Monthly Archives: June 2011

Marshall Auerback Interviewed on Squeeze Play

NEP Blogger Marshall Auerback was interviewed yesterday on Greece and the Eurozone on BNN’s Squeeze Play.  Click here to watch.

Can Sesame Street Help Europe’s Finance Ministers Understand the Debt Crisis? (Members of Congress Take Note)

By Stephanie Kelton

You might expect the head of the group of countries that use the euro to understand the common currency better than anyone. You would be wrong.

Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the Eurozone’s group of finance ministers, can’t figure out why financial markets are so anxious about Europe’s ability to service its debt and so unconcerned about debt levels in other parts of the world. He’s convinced that Europe’s fundamentals are better than ours, so he can’t figure out why investors are gobbling up Treasuries despite the “disastrous” debt level here in this United States. To him, financial markets appear to be getting it badly wrong. He said:

“The real problem is that no one can explain well why the euro zone is in the epicenter of a global financial challenge at a moment, at which the fundamental indicators of the euro zone are substantially better than those of the U.S. or Japanese economy.”

Well, Mr. Junker, not only have we – the scholars of MMT – explained why the debt crisis hit members of the Eurozone, we also predicted that the design of the euro system would lead, precisely, to this outcome. Even before the launching of the euro, people like Charles Goodhart, Wynne Godley, Jan Kregel and Warren Mosler were sounding the alarms, warning that the Maastricht Treaty contained a dangerous design flaw that would strip member nations of their power to safely expand their deficits in times of economic crises. And so while mainstream economists like Willem Buiter were busy arguing over the appropriateness of the 3% deficit-to-GDP and 60% debt-to-GDP limits established under the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), those of us working in the MMT tradition were busy pointing out that bond markets, not the SGP, would impose the relevant constraint under the new monetary system. I wrote in 2003:

“[B]y forsaking their monetary independence and agreeing to the terms set out in Article 104 of the Maastricht Treaty …. obligations issued by EUR-11 governments begin to resemble those issued by state and local governments in the United States ….. Since markets will perceive some members of the EUR-11 as more creditworthy than others, financial markets will not view bonds issued by different nations as perfect substitutes. Therefore, high-debt countries may be unable to secure funding on the same terms as their low-debt competitors. ….. if interest payments are becoming a significant portion of a member state’s total outlays, it may be difficult to convince financial markets to accept new issues in order to service the growing debt.”

As a group, we warned that without a fiscal analogue to the ECB, the euro was essentially an accident waiting to happen – a sort of ticking bomb, ready to ignite the periphery at the slightest strain on public budgets. We wrote pamphlets, articles, chapters and books, travelled the Eurozone, met with elected officials, appeared on television, radio, and in print media.

We explained that the issuer of a non-convertible fiat currency never faces an external funding constraint. The United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada can always pay their debts on time and in full. They cannot “go broke” or be forced to default on their obligations.

In contrast, we explained that Greece, Portugal, Ireland and the rest of the Eurozone nations have become users of their currency. They cannot create the euro. They can become insolvent, and they can be forced into default. And yet Mr. Junker claims that no one has been able to explain why the Eurozone remains in the epicenter of a global financial crisis.

Today, we continue to write about what went wrong and what the ECB could do to restore prosperity. William Black, Randy Wray, Marshall Auerback, William Mitchell, Warren Mosler, and I have worked tirelessly to explain that countries that are USERS of their currency just aren’t like the U.S. and Japan.

Perhaps we have been too opaque. Let’s try something simpler. Carefully study the images below.

Now watch this:

It Became Necessary to Destroy the Periphery in Order to Save the Core’s Banks

By William K. Black

* Cross-posted with Benziga

Gary O’Callaghan, a former IMF economist has written about his distress over what he views as the European Central Bank’s (ECB’s) destructive policies toward the periphery. 

The ECB, EU, and the IMF are the troika that contributed to the periphery’s crises and have responded in such a destructive manner to the crises.  O’Callaghan’s column urges the European finance ministers to focus on “three simple questions about the [troika’s] Irish, Greek and Portuguese” loan programs.  My column focuses on the reasoning underlying his third question.

“Third, how important is it that the programs succeed?  Obviously it is crucial.  The success of the programs is key to the survival of the euro and should, therefore, take precedence over any other European agenda.” 

O’Callaghan, unintentionally, has disclosed the core irrationality that underlies the euro.  It is not “obvious” that “the survival of the euro” is critical, much less a goal of such transcendent importance that it should “take precedence over any other European agenda.”  The euro is simply instrumental to some substantive purpose such as economic security, employment, or at least increased efficiency.  The economic welfare of the people of the EU should be the EU’s transcendent economic goal.    

O’Callaghan conflated “the survival of the euro” with the transcendent “European agenda” and the success of the EU loan programs to Ireland, Greece and Portugal with “the survival of the euro?”  The EU existed for decades without the euro.  A number of EU nations have chosen not to be members of the euro.  The euro is not essential to an effective EU unless the EU wishes to become a true United States of Europe.  That new sovereign nation would want a sovereign currency.  The crisis had revealed that most French, Germans, and Finns do not view the Irish, Greeks, and Portuguese as fellow citizens of a United Europe.  O’Callaghan calls on the EU to the discard the concept of European solidarity as “distracting rhetoric,” but he does not see that the euro has become one of the greatest threats to any “European agenda.” 

Why is O’Callaghan so disturbed about the EU and ECB’s lending program for Ireland?  He is part of the IMF’s vast alumni corps and he’s horrified that the EU and the ECB are making the rookie mistakes common to novice loan sharks.  The IMF knows how to bleed a nation – and it knows why the IMF bleeds nations.  The IMF does not bail out poor nations.  It bails out banks in rich nations that have made imprudent loans to poor nations.  The IMF realizes that it is essential not to impose so much austerity that you kill rather than cripple the victim’s economy and harm the core’s banks.  The ECB is dominated by theoclassical economists who have not yet learned this lesson.  Their economic dogma is a variant on the old joke:  the daily floggings will continue until morale improves around here.  Bleeding is virtuous.  If the victims aren’t screaming the ECB is not trying hard enough.

O’Callaghan writes primarily to convince the EU and the ECB to dial back the bleeding to the point where it is just sustainable.  He urges them to “eliminate [] immediately” “punitive interest rates that  undermine the chances of success.”  O’Callaghan describes the ECB’s current loan terms as so bad that they are “preposterous.”  “The rating agencies, the markets and most leading economists do not believe the plan is working.” 

Sentient economists do not believe that imposing austerity during a severe recession is sensible.  The CIA world book describes Ireland’s austerity program – prior to ECB demands for ever greater austerity – as “draconian” (and the CIA has special expertise with regard to the concept of “draconian”).

O’Callaghan key admission – the bailouts are essential to bail out the core’s banks

Why does O’Callaghan argue that it is essential that the ECB plan for the periphery succeed? 

Because, it they are not implemented, the non-payment of debt – including bank debt – by the nations on the periphery would lead to severe banking crises and a return to recession in the core of eurozone.

That concession is refreshingly candid.  The EU is not lending money to Ireland, Greece, and Portugal to help those nations’ citizens.  The EU is lending those nations money because if they don’t those nations and their citizens and corporations will be unable to repay their debts to banks in the core.  That will make public the fact that the core banks are actually insolvent.  When the Germans and French realize that their banks are insolvent the result will be “severe banking crises and a return to recession in the core of the eurozone.”  The core, not simply the periphery, will be in crisis. The ECB and the EU’s leadership would be happy to throw the periphery under the bus, but the EU core’s largest banks are chained to the periphery by their imprudent loans.             

Destructive EU feedback loops: bad economics breed bad politics and worse economics

The leaders of the troika understand, but detest, the need to bail out the core’s insolvent banks by bailing out the periphery.  They understand how much the EU public detests the bailouts and the resultant political cost in the core of supporting the bailouts.  Their efforts to minimize that political cost lead them to demonize the periphery and support the ECB’s imposition of ever more draconian and self-defeating austerity programs on the periphery.  The austerity programs are deepening the recessions in the periphery and creating far worse unemployment.  The perverse economic policies create ever greater political instability in the periphery, massive resistance to austerity, and contempt for the core nation’s pretenses about European solidarity.  As the perverse austerity programs cause the periphery’s recessions to deepen the likelihood that the likelihood of default increases, which further outrages the core’s population and threatens to unseat the core’s political leaders.  Austerity locks the core and the periphery in a totentanz – a dance of death.  The desire to save the euro and the core’s insolvent banks has become the greatest threat to the EU project.

Creating a sounder euro system

Even if the EU did need the euro, it does not need every EU member to be in the euro.  If Ireland, Greece, and Portugal were to leave the euro and reintroduce sovereign currencies the number of EU nations using the euro would be greater than during the period the euro was introduced.  The remaining members would have more uniform economies that would be closer to the economic concept we call an “optimum currency area” – making the new euro far less dangerous.  That would make the euro and the EU’s member states stronger – both the core and the periphery.   

The euro is ulcerous.  The EU and ECB leadership do not understand this point.  They see the obvious; the euro is “strong” relative to the other major currencies.  Look underneath and the ulcers are weeping.  The euro is so strong because the U.S., Japan, and China are deliberately and generally successfully weakening their currencies in order to increase exports.  They all have sovereign currencies.  They borrow at exceptionally low interest rates with U.S. and Japanese debt levels roughly equivalent to or in excess of Ireland, Greece, and Portugal.  

The euro has become the tail that wags the EU dog, and it is wagging so destructively that it is throwing the periphery into the ditch.  The EU response is to make the periphery dig itself ever deeper into that ditch and while showering the periphery with abuse.  O’Callaghan’s assertion that it was “obvious” that the survival of the euro, not the well being of EU citizens, was the EU’s transcendent goal demonstrates the point.  The euro is the problem – not the solution – for the periphery and the core.    

It is essential that the nations of the EU periphery reclaim their sovereignty.  Sovereign nations have a range of policy options to recover from recessions.  They can lower interest rates, devalue their currencies, and increase public spending to offset lost demand in the private sector.  Recessions cause real, severe economic and social losses.  Unemployment is a pure deadweight loss.  In a serious recession in a nation such as the U.S., the losses are measured in the trillions of dollars.  Speeding the recovery from recession, ending unemployment, and avoiding hyper-inflation should be a sovereign nation’s transcendent economic goals at this time. 

Because they lack sovereign currencies Ireland, Greece, and Portugal cannot effectively use any of these three means of fulfilling a sovereign nation’s economic functions.  They cannot devalue.  They cannot set monetary policy – they can’t even influence it.  They can run small deficits.  Small deficits do not come close to replacing the severe loss of private sector demand that occurs in serious recessions, so the EU “Growth and Stability Pact” is a double oxymoron.  It limits growth, causes economic instability by leading to widespread unemployment, and causes political instability.  It hamstrings the one thing we know reliably works to limit recessions – automatic stabilizers – by allowing them to only partially stabilize.  The EU, as a matter of policy, provides far less effective automatic stabilizers than does the U.S. – in the name of producing “stability.”  Neoclassical ECB economists, the designers and implementers of the euro and ECB, studiously ignore the significant insanity of this policy.

A functional sovereign nation addresses its home grown problems rather than ignoring them or blaming them on other nations.  The ongoing crisis has shown that accounting control fraud in nations like the U.S., Ireland, Iceland, and Spain can cause the private sector to make trillions of dollars in destructive investments – sufficient to create massive bubbles and the Great Recession.  The entities that are supposed to be best at providing “private market discipline” – the banks – rendered themselves insolvent by funding these bubbles instead of preventing them.  These wasteful private sector investments should be a sovereign nation’s priority during the recovery from the Great Recession.  But the private sector’s staggering destruction of wealth should not blind a sovereign nation to the problems of its public sector – crippling problems in Greece and severe in Iceland, Spain, and Ireland.  The periphery needs to work in parallel on the interrelated crises of its private and public sectors.         

Recent USA Sectoral Balances: Goldilocks, the Global Crash, and the Perfect Fiscal Storm

In the previous blog, we did some heavy lifting. Unless you are an economics or accounting nerd, you found it quite boring. This week we will take a little break from pure accounting, and apply what we’ve learned to a real world example. By now, long-time readers are quite familiar with the NEP’s approach to the GFC (global financial crisis). Let us revisit the Clintonian Goldilocks economy to find the seeds of the GFC, using our sectoral balance approach.

To be clear, what follows uses our sectoral balances identity plus some real world data to provide an interpretation of the causes of the crash. As always, interpretations are subject to disagreement. The identity as well as the data are not. (You can of course always begin analysis with other identities and other data.) Next week we return to a bit more accounting.

Back in 2002 I wrote a paper announcing that forces were aligned to produce the perfect fiscal storm. (I note that in recent days a few analysts—including Nouriel Roubini—have picked up that terminology.) What I was talking about was a budget crisis at the state and local government levels. I had recognized that the economy of the time was in a bubble, driven by what I perceived to be unsustainable deficit spending by the private sector—which had been spending more than its income since 1996. As we now know, I called it too soon—the private sector continued to spend more than its income until 2006. The economy then crashed—a casualty of the excesses. What I had not understood a decade ago was just how depraved Wall Street had become. It kept the debt bubble going through all sorts of lender fraud; we are now living with the aftermath.

Still, it is worthwhile to return to the so-called “Goldilocks” period (mid to late 1990s, said to be “just right”, with growth sufficiently strong to keep unemployment low, but not so swift that it caused inflation) to see why economists and policymakers still get it wrong. As I noted in that earlier paper,

It is ironic that on June 29, 1999 the Wall Street Journal ran two long articles, one boasting that government surpluses would wipe out the national debt and add to national saving—and the other scratching its head wondering why private saving had gone negative. The caption to a graph showing personal saving and government deficits/surpluses proclaimed “As the government saves, people spend”. (The Wall Street Journal front page is reproduced below.) Almost no one at the time (or since!) recognized the necessary relation between these two that is implied by aggregate balance sheets. Since the economic slowdown that began at the end of 2000, the government balance sheet has reversed toward a deficit that reached 3.5% of GDP last quarter, while the private sector’s financial balance improved to a deficit of 1% of GDP. So long as the balance of payments deficit remains in the four-to-five percent of GDP range, a private sector surplus cannot be achieved until the federal budget’s deficit rises beyond 5% of GDP (as we’ll see in a moment, state and local government will continue to run aggregate surpluses, increasing the size of the necessary federal deficit). [I]n recession the private sector normally runs a surplus of at least 3% of GDP; given our trade deficit, this implies the federal budget deficit will rise to 7% or more if a deep recession is in store. At that point, the Wall Street Journal will no doubt chastise: “As the people save, the government spends”, calling for a tighter fiscal stance to increase national saving!

Turning to the international sphere, it should be noted that US Goldilocks growth was not unique in its character. [P]ublic sector balances in most of the OECD nations tightened considerably in the past decade–at least in part due to attempts to tighten budgets in line with the Washington Consensus (and for Euroland, in line with the dictates of Maastricht criteria). (Japan, of course, stands out as the glaring exception—it ran large budget surpluses at the end of the 1980s before collapsing into a prolonged recession that wiped out government revenue and resulted in a government deficit of nearly 9% of GDP.) Tighter public balances implied deterioration of private sector balances. Except for the case of nations that could run trade surpluses, the tighter fiscal stances around the world necessarily implied more fragile private sector balances. Indeed, Canada, the UK and Australia all achieved private sector deficits at some point near the beginning of the new millennium. (Source: L. Randall Wray, “The Perfect Fiscal Storm” 2002, available at

Let us revisit “Goldilocks” and see what lessons we can learn from “her” that help us to understand the Global Financial Collapse that began in 2007. As we now know, my short-term projections predicting the demise of Goldilocks into a recession were not too bad, but the medium-term projections were off. The Bush deficit did grow to 5% of GDP, helping the economy to recover. But then the private sector moved right back to huge deficits as lender fraud fuelled a real estate boom as well as a consumption boom (financed by home equity loans). See the chart below (thanks to Scott Fullwiler). Note that we have divided each sectoral balance by GDP (since we are dividing each balance by the same number—GDP—this does not change the relationships; it only “scales” the balances). This is a convenient scaling that we will use often in the MMP. Since most macroeconomic data tends to grow over time, dividing by GDP makes it easier to plot (and rather than dealing with trillions of dollars—so many zeroes!—we express everything as a percent of total spending).

This chart shows the “mirror image”: a government deficit from 1980 through to the Goldilocks years is the mirror image of the domestic private sector’s surplus plus our current account deficit (shown as a positive number because it reflects a positive capital account balance—the rest of the world runs a positive financial balance against us). (Note: the chart confirms what we learned from Blog #2: the sum of deficits and surpluses across the three sectors must equal zero.) During the Clinton years as the government budget moved to surplus, it was the private sector’s deficit that was the mirror image to the budget surplus plus the current account deficit.

This mirror image is what the Wall Street Journal had failed to recognize—and what almost no one except those following the Modern Money approach as well as the Levy Economic Institute’s researchers who used Wynne Godley’s sectoral balance approach understand. After the financial collapse, the domestic private sector moved sharply to a large surplus (which is what it normally does in recession), the current account deficit fell (as consumers bought fewer imports), and the budget deficit grew mostly because tax revenue collapsed as domestic sales and employment fell.

Unfortunately, just as policymakers learned the wrong lessons from the Clinton administration budget surpluses—thinking that the federal budget surpluses were great while they actually were just the flip side to the private sector’s deficit spending—they are now learning the wrong lessons from the global crash after 2007. They’ve managed to convince themselves that it is all caused by government sector profligacy. This, in turn has led to calls for spending cuts (and, more rarely, tax increases) to reduce budget deficits in many countries around the world (notably, in the US and UK).

The reality is different: Wall Street’s excesses led to too much private sector debt that crashed the economy and reduced government tax revenues. This caused a tremendous increase of federal government deficits. {As a sovereign currency-issuer, the federal government faces no solvency constraints (readers will have to take that claim at face value for now—it is the topic for upcoming MMP blogs).} However, the downturn hurt state and local government revenue. Hence, they responded by cutting spending, laying-off workers, and searching for revenue.

The fiscal storm that killed state budgets is the same fiscal storm that created the federal budget deficits shown in the chart above. An economy cannot lose about 8% of GDP (due to spending cuts by households, firms and local and state governments) and over 8 million jobs without negatively impacting government budgets. Tax revenue has collapsed at an historic pace. Federal, state, and local government deficits will not fall until robust recovery returns—ending the perfect fiscal storm.

Robust recovery will reduce the overall government sector’s budget deficit as the private sector reduces its budget surplus. It is probable that our current account deficit will grow a bit when we recover. If you want to take a guess at what our “mirror image” in the graph above will look like after economic recovery, I would guess that we will return close to our long-run average: a private sector surplus of 2% of GDP, a current account deficit of 3% of GDP and a government deficit of 5% of GDP. In our simple equation it will look like this:

Private Balance (+2) + Government Balance (-5) + Foreign Balance (+3) = 0.

And so we are back to the concept of zero!

Obama’s Implausible Dream: Cut the Deficit without Destroying Jobs

By Stephanie Kelton

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently explained President Obama’s “singular concern, which is that the outcome of the deficit reduction talks produce a result that significantly reduces the deficit while doing no damage to the economic recovery and no damage to our progress in creating jobs.”

Great. And I want to go on a donut diet and shed ten pounds.

As far as Washington is concerned, there are only two ways to bring down the deficit: cut spending or increase taxes. Both reduce private sector incomes.  This means that the president is looking for a way to reduce private sector incomes without hampering sales or job creation.

Can it be done? Let’s see.

Suppose the government decides to cut spending by $100. This means that someone in the private sector is receiving $100 less than they were getting before the government tightened its belt.  Ordinarily, we would expect this to generate an even bigger drop in GDP, as the decline in income leads to multiple rounds of contraction due to the effect of the multiplier.

For those that need a refresher, the multiplier is given by (1/1-b), where b = the marginal propensity to consume (MPC) or:

It shows the relationship between disposable income (Yd) and household consumption spending (C). As disposable income increases, we expect household spending to rise, making the value of the MPC > 0. But we also expect people to save a bit more, so the MPC < 1.

This means that we also have a marginal propensity to save, which is given by:

The MPS shows how saving changes in response to a change in disposable income. Like the MPC, the MPS is expected to be greater than zero but less than one. And, since you can only do one of two things with your disposable income – spend or save – the MPC and the MPS must always sum to 1. This is all basic Econ 101.

So let’s suppose that the MPC = b = .90, which means that people tend to spend, on average, $0.90 out of each additional $1.00 of income they receive. The other $0.10 is added to their savings. Now suppose that the government reduces its spending by $100. What will happen to economic activity as measured by output (Y) ?

After multiple rounds of spending reductions (the multiplier at work), output falls by $1,000. Ouch!

But the president is looking for ways to reduce the deficit without damaging the recovery or destroying jobs. So maybe a tax increase is the way to go. Let’s check.

A tax increase means less disposable income , and this means less spending by consumers. As before, a reduction in spending by one party (in this case the private sector) will result in several rounds of additional cuts, because of the multiplier effect. We can use the following equation to measure the macroeconomic effect of a change in taxes.

The large bracketed term is the tax multiplier, and it is used to demonstrate the macroeconomic effects of an increase/decrease in taxes. Since the president is trying to reduce the deficit, we should consider the effect of a $100 increase in taxes. If the MPC = b = .90 as before, we get:

In this example, output falls by $900, better than the previous outcome, but still not what Obama is looking for. So the challenge remains: How can the government reduce the deficit without negatively impacting economic activity?

As Warren Mosler pointed out, it would require Congress to tax where there is a negative propensity to spend and cut where there is a negative propensity to save.

What does this mean? A negative propensity to spend means that people would spend more if the government raised taxes and reduced their incomes:

Under these circumstances, the economy would benefit from, say, a $100 tax increase, because households would spend more even though their incomes were falling:

Similarly, if the government cuts spending where there is a negative propensity to save, then output and employment will increase even as the government tightens its belt.

But a negative propensity to save means that the MPC >1 because the MPS < 0 and they must sum to 1:

Under these conditions, a $100 cut in government spending results in:

But what are the chances of this happening in the real world?  Probably zero. Spending cuts and tax increases reduce private sector incomes.  And the private sector isn’t going to celebrate the loss of income by going on a shopping spree.

The bottom line is this: As long as unemployment remains high, the deficit will remain high.  So instead of continuing to put the deficit first, it’s time get to work on a plan to increase employment.

Here’s the formula: Spending creates income.  Income creates sales.  Sales create jobs.

If you think you can cut the deficit without destroying jobs, dream on.

Free money creation to bail out financial speculators, but not Social Security or Medicare: Only the “Crazies” Get the Bank Giveaway Right

By Michael Hudson

Financial crashes were well understood for a hundred years after they became a normal financial phenomenon in the mid-19th century. Much like the buildup of plaque deposits in human veins and arteries, an accumulation of debt gained momentum exponentially until the economy crashed, wiping out bad debts – along with savings on the other side of the balance sheet. Physical property remained intact, although much was transferred from debtors to creditors. But clearing away the debt overhead from the economy’s circulatory system freed it to resume its upswing. That was the positive role of crashes: They minimized the cost of debt service, bringing prices and income back in line with actual “real” costs of production. Debt claims were replaced by equity ownership. Housing prices were lower – and more affordable, being brought back in line with their actual rental value. Goods and services no longer had to incorporate the debt charges that the financial upswing had built into the system.

Financial crashes came suddenly. They often were triggered by a crop failure causing farmers to default, or “the autumnal drain” drew down bank liquidity when funds were needed to move the crops. Crashes often also revealed large financial fraud and “excesses.”

This was not really a “cycle.” It was a scallop-shaped a ratchet pattern: an ascending curve, ending in a vertical plunge. But popular terminology called it a cycle because the pattern was similar again and again, every eleven years or so. When loans by banks and debt claims by other creditors could not be paid, they were wiped out in a convulsion of bankruptcy.

Gradually, as the financial system became more “elastic,” each business recovery started from a larger debt overhead relative to output. The United States emerged from World War II relatively debt free. Downturns occurred, crashes wiped out debts and savings, but each recovery since 1945 has taken place with a higher debt overhead. Bank loans and bonds have replaced stocks, as more stocks have been retired in leveraged buyouts (LBOs) and buyback plans (to keep stock prices high and thus give more munificent rewards to managers via the stock options they give themselves) than are being issued to raise new equity capital.

But after the stock market’s crash of 2000 and the Federal Reserve flooding the U.S. economy with credit after 9/11, 2001, there was so much “free spending money” that many economists believed that the era of scientific money management had arrived and the financial cycle had ended. Growth could occur smoothly – with no over-optimism as to debt, no inability to pay, no proliferation of over-valuation or fraud. This was the era in which Alan Greenspan was applauded as Maestro for ostensibly creating a risk-free environment by removing government regulators from the financial oversight agencies.

What has made the post-2008 crash most remarkable is not merely the delusion that the way to get rich is by debt leverage (unless you are a banker, that is). Most unique is the crash’s aftermath. This time around the bad debts have not been wiped off the books. There have indeed been the usual bankruptcies – but the bad lenders and speculators are being saved from loss by the government intervening to issue Treasury bonds to pay them off out of future tax revenues or new money creation. The Obama Administration’s Wall Street managers have kept the debt overhead in place – toxic mortgage debt, junk bonds, and most seriously, the novel web of collateralized debt obligations (CDO), credit default swaps (almost monopolized by A.I.G.) and kindred financial derivatives of a basically mathematical character that have developed in the 1990s and early 2000s.

These computerized casino cross-bets among the world’s leading financial institutions are the largest problem. Instead of this network of reciprocal claims being let go, they have been taken onto the government’s own balance sheet. This has occurred not only in the United States but even more disastrously in Ireland, shifting the obligation to pay – on what were basically gambles rather than loans – from the financial institutions that had lost on these bets (or simply held fraudulently inflated loans) onto the government (“taxpayers”). The government took over the mortgage lending guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (privatizing the profits, “socializing” the losses) for $5.3 trillion – almost as much as the entire national debt. The Treasury lent $700 billion under the Troubled Asset Relief Plan (TARP) to Wall Street’s largest banks and brokerage houses. The latter re-incorporated themselves as “banks” to get Federal Reserve handouts and access to the Fed’s $2 trillion in “cash for trash” swaps crediting Wall Street with Fed deposits for otherwise “illiquid” loans and securities (the euphemism for toxic, fraudulent or otherwise insolvent and unmarketable debt instruments) – at “cost” based on full mark-to-model fictitious valuations.

Altogether, the post-2008 crash saw some $13 trillion in such obligations transferred onto the government’s balance sheet from high finance, euphemized as “the private sector” as if it were the core economy itself, rather than its calcifying shell. Instead of losing on their bad bets, bad loans, toxic mortgages and outright fraudulent claims, the financial institutions cleaned up, at public expense. They collected enough to create a new century’s power elite to lord it over “taxpayers” in industry, agriculture and commerce who will be charged to pay off this debt.

If there was a silver lining to all this, it has been to demonstrate that if the Treasury and Federal Reserve can create $13 trillion of public obligations – money – electronically on computer keyboards, there really is no Social Security problem at all, no Medicare shortfall, no inability of the American government to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. The bailout of Wall Street showed how central banks can create money, as Modern Money Theory (MMT) explains. But rather than explaining how this phenomenon worked, the bailout was rammed through Congress under emergency conditions. Bankers threatened economic Armageddon if the government did not create the credit to save them from taking losses.

Even more remarkable is the attempt to convince the population that new money and debt creation to bail out Wall Street – and vest a new century of financial billionaires at public subsidy – cannot be mobilized just as readily to save labor and industry in the “real” economy. The Republicans and Obama administration appointees held over from the Bush and Clinton administration have joined to conjure up scare stories that Social Security and Medicare debts cannot be paid, although the government can quickly and with little debate take responsibility for paying trillions of dollars of bipartisan Finance-Care for the rich and their heirs.

The result is a financial schizophrenia extending across the political spectrum from the Tea Party to Tim Geithner at the Treasury and Ben Bernanke at the Fed. It seems bizarre that the most reasonable understanding of why the 2008 bank crisis did not require a vast public subsidy for Wall Street occurred at Monday’s Republican presidential debate on June 13, by none other than Congressional Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann – who had boasted in a Wall Street Journal interview two days earlier, on Saturday, that she

voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) “both times.” … She complains that no one bothered to ask about the constitutionality of these extraordinary interventions into the financial markets. “During a recent hearing I asked Secretary [Timothy] Geithner three times where the constitution authorized the Treasury’s actions [just [giving] the Treasury a $700 billion blank check], and his response was, ‘Well, Congress passed the law.’ …With TARP, the government blew through the Constitutional stop sign and decided ‘Whatever it takes, that’s what we’re going to do.’”

Clarifying her position regarding her willingness to see the banks fail, she explained:

I would have. People think when you have a, quote, ‘bank failure,’ that that is the end of the bank. And it isn’t necessarily. A normal way that the American free market system has worked is that we have a process of unwinding. It’s called bankruptcy. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the industry is eclipsed or that it’s gone. Often times, the phoenix rises out of the ashes. [1]

There were easily enough sound loans and assets in the banks to cover deposits insured by the FDIC – but not enough to pay their counterparties in the “casino capitalist” category of their transactions. This super-computerized financial horseracing is what the bailout was about, not bread-and-butter retail and business banking or insurance.

It all seems reminiscent of the 1968 presidential campaign. The economic discussion back then between Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon was so tepid that it prompted journalist Eric Hoffer to ask why only a southern cracker, third-party candidate Alabama Governor George Wallace, was talking about the real issues. We seem to be in a similar state in preparation for the 2012 campaign, with junk economics on both sides.

Meanwhile, the economy is still suffering from the Obama administration’s failure to alleviate the debt overhead by seriously making banks write down junk mortgages to reflect actual market values and the capacity to pay. Foreclosures are still throwing homes onto the market, pushing real estate further into negative equity territory while wealth concentrates at the top of the economic pyramid. No wonder Republicans are able to shed crocodile tears for debtors and attack President Obama for representing Wall Street (as if this is not equally true of the Republicans). He is simply continuing the Bush Administration’s policies, not leading the change he had promised. So he has left the path open for Congresswoman Bachmann to highlight her opposition to the Bush-McCain-Obama-Paulson-Geithner giveaways.

The missed opportunity

When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008, the presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain was peaking toward Election Day on November 4. Voters told pollsters that the economy was their main issue – their debts, soaring housing costs (“wealth creation” to real estate speculators and the banks getting rich off mortgage lending), stagnant wage levels and worsening workplace conditions. And in the wake of Lehman the main issue under popular debate was how much Wall Street’s crash would hurt the “real” economy. If large banks went under, would depositors still be safely insured? What about the course of normal business and employment?

Credit is seen as necessary; but what of credit derivatives, the financial sector’s arcane “small print”? How intrinsic are financial gambles on collateralized debt obligations (CDOs, “weapons of mass financial destruction” in Warren Buffett’s terminology) – not retail banking or even business banking and insurance, but financial bets on the economy’s zigzagging measures. Without casino capitalism, could industrial capitalism survive? Or had the superstructure become rotten and best left to “free markets” to wipe out in mutually offsetting bankruptcy claims?

Mr. Obama ran as the “candidate of change” from the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan, its deregulatory excesses and giveaways to the pharmaceuticals industry and other monopolies and their Wall Street backers. Today it is clear that his promises for change were no more than campaign rhetoric, not intended to limit a continuation of the policies that most voters hoped to see changed. There even has been continuity of Bush Administration officials committed to promoting financial policies to keep the debts in place, enable banks to “earn their way out of debt” at the expense of consumers and businesses – and some $13 trillion in government bailouts and subsidy.

History is being written to depict the policy of saving the bankers rather than the economy as having been necessary – as if there were no alternative, that the vast giveaways to Wall Street were simply “pragmatic.” Financial beneficiaries claim that matters would be even worse today without these giveaways. It is as if we not only need the banks, we need to save them (and their stockholders) from losses, enabling them to pay and retain their immensely rich talent at the top with even bigger salaries, bonuses and stock options.

It is all junk economics – well-subsidized illogic, quite popular among fundraisers.

From the outset in 2009, the Obama Plan has been to re-inflate the Bubble Economy by providing yet more credit (that is, debt) to bid housing and commercial real estate prices back up to pre-crash levels, not to bring debts down to the economy’s ability to pay. The result is debt deflation for the economy at large and rising unemployment – but enrichment of the wealthiest 1% of the population as economies have become even more financialized.

This smooth continuum from the Bush to the Obama Administration masks the fact that there was a choice, and even a clear disagreement at the time within Congress, if not between the two presidential candidates, who seemed to speak as Siamese Twins as far as their policies to save Wall Street (from losses, not from actually dying) were concerned. Wall Street saw an opportunity to be grabbed, and its spokesmen panicked policy-makers into imagining that there was no alternative. And as President Obama’s chief of staff Emanuel Rahm noted, this crisis is too important an opportunity to let it go to waste. For Washington’s Wall Street constituency, the bold aim was to get the government to save them from having to take a loss on loans gone bad – loans that had made them rich already by collecting fees and interest, and by placing bets as to which way real estate prices, interest rates and exchange rates would move.

After September 2008 they were to get rich on a bailout – euphemized as “saving the economy,” if one believes that Wall Street is the economy’s core, not its wrapping or supposed facilitator, not to say a vampire squid. The largest and most urgent problem was not the inability of poor homebuyers to cope with the interest-rate jumps called for in the small print of their adjustable rate mortgages. The immediate defaulters were at the top of the economic pyramid. Citibank, AIG and other “too big to fail” institutions were unable to pay the winners on the speculative gambles and guarantees they had been writing – as if the economy had become risk-free, not overburdened with debt beyond its ability to pay.

Making the government to absorb their losses – instead of recovering the enormous salaries and bonuses their managers had paid themselves for selling these bad bets – required a cover story to make it appear that the economy could not be saved without the Treasury and Federal Reserve underwriting these losing gambles. Like the sheriff in the movie Blazing Saddles threatening to shoot himself if he weren’t freed, the financial sector warned that its losses would destroy the retail banking and insurance systems, not just the upper reaches of computerized derivatives gambling.

How America’s Bailouts Endowed a Financial Elite to rule the 21st Century

The bailout of casino capitalists vested a new ruling class with $13 trillion of public IOUs (including the $5.3 trillion rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) added to the national debt. The recipients have paid out much of this gift in salaries and bonuses, and to “make themselves whole” on their bad risks in default to pay off. An alternative would have been to prosecute them and recover what they had paid themselves as commissions for loading the economy with debt.

Although there were two sides within Congress in September 2008, there was no disagreement between the two presidential candidates. John McCain ran back to Washington on the fateful Friday of their September 26debate to insist that he was suspending his campaign in order to devote all his efforts to persuading Congress to approve the $700 billion bank bailout – and would not debate Mr. Obama until that was settled. But he capitulated and went to the debate. On September 29 the House of Representatives rejected the giveaway, headed by Republicans in opposition.

So Mr. McCain did not even get brownie points for being able to sway politicians on the side of his Wall Street campaign contributors. Until this time he had campaigned as a “maverick.” But his capitulation to high finance reminded voters of his notorious role in the Keating Five, standing up for bank crooks. His standing in the polls plummeted, and the Senate capitulated to a redrafted TARP bill on October 1. President Bush signed it into law two days later, on October 3, euphemized as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act.

Fast-forward to today. What does it signify when a right-wing cracker makes a more realistic diagnosis of bad bank lending better than Treasury Secretary Geithner, Fed Chairman Bernanke or other Bush-era financial experts retained by the Obama team? Without the bailout the gambling arm of Wall Street would have collapsed, but the “real” economy’s everyday banking and insurance operations could have continued. The bottom 99 percent of the U.S. economy would have recovered with only a speed bump to clean out the congestion at the top, and the government would have ended up in control of the biggest and most reckless banks and AIG – as it did in any case.

The government could have used its equity ownership and control of the banks to write down mortgages to reflect market conditions. It could have left families owning their homes at the same cost they would have had to pay in rent – the economic definition of equilibrium in property prices. The government-owned “too big to fail” banks could have told to refrain from gambling on derivatives, from lending for currency and commodity speculation, and from making takeover loans and other predatory financial practices. Public ownership would have run the banks like savings banks or post office banks rather than gambling schemes fueling the international carry trade (computer-driven interest rate and currency arbitrage) that has no linkage to the production-and-consumption economy.

The government could have used its equity ownership and control of the banks to provide credit and credit card services as the “public option.” Credit is a form of infrastructure, and such public investment is what enabled the United States to undersell foreign economies in the 19th and 20th centuries despite its high wage levels and social spending programs. As Simon Patten, the first economics professor at the nation’s first business school (the Wharton School) explained, public infrastructure investment is a “fourth factor of production.” It takes its return not in the form of profits, but in the degree to which it lowers the economy’s cost of doing business and living. Public investment does not need to generate profits or pay high salaries, bonuses and stock options, or operate via offshore banking centers.

But this is not the agenda that the Bush-Obama administrations a chose. Only Wall Street had a plan in place to unwrap when the crisis opportunity erupted. The plan was predatory, not productive, not lowering the economy’s debt overhead or cost of living and doing business to make it more competitive. So the great opportunity to serve the public interest by taking over banks gone broke was missed. Stockholders were bailed out, counterparties were saved from loss, and managers today are paying themselves bonuses as usual. The “crisis” was turned into an opportunity to panic politicians into helping their Wall Street patrons.

One can only wonder what it means when the only common sense being heard about the separation of bank functions should come from a far-out extremist in the current debate. The social democratic tradition had been erased from the curriculum as it had in political memory.

Tom Fahey: Would you say the bailout program was a success? …

Bachmann: John, I was in the middle of this debate. I was behind closed doors with Secretary Paulson when he came and made the extraordinary, never-before-made request to Congress: Give us a $700 billion blank check with no strings attached.

And I fought behind closed doors against my own party on TARP. It was a wrong vote then. It’s continued to be a wrong vote since then. Sometimes that’s what you have to do. You have to take principle over your party. [2]

Proclaiming herself a libertarian, Ms. Bachmann opposes raising the federal debt ceiling, Pres. Obama’s Medicare reform and other federal initiatives. So her opposition to the Wall Street bailout turns out to lack an understanding of how governments and their central banks can create money with a stroke of the computer pen, so to speak. But at least she was clear that wiping out bank counterparty gambles made by high rollers at the financial race track could have been wiped out (or left to settle among themselves in Wall Street’s version of mafia-style kneecapping) without destroying the banking system’s key economic functions.

The moral

Contrasting Ms. Bachmann’s remarks to the panicky claims by Mr. Geithner and Hank Paulson in September 2008 confirm a basic axiom of today’s junk economics: When an economic error becomes so widespread that it is adopted as official government policy, there is always a special interest at work to promote it.

In the case of bailing out Wall Street – and thereby the wealthiest 1% of Americans – while saying there is no money for Social Security, Medicare or long-term public social spending and infrastructure investment, the beneficiaries are obvious. So are the losers. High finance means low wages, low employment, low industry and a shrinking economy under conditions where policy planning is centralized in hands of Wall Street and its political nominees rather than in more objective administrators.

[1] Stephen Moore, “On the Beach, I Bring von Mises”: Interview with Michele Bachman, Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2011.

[2] CNN Republican Presidential Debate, Transcript, June 13, 2011,


A perceptive reader wrote: “I think MMT needs someone to do whatever it is that Charles Darwin did.”

Well, Darwin wrote “On the Origin of Species”. A great book. Not something your average homeless Burger King taxi driving immigrant is reading. Yes, someone needs to teach evolution to the taxi drivers. Heck, I wish someone would teach evolution to my local Kansas School Board officials—who reject it as “just a theory” and obviously a poor competitor to the story of creation that is by contrast infallibly true.

But we need the “Origin of Species” first, before those teachers and popularizers and monkey trial lawyers (who, of course, LOST their case) can win in the court of public opinion.

The MMP is responding to a request for a coherent, from the ground up, exposition. I have asked several times for patience. Both by those who’d rather just take to the streets now, and from those who want everything explained all at once in an elevator pitch. If at the end of the year you want your money back, tuition refunds will be provided. If you do not need a Primer, go ahead and start the organizing. If you are not interested in MMT, look elsewhere. But if you want a clear and coherent Primer that begins at the beginning, you’ve found the right URL.

On to substantive comments.

Accounting Identities. I knew we would have our skeptics. There are two types of complaints.

First there are those who are skeptical of identities altogether. To them it looks like we put two rabbits into the hat and then pulled out two and expect applause. Or, it is like saying 2+3=5 and in base 10 math it cannot be anything different. Surely we rigged the results?

Well, in some sense, yes we did. We first rule out black helicopters that drop bags of cash into backyards in the dark of night. We also rule out expenditures by some that go “nowhere”—that is, expenditures that are not received by anyone. Finally, we rule out expenditures that are not in some manner “paid for”. If our whole economy consists of you and me (I get to be Robinson Crusoe, you get to be Friday—or vice versa), then if I spend, you get income. If you spend, I get income. I can consume or save, and you can consume or save. We denominate our spending and income and saving and surpluses and deficits in “dollars” and record transactions by scratch marks on the big rock by the pond. We’ve discovered double entry bookkeeping and use it because it is a handy way of keeping track. (We trust each other, but we’ve got bad memories. I accept your IOUs denominated in dollars, and you accept mine.) Ok, so that is the set up—the rabbits and the hat. Nothing up our sleeves.

You hire me to collect coconuts from your trees, I hire you to catch fish in my pond. You own the coconuts, I own the fish—due to our property rights in our respective resources; as workers we only have a right to our wages. (Ain’t capitalism grand?) We each work 5 hours at a buck an hour. We record these on our balance sheets on the big rock: on your balance sheet, your financial asset is my IOU; my financial asset is your IOU. At the end of the first day we each had income of $5 (recorded on our asset side) and we each issued an IOU to pay wages of $5 (recorded on our liability side). (On my balance sheet I hold your $5 IOU as my asset; and I have issued my IOU to you in the amount of $5, which I record on my liability side. And vice versa.)

Now I want to buy coconuts from you and you want to buy fish from me. I “pay for” the coconuts by delivering back to you your IOUs and/or I issue an IOU. You “pay for” fish by delivering back to me my IOUs or by issuing an IOU. Let us say I consume $5 worth of coconuts (I return all $5 of your IOUs—crossing off the entry on the Big Rock) and you consume $4 worth of fish (returning to me $4 of my IOUs and retaining $1 of my IOU) because you are more frugal.

At the end of the day, I’ve got $5 worth of coconuts but have had to issue a an IOU of $1 (I used all of my income, the $5 earned wages, and you’ve still got $1 of my IOU since you did not spend all your wages); you’ve got $4 of fish plus $1 left of your income (equals your financial saving). My deficit spending has been $1 and your surplus (or saving) has been $1. They are equal (not magically—we put the rabbits in the hat), and indeed your saving accumulation takes the form of a money claim on me (my debt). When we net out all the money claims, what we are left with is the real stuff (coconuts and fish).

To be sure, we have left out of this analysis much of what is interesting about the economy—no banks, no government, no “green paper” currency, and so on. All we did was to play a little game of IOU and UOMe. But we did demonstrate the simple sectoral balance conclusion: the financial deficit of one sector (me) equals the surplus of the other (you). And that once we net out the financials, we are left with the real stuff (fish and coconuts). No magic involved.

And, yes, we can all of us accumulate in real (nonfinancial) terms. For example, we can all grow our own crops in our backyards, accumulating corn that is not offset by a financial liability. For most of the time humans have been around (after Darwinian evolution) we managed without money. Still, we fed, clothed, cared for, and fought with, our fellow humans. For the most part, the “Modern Money Primer” will be concerned with “money”—that is, the financial accounting part, and it is here where every deficit is offset by an equal surplus (somewhere) and every debt is held by someone as financial wealth—so the net is zero. In terms of our Lake Wobegone analogy, we can all accumulate in real terms (we all have IQs above zero) but our finances net to zero (our IQs average to—well—average).

Second, some readers have preferred to come up with alternative identities. Yes, you can do that. We can choose to divide up into alternative sectors: rather than going with private domestic + government + foreign, we could divide into sectors according to hair color: blonde + black + red + blue + brown + silver etc…. For our purposes (to come in subsequent blogs) our division is more useful. It is not unusual to separate off the foreign sector on the basis that it (mostly) uses a different currency (actually, multiple currencies), so we are going across exchange rates. It is also not that unusual to separate government from private, and is particularly useful in discussion of “sovereign currency”—which after all is the main purpose of this Primer. For convenience we add state and local government to the federal government even though only the federal government is the issuer of the sovereign currency. What is, admittedly, unusual is to add the households and firms together (as well as not-for-profits). This is in part due to data limitations—some data are collected this way.

One reader perceptively noticed that a more common approach is to begin with the GDP identity (GDP = consumption + investment + government purchases + net exports; which equals gross national income). Without getting overly wonky, the GDP comes out of the NIPA accounts (national income and product accounts) that have some well-known disadvantages for those of us who worry about stock-flow consistency (the topic of future blogs). NIPA actually imputes some values and things don’t quite add up (a rather large and nasty “statistical discrepancy” is used to fudge to get to the identity). Just as one example: most Americans own their own homes, but certainly we all “consume” what is called “housing services”—the sheer enjoyment we get out of having some shelter over our heads in a rain storm. So statisticians “impute” (make up some economic value for that enjoyment), adding it to GDP. What we do not like about that is that no one really has to “pay for” the consumption of “housing services” for owner-occupied housing (say, you paid off your mortgage 5 years ago, but the statistician records $12,000 worth of enjoyment you consumed this year). Another area that is problematic comes in the treatment of saving. Typically, this can be done in one of two ways: either saving is simply a residual (your income less your consumption) or it is the accumulation to your wealth. In many calculations, when there is a real estate price boom, the value of the housing stock increases, which means our wealth increases, which must mean our saving increased. However, there was no income source that allowed us to save in financial terms.

Since this Primer is very concerned about “accounting for” all spending, all income, all consumption, and all saving, we do not want to include such imputations that do not have a financial flow counterpart. So, we prefer to work from the flow of funds accounts, which are stock-flow consistent (or, at least, closer to consistency). Now, in truth, NIPA data are more readily available for many countries than are flow of funds data, and so sometimes we do use the GDP equation rather than our sectoral balances equation. Here is a comparison:

Domestic Private balance + Government balance + Foreign balance = 0

(Saving – Investment) + (Taxes – Govt Purchases) + (Imports-Exports) = 0

You can see that these are reasonably close approximations. Roughly, if private saving exceeds investment, then the private sector will be running a surplus; if taxes are less than government purchases, the government is running a deficit; and if imports exceed exports the foreign sector is running a surplus. We can get even more wonky and put in government transfer payments (things like unemployment compensation that add to private sector income) and international factor payments (flows of profits earned by American firms from abroad—that reduce our foreign imbalance). But we won’t do that here. We will usually work from the sectoral balances (thus, flow of funds) rather than from the GDP identity (NIPA) but you can do the mental gymnastics if you want to do the conversion.

One commentator wondered why we would call an “imbalance” a “balance”: ie: if the private sector runs a deficit why would we refer to that as the private sector’s “balance”? Well, you have a checking account “balance” that is probably positive. If you write a check for more than your “balance” and if you have automatic overdraft coverage then you will now have a negative “balance” in your account! So, the “balance” can be either positive, zero, or negative for any sector.

A final note regarding NAFA: I would just say that NAFA is the standard term from the stock-flow consistent literature, which, if Ramanan’s correct, ironically started in the UK. See Zezza’s paper here, which, independent of MMT, uses the same terminology. Further, it’s a term completely consistent with the accounting measure desired, while there’s not necessarily any reason to name items the exact same way as one particular nation’s accounts do (“net saving” being another example).

Thanks for the comments. Keep them coming. Watch for Blog 3 next Monday.

Ireland versus the United States: Only One of Them Has a Debt Crisis

Stephanie Kelton recently sat down with Dara McHugh, Co-Ordinator of Dublin-based Smart Taxes, to discuss Ireland’s debt problems and the economic prospects for the Irish economy. The interview appears in the June-August issue of Ireland’s Village Magazine.

Dara McHugh (DM):  Can you discuss the fundamental features – and the fundamental flaws – of the design of the Euro system?
Stephanie Kelton (SK):  The Euro is premised on a philosophy that is best characterized by the slogan, “One Market, One Money.” At the core of the Euro system is the European Central Bank, an institution that was given a limited but ostensibly critical role: keep a tight lid on inflation by strictly controlling the supply of euros.  Because they could not conceive of an event that would trigger a breakdown in the payments system itself, the authors of the Maastricht Treaty did not give the ECB the statutory mandate to act as a ‘Lender of Last Resort’ in times of crisis.  And, because a group largely composed of bankers (the Delors Committee) had written the blueprint for the Euro, it contained no systematic framework for regulating and supervising Europe’s financial institutions.  Instead, the ECB was given a sole mandate: maintain price stability.  These are significant departures from the customary modus operandi for a central bank.
Because they assumed that a sharp decline in output and employment would be rectified through emigration or a depreciation of the euro, the authors of the Maastricht Treaty saw no reason to create a fiscal analogue to the ECB, an institution that would bear responsibility for promoting growth and employment in the Eurozone.  Instead, the political intention of the Treaty was to subordinate the role of fiscal policy, leaving it to the individual member nations to cope with a downturn by permitting only a modest increase in their deficits.
The problem, as everyone now observes, is that an individual member nation can find it impossible to engineer a recovery on its own. 
During a recession, the private sector retrenches, preferring to save or pay down existing debts rather than parting with cash or borrowing to finance new purchases.  Without an offsetting increase in demand – from the public or foreign sector – unemployment will rise and GDP will decline.  The Maastricht Treaty assumed that a small increase in the deficit, together with some emigration, would be sufficient to bring about a recovery.  That was wrong.
The bottom line is this: the Euro system contains a serious design flaw.  It failed to recognize that it was designing a system that would cause its members to become more like Alaska, California or Utah than Australia, Canada or the US.  That is, it was stripping them of their capacity to use their budgets to stabilise their own economies.
DM: What are the key differences between the Euro and another currency, such as the US Dollar?
SK:   The primary difference is that the Euro can only be created by the ECB – it is the ISSUER of the currency.  The governments of Ireland, Greece, Spain, Germany, etc. are the USERS of the currency.  The implications of this distinction cannot be overstated.
Members of the Eurozone are like individual states in the US.  Like California, Ireland must go out and ‘get’ the currency – either by taxing or borrowing – before it can spend.  It must pay whatever financial markets demand, and it can be priced out of the market.  It can become insolvent, and it can be forced to default on its debt. 
In contrast, the Federal Reserve is the government’s bank.  The government does not need to ‘get’ dollars before it can spend because it is the ISSUER of the currency.  It simply spends by crediting bank accounts.  It does not need to sell bonds in order to run a deficit, and it does not have to pay market rates.  It can never become insolvent, and it can never be forced to default on its obligations. 
DM:  How do these differences affect the response to the Euro-zone debt crisis?

SK:  The US has a monetary system that remains “wedded” to its fiscal system. The Euro system created a “divorce” between the fiscal and monetary institutions within each member nation. Because of this, members of the Eurozone cannot sustain the kind of deficits that can be run in the US.  When rising interest rates and declining tax revenues force countries like Ireland and Greece into a substantial deficit position, they respond the same way Illinois and Georgia do – with massive spending cuts and tax increases to try to reduce the deficit.
DM:  What is your opinion about the current response adopted by the peripheral economies and supported by the ECB?
SK:  It is difficult to blame the peripheral economies for their response to the crisis (save Ireland’s bone-headed decision to add to its debt problems by bailing out foreign creditors).  They are doing what they believe they must in order to avoid default and live up to the promises they made when they adopted the Euro. 
As it stands, Greece, Ireland and Portugal have no choice but to try to meet the terms of the EU/IMF bailouts by driving through massive austerity programs.  It is a policy response that could only have been engineered by a group of economists who lack even a basic understanding of first principles, and it is already yielding disastrous and perverse effects across the periphery.
Indeed, the European Commission has just reported that Greece’s deficit has failed to come down as expected.  Any decent economist understands why.  Pay cuts, layoffs, tax increases and the like will only reduce private sector incomes, dragging sales and tax revenues down along the way.  Unfortunately, the EC has insisted that the government must push through even deeper cuts in order to satisfy the EU-IMF inspection team.  This is the definition of economic malpractice.
DM:  Do you see any better solutions to the debt crisis?
SK: First, let us be clear.  What is currently in place is not a “solution.”  The EU/IMF extortion program will not resolve the debt crisis – it will only prolong the ultimate demise of the Euro project. 
In order to preserve the “Union,” the ECB must recognize that the member governments are neither responsible for the debt crisis nor capable of resolving it.  The ECB must recognize the design flaw in the Euro system and, like Toyota, inform its users that it will take corrective measures to fix it.  My good friend Warren Mosler – an expert in financial markets – has pointed out that it took 10 years for most analysts to discover the flaw in the Euro system but that it would take the ECB only 10 minutes to correct it.
The fundamental problem is that member nations have no safe funding mechanism under the existing system.  To fix the problem, the ECB should create the euros that its member governments, as USERS of the currency, cannot.  It would do this simply by crediting bank accounts, just like the Federal Reserve does when it transfers money to cash-strapped states in the wake of a national disaster.  The funds could go directly into the member governments’ accounts, or they could be routed through the European Parliament, which could distribute them on a per-capita basis to all seventeen members of the Eurozone.  Because these are transfer payments – not loans – the ECB would not seek repayment.   A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that an annual distribution of about 10 percent of Euroland GDP would be sufficient to eliminate the funding risk, reduce borrowing costs, permit the repayment of debt and help to restore growth.
If the ECB refuses to create a safe funding mechanism for its member nations, then there may be no alternative but to abandon the euro and return to the more conventional “One Nation, One Money” arrangement.
DM:  Why is currency sovereignty so important?
SK:  Because without it you are merely the USER of the currency, no different from an individual state in the US.  You have no independent monetary policy and very little control over your budget.  You are at the mercy of financial markets, and your only hope is that some other source of demand will emerge and drag you out of the trenches. 

The False Dichotomy between Banking Honesty and a Sound Financial System

By William K. Black

(Cross-posted with

It’s exceptionally hard to kill bad ideas. The most spectacularly bad idea in economics and finance is that regulating business honesty is bad for business. The idea is exceptionally criminogenic. The idea ebbs briefly after each epidemic of control fraud it unleashes leads to crisis and scandal, but it quickly returns and intensifies. The bad idea has grown for three decades, which is why we have suffered recurrent, intensifying financial crises. Both major parties’ dominant economic policy makers embrace this bad idea.

Nothing is better for honest firms than effective police, prosecutors, and regulatory “cops on the beat.” These things make possible “free markets.” Fraud cripples markets. Criminologists know this. The best economists have known this for over 40 years. But really bright people explained why 285 years ago.

The Lilliputians look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft. For, they allege, care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, can protect a man’s goods from thieves, but honestly hath no fence against superior cunning. . . where fraud is permitted or connived at, or hath no law to punish it, the honest dealer is always undone, and the knave gets the advantage.

Swift, J. Gulliver’s Travels, London, Penguin (1967) p. 94. See Levi, M. The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. The Investigation, Prosecution, and Trial of Serious Fraud. Research Study No. 14, London, HMSO (1993) p. 7.

As I’ve written, these words should be inscribed on the walls of every relevant regulatory agency.

George Akerlof echoed Swift’s words in a formal economics argument in his seminal 1970 article “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.”

“[D]ishonest dealings tend to drive honest dealings out of the market. The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost also must include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence.”

This is the article that led to the award of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001 to Akerlof. Akerlof went on to explain that fraud could lead to a “Gresham’s” dynamics in which bad ethics drove good ethics out of the marketplace.

The bad idea that rules designed to reduce business dishonesty harms business is premised on a false claim that markets automatically exclude fraud. Alan Greenspan is the most famous anti-regulatory who once held this view. He has, subsequently, admitted his shock at the financial fraud that defined the current crisis. He admits that his belief that markets automatically self-corrected by excluding fraud proved false. Frank Easterbrook and Daniel Fischel (1991) are the most famous proponents of the view that markets automatically exclude fraud: “a rule against fraud is not an essential or … an important ingredient of securities markets.” A generation of American law students has been taught to believe this theoclassical dogma. Easterbrook & Fischel did not alert their readers that Fischel had, in his consulting work on behalf of three of the leading control frauds of the 1980s, applied these dogmas to make a series of predictions. Those predictions proved embarrassingly false because Fischel did not understand accounting control fraud. He ended up praising the worst frauds and claiming that regulators were incapable of providing any useful information because the markets price already incorporates all useful information (he adopted a perfect markets hypothesis).

This false dichotomy between regulatory efforts against dishonest firms and improved market performance has particular importance given the ongoing attacks on Elizabeth Warren and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The situation can be summarized briefly. Fraudulent loans hurt everybody who is honest and many of those who are somewhat dishonest. That’s what criminologists, the best economists, and effective regulators (plus geniuses like Swift) have long understood. I’m writing to a financially literate audience, so I do not need to explain that making fraudulent liar’s loans was never “profitable.” The reported “profits” were fictional and depended on either (i) making a fraudulent sale to another party or (ii) not creating a remotely adequate allowance for loan and lease losses (ALLL).

The incidence of fraud on liar’s loans was so extreme, the number of liar’s loans made in 2004-2007 was so large that it hyper-inflated and extend the bubble, the role of fraudulent loans in causing the collapse of the CDO market was so great, and Lehman’s liar’s loans were so suicidal that reducing fraud should have been a top national priority. The fraudulent lenders and the loan brokers they incentivized to engage in endemic fraud put the lies in the typical liar’s loan – in the loan application and the appraisal. That meant that millions of working class people were induced by the lenders’ and their agents’ frauds to purchase a home at a greatly inflated price that they could not afford. The result was the greatest loss of working class wealth in modern U.S. history. Another result was that the lenders were made deeply insolvent. We achieved the precise opposite of what market transactions are supposed to produce – Pareto anti-optimality. Both of the parties to the lending transaction were made worse off. Many fraudulent agents gained. Markets became spectacularly inefficient and even failed. Much of the world fell into the Great Recession.

Private market discipline didn’t simply fail, it became doubly perverse. First, the commercial and investment banks that were supposed to deny credit to and refuse to purchase loans from fraudulent and imprudent firms actually funded the massive growth of the worst lenders notorious for making endemically fraudulent liar’s loans. Second, when private market discipline did finally occur it proved disastrous. Private market discipline arose when Lehman collapsed, but it did not function in accordance with finance theory. Theory says that private discipline is greatly superior to governmental action because it is so much more flexible and rational. It is supposed to distinguish between strong and weak credits and it is supposed to be so flexible that markets remain stable. The reality was far messier, with little differentiation based on credit quality among a broad group of potentially impaired credits and credit restrictions so severe that hundreds of markets ceased functioning.

The Great Recession caused losses estimated at $10 trillion. Fraud epidemics can cause staggering losses. What does this have to do with Elizabeth Warren and the FCPA? Elizabeth Warren was one of the experts who warned about the bubble and nonprime loans. Had the FCPA existed under her direction the U.S. would have suffered far fewer losses and could have avoided the Great Recession. Reducing mortgage fraud is unambiguously good for the world. Protecting consumers from mortgage fraud by banning liar’s loans would have led to a massive reduction in mortgage fraud.

Why then are the Republicans promising to block any appointment to head such a vital agency? We know it is not because of their stated reasons (hyper-technical diversions about commission v. director leadership) because the Republicans have typically favored directorship leadership in the past for other financial regulators (e.g., the Office of Thrift Supervision). We know it has everything to do with blocking Warren’s appointment. Senator McConnell says: “We’re pretty unenthusiastic about the possibility of Elizabeth Warren.” Why? Because he fears that under her leadership the CFPB “could be a serious threat to our financial system.”

Why can’t we appoint one leader with a track record of success? We’ve appointed many regulatory leaders with track records of failure. We’ve appointed many anti-regulatory leaders because they doing so created self-fulfilling prophecies of regulatory failure. The results have been disastrous. Why not try a novel approach? Let’s appoint people because they are brilliant, honest, committed to helping the public, and get the big issues right. Warren could have saved both banks and borrowers from hundreds of billions of dollars of losses had she led a CFPB in 2002-2008. We know that fraud causes recurrent, intensifying “serious threat[s] to our financial system.” Honesty poses no threat to our financial system. McConnell is posing a severe threat to our financial system by blocking Warren’s appointment.

The Financial Road to Serfdom: How Bankers are using the Debt Crisis to Roll Back the Progressive Era

By Michael Hudson

Financial strategists do not intend to let today’s debt crisis go to waste. Foreclosure time has arrived. That means revolution – or more accurately, a counter-revolution to roll back the 20th century’s gains made by social democracy: pensions and social security, public health care and other infrastructure providing essential services at subsidized prices or for free. The basic model follows the former Soviet Union’s post-1991 neoliberal reforms: privatization of public enterprises, a high flat tax on labor but only nominal taxes on real estate and finance, and deregulation of the economy’s prices, working conditions and credit terms.

What is to be reversed is the “modern” agenda. The aim a century ago was to mobilize the Industrial Revolution’s soaring productivity and technology to raise living standards and use progressive taxation, public regulation, central banking and financial reform to distribute wealth fairly and make societies more equal. Today’s financial aim is the opposite: to concentrate wealth at the top of the economic pyramid and lower labor’s returns. High finance loves low wages.

The political lever to achieve this program is financial. The European Union (EU) constitution prevents central banks from financing government deficits, leaving this role to commercial banks, paying interest to them for creating credit that central banks readily monetize for themselves in Britain and the United States. Governments are to go into debt to bail out banks for loans gone bad – as do more and more loans as finance impoverishes the economy, stifling its ability to pay. Yet as long as we live in democracies, voters must agree to pay. Governments are sovereign and debt is ultimately a creature of the law and courts.

But first they need to understand what is happening. From the bankers’ perspective, the economic surplus is what they themselves end up with. Rising consumption standards and even public investment in infrastructure are seen as deadweight. Bankers and bondholders aim to increase the surplus not so much by tangible capital investment increasing the overall surplus, but by more predatory means, headed by rolling back labor’s gains and stiffening working conditions while gaining public subsidy. Banks “create wealth” by providing more credit (that is, debt leverage) to bid up asset prices for real estate and enterprises already in place – assets that either are being foreclosed on or sold off under debt pressure by private owners or governments. One commentator recently characterized the latter strategy of privatization as “tantamount to selling the family silver only to have to rent it back in order to eat dinner.” [1]

Fought in the name of free markets, this counter-revolution rejects the classical ideal of markets free of unearned income paid to special interests. The financial objective is to squeeze out a surplus by maximizing the margin of prices over costs. Opposing government enterprise and infrastructure as the road to serfdom, high finance is seeking to turn public infrastructure into rent-extracting tollbooths to extract economic rent (the “free lunch economy”), while replacing labor unions with non-union labor so as to work it more intensively.

This new road to neoserfdom is an asset grab. But to achieve it, the financial sector needs a political grab to replace democracy with financial technocrats. Their job is to pretend that there is no revolution at all, merely an increase in “efficiency,” “creating wealth” by debt-leveraging the economy to the point where the entire surplus is paid out as interest to the financial managers who are emerging as Western civilization’s new central planners.

Frederick Hayek’s Road to Serfdom portrayed a dystopia of public officials seeking to regulate the economy. In attacking government so one-sidedly, his ideological extremism sought to replace the checks and balances of mixed economies with a private sector “free” of regulation and consumer protection. His vision was of a post-modern economy “free” of the classical reforms to bring market prices into line with cost value. Instead of purifying industrial capitalism from the special rent extraction privileges bequeathed from the feudal epoch, Hayek’s ideology opened the way for unchecked financial power to make a travesty of “free markets.”

The European Union’s financial planners claim that Greece and other debtor countries have a problem that is easy to cure by imposing austerity. Pension savings, Social Security and medical insurance are to be downsized so as to “free” more debt service to be paid to creditors. Insisting that Greece only has a “liquidity problem,” European Central Bank (ECB) extremists deem an economy “solvent” as long as it has assets to privatize. ECB executive board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi explained the plan in a Financial Times interview:

FT: Otmar Issing, your former colleague, says Greece is insolvent and it “will not be physically possible” for it to repay its debts. Is he right?

LBS: He is wrong because Greece is solvent if it applies the programme. They have assets that they can sell and reduce their debt and they have the instruments to change their tax and expenditure systems to reduce the debt. This is the assessment of the IMF, it is the assessment of the European Commission.

Poor developing countries have no assets, their income is low, and so they become insolvent easily. If you look at the balance sheet of Greece, it is not insolvent.

The key problem is political will on the part of the government and parliament. Privatisation proceeds of €50bn, which is being talked about – some mention more – would reduce the peak debt to GDP ratio from 160 per cent to about 140 per cent or 135 per cent and this could be reduced further. [2]

A week later Mr. Bini Smaghi insisted that the public sector “had marketable assets worth 300 billion euros and was not bankrupt. ‘Greece should be considered solvent and should be asked to service its debts,’ … signaling that the bank remained firmly opposed to any plan to allow Greece to stretch out its debt payments or oblige investors to accept less than full repayment, a so-called haircut.” [3] Speaking from Berlin, he said that Greece “was not insolvent.” It could pay off its bonds owed to German bankers ($22.7 billion), French bankers ($15 billion) and the ECB (reported to be on the hook for $190 billion) by selling off public land and ports, water and sewer rights, ownership of the telephone system and other basic infrastructure. In addition to getting paid in full and receiving high interest rates reflecting “market” expectations of non-payment, the banks would enjoy a new credit market financing privatization buy-outs.

Warning that failure to pay would create windfall gains for speculators who had bet that Greece would default, Mr. Bini Smaghi refused to acknowledge the corollary: to pay the full amount would create windfalls for those who bet that Greece would be forced to pay. He also claimed that: “Restructuring of Greek debt would … discourage Greece from modernizing its economy.” But the less debt service an economy pays, the more revenue it has to invest productively. And to “solve” the problem by throwing public assets on the market would create windfalls for distress buyers. As the Wall Street Journal put matters bluntly: “Greece is for sale – cheap – and Germany is buying. German companies are hunting for bargains in Greece as the debt-stricken government moves to sell state-owned assets to stabilize the country’s finances.” [4]

Rather than raising living standards while creating a more egalitarian and fair society, the ECB’s creditor-oriented “reforms” would roll the time clock back to oligarchy. Not the post-feudal oligarchy of landlords owning land conquered militarily, but a financial oligarchy accumulating banking claims and bonds growing inexorably and exponentially, leaving little over for the rest of the economy to invest or consume.

The distinction between illiquidity and insolvency

If a homeowner loses his job and cannot pay his mortgage, he must sell the house or see the bank foreclose. Is he insolvent, or merely “illiquid”? If he merely has a liquidity problem, a loan will help him earn the funds to pay down the debt. But if he falls into the negative equity that now plagues a quarter of U.S. real estate, taking on more loans will only deepen his net deficit. Ending this process by losing his home does not mean that he is merely illiquid. He is in distress, and is suffering from insolvency. But to the ECB this is merely a liquidity problem.

The public balance sheet includes land and infrastructure as if they are surplus assets that can be forfeited without fundamentally changing the owner’s status or social relations. In reality it is part of the means of survival in today’s world, at least survival as part of the middle class.

For starters, renegotiating his loan won’t help an insolvency situation such as the jobless homeowner above. Lending him the money to pay the bank interest (along with late fees and other financial penalties) or stretching out the loan merely will add to the debt balance, giving the foreclosing bank yet a larger claim on whatever property the debtor may have available to grab.

But the homeowner is in danger of being homeless, living on the street. At issue is whether solvency should be defined in the traditional common-sense way, in terms of the ability of income to carry one’s current obligations, or a purely balance-sheet approach taken by creditors seeking to extract payment by stripping assets. This is Greece’s position. Is it merely a liquidity problem if the government is told to sell off $50 billion in prime tourist sites, ports, water systems and other public assets in order to pay foreign creditors?

At issue is language regarding the legal rights of creditors vis-à-vis debtors. The United States has long had a body of law regarding this issue. A few years ago, for instance, the real estate speculator Sam Zell bought the Chicago Tribune in a debt-leveraged buyout. The newspaper soon went broke, wiping out the employees’ stock ownership plan (ESOP). They sued under the fraudulent conveyance law, which says that if a creditor makes a loan without knowing how the debtor can pay in the normal course of business, the loan is assumed to have been made with the intent of foreclosing on property, and is deemed fraudulent.

This law dates from colonial times, when British speculators eyed rich New York farmland. Their ploy was to extend loans to farmers, and then call in the loans when the farmer’s ability to pay was low, before the crop was harvested. This was indeed a liquidity problem – which financial opportunists turned into an asset grab. Some lenders, to be sure, created a genuine insolvency problem by making loans beyond the ability of the farmers to pay, and then would foreclose on their land. The colonies nullified such loans. Fraudulent conveyance laws have been kept on the books since the United States won its independence from Britain.

Creditors today are using debt leverage to force Greece to sell off its public domain – having extended credit beyond its ability to pay. So the question now being raised is whether the nation should be deemed “solvent” if the only way to carry its public debt (that is, roll it over by replacing bad old loans with newer and more inexorable obligations) is to forfeit its land and basic infrastructure. This would fundamentally alter the relationship between public and private sectors, replacing its mixed economy with a centrally planned one – planned by financial predators with little care that the economy is polarizing between rich and poor, creditors and debtors.

The financial road to serfdom

Financial lobbyists are turning the English language – and economic terminology throughout the world – into a battlefield. Creditors are to be permitted to take the assets of insolvent debtors – from homeowners and companies to entire nations – as if this were a normal working of “the market” and foreclosure was simply a way to restore “liquidity.” As for “solvency,” the ECB would strip Greece clean of its public sector’s assets. Bank officials have spoken of throwing potentially 150 billion euros of property onto the market.

Most people would think of this as a solvency problem. Solvency means the ability to maintain the kind of society one has, with existing public/private checks and balances and living standards. It is incompatible with scaling down pensions, Social Security and medical insurance to save bondholders and bankers from taking a loss. The latter policy is nothing less than a political revolution.

The asset stripping that Europe’s bankers are demanding of Greece looks like a dress rehearsal to prevent the “I won’t pay” movement from spreading to “Indignant Citizens” movements against financial austerity in Spain, Portugal and Italy. Bankers are trying to block governments from writing down debts, stretching out loans and reducing interest rates.

When a nation is directed to replace its mixed economy by transferring ownership of public infrastructure and enterprises to a financial class (mainly foreign), this is not merely “restoring solvency” by using long-term assets to pay short-term debts to maintain its balance-sheet net worth. It is a radical transformation to a centrally planned economy, shifting control out of the hands of elected representatives to those of financial managers whose time frame is short-term and extractive, not long-term and protective of social equity and basic needs.

Creditors are demanding a political transformation to replace democratic lawmakers with technocrats appointed by foreign bankers. When the economic surplus is pledged to bankers rather than invested at home, we are not merely dealing with “insolvency” but with an aggressive attack. Finance becomes a continuation of war, by economic means that are to be politicized. Acting on behalf of the commercial banks (from which most of its directors are drawn, and to which they intend to “descend from heaven” to take their rewards after serving their financial class), the European Central Bank insists on a political revolution to replace democratic government by a technocratic elite – not of industrial engineers, but of “financial engineers,” a polite name for asset stripping financial warriors. If Greece does not comply, they threaten to wreak domestic financial havoc by “pulling the plug” on Greek banks. This “carrot and stick” approach threatens that if Greece does not sign on, the ECB and IMF will withhold loans needed to keep its banking system solvent. The “carrot” was provided on May 31 they agreed to provide $86 billion in euros if Greece “puts off for the time being a restructuring, hard or soft,” of its public debt. [5]

It is a travesty to present this revolution simply as a financial exercise in solving the “liquidity problem” as if it were compatible with Europe’s past four centuries of political and classical economic reforms. This is why the Syntagma Square protest in front of Parliament has been growing each week, peaking at over 70,000 last Sunday, June 5.

Some protestors drew a parallel with the Wisconsin politicians who left the state to prevent a quorum from voting on the anti-labor program that Governor Walker tried to ram through. The next day, on June 6, thirty backbenchers of Prime Minister George Papandreou’s ruling Panhellenic Socialist party (Pasok) were joined by some of his own cabinet ministers threatening “to resign their parliamentary seats rather than vote through measures to cut thousands of public sector jobs, increase taxes again and dispose of €50bn of state assets, according to party insiders. ‘The biggest issue for the party is stringent cuts in the public sector … these go to the heart of Pasok’s model of social protection by providing jobs in state entities for its supporters,’ said a senior Socialist official.” [6]

Seeing the popular reluctance to commit financial suicide, Conservative Opposition leader Antonis Samaras also opposed paying the European bankers, “demanding a renegotiation of the package agreed last week with the ‘troika’ of the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank.” It was obvious that no party could gain popular support for the ECB’s demand that Greece relinquish popular rule and “appoint experienced technocrats to half a dozen essential ministries to implement the EU-IMF programme.” [7]

ECB President Trichet depicts himself as following Erasmus in bringing Europe beyond its “strict concept of nationhood.” This is to be done by replacing elected officials with a bureaucracy of cosmopolitan banker-friendly planners. The debt problem calls for new “monetary policy measures – we call them ‘non standard’ decisions, strictly separated from the ‘standard’ decisions, and aimed at restoring a better transmission of our monetary policy in these abnormal market conditions.” The task at hand is to make these conditions a new normalcy – and re-defining solvency to reflect a nation’s ability to pay debts by selling the public domain.

The ECB and EU claim that Greece is “solvent” as long as it has assets to sell off. But if populations in today’s mixed economies think of solvency as existing under existing public/private proportions, they will resist the financial sector’s attempt to proceed with buyouts and foreclosures until it possesses all the assets in the world, all the hitherto public and corporate assets and those of individuals and partnerships.

To minimize opposition to this dynamic the financial sector’s pet economists understate the debt burden, pretending that it can be paid without disrupting economic life and, in the Greek case for example, by using “mark to model” junk accounting and derivative swaps to simply conceal its magnitude. Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF claims that the post-2008 debt crisis is merely a short-term “liquidity problem” and one of lack of “confidence,” not insolvency reflecting an underlying inability to pay. Banks promise that everything will be all right when the economy “returns to normal” – as if it can “borrow its way out of debt,” Bernanke-style.

This is what today’s financial warfare is about. At issue is the financial sector’s relationship to the “real” economy. From the latter’s perspective the proper role of credit – that is, debt – is to fund productive capital investment and spending, because it is out of the economic surplus that debts are paid. This requires a financial regulatory system and tax system to maximize growth. But that is precisely the fiscal policy that today’s financial sector is fighting against. It demands preferential tax-deductibility for interest to encourage debt financing rather than equity. It has disabled truth-in-lending laws and regulations to keeping interest rates 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. And to cap matters it now demands that democratic society yield to centralized authoritarian financial rule.

Finance and democracy: from mutual reinforcement to antagonism

The relationship between banking and democracy has taken many twists over the centuries. Earlier this year, democratic opposition to the ECB and IMF attempt to impose austerity and privatization selloffs succeeded when Iceland’s President Grímsson insisted on a national referendum on the Icesave debt payment that Althing leaders had negotiated with Britain and the Netherlands (if one can characterize abject capitulation as a real negotiation). To their credit, a heavy 3-to-2 majority of Icelanders voted “No,” saving their economy from being driven into the debt peonage.

Democratic action historically has been needed to enforce debt collection. Until four centuries ago royal treasuries typically were kept in the royal bedroom, and loans to rulers were in the character of personal debts. Bankers repeatedly found themselves burned, especially by Habsburg and Bourbon despots on the thrones of Spain, Austria and France. Loans to such rulers were liable to expire upon their death, unless their successors remained dependent on these same financiers rather than turning to their rivals. The numerous bankruptcies of Spain’s autocratic Habsburg ruler Charles V exhausted his credit, preventing the nation from raising funds to defeat the rebellious Low Countries to the north.

The problem facing bankers was how to make loans permanent national obligations. Solving this problem gave an advantage to parliamentary democracies. It was a major factor enabling the Low Countries to win their independence from Habsburg Spain in the 16th century. The Dutch Republic committed the entire nation to pay its public debts, binding the people themselves, through their elected representatives who earmarked taxes to their creditors. Bankers saw parliamentary democracy as a precondition for making sound loans to governments. This security for bankers could be achieved only from electorates having at least a nominal voice in government. And raising war loans was a key element in military rivalry in an epoch when the maxim for survival was “Money is the sinews of war.”

As long as governments remained despotic, they found that their ability to incur more debt was limited. At this time “the legal position of the King qua borrower was obscure, and it was still doubtful whether his creditors had any remedy against him in case of default.” [8] Earlier Dutch-English financing had not satisfied creditors on this count. When Charles I borrowed 650,000 guilders from the Dutch States-General in 1625, the two countries’ military alliance against Spain helped defer the implicit constitutional struggle over who ultimately was liable for British debts.

The key financial achievement of parliamentary government was thus to establish nations as political bodies whose debts were not merely the personal obligations of rulers, but truly public and binding regardless of who occupied the throne. This is why the first two democratic nations, the Netherlands and Britain after its 1688 dynastic linkage between Holland and Britain in the person of William I, and the emergence of Parliamentary authority over public financing. They developed the most active capital markets and became Europe’s leading military powers. “A funded debt could not be formed so long as the King and Parliament were fighting for the mastery,” concludes the financial historian Richard Ehrenberg. “It was only after the [1688] revolution that the English State became what the Dutch Republic had long been – a real corporation of individuals firmly associated together, a permanent organism.” [9]

In sum, nations emerged in their modern form by adopting the financial characteristics of democratic city states. The financial imperatives of 17th-century warfare helped make these democracies victorious, for the new national financial systems facilitated military spending on a vastly extended scale. Conversely, the more despotic Spain, Austria and France became, the greater the difficulty they found in financing their military adventures. Austria was left “without credit, and consequently without much debt” by the end of the 18th century, the least credit-worthy and worst armed country in Europe, as Sir James Steuart noted in 1767 [10]. It became fully dependent on British subsidies and loan guarantees by the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The modern epoch of war financing therefore went hand in hand with the spread of parliamentary democracy. The situation was similar to that enjoyed by plebeian tribunes in Rome in the early centuries of its Republic. They were able to veto all military funding until the patricians made political concessions. The lesson was not lost on 18th-century Protestant parliaments. For war debts and other national obligations to become binding, the people’s elected representatives had to pledge taxes. This could be achieved only by giving the electorate a voice in government.

It thus was the desire to be repaid that turned the preference of creditors away from autocracies toward democracies. In the end it was only from democracies that they were able to collect. This of course did not necessarily reflect liberal political convictions on the part of creditors. They simply wanted to be paid.

Europe’s sovereign commercial cities developed the best credit ratings, and hence were best able to employ mercenaries. Access to credit was “their most powerful weapon in the struggle for their freedom,” notes Ehrenberg, in an age whose “growth in the use of fire arms had forced them to surround themselves with stronger fortifications.” [11] The problem was that “Anyone who gave credit to a prince knew that the repayment of the debt depended only on his debtor’s capacity and will to pay. The case was very different for the cities, who had power as overlords, but were also corporations, associations of individuals held in common bond. According to the generally accepted law each individual burgher was liable for the debts of the city both with his person and his property.”

But the tables are now turning, from Icelandic voters to the large crowds gathering in Syntagma Square and elsewhere throughout Greece to oppose the terms on which Prime Minister Papandreou has been negotiating an EU bailout loan for the government – to bail out German and French banks. Now that nations are not raising money for war but to subsidize reckless predatory bankers, Jean-Claude Trichet of the ECB recently suggested taking financial policy out of the hands of democracy.

But if a country is still not delivering, I think all would agree that the second stage has to be different. Would it go too far if we envisaged, at this second stage, giving euro area authorities a much deeper and authoritative say in the formation of the country’s economic policies if these go harmfully astray? A direct influence, well over and above the reinforced surveillance that is presently envisaged? …

At issue is sovereignty itself, when it comes to government responsibility for debts. And in this respect the war being waged against Greece by the European Central Bank (ECB) may best be seen as a dress rehearsal not only for the rest of Europe, but for what financial lobbyists would like to bring about in the United States.

[1] Yves Smith, “Wisconsin’s Walker Joins Government Asset Giveaway Club (and is Rahm Soon to Follow?)” Naked Capitalism, February 22, 2011.

[2] Ralph Atkins, “Transcript: Lorenzo Bini Smaghi,” Financial Times, May 30, 2011.

[3] Jack Ewing, “In Asset Sale, Greece to Give Up 10% Stake in Telecom Company,” The New York Times, June 7, 2011.

[4] Christopher Lawton and Laura Stevens, “Deutsche Telekom, Others Look to Grab State-Owned Assets at Fire-Sale Prices,” Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2011.

[5] Landon Thomas Jr., “New Rescue Package for Greece Takes Shape,” The New York Times, June 1, 2011.

[6] Kerin Hope, “Rift widens on Greek reform plan,” Financial Times, June 7, 2011.

[7] Ibid. See also Kerin Hope, “Thousands protest against Greek austerity,” Financial Times, June 6, 2011: “‘Thieves, thieves … Where did our money go?’ the protesters shouted, blowing whistles and waving Greek flags as riot police thickened ranks around the parliament building on Syntagma square in the centre of the capital. … Banners draped nearby read ‘Take back the new measures’ and ‘Greece is not for sale’ – a reference to the government’s plans to include state property and real estate for tourist development in the privatisation scheme.”

[8] Charles Wilson, England’s Apprenticeship: 1603-1763 (London: 1965), p. 89.

[9] Richard Ehrenberg, Capital and Finance in the Age of the Renaissance (1928), p. 354.

[10] James Steuart, Principles of Political Oeconomy (1767), p. 353.

[11] Ehrenberg, op. cit., pp. 44f., 33.