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Greece and the EuroZone: Angie, Ain't It Time to Say Goodbye?

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Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

Arthur Conan Doyle's literary creation, Sherlock Holmes, once solved a murder by noting the dog that didn't bark. It doesn't take Holmes's ingenuity to see that the plan on offer for Greece is clearly a rescue package which doesn't rescue. It's a dog's breakfast.

Greece indeed is being offered a financial aid package of around 22 billion euro, but no funding will be made available until the country fails to find funding elsewhere, entirely obviating the point of the bailout. Greece, like all borrowers, simply offers securities at ever higher rates until it finds the needed buyers. Failure, in theory, is defined as the rate reaching infinity with no buyers. At that time, the euro members would step in with a loan offer at a non concessional rate which would then presumably be infinity. As George Friedman of Stratfor has noted, "That is akin to offering a homeowner, who is about to default on a mortgage, a refinancing offer that equals or increases his mortgage rates above the rate he already cannot pay."

This makes no sense at all, of course. In reality, it's a statement that says Greece is on its own. It means that the EMU nations will stand by without taking action as observers of the standard market default process of Greek funding rates going into double and then triple digits as happens to all failed borrowers of externally managed currencies, including nations with fixed exchange rates.

So much for European solidarity. Even worse, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has managed to secure the backing of France for her proposal for a joint International Monetary Fund and bilateral aid package from euro-zone countries should Greece need help, which is a shame, given that recent remarks by French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde suggested that Paris better understood the nature of the current crisis.

An interesting question which has hitherto been unanswered by the mainstream media: why did the Greek debt crisis erupt with such sudden ferocity in the past month or so? As many observers have noted, if these countries had their own national currencies, they could allow their currencies to float, which would potentially allow some stimulus via the external sector. More significantly, they are unable to use the expansionary fiscal policies that would help pull their economies out of recession. Of course, both France and Germany also violated these rules and were never punished for their transgressions. Indeed, the selective applications of the rule in EMU have made it more apparent that this is nothing more than a liquidationist gambit on the part of Berlin and now, it appears, Paris.

A liquidationist gambit is the removal, by power, of government from the society. Liquidation occurs when society has ceased to be a center of power, and has become a center of weakness. It therefore becomes far more prone to corporate predation. It does not mean that government becomes either smaller or less intrusive, but that government's traditional role of mobilizing resources for broader public purpose is impaired. These are some of the instruments which are characteristic of liquidation gambits:

  1. Looting
  2. Corporatism and cartelization
  3. Brow-beating (societal interest above self interest, power as power, cooptation and betrayal) particularly via manufactured bankrupcties
  4. Shams and accounting frauds

The unseemly side of the Franco-German power play came to the fore last week: ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet ostensibly took some pressure off Greece by extending emergency lending rules, saying its bonds won't be cut off from ECB refinancing operations next year in case Moody's Investors Service lowers its rating to a level comparable with other companies. Of course, this occurred only after the Greeks cried "Uncle."

Why were these lending rules threatened to be removed in the first place? This has never been adequately explored. Trichet's statements marked a reversal for the ECB, which said in January that it wouldn't soften its collateral policy for the sake of a single country. The bank was scheduled to reintroduce pre-crisis rules at the end of 2010.

This basically confirmed my earlier suspicions that this entire crisis was triggered by the ECB at the behest of the Germans. The ECB closed the lending window to Greece, which had been dealing with the inherent operational constraints of the EMU by buying Greek government debt, repo-ing it to ECB, and then taking the reserves from that and buying more government debt. The Germans surely took offense to that, since it is Weimar 2.0 from their paranoid perspective. Ireland has also been using this loophole. Of course, that Germany and France were serial violators of these EMU imposed constraints (when they routinely ran budget deficits in excess of 3% of GDP) never seemed exorcise the President of the ECB to the same degree.

Given the loss of Greece's independent currency creating function, the repo mechanism was likely the only way to get "vertical money" into Greece, once ECB stopped expanding its balance sheet as the crisis died down. So various European central bankers started mentioning in front of microphones that ECB rule waiver would be up at year end, (the one that lets ECB hold and repo lower quality rated euro zone government debt) and, presto, a fully-fledged crisis emerges in Greece.

How convenient, especially as it finally gave Berlin the leverage to fully impose its version of hair shirt economics on those allegedly lazy southern Mediterranean scroungers. Left conveniently unstated is the idea that the longer the PIIGS are forced to wallow in stagnant growth, the more persistent will be the very budget deficits and the larger the public debt to GDP ratios for which they are now being punished. It's akin to someone having a high temperature because he/she is suffering from influenza and therefore denying that person medicine on those grounds. Trying to work against the automatic stabilizers with austerity programs will be futile unless you start dismantling some of the automatic capacity, which gives rise to these stabilizers.

Which is exactly what is happening at present. As Bill Mitchell has noted:

European countries have stronger automatic stabilisers than most other nations because they have historically given better protection to their workers and retirees etc. The push for austerity is seeking to undermine these provisions in part and in my view that is one of the hidden agendas in all of this.

We would agree with Mitchell and go further by noting the hypocritical nature of the cuts demanded here. As is the case in the US, fiscal austerity seems only to apply when dealing with "wasteful" social spending, because at the same time France and Germany were imposing harsh austerity conditions on the Greeks in exchange for their "support", Berlin and Paris are using the leverage created by the debt crisis to force Athens to buy their weaponry and warplanes even as they urge those "profligate" Greeks to cut public spending and curb its budget deficit. France is pushing to sell six frigates, 15 helicopters and up to 40 top-of-the-range Rafale fighter aircraft. Greek and French officials said President Nicolas Sarkozy was personally involved and had broached the matter when Papandreou visited France last month to seek support in the financial crisis, according to The Economic Times.

Talk about gunboat "diplomacy"! The Germans like to argue that nations such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy blew the opportunity that interest rates converging down gave them to get labor productivity up with new investment. In Berlin's eyes, it is all their fault they can't "achtung baby" and get their lazy work forces in line, with lower unit labor costs, like the Germans themselves managed after 7 years of deflating their own country into the ground following on from reunification (of course, this conveniently in the days before the creation of the Stability and Growth Pact).

Surely there was a better way? Rather than the austerity cold bath to break the back of labor and induce a private income deflation with a decidedly Fisherian debt deflation cast to it, would it not be better for current account countries to reinvest the surpluses in the deficit nations in the form of direct foreign investment, or PIIGS government bonds directed solely at public investment that will improve productivity in periphery and have ripple effects on private investment, or run it through the European Investment Bank?

Or the creation of a supranational authority, but not one which replicates the austerity ethos embodied in the Stability and Growth Pact -- rather one which emphasizes the principle that the only fiscally sustainable policy is one that promotes full employment. As we've said before, this could be done via a Government Job Guarantee program. We would need a supranational authority which is geared toward a full employment goal. Such a program would potentially be even more attractive in Europe, given that minimum wages and income support packages are far more generous in than in the US, consequently leaving less scope to use the JG program as a means to replace a strong social welfare benefits model with some form of indentured slavery, which is something one could potentially envisage developing in the US.

Acknowledging that crony capitalist politicians do have this proclivity toward supporting corporate predation and wasteful spending and giving goodies to their campaign contributors, a genuine Job Guarantee Program that automatically adjusts to insure the private sector can actually realize its desired net nominal savings position largely frees the system from political parasites while increasing the freedom of the private sector to achieve its goals. And it is consistent with the idea of re-employing the country via, say, green tech initiatives.

If the Franco-German axis proves resistant to this idea, then it might be time for the Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, Spanish, Irish, etc., to send a different message to Chancellor Angela Merkel. To quote those noted political philosophers, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, "Angie...ain't it time to say goodbye?"

An exit from the euro zone would clearly create a short term problem because the PIIGS nations that wanted to exit would have to deal with a foreign currency debt burden. It is unclear how the transfers back into the central banking system from the ECB noted above would serve to offset the "euro exposure" upon exit. And there is also likely to be collateral damage within the remaining EMU nations' banking systems, given the amount of PIIGS debt that they likely hold. But ultimately as part of a painful adjustment process it might require the nation to default which could manifest as a negotiated settlement where the creditors accepted the local currency (or nothing). It would be painful and messy. But a long, drawn-out process of wage cutting is the other way and that will have to be a decade-long adjustment. Far more costly, other words, in the long run. And, as Keynes, noted insightfully, in the long run, we're all dead.