Nov 022015
 
 November 2, 2015  Posted by at 10:08 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  13 Responses »
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RLOppenheimer New flag for EU 2015

To reiterate: People are genetically biased against change, because change means potential danger. People are also genetically biased against acknowledging this bias, because they wish to see themselves as being able to cope with both change and danger. Put together, this means that when changes come, people are largely unprepared or underprepared.

Take this beyond the bias of the individual, and apply it to that of the group (s)he belongs to, the vantage point of a society, and you find the bias multiplies and becomes self-confirming. That is, the members of the group reinforce each other’s bias. When change comes in small and gradual steps, as it mostly does, this can be said to work relatively well. When it comes in large and sudden steps, trouble ensues.

This little bit of psychology 101 may seem redundant, but it is indispensable if we wish it to recognize the implications of Europe -and the entire world with it, in its slipstream- having already entered a period of change so profound it is impossible to predict what the impact will be. We can do a lot better at this than we do today, where so far the drivers of change, and indeed the changes themselves, are ignored and/or denied.

This ignorance and denial threatens to lead to a needless increase in nationalism, fascism, violence, misery, death and warfare. If we were to acknowledge that the change is inevitable, and prepare ourselves accordingly, much of this could be avoided.

There are two main engines of change that have started to transform the Europe we think we know. First, a mass migration spearheaded by the flight of refugees from regions in the world which Europeans have actively helped descend into lethal chaos. Second, an economic downturn the likes of which hasn’t been seen in 80 years or so (think Kondratieff cycle).

Negative ideas about refugees are already shaping everyday opinion and politics in many places, and this will be greatly exacerbated by the enormous economic depression that for now remains largely hidden behind desperate sleight-of-hands enacted by central bankers, politicians and media.

People, first in Europe, then globally, will need to learn to share what they have, and do with much less. This is not optional. The refugees won’t stop coming, and neither will the depression. It would be much better if people were prepared for this by those same central bankers, politicians and media, but the opposite is happening.

It’s not only individual people who are biased against change, societies are too, and that means so are those who ‘lead’ these societies. They are all motivated, consciously or not, to resist change, because their positions and their powers depend on things remaining -largely- the same.

‘Leaders’ in Brussels and various European capitals still operate on the assumption that the refugee stream is a fleeting phenomenon they can and must stop. In a sort of positive feedback loop with their populations, this idea is continuously reinforced.

This leads to today’s reality in which at least one baby drowns every single day (and more in the past few days) off the shores of Greece, on Europe’s borders, and easily ten times as many members of their families. Moreover, the count is accelerating fast. Weather forecasts for the coming week call for Beaufort 7 winds.

There’s no society, no civilization that allows such atrocities to happen, and is not subsequently down for the count, and bound to dissolve, crumble and disappear. Societies all need common values, based on minimum levels of humanity and compassion, just to survive. And they need a whole lot more if they wish to flourish. No such values, as we see on a daily basis, exist in Europe today.

And that means it has no future – at least not in its present EU structure. It doesn’t get simpler than that. Denied and ignored as the simple fact may have been from the start, it was always clear that the European Union, if it failed to solidly unify the continent, risked becoming a force for division. And it looks as if the first real crisis the union faces will be enough to generate that division. There’s no union in sight other than in name.

Scores of people still hail Angela Merkel for her role in the refugee crisis, but they should think again. Merkel demanded the protagonist role for herself and Germany in setting if not dictating the conditions in the Greek debt negotiations over the first half of 2015, but she’s nowhere to be seen in a leading role now.

Merkel, true, has opened German doors to refugees, but she has utterly failed in expanding any such policy to the EU as a whole. And since she’s the only recognized leader in the entire union, leaving people like Hollande and Juncker far behind, she must acknowledge responsibility if things go wrong. Being a leader doesn’t mean you get to cherry-pick your challenges, it’s a package deal. Merkel cannot today act as German leader only.

But as fast increasing numbers of refugees and their children are drowning in the Aegean, in an act of supreme cynicism Merkel last week went to China to sell Volkswagens and weapons, as well to talk about… human rights. That is to say, the human rights of Chinese people. Not those of the refugees making their way to Europe, who apparently don’t even have the right to safe passage.

It’s that safe passage that must be Europe’s first and main concern right now, not how to stop people from coming. There are many voices clamoring for the ‘Evros fence’, built by Greece three years ago on a stretch of land on its border with Turkey, to be opened, so the drownings stop.

This would seem to be a good first step to halt would should by now be labeled a refugee disaster, rather than crisis. But it’s a step that could have been taken months ago, and the fact that it hasn’t even after Merkel visited Turkey recently, doesn’t bode well. Tsipras is set to visit Turkey this week in the wake of Erdogan’s election victory yesterday, but Tsipras may not get the green light from Berlin to tear down the fence.

The best thing would perhaps be for ordinary people to organize themselves into a large group, 10,000+, travel to Evros, and tear down the fence themselves, rather than wait for politicians to do it. Perhaps the time to rely on others, politicians or otherwise, to do things, has passed.

The world has seen mass migrations before, numerous times, and Europe sure has had its share. The manner is which these migrations take place typically depends to a large extent on people’s human values and their willingness to share their wealth. What’s happening with Syrian refugees today bears some eery resemblances to the boats carrying Jewish refugees prior to WWII that were refused in many ports. Let’s not go there again.

Refugees almost always make a positive contribution to the country they resettle in, both economically and in other ways. We know that, just like we know many other things. But that doesn’t lead our reactions, fear does. And the more wealth people have, the more they seem to fear losing it.

I’ve quoted before how the German federal police warned Merkel at least 8 months ago that a million refugees would be at the country’s doorstep. And that nothing was done with this knowledge for about half a year, leaving Germany woefully unprepared when the warning turned out to be correct.

UN Geneva Director General Michael Moller puts the warning even further into the past; he says EU leaders were told about it at least two years ago.

Refugee Crisis Was Not Unexpected, Top UN Official Says

Director-General of the United Nations office in Geneva, Denmark’s Michael Moller, expresses optimism that the agency’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) will help toward ending extreme poverty but he has no illusions about the refugee crisis[..]

“The crisis we have today, we knew it was going to happen. The leaders of Europe were told it was going to happen at least two years ago. So a little prevention and a little preparation in terms of the narrative to their voters would have gone a long way.”

“This very negative, xenophobic and frankly racist narrative that we’re seeing in many countries, including my own country – I don’t recognize my own country – is unacceptable [..] one of the things that I find very puzzling is that there’s some sort of global amnesia going on. In the early 80s we had pretty much the same problem in Southeast Asia, with much bigger numbers of boat people.

It took a while and then someone decided we must deal with it in a more rational way and they came up with a plan of action which was the product of an international conference where international solidarity kicked in in a much broader way than now. Then we put in place a whole series of measures in a way that minimized the pain and over seven years we resettled 2.5 million people. I don’t see why we can’t take a page or two or three out of that book. To me what’s happening isn’t a European problem, it’s an international problem.

[Washington] are evolving as well. First of all, the number [of refugees the US would accept] was 10,000 but now they’ve upped it to 100,000. I’ve talked to some of the politicians.

[..] looking at this crisis as an isolated incident doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We are going to have more of these things and a lot worse. The moment climate refugee problems kick in we are going to be in real trouble, unless we sit down globally and figure out structures and ways to deal with this in the future. Not to reinvent the wheel every damn time that happens, but to rethink completely the humanitarian system, because I guarantee you that it will happen again.

The refugee disaster is only the first step in a long and multi-pronged process of profound change in the lives of all citizens of -formerly- rich countries. And if we collectively screw up step 1 as badly as we have and still do, what’s going to happen when our economies fall to pieces? When our alleged ‘financial security’ crumbles, our pensions, our benefits?

Are we going to blame it all on the refugees, and vote in right wing simpletons? Too many of us undoubtedly will. Whether there’s enough decency to counter that is a toss-up. What is not is that the numbers of refugees will keep rising at the same time that our economies keep sinking.

It’s up to us, wherever we live in the world, to find the best way to deal with it. We have a choice in how we react to these developments, not in whether they happen or not.

Sep 232015
 
 September 23, 2015  Posted by at 2:24 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  19 Responses »
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Dorothea Lange Depression refugee family from Tulsa, Oklahoma 1936

At the moment I start writing this, leaders of European nations are in a meeting in which they talk about refugees that, though it was announced over a week ago, was nevertheless labeled an ’emergency’ meeting. The only thing that truly tells you is that Europe still refuses to see the refugee situation as an emergency. And that’s not just semantics.

Of course there’ll be all sorts of bickering about the difference between migrants and refugees, and tons of words about how “we” should separate the two, and send people back, and strengthen European borders, and fight the human smugglers. None of which addresses reality, or at least at best a tiny sliver of it.

“Smugglers” are not the problem, it’s the people they “smuggle” that are. Or perhaps we should turn that around and admit that in fact it’s the European leaders who are the problem. It’s they who lack any courage or vision, or even a basic understanding of what is going on.

Angela Merkel has gotten a lot of accolades when she opened Germany’s borders to Syrians, even though that only lasted a few days. But people seem to forget that she is Europe’s most powerful politician, and that makes her responsible for a lot of the drowned children who lose their lives on a daily basis in a small stretch of the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece.

Merkel should have acted much faster. She’s just as culpable as all the other jokers in Brussels and various EU capitals. They all were, and still are, hoping this issue would go away by itself. Instead, the issue has only just started, and the whole continent is woefully unprepared to this day.

German paper Die Welt ran a story this weekend (in German) that detailed how Merkel and her government were warned in Q1 by the German federal police (Bundespolizei) that a million refugees would be coming to Germany in 2015. And did nothing. The paper didn’t provide a precise date, but Q1 ended close to 6 months ago, so we know Merkel et al could have acted on this information -and prepared- at least half a year ago.

Have they? Given the chaos that developed within a few days of allowing refugees to enter the country, our money’s on a resounding NO. So those portraits we’ve seen with Angela dressed up as Mother Teresa can now be filed away as ludicrous.

The outcome of today’s meeting is very easy to predict. There will be promises of millions of dollars, and of saddling Greece and Italy with huge camps to house refugees in, far away from whoever is either too comfortable or too right-wing to deal with Europe’s new reality.

There will be nothing in writing that comes even close to what is needed, neither financially nor in practical terms. All politicians will feel free to pander to, and hide behind, their bigoted populations.

These talks should have taken place at least half a year ago. That might have saved children’s – and adults’- lives both in the meantime and in the future. That nothing of true value happened between the moment Merkel got her warning and last week’s announcement of this week’s “emergency” meeting not only tells you all you need to know about Merkel and her peers, it also is certain to both have made matters worse and to continue doing so going forward.

There is precious little to be expected from Europe’s leadership, because there is so little of it. They all like the power but skirt the responsibility. The EU apparently seeks to charge 14 nations with 19 cases of violating EU asylum treaties, but countries like Croatia and Hungary were so unprepared for what happened to them, this could only have led to panic and fences and police dogs. It’s a miracle nobody shot a whole bunch of refugees. Yet.

It could all have been prevented if Merkel had decided not to shelve that warning from her federal police force, and instead had called a high level summit then and there. But she was too busy whipping Greece into submission, and hoping, as all other did, that one morning it would all prove to have been a bad dream.

One would suspect that French secret services also had information on what was to come, but François Hollande is a dunce who spends his time counting votes and reading polls. David Cameron would probably prefer to drown and/or shoot that ‘swarm’, and the other heads of state either don’t count for much in terms of population numbers or elect to keep their mouths shut lest they risk the next election.

If Europe’s leaders don’t tackle the issue now, and in an effective way, we risk, with a likelihood bordering on certainty, much worse than we have seen so far. The refugees will not stop coming to Europe. But with autumn now on the doorstep, their journeys will become much more perilous, and deadly.

Europe is set to change, and in very sweeping ways. That cannot be altered. What can be done is to treat refugees like they are human beings, whose lives matter the way German and French lives matter.

Moreover, if Merkel had called that EU meeting in early spring, she would rapidly have concluded that it was not enough. That this is not a European problem. Very few of the refugees, after all, are European. It is, therefore, a global problem. And there is a political body to deal with those, the UN. Merkel would have called a UN meeting long ago if only she had called that EU meeting first.

Why the UN itself hasn’t even opened its mouth, other than to chide Europe, is a mystery. It’s on a fast track to becoming redundant.

The US has announced it will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees – who may take two years to be processed. For perspective: in the space of just three hours this morning, 2,500 arrived on the island of Lesbos alone. The US cannot deny its share of the blame for causing the crisis. It can still, however, start acting in a humane fashion.

Not like Hollande and Cameron whose main target today is increased bombing of the very places the refugees are fleeing from, not providing them with asylum away from those places.

The refugee question should be the top priority in the talks Obama has with the Pope in America in the next few days. As it should be in the meeting(s) with Chinese president Xi Jinping, who’s also in the country. But it doesn’t look as if that’s going to happen. It’ll be a sidenote at best.

Merkel has a narrow window to right her wrongs, and it’s closing fast. If she doesn’t act now, we’ll see Europe’s lack of humanity and abundance of disgrace bared even more, and increasingly so.

There will be blood.

Sep 032015
 
 September 3, 2015  Posted by at 5:30 pm Finance Tagged with: , , ,  10 Responses »
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Image: dreamslayerartworks.com

This is a rerun of an article I wrote on August 10, 2012. It seems to have regained quite a bit of relevance in recent days. I was thinking earlier today, how can I write about finance when Europe continues to offend people’s, and humanity’s, most basic dignity the way it does, but it does. It gets more incomprehensible by the hour, what happens there. But it does.

So here’s a different view, 50+ years old, of what Europe could, and perhaps should, have been, instead of the sad and amoral place it has become. Just for perspective.

One note: Freddy Heineken would never have allowed for toddlers to drown. He was not that kind of man. He would have sent in all he could to prevent more suffering. Europe no longer seems to have than kind of man. Or woman. No leadership, no vision, no humanity. No nothing.

Just about everyone will recognize the family name. Fewer will be familiar with the man behind it. But Alfred (Freddy) Heineken was an interesting man regardless. Starting in 1941, he took over the family firm founded by his grandfather, bought back shares and never looked back. Freddy built the Heineken brand into one of the best marketed ones in the world for any product, and today, 10 years after his death, it is still in the very top of world breweries.

But Heineken didn’t just think about beer. When the European Union was formed, he devoted time to letting his light shine on that project too (Heineken was a known Europhile). What he brought to the table was that, of course, he knew Europe well, from his own unique personal business experience. He oversaw, hands on, not just sales, but also marketing in all the different European languages and cultures.

Heineken didn’t trust that the European Union would work the way it was proposed – and eventually organized -. According to him, if Europe were to be a success, it would have to be divided in far smaller units than the nation states that had been formed post-WWII.

It’s reminiscent a little of Joel Garreau’s “Nine Nations of North America”, published in 1981. I don’t know if Heineken knew the book, but given his overall curiosity and his wide array of contacts with business leaders, politicians and artists all over the world (Heineken was a very wealthy man), it wouldn’t surprise me. Then again, his vision is based on completely different ideas than Garreau’s.

For those who are not familiar with Garreau’s work, here’s a map of how he “envisioned” North America:

Garreau divided the continent into units that he thought would be most coherent from the point of view of culture, political ideals and economic interests. Interesting notions, and a good book to pick up.

Back to Heineken, who would have found Garreau’s units far too sizeable for his liking. He was thinking along the lines of optimally manageable untis.

Immediately after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty saw European nations sign away the first real chunks of sovereignty, Freddy Heineken published his pamphlet The United States of Europe (A Eurotopia?), written with Dutch historians Henk Wesseling and Wim van den Doel. The underlying idea here is that the individual units (statelets) should have no more than 5-10 million inhabitants.

Philip Ebels revoked the idea in an article written for EU Observer last week:

For the United Statelets of Europe

[..] If the EU was considered a country, it would be seventh on the list of biggest countries and third on the list by population size. And, as officials in Brussels never tire of repeating, first on the list of biggest economies.

The time is [..] gone when people were ignorant and obedient. The time when they did not annoy their leaders with demands of transparency, efficiency, democracy and accountability.

Technological progress has always led to political turbulence, often at the expense of those in power. The Internet, just like the printing press before, gives people access to information and the power to create and distribute, undermining establishments everywhere – not only in the Arab world.

That is why states are doing what they need to accommodate an ever more demanding and emancipated people: decentralise. The UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy: all have passed down powers over the last couple of decades. The closer the power, the more transparent, efficient, democratic and accountable it is.

Everything which has a function, one could argue, has an optimal size. A pen can be bigger or smaller, you still need to be able to use it. The European welfare state has multiple functions. It needs to protect its territory from outside, uphold the rule of law, provide healthcare, education, take care of the roads and the forests and – to a more or lesser degree – distribute wealth.

The problem is that each of those functions has its own optimal size and that, as the world continues to change, they continue to diverge. The result is not that the state does not work anymore – it just does not work very well. Like a pen as big as a broom or as small as a splinter – you might still be able to use it, but it is not very practical.

It is a trend that will continue as long as technology continues to progress. China and other rising giants will continue to rise; the ruled will continue to undermine their rulers. And then there will come a day – or has it come already? – that the European states of today do more harm than good [..]

Heineken called it “Eurotopia” – a contraction of Europe and utopia. He was well aware of the skepsis the idea would garner. But radical times call for radical measures. And the way things are going, I prefer utopia over dystopia.

Here’s a nice version of Heineken’s map:

Map: BMoreGeo.com

More background comes from Peter Jan Margry in 2008:

Memorialising Europe: Revitalising and Reframing a ‘Christian’ Continent

“(…) Heineken was convinced of the positive consequences of this process of the decay of centralism in favour of a Eurotopia as he called it. Immediately after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 many were already afraid of a Europe that was becoming too large and too powerful, despite the fact that, as an antidote for this, a representational Committee of the Regions had been included in the Treaty in order to weaken these tendencies and, at the same time, answer the call for more regional autonomy.

Initially, as a hypothetical response to this, Heineken went public with his plan for a United States of Europe. This involved a union composed of 75 independent states, created on the basis of political, historical, linguistic, cultural and ethnic affinities and sensitivities. Taking cultural differences into account in precisely this way would strengthen Europe as an entity. Although nothing was ever done politically as a consequence of this idealistic proposal, the underlying analysis is not inconsistent with developments in the years that followed – on the contrary.

The proposed decentralization and federalizing of Europe on the basis of smaller geographic units proceeded from the central idea that it would prevent conflicts and promote stability and equality. This assumption was based, on the one hand, on the theory of the British historian C. Northcote Parkinson that smaller national units could be less centralized, more efficient and therefore more stable, and, on the other hand, on the thesis of the Austrian sociologist Leopold Kohr (1957) that ‘bigness is a problem’. In effect, both embroider [Denis] de Rougemont’s initial preference for a regionalized, federalist Europe.

As early as the late 1960s, as a result of the European Communities, a process of growing regional autonomy had slowly got under way. The converging supranational and diverging national forces would, it was supposed, bring Europe more to its ‘natural state’, preserving the various regional identities. Because of regionalist tendencies the nation-state network was breaking down, and within various member states regions were gaining far-reaching autonomy.

According to an almost apodictic commentary in The Economist, if the logic for splitting up Czechoslovakia could be carried through, then there was all the more reason that the same should be done in Belgium, with its even greater language and economic divisions. Meanwhile, Spain fears the regional autonomy claimed by the Basques and Catalans, while France has to deal with a Corsican struggle for autonomy; similar claims are made by the Scots, Hungarian minorities throughout the Balkans, and so on.”

So why all this attention for a billionaire beerbrewer’s spare time activities? The answer lies in those last lines. “Spain fears the regional autonomy claimed by the Basques and Catalans, while France has to deal with a Corsican struggle for autonomy; similar claims are made by the Scots, Hungarian minorities throughout the Balkans, and so on.”

The map of Heineken’s utopia could quite feasibly serve as the blueprint for a dystopia. When the financial crisis starts to bite for real, and it will, count on it, it appears inevitable that nations and/or parts of nations begin preparing for independence. There are plenty of regions in Europe that hang on as parts of larger entities only for economic reasons. When these reasons no longer exist, appeals for separation will become louder.

It won’t be a coherent movement, far from it. It will be chaotic. But there seems to be no way that certain regions will not fall prey to populists, nationalists, and in general the resurrection of age-old ideas that never disappeared, but that simply lay dormant under a thin veneer of riches.

Why would the Catalans or the Basques elect to continue to be a part of Spain, when the government in Madrid has nothing to offer but empty coffers? Why would they let others decide for them when that brings them no economic advantages? Any charismatic leader might convince them that they would be better off as a separate unit. And that leader might be right to boot.

Why should the Scots remain in the United Kingdom? And what might happen in for instance Galicia, Silesia, Moravia, regions that have seen many different rulers in recent history only? What ancient cultural, religious or other divides will rise to the surface all over again?

It is not at all imaginary that regions want (back) their independence. And neither is it that borders between regions will be contested, that people will be told that only warfare will be sufficient to show “those over there”, who committed untold horrible if not unspeakable atrocities an untold number of years ago, that now is the time to avenge the ancestors who died to defend the land they now live on.

For obvious reasons, we call this scenario the Balkanization of Europe.

It will not develop exactly along the lines and borders that Freddy Heineken saw as desirable. But we may well one day think back of that map, and not for the reasons Heineken meant it for. I think along those lines on a regular basis when I see the likes of Monti, Draghi and Rajoy present their grandiose plans to save the union, and their place in it, far more costly than any can afford, as it’s sinking ever deeper into its overwhelming debt morass.

Aug 312015
 
 August 31, 2015  Posted by at 8:48 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  10 Responses »
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Dorothea Lange Farm family fleeing OK drought for CA, car broken down, abandoned Aug 1936

Perhaps Angela Merkel thought we didn’t yet know how full of it she is. Perhaps that’s why she said yesterday with regards to Europe’s refugee crisis that “Everything must move quickly,” only to call an EU meeting a full two weeks later. That announcement show one thing: Merkel doesn’t see this as a crisis. If she did, she would have called for such a meeting a long time ago, and not some point far into the future.

With the death toll approaching 20,000, not counting those who died entirely anonymously, we can now try to calculate and predict how many more will perish in those two weeks before that meeting will be held, as well as afterwards, because it will bring no solution. Millions of euros will be promised which will take time to be doled out, and further meetings will be announced.

But the essence remains that Europe doesn’t want a real solution to the crisis. That’s why Merkel refuses to acknowledge it as one. The only solution Europe wants is for the refugees to miraculously stop arriving on its shores. If more people have to drown to make that happen, Berlin and Brussels and London and Paris are fine with that.

If those who make it must be humiliated by not making basic needs available, by letting them walk dozens if not hundreds of miles in searing heat, then the so-called leaders are fine with that too.

Europe needs leadership but it has none. Zero. At the exact moment that it is time for all alleged leaders to stop talking about money, and start talking about human lives. It’s matter of priorities, and everything Europe has done so far points to nobody in charge having theirs straight.

That goes for Greece too: Tsipras, Varoufakis, all of them, need to stop campaigning on money issues, and direct their attention towards lives lost. That may well lead to a Grexit not on financial grounds, but on humanitarian ones. And those are much better grounds on which to leave Europe. Get your priorities straight.

Europe needs to, first, meet tomorrow morning and engage in immediate action to facilitate humane treatment of all refugees. And then it needs to call subsequent meetings at the highest levels to look at the future of this crisis. Not doing this guarantees an upcoming disaster the scope of which nobody can even imagine today.

The media focus on a truck in Austria where 70 human beings died, and on a handful of children somewhere who were more dead than alive when discovered. These reports take away from the larger issue, that there are dozens such cases which remain unreported, where there are no camera’s present and no human interest angle to be promoted that a news outlet thinks it can score with.

Brussels and Berlin must throw their energy and their efforts at ameliorating the circumstances in the countries the refugees are fleeing. They need to acknowledge the role they have played in the destruction of these countries. But the chances of any such thing happening are slim to none. Therefore countries like Greece and Italy must draw their conclusions and get out, or they too will be sucked down into the anti-humanitarian vortex that the EU has become.

Europe needs to look at the future of this crisis in very different ways than it is doing now. Or it will face far bigger problems than it does now.

Italy’s Corriere della Sera lifted part of the veil when it said last week (Google translation):

The desperation of millions of human beings, manipulated by traffickers and by terrorist groups is also an instrument of disintegration of the countries of origin and of destabilization of the host countries.

It is estimated that sub-Saharan Africa will have 900 million more inhabitants in the next twenty years. Of these, at least 200 million are young people looking for work. The chaos of their countries of origin will push them further north.

That is the future. It will no more go away by itself, and by ignoring it, than the present crisis, which, devastating as it may be, pales in comparison. Europe risks being overrun in the next two decades. And as things stand, it has no plans whatsoever to deal with this, other than the military, and police dogs, barbed wire, tear gas, fences and stun grenades.

This lack of realism on both the political and the humane level will backfire on Europe and turn it into a very unpleasant place to be, both for Europeans and for refugees. Most likely it will turn the entire continent into a warzone.

The only solution available is to rebuild the places in Syria and Libya et al that the refugees originate from, and allow them to live decent lives in their homelands. If Brussels, and Washington, fail to realize this, things will get real ugly. We haven’t seen anything yet.

At present, it is as impossible for Greece and Italy to define their own policies on the refugee issue as it is on their economic policy. They will be drawn down with the rest of the continent if they allow the EU to take charge of either issue, but the most important one today is the refugee crisis.

Stop talking about money, start talking about people. Or you will desperately regret it in the years to come. Consider yourselves warned.

Aug 132015
 
 August 13, 2015  Posted by at 9:28 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  28 Responses »
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Gustave Doré The Ninth Circle of Hell (Treachery) 1857

Eventful days in the middle of summer. Just as the Greek Pandora’s box appears to be closing for the holidays (but we know what happens once it’s open), and Europe’s ultra-slim remnants of democracy erode into the sunset, China moves in with a one-off but then super-cubed renminbi devaluation. And 100,000 divergent opinions get published, by experts, pundits and just about everyone else under the illusion they still know what is going on.

We’ve been watching from the sidelines for a few days, letting the first storm subside. But here’s what we think is happening. It helps to understand, and repeat, a few things:

• There have been no functioning financial markets in the richer parts of the world for 7 years (at the very least). Various stimulus measures, in particular QE, have made sure of that.

A market cannot be said to function if and when central banks buy up stocks and bonds with impunity. One main reason is that this makes price discovery impossible, and without price discovery there is, per definition, no market. There may be something that looks like it, but that’s not the same. If you want to go full-frontal philosophical, you may even ponder whether a country like the US still has a functioning economy, for that matter.

• There are therefore no investors anymore either (they would need functioning markets). There are people who insist on calling themselves investors, but that’s not the same either. Definitions matter, lest we confuse them.

Today’s so-called ‘investors’ put to shame both the definition and the profession; I’ve called them grifters before, and we could go with gamblers, but that’s not really it: they’re sucking central bank’s udders. WHatever we would settle on, investors they’re not.

• The stimulus measures, QE, were never designed to induce economic recovery. They were meant to transfer private losses to public purses. In that, they have been wildly successful.

• China is the end of the line. It was the only economy left that until recently could boast actual growth on a scale that mattered to the global economy. Growth stopped when China, too, introduced stimulus measures. To the tune of some $25 trillion or more, no less.

The perhaps most pivotal importance of China is that it was the world’s latest financial hope. The yuan devaluation shatters that hope once and for all. The global economy looks a lot more bleak for it, even if many people already didn’t believe official growth numbers anymore.

Because we’ve reached the end of the line, the game changes. Of course there will be additional attempts at stimulus, but China’s central bank has de facto conceded that its measures have failed. The yuan devaluations, three days in a row now, mean the central People’s Bank of China has, openly though reluctantly, acknowledged its QE has failed, and quite dramatically at that. They just hope you won’t notice, and try to bring it on with a positive spin.

Central banks are not “beginning” to lose control, they lost control a long time ago. The age of central bank omnipotence has “left and gone away” like Joltin’ Joe. Omnipotence has been replaced by impotence.

This admission will reverberate across the globe. China is simply that big. It may take a while longer for other central bankers to admit to their own failures (though ‘failures’, in view of the wealth transfer, is a relative term here), but it won’t really matter much. One is enough.

What will happen from here on in will be decided by how, where and in what amounts deleveraging will take place. This will of necessity be a chaotic process.

Debt deleveraging leads to, or can even be seen as equal to, debt deflation. This is a process that has already started in various places and parts of economies (real estate), but was kept at bay by QE programs. It will now accelerate to wash over our societies like a biblical plague.

The Automatic Earth started warning about this upcoming deflation wave many years ago. I am wondering if I should rerun some of the articles we posted over the past 8 years or so. I might just do that soon.

It is fine for people to say that since it hasn’t happened yet, we were wrong about this, but for us it was never, and is not now, about timing. If you think like an investor -or at least you think you do- timing may seem to be the most important thing in the world. But that’s just another narrow point of view.

When deflation takes its inevitable place center stage, it will wipe away so much wealth, be it real or virtual or plain zombie, that the timing issue will be irrelevant even retroactively. Whether the total sum of global QE measures is $22 trillion or $42 trillion, its deflation-driven demise will wipe out individuals, companies and nations alike at such a pace, people will wonder why they ever bothered with trying to get the timing right.

This may be hard to understand in today’s world where so many eyes are still focused on central banks and asset- and equity markets, on commodities and precious metals, on housing markets. In that regard, again, it is important to note that there have been no functioning markets for many years. Those eyes are focused on something that merely poses as a market.

For us this was clear years ago. It was never about the timing, it was always about the inevitability. Back in the day there were still lots of voices clamoring for – near-term or imminent – hyperinflation. Not so much now. We always left open the hyperinflation option, but far into the future, only after deflation was done wreaking its havoc. A havoc that will be so devastating you’ll feel silly for ever even thinking about hyperinflation.

Deflation will obliterate our economies as we know them. Imagine an economy for instance where next to no-one sells cars, or houses, or college educations, simply because next to no-one can afford any of it.

Where everything that today is bought on credit will no longer be bought, because the credit will be gone. Where homes are not worth more than the cardboard they’re made of, and still don’t sell.

Where ships won’t sail because letters of credit won’t be issued, where stores won’t open in the morning because they can’t afford their inventory even if it arrives in a nearby port.

As for today’s reality, the Chinese leadership has been eclipsed by its own ignorance about economic systems, the limits of their control over them, and the overall hubris they live in on a daily basis. These people were educated in the 1960s and 70s China of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. In the same air of omnipotence that today betrays all central bankers. Why try to understand the world if you’re the one who shapes it?!

It was obvious this moment would arrive in Beijing as soon as the one millionth empty apartment was counted. There are some 60 million ’empties’ now, a number equal to half the total US housing contingent.

Beijing then heavily promoted the stock market for its citizens, as a way to hide the real estate slump. All the while, it kept the dollar peg going. And now all this is gone. And all that’s left is devaluation. As Bill Pesek put it: “China Adds a Chainsaw to Its Juggling Act”.

Ostensibly to improve the country’s trade position, for lack of a better word. Whether that will work is a huge question. For one thing, the potential increase in capital flight may turn out to be a bigger problem than the devaluation is a solution.

Moreover, one of the main reasons to devalue one’s currency is the idea that then people will start buying your stuff again. But in today’s deflationary predicament, one of the main failures of mainstream economics pops up its ugly head: the refusal to see that many people have little or nothing left to spend.

This as opposed to economists’ theories that people must be sitting on huge savings whenever they don’t spend “what they should”. Ignoring the importance of personal debt levels plays a major part in this. Any which way you define it, the result is a drag on the velocity of money in either a particular economy, or, as we are increasingly witnessing, a major spending slowdown in the entire global economy.

Seen in that light, what good could a 1.9% devaluation (or even a, what is it, super-cubed 5% one, now?!) possibly do when China producer prices fell for the 40th straight month, exports were down 8.3% in July, and cars sell at 30% discounts? Those numbers indicate a fast and furious reduction in spending.

Which in turn lowers the velocity of money in an economy. If money doesn’t move, an economy can’t keep going. If money velocity slows down considerably, so does the entire economy, its GDP, job creation, everything.

This of course is the moment to, once again, point out that we at the Automatic Earth define deflation differently from most. Inflation/deflation is not rising/falling prices, but money and credit supply relative to available good and services, and that, multiplied by the velocity of money.

When this whole debate took off, even before Lehman, there were only a few people I can remember who emphasized the role of deflation the way we did: Steve Keen, Mike Mish Shedlock and Bob Prechter.

And Mish doesn’t even seem think the velocity of money is a big factor, if only because it is hard to quantify. We do though. Steve is a good friend, he’s the very future of economics, and a much smarter man than I am, but still, last time I looked, stumbling over the inflation equals rising prices issue (note to self: bring that up next time we meet). Prechter gets it, but believes in abiotic oil, as Nicole just pointed out from across the other room.

So yeah, we’re sticking out our necks on this one, but after 8+ years of thinking about it, we’re more sure than ever that we must insist. Rising prices are not the same as inflation, and falling prices are but a lagging effect of deflation.

Spending stops when people are maxed out and dead broke. And then prices drop, because no-one can afford anything anymore.

We’ve had a great deal of inflation in the past decade or two, like in US housing. We still have some, for instance in global stock markets and Canada and Australia housing. But these things are nothing but small pockets, where spending persists for a while longer.

Problem is, those pockets pale in comparison to diving -consumer- spending in the US, China, Europe, Japan. Spending that wouldn’t even exist anymore if not for QE, ZIRP and cheap credit.

The yuan devaluation tells us the era of cheap credit is now over. The first major central bank in the world has conceded defeat and acknowledged the limits to its alleged omnipotence.

It always only took one. And then nothing would stand in the way of the biblical plague. It was never a question. Only the timing was. And the timing was always irrelevant.

Jul 102015
 
 July 10, 2015  Posted by at 7:58 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , ,  21 Responses »
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Unknown Petersburg, Virginia. Group of Company B, U.S. Engineer Battalion 1864

I was going to write up on the uselessness of Angela Merkel, given that she said on this week that “giving in to Greece could ‘blow apart’ the euro”, and it’s the 180º other way around; it’s the consistent refusal to allow any leniency towards the Greeks that is blowing the currency union to smithereens.

Merkel’s been such an abject failure, the fullblown lack of leadership, the addiction to her right wing backbenchers, no opinion that seems to be remotely her own. But I don’t think the topic by itself makes much sense anymore for an article. It’s high time to take a step back and oversee the entire failing euro and EU system.

Greece is stuck in Germany’s own internal squabbles, and that more than anything illustrates how broken the system is. It was never supposed to be like that. No European leader in their right mind would ever have signed up for that.

Reading up on daily events, and perhaps on the verge of an actual Greece deal, increasingly I’m thinking this has got to stop, guys, there is no basis for this. It makes no sense and it is no use. The mold is broken. The EU as a concept, as a model, has failed and is already a thing of the past.

It’s over. And anything that’s done from here on in will only serve to make things worse. We should learn to recognize such transitions, and act on them. Instead of clinging on to what we think might have been long after it no longer is.

Whatever anyone does now, it’ll all come back again. That’s guaranteed. So just don’t do it. Or rather, do the one thing that still makes any sense: Call a halt to the whole charade.

As for Greece: Just stop playing the game. It’s the only way for you not to lose it.

There’s no reason why European countries couldn’t live together, work together, but the EU structure makes it impossible for them to do just that, to do the very thing it was supposed to be designed for.

Germany runs insane surpluses with the rest of the EU, and it sees that as a sign of how great a country it is. But in the present structure, if one country runs such surpluses, others will need to run equally insane deficits.

Cue Greece. And Italy, Spain et al. William Hague for once was right about something when he said this week that the euro could only possibly have ended up as a burning building with no exits. This is going to lead to war.

Simple as that. It may take a while, and the present ‘leadership’ may be gone by then, but it will. Unless more people wake up than just the OXI voters here in Greece.

And the only reason for it to happen is if the present flock of petty little minds in Berlin, Paris, London and Brussels try to make it last as long as they can, and call for even more integration and centralization and all that stuff. The leaders are useless, the structure is painfully faulty, and the outcome is fully predictable.

Europe has no leadership, it has a varied but eerily similar bunch of people who crave the power they’ve been given, but lack the moral sturctures to deal with that power. Sociopaths. That’s what Brussels selects for.

And Brussels is by no means the only place in Europe that does that. What about people like Schäuble and Dijsselbloem, who see the misery in Greece and loudly bang the drum for more misery? What does that say about a man? And what does it say about the structure that allows them to do it? At times I feel like the Grapes of Wrath is being replayed here.

It’s nice and all to claim you’re right about something, but if your being right produces utter misery for millions of others, you’re still wrong.

Greece is not an abstract exercise in some textbook, and it’s not a computer game either. Greece is about real people getting hurt. And if you refuse to act to alleviate that hurt, that defines you as a sociopath.

Germany now, and it took ‘only’ 5 months, says Greece needs debt relief but it also says, through Schäuble: “There cannot be a haircut because it would infringe the system of the European Union.” That’s exactly my point. That’s silly. And looking around me here in Athens for the past few weeks, it’s criminally silly. You acknowledge what needs to be done, and at the same time you acknowledge the system doesn’t allow for what needs to be done. Time to change that system then. Or blow it up.

I don’t care what people like Merkel and Schäuble think or say, once people in a union go hungry and have no healthcare, you have to change the system, not hammer it down their throats even more. If you refuse to stand together, you can be sure you’ll fall apart.

Get a life. Greece should just default on the whole thing, and let Merkel and Hollande figure out the alleged Greek debt with their own domestic banking sectors. They’re the ones who received all the money that Greece is now trying to figure out a payback schedule for.

Problem with that is of course that very banking sector. They call the shots. The vested interests have far too much power on all levels. That’s the crux. But that’s also the purpose for which a shoddy construct like the EU exists in the first place. The more centralized politics are, the easier the whole thing is to manipulate and control. The more loopholes and cracks in the system, the more power there is for vested interests.

Steve Keen just sent a link to an article at Australia’s MacroBusiness, that goes through the entire list of new proposals from the Syriza government, and ends like this:

Tsipras Has Just Destroyed Greece

This is basically the same proposal as that was just rejected by the Greek people in the referendum. There are some headlines floating around about proposed debt restructuring as well but I can’t find them. This makes absolutely no sense. The Tsipras Government has just:
• renegotiated itself into the same position it was in two months ago;
• set massively false expectations with the Greek public;
• destroyed the Greek banking system, and
• destroyed what was left of Greek political capital in EU.

If this deal gets through the Greek Parliament, and it could given everyone other than the ruling party and Golden Dawn are in favour of austerity, then Greece has just destroyed itself to no purpose. Markets are drawing comfort from the roll over but how Tsipras can return home without being lynched by a mob is beyond me. And that raises the prospect of any deal being held immediately hostage to violence.

Yes, it’s still entirely possible that Tsipras submitted this last set of proposals knowing full well they won’t be accepted. But he’s already gone way too far in his concessions. This is an exercise in futility.

It’s time to acknowledge this is a road to nowhere. From where I’m sitting, Yanis Varoufakis has been the sole sane voice in this whole 5 month long B-movie. I think Yanis also conceded that it was no use trying to negotiate anything with the troika, and that that’s to a large extent why he left.

Yanis will be badly, badly needed for Greece going forward. They need someone to figure out where to go from here.

Just like Europe needs someone to figure out how to deconstruct Brussels without the use of heavy explosives. Because there are just two options here: either the EU will -more or less- peacefully fall apart, or it will violently blow apart.

Jun 282015
 
 June 28, 2015  Posted by at 11:42 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  6 Responses »
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Harris&Ewing Goat team, Washington, DC 1917

A Perfect Storm Of Crises Blows Apart European Unity (Guardian)
The Losses For The EU Lenders Are Truly Eye-Watering (Muscatelli)
The Greek Butterfly Effect: Forcing The Issue of Math (Northman Trader)
Intervention in 27th June 2015 Eurogroup Meeting (Yanis Varoufakis)
Forget Greece, Portugal Is The Eurozone’s Next Crisis (MarketWatch)
Goldman’s Stunner: A Greek Default Is Precisely What The ECB Wants (Zero Hedge)
Tsipras Asking Grandma to Figure Out If Greek Debt Deal Is Fair (Bloomberg)
Here’s Why Any Greek Debt Deal Will Amount To Nothing (Satyajit Das)
Europe’s Moment of Truth (Paul Krugman)
Wikileaks: Plot Against Former Greek PM’s Life, ‘Silver Drachma’ Plan (GR)
Greece Referendum: Why Tsipras Made the Right Move (Fotaki)
IMF Heads Must Roll Over Shameful Greek Failings (Telegraph)
Austrians Launch Petition To Quit EU (RT)
The Government Must Run Deficits, Even In Good Times (Ari)
Pope Francis Recruits Naomi Klein In Climate Change Battle (Observer)

Because it has no morals.

A Perfect Storm Of Crises Blows Apart European Unity (Guardian)

The time was shortly after 3am when David Cameron descended from level 80 of the vast Justus Lipsius building in Brussels on Friday. The birds were singing as he was whisked away for a much-curtailed sleep at the British ambassador’s residence, five minutes up the road. The prime minister is no novice when it comes to long and tedious discussions at European summits. But what he had just witnessed over a seemingly never-ending dinner with the other 27 EU leaders was something different altogether. The immediate crisis under discussion was migration and what the EU should do to handle the many thousands who have crossed the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East and arrived via Italy and the western Balkans over recent months.

Increasingly, Europe is a magnet for those seeking a better life. But the EU does not know how to react and the problems are spreading. Last week a strike by French workers at Calais caused huge tailbacks on motorways leading to both the ferry port and Channel tunnel as hundreds of migrants – mainly from east Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan – tried to take advantage of queueing traffic by breaking into lorries bound for the UK. Against this background, a supposedly cordial working dinner, held high in the Council of Ministers building, rapidly descended into personal insults and finger-jabbing – which an exhausted-looking Cameron later summed up as “lengthy and, at times, heated discussions”.

Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, was incensed by the refusal of several countries, including Hungary, which has taken in 60,000 refugees since the beginning of the year, and the Czech Republic, to agree to take part in a compulsory refugee-sharing scheme to help ease Italy’s burden. Cameron kept fairly quiet. The UK has opted out of EU asylum policy and Renzi, who was in an emotional state, did not need to be reminded of its non-participation. But others took up the cudgels as the row intensified across the table. Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, told Renzi in no uncertain terms that her country would not take part either. Bulgaria, one of the EU’s poorest countries, took a similar line. Disputes flared. European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, prime mover behind the idea of compulsory burden sharing, and council president Donald Tusk tore strips off each other over what should be done, as inter-institutional solidarity broke down.

Read more …

They don’t seem to realize that though.

The Losses For The EU Lenders Are Truly Eye-Watering (Muscatelli)

Greece is on the brink. Even if a last-minute deal is found it is clear that the solutions proposed are little more than a way to delay the crisis. A more comprehensive resolution of the Greek tragedy needs to address the medium-term (non-)sustainability of the Greek debt position. Economists know that negotiations usually break down when there is uncertainty in bargaining. When the two sides are uncertain as to what gains and losses the other side can make through any deal or by walking away. In this case, part of the uncertainty is political, because the Greek and other EU governments don’t fully know what might be acceptable to their electorates. But a good part of the uncertainty at this bargaining table is economic. Because we are in totally uncharted waters.

Monetary unions can be, and have been, dissolved before in history but, except in the aftermath of wars, not usually in anger. There are several sources of uncertainty for both sides in the dispute. First, if Greece leaves the Eurozone, at one level it will have greater freedom to walk away from at least some its debt, or to restructure it in a way which suits its short-term economic need. It could plan a moderate primary surplus. The problem for the Greek government is that it will inherit a broken banking system and there will be great uncertainty on whether a devaluing new Drachma could benefit its net trade position, with an impaired financial system, and shut out from world capital markets. Greece is not Iceland, and there is less social consensus on how to share the short-run burden of economic adjustment in a Grexit scenario.

Second, the losses for the EU lenders are truly eye-watering. The two bail-out packages for Greece amount to €215.8 billion. Of these €183.8 billion came from other EU countries and the rest from the IMF. The biggest shares of the support through the European Financial Stability Facility came from Germany and France. None of this includes the cost of support given to the Greek banking system via the ECB. The IMF would suffer considerable losses too (the UK’s main exposure is through this channel). The impact of Grexit and a partial or full debt repudiation on the rest of the EU would be considerable. Paradoxically by triggering a Grexit rather than an orderly debt restructure, the EU lenders may lose more of their current bail-out. So why are they not more accommodating? Because if it stays in, Greece will need a further bail-out, as no-one believes the current plan is sustainable. It’s that uncertainty again.

Read more …

Dead on. 1- 2 = -1.

The Greek Butterfly Effect: Forcing The Issue of Math (Northman Trader)

Many times nothing happens for a long time. Then all of a sudden everything happens at once. Like a dam break. It builds slowly and then it bursts. Example: Who would have ever thought the Confederate flag would be taken down across the South during the same week that a rainbow flag is symbolically hoisted across the entire country? Just because things seem unthinkable doesn’t mean they won’t happen. Take the global debt construct as another example. For decades the world has immersed itself in ever higher debt. The general attitude has been one of indifference. Oh well, it just goes higher. Doesn’t really impact me or so the complacent rationalize. When the financial crisis brought the world to the brink of financial collapse the solution was based on a single principle:

Make the math workable. In the US the 4 principle “solutions” to make the math workable were to:
1. End mark to market which had the basic effect of allowing institutions to work with fictitious balance sheets and claim financial viability.
2. Engage in unprecedented fiscal deficits to grow the economy. To this day the US, and the world for that matter, runs deficits. Every single year. The result: Global GDP has been, and continues to be overstated as a certain percentage of growth remains debt financed and not purely organically driven.
3. QE, to flush the system with artificial liquidity, the classic printing press to create demand out of thin air.
4. ZIRP. Generally ZIRP has been sold to the public as an incentive program to stimulate lending and thereby generate wage growth & inflation. While it could be argued it had some success in certain areas such as housing, the larger evidence suggests that ZIRP is not about growth at all.

ZIRP’s true purpose is actually much more sinister: To make global debt serviceable. To make the math work without a default. Here’s the reality: If we had “normalized” rates tomorrow the entire financial system would collapse under the weight of the math. In short: Default. Which brings us to Greece the butterfly, the truth and indeed the future: Greece for all its structural faults is the most prominent victim of fictitious numbers. From the original Goldman Sachs deal to get them into the EU based on fantasy numbers and to numerous bail-outs, the simple truth has always been the same: The math doesn’t work. It never has and it never will until there is a default on at least some of the debt. And in this context the Greek government’s move to call for a public referendum on July 5 may be a very clever strategic move as it forces the issue of math.

Read more …

“The very idea that a government would consult its people on a problematic proposal put to it by the institutions was treated with incomprehension and often with disdain bordering on contempt.”

Intervention in 27th June 2015 Eurogroup Meeting (Yanis Varoufakis)

Colleagues, In our last meeting (25th June) the institutions tabled their final offer to the Greek authorities, in response to our proposal for a Staff Level Agreement (SLA) as tabled on 22nd June (and signed by Prime Minister Tsipras). After long, careful examination, our government decided that, unfortunately, the institutions’ proposal could not be accepted. In view of how close we have come to the 30th June deadline, the date when the current loan agreement expires, this impasse of grave concern to us all and its causes must be thoroughly examined.

We rejected the institutions’ 25th June proposals because of a variety of powerful reasons. The first reason is the combination of austerity and social injustice they would impose upon a population devastated already by… austerity and social injustice. Even our own SLA proposal (22nd June) is austerian, in a bid to placate the institutions and thus come closer to an agreement. Only our SLA attempted to shift the burden of this renewed austerian onslaught to those more able to afford it – e.g. by concentrating on increasing employer contributions to pension funds rather than on reducing the lowest of pensions. Nonetheless, even our SLA contains many parts that Greek society rejects.

So, having pushed us hard to accept substantial new austerity, in the form of absurdly large primary surpluses (3.5% of GDP over the medium term, albeit somewhat lower than the unfathomable number agreed to by previous Greek governments – i.e. 4.5%), we ended up having to make recessionary trade-offs between, on the one hand, higher taxes/charges in an economy where those who pay their dues pay through the nose and, on the other, reductions in pensions/benefits in a society already devastated by massive cuts in basic income support for the multiplying needy.

Let me say colleagues what we had already conveyed to the institutions on 22nd June, as we were tabling our own proposals: Even this SLA, the one we were proposing, would be extremely onerous to pass through Parliament, given the level of recessionary measures and austerity it entailed. Unfortunately, the institutions’ response was to insist on even more recessionary (aka parametric) measures (e.g. increasing VAT on hotels from 6% to 23%!) and, worse still, on shifting the burden massively from business to the weakest members of society (e.g. to reduce the lowest of pensions, to remove support for farmers, to postpone ad infinitum legislation that offers some protection to badly exploited workers).

Read more …

There’s more than one candidate.

Forget Greece, Portugal Is The Eurozone’s Next Crisis (MarketWatch)

In the end, they kicked the can a little further down the road. After keeping the markets on a cliff-hanger for the last week, wondering whether the Greeks might end up getting kicked out of the eurozone, a deal of some sort looks likely. It won’t fix Greece, and it won’t fix the euro either. But it will patch the whole system up until Christmas — and that will buy everyone some time to concentrate on something else. And yet, in reality, the real crisis may not be in the east of the eurozone, but right over in the west. Portugal is the ticking time-bomb waiting to explode. Why? Because the country has run up unsustainable debts, most of the money is owed to foreigners, and with the economy still in deep trouble it may have to default as well.

The elections later this year may well trigger the second Portuguese crisis — and that will reveal how the problems in Europe involve far more than just Greece, even if that attracts most of the world’s attention. All the evidence suggests that, once the debt-to-GDP ratio climbs into the 130% bracket and above, it is basically unsustainable. Back in 2011 and 2012, when the euro crisis first flared up, three countries went bust. Of those, Greece is still in intensive care, and looks likely to remain so for the foreseeable future — the Greeks look willing to do just enough to stay in the eurozone, while the rest of Europe is willing to offer it just enough money to stay afloat while making it impossible to grow (it is a reverse Goldilocks — probably the worst of all possible solutions).

Ireland, which was always the strongest of the three bankrupt nations, is now growing again at a reasonable rate, helped along by the robust recovery in the U.K., which is still its main export market. And then there is Portugal — which is not in Greek-style permanent crisis, and yet does not seem capable of a sustainable recovery. On the surface, Portugal looks in much better shape than it did three years ago. It has exited the bailout scheme, leaving the program in May last year, after hitting European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund targets. The economy is starting to expand again. GDPt rose by 0.4% in the latest quarter, extending the run to a whole year of expansion, taking the annual growth rate up to 1.5%. It is forecast to expand by another 1.6% this year.

If Portugal can indeed recover, that would be a big win for the EU and IMF. Their catastrophic mix of internal devaluation and austerity looks to have been a complete failure in Greece, but if they can make it work in both Ireland and Portugal, the reputation of both institutions could be salvaged.

Read more …

Don’t think the ECB is smart enough to oversee the fall-out.

Goldman’s Stunner: A Greek Default Is Precisely What The ECB Wants (Zero Hedge)

[..] if this is correct, Goldman essentially says that it is in the ECB’s, and Europe’s, best interest to have a Greek default – and with limited contagion at that – one which finally does impact the EUR lower, and resumes the “benign” glideslope of the EURUSD exchange rate toward parity, a rate which recall reached as low as 1.05 several months ago before rebounding to its current level of 1.14. Needless to say, that is a “conspiracy theory” that could make even the biggest “tin foil” blogs blush. A different way of saying what Goldman just hinted at: “Greece must be destroyed, so it (and the Eurozone) can be saved (with even more QE).” Or, in the parlance of Rahm Emanuel’s times, “Let no Greek default crisis go to QE wastel.” Goldman continues:

Greece, like many emerging markets before it, is suffering a balance of payments crisis, whereby a “sudden stop” in foreign capital inflows caused GDP to fall sharply. In emerging markets, this comes with a large upfront currency devaluation – on average around 30% across nine key episodes (Exhibit 1) – that lasts for over four years. This devaluation boosts exports, so that – as unpleasant as this phase of the crisis is – activity rebounds quickly and GDP is significantly above pre-crisis levels five years on (Exhibit 2).

In Greece, although unit labor costs have fallen significantly, price competitiveness has improved much less, with the real effective exchange rate down only ten% (with much of that drop only coming recently). This shows that the process of “internal devaluation” is difficult and, unfortunately, a poor substitute for outright devaluation. The reason we emphasize this is because, even if a compromise is found that includes a debt write-down (as the Greek government is pushing for), this will do little to return Greece to growth. Only a managed devaluation can do that, one where the creditors continue to lend and help manage the transition.

Here, Goldman does something shocking – it tells the truth! “As such, the current stand-off is about something much deeper than the next disbursement. It signals that the concept of “internal devaluation” is deeply troubled.” Bingo – because what Goldman just said in a very polite way, is that a monetary union in which one of the nations is as far behind as Greece is, and recall just how far behind Greece is relative to IMF GDP estimates imposed during the prior two bailouts..

Read more …

It’s stunning to see that when confronted with basic democracy, the press has no idea what to say or do.

Tsipras Asking Grandma to Figure Out If Greek Debt Deal Is Fair (Bloomberg)

Economists with PhDs and hedge-fund traders can barely stay on top of the vagaries of Greece’s spiraling debt crisis. Now, try getting grandma to vote on it. That’s what Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is doing by calling a snap referendum for July 5 on the latest bailout package from creditors. The 68-word ballot question namechecks four international institutions and asks voters for their opinion on two highly technical documents that weren’t made public before the referendum call and were only translated into Greek on Saturday.
Worse, they may no longer be on the table. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde told the BBC late on Saturday that “legally speaking, the referendum will relate to proposals and arrangements which are no longer valid.”

Tsipras’s decision means everyone from fishermen to taxi-drivers and factory workers will have to form an opinion on the package, with their country’s economic future hanging in the balance. A rejection of the bailout terms could lead to an exit from the euro area and economic calamity; accepting them would probably keep Greece in the euro, but with more austerity. “Usually in democracies, it’s the technocrats and the politicians who take care of the details, while voters are asked about broader issues and principles,” said Philip Shaw, the chief economist in London at asset manager Investec. “This is a transfer of responsibility from parliament to the voters.”

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The numbers stopped making sense long ago. Quit looking at the numbers.

Here’s Why Any Greek Debt Deal Will Amount To Nothing (Satyajit Das)

All the heated negotiations and analysis around a bailout for Greece seem oblivious to the key problems of any settlement. Since February’s “deal,” the parties have inched close to an agreement in a prolonged battle of alternative drafts (some incorrect; other misdirected). It remains highly uncertain whether agreement can be reached. The creditors insist this is their “last and best” offer. The Greeks bluster about democracy and blackmail. Now, the Greek government has called a snap referendum on the new proposals. In its current form, the terms will represent a few concessions by the creditors, but almost total capitulation by the Greek government. Consider:

First, the agreement is likely to cover five months, necessitating a more comprehensive further program, which will inevitably require creditors to provide new financing to Greece (in effect a third bailout) if default is to be avoided. Second, the focus originally has been on the release of €7.2 billion from the existing second bailout program. If the amounts that Greece has run down from reserves, pensions and also its account at the IMF are replaced, then there is little additional new funding to Greece. It seems the European have found a little more money, by shuffling funds, whereby the amount would be a more “generous” 17 or so billion euro. But it is far from clear what Greece needs in any case.

Third, the issue of debt repayments or relief is not addressed, other than in vague terms. Greece has commitments of around 5-10 billion euro each year plus the continuing need to roll over around €15 billion in short-term Treasury bills. Greece may not have the ability to meet these obligations on an ongoing basis. This does not take into account additional funding needs of the State that may arise from budget shortfalls or the need of Greek banks.

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Oh, c’mon, I feel so awkward agreeing with Krugman….

Europe’s Moment of Truth (Paul Krugman)

Until now, every warning about an imminent breakup of the euro has proved wrong. Governments, whatever they said during the election, give in to the demands of the troika; meanwhile, the ECB steps in to calm the markets. This process has held the currency together, but it has also perpetuated deeply destructive austerity — don’t let a few quarters of modest growth in some debtors obscure the immense cost of five years of mass unemployment. As a political matter, the big losers from this process have been the parties of the center-left, whose acquiescence in harsh austerity — and hence abandonment of whatever they supposedly stood for — does them far more damage than similar policies do to the center-right.

It seems to me that the troika — I think it’s time to stop the pretense that anything changed, and go back to the old name — expected, or at least hoped, that Greece would be a repeat of this story. Either Tsipras would do the usual thing, abandoning much of his coalition and probably being forced into alliance with the center-right, or the Syriza government would fall. And it might yet happen. But at least as of right now Tsipras seems unwilling to fall on his sword. Instead, faced with a troika ultimatum, he has scheduled a referendum on whether to accept. This is leading to much hand-wringing and declarations that he’s being irresponsible, but he is, in fact, doing the right thing, for two reasons.

First, if it wins the referendum, the Greek government will be empowered by democratic legitimacy, which still, I think, matters in Europe. (And if it doesn’t, we need to know that, too.) Second, until now Syriza has been in an awkward place politically, with voters both furious at ever-greater demands for austerity and unwilling to leave the euro. It has always been hard to see how these desires could be reconciled; it’s even harder now. The referendum will, in effect, ask voters to choose their priority, and give Tsipras a mandate to do what he must if the troika pushes it all the way. If you ask me, it has been an act of monstrous folly on the part of the creditor governments and institutions to push it to this point. But they have, and I can’t at all blame Tsipras for turning to the voters, instead of turning on them.

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Getting ugly.

Wikileaks: Plot Against Former Greek PM’s Life, ‘Silver Drachma’ Plan (GR)

Evidence pointing to international espionage, a plot to murder former Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and a 2012 plan for Greece’s exit from the euro code-named the “Silver Drachma” are just some of the sensational findings unveiled in a report by Greek Anti-Corruption Investigator Dimitris Foukas, released on Friday and sent to the Justices’ Council for consideration. The report outlines the findings of three converging judicial investigations spanning several years, initiated after the notorious phone-tapping scandal in 2005 and revelations that the mobile phones of then Prime Minister Karamanlis and dozens of other prominent Greeks were under surveillance.

This investigation later merged with that of the “Pythias Plan’” – for the neutralization and even murder of Karamanlis – and allegations that Greek National Intelligence Service officers and former Minister Michalis Karchimakis had leaked classified state secrets and documents. Foukas cited evidence – including Wikileaks reports – supporting the existence of the Pythias Plan, which he said was designed to exert pressure on the Greek government to change its policy in crucial sectors, such as energy, arms procurements and public sector procurements. According to the report, the rapprochement between Greece and Russia provoked action by the United States to avert agreements for Russian pipelines, leading to the gradual abandonment of the plans by Athens and its commitment to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), as well as the cancellation of plans to acquire Russian military equipment.

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Word: “With hundreds of thousands of people depending on soup kitchens, and thousands of suicides in the years 2010-2015, the moral case for debt forgiveness seems just as strong as the technical one based on economics.”

Greece Referendum: Why Tsipras Made the Right Move (Fotaki)

Greece will hold a referendum on July 5 on whether the country should accept the bailout offer of international creditors. The government’s decision to reject what was on offer and call the referendum is ultimately an attempt to take charge of its domestic policy and reaffirm its credibility with voters. Although Greece is hard strapped for cash this is clearly a political decision with profound consequences for the future of the European Union. It is also the right one. This is not merely useful as a negotiating tactic for obtaining a better deal with its creditors, as many commentators might suggest. The coalition of the left, Syriza, had no choice but to oppose further measures that would lock its economy into a deflationary spiral, the trappings of which are destroying Greek society.

Elected with the mandate to end the savage austerity policies already imposed, Syriza could hardly accept the further cuts demanded. These include cuts in income support for pensioners below the poverty line and a VAT hike of up to 23% on food staples. Even more onerous was the demand that Greece should deliver a sustained primary budget surplus of 1% for 2016, gradually increasing to 3.5% in the following years when its economy has already been contracting for six years. By most counts the austerity policies imposed by Greece’s creditors in 2010 in exchange for the bailout money have been an abject economic and moral failure. The IMF itself has acknowledged “a notable failure” in managing the terms of the first Greek bailout, in setting overly optimistic expectations for the country’s economy and underestimating the effects of the austerity measures it imposed.

The former IMF negotiator, Reza Moghadam, has acknowledged the fund’s erroneous projections about Greek growth, inflation, fiscal effort and social cohesion. The debt is now almost 180% of Greece’s GDP, up from 120% when the bailout program began. And this is mainly due to the fact that GDP has contracted by 25%, rather than the significantly lower projections by the IMF. The shrinking of the economy and rising unemployment levels have exceeded those that hit the US in the financial crisis of the 1930s. The human and social costs have been even more staggering in Greece. Incomes have fallen by an average of 40%, and the unemployment rate reached 26% in 2014 (and higher than 50% for youth). With hundreds of thousands of people depending on soup kitchens, and thousands of suicides in the years 2010-2015, the moral case for debt forgiveness seems just as strong as the technical one based on economics.

Yet in the terms presented to Greece by their creditors there is no commitment to reducing Greece’s crippling debt (which all commentators acknowledge is unrepayable). Nor is there any tangible proposal for rebuilding the Greek economy. Germany, France, and the EU, aided by the IMF and ECB, continue to insist on implementing policies that have so manifestly failed Greece. They do so to avoid having to justify the massive bailouts of their own financial systems – shifting the burden from banks to taxpayers – if Greece fails to make the repayments. The leading EU partners must not be seen to act leniently towards Greece as this might encourage anti-austerity parties Spain and elsewhere.

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No, the IMF should be dismantled.

IMF Heads Must Roll Over Shameful Greek Failings (Telegraph)

Whatever the eventual outcome of the Greek debt talks, there are a number of judgments can already be made; one is that a large part of the blame for this ever deepening debacle lies at the doors of the International Monetary Fund, which from the very beginning has had both its priorities and its analysis of the situation hopelessly wrong. The IMF is meant to fix these things; instead, it has conspired to turn what should have been a containable crisis into a total disaster. With its reputation in tatters and its credibility shot to bits, it is small wonder that China and others are seeking alternative, rival models of governance for the global financial system. If this were any normal organisation, the IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, would be forced to resign and someone with less of a vested interest in propping up the folie de grandeur of EMU installed in her place.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, deputy prime minister of Singapore – measured, clever, internationally respected and impressively free- market orientated in his approach to global affairs – would make an excellent choice, though even he, as a long-standing chairman of the IMF’s policy committee, is somewhat tainted. It may require a complete outsider. Crisis management is of course what the IMF is there for; and if in the thick of a crisis, you are almost bound to get flak. Has there ever been a crisis in the IMF’s 70-year history that was not said to have done irreparable damage to the organisation’s reputation? It’s hard to think of one. Whatever it does, the IMF always gets it in the neck. Take the Russian financial crisis of 1998. The $5bn the IMF lent to help the country over its difficulties was immediately stolen and spirited away into Swiss bank accounts.

Or the pre-millennial Asian crises, where the IMF was accused of imposing a degree of austerity on afflicted nations it would never dare advocate for any G7 economy. I could go on, but it would fill the rest of the newspaper. In any case, criticism comes with the territory, which is possibly why the IMF has always been so impervious to it, and also why it repeatedly fails to learn from its mistakes. By any standards, however, the IMF’s entanglement with the eurozone crisis is a whopper of a screw-up. Nor is it something in which the IMF should have got involved in the first place. Europe, one of the richest regions in the world, should have been left to sort out its own affairs. This is more particularly the case as the Greek debt crisis is almost entirely one of the eurozone’s own making.

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Shut off the light on your way out.

Austrians Launch Petition To Quit EU (RT)

Austrians have launched a petition to quit the EU, arguing that the nation will be better off economically if it leaves the union. To force the national parliament to consider the initiative activists need to have gathered 100,000 signatures by July 1. The petition was started by a retired 66-year-old translator, Inge Rauscher, who has collected enough signatures to launch an official campaign. The plea seeks to request that the national parliament debate the idea of a referendum on quitting the EU. However, to get that issue even discussed, the petition must gather 100,000 signatures. “We want to go back to a neutral and peace-loving Austria,” Rauscher said at the start of the campaign this week. Austrians have until July 1 to sign the petition which they can do in municipal or district offices.

Rauscher and her non-partisan Heimat & Umwelt committee (Homeland and Environment) argue that Austria will benefit from leaving the EU both economically and environmentally. She also criticized Austria’s forceful endorsement of EU sanctions against Russia, generally blaming Brussels for the economic downturn. “We are not any longer a sovereign state in the European Union. Over 80% of all essential legislation is being imposed by Brussels, not by elected commissioners. In our view, Europe is not a democracy. The European Parliament does not even have legislative powers,” Rauscher told Sputnik Radio.

An independent Austria, the committee believes, would gain an extra €9,800 per household per year, because the country will be freed from the burdens of EU bureaucracy. Recent polls show that only about one third of Austrians would be in favor of leaving the EU, according to the Local. The idea is championed by both the right-wing Freedom Party and the Euro-skeptic Team Stronach party. “This initiative is open for all political parties and we expect a broad support,” Rauscher said. “This is proved by our numerous conversations with the citizens over the past months.”

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Ari, interesting, but you kill your own argument by defining inflation as rising prices.

The Government Must Run Deficits, Even In Good Times (Ari)

It is my view that it is very important to keep things simple and this is what I will aim to do here. I will get down to the simplest identity and build from there using empirical data. I will draw conclusions which logically follow from the data and base assumptions. But despite the elementary nature of the idea, I still think that what it will show is very informative and the conclusion it leads to is one that the current government in the UK would be appalled to consider. Although the conclusion will be surprising to some people, I believe that every step of the logic shown here is undeniably true. I would be very interested if someone can show me a faulty link in the chain. The starting point is the basic identity here:

If GDP in one year is given by £A, then the total amount of money spent on domestic goods and services is £A.
If nominal GDP the next year grows by proportion n, then GDP in year two is given by £A*(1+n) and the total amount of money spent in year two is also £A*(1+n).
What it means is that, if, for example, growth is 2% and inflation is 2%, then a total of 4% more money MUST be spent in year two than was spent in year one.

The question I will mainly be answering in the rest of this post is ‘where does this money come from?’. I will not just try to answer this question in the abstract but to quantify the effect of different sources of money. When money is spent in an economy then it contributes to nominal GDP. Nominal GDP growth is the increase in A above. The economy can be simplified to how much money was spent and how much of that leads to real growth and how much to inflation. I will try to show, using empirical data, the source of funding for our economic growth and how this leads to the conclusion that we have a big problem now. I am trying to keep things simple so I will avoid using any long equations, but to see this idea broken down into greater detail, it can be seen in the model I develop here and give an example of here (where I explain that the next crash we will have could well be a painful one).

I am not too concerned with the supply side during this discussion; it is a different issue. For example, better infrastructure and training will increase future real growth by improving productivity. There are two sides to an economy and both are important. However all of this is irrelevant for this analysis because it is just looking at the importance of demand. Deficiencies in supply will be shown in inflation figures. The supply side can expand supply to fill a certain amount of the demand as demand grows. This is dependent upon the spare capacity in the economy. If many people are out of work, then it would be easier to fulfill an increase in demand than if there is full employment. This will show in the numbers. The higher the level of GDP, the higher proportion of the extra spending that will lead to inflation.

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Not sure about this…

Pope Francis Recruits Naomi Klein In Climate Change Battle (Observer)

She is one of the world’s most high-profile social activists and a ferocious critic of 21st-century capitalism. He is one of the pope’s most senior aides and a professor of climate change economics. But this week the secular radical will join forces with the Catholic cardinal in the latest move by Pope Francis to shift the debate on global warming. Naomi Klein and Cardinal Peter Turkson are to lead a high-level conference on the environment, bringing together churchmen, scientists and activists to debate climate change action. Klein, who campaigns for an overhaul of the global financial system to tackle climate change, told the Observer she was surprised but delighted to receive the invitation from Turkson’s office.

“The fact that they invited me indicates they’re not backing down from the fight. A lot of people have patted the pope on the head, but said he’s wrong on the economics. I think he’s right on the economics,” she said, referring to Pope Francis’s recent publication of an encyclical on the environment. Release of the document earlier this month thrust the pontiff to the centre of the global debate on climate change, as he berated politicians for creating a system that serves wealthy countries at the expense of the poorest. Activists and religious leaders will gather in Rome on Sunday, marching through the Eternal City before the Vatican welcomes campaigners to the conference, which will focus on the UN’s impending climate change summit.

Protesters have chosen the French embassy as their starting point – a Renaissance palace famed for its beautiful frescoes, but more significantly a symbol of the United Nations climate change conference, which will be hosted by Paris this December. Nearly 500 years since Galileo was found guilty of heresy, the Holy See is leading the rallying cry for the world to wake up and listen to scientists on climate change. Multi-faith leaders will walk alongside scientists and campaigners, hailing from organisations including Greenpeace and Oxfam Italy, marching to the Vatican to celebrate the pope’s tough stance on environmental issues. The imminent arrival of Klein within the Vatican walls has raised some eyebrows, but the involvement of lay people in church discussions is not without precedent.

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May 312015
 
 May 31, 2015  Posted by at 5:00 pm Finance Tagged with: , , ,  11 Responses »
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Jack Delano Brockton, Mass., Enterprise newspaper office on Christmas Eve 1940

This is a letter From Greek PM Alexis Tsipras in today’s Le Monde. I have little to add, his eloquence needs few comments at this moment. One thing is certain: the negotiations will never be the same. And neither will Europe.

Straight from the Prime Minister’s offical website: :

Alexis Tsipras: On 25th of last January, the Greek people made a courageous decision. They dared to challenge the one-way street of the Memorandum’s tough austerity, and to seek a new agreement. A new agreement that will keep the country in the Euro, with a viable economic program, without the mistakes of the past. The Greek people paid a high price for these mistakes; over the past five years the unemployment rate climbed to 28% (60% for young people), average income decreased by 40%, while according to Eurostat’s data, Greece became the EU country with the highest index of social inequality.

And the worst result: Despite badly damaging the social fabric, this Program failed to invigorate the competitiveness of the Greek economy. Public debt soared from 124% to 180% of GDP, and despite the heavy sacrifices of the people, the Greek economy remains trapped in continuous uncertainty caused by unattainable fiscal balance targets that further the vicious cycle of austerity and recession. The new Greek government’s main goal during these last four months has been to put an end to this vicious cycle, an end to this uncertainty. Doing so requires a mutually beneficial agreement that will set realistic goals regarding surpluses, while also reinstating an agenda of growth and investment. A final solution to the Greek problem is now more mature and more necessary than ever.

Such an agreement will also spell the end of the European economic crisis that began 7 years ago, by putting an end to the cycle of uncertainty in the Eurozone. Today, Europe has the opportunity to make decisions that will trigger a rapid recovery of the Greek and European economy by ending Grexit scenarios, scenarios that prevent the long-term stabilization of the European economy and may, at any given time, weaken the confidence of both citizens and investors in our common currency. Many, however, claim that the Greek side is not cooperating to reach an agreement because it comes to the negotiations intransigent and without proposals. Is this really the case?

Because these times are critical, perhaps historic–not only for the future of Greece but also for the future of Europe–I would like to take this opportunity to present the truth, and to responsibly inform the world’s public opinion about the real intentions and positions of Greece. The Greek government, on the basis of the Eurogroup’s decision on February 20th, has submitted a broad package of reform proposals, with the intent to reach an agreement that will combine respect for the mandate of the Greek people with respect for the rules and decisions governing the Eurozone.

One of the key aspects of our proposals is the commitment to lower – and hence make feasible – primary surpluses for 2015 and 2016, and to allow for higher primary surpluses for the following years, as we expect a proportional increase in the growth rates of the Greek economy. Another equally fundamental aspect of our proposals is the commitment to increase public revenues through a redistribution of the burden from lower and middle classes to the higher ones that have effectively avoided paying their fair share to help tackle the crisis, since they were for all accounts protected by both the political elite and the Troika who turned “a blind eye”.

From the very start, our government has clearly demonstrated its intention and determination to address these matters by legislating a specific bill to deal with fraud caused by triangular transactions, and by intensifying customs and tax controls to reduce smuggling and tax evasion.= While, for the first time in years, we charged media owners for their outstanding debts owed to the Greek public sector. These actions are changing things in Greece, as evidenced the speeding up of work in the courts to administer justice in cases of substantial tax evasion. In other words, the oligarchs who were used to being protected by the political system now have many reasons to lose sleep.

In addition to these overarching goals that define our proposals, we have also offered highly detailed and specific plans during the course of our discussions with the institutions that have bridged the distance between our respective positions that separated us a few months ago. Specifically, the Greek side has accepted to implement a series of institutional reforms, such as strengthening the independence of the General Secretariat for Public Revenues and of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), interventions to accelerate the administration of justice, as well as interventions in the product markets to eliminate distortions and privileges.

Also, despite our clear opposition to the privatization model promoted by the institutions that neither creates growth perspectives nor transfers funds to the real economy and the unsustainable debt, we accepted to move forward, with some minor modifications, on privatizations to prove our intention of taking steps towards approaching the other side. We also agreed to implement a major VAT reform by simplifying the system and reinforcing the redistributive dimension of the tax in order to achieve an increase in both collection and revenues.

We have submitted specific proposals concerning measures that will result in a further increase in revenues. These include a special contribution tax on very high profits, a tax on e-betting, the intensification of checks of bank account holders with large sums – tax evaders, measures for the collection of public sector arrears, a special luxury tax, and a tendering process for broadcasting and other licenses, which the Troika coincidentally forgot about for the past five years. These measures will increase revenues, and will do so without having recessionary effects since they do not further reduce active demand or place more burdens on the low and middle social strata.

Furthermore, we agreed to implement a major reform of the social security system that entails integrating pension funds and repealing provisions that wrongly allow for early retirement, which increases the real retirement age. These reforms will be put into place despite the fact that the losses endured by the pension funds, which have created the medium-term problem of their sustainability, are mainly due to political choices of both the previous Greek governments and especially the Troika, who share the responsibility for these losses: the pension funds’ reserves have been reduced by €25 billion through the PSI and from very high unemployment, which is almost exclusively due to the extreme austerity program that has been implemented in Greece since 2010.

Finally–and despite our commitment to the workforce to immediately restore European legitimacy to the labor market that has been fully dismantled during the last five years under the pretext of competitiveness–we have accepted to implement labor reforms after our consultation with the ILO, which has already expressed a positive opinion about the Greek government’s proposals. Given the above, it is only reasonable to wonder why there is such insistence by Institutional officials that Greece is not submitting proposals.

What end is served by this prolonged liquidity moratorium towards the Greek economy? Especially in light of the fact that Greece has shown that it wants to meet its external obligations, having paid more than 17 billion in interest and amortizations (about 10% of its GDP) since August 2014 without any external funding. And finally, what is the purpose of the coordinated leaks that claim that we are not close to an agreement that will put an end to the European and global economic and political uncertainty fueled by the Greek issue? The informal response that some are making is that we are not close to an agreement because the Greek side insists on its positions to restore collective bargaining and refuses to implement a further reduction of pensions.

Here, too, I must make some clarifications: Regarding the issue of collective bargaining, the position of the Greek side is that it is impossible for the legislation protecting employees in Greece to not meet European standards or, even worse, to flagrantly violate European labor legislation. What we are asking for is nothing more than what is common practice in all Eurozone countries. This is the reason why I recently made a joint declaration on the issue with President Juncker.

Concerning the issue on pensions, the position of the Greek government is completely substantiated and reasonable. In Greece, pensions have cumulatively declined from 20% to 48% during the Memorandum years; currently 44.5% of pensioners receive a pension under the fixed threshold of relative poverty while approximately 23.1% of pensioners, according to data from Eurostat, live in danger of poverty and social exclusion. It is therefore obvious that these numbers, which are the result of Memorandum policy, cannot be tolerated–not simply in Greece but in any civilized country.

So, let’s be clear: The lack of an agreement so far is not due to the supposed intransigent, uncompromising and incomprehensible Greek stance. It is due to the insistence of certain institutional actors on submitting absurd proposals and displaying a total indifference to the recent democratic choice of the Greek people, despite the public admission of the three Institutions that necessary flexibility will be provided in order to respect the popular verdict.

What is driving this insistence? An initial thought would be that this insistence is due to the desire of some to not admit their mistakes and instead, to reaffirm their choices by ignoring their failures. Moreover, we must not forget the public admission made a few years ago by the IMF that they erred in calculating the depth of the recession that would be caused by the Memorandum. I consider this, however, to be a shallow approach. I simply cannot believe that the future of Europe depends on the stubbornness or the insistence of some individuals.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the issue of Greece does not only concern Greece; rather, it is the very epicenter of conflict between two diametrically opposing strategies concerning the future of European unification.

The first strategy aims to deepen European unification in the context of equality and solidarity between its people and citizens.
The proponents of this strategy begin with the assumption that it is not possible to demand that the new Greek government follows the course of the previous one – which, we must not forget, failed miserably. This assumption is the starting point, because otherwise, elections would need to be abolished in those countries that are in a Program. Namely, we would have to accept that the institutions should appoint the Ministers and Prime Ministers, and that citizens should be deprived of the right to vote until the completion of the Program.

In other words, this means the complete abolition of democracy in Europe, the end of every pretext of democracy, and the beginning of disintegration and of an unacceptable division of United Europe. This means the beginning of the creation of a technocratic monstrosity that will lead to a Europe entirely alien to its founding principles.

The second strategy seeks precisely this: The split and the division of the Eurozone, and consequently of the EU.
The first step to accomplishing this is to create a two-speed Eurozone where the “core” will set tough rules regarding austerity and adaptation and will appoint a “super” Finance Minister of the EZ with unlimited power, and with the ability to even reject budgets of sovereign states that are not aligned with the doctrines of extreme neoliberalism. For those countries that refuse to bow to the new authority, the solution will be simple: Harsh punishment. Mandatory austerity. And even worse, more restrictions on the movement of capital, disciplinary sanctions, fines and even a parallel currency.

Judging from the present circumstances, it appears that this new European power is being constructed, with Greece being the first victim.
To some, this represents a golden opportunity to make an example out of Greece for other countries that might be thinking of not following this new line of discipline. What is not being taken into account is the high amount of risk and the enormous dangers involved in this second strategy. This strategy not only risks the beginning of the end for the European unification project by shifting the Eurozone from a monetary union to an exchange rate zone, but it also triggers economic and political uncertainty, which is likely to entirely transform the economic and political balances throughout the West.

Europe, therefore, is at a crossroads. Following the serious concessions made by the Greek government, the decision is now not in the hands of the institutions, which in any case – with the exception of the European Commission- are not elected and are not accountable to the people, but rather in the hands of Europe’s leaders. Which strategy will prevail? The one that calls for a Europe of solidarity, equality and democracy, or the one that calls for rupture and division?

If some, however, think or want to believe that this decision concerns only Greece, they are making a grave mistake. I would suggest that they re-read Hemingway’s masterpiece, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.

Apr 262015
 
 April 26, 2015  Posted by at 2:43 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  18 Responses »
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DPC Clam seller in Mulberry Bend, NYC 1904

After the high-level EU summit on the migrant issue, hastily convened after close to a thousand people drowned last weekend off the Lybian coast, Dutch PM Mark Rutte was quoted by ‘his’ domestic press as saying ‘Our first priority is saving human lives’. That sounds commendable, and it also sounds just like what everybody knows everybody else wants to hear. One can be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that it’s somewhat unfortunate that the one person tasked by Brussels with executing the noble ‘saving lives’ strategy, doesn’t seem to entirely agree with Rutte:

EU Borders Chief Says Saving Migrants’ Lives ‘Shouldn’t Be Priority’ For Patrols

The head of the EU border agency has said that saving migrants’ lives in the Mediterranean should not be the priority for the maritime patrols he is in charge of, despite the clamour for a more humane response from Europe following the deaths of an estimated 800 people at sea at the weekend. On the eve of an emergency EU summit on the immigration crisis, Fabrice Leggeri, the head of Frontex, flatly dismissed turning the Triton border patrol mission off the coast of Italy into a search and rescue operation.

He also voiced strong doubts about new EU pledges to tackle human traffickers and their vessels in Libya. “Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation. I mean, in our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search-and-rescue action. This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is in my understanding not in the mandate of the European Union,” Leggeri told the Guardian.

To refresh your memory, the Triton border patrol mission took the place late last year of Italy’s Mare Nostrum mission, which ended in October 2014. For good measure, the budget was slashed from the €9.5 million per month Italy had been putting in, to €2.9 million per month. Saving lives can be simply too expensive when you think about it in your high rise office in that brand new €1 billion+ EU building. These are hard economic times, and we all need to make sacrifices and to cut costs wherever we can.

But of course after that summit, Europe announced it was going to triple the budget for the Triton mission. That will of course only simply bring back the budget to where it already was before it was cut by two-thirds, but it’s a nice headline anyway.

The difference in focus between Rutte and Frontex head Leggeri can be found all around Europe. It would be nonsense to claim Europe agrees on much of anything regarding the refugee issue. Well, they agree it’s a nuisance that all these people die and Europe is supposed to do something. The national government leaders would like it much better if such things didn’t happen, it’s bad publicity. But at the same time, it’s nothing that can’t be spun and turned to their advantage. Or so they like to think.

Reactions to the statements released after the summit were not all positive, to say the least. Amnesty said that the only thing Europe tries to save is its face. Former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, at present a member of the European Parliament, indicated that the equipment Frontex has at its disposal (one helicopter, two ships and seven planes) wouldn’t even be enough to survey the Belgian coast (of which there’s not a lot).

Just to make sure his peers wouldn’t think he’d gone all soft, Rutte came with another catchy oneliner: “Last time I checked, Lybia was in Africa, not Europe.” In other words, ‘saving lives’ is a great press quote, but don’t blame him for lives lost. And that’s the crux behind the shift from Italy’s mission to the EU’s. The former was patrolling off the coast of Lybia, while the latter occupies itself only with the European coastline, and it just so happens that’s not where refugees’ lives are under threat (let’s stop saying migrants, that’s a grossly misleading term).

In its infinite wisdom, the EU has decided in its summit that there will be 5000 ‘resettlement’ places available for the hundreds of thousands of refugees (migrants) that want to go to Europe. The EU in a post-summit statement said it expects 150,000 refugees this year, but it might as well add up to 500,000 in 2015 alone. How Brussels thinks it’s going to send back almost half a million people is a big question mark. So much so we’d put our money on no-one having properly thought it over.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, millions of refugees are making their way to the Mediterranean from trouble spots across Africa. To put it in somewhat cynical economic terms, think of this as pent-up demand. And also don’t forget how Patrick Boyle framed it: “We fear the arrival of immigrants that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them.”

The typical story of the refugees is one in which it takes years to get from their mostly sub-Saharan homes to the Lybian coast, working odd jobs on the way. Once they get to Lybia, which has been shot to bits by western forces, they’re dependent on all sorts of militia, who often arrest them, take their money etc. Perhaps the most insulting thing to come out of Brussels is the comparison with Somali pirates, and the argument that the refugee stream should be dealt with in the same way.

Indeed, much of the European ‘leadership’ have emphasized one approach more than any other: send in the military, start shooting. The idea being that if the boats of the traffickers are destroyed, everything will return to ‘normal’. But the issue here is not the traffickers, it’s the refugees. Want to send in the military against them too?

If there’s anything good that can come from the deeply deplorable death of far too many poor sods in the Meditteranean, it’s that it shows us all once more, as if we needed further confirmation, what a dysfunctional entity – morally as well as practically – the European Union is. More than anything, the EU makes itself entirely irrelevant. There is no decision structure in Brussels, since there is no ultimate responsibility that has been assigned. And they all sort of like it that way for now, because it means everyone can deflect that responsibility if and when necessary.

From the first example above that should be very clear: Rutte says the first priority should be saving lives, but the man who leads the organization that is tasked with executing it, flatly denies that.

Greek news organization Kathimerini ran a piece this week that serves to add yet another level of cold cynicism. Lest we forget, it’s Europe’s poorest countries that are forced to deal with the brunt of the refugee problem. In that summit we mentioned before, half of all European nations refused to take up even one single refugee. Yet another example of the absolute lack of coherence and solidarity that so-called union exhibits.

The idea seems to be: Let ’em all stay in Greece, while we suffocate the nation financially. But Greece cannot solve the issue all by itself, it can’t handle the expected 100,000 refugees on its own. It will be forced to open its borders and tell the refugees to try and reach Germany or France. See also: Open Letter From Greece on the Mediterranean Migrants Issue.

The present EU policy is that a refugee must stay in the country where (s)he has been registered. Hence, all Greece and Italy need to do is not register them. Kathimerini:

The Dubious Politics Of Fortress Europe

In “Border Merchants: Europe’s New Architecture of Surveillance” (published by Potamos), Apostolis Fotiadis, an Athens-based freelance investigative journalist, seeks to document a paradigm shift in Europe’s immigration policy away from search and rescue operations to all-out deterrence. The switch, the 36-year-old author argues, plays into the hands of the continent’s defense industry and is being facilitated by the not-so-transparent Brussels officialdom. “Their solution to the immigration problem is that of constant management because this increases their ability to exploit it as a market. The defense industry would much rather see the protracted management of the problem than a final solution,” Fotiadis said in a recent interview with Kathimerini English Edition.

“Without a crisis there would be no need for emergency measures, no need for states to upgrade their surveillance and security systems,” he said. Fotiadis claims the trend is facilitated by the revolving door between defense industry executives and the Brussels institutions, which means that conflict of interests is built right into EU policy. “There is a certain habitat in which many people represent the institutions and at the same time express a philosophy about the common good,” he said. [..]

Fotiadis believes there is no reason Greece should not be able to set up some basic infrastructure to deal with the influx. He says that the number of immigrants and refugees received by the EU is in fact small compared to the more than 1.5 million refugees who have found shelter in Turkey due to civil war in Syria. Jordan is estimated to be home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, while one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Meanwhile, the EU, one of the wealthiest regions of the world, with a combined population of over 500 million, last year took in less than 280,000 people. “All that hysteria is a knee-jerk overreaction to an illusory version of reality,” he said.

Why Greece or any other country would wish, be eager even, to be part of the EU is becoming ever harder to comprehend. The moral values prevalent in Brussels, whether it comes to EU policies regarding Ukraine, Greece or the refugees’ dilemma, don’t seem to be shared in any individual European nation (if anything, they’re reminiscent of what various extreme right wing parties espouse).

And as the Greek negotiations with the eurogroup and the ‘institutions’ show us with intense and increasing clarity, the notion of the euro being a boat to lift all tides turns out to be full-on bogus. Southern Europe’s nations will be either thrown out or allowed to stay only as debt servants. For now, Germany and Holland prefer to keep everyone on board, but that may still change. It would therefore seem like a good idea for Greece and Italy to make their moves while they can.

In order to achieve that, however, they must convince their people that staying in the EU, and in the eurozone, is a bad choice. And since their old-time political establishments will continue to deny this (because the EU allowed them to sit fat and pretty), that will not be an easy task. Perhaps the refugee issue can help.

In all likelihood, the victims of the sunken boat near the Lybian coast this weekend will never be identified, except for perhaps a handful. Nobody knows who they are, and those who do stayed behind a thousand miles or more away. These deceased people, most of whom will never even be buried ashore, define, in one fell swoop, the ‘new’ price of a human life. Theirs, yours, and everyone else’s.

Sinking nameless to the bottom of the sea, with no-one either ever knowing who you are or aware of how you are doing. That is our new valuation of a human being. It’s price discovery in its most cynical sense, it’s how assets get re-priced in markets.

What Tsipras and Varoufakis must accomplish is to make people understand that what Europe does to the refugees, it will do to its own citizens too.

Mar 082015
 
 March 8, 2015  Posted by at 2:32 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  22 Responses »
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Christopher Helin Kissel military Highway Scout Kar at Multnomah Falls, Oregon 1918

The European Union is busy accomplishing something truly extraordinary: it is fast becoming such a spectacular failure that people don’t even recognize it as one. People have no idea, they just think: this can’t possibly be true, and they continue with their day. They should think again. Because the Grand European Failure is bound to lead to real life consequences soon, and they’ll be devastating. The union that was supposed to put an end to all fighting across the continent, is about to be the fuse that sets off a range of battles.

To its east, the EU is involved in a braindead attempt at further expansion – it has only one idea when it comes to size: bigger is always better -, an attempt that is proving to be such a disaster that heads will roll in the Brussels corridors no matter what. Europe has joined the US and NATO very enthusiastically in creating not just a failed state, but a veritable imitation of Hiroshima, in Ukraine, right on its own borders. The consequences of this will haunt the EU (or if it doesn’t last, which is highly plausible, its former members) not just for weeks or months or years, but for many decades.

The carefully re-crafted relationship with Russia, which took 25 years to build, was destroyed again in hardly over a year, something for which Angela Merkel deserves so much blame it may well end up being her main political legacy. Vladimir Putin, and Russia as a nation, will not easily forget the humiliation the west has thrown at them, the accusations, the innuendo, the attempts to draw them into a war they never wanted and in which they see no advantage for any party involved.

That US warmongers would try and set this up, is something Moscow has long known and expected; that Merkel would stand side by side with the likes of John McCain and Victoria Nuland is seen as a deep if not ultimate betrayal between neighbors and friends. Russia will present Germany with the bill when it feels the time is right. Obviously, all other EU countries that have behaved in the insane ways they have over the past year will receive that same bill, or worse.

To be sure, this week we’ve seen the first protest voices from Germany regarding NATO’s vacuous attempts to draw Russia into the battlefields of Ukraine. But those voices are years too late. They can’t undo the damage already done. They may keep American weapons from reaching Kiev – and even that’s a big maybe -, but they can’t bring back either the lives of the victims, the Ukrainian economy or the trust lost between east and west.

To its south, the EU faces perhaps its most shameful -or should that be ‘shameless’? – problem, because it doesn’t do anything about it: the thousands of migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe but far too often perish in the process.

The Italians spend themselves poor, trying to save as many migrants as they can (170,000 last year!), and there are private citizens – Americans even – pouring in millions of dollars, but the EU itself has zero comprehensive policy as people keep dying on its doorstep all the time. The official line out of Brussels is that the EU polices only the European coastline, but the drownings mostly take place off the Lybian coast. At least Italy and others do sail there to alleviate the human misery.

And now the problem threatens to expand into a whole new and additional dimension, with Muslim extremists like ISIS set to travel alongside the migrants to gain entry into Europe with the aim of launching terror attacks. Having turned a blind eye to the issue for years, Europe will now find itself woefully unprepared for this new development. Still, expect more bluster and brute force where there was never any reason or need for it. That the EU’s MO today.

It’s not just in the south either that migrant problems are rampant: the Ukraine is a hotbed migrant route that Europe has lost control over for obvious reasons, and there have for example been thousands of African refugees camping out in the French port of Calais for what feels like forever, desperate to make it to Britain (I know, God knows why..).

To its west, the EU has Britain, which by the time it gets to vote on Europe may well have its belly so full of Brussels that no scare campaign helps anymore. Then Britain will make a sharp turn right, as many other countries will. Which is exclusively due to the EU, and to all the domestic politicians across the entire spectrum who are so blind to the failings of the Union that the only option voters have if they want out is to choose right extremism.

To its north, the EU doesn’t seem to have much to worry about right now, but don’t you worry: they’ll think of something. Count for instance on Brussels to join Denmark in its Arctic land claims, and offend Moscow some more while they’re at it.

But the biggest failure is not even in politics outside of its own territory. The union rots from within. Which starts with its moral bankruptcy, obviously. If you allow yourself to be an active accomplice in the death of over 6000 East Ukrainians, and you simply look away as thousands of migrants die in the seas off your shores, it should not be surprising that you just as easily allow for a humanitarian crisis, like the one in Greece, to develop within your own borders. It comes with the territory, so to speak.

And make no mistake: this absence of moral values is something Europe in its present form will never be able to claim back. Never. The EU has shown itself to be a gross moral failure, and that’s it: the experiment is over. They can’t come back in 10 or 20 years and say: now we want it back, we’re different now. You’d need to have a whole new union, new rules and principles, and new leadership.

It’s like the US, which once (post WW) had an enormous moral high ground in the world to walk on, and it’s completely gone. Nobody trusts anything America says anymore. America has lost its place in the world as guardian of freedom and democracy, and so has Europe. All they can do now to exert influence is to engage in political scheming and military sabre rattling. Everything else is gone.

What will undo Europe from within is its economic policies. Which are strongly linked to the same moral values issue: inside a union, you cannot let thousands of people go without food and health care while others, a few hundred miles away, drive new Mercs and Beamers over a brand new Autobahn. That’s not a union. That’s a feudal society. And those don’t hold.

In practical terms: Mario Draghi will launch ECB Q€ this month, and it will be as dismal a failure as the entire eurozone project. Because the ECB will need to drop interest rates into very negative territory to keep the ship afloat a little longer, and because Draghi won’t find the sovereign bonds he wants to buy, available in the market.

If Draghi acted in the interest of the entire eurozone and all its citizens, he’d be busy restructuring bank debt in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, all over the eurozone, instead of playing these monopoly money games. But Draghi’s only pumping more ‘wealth’ into the broke banking system, €1.1 trillion more, to be specific.

Eventually, this refusal to restructure a a bankrupt system will bring bail-ins like the one playing out in Austria right now, closer, across the currency zone (though mostly not before 2016). And by the time that process spreads to ever more banks, which is inevitable, it will have consequences Draghi cannot oversee. And they’ll be of his own making. If he just did his work today, and forced banks to get healthy or close down, it wouldn’t end nearly as messy and chaotic.

Europe’s leaders across all of its institutions are completely lost, whether it comes to intelligence, morals or simple decency. They’re all too willing to trample upon their own people in order to have access to power. And that can only lead to more misery.

Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over. They’re done.