Who governs: government or financial markets? - Ellen Brown & Robert Skidelsky
(1) Parasitic financial Oligarchy which caused Crisis now demands Austerity - Ellen Brown
(2) Who governs – government or financial markets? - Robert Skidelsky
(3) Collapse of the euro cannot be ruled out - Soros
(1) Parasitic financial Oligarchy which caused Crisis now demands Austerity - Ellen Brown
From: Ellen Brown <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 29.06.2010 11:15 AM
Who Will Pay: Wall Street or Main Street, the Tobin Tax or the VAT?"
Author, "Web of Debt"
Posted: June 28, 2010 06:03 PM
Who Will Pay: Wall Street or Main Street , The Tobin Tax or the VAT?
Wall Street banks have been saved from bankruptcy by governments that are now going bankrupt themselves; but the banks are not returning the favor. Instead, they are engaged in a class war, insisting that the squeezed middle class be even further squeezed to balance over-stressed government budgets. All the perks are going to Wall Street, while Main Street slips into debt slavery. Wall Street needs to be made to pay its fair share, but how?
The financial reform bill agreed to on June 25 may have carved out some protections for consumers, but for Goldman Sachs and the derivatives lobby, the bill was a clear win, leaving the Wall Street gambling business intact. In a June 25 Newsweek article titled "Financial Reform Makes Biggest Banks Stronger," Michael Hirsh wrote that the bill "effectively anoints the existing banking elite. The bill makes it likely that they will be the future giants of banking as well."
The federal government and Federal Reserve have advanced literally trillions of dollars to save the big Wall Street players, to the point where the government's own credit rating is in jeopardy; but Wall Street has not had to pay for the cleanup. Instead, the states and the citizens have been left to pick up the tab. On June 17, Time featured an article by David von Drehle titled "Inside the Dire Financial State of the States," reporting that most states are now facing persistent budget shortfalls of a sort not seen since the 1930s. Unlike the Wall Street banks, which can borrow at the phenomenally low fed funds rate of .2% and plow that money back into speculation, states don't have ready access to credit lines. They have to borrow through bond issues, and many states are so close to bankruptcy that their municipal bond ratings are collapsing. Worse, states are not legally allowed to default. Unlike the federal government, which can go into debt indefinitely, states must balance their budgets; and they cannot issue their own currencies. That puts them in the same position as Greece and other debt-strapped European Union countries, which are forbidden under EU rules either to issue their own currencies or to borrow from their own central banks.
States, of course, don't even have their own state-owned banks, with one exception -- North Dakota. North Dakota is also the only state now sporting a budget surplus, and it has the lowest unemployment and mortgage delinquency rates in the country. As von Drehle observes, "It's a swell time to be North Dakota."
But most states are dealing with serious, chronic defaults, putting them in the same debt trap as Greece: they are being forced to lay off workers, sell public assets, and look for ways to squeeze more taxes out of an already over-taxed populace. And their situation is slated to get worse, since the federal government's stimulus package will soon be cut, along with assistance to the states.
The federal government is not only leaving the states high and dry but is threatening to impose even more taxes on their beleaguered citizens. Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve Chairman and current White House economic adviser, said in April that Congress needs to consider a Value Added Tax (VAT) - a tax on various stages of production of consumer goods. A VAT of 17.5% is now imposed in Britain, and 20% is being proposed; while some EU countries already have a VAT as high as 25%. In Europe, at least the citizens get something for their money, including federally-funded health care; but that is not likely to happen in the U.S., where even a "public option" in health care is no longer on the agenda. The VAT hits the lower and middle classes particularly hard, since they spend most of their incomes on consumables. The rich, on the other hand, put much of their money into speculative trades, and those sales are not currently taxed.
Business Cycle or Class War?
Ismael Hossein-Zadehi, who teaches economics at Drake University in Iowa, calls the whole economic crisis a class war. What is being billed as public debt began as the private debt of financial speculators who offloaded it onto the public. The governments that bailed out these insolvent speculators then became insolvent themselves; but the bailed-out banks, rather than lending a helping hand in return, have demanded their pound of flesh, with payment in full. The perpetrators are blaming the victims and insisting on "fiscal responsibility." Wall Street bankers are dictating the terms of repayment for debts they themselves incurred.
"Fiscal responsibility" means cutting spending, something that is inherently deflationary during a recession, as seen in the disastrous Depression-era policies of President Herbert Hoover. Not that it was solely a Republican error. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt also cut public spending, tipping the economy back into recession. Spending cuts cause tax revenues to shrink, which results in more spending cuts. Contrary to what we have been told, national governments are not like households. They do not have to balance their budgets and "live within their means," because they have the means to increase the money supply. They not only have the means, but they must engage in public spending when the private economy is shrinking, in order to keep the wheels of the economy turning. Virtually all money now originates as bank-created credit or debt; and today the money supply has been shrinking at a rate not seen since the 1930s, because the banking crisis has made credit harder and harder to get.
Instead of "reflating" the collapsed economy, however, national governments are insisting on "fiscal responsibility;" and the responsibility is all being put on the states and the laboring and producing classes. The financial speculators who caused the debacle are largely getting off scott free. They not only pay no tax on the purchase and sale of their "financial products," but they pay very little in the way of income taxes. Goldman Sachs paid an effective income tax rate of only 1% in 2008. Prof Hossein-Zadehi writes:
It is increasingly becoming clear that the working majority around the world face a common enemy: an unproductive financial oligarchy that, like parasites, sucks the economic blood out of the working people, simply by trading and/or betting on claims of ownership. . . . The real question is when the working people and other victims of the unjust debt burden will grasp the gravity of this challenge, and rise to the critical task of breaking free from the shackles of debt and depression. Working people don't rise to the task because they have been propagandized into believing that "fiscal austerity" is something that needs to be done in order to save their children from an even worse fate. What actually needs to happen in a deflationary collapse is to spend more money into the system, not pull it back out by paying off the federal debt; but the money needs to go into the real economy - into factories, farms, businesses, housing, transportation, sustainable energy systems, health care, education. Instead, the stimulus money has been hijacked, diverted into cleaning up the toxic balance sheets of the financial gamblers who propelled the economy into its perilous dive.
Evening Up the Score
While Congress caters to the banks, the states have been left to fend for themselves. Where is the money to come from to pull off the impossible feat of balancing their budgets? Bleeding a VAT tax out of an already-anemic working class is more likely to kill the patient than to alleviate the disease. A more viable and equitable solution would be to tap into the only major market left on the planet that is not now subject to a sales tax - the "financial products" that are the stock in trade of the robust financial sector itself.
A financial transaction tax on speculative trading is sometimes called a "Tobin tax," after the man who first proposed it, Nobel laureate economist James Tobin. The revenue potential of a Tobin tax is huge. The Bank for International Settlements reported in 2008 that total annual derivatives trades were $1.14 quadrillion (a quadrillion is a thousand trillion). That figure was probably low, since over-the-counter trades are unreported and their magnitude is unknown. A mere 1% tax on $1 quadrillion in trades would generate $10 trillion annually in public funds. That is only for derivatives. There are also stocks, bonds and other financial trades to throw in the mix; and more than half of this trading occurs in the United States.
A Tobin tax would not generate these huge sums year after year, because it would largely kill the computerized high-frequency program trades that now compose 70% of stock market purchases. But that is a worthy end in itself. The sudden, thousand-point drop in the Dow Industrial Average on May 6 showed the world how vulnerable the stock market is to manipulation by these sophisticated market gamblers. The whole high-frequency trading business needs to be stopped, in order to protect legitimate investors using the stock market for the purposes for which it was designed: to raise capital for businesses. As Mark Cuban observed in a May 9 article titled "What Business Is Wall Street In?":
Creating capital for business has to be less than 1pct of the volume on Wall Street in any given period. . . . My 2 cents is that it is important for this country to push Wall Street back to the business of creating capital for business. Whether it's through a use of taxes on trades, or changing the capital gains tax structure so that there is no capital gains tax on any shares of stock (private or public company) held for 5 years or more, and no tax on dividends paid to shareholders who have held stock in the company for more than 5 years. However we need to do it, we need to get the smart money on Wall Street back to thinking about ways to use their capital to help start and grow companies. That is what will create jobs. That is where we will find the next big thing that will accelerate the world economy. It won't come from traders trying to hack the financial system for a few pennies per trade.
Besides protecting legitimate savers and investors by exempting stock held five years or more, they could be exempted from a Tobin tax on total stock purchases of under $1 million per year. That would make the tax literally a millionaire's tax -- and a small one at that, at only 1% per trade.
At the G20 summit in Toronto last weekend, a financial transaction tax was discussed and supported by France and Germany but was opposed by the U.S. and Canada, although nothing binding was resolved. However, the states do not have to wait for the federal government or the G20 to act. They could levy a Tobin tax themselves. Objection might be made that the Wall Street speculators would take their revenues and go elsewhere, but big banks and brokerages have branches in every major city in every state. They are hardly likely to pack up their tents and leave lucrative centers of business. Nor can it be argued that we should cater to the pirates who are looting our stock markets because they are paying us a nice bribe, because they aren't even paying a bribe. Financial trades do not currently generate tax revenues.
Two Green Party candidates for governor, Laura Wells in California and Rich Whitney in Illinois, have included a state-imposed Tobin tax in their platforms. Both are also campaigning for state-owned banks in their states, on the model of the Bank of North Dakota. People around the world look to the United States for boldness and innovation, and California and Illinois are two of the hardest hit states in the nation. If those states manage to turn their economies around, they could establish a model for economic sovereignty globally.
(2) Who governs – government or financial markets? - Robert Skidelsky
From: Robert Skidelsky's Website <email@example.com> Date: 25.06.2010 01:06 PM
Once Again We Must Ask: “Who Governs?”
Financial Times Wednesday, June 16, 2010
In 1974, Edward Heath asked: “Who governs – government or trade unions?” Five years later British voters delivered a final verdict by electing Margaret Thatcher. The equivalent today would be: “Who governs – government or financial markets?” No clear answer has yet been given, but the question may well define the political battleground for the next five years.
In one sense, next week’s emergency Budget is simply the logical working out of an intellectual theorem. The implicit premise of the coming retrenchment is that market economies are always at, or rapidly return to, full employment. It follows that a stimulus, whether fiscal or monetary, cannot improve on the existing situation. All that increased government spending does is to withdraw money from the private sector; all that printing money does is to cause inflation.
These propositions are a re-run of the famous “Treasury view” of 1929. By contrast, Keynes argued that demand can fall short of supply, and that when this happened, government vice turned into virtue. In a slump, governments should increase, not reduce, their deficits to make up for the deficit in private spending. Any attempt by government to increase its saving (in other words, to balance its budget) would only worsen the slump. This was his “paradox of thrift”. The current stampede to thrift shows that the re-conversion to Keynes in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 was only skin-deep: the first story remains deeply lodged in the minds of economists and politicians.
But this story alone does not explain the conversion to austerity. Politicians clamouring for cuts in public spending do not cite Chicago University economists. They talk about the need to restore “confidence in the markets”. The argument here is that deficits do positive harm by destroying business confidence. This collapse of confidence may come in several forms – fear of higher taxes, fear of default, fear of inflation. Deficits thus delay the natural (and rapid) recovery of the economy. If markets have come to the view that deficits are harmful, they must be appeased, even if they are wrong. What market participants believe to be the case becomes the case, not because their beliefs are true, but because they act on their beliefs, true or false.
The parallel with what happened in 1931 is irresistible. In February of that year, Philip Snowden, the Labour government’s chancellor of the exchequer, set up the May Committee to recommend cuts in public spending. The committee projected a budget deficit of £120m, later raised to £170m, the latter figure amounting to about 5 per cent of gross domestic product, and proposed raising taxes and reducing spending to “balance the budget”. The international financial crisis caused by the collapse of the Austrian Credit-Anstalt bank in July 1931 brought huge pressure on the government to act on the May Report. In a notable display of patriotic fervour, the financial and political establishment united to demand cuts in unemployment benefits to “save the pound”.
Keynes was one of the very few who stood out against the herd. Of the May Report’s authors, he wrote: “I suppose that they are such very plain men that the advantages of not spending money seem obvious to them.” They had ignored the fact that their proposed cuts would add 250,000-400,000 to the unemployed and diminish tax receipts. “At the present time,” Keynes continued, “all governments have large deficits. They are nature’s remedy for preventing business losses from being ... so great as to bring production altogether to a standstill.”
When the Conservative-Liberal coalition that had succeeded the Labour government introduced an emergency budget in September 1931, Keynes again stood out against the chorus of approval. The budget was, he wrote, “replete with folly and injustice”. He explained to an American correspondent that “every person in this country of super-asinine propensities, everyone who hates social progress and loves deflation, feels that his hour has come and triumphantly announces how, by refraining from every form of economic activity, we can all become prosperous again.”
Conservative spokesmen often claim that fiscal consolidation causes economies to recover. If so, the effect of the outbreak of public frugality in 1931 was curiously roundabout. Cuts in salaries produced a “mutiny” of naval ratings at Invergordon, suggesting that the empire was crumbling. This was enough to force Britain off the gold standard. A combination of sterling depreciation and lower interest rates revived exports and started a housing boom. But there was never a complete recovery until the war. Such evidence for the success of the cuts is the stuff of castles in the sky.
We are about to embark on a momentous experiment to discover which of the two stories about the economy is true. If, in fact, fiscal consolidation proves to be the royal road to recovery and fast growth then we might as well bury Keynes once and for all. If however, the financial markets and their political fuglemen turn out to be as “super-asinine” as Keynes thought they were, then the challenge that financial power poses to good government has to be squarely faced.
(3) Collapse of the euro cannot be ruled out - Soros
From: chris lenczner <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 28.06.2010 04:42 AM
George Soros Speech, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany June 23 2010
George Soros' speech on the future of the euro and Germany's role.
George Soros* |
23 June 2010
Giving a speech in Berlin, I feel obliged to speak about the euro because the euro is in crisis and Germany is the main protagonist. Unfortunately I didn't get the timing right because the crisis has both a fiscal component and a banking component and the situation of the banks is just now approaching a climax. A comprehensive analysis will have to await the publication of stress test results. The best I can do at this moment is to put matters into a historical perspective.
I believe that misconceptions play a large role in shaping history and the euro crisis is a case in point.
Let me start my analysis with the previous crisis, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. In the week following September 15, 2008 global financial markets actually broke down and by the end of the week they had to be put on artificial life support. The life support consisted of substituting sovereign credit for the credit of financial institutions which ceased to be acceptable to counterparties.
As Mervyn King of the Bank of England explained, the authorities had to do in the short-term the exact opposite of what was needed in the long-term: they had to pump in a lot of credit, to replace the credit that had disappeared, and thereby reinforce the excess credit and leverage that had caused the crisis in the first place. Only in the longer term, when the crisis had subsided, could they drain the credit and reestablish macro-economic balance.
This required a delicate two phase maneuver - just as when a car is skidding, first you have to turn the car into the direction of the skid and only when you have regained control can you correct course.
The first phase of the maneuver has been successfully accomplished - a collapse has been averted. But the underlying causes have not been removed and they have surfaced again when the financial markets started questioning the credibility of sovereign debt. That is when the euro took center stage because of a structural weakness in its constitution. But we are dealing with a worldwide phenomenon, so the current situation is the direct consequence of the crash of 2008.
The situation is eerily reminiscent of the 1930s. Doubts about sovereign credit are forcing reductions in budget deficits at a time when the banking system and the economy may not be strong enough to do without fiscal and monetary stimulus. Keynes taught us that budget deficits are essential for counter-cyclical policies, yet governments everywhere feel compelled to reduce them under pressure from the financial markets. Coming at a time when the Chinese authorities have also put on the brakes, this is liable to push the global economy into a slowdown or possibly a double dip. Europe, which weathered the first phase of the financial crisis relatively well, is now in the forefront of the downward pressure because of the problems connected with the common currency.
The euro was an incomplete currency to start with. The Maastricht Treaty established a monetary union without a political union. The euro boasted a common central bank but it lacked a common treasury. It is exactly that sovereign backing that financial markets started questioning that was missing from the design. That is why the euro has become the focal point of the current crisis.
Member countries share a common currency, but when it comes to sovereign credit they are on their own. This fact was obscured until recently by the willingness of the European Central Bank to accept the sovereign debt of all member countries on equal terms at its discount window. This allowed the member countries to borrow at practically the same interest rate as Germany and the banks were happy to earn a few extra pennies on supposedly risk-free assets by loading up their balance sheets with the government debt of the weaker countries. These positions now endanger the creditworthiness of the European banking system. For instance, European banks hold nearly a trillion Euros of Spanish debt of which half is held by German and French banks. It can be seen that the euro crisis is intricately interconnected with the situation of the banks.
How did this connection arise?
The introduction of the euro brought about a radical narrowing of interest rate differentials. This in turn generated real estate bubbles in countries like Spain, Greece, and Ireland. Instead of the convergence prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty, these countries grew faster and developed trade deficits within the eurozone, while Germany reigned in its labor costs, became more competitive and developed a chronic trade surplus. To make matters worse some of these countries, most notably Greece, ran budget deficits that exceeded the limits set by the Maastricht Treaty. But the discount facility of the ECB allowed them to continue borrowing at practically the same rates as Germany, relieving them of any pressure to correct their excesses.
The first clear reminder that the euro does not have a common treasury came after the bankruptcy of Lehman. The finance ministers of the European Union promised that no other financial institution whose failure could endanger the system would be allowed to default. But Angela Merkel opposed a joint Europe-wide guarantee; each country had to take care of its own banks.
At first, the financial markets were so impressed by the guarantee that they hardly noticed the difference. Capital fled from the countries which were not in a position to offer similar guarantees, but the interest differentials within the eurozone remained minimal. That was when the countries of Eastern Europe, notably Hungary and the Baltic States, got into difficulties and had to be rescued.
It was only this year that financial markets started to worry about the accumulation of sovereign debt within the eurozone. Greece became the center of attention when the newly elected government revealed that the previous government had lied and the deficit for 2009 was much larger than indicated.
Interest rate differentials started to widen but the European authorities were slow to react because the member countries held radically different views. Germany, which had been traumatized by two episodes of runaway inflation, was allergic to any buildup of inflationary pressures; France and other countries were more willing to show their solidarity. Since Germany was heading for elections, it was unwilling to act. But nothing could be done without Germany. So the Greek crisis festered and spread. When the authorities finally got their act together they had to offer a much larger rescue package than would have been necessary if they had acted earlier.
In the meantime, the crisis spread to the other deficit countries and, in order to reassure the markets, the authorities felt obliged to put together a â‚750 billion European Financial Stabilization Fund, â‚500 billion from the member states and â‚250 billion from the IMF.
But the markets are not reassured, because the term sheet of the Fund was dictated by Germany. The Fund is guaranteed not jointly but only severally so that the weaker countries will in fact be guaranteeing a portion of their own debt. The Fund will be raised by selling bonds to the market and charging a fee on top. It is difficult to see how it will merit a triple A rating.
Even more troubling is the fact that Germany is not only insisting on strict fiscal discipline for weaker countries but is also reducing its own fiscal deficit. When all countries are reducing deficits at a time of high unemployment they set in motion a downward spiral. Reductions in employment, tax receipts, and exports reinforce each other, ensuring that the targets will not be met and further reductions will be required. And even if budgetary targets were met, it is difficult to see how the weaker countries could regain their competitiveness and start growing again because, in the absence of exchange rate depreciation, the adjustment process would require reductions in wages and prices, producing deflation.
To some extent a continued decline in the value of the euro may mitigate the deflation but as long as there is no growth, the relative weight of the debt will continue to grow. This is true not only for the national debt but also for the commercial loans held by banks. This will make the banks even more reluctant to lend, compounding the downward pressures.
The euro is a patently flawed construct and its architects knew it at the time of its creation. They expected its defects to be corrected, if and when they became acute, by the same process that brought the European Union into existence.
The European Union was built by a process of piecemeal social engineering, indeed it is probably the most successful feat of social engineering in history. The architects recognized that perfection is unattainable. They set limited objectives and firm deadlines. They mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when it was accomplished its inadequacy would become apparent and require further steps. That is how the coal and steel community was gradually developed into the European Union, step by step.
Germany used to be at the heart of the process. German statesmen used to assert that Germany has no independent foreign policy, only a European policy. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany's leaders realized that unification was possible only in the context of a united Europe and they were willing to make considerable sacrifices to secure European acceptance. When it came to bargaining they were willing to contribute a little more and take a little less than the others, thereby facilitating agreement. But those days are over. Germany doesn't feel so rich anymore and doesn't want to continue serving as the deep pocket for the rest of Europe. This change in attitudes is understandable but it did bring the process of integration to a screeching halt.
Germany now wants to treat the Maastricht Treaty as the scripture which has to be obeyed without any modifications and this is not understandable, because it is in conflict with the incremental method by which the European Union was built. Something has gone fundamentally wrong in Germany's attitude towards the European Union.
Let me first analyze the structural defects of the euro and then examine Germany's attitude. The biggest deficiency in the euro, the absence of a common fiscal policy, is well known. But there is another defect that has received less recognition: a false belief in the stability of financial markets. As I tried to explain in my writings, the Crash of 2008 has demonstrated that financial markets do not necessarily tend towards equilibrium; they are just as likely to produce bubbles. I don't want to repeat my arguments here because you can find them in my lectures which have just been published in German. All I need to do is remind you that the introduction of the euro created its own bubble in the countries whose borrowing costs were greatly reduced. Greece abused the privilege by cheating, but Spain didn't. It followed sound macro-economic policies, maintained its sovereign debt level below the European average, and exercised exemplary supervision over its banking system. Yet it enjoyed a tremendous real estate boom which has turned into a bust resulting in 20% unemployment. Now it has to rescue the savings banks called cajas and the municipalities. And the entire European banking system is weighed down by bad debts and needs to be recapitalized. The design of the euro did not take this possibility into account.
Another structural flaw in the euro is that it guards only against the danger of inflation and ignores the possibility of deflation. In this respect the task assigned to the ECB is asymmetric. This is due to Germany's fear of inflation. When Germany agreed to substitute the euro for Deutschmark it insisted on strong safeguards to maintain the value of the currency. The Maastricht Treaty the contained a clause that expressly prohibited bailouts and the ban has been reaffirmed by the German Constitutional Court. It is this clause that has made the current situation so difficult to deal with.
And this brings me to the gravest defect in the euro's design; it does not allow for error. It expects member states to abide by the Maastricht criteria without establishing an adequate enforcement mechanism. And now that several countries are far away from the Maastricht criteria, there is neither an adjustment mechanism nor an exit mechanism. Now these countries are expected to return to the Maastricht criteria even if such a move sets in motion a deflationary spiral. This is in direct conflict with the lessons learnt from the Great Depression of the 1930s and is liable to push Europe into a period of prolonged stagnation or worse. That will, in turn, generate discontent and social unrest. It is difficult to predict how the anger and frustration will express itself.
The wide range of possibilities will weigh heavily on the financial markets. They will have to discount the prospects of deflation and inflation, default and disintegration. Financial markets dislike uncertainty.
Xenophobic and nationalistic extremism are already on the rise in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. In a worst case scenario that could undermine democracy and paralyze or even destroy the European Union.
If that were to happen, Germany would have to bear a major share of the responsibility because as the strongest and most creditworthy country it calls the shots. By insisting on pro-cyclical policies, Germany is endangering the European Union. I realize that this is a grave accusation but I am afraid it is justified.
To be sure, Germany cannot be blamed for wanting a strong currency and a balanced budget but it can be blamed for imposing its predilection on other countries that have different needs and preferences - like Procrustes, who forced other people to lie in his bed and stretched them or cut off their legs to make them fit. The Procrustes bed inflicted on the eurozone is called deflation.
Unfortunately Germany does not realize what it is doing. It has no desire to impose its will on Europe; all it wants to do is to maintain its competitiveness and avoid becoming the deep pocket to the rest of Europe. But as the strongest and most creditworthy country it is in the driver's seat. As a result Germany objectively determines the financial and macroeconomic policies of the Eurozone without being subjectively aware of it. When all the member countries try to be like Germany they are bound to send the eurozone into a deflationary spiral. That is the effect of the policy pursued by Germany and - since Germany is in the driver's seat - these are the policies imposed on the eurozone.
The German public does not understand why it should be blamed for the troubles of eurozone. After all, it is the most successful economy in Europe, fully capable of competing in world markets. The troubles of the eurozone feel like a burden weighing Germany down. It is difficult to see what would change this perception because the troubles of the eurozone are depressing the euro and being the most competitive Germany benefits the most. As a result Germany is likely to feel the least pain of all the member states.
The error in the German attitude can best be brought home by engaging in a thought experiment. The most ardent instigators of that attitude would prefer that Germany leave the euro rather than modify its position. Let us consider where that would lead.
The Deutschmark would go thru the roof and the euro would fall thru the floor. This would indeed help the adjustment process but Germany would find out how painful it can be to have an overvalued currency. Its trade balance would turn negative and there would be widespread unemployment. German banks would suffer severe exchange rate losses and require large injections of public funds. But the government would find it politically more acceptable to rescue German banks than Greece or Spain. And there would be other compensations: pensioners could retire to Spain and live like kings helping Spanish real estate to recover. On the positive side, the rest of Europe could grow its way out of its difficulties. But Germany leaving the euro would be highly disruptive. The initial wild swing in exchange rates would be followed by other fluctuations and the common market may not survive them.
Let me emphasized that this scenario is totally hypothetical because it is extremely unlikely that Germany would be allowed to leave the euro and to do so in a friendly manner. Germany's exit would be destabilizing financially, economically and above all politically. The collapse of the single market would be difficult to avoid. The purpose of this thought experiment is to convince Germany to change its ways without going thru the actual experience that its current policies hold in store.
What would be the right policy for Germany to pursue? It cannot be expected to underwrite other countries' deficits indefinitely. So some tightening of fiscal policies is inevitable. But some way has to be found to allow the countries in crisis to grow their way out of their difficulties. The countries concerned have to do most of the heavy lifting by introducing structural reforms but they do need some outside help to allow them to stimulate their economies. By cutting its budget deficit and resisting a rise in wages to compensate for the decline in the purchasing power of the euro Germany is actually making it more difficult for the other countries to regain competitiveness.
Generally speaking, this is the time to put idle resources to work by investing in education and infrastructure. For instance, Europe needs a better gas pipeline system and the connection between Spain and France is one of the bottlenecks. The European Investment Bank ought to be able to find other investment opportunities as well.
Before any actual policy steps can be discussed, two theoretical points need to be made. One is that a tightening of fiscal policy can be offset by a loosening of monetary policy. For instance, the ECB could buy treasury bills directly from countries that cannot borrow from the market at reasonable rates, significantly reducing their financing costs below the punitive rate charged by the German inspired European Financial Stabilization Fund. But that is not possible without a change of heart by Germany.
The other theoretical point is that the current crisis is more a banking crisis than a fiscal one. The continental European banking system has not been properly cleansed after the crash of 2008. Bad assets have not been marked-to-market but are being held to maturity. When markets started to doubt the creditworthiness of sovereign debt it was really the solvency of the banking system that was brought into question because the banks were loaded with the bonds of the weaker countries and these are now selling below par. The banks have difficulties in obtaining short-term financing. The interbank market and the commercial paper market have dried up and banks have turned to the ECB both for short-term financing and for depositing their excess cash. They are in no position to buy government bonds. That is the main reason why risk premiums on government bonds have widened, setting up a vicious circle.
The crisis has now culminated in forcing the authorities to disclose the results of their stress tests. We cannot judge how serious the situation is until the results are published - indeed, we shall not be able to judge even then because the report will deal only with the twenty five largest banks and the biggest problems are in the smaller banks, notably the Cajas in Spain and the Landesbanken in Germany. It is clear however that the banks need to be recapitalized on a compulsory basis. They are way over-leveraged. That ought to be
the first task of the European Financial Stabilization Fund. That will go a long way to clear the air. It may be seen, for instance, that Spain does not have a fiscal crisis at all. Recent market moves point in that direction. Germany's role may also be seen in a very different light if it becomes a bigger user than contributor of the Stabilization Fund.
It is impossible to be more precise at the moment but there are grounds for optimism. When the solvency situation of the banks has been clarified and they have been properly recapitalized it should be possible to devise a growth strategy for Europe. And when the European economy has regained its balance the time will be ripe to correct the structural deficiencies of the euro. Make no mistake about it; the fact that the Maastricht criteria were so massively violated shows that the euro does have deficiencies that need to be corrected.
What is needed is a delicate, two-phase maneuver, similar to the one the authorities undertook after the failure of Lehman Brothers. First help Europe to grow its way out of its difficulties and then revise and strengthen the structure of the euro. This cannot be done without German leadership. I hope Germany will once again live up to the responsibilities that go with a leadership position. After all, it had done so until now. Thank you.
* George Soros Speech, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany