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The dance of death: Demand for austerity by the periphery to save the insolvent banks at the core

June 20, 2011

William K. Black has written an important summary analysis of the EU’s dance of death.

Destroying the Periphery in Order to Save the Core’s Banks

Demand Side has edited the piece and provides it below.

Gary O’Callaghan, a former IMF economist has written …

“[H]ow 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.”

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.

“The survival of the euro has been conflated with the transcendent “European agenda” and has conflated 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. … The crisis has revealed that most French, Germans, and Finns do not view the Irish, Greeks, and Portuguese as fellow citizens of a United Europe. European solidarity has been called by IMF apologists simply “distracting rhetoric.”

The same apologists are disturbed about the EU and ECB’s lending program for Ireland. They are horrified that the EU and the ECB are making the rookie mistakes common to novice loan sharks. 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, because you must not 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.

Sentient economists do not believe that imposing austerity during a severe recession is sensible.

The ECB’s plan for the periphery must succeed because 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.

The EU is not lending money to Ireland, Greece, and Portugal to help those nations’ citizens. The EU is lending those nations money because those nations must be able to repay their debts to banks in the core. If they don’t, the fact that the core banks are actually insolvent will be made public. 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 of the EU, ECB and IMF 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 has led them to demonize the periphery and support the ECB’s imposition of ever more draconian and self-defeating austerity programs.

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 periphery’s recessions deepen, 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 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 all the while it showers the periphery with abuse. 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 only 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.

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