Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Disgorge the Cash" at the Roosevelt Institute

I have a working paper up at the Roosevelt Institute, as part of their new Financialization Project. Much of the content will be familiar to readers of this blog, but I think the argument is clearer and, I hope, more convincing in the paper.

The paper has gotten a nice writeup at the Washington Post, and at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

UPDATE. And in the International Business Times.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"The Idea Was to Create a Modern Gold Standard"

My view on the euro is that it has become a project to restore the rule of money over humanity. To move us back toward a world where in every sphere of life, and especially in collective choices made through government, the overriding question is, "what is most consistent with the accumulation of money claims?" or, "what will the markets think?" The euro is a project to roll back social democracy and to reimpose the "discipline of the market" on the state -- or in other words to restore the logic of the gold standard, whose essential condition was that preservation of money-claims had priority over democratic government. From this point of view, crises are not a failure of the system but an essential part of its functioning, since discipline requires that punishment be sometimes visibly meted out.

This kind of Polanyian perspective is typically found on the left. But it's increasingly clear that many of those on the other side think this way too. Here is a striking recent op-ed from the FT, by one Thomas Mayer:
Germany relied on the Maastricht treaty to make it possible to share a currency without sacrificing political accountability. The idea was to create an economic framework that was in some ways the modern equivalent of a gold standard. Monetary decisions would be made by the European Central Bank, whose only goal would be price stability. The lack of shared political institutions did not matter, because the ECB was to operate in total independence from all political influence. It would never lend to member states, even ones that were at risk of going bankrupt. 
Despite these provisions, the Germans did not entirely trust their partners’ fiscal discipline, so they imposed strict limits to government budget deficits and debt.... With the benefit of hindsight, it was all rather naive. Germany should have insisted on a procedure for government insolvency, and a way of showing the door to states that were unable or unwilling to respect the rules. 
Mayer, the head of a German think tank, does not mention that in the first decade of the euro Germany was one of the most frequent violators of the "strict limits" on fiscal deficits. But it's helpful to see the idea of the euro as a new gold standard stated so plainly by a supporter. And he makes another important point, which is that even under a new gold standard, the discipline of the markets is unreliable, and needs to be supplemented with (or simulated by) overt political authority.
From early 2010, when a Greek default was narrowly avoided, until early 2012, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, attempted to re-establish the Maastricht model ... and contemplated the possibility that Greece might leave the euro. But she is risk-averse by nature and, confronted with the incalculable risks, she changed course in the spring of 2012. The Greek debt restructuring, she now said, was “exceptional and unique”. Leaving the euro was out of question for any member country. Since this decision meant markets would no longer pressurise governments into sound economic policies, she built a pan-European “shadow state” — a web of pacts to ensure that countries followed policies consistent with sound money. 
It has not worked. From Greece to France, countries resist any infringement on their sovereignty and refuse to act in a way that is consistent with a hard currency policy. The ECB is forced to loosen its stance. Worse, it has allowed monetary policy to become a back channel for transfering economic resources between eurozone members. This is Germany's worst nightmare... 
A century ago, Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, the Austrian economist and finance minister, proclaimed laws of economics to be a higher authority than political power. Some Germans say that a hard currency is an essential part of their economic value system. If both are right, politicians will be powerless to prevent Germany’s departure from a monetary union that is at odds with the country’s economic convictions.
The essential points here are, first, that the goal of the euro system to create a situation where markets can "pressurise governments into sound economic policies," meaning first and foremost, policies that preserve the value of money; second, that this requires limits on national sovereignty, which will be resisted by democratic governments; and third, that this resistance can only be overcome through the threat of a crisis. In this sense, from Mayer's perspective, the steps that were taken to resolve the crisis were a terrible mistake, and required the use of direct political control by a "shadow state" to substitute for the blunted threat of financial catastrophe. This is all very clarifying; the one piece of mystification still intact is the substitution of "Germany" as the social actor, rather than European wealth owners as a class. 

Mayer is just one guy, of course, but presumably he speaks to some extent for his old colleagues at Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and the IMF. [1] And anyway this kind of language is everywhere these days.

The FT's review of "Lords of Secrecy," for instance, acknowledges that we increasingly seem to be subjects of "a vast secret state beyond control." That sounds bad! But the reviewer concludes on a cheerful note:
The “lords of secrecy” do need to be kept in check, of course. But that may soon happen anyway. After all, principles go only so far in holding the clandestine arms of the state to account; money goes a lot further. But money is one thing that is not quite so freely available in Washington, or many other capitals in the west, no matter how many secrets they have.
Here, subservience to the bond markets doesn't just require limits on democracy or the rule of law, it makes them superfluous.

Returning to the euro, here, via Bill Mitchell, is Graham Bishop on the "revolutionary political implications" of unified interbank payments in the euro area:
While payments are an intensely technical area, the political implications are immense... SEPA establishes an effective 'referendum veto' to be exercised by citizens whose national governments might contemplate leaving the euro. In SEPA, citizens are empowered to embed the freedom and the choices associated with the single market so deeply in the economy to make it impossible for any EU government which adopted the euro to abandon the common currency. It is hard to imagine that citizens and enterprises accustomed to these choices would want to leave the euro once they considered what they individually would give up by way of returning to narrow, national offerings for trade in goods and services. 
With SEPA, any citizen who fears that his home state is about to leave the euro to implement a major devaluation can protect themselves by transferring their liquid funds into a bank in another euro country - in an instant and at negligible cost. In effect, this is a free option for all citizens and amounts to an instantaneous referendum on government policy. Such an outflow of retail liquidity from a banking system would cause its rapid collapse. The quiet run out of deposits in the Irish banks last year demonstrated the power of depositors to force radical political change.
There's not much to say about that unctuous, preening first paragraph, with its cant about freedom and choices, except to hope that some future novelist (or screenwriter, I guess) can do justice to the horrible people who rule us. (Also, notice the classic bait-and-switch in which the only alternative to complete liberalization of capital flows is autarchy.) But what's interesting for the argument I'm making here is the claim that the great political innovation of the euro is that it gives money-owners the right to a veto or referendum over government policy -- up to the point of forcing through "radical change," on pain of a bank crisis. And to be clear: This is being presented as one of the great benefits of the system, and an argument for the UK to join the single currency.

(Also, if I'm correct that the effect of a withdrawal of ECB liquidity support for Greek banks would just prevent transfers to banks elsewhere, this suggests the threat is self-negating.)

The masters of the euro themselves talk the same way. The "analytic note" just released by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, "in close cooperation with Donald Tusk, Jeroen Dijsselbloem and Mario Draghi," begins with the usual claims about the crisis as due ultimately to lack of competitiveness in the southern countries, thanks to their "labor market rigidities." (They don't say what specific rigidities they have in mind, but they do nod to a World Bank report that identifies such distortions as minimum wages, limitations on working hours, and requirements for severance pay.) "While the Maastricht Treaty was based on the assumption that market discipline would be a key element in preventing a divergent development of the euro area economies and their fiscal positions, with increasing government bond interest rates having a signalling effect." But in practice divergent policies were not prevented, as bond markets were happy to lend regardless. Then, "when the crisis hit... and markets reappraised the risk and growth potential of individual countries, the loss of competitiveness became visible and led to outflows." [2] What's most interesting is their analysis of the political economy of removing these "rigidities" and restoring "competitiveness":
The policy commitments of euro area countries, made individually or collectively, to growth-enhancing structural reforms have not been implemented satisfactorily. Often, commitments are strong in crisis times and then weakened again when the overall economic climate has improved. In this sense, the stabilising effect of the single currency has certain counterproductive effects with regard to the willingness of national governments to start and implement the necessary structural reforms...
Naomi Klein couldn't have said it better. Crises are a great time to roll back "employment protection legislation" and force down labor costs -- the unambiguous content of "structural reforms" in this context. If your goal is to to roll back protective legislation and re-commodify labor, then resolving economic crises too quickly is, well, counterproductive.

A couple years ago, Paul Krugman was expressing incredulity at the idea that prolonging the European crisis could be a rational act in the service of any political agenda. Last week, he was still hoping that Draghi would emerge as the defender of European democracy. No disrespect to my CUNY colleague, who understands most of this stuff much better than I ever will. But in this case, it seems simpler to take Draghi at his word. Restricting the scope of democratic government was the entire point of the euro system. And since the automatic operation of bond markets failed to do the job, a crisis is required.

UPDATE: Schauble today: “If we go deeper into the [debt] discount debate, there will be no more reforms in Europe. There will be joyful celebrations in the Elysée and probably in Rome, too, if we go down this path.” Thee is not even a pretense now that this is about resolving the crisis, as opposed to using the crisis as leverage to promote a particular policy agenda. It's surprising, though, that he would suggest that the Euro zone's second and third largest economies are on the side of the debtors. Would that it were so.

[1] It's almost too good that he hosts a lecture series on "The Order of Money."

[2] The funny thing is that, after talking about the "misallocation of financing" by markets, and describing the crisis as "a crisis of markets in terms of their capacity to price risk correctly," they go on to recommend the removal of all remaining restrictions on capital flows: "we need to address remaining barriers to investment and the free movement of capital and make capital market integration a political priority." Reminds me of the opening paragraphs of this Rodrik essay.

Monday, February 9, 2015

What If the ECB Pulls the Trigger?

Over the past week, it's become clear that the real leverage the European authorities have over Greece is via the banking system. What does Greek need continued loans for? Not to pay for public expenditures, thanks to the primary surplus. Not to pay for imports — Greece has a (small) trade surplus. Not to service current debt, if it defaults. What does need to be financed, is the flow of deposits out of Greek banks to the rest of Europe.

So what happens if that financing is cut off, as the ECB is threatening? The usual answer is collapse of the Greek banking system, followed immediately by a forced exit of Greece.  But the other night I was talking to some friends about the situation, and we found ourselves wondering: What concretely are the mechanics of this? What is the exact chain of events from an end to ECB financing to Greek exit from the euro? I don't know the answer to this, but the more I think about it, the less confident I am in the conventional wisdom.

What concretely does it mean that the ECB is providing liquidity support to Greek banks? As far as I can tell, it is this. When a holder of a deposit in a Greek bank wants to make a payment elsewhere, either to purchase a good or asset outside Greece or to move the deposit elsewhere, the Greek bank must transfer an equal quantity of settlement assets to the bank receiving the deposits. These settlement assets are normally acquired on the fly, by issuing a new liability in the interbank market, but if other banks are unwilling to accept the liabilities of Geek banks, they can be borrowed directly from the ECB, against suitable collateral. This is the lending that the ECB is threatening to cut off.

What if the Greek banks can't acquire settlement assets? Then other banks will not accept the deposits, and it will be impossible to use deposits in Greek banks to make payments. Depositors will find their accounts frozen and, in the normal course of events, the banks would be shut down by regulators.

But Greece still does have a central bank. My understanding is that much of the day to day business of central banking in Europe is carried out by the national central banks. In principle, even if Greek banks can't acquire settlement assets by borrowing from the ECB, they can still borrow from the Greek central bank. This doesn't help with payments to the rest of Europe, since reserve balances at the Greek central bank won't be accepted elsewhere. But I don't see why the Greek central bank can't keep the payments system working within Greece itself. If the Greek central bank is willing to provide liquidity on the same terms as the ECB, what's going to force the Greek banks to shut down? It's not as though there's any Europe-wide bank regulator that can do it.

In a sense, this is a kind of soft exit, since there will now be a Greek euro that is not freely convertible into a non-Greek euro. But I don't see why it has to be catastrophic or irreversible. Transactions within Greece can continue as before. And for routine trade it might not make much difference either, since the majority of Greek imports come from outside the EU. Where it would make a difference is precisely that it would prevent Greek depositors from moving their funds out of the country. [1] In effect, by cutting Greece off from the European interbank payment system, the ECB will be imposing capital controls on Greece's behalf. You could even say that, if the threat of cutting off liquidity support can trigger a run on Greek banks, actually doing so will ensure that there isn't one.

Now maybe I'm wrong about this. Maybe there is a good reason why the Greek central bank can't maintain the payment system within Greece. But I also think there's a larger point here. I'm thinking about the end of the gold standard in the 1930s, when breaking the link with gold was considered an unthinkable catastrophe. And yet the objective basis of the money system in gold turned out to be irrelevant. I think, in the same way, the current crisis may be revealing the reflexive, self-referential nature of money. On a certain level, the threat against Greece comes down to: "You must make your money payments, or we will deprive you of the means to make your money payments."

The rule of the money system requires that real productive activity be organized around the need for money. This in turn requires that money not be too freely available, but also that it not be too scarce. Think of Aunt Agatha in Daniel Davies' parable. Suppose her real goal is to run her nephew's life — to boss him around, have him at her beck and call, to know that he won't make any choices without asking if she approves. In that case she always has to be threatening to cut him off, but she can't ever really do it. If he knows he's getting money from her he won't care what she thinks — but if he knows he isn't, he won't care either. He has to be perpetually unsure. And in keeping with Davies' story, the only thing Jim actually needs the money for, is to continue servicing his debt to Aunt Agatha. The only real power she has is a superstitious horror at the idea of unpaid debts.

In this way I've tentatively convinced myself that all Syriza needs to do is hold firm. The only way they can lose is if they lose their nerve. Conversely, the worst outcome for the ECB and its allies would be if they force Greece into default -- and everyone watches as the vengeful money-gods fail to appear.

UPDATE: It turns out that Daniel Davies is making a similar argument:
Capital controls are arguably what Greece needs right now - they have balanced the primary budget, and they need to stop capital flight. From the ECB's point of view, I'd agree that the move is political, but it also means that they are no longer financing capital flight.

There's a sensible negotiated solution here - with a lower primary surplus than the program (in which context I think Varoufakis' suggestion of 1.5% is not nearly ambitious enough), a return to the structural programs (the Port of Piraeus really does need to be taken out of the political sphere), and an agreement to kick the headline debt amount into the far future (in service of which aim I don't think all the funny financial engineering is helping).

The fall-back is a kind of soft exit, with capital controls. But the massive, massive advantage of capital controls over drachmaisation is that they  preserve foreign exchange. Greece imports fuel and food. With capital controls, it can be sure of financing vital imports.
The fact that Davies is thinking the same way makes me a lot more confident about the argument in this post.

[1] Greek banks would also presumably be limited in their ability provide physical cash to depositors, but I don't think this is important.