Friday, December 23, 2011

What does Equity mean today?

Equity (from latin aequus which means equal) is often used as a synonym of justice. We should start making a distinction between these two notions. The principle of justice applies to individuals and consists of treating equal things in equal manner and unequal things in an unequal manner.  Equity has to do with social and moral righteousness and suggests that people share a common human dignity, and as such should be treated as equals with equal concern and respect. This matters for public policy because citizens can hold the State responsible for ensuring that all citizens are treated as equals and for influencing how things are distributed, i.e. goods and resources (for instance access to healthcare, pensions ) are allocated according to need, not power.  

In current times of crisis, Equity implies that those being responsible for financial speculation - individuals, structures and mechanisms - which to a varying degree  caused the current global crisis are identified and punished so they should not be able to cause any more damage. Their privileged situations of impunity which offend gravely the innate sense of justice among human beings should be brought to an end. Equity also means that everyone should pay its share on its own income and wealth, and that,   the burden is not put only on workers but extends to hidden wealth and tax evasion. Finally, Equity means  that we should not tolerate that opacity persists on the responsibility of the crisis. This means, in substance that those who have more should pay more, but also those who never paid taxes (or very little) should start paying their contribution. 

Citizenship is often an empty word in contemporary democracies. It cannot be a feast for some and a malediction for others, but a commitment for mutual solidarity and aid. Carlo Maria Martini, a former archbishop of Milan and probably the most (intellectually) authoritative voice of the Catholic Church reminded us that  the crisis should be fought with civil courage and that helping the poor is not just a moral obligation. It means helping ourselves as a community of men. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Moral hazard

The president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, warned in an interview in the Financial Times (19 December) of the cost and dangers of disintegration of the eurozone. Unlike his predecessor, who always refused to even countenance such a possibility, Draghi does not rule it out but says that the ECB buying up state debt is not a miracle solution to the crisis because countries themselves have to act first and is the only practical way of restoring confidence among investors.  In order to tackle the crisis, the ECB president says that unprecedented measures are needed, like the ECB's support for eurozone banks, for example, of unlimited three-year loans. This is intended to be lent on to the real economy to relieve pressure on small and medium-sized banks that provide the bulk of finance to small business  which make up 70% of private sector jobs in the eurozone.

Yesterday, the ECB offered to all eurozone banks unlimited liquidity at a 1% interest rate. Some economists think that this measure will allow banks to provide credit to enterprises, thereby alleviating the recession effects. Some others foresee that banks, attracted by the difference between the cost of borrowing and the interest rates on sovereign debt of Spain or Italy, will be tempted to use this source of liquidity to purchase bonds and speculate for profit.

This bears resemblance with  a moral hazard situation in which banks continue to take excessive risks and if things go wrong, the ECB and States will have to intervene to save them. In heavily indebted countries, the ECB operation is not the panacea, neither for enterprises, nor for the Treasury. In order to provide credit to enterprises ( or even purchase bonds), the bank should have the necessary liquidity, that is enough capital (net from loans already provided). Each loan entails specific risks:  the loan could not be reimbursed and State  bonds could lose their value as it happened a few months ago. In substance, to face these risks, banks should have enough free capital; if they don't have it, the ECB liquidity will not be useful. the problem is that many banks in Italy and Spain have little capital available, especially after the loss in value of State bonds. This is probably true for large banks, which are more heavily exposed, but it may not be the case for smaller banks which have been in the past more active in providing capital to small and medium businesses.

In substance, the ECB may help alleviate the effect of the recession but also create a moral hazard  that should be avoided.  Governments should use heir powers to ask banks to provide credit to enterprises. But it is not certain that they will do so as they failed to introduce strict financial regulation for the banking system. It is a pure illusion to think that the ECB is the solution to the eurozone crisis. Other measures, such as making the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) fully operational and increasing its lending capacity are certainly necessary. But the key to recovery is an ambitious plan of growth enhancing investments at the EU level which may stimulate demand and job creation. This seems to be a taboo for European leaders that we must breach to avoid the break up and disintegration of Europe with all its negative consequences on ordinary people and businesses.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Failure of Austerity

Just a couple of months ago, the worst scenario for Europe was Greece's default. Now it looks as if  a wider crisis has pervaded the entire Europe, not only peripheral countries.

The European sovereign debt crisis has just now caused a panic reaction in the US and the UK. Banks have decided to prepare for the worst scenario: the break up of the euro. During the night of 28 November, a concerted action of the FED and other major central banks contributed to alleviate the market pressure by easing borrowing at low interest rate, but this will not stop the fire, just save time. Economic analysts believe that Europe has already entered in a recession, and it may spread to other parts of the world economy.

To quote Keynes' words,  we are suffering from a bad attack of economic pessimism. The great economist wrote in his famous essay 'Economic possibilities for our grand-children" (1931):

"The prevailing world depression, the enormous anomaly of unemployment in a world full of wants, the disastrous mistakes we have made, blind us to what is going on under the surface to the true interpretation. of the trend of things. For I predict that both of the two opposed errors of pessimism which now make so much noise in the world will be proved wrong in our own time – the pessimism of the revolutionaries who think that things are so bad that nothing can save us but violent change, and the pessimism of the reactionaries who consider the balance of our economic and social life so precarious that we must risk no experiments."

During the past decade, the United States, like Europe had a fragile banking system due to excessive risks which led to the build up of huge amount of debt. However, Europe's debt stems from cross-border lending,  from the core to the periphery, making the euro zone economies interwoven. German capital (in excess) flowed to southern countries, which were perceived as low risk being in the same monetary area.  In fact, capital went to the private sector, not governments. Then, the bubble burst in Spain, Portugal and Ireland and private spending fell dramatically in debtor countries. 

European leaders were convinced to do the right thing when they introduced austerity measures assuming that the main problem was fiscal irresponsibility. In fact, only Greece had a huge budget deficit ; Spain had a continuous budget surplus before the start of the crisis. Deficits rose due to the economic downturn, caused by the fall of private demand. Despite warnings by wise men, all countries, not just debtor countries were asked to cut public spending and raise taxes. So far austerity policies have not triggered economic recovery but just worsened the debt crisis. 

During the last decade with lax monetary policies, southern economies because of divergence in prices and wages with norther economies. The competitiveness gap can be addressed only if prices and wages fall in the 'peripheral' economies or if prices rise in the 'core' economies. If southern economies are forced to deflate, they will pay a heavy price in terms of job losses and worsen its debt situation. Conversely, northern economies will not accept a rise in prices, which would mean higher inflation for the whole euro area. Last April, the European Central Bank (ECB)  raised interest rates though it was obvious that inflationary expectations were low. Is it when the euro area entered in its critical phase? 

Now, the situation appears out of control, despite the strengthened governance measures taken by European leaders. Italy and Spain are under attack because their public finance have deteriorated as a result of the crisis. Is it economically rational that Italy pays more interests on its debt than Egypt? Markets are driving up too interest rates in countries like Austria and Finland. The reason is that  severe austerity plans and a European monetary policy obsessed with inflation makes it impossible for heavily indebted countries to escape from their debt trap and will inevitably lead to debt defaults* and a general financial collapse.  

The Economist ( Sept. 17) wrote : "So far the euro zone's response has relied too much on two things: austerity and pretence. Sharply cutting budget deficits has been the priority - hence the tax rises and spending cuts. But this collectively huge fiscal contraction is self-defeating. By driving enfeebled economies into recession it only increases worries about both government debts and European banks". 

The entire European economy is being dragged down in a recession by troubled debtor countries. It probably needs a change of direction in fiscal and monetary policies and shift the agenda from austerity toward growth. Throughout the euro zone's debt crisis,  Merkel and  Sarkozy said they would do whatever to save the euro, but they have failed to stop the crisis. They ruled out  joint euro zone borrowing and a bigger role for the ECB in fighting the European sovereign debt crisis, but there are not many options left apart moving to a fiscal union with greater economic powers and the ECB providing unlimited backing to debtor countries. 

We hope that our European leaders will act in the interest of all European citizens. Failing to act would mean taking all of us down the path of ruin.  

* G.Soros wrote a few weeks ago in a prophetic article : "To resolve a crisis in which the impossible has become possible, it is necessary to think the unthinkable. So, to resolve Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, it is now imperative to prepare for the possibility of default and defection from the eurozone by Greece, Portugal, and perhaps Ireland..