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Painful Euro Crisis and Lessons for the World – Part II

Posted by hkarner - 20. November 2011

Date: 19-11-2011
Source: YaleGlobal

While overspending and giving citizens a false sense of prosperity, leaders of wealthy governments anticipated future economic growth to resolve all imbalances. This YaleGlobal series analyzes how the debt crisis unfolding in Europe may offer lessons for the rest of globe. A relatively small group of banks and investors control substantial global revenue, explains researcher Joergen Oerstroem Moeller in the second and final article of the series, and creditors naturally want to protect and further increase profits on their investments in sovereign bonds. Creditors will likely favor Europe’s strategy for addressing the debt crisis – imposing austerity programs while raising taxes. Such a strategy will reduce future borrowing, reduce inflation, and minimize attempts by creditors, many in emerging economies, to control national and global policies. A small group of large financial institutions have emerged, wielding enormous power over fiscal policies of sovereign countries. Their pursuit of profit may pay no heed to the interests of the countries in debt. – YaleGlobal

Market diktat: A forlorn trader in Europe, caught in the middle of the euro crisis

SINGAPORE: The eurozone crisis has not only raised questions about the viability of the common currency, but could also jeopardize an economic model that has so far reigned supreme. The course taken to resolve the crisis in Europe will have long-term impact on the most vibrant parts of the world – from Asia to Latin America.

In developed countries of the West, debtors have run up a high debt ratio to gross domestic product, even while economic growth was high – overspending when they should have saved. They borrowed to spend more, demonstrating a disastrous failure to grasp basic economic principles as well as flaws in moral behavior and ethical judgment. Among these borrowers are established heavyweights – the United States, most European nations and Japan. The United States, one of the wealthiest countries, became an importer of capital instead of exporting capital, registering its last balance vis-à-vis the rest of the world in 1991.
After accumulating savings over several decades through prudent and cautious policies, the creditors sit on a large pile of reserves with low domestic debt and government deficits. These reserves are largely held by emerging countries with China at the forefront. As a paradox, the emerging economies have taken it upon themselves to lend to the richer countries – exporting capital almost as vendor’s credit. Indeed, this reversal of roles is one explanation for the global financial crisis. The global monetary system is not geared to function under such circumstances.

This development was framed by the so-called Washington Consensus of the 1980s – a neoliberal formula that spurred globalization by promoting liberalization of trade, interest rates and foreign direct investment; privatization and deregulation; as well as competitive exchange rates and fiscal discipline. Fundamental flaws were exposed, raising the question about which economic model might replace it.

There are two possibilities in this competition: One strategy is from the United States and a group of Democrats who suggest that more short-term borrowing and spending could lead to growth, tax revenues and exit from recession – even if the debt grows and deficits become permanent. A breakthrough by the US Congressional super-committee to make substantial cuts over the next 10 years won’t fundamentally change this stance, merely reducing rather than eliminating the deficit. The Europeans have taken the opposite view: They advocate starting the recovery by reducing deficits and debt even if that seems counterproductive for economic growth in the short run. The Europeans are also raising taxes across the board, regarded as indispensable for restoring balance in government budgets.

The results of either plan won’t be known for a few years. Chances are, however, that the European policy will carry the day for the simple reason that creditors call the tune. It’s highly unlikely that creditors favor continued reliance on deficits as the inevitable consequence will be inflation, eroding the purchasing power of their reserves. Indeed, the Chinese rating agency Dagong has announced that it may cut the US sovereign rating for the second time since August if the US conducts a third round of quantitative easing.
Early in the crisis, as Europe set up a stabilizing bailout fund, there were rumors in the market that China, Russia and Japan might rescue of the euro, either by buying European bonds or going through the International Monetary Fund. It’s unclear how China wants to proceed with such an undertaking, but Russia and Japan have allegedly acted to do that through the International Monetary Fund or by buying European bonds.

Countries with surpluses do not dream of rescuing the euro; they act in their own interest. Economically they prefer the European fiscal discipline, reasoning that American prodigality will shift much burden of adjustment onto them. They may dread being left with the US dollar as the only major international currency, forcing them to endure, at times, whimsical policy decisions by the Federal Reserve System, the US Treasury Department or US Congress. The euro and the European Union are seen, and indeed needed, as a counterweight.  The EU may look weak, but it’s a respectable global partner, offering the euro as an alternative to the dollar and serving as a major player in trade negotiations and the debate about global warming, just to mention a few examples.

It can be expected that other nations will step forward to support the euro. But at what price? What conditions, if any, will be put on the table and will the Europeans consent? A case can be made that, as creditors undertake investments to help the euro, they actually help themselves, and there are no reasons why the eurozone should pay any price. We can expect a game of hardball, in which nerves matters, and who gives what to whom may not be clear at all.

Another question has arisen about who decides and who is in charge. The G20 meeting in Cannes revealed a growing consensus to stop the financial houses amassing and subsequently abusing power. If the global financial system is big enough to force Italy into a default-like situation, many countries are surely asking whether they’ll be next. The big financial houses are viewed by many as irresponsible stakeholders, if stakeholders at all. Consider, the US government is suing 18 banks for selling US$ 200 billion in toxic mortgage-backed securities to government-sponsored firms, the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Mortgage Corporation, known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In April 2011 the European Commission initiated investigations into activities of 16 banks suspected of collusion or abuse of possible collective dominance in a segment of the market for financial derivatives.

The market has muscled its way in as judge about whether a country’s political system or economic policy are good enough.  But the market is neither a single institution nor a broad, balanced mix of diverse players. It’s become a small group of large financial institutions, the power of which overwhelm what even big countries can muster: 147 institutions directly or indirectly control 40 percent of global revenue among private corporations. A sore point is that they pursue profits without concern over implications for countries and societies. Rather than let measures work, these financiers force the issue here and now, even as they speculate against efforts, many admittedly delayed and inadequate, to resolve debt crises. Financial institutions holding sovereign bonds that could default insure themselves by buying a credit default swaps. What seems like prudent corporate governance becomes a shell game as these obligations are traded among financial institutions, some of which don’t hold sovereign bonds in their portfolios – all of which heightens interest in forcing default.

The temptation to roll back economic globalization inter alia by breaking up the eurozone or restricting capital movements has been resisted. Economic globalization is holding firm.
Creditor countries can set the course on future economic policies – likely highlighting fiscal discipline. While the West had vested interest in the big financial houses, the incoming paymasters do not, and they can be expected to increase their control over investment patterns. This can be done either by setting up own financial houses or buying into Western financial institutions as was the case in the slipstream of the 2008 global debt crisis.
The global financial market is changing course, away from looking after Western interests and acting in accordance with corporate governance as defined by the West toward a more global outlook guided by the interests of new group of creditors.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a visiting senior research fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and adjunct professor, Singapore Management University and Copenhagen Business School.

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