Thursday, June 9, 2011

Financial Armageddon

Here is a bit from a post by John Mauldin on The Big Picture blog. It deals with the debt crisis in Europe and the demands of creditors that debtors fall on their swords and/or march of to an eternal debtors prison for the misdeeds of predatory capital.

Here's the simple summary:
... there is a revolution going on all over Europe, slowly building up as people realize that the “solution” being offered benefits banks and not German taxpayers or Greek creditors...
And here's the longer version:
This is what today’s financial War of All against All is about. And it is what the Greeks gathering in Syntagma Square are demonstrating about. At issue is the relationship between the financial sector and the “real” economy. From the perspective of the “real” economy, the proper role of credit – that is, debt – is to fund productive capital investment and economic growth. After all, it is out of the economic surplus that interest is to be paid. This requires a tax system and financial regulatory system to maximize the growth. But that is precisely the fiscal policy that today’s financial sector is fighting against. It demands tax-deductibility for interest, encouraging debt financing rather than equity. It has disabled truth-in-lending laws and regulation keeping prices (the interest rate and fees) in line with costs of production. And it blocks governments from having central banks to freely finance their own operations and provide economies with money.

Banks and their financial lobbyists have not shown much interest in economy-wide wellbeing. It is easier and quicker to make money by being extractive and predatory. Fraud and crime pay, if you can disable the police and regulatory agencies. So that has become the financial agenda, eagerly endorsed by academic spokesmen and media ideologues who applaud bank managers and subprime mortgage brokers, corporate raiders and their bondholders, and the new breed of privatizers, using the one-dimensional measure of how much revenue can be squeezed out and capitalized into debt service. From this neoliberal perspective, an economy’s wealth is measured by the magnitude of debt obligations – mortgages, bonds and packaged bank loans – that capitalize income and even hoped-for capital gains at the going rate of interest.

Iceland belatedly decided that it was wrong to turn over its banking to a few domestic oligarchs without any real oversight or regulation over their self-dealing. From the vantage point of economic theory, was it not madness to imagine that Adam Smith’s quip about not relying on the benevolence of the butcher, brewer or baker for their products, but on their self-interest is applicable to bankers? Their “product” is not a tangible consumption good, but interest-bearing debt. These debts are a claim on output, revenue and wealth; they do not constitute real wealth.

This is what pro-financial neoliberals fail to understand. For them, debt creation is “wealth creation” (Alan Greenspan’s favorite euphemism) when credit – that is, debt – bids up prices for property, stocks and bonds and thus enhances financial balance sheets. The “equilibrium theory” that underlies academic orthodoxy treats asset prices (financialized wealth) as reflecting a capitalization of expected income. But in today’s Bubble Economy, asset prices reflect whatever bankers will lend. Rather than being based on rational calculation, their loans are based on what investment bankers are able to package and sell to frequently gullible financial institutions. This logic leads to attempts to pay pensions out of a “wealth creating” process that runs economies into debt.

It is not hard to statistically illustrate this. There amount of debt that an economy can pay is limited by the size of its surplus, defined as corporate profits and personal income for the private sector, and net fiscal revenue paid to the public sector. But neither today’s financial theory nor global practice recognizes a capacity-to-pay constraint. So debt service has been permitted to eat into capital formation and reduce living standards – and now, to demand privatization sell-offs.

As an alternative is to such financial demands, Iceland has provided a model for what Greece may do. Responding to British and Dutch demands that its government guarantee payment of the Icesave bailout, the Althing recently asserted the principle of sovereign debt... Instead of imposing the kind of austerity programs that devastated Third World countries from the 1970s to the 1990s and led them to avoid the IMF like a plague, the Althing is changing the rules of the financial system. It is subordinating Iceland’s reimbursement of Britain and Holland to the ability of Iceland’s economy to pay.
And here's hoping that something good will come out of this mess:
No doubt the post-Soviet countries are watching, along with Latin American, African and other sovereign debtors whose growth has been stunted by predatory austerity programs imposed by IMF, World Bank and EU neoliberals in recent decades. We should all hope that the post-Bretton Woods era is over. But it won’t be until the Greek population follows that of Iceland in saying no – and Ireland finally wakes up.

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