Michael Hudson

How financial oligarchy replaces democracy

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Will Greece Let EU Central Bankers Run Riot Over Sovereignty?

When Greece exchanged its drachma for the euro in 2000, most voters were all for joining the Eurozone. Their hope was that it would ensure stability, and that this would promote rising wages and living standards. Few saw that the stumbling point was tax policy. Greece was excluded from the eurozone the previous year as a result of failing to meet the 1992 Maastricht criteria for EU membership, limiting budget deficits to 3 percent of GDP, and government debt to 60 percent.

The euro also had other serious fiscal and monetary problems at the outset. There is little thought of wealthier EU economies helping bring less productive ones up to par, e.g. as the United States does with its depressed areas (as in the rescue of the auto industry in 2010) or when the federal government does declares a state of emergency for floods, tornados or other disruptions.

As with the United States and indeed nearly all countries, EU “aid” is largely self-serving — a combination of export promotion and bailouts for debtor economies to pay banks in Europe’s main creditor nations: Germany, France and the Netherlands. The EU charter banned the European Central Bank (ECB) from financing government deficits, and prevents (indeed, “saves”) members from having to pay for the “fiscal irresponsibility” of countries running budget deficits. This “hard” tax policy was the price that lower-income countries had to sign onto when they joined the European Union.

Also unlike the United States (or almost any nation), Europe’s parliament was merely ceremonial. It had no power to set and administer EU-wide taxes. Politically, the continent remains a loose federation. Every member is expected to pay its own way. The central bank does not monetize deficits, and there is minimal federal sharing with member states. Public spending deficits — even for capital investment in infrastructure — must be financed by running into debt, at rising interest rates as countries running deficits become more risky.

This means that spending on transportation, power and other basic infrastructure that was publicly financed in North America and the leading European economies must be privatized. Prices for these services must be set high enough to cover interest and other financing charges, high salaries and bonuses, and be run for profit — indeed, for rent extraction as public regulatory authority is disabled.

This makes countries going this route less competitive. It also means they will run into debt to Germany, France and the Netherlands, causing the financial strains that now are leading to showdowns with democratically elected governments. At issue is whether Europe should succumb to centralized planning — on the right wing of the political spectrum, under the banner of “free markets” defined as economies free from public price regulation and oversight, free from consumer protection, and free from taxes on the rich.

The crisis for Greece — as for Iceland, Ireland and debt-plagued economies capped by the United States — is occurring as bank lobbyists demand that “taxpayers” pay for the bailouts of bad speculations and government debts stemming largely from tax cuts for the rich and for real estate, shifting the fiscal burden as well as the debt burden onto labor and industry. The financial sector’s growing power to achieve this tax favoritism is crippling economies, driving them further into reliance on yet more debt financing to remain solvent. Aid is conditional upon recipient countries reducing their wage levels (“internal devaluation”) and selling off public enterprises.

The tunnel vision that guides these policies is self-reinforcing. Europe, America and Japan draw their economic managers from the ranks of professionals sliding back and forth between the banks and finance ministries — what the Japanese call “descent from heaven” to the private sector where worldly rewards are greatest. It is not merely delayed payment for past service. Their government experience and contacts helps them influence the remaining public bureaucracy and lobby their equally opportunistic replacements to promote pro-financial fiscal and monetary policies — that is, to handcuff government and deter regulation and taxation of the financial sector and its real estate and monopoly clients, and to use the government’s taxing and money-creating power to provide bailouts when the inevitable financial collapse occurs as the economy shrinks below break-even levels into negative equity territory.

Regressive tax policies — shifting taxes off the rich and off property onto labor — cause budget deficits financed by public debt. When bondholders pull the plug, the resulting debt pressure forces governments to pay off debts by selling land and other public assets to private buyers (unless governments repudiate the debt or recover by restoring progressive taxation). Most such sales are done on credit. This benefits the banks by creating a loan market for the buyouts. Meanwhile, interest absorbs the earnings, depriving the government of tax revenue it formerly could have received as user fees.

The tax gift to financiers is based on the bad policy of treating debt financing as a necessary cost of doing business, not as a policy choice — one that indeed is induced by the tax distortion of making interest payments tax-deductible.

Buyers borrow credit to appropriate “the commons” in the same way they bid for commercial real estate. The winner is whoever raises the largest buyout loan — by pledging the most revenue to pay the bank as interest. So the financial sector ends up with the revenue hitherto paid to governments as taxes or user fees. This is euphemized as a free market.

Promoting the financial sector at the economy’s expense

The resulting debt leveraging is not a solvable problem. It is a quandary from which economies can escape only by focusing on production and consumption rather than merely subsidizing the financial system to enable players to make money from money by inflating asset prices on free electronic keyboard credit. Austerity causes unemployment, which lowers wages and prevents labor from sharing in the surplus. It enables companies to force their employees to work overtime and harder in order to get or keep a job, but does not really raise productivity and living standards in the way envisioned a century ago. Increasing housing prices on credit — requiring larger debts for access to home ownership — is not real prosperity.

To contrast the “real” economy from the financial sector requires distinctions to be drawn between productive and unproductive credit and investment. One needs the concept of economic rent as an institutional and political return to privilege without a corresponding cost of production. Classical political economy was all about distinguishing earned from unearned income, cost-value from market price. But pro-financial lobbyists deny that any income or rentier wealth is unearned or parasitic. The national income and product accounts (NIPA) do not draw any such distinction. This blind spot is not accidental. It is the essence of post-classical economics. And it explains why Europe is so crippled.

The way in which the euro was created in 1999 reflects this shallow vision. The Maastricht fiscal and financial rules maximize the commercial loan market by preventing central banks from supplying governments (and hence, the economy) with credit to grow. Commercial banks are to be the sole source of financing budget deficits — defined to include infrastructure investment in transportation, communication, power and water. Privatization of these basic services blocks governments from supplying them at subsidized rates or freely. So roads are turned into toll roads, charging access fees that are readily monopolized. Economies are turned into sets of tollbooths, paying out their access charges as interest to creditors. These extractive rents make privatized economies high-cost. But to the financial sector that is “wealth creation.” It is enhanced by untaxing interest payments to banks and bondholders — aggravating fiscal deficits in the process.

The Greek budget crisis in perspective

A fiscal legacy of the colonels’ 1967-74 junta was tax evasion by the well to do. The “business-friendly” parties that followed were reluctant to tax the wealthy. A 2010 report stated that nearly a third of Greek income was undeclared, with “fewer than 15,000 Greeks declar[ing] incomes of over €100,000, despite tens of thousands living in opulent wealth on the outskirts of the capital. A new drive by the Socialists to track down swimming pool owners by deploying Google Earth was met with a virulent response as Greeks invested in fake grass, camouflage and asphalt to hide the tax liabilities from the spies in space.” (Helena Smith, “The Greek spirit of resistance turns its guns on the IMF,” The Observer)

As a result of the military dictatorship depressing public spending below the European norm, infrastructure needed to be rebuilt — and this required budget deficits. The only way to avoid running them would have been to make the rich pay the taxes they were supposed to. But squeezing public spending to the level that wealthy Greeks were willing to pay in taxes did not seem politically feasible. (Since the 1980s almost no country has enacted Progressive Era tax policies.) The 3 per cent Maastricht limit on budget deficits refused to count capital spending by government as capital formation, on the ideological assumption that all government spending is deadweight waste and only private investment is productive.

The path of least resistance was to engage in fiscal deception. Wall Street bankers helped the “conservative” (that is, fiscally regressive and financially profligate) parties conceal the extent of the public debt with the kind of junk accounting that financial engineers had pioneered for Enron. And as usual when financial deception in search of fees and profits is concerned, Goldman Sachs was in the middle. In February 2010, the German magazine Der Spiegel exposed how the firm had helped Greece conceal the rise in public debt, by mortgaging assets in a convoluted derivatives deal — legal but with the covert intent of circumventing the Maastricht limitation on deficits. “Eurostat’s reporting rules don’t comprehensively record transactions involving financial derivatives,” so Greece’s obligation appeared as a cross-currency swap rather than as a debt. The government used off-balance-sheet entities and derivatives similar to what Icelandic and Irish banks later would use to indulge in fictitious debt disappearance and an illusion of financial solvency.

The reality, of course, was a virtual debt. The government was obligated to pay Wall Street billions of euros out of future airport landing fees and the national lottery as “the so-called cross currency swaps … mature, and swell the country’s already bloated deficit.” (Beat Balzli, “How Goldman Sachs Helped Greece to Mask its True Debt,” Der Spiegel). The report adds: “One time, gigantic military expenditures were left out, and another time billions in hospital debt.”

Translated into straightforward terms, the deal left Greece’s public-sector budget deficit at 12 percent of GDP, four times the Maastricht limit.

Using derivatives to engineer Enron-style accounting enabled Greece to mask a debt as a market swap based on foreign currency options, to be unwound over ten to fifteen years. Goldman was paid some $300 million in fees and commissions for its aid orchestrating the 2001 scheme. “A similar deal in 2000 called Ariadne devoured the revenue that the government collected from its national lottery. Greece, however, classified those transactions as sales, not loans.”[1] JP Morgan Chase and other banks helped orchestrate similar deals across Europe, providing “cash upfront in return for government payments in the future, with those liabilities then left off the books.”

The financial sector has an interest in understating the debt burden — first, by using “mark to model” junk accounting, and second, by pretending that the debt burden can be paid without disrupting economic life. Financial spokesmen from Tim Geithner in the United States to Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF claimed that the post-2008 debt crisis is merely a short-term “liquidity problem” (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” — if only the government will buy their junk mortgages and bad loans (“sound long-term investments”) for ready cash.

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