progress report on the Coalition reads “Moving in the right direction, but with a lot more to do”.
Nonetheless, it is a prisoner of its commitment at the outset to leave two departmental budgets untouched: the NHS and international aid. It is not simply the amounts of money involved (colossal in the case of the NHS, relatively small for aid). It is also the signal it sends that there is such a status as sacrosanct, which immediately begs the question from policemen, firemen, teachers, the legal system, the armed forces: why isn’t our budget sacrosanct too?
By Laurence Copeland
Oh no! Sluggish growth, a declining population, earthquake and tsunami…. and now this: “Dating Agency Downgrades Japan” screams the FT front page.
That’s what happens when you scan the headlines too quickly.
On a closer look, it seems that all those elegant Tokyo office ladies are OK after all. It’s just that one of the rating agencies has put Japan on downgrade watch, only a few days after the USA got the same treatment. The fact that all the main markets other than gold appear to have taken the announcement about the U.S. in their stride should not be taken as evidence that all is well, however.