David McWilliams Explains Why Austerity Is Doomed In Europe

A very interesting video by an Irish economist explaining how the current reduce government spending (“austerity”) approach to the Eurozone debt and currency crisis is doomed to fail. It is doomed because cutting government spending in a recession only makes the recession worse, which in turn, reduces tax collections which then makes the government deficits worse not better.  But not only is the austerity approach all wrong to solving the debt crisis, it carries very significant risk of social upheaval.  (hat tip to Philip Pilkington and New Economic Perspectives).

Now I’ll offer one pre-emptive comment.  Critics of the arguments McWilliams makes often claim that either government spending isn’t really effective, that somehow only private investment spending will stimulate an economy.  Or, the critics claim that any resources the government puts into use through spending actually detract from the economy by denying those resources to some supposedly better, privately chosen use. Both of these criticism fail.  We are clearly discussing a situation in which there are excess, unused economic resources in the economy.  In plain language:  there’s high unemployment and people are out of work.  The criticisms are all based on an idea called “crowding out”.  For crowding out to occur, the economy must be at full employment – the opposite of being in a recession.

Iceland Shows Banks Are Not Too Big To Fail

Few nations were hit harder initially by the financial crisis in 2008 than Iceland. It’s economy had grown rich around four very large (relative to Iceland) banks that were players in the big global casino financial industry expansion.  In the U.S., U.K., and most other large developed countries governments responded with large bank-bailout packages.  The economic logic is that the banks and the banking system is too interconnected, too large, and too important to let it fail.  There’s a part of this argument that has economic truth.  To the extent that the creditors (depositors) of a bank are ordinary citizens and businesses in the country, letting a bank fail will have disastrous macroeconomic consequences.  But this is only true to the extent that these ordinary depositors get wiped out and lose their deposits.  Depositors were in large part not protected in 1929-33 when banks failed across the U.S. and that led to worsening of the Great Depression. It also led to the creation of Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  The FDIC is still on the job protecting little depositors (and our economy).

But in the Great Global Financial Crisis, the U.S. government didn’t just try to rescue the little depositors, it rescued the banks themselves.  There’s a huge difference. In rescuing the banks as corporations, the government rescued the large wealthy depositors who should have known better. They rescued the shareholders who selected the managers that caused the banks to get in trouble. They rescued the very management teams that had just failed so spectacularly.  At the time, the argument made by the government for rescuing the banks was that they were “too big to fail”.  This little phrase, often abbreviated as TBTF, came to be a short-hand logic for bailing out the banks.

The problem is that the economic justification for a “bailout” calls for protecting the little, ordinary depositors, not the banks.  In practice, that’s what FDIC does. It “rescues” the little depositors when the bank fails.  It lets the bank and it’s management fail. But the Bush and Obama administrations did not do that. Instead they bailed out the banks and the bank shareholders, arguing there was no alternative.

Iceland, however, shows there was an alternative. Iceland rescued (guaranteed) deposits by ordinary Icelanders and let the banks themselves fail. It has worked pretty well. Much better than Ireland’s approach that rescued the banks themselves. From the New Zealand Herald by way of Daily Bail:

Unlike other nations, including the US and Ireland, which injected billions of dollars of capital into their financial institutions to keep them afloat, Iceland placed its biggest lenders in receivership. It chose not to protect creditors of the country’s banks, whose assets had ballooned to US$209 billion, 11 times gross domestic product.

The crisis almost sank the country. The krona lost 58 per cent of its value by the end of November 2008, inflation reached 19 per cent in January 2009, GDP fell 7 per cent that year and the Prime Minister resigned after nationwide protests.

But with the economy projected to grow 3 per cent this year, Iceland’s decision to let the banks fail is looking smart.

  • “Iceland did the right thing by making sure its payment systems continued to function while creditors, not the taxpayers, shouldered the losses of banks,” says Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York. “Ireland’s done all the wrong things, on the other hand. That’s probably the worst model.”

 

Are Banks Necessary?

At first pass the question “Are banks necessary?” strikes a macroeconomist as absurd.  Of course, we say.  But what does the empirical record say?  It actually happened in Ireland some 35-45 years ago. From Wikipedia:

Irish bank strikes 1966-1976

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Irish bank strikes between 1966 and 1976 were three strikes of about a years total duration which closed down all the clearing banks in the Republic of Ireland. The strikes provided economists a unique opportunity to study the functioning of a modern economy without access to bank deposits.[1]

The strikes affected all the associated banks which comprise of the Bank of Ireland, the Allied Irish Banks, the Northern Bank and the Ulster Bank. The strikes lasted from:

  • May 7 – July 30 1966
  • May 1 – November 17, 1970
  • June 28 – September 6, 1976

The longest strike was of six months in 1970. The Central Bank made limited facilities available to non-associated banks to issue cash. Not just financial transactions were affected, many property deals were also affected because the documents were kept in the banks.[2] The country came through reasonably well in business terms despite the bank strike, a large firm Palgrave Murphy failed when the strike ended and settlements were made but its failure was probably inevitable anyway. The strike had little effect on the main economic concerns which were unemployment and industrial unrest caused by inflation.[3]

Turns out that while the banks were on strike, people developed their own paper notes and circulated them as currency.  Pubs were main clearinghouses for clearing personal notes (equivalent of checks).  The economy kept moving largely despite the absence of functioning banks.  So how did they do it?  Umair Haque of the Harvard Business Review tells us:

This is no fairy tale, so we don’t have to imagine what happened next. And what did come next was something really, really interesting — and just a little bit awesome. Instead of Ragnarok ripping prosperity to shreds, the economy continued to grow. Though the money supply did contract sharply, neither trade, commerce, nor industry came to a grinding halt.

How? People created their own currencies, to substitute for the collapsing money supply. They kept using checks to pay one another, but then, people’s checks began trading within communities. Here’s how Antoin Murphy, one of the few scholars to have studied these strikes, which took place in the 1970s, describes it: “a highly personalized credit system without any definite time horizon for the eventual clearance of debits and credits substituted for the existing institutionalized banking system.”

The country in question was Ireland — today, in deep crisisbecause of profligate banks.

So why were the Irish of yesteryear able to trade notes with one another, in lieu of credit issued by banks? Well, Ireland was curiously well situated for this kind of resilience. It was an economy full of a very special kind of institution: what I’ve termed in my book, The New Capitalist Manifesto, Value Conversations. Antoin Murphy notes in no uncertain terms that the Irish economy was characterized by intense, frequent, conversational personal contact: tight, dense, solid local knowledge circulating at high velocity within and across communities. Result? Borrowers and lenders could build solid microfoundations of trust. In other words, when you’ve been chatting with Bill every night at the local pub for twenty years, you probably know whether his note is a good bet or not (and further, just how much to discount it to earn a sustainable and fair return, that neither fleeces Bill, nor robs you). Furthermore, if you’re the publican, and you’ve been chatting with me and with Bill, then you’re even better positioned to become a de facto arbitrator of notes — a bank. And that’s exactly the role that pubs began to play

So maybe we need the functions that  banks sometimes provide, but we need personal-level banking relationships built on knowledge and trust.  Hmm.  Institutions do matter and large corporations do not necessarily represent “the market process”.  Fascinating reading and I suggest people read the complete link to Umair’s blog.

 

 

Ireland: “Responsible” Policy Punishes Citizens for Bankers’ Sins

Poor Ireland.  For some unknown reason, the Irish seem doomed to suffer under the misguided rule of others, despite being the source of great music, culture and a brew so good      For centuries, the oppressor was the English.  In this century Ireland has fallen under the boot of the bankers and The Powers That Be (TPTB) who have have fallen under the sway of “responsbile austerity”.  There is a lesson here for America if we would only listen and pay attention.

Earlier in this century, before 2007, Ireland apparently had left it’s history of poverty and oppression to become the poster child for success via globalization. It’s GDP boomed (see graph). It attracted foreign direct investment and many foreign firms, including Google and others. It was called the Celtic tiger. GDP per capita had risen to the second highest in Europe behind Luxembourg. It was following the recommended path towards financial globalization that conservative right-wing economists have been pushing for several decades.  The right-wing Heritage foundation praised it’s financial deregulation, low tax, and nearly non-existent taxes on foreign corporations as the key to success.  And by conventional measures like GDP it appeared to work.

But in 2007, things began to turn down.   Seems Ireland had developed a highly skewed and unequal distribution of income (like the U.S. today). It had become overly dependent on a property and housing boom with 12% of GDP resulting from new construction (kinda like the U.S.).  And much of the apparent GDP increases were illusion – the result of the difference between GDP and GNP – meaning life really wasn’t as good as the GDP numbers suggested.  (See  GDP vs. GNP to learn the difference between GDP and GNP and how it distorts things for Ireland but not the U.S.).  Then the Global Financial Crisis came.  Ireland got hit pretty hard. The housing market tanked. Bank loans started going bad in large numbers.  Now it should be noted that these were all private-market loan decisions.  They were the result of foreign investors making private contracts to take on the risk and make loans to people in Ireland (and outside) to buy Irish property.  But when the loans began to go bad in large numbers, the large (mostly) Euro banks’ who had made the loans had their solvency threatened.  And with that, the profits of Euro investors in those Euro banks were threatened.  The Irish government was urged to be “responsible” by taking the responsibility away from the banks and investors who made the loans.  The Irish government guaranteed the banks’ loans after the fact.  As Paul Krugman recounts:

The Irish story began with a genuine economic miracle. But eventually this gave way to a speculative frenzy driven by runaway banks and real estate developers, all in a cozy relationship with leading politicians. The frenzy was financed with huge borrowing on the part of Irish banks, largely from banks in other European nations.

Then the bubble burst, and those banks faced huge losses. You might have expected those who lent money to the banks to share in the losses. After all, they were consenting adults, and if they failed to understand the risks they were taking that was nobody’s fault but their own. But, no, the Irish government stepped in to guarantee the banks’ debt, turning private losses into public obligations.

Before the bank bust, Ireland had little public debt. But with taxpayers suddenly on the hook for gigantic bank losses, even as revenues plunged, the nation’s creditworthiness was put in doubt. So Ireland tried to reassure the markets with a harsh program of spending cuts.

Step back for a minute and think about that. These debts were incurred, not to pay for public programs, but by private wheeler-dealers seeking nothing but their own profit. Yet ordinary Irish citizens are now bearing the burden of those debts.

When the Irish government took on the bad debts made by private banks in order to save large international investors from the consequences of their bad choices , it naturally led to a large increase in the Irish government debt to GDP ratio. So in return for the good (?) deed of rescuing international investors, banks, and bond buyers from the consequences of their investments, those investors, banks, and bond-buyers have punished the Irish government by driving interest rates on Irish bonds to high levels.  The speculators smell another Greece.  Talk of bailouts began earlier this month. And, finally with interest rates rising and the speculators circling like sharks, the Irish government accepted a “bail-out” earlier this week from the Euro central bank and IMF, the usual TPTB.

I’m not sure that it should really be called a “bail-out” though.  It’s actually a strange deal like something out of  Alice in Wonderland or a George Orwell novel.  In return for the Irish government agreeing to cut spending even more, raise taxes, and punish it’s already suffering people, the Irish government gets a large credit line so it can borrow even more money in the future.  Of course, by cutting spending and raising taxes in the middle of a serious, deep recession and when it has no control over it’s monetary policy (Ireland is in the Eurozone), it will, of course have even larger deficits than is planned or expected and will need to borrow that money.  Which will only kick the can down the road to some point in the future when another “bail-out” is necessary.  God save us all from such “bail-outs”.

What  could the do instead?  Well, first off, long-term policy should be focused on growth by investing in infrastructure and education and research, much like Finland does and not in globalization and chasing multi-national banks and corporations who play shell games.  More directly, the Irish government should consider what Iceland, that other small European island in the North Atlantic did.  As Krugman also observed in the same article:

Part of the answer is that Iceland let foreign lenders to its runaway banks pay the price of their poor judgment, rather than putting its own taxpayers on the line to guarantee bad private debts. As the International Monetary Fund notes — approvingly! — “private sector bankruptcies have led to a marked decline in external debt.” Meanwhile, Iceland helped avoid a financial panic in part by imposing temporary capital controls — that is, by limiting the ability of residents to pull funds out of the country.

And Iceland has also benefited from the fact that, unlike Ireland, it still has its own currency; devaluation of the krona, which has made Iceland’s exports more competitive, has been an important factor in limiting the depth of Iceland’s slump.

None of these heterodox options are available to Ireland, say the wise heads. Ireland, they say, must continue to inflict pain on its citizens — because to do anything else would fatally undermine confidence.

But Ireland is now in its third year of austerity, and confidence just keeps draining away. And you have to wonder what it will take for serious people to realize that punishing the populace for the bankers’ sins is worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.

But to follow the Iceland example requires two things.  First, Ireland would have to leave the Eurozone and return to issuing and controlling it’s own currency. And, second, it’s politicians would have to the well-being of the Irish people above the claims and self-interest of the banks and large international investors.  I say not gonna happen.

GDP vs. GNP

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the measure economists typically use to indicate the total size or value of economic production in an economy.  There is a similar measure called Gross National Product (GNP).  Older readers from the U.S. will probably remember learning something about GNP when they were younger.  That’s because until a few decades ago (within this aging author’s memory), GNP was the measure most often cited as the lead measure in the U.S. to describe the health of the economy.  That shifted. Now GDP is generally the preferred measure.

So what’s the difference?  Well, first let’s look at the similarities.  Both GDP and GNP measure “the market value of all goods and services produced for final sale in an economy”.  The difference is in how we define “the economy”.  GDP focuses on domestic production.  In other words, it defines a nation’s economy in geographical terms.  Whatever is actually produced inside the country, regardless of who is doing the producing or who owns the productive capital that produces it.  In the case of the U.S., it means whatever is produced within the 50 states.  GNP however focuses on the production by nationals.  In other words, GNP defines the nation’s economy in people or resident terms.  It counts whatever is produced by the residents or citizens of a nation regardless of where those people may be doing the producing.  In the case of the U.S., this means that GNP measures anything produced by Americans or American-owned capital wherever it may be in the world.

So in practical terms it’s multinational or transnational corporations where the differences arise.  Let’s consider the auto industry.  If Ford, a U.S. company, produces in cars in Dearborn, MI, then the value of the cars counts toward both GDP and GNP.  Similarly, when BMW, a German corporation, builds cars in Germany, it counts towards both German GDP and GNP.  But when Ford produces cars in Cologne, Germany, it counts toward U.S. GNP (Ford is American producing in Germany) but not toward US GDP. Instead Ford production in Cologne counts towards German GDP since it is geographically produced in Germany. Likewise, BMW production in Alabama in the States counts toward US GDP and German GNP, but not German GDP.  Clear?

Examples:

Normally the differences between GDP and GNP aren’t that economically significant.  Wikipedia reports the differences between the GDP and GNP for the U.S. in 2003 – a difference of less than one-half a percent of the total:

GDP and GNP

Main articles: GDP and GNP

Gross domestic product (GDP) is defined as “the value of all final goods and services produced in a country in 1 year”.[4]

Gross National Product (GNP) is defined as “the market value of all goods and services produced in one year by labour and property supplied by the residents of a country.”[5]

As an example, the table below shows some GDP and GNP, and NNI data for the United States:[6]

National income and output (Billions of dollars)
Period Ending 2003
Gross national product 11,063.3
Net U.S. income receipts from rest of the world 55.2
U.S. income receipts 329.1
U.S. income payments -273.9
Gross domestic product 11,008.1
Private consumption of fixed capital 1,135.9
Government consumption of fixed capital 218.1
Statistical discrepancy 25.6
National Income 9,679.7
  • NDP: Net domestic product is defined as “gross domestic product (GDP) minus depreciation of capital”,[7] similar to NNP.
  • GDP per capita: Gross domestic product per capita is the mean value of the output produced per person, which is also the mean income.

Occasionally, though, the differences can be significant and lead to wrong conclusions if the wrong measure is taken.  For example, in the case of Ireland in the early 21st century, much of it’s economic growth was actually somewhat of a sham.  What appeared to be GDP increases were in fact, the result of fancy acccounting and bookkeeping by several major multinational corporations (notably Google) who wished to take advantage of Ireland’s very low corporate taxes as a way to launder profits earned in other countries before bringing those profits back to their non-Irish home (often the U.S.).  In Ireland in 2007, GDP was as much as 23% higher than GNP (source Irish National Accounts)  This is means that when that the Irish got to work hard but the fruits of that labor went in large part as profits to foreign owners with no offsetting foreign income available to the Irish. The Irish have once again become laborers for absentee foreign “landlords” (maybe we should call them  “corporatelords”).  As Bill Mitchell has noted on his blog at  The Celtic Tiger is not a good example and The sick Celtic Tiger getting sicker,

Boone and Johnson offer this interesting insight to further their contention. They show how the growth miracle that led to the “Celtic Tiger” reference was in large part a mirage and driven by major US corporations evading US tax liabilities by exploiting massive tax breaks supplied to them by the Irish government. They conclude that”

… 20 percent of Irish gross domestic product is actually “profit transfers” that raise little tax for Ireland and are owned by foreign companies … the Irish miracle was a mirage driven by clever use of tax-haven rules and a huge credit boom that permitted real estate prices and construction to grow quickly before declining ever more rapidly. The biggest banks grew to have assets twice the size of official G.D.P. when they essentially failed in 2008.

The following graph is taken from the latest Irish National Accounts which cover up to the fourth quarter 2009. Flash estimates for the first quarter 2010 are available but not broken down like this.

The graph shows the difference between Gross Domestic Product (which counts all output produced) and Gross National Product (which exclude the profits of foreign residents) for Ireland. Once you make that correction, then you can see how much worse the domestic contraction has been in the Irish economy.

So GDP was 7.1 per cent lower than in 2008 while GNP was 11.3 per cent lower than in 2008.