Sunday, 10 July 2011


Bankers didn't pay the first time. We need to make sure they pay this time round

For all the talk we've had about making the bankers pay for the first bailout, now we are looking at a second bailout resulting from the lending to southern European economies. Once again public money has to be used to stop a toxic debt problem, this time it is to prevent a default on Greek national debt.

The world economy has been described with a variety of cultural models since 2008, allow me to suggest another.

The world economy now is much like you feel when you have come back from drinking lousy beer all night in a really rough bar.  You stagger homewards knowing you need to eat something to soak up the alcohol and only make yourself worse by speed eating a curry on the way back. Sitting on the sofa at home with a stomach in violent revolt you know you want to go to bed,  but also that to crash out having failed to digest this boiling mess there is a high likelihood you will wake up vomiting during the night. You could even choke to death on it.

You know, from everything your body is telling you, that you have to throw this up, get it out of the system, and then you'll feel a whole lot better.That toxic stuff inside you may have cost a fortune but really it is doing you no good. If it comes out while were asleep and unprepared it will be
horrible, or you can march yourself to the toilet, slide two fingers past our stiff upper lip (or similar national equivalent), down our throats and after some extreme unpleasantness deposit this toxic stuff where it belongs before flushing with divine relief .

This is the dilemma we have now. The world financial system, for the most part the same generation of bozos that either profited from or completely failed to predict the crisis, suggest that we just have another drink of something and go to bed. Don't worry about those credit default swaps backing up into your throat (again), lie back and close your eyes...

The latest bout of financial sickness is an inedible Greek meal.

There is a general assumption that a Greek default on it's national debt it will usher in another incarnation of the Great Depression, but nations defaulting upon their sovereign debt is not exactly rare.

National, or sovereign, defaults were a regular occurrence leading up to World War II. Amazing as it may seem from their recent posturing, Germany and France have both defaulted eight times on their national debt during their history. England defaulted pre-Bank of England.. Even communist states in Europe have gone that way; Poland and Romania (twice) defaulted in the

It is not an old world problem. Latin America was unable to pay its debts in the 80s and in 1994 Mexico massive national debt caused an emergencydevaluation of the peso that could be seen as a default. Even the US has flirted with it. In 1933 and 1971 the US manipulated the price of gold creating what many consider to be de facto national bankruptcy. More recently Argentina and Russia have walked away from national debt.

It is the southern Europeans who lead the way. Spain has defaulted on its budget 13 times in its national history.

Greece has defaulted or rescheduled its debt five times since gaining independence in 1829. Greece can be considered a serial defaulter, having spent roughly half of the years since its independence in default or debt rescheduling.

We could take a tour around Mediterranean Europe and look bitterly at the borrowed money spent on empty highways, stylish suburbs and museums while our neighborhoods in the north are filthy and run down, but eventually you thoughts turn to the bankers who were stupid enough to lend the money to economies that have such a reputation for almost perpetual default.

If Spain has defaulted 14 times in its history how sympathetic should we be to the bankers who invested there?

Now we know that Greek debt is something like 160% of it's actual ability to pay is and still is unable to collect the majority of it's taxes how much should we defend the expert financial opinion that enabled them into this mess in this first place?

Greece has such fundamental problems with budget that perpetuating their problems with further bailouts only makes things worse. The Greek protestors screaming fascists and imperialists at the EU budget firefighters are not too far from a particular truth; that for the EU to truly fix Greece's domestic problems would require impossible levels of foreign intervention.
Greece needs some tough love, but not abuse.

A Polish person will tell you his country was sold out by the Western allies at the end of World War II when Churchill and FDR handed his country to Stalin on a plate. In fact Churchill was forced to do a deal. Stalin was offered influence in Poland in return for similar British control of events in... Greece. That's right, the country in Europe that has done the most discredit to capitalist finances only avoided full blown soviet communism because Poland was offered up in its place. (Doubly ironic as six months of soviet economics would do probably do Greek public debate a power of good)

I am not suggesting default on public debt as a universal solution.

US default is not required. We know from history that when responsible Democratic administration is able to fix the fiscal damage created by the last Republican round of tax cuts the US economy rebounds like Thor on Asgardian mead.

(Who was last Republican President to balance the US budget? Dwight Eisenhower. The Republican Party is to fiscal responsibility what Michael Bay is to Oscar Wilde.)

With responsible leadership US budget deficits can disappear with supernatural speed. In the late 80s I was in a student Union bar discussing the terrifying US budget deficit in a scene that could have looked a lot like the contemporary UK sitcom The Young Ones (I would have been Vivian or Rik depending on mood). Opinion was that the US was finished and would never come back from paying for Star Wars (the weapons program - for younger readers)

After just four years of Bill Clinton that apocalyptic budget deficit had turned into a surplus.

The US economy is a force of nature and will rebound in some form. The UK economy may also but I wouldn't want to bet my house on it. (I've just remembered. I have literally bet my house on it with a mortgage. Oh well)

Unless it became an option in some future crisis I am only referring to a budget default in states which already have a long history of experience in that area.

We are being told by the current generation of financial experts that Greece, 1% of the EU economy, is somehow vital to the world economic system, apparently because of the continuing toxic mess of interconnected collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps in the system. Yes there they are again, those crooked financial instruments rising up to the back of our throats. This time, I would suggest, it is time the bankers put their heads down the toilet.

The worst scenario is that there will be a chain of defaults - Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and the whole banking system will go. Financial investors suggest life in these countries will be the Big Rock Candy Mountain when they run away laughing from their debts, but default will be painful enough. It wont be an escape from their problems, it could involve economic collapse and mass unemployment, but it would give them hope for the immediate future instead of the same dragged out over 25 years in the form of economic austerity imposed from outside.

Greece and the other defaulting nations would certainly suffer for a while. There certainly would be none of the moral hazard that the financial wizards have managed to create for themselves in our banking systems by ensuring any mistakes they make henceforth are covered by public money.

We are told national defaults would provoke a banking collapse, but the evidence since 2008 suggests that this probably happened some time ago and those economists who didn’t run away from the problem have spent the time since covering it up. We swallowed the collateralised debt problem but cannot digest it. We may already face a world were the political fallout from mass austerity imposed by our financial experts could be considerable worse than the economic fallout. How bad could that be? Read some European history before the EU. I'll give you a clue - we pretty much invented ‘war’

In effect a ten year economic disaster is being turned into a 25 year economic disaster to protect the careers of financiers who caused the problem in the first place. After three years and one huge bailout already, their time for sacrifice has arrived.

One of the main scare tactics given to us on national defaults is that "our pensions will be worthless" How do you think your pensions currency will be worth after 25 years of currency collapse and hyper inflation? Can you even afford to pay into your pension right now?

The story of the last big default in Argentina, tells us a lot. When Argentina defaulted in the 1890’s it was the bank Baring Brothers that took the pain, and was bailed eventually by fellow bank run by the Rothschild family.

A century later and in 2001 at the next Argentinean default (post 1980s economics) the banks had somehow hid in the background behind the IMF. The International Monetary Fund bailed Argentina twice in January and May 2001 but when Argentina asked a third time in December the IMF said ‘no thanks’.

Economist Niall Ferguson explained what happened next in The Ascent of Money;

“After painfully protracted negotiations ...the majority of approximately 500,000 creditors agreed to accept new bonds worth 35 cents on the dollar, one of the most drastic ‘haircuts’ in the history of the bond market. So successful did Argentina’s default prove (economic growth has surged while bond spreads are back in the 300-400 point range) that many economists were left to ponder why any sovereign debtor ever honors its commitment to foreign bondholders”

It is accepted now that the Argentine default was a good thing and that the banks and speculators (eventually) took the hiding that they deserved, and that foreign investors have been subject to such losses for nearly the entire of financial history. To do assume otherwise would introduce the exactly same moral hazards we introduced to our banking systems by the first bailout. Or are we to say from now on that (like the banking system) foreign investors in whatever dodgy foreign state are protected from loss by their tax payers at home?

This is only the start however. Once the financial gamblers have paid up for their mistakes and we have flushed the system of their toxic crap, we need to organise a world afterwards in which people actually pay their taxes.

Is it surprising that nations are defaulting on debt when the entire top strata of business and society has lifted itself into a non- taxing paying super elite? We can all get angry at the Olympic levels of tax avoidance in Greece but perhaps we should look again from their perspective. Only 400 people pay the top rate of tax in Greece. If the wealthiest in society can find it so easy to ignore the Greek tax system why should the middle class pick up the bill?

The Bush tax cuts are the most obvious example of this (40% at least of the US budget deficit) but this is an international issue going back to the 1980s and the same politics which de-regulated the financial system and laid the foundation for the crash of 2008. How much more discredited do the economics of the 80s need to be?

Avoiding national defaults is almost an endorsement of the new financial world where the (responsible) middle class pays to support society and indirectly protect the rich from the wrath of the poor.

I'm a proud to pay UK tax at a rate my parents could not dream of. My proudest moment as a UK tax payer was when Top Gear used BBC license tax money to turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. I have never felt more like standing to attention and singing the national anthem.

Going forward, after these inevitable budget defaults, we have to be proud of our societies to make them work. There is a sliver of difference between a carefree rebel living on the wild side of legal and a deadbeat parasite living off the backs of his neighbors. Fair contributions will have to include the rich and the financial world, unless they want to ensure national budget defaults are a regular, instead of infrequent, feature of economics in future.

To avoid all of this pain and unwanted attention the rich and the financial elites will do what they’ve been doing for years, gnash their teeth and point at the financial irresponsibility of others. “How can we let the lazy Greeks/Spanish get away with reneging in their debts etc etc” We all need to get over that, and the collective blame for the last decade in general.

We need clear heads to face tomorrow, so instead of wailing a song of sorrow on the bathroom floor let me suggest a coping strategy for this crisis, oddly enough inspired by ancient Greek perceptions of time.

Though we regard ourselves as striding forward into the future with the past behind us, the ancient Greeks thought of us as walking backwards into the future, with only the past visible as we leave it behind. As a variation on that I have a mental exercise that I try on drunken depressed friends I call Retrospective Fatalism.

In Retrospective Fatalism everything you did wrong in the past was always going to happen that way. Fate. Or God. Circumstance or human behavior, whatever, there never was any way to escape that mistake you made. It was always going t happen; so get over it.

Your future - now that's different. "Nothing is written" said Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and that has to be true. Mistakes you make in the future are completely your responsibility, particularly if they are repeats of stupid behavior you made in the past. But as they become the past... It wasn't your fault. So stop wining and get on.

You can debate until the end of your life how actually true this is.. Whether Greece should have been kept out of the EU with it's dodgy practices etc.. Whether I should have got that mortgage at the height of the housing market ...But the truth is that it has happened and the only really sensible solution is to accept the problem, move on. And make sure it doesn't happen again.

So we accept the lessons of history without blame, let them default and suffer the consequences. We're not staring into the abyss, we are staring into the toilet bowl, and with a bit of courage and determination we can flush away the past. We will all feel so much better in the morning, so let's wipe away yesterday and live our lives in the future.

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