Greece: Austerity trumps democracy


In the space of barely more than a weekend, the deal that was supposed contain the euro crisis has unravelled entirely. The call for a referendum on the so-called rescue package by Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou, later retracted under huge pressure, merely capped its rapid unravelling.

The prospect that the European Unions’ principal victims could be asked their opinion of the policies inflicted on them provoked near-hysteria in respectable quarters. EU leaders, Greek politicians, and the financial markets united to denounce the threat of an unseemly democratic intrusion.

The latest package offered to Greece, skimpy as it is on details, contains the seeds of its own destruction. The EU is, once again, demonstrating itself incapable of resolving its crises.

What we have so far is the outline of a fresh round of crises.

Three parts, none good

There are three key elements to the deal. First, banks will be asked to build their stocks of capital held in reserve, by €109 billion across the eurozone.

Second, half of Greece’s debt will be “voluntarily” written off by its creditors.

Third, the European Financial Stability Fund, established last year to provide bailout cash, will be inflated from €440 billion to €1 trillion.

None of this stands up to scrutiny. The first two parts are counterproductive. The third threatens catastrophe.

Increasing bank reserves — recapitalisation — has become necessary because the European banking system is still very weak from the previous financial crash. Banks use their reserves as a backstop against crisis.

By holding more in reserves, the theory is that they will be better able to withstand any future turmoil. At least part of the reason for bank failures in the past few years, such as Northern Rock in 2007, has been the weakness of their reserves.

But to increase their reserves, banks will need to raise the funds. That will mean raising capital from the financial markets, but they are (understandably) not much inclined to provide funds.

The banks will, as a result, have to turn to official sources — to either their own national governments or, where governments cannot afford to provide funding, to the EU funds. This means a further bailout at taxpayers’ expense.

The alternative is for banks to restrict lending, but this would worsen stagnation inside Europe.

Even then, the sum needed may not be enough. The International Monetary Fund, before the deal, suggested €200 billion would be needed to put Europe’s banks on a more sound footing. The amount now proposed is half that.

Turning the screws

Greece’s national debt is now approaching 190% of GDP, having risen over the past year. It is unpayable, and the debt write-off at least starts to admit that.

By writing off half the debt, the hope is that the burden of interest payments and debt repayments on the Greek economy will be eased, allowing it to recover.

But a leaked, confidential document from the joint EU/IMF/European Central Bank “troika” suggested “at least” a 60% debt write-off would be needed for Greece to have a hope of recovery. The IMF has independently hinted that 70% may be more reasonable.

If the amount of debt written off is not big enough, Greece will remain trapped in a downward spiral of high debt and sharp recession. Debt payments will drag the economy further into the abyss.

A 50% write-off will reduce the speed of this spiral, buying the EU some time. But unless a miraculous economic recovery occurs it will not stop it.

The crisis will continue. Greece will be forced into another default.

It is also unclear whether Greece’s creditors will agree to it. Official loans, made by the ECB and IMF, will be untouched. Instead, private creditors will be expected to carry the cost.

There is no guarantee they will all do so “voluntarily” — from their point of view, why should they?

Some of them hold a form of insurance against a default, known as “credit default swaps” (CDS). If these insurance contracts are triggered by a default, the “insurers” — those holding the other side of the CDS contract — will have to pay out large sums.

About half of these, on some estimates, are in the US. The crisis could spread rapidly.

The 50% write-off comes with a terrible price. Greece, already crippled by austerity, is to undergo more pain at the hands of the troika.

A three-year austerity plan is proposed, with details finalised over the next few months. Permanent foreign oversight would be established in the Greek finance ministry — ending sovereignty over taxation and spending.

This is a form of blackmail. Greece is being offered an officially-sanctioned cut in its national debt, in return for tearing up whatever remains of public spending and trashing its democracy.

One trillion nonexistent euros

The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) was established in May 2010 to provide bailout assistance to eurozone countries. It consists of promises to provide up to €440 billion of bailout assistance, with the money coming from EU member states.

The current plan proposes to balloon this sum to €1 trillion, expanding the EFSF’s remit to also cover banking crises and offer insurance on loans to high-risk countries.

It is a fatally flawed scheme. The EFSF, as constituted, has next to no cash at hand. It relies on members’ promises to pay, not actual contributions of money.

The proposals to balloon the facility in size depend on taking those promises to pay, and using them to bring in — leverage — still more promises to pay.

The details on how this will be done have not yet been decided, but a plan of sorts is emerging.

The EFSF is an off balance-sheet “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) with a capacity to write its own cheap loans. It can do this on the basis of securing a good credit rating, dependent in turn on the promises to pay of its creditors — France and Germany especially.

These creditors use their own strong credit ratings to give the appearance of stability to the EFSF. The facility has — importantly — no funding of its own.

This may sound horribly familiar. It is almost precisely what the banks did with sub-prime mortgages in the run-up to the 2007-8 crash: taking bad, high-risk loans and disguising them in special purpose vehicles, known as collateralised debt obligation
When the high risk sub-prime mortgages began to default, these intricate financial structures imploded, bringing the system down with them.

The EFSF carries with it the same dangers. The hope is that by making the facility appear so overwhelmingly huge, it will deter future speculation against (for instance) an Italian default.

But it is smoke-and-mirrors. It relies on financiers and speculators believing in the trick.

Simply put, promises to pay are not as good as actual payment. You can promise anything you like. You don’t have to deliver.

If the EFSF is ever called on in any significant manner, those promises can evaporate, leaving a few countries — particularly Germany — exposed to huge costs.

And even the German economy cannot afford €1 trillion. The potential for catastrophe is substantial.

Even before that point, a ratings downgrade of the EFSF’s principal backers would scupper the whole scheme. France is now under threat of just such a downgrade.

Democracy and finance

The last card the Greek ruling class have to play is plain blackmail against its own people: to force through an election on the issue of euro membership, and demand a choice — drachma, or euro?

Most Greeks would rightly reject the austerity measures, but most are still in favour of staying inside the single currency.

Austerity, now driving an entire continent into stagnation, must end immediately. Economic decision-making, currently the preserve of elitist EU institutions and financial markets, must be prised open for democracy.

The occupy movement has rather brilliantly begun to bring this question out: the control of resources and planning over their use, for too long subject to the supposedly neutral diktat of the market, has to be placed in the hands of the people.

An assault on the power of finance, imposing capital controls and taxing its activities, is urgently required.

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