Wassily Kandinsky Autumn Landscape with Boats 1908
Nothing is real. And nothing to get hung about. Strawberry Fields forever.
The consensus forecast by economists predicted that the US economy would grow at an rate of 2.2% in the fourth quarter, as measured by inflation-adjusted GDP. The forecasts ranged from 1.5% to 2.8%. The New York Fed’s “Nowcast” pegged it at 2.1%, and the Atlanta Fed’s “GDPNow” at 2.9%. And today, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that growth in the fourth quarter was a measly 1.9%. That was down from 3.5% in the third quarter, a spurt that had once again given rise to the now gutted hopes that the US economy would finally emerge from its stall speed. But instead it has slowed down. For the year 2016, the growth rate dropped to 1.6%. It was worse even than 2013, when GDP growth tottered along at 1.7%. And it matched the growth rate in 2011. Both 2016 and 2011 were the worst since 2009 when the US was in the middle of the Great Recession:
In fact, over the past 50 years, anytime the economy grew less than 2% in a year, it was either already in a recession for part of the year, or there’d be a recession the following year. Hence “stall speed” – a speed that is too slow to keep the economy from stalling altogether. [..] So stall speed for the year. But this time it’s different. This is the third year since the Great Recession when GDP growth dropped below 2%. The Fed’s policies of eight years of cheap credit have entailed soaring debt levels among companies, governments, and consumers – money borrowed from tomorrow that was spent today. Borrowing for productive investment is one thing. Borrowing for consumption is another: it boosts GDP but creates a debt overhang with no productive assets that generate income to service that debt in the future; that debt service for prior consumption then acts as a burden on future consumption.
You can’t buy growth. You can just fake it for a while.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average provides us with some pretty strong evidence that our “stock market boom” has been fueled by debt. On Wednesday, the Dow crossed the 20,000 mark for the first time ever, and this comes at a time when the U.S. national debt is right on the verge of hitting 20 trillion dollars.
Is this just a coincidence? As you will see, there has been a very close correlation between the national debt and the Dow Jones Industrial Average for a very long time.
For example, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1991, the U.S. national debt had just hit 994 billion dollars and the Dow was sitting at 951. And as you can see from this chart by Matterhorn.gold via David Stockman, roughly that same ratio has held true throughout subsequent presidential administrations…
During the Clinton years the Dow raced out ahead of the national debt, but an “adjustment” during the Bush years brought things back into line. The cold hard truth is that we have been living way above our means for decades. Our “prosperity” has been fueled by the greatest debt binge in the history of the world, and we are greatly fooling ourselves if we think otherwise.We would never have gotten to 20,000 on the Dow if Barack Obama and Congress had not gotten us into an extra 9.3 trillion dollars of debt over the past eight years. Unfortunately, most people do not understand this, and the mainstream media is treating “Dow 20,000″ as if it is some sort of great historical achievement…
“The average began tracking the most powerful corporate stocks in 1896, and has served as a broad measure of the market’s health through 22 presidents, 22 recessions, a Great Depression, at least two crashes and innumerable rallies, corrections, bull and bear markets. The blue chip reading finally cracked the 20,000 benchmark for the first time early Wednesday. During the current bull market, the second longest in history, the Dow has more than tripled since March 2009.”
Since Donald Trump’s surprise election victory, the Dow has now climbed by approximately 2150 points. And it took just 64 calendar days for the Dow to go from 19,000 to 20,000. That is an astounding pace, and financial markets around the rest of the planet are doing very well right now too. In fact, global stocks rose to a 19 month high on Wednesday. So where do we go from here? Well, if Donald Trump wants to see Dow 30,000 during his presidency, then history tells us that he needs to take us to 30 trillion dollars in debt.
“The last thing the auto industry needs is more capacity.”
Despite record U.S. auto sales last year, the number of vehicles on car-dealer lots remains near record highs, and, as J.D.Power analyst Thomas King warned this week, 2016 ended with an inventory “bubble” that will require less production or more incentives to clear. With near record high inventories of 3.9 million vehicles… U.S. auto inventory finished 2016 at about 66 days supply, up from 60 days a year earlier. Inventory would last 2.23 months at the November sales pace, according to the latest available data from the Census Bureau. The stock-to-sales ratio in 2016 is extremely elevated compared to historical norms…
More problematically, King warns, about one-third of inventory were older model-year vehicles, rather than more typical level of less than a quarter. Of course this massive stockpile hits just as President Trump pressures the auto-industry to onshore more jobs and more production… But as the industry automates, factories don’t create jobs like they used to, said Marina Whitman, a professor of business administration and public policy at the University of Michigan. “The American auto industry last year produced more cars than it ever had before, but they did it with somewhere between one-third and one-half the number of workers that they had decades ago,” said Whitman, who was an adviser to President Richard Nixon and GM’s chief economist from 1978 to 1992. “The last thing the auto industry needs is more capacity,” she said.
Hilarious to see how much money all these people get from the industry. And insane.
Donald Trump has a chance to rally his core supporters as well as left-wing Democrats, wrapping himself in the populist flag to take on the politically powerful drug industry. He is vowing to keep a campaign pledge to push legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, a practice currently prohibited by law. Proponents say this would reduce drug prices and Medicare costs for the federal government. Medicare pays for about 29% of prescription drugs in the U.S. and would have considerable leverage. Trump would be taking on the leaders of his own party, starting with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Most Republicans have long argued that giving Medicare such power is tantamount to government price-setting, which ideologically they oppose and which they say would stifle innovation and research in the drug industry.
Many of them receive huge campaign contributions from the industry’s sizable political war chest. There are arguments over the merits and effects, but the politics are clear cut. In a Kaiser Foundation poll last autumn, the public, by 82% to 17%, favored allowing the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices. Huge majorities say costly drug prices – in recent years they have risen about four times the rate of inflation – are a major concern. These costs are felt by some of Trump’s strongest supporters, non-college educated whites. And liberals, led by politicians like Bernie Sanders, champion a robust government role to keep drug prices down.
[..] There was an instructive vote in the Senate this month on a closely related issue, allowing the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada. It failed 52 to 46. But it garnered the support of 10 Republicans, including deficit hawks like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Utah’s Mike Lee. However, 13 Democrats, most of them beneficiaries of industry political contributions, voted against the measure. Subsequently, they have gotten a lot of flak from liberal groups, which especially have targeted Cory Booker of New Jersey. He received $49,830 from the industry in the last election. If Trump goes all out on this issue, it will be near impossible for most of these Democrats to side with the industry over a Republican president whom they accuse of representing the interests of the rich. And, knowledgeable Congress watchers say, a number of Republicans, in the face of White House pressure and public opinion, would cave, too.
This is a bump the entire west must go through.
President Donald Trump on Friday put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily barred travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries, saying the moves would help protect Americans from terrorist attacks. In the most sweeping use of his presidential powers since taking office a week ago, Trump paused the entry of travelers from Syria and the six other nations for at least 90 days, saying his administration needed time to develop more stringent screening processes for refugees, immigrants and visitors. “I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. Don’t want them here,” Trump said earlier on Friday at the Pentagon. “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people,” he said.
The order seeks to prioritize refugees fleeing religious persecution, a move Trump separately said was aimed at helping Christians in Syria. That led some legal experts to question whether the order was constitutional. One group said it would announce a court challenge on Monday. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the order targets Muslims because of their faith, contravening the U.S. Constitutional right to freedom of religion. “President Trump has cloaked what is a discriminatory ban against nationals of Muslim countries under the banner of national security,” said Greg Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The bans, though temporary, took effect immediately, causing havoc and confusion for would-be travelers with passports from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Trump has long pledged to take this kind of action, making it a prominent feature of his campaign for the Nov. 8 election, but people who work with Muslim immigrants and refugees were scrambling on Friday night to determine the scope of the order. [..] Trump’s order also suspends the Syrian refugee program until further notice, and will eventually give priority to minority religious groups fleeing persecution. Trump said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that the exception would help Syrian Christians fleeing the civil war there. Legal experts were divided on whether this order would be constitutional. “If they are thinking about an exception for Christians, in almost any other legal context discriminating in favor of one religion and against another religion could violate the constitution,” said Stephen Legomsky, a former chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration.
But apparently he thinks this can change. Shame he doesn’t say how.
The EU is unable to work with global superpowers in addressing conflicts and crises because it lacks leadership, Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis said. “Europe is very slow, very bureaucratic,” Babis said. “The problem is who will sit together at the table” with leaders of the U.S., U.K., Russia “to solve the problem in the Middle East, North Africa, the migration. Europe is always waiting for elections” in countries including Germany and France, he said. The Czech billionaire, whose party leads polls ahead of the fall general elections, has been critical of the bloc his country joined in 2004 and the way it tackled a series of issues, including the migration crisis. He rejected a call from his fellow Czech interior minister to lead separate talks with the U.K. on Brexit, saying the EU needs to stay united in the negotiations. Babis said he was surprised by the announced “hard Brexit,” and urged Britain to activate Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty quickly to speed up the negotiations.
He’s been here before.
The world today is overwhelmed with problems. Policymakers seem to be confused and at a loss. But no problem is more urgent today than the militarization of politics and the new arms race. Stopping and reversing this ruinous race must be our top priority. The current situation is too dangerous. More troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers are being brought to Europe. NATO and Russian forces and weapons that used to be deployed at a distance are now placed closer to each other, as if to shoot point-blank. While state budgets are struggling to fund people’s essential social needs, military spending is growing. Money is easily found for sophisticated weapons whose destructive power is comparable to that of the weapons of mass destruction; for submarines whose single salvo is capable of devastating half a continent; for missile defense systems that undermine strategic stability.
Politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent and defense doctrines more dangerous. Commentators and TV personalities are joining the bellicose chorus. It all looks as if the world is preparing for war. In the second half of the 1980s, together with the U.S., we launched a process of reducing nuclear weapons and lowering the nuclear threat. By now, as Russia and the U.S. reported to the Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference, 80% of the nuclear weapons accumulated during the years of the Cold War have been decommissioned and destroyed. No one’s security has been diminished, and the danger of nuclear war starting as a result of technical failure or accident has been reduced. This was made possible, above all, by the awareness of the leaders of major nuclear powers that nuclear war is unacceptable.
I urge the members of the U.N. Security Council — the body that bears primary responsibility for international peace and security — to take the first step. Specifically, I propose that a Security Council meeting at the level of heads of state adopt a resolution stating that nuclear war is unacceptable and must never be fought. I think the initiative to adopt such a resolution should come from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin — the Presidents of two nations that hold over 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenals and therefore bear a special responsibility.
Tulsi Gabbard is a Democrat. Can we now please finally have a serious conversation about what the US has done to the Middle East/Northern Africa region? How are we ever going to atone for this if we don’t? Or would we rather continue in denial?
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard told CNN that she has proof the Obama administration was funding ISIS and Al-Qaeda.Hawaii Rep. Gabbard went to Syria on a secret fact-finding mission to wade through the lies and propaganda and find out what is really happening on the ground. Immediately on her return CNN booked her for an “exclusive” interview – and Gabbard told them exactly what they didn’t want to hear: she has proof the Obama administration was funding ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Explaining to Jake Tapper that she met people from all walks of life in Aleppo and Damascus, Gabbard said that Syrians “expressed happiness and joy at seeing an American walking their streets.” But they also wanted to know “why is it that the United States, its allies and other countries, are providing support, are providing arms, to terrorist groups like Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, who are on the ground there, raping, kidnapping, torturing, and killing the Syrian people?
“They asked me why is the United States supporting these terrorist groups who are destroying Syria – when it was Al-Qaeda who attacked the United States on 9/11, not Syria. “I didn’t have an answer for that.“ That was more than Jake Tapper, who was hostile from the beginning of the interview, could handle. His face screwed up, he lashed out, saying, “Obviously the United States government denies providing any sort of help to the terrorist groups you are talking about, they say they provide help for the rebel groups.“ If that was supposed to Tapper’s knockout blow, Gabbard saw it coming a mile away. Without missing a beat, she calmly deconstructed his ideological, and savagely wrong, talking points.
“The reality is, Jake – and I’m glad you bought up that point – every place that I went, every person I spoke to, I asked this question to them. And without hesitation, they said ‘there are no moderate rebels, who are these moderate rebels that people keep speaking of?’ “Regardless of the name of these groups, the strongest fighting force on the ground in Syria is Al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda and ISIS. That is a fact. There are a number of different other groups, all of them are fighting alongside, with or under the command of the strongest group on the ground that is trying to overthrow Assad.”
We have so much to answer for.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has slashed food rations distributed to 1.4 million displaced Iraqis by 50% because of delays in payments from donor states. The sharp cutbacks come at a time when a growing number of Iraqis flee the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group. At least 160,000 people have been displaced since October when the Iraqi military, backed by Kurdish forces and Shia militias. launched a military campaign to recapture Mosul from the armed group. WFP spokeswoman Inger Marie Vennize said the UN agency was talking to the United States – its biggest donor, Germany, Japan and others to secure funds to restore full rations.
“We have had to reduce [the rations] as of this month,” she was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying. “The 50% cuts in monthly rations affect over 1.4 million people across Iraq,” she added. The effect is already being felt in camps east of Mosul, ISIL’s last major bastion in northern Iraq. “They are giving an entire family the food supply of one person … we want to go back home,” said Omar Shukri Mahmoud at the Hassan Sham camp. Safa Shaker, who fled with her extended family, said: “We are a big family and this ration is not going to be enough. “We escaped from [ISIL] in order to have a chance to live and now they have cut the aid. How are we supposed to live?” she added.
I wouldn’t shoot from the hip as much as PCR does, but in essence he’s right. Old media, CNN, WaPo, NYT, have wasted so much of their credibility. And they’re not taking any step back from that. it’s till all just echo-chambering.
Stephen Bannon is correct that the US media—indeed, the entire Western print and TV media—is nothing but a propaganda machine for the ruling elite. The presstitutes are devoid of integrity, moral conscience, and respect for truth. Who else but the despicable Western media justified the enormous war crimes committed against millions of peoples by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama regimes in nine countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Palestine, and the Russian areas of Ukraine? Who else but the despicable Western media justified the domestic police states that have been erected in the Western world in the name of the “war on terror”? Along with the war criminals that comprised the Clinton, Bush, and Obama regimes, the Western media should be tried for their complicity in the massive crimes against humanity.
The Western media’s effort to sustain the high level of tension between the West and Russia is a danger to all mankind, a direct threat to life on earth. Gorbachev’s warnings are correct. Yet presstitutes declare that if Trump lifts the sanctions it proves that Trump is a Russian agent. It is paradoxical that the Democrats and the liberal-progressive-left are mobilizing the anti-war movement to oppose Trump’s anti-war policy! By refusing to acknowledge and to apologize for its lies, euphemistically called “fake news,” the Western media has failed humanity in a number of other ways. For example, by consciously telling lies, the media has legitimized the suborning of perjury and false testimony used to convict innocent defendants in America’s “justice” system, which has about the same relation to justice as genocide has to mercy.
If the media can lie about world events, police and prosecutors can lie about crimes. By taking the role of the political opposition to Trump, the media has discredited itself as an honest critic on topics where Trump needs criticism, such as the environment and his tolerance of oppressive methods used by police. The presstitutes have ended all chance of improving Trump’s performance with reports and criticism. Trump needs moderating on the environment, on the police, and on the war on terror. Trump needs to understand that “the Muslim threat” is a hoax created by the neoconservatives and the military/security complex with the complicity of the presstitutes to serve the hegemony agenda and the budget and power of the CIA, Pentagon, and military industries.
If the US stops bombing and slaughtering Muslims and training and equiping forces to overthrow non-compliant Muslim governments such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya, “the Muslim threat” will disappear. Maybe Trump will add to his agenda breaking into hundreds of pieces the six mega-media companies that own 90% of the US media and selling the pieces to seperate independent owners who have no connection to the ruling elites. Then America would again have a media that can constrain the government with truth rather than use lies to act for or against the government.
Tweets on social media say Trump is about to lift the sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama regime. Being a showman, Trump would want to make this announcement himself, not have it made for him by someone outside his administration. Nevertheless, the social media tweets are a good guess. Reports are that Trump and Putin will speak tomorrow. The conversation cannot avoid the issue of sanctions. Trump during his first week has moved rapidly with his agenda. He is unlikely to delay lifting the sanctions. Moreover, there is no cost to Trump of lifting them. The sanctions have no support in the US and Western business communities. The only constituency for the sanctions were the neoconservatives who are not included in the Trump administration.
Victoria Nuland, Susan Rice, Samantha Power are gone along with much of the State Department. So there is nothing in Trump’s way. President Putin is correct that the sanctions helped Russia by pushing Russia to be more economically independent and by pushing Russia toward developing economic relationships with Asia. Lifting the sanctions could actually hurt Russia by integrating Russia into the West. The Russian government should take note that the only sovereign country in the West is the United States. All the rest are US vassals. Could Russia escape the same fate? Anyone integrated into the West is subject to Washington’s pressure. The problem with the sanctions is that they are an insult to Russia. The sanctions are based on lies that the Obama regime told.
The real purpose of the sanctions was not economic. The purpose was to embarrass Russia as an outlaw state and to isolate the outlaw. Trump cannot normalize relations with Russia if he lets this insult stand. Therefore, the social media tweets are likely to be correct that Trump is about to lift the sanctions. This will be good for US-Russian relations, but perhaps not so good for the Russian economy and Russian sovereignty. The Western capitalists would love to get Russia deep in debt and to buy up Russia’s industries and raw materials. The sanctions were a partial protection against foreign influence over the Russian economy, and so the removal of the sanctions is like removing a shield as well as removing an insult.
I like measuring well-being through grain prices, but at the same time I don’t think basic needs should be subject to the same ‘market forces’ as cellphones etc. As growth and globalism vanish, we should all produce out own basics.
Here are the week’s leading indicators. The Dow Jones industrial average topped 20,000 points for the first time. British GDP grew 0.6% in the final quarter of 2016. The FTSE 100 and Germany’s DAX 30 persisted close to record highs, while US GDP softened slightly. Bored yet? I am. As a former financial journalist, I’m well acquainted with the merry-go-round of indicators that blip in and out of our lives like digital dopamine, telling us how well we’re doing. As a human being, I’m increasingly alarmed that these are just irrelevant numbers that have little or no bearing on how well we are really doing. [..] I’d rather suggest a series of other metrics that give a clearer indication of where humanity is at. Perhaps these are the key performance indicators we should hardwire into our reporting calendar:
Inequality ratios One of the lessons of the 20th century was that inequality breeds revolt and revolutions never end well. One of the lessons of the 21st century is that people seem to be determined not to learn the lessons of the 20th century. The Gini coefficient is a crude measure of how unequal societies are becoming. Some economists have been toying with another measure, the Palma ratio, which is better at discerning how much richer the richest cohort are getting, compared with the poorest. Both tell us much about our direction of travel.
Grain prices If we must focus on financial instruments, edible commodities are surely more interesting than stock and bond prices. You can’t eat a three-month Treasury bill, after all. In 2007/08, a wave of riots swept the developing world as the cost of basic foodstuffs soared. Governments fell. A dotted line joined that manifestation of unrest with the Arab spring four years later. Food matters. We routinely write that as many as a billion people on the planet are hungry, malnourished. That’s far more than the number with Dow Jones tracker funds.
Carbon dioxide, parts per million, in the atmosphere The most scary dataset of all. It goes up every year. And so do global temperatures. If this carries on for another couple of decades, people won’t be inspecting their portfolios – they’ll be foraging in the woods. Has anyone read The Road?
Antidepressant prescriptions A veritable bellwether for so much – from the wretched state we’re in psychologically to the inadequacies of our healthcare systems. Prescriptions have doubled in England in the past decade. An interest to declare: I take them, and believe they work for me. But I also firmly believe they are prescribed far too readily, by overstretched GPs who have only six minutes to speak to patients and little recourse to anything other than pills. Personally, I’d be willing to shave a couple of points off GDP in return for a more comprehensive programme to address this 21st-century epidemic.
Homelessness Not just in the UK, where it’s risen for six years in a row, but in California, Paris, Moscow. Surely, one of the first questions a newly arrived alien might ask upon landing in Britain would be “why do so many of you earthlings live outside?”, and not “how are my BT shares doing?”
Dependency ratio Admittedly, this is not a thrilling one to monitor as it doesn’t move much. But it is moving – and in the wrong direction for lots of developed countries. The dependency ratio is the number of working-age people compared with the number of children and those over retirement age. According to the Resolution foundation, there are currently seven dependants for every 10 working-age Britons, but this will increase to eight in the 2020s and nine by 2050.
It’s not an abortion fund, it’s much wider than that: “sexual reproductive rights, including abortion”.
Canada is considering contributing to a Dutch-led international fund to support abortion services in developing countries, set up in response to Donald Trump’s order to halt financing of NGOs that support the practice. A spokesman for Canada’s international development minister, Marie-Claude Bibeau, told AFP the minister had spoken with her Dutch counterpart about the fund, and was considering donating an unspecified sum to it or a similar measure that would support “sexual reproductive rights, including abortion” abroad. “Sexual health and reproductive rights will be at the heart of Canada’s new international assistance policy,” spokesman Louis Belanger said in an email.
“We will continue to explore opportunities to work together to advance women’s empowerment by expanding access to sexual and reproductive health services including abortion,” he said. Canada is set to unveil its new foreign aid strategy in the coming weeks. A decision on the fund would either be included or follow soon after that announcement. Trump on Monday signed a decree barring US government funding for foreign NGOs that support abortion. The restrictions prohibit them from also providing abortion information, counseling or referrals, or engaging in advocacy to promote abortion. Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation, said when she announced the new fund that the Netherlands must do everything in its power to offset the US ban so that “women can remain in control of their own bodies”.
Greece’s government debt remains “highly unsustainable,” and will be “explosive” in the longer run, requiring a more credible debt relief plan from Europe, the International Monetary Fund said in a report obtained by AFP. Addressing the debt burden of the beleaguered nation will require “significant debt relief” from European institutions, including dramatically extending the grace periods and maturities of the loans, the IMF said in it’s annual report on the Greek economy, which includes a debt sustainability analysis. The IMF board is due to discuss the report February 6. Even with full implementation of the economic reforms the country has agreed to, “Greece’s debt is highly unsustainable” and “will become explosive in the long run,” as the government will have to replace highly-subsidized official financing with market financing at much higher rates, the IMF said.
The pessimistic report, though in keeping with the fund’s repeated statements on the topic, makes it more unlikely the IMF stays on the sidelines of any new European loan deal for Greece. Months of bickering have delayed progress of Greece’s 86-billion-euro ($92.4 billion) bailout program agreed in 2015 and officials increasingly are worried that elections this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany could further poison any progress. The IMF report says that in order to “provide more credibility to the debt strategy for Greece, further specificity will be needed regarding the type and scope of debt relief to be expected” from Europe. This must include “ambitious extensions of grace and maturity periods, a full deferral of interest on European loans, as well as a locking in of the interest rate on a significant amount of European loans … to put debt on a sustained downward path.”
The IMF calls for extending the grace period until 2040, during which time no debt payments would be required, and extending the maturity of the loans to 30 years in some cases to 2070, dramatically longer than what Europe agreed to in 2012. At the heart of the dispute over the new loan program is a demand by the eurozone that Greece deliver a primary balance, or surplus on public spending before debt repayments, of 3.5% of GDP, far in excess of the 1.5% the IMF says is feasible. The target is very high – and most countries do not even come close – but Germany and other eurozone hardliners are insistent that Greece reach it for several years after its current program concludes in 2018. Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem insisted on Thursday that the IMF remained committed to the Greek bailout program, despite repeated calls by the IMF for more realistic targets and more debt relief.
1) The IMF is to a large extent playing a double role, and is comfortable in that role.
2) Yes, ‘pensions-to-GDP’ is very high in Greece, but that is only because other benefits simply don’t exist. Pensions can only be cut further if an unemployment benefits program is initiated. Everyone involved knows this, it’s just that some (IMF) prefer to act as if they don’t. Because such a program would cost money.
3) The demise of Greece as a nation is as much the shame of the IMF as that of Germany and the EU. The consequences of the demise will be too.
In 2015, Yanis Varoufakis tried to renegotiate the terms of the Greek bailout. He expected his peers in the Eurogroup to treat him as an equal. But they were expecting a repentant supplicant. Greece had sinned, it was receiving just punishment for its sins, and who did Varoufakis think he was, coming along and telling them that the treatment Greece was receiving was unjust and counterproductive? This misunderstanding made a bad situation far worse. It led eventually to Greece’s near-expulsion from the Euro and the breaking of Alexis Tsipras. And, of course, to Varoufakis’s resignation. Now it is the IMF’s turn to misread the psychological framing. This is not a four-handed poker game, it is a duel to the death. And it is not really about Greece. The surface conflict is between Greece and its creditors, but the underlying power struggle is between the German-led creditor bloc and the European Commission.
The eventual outcome will determine the shape of the Eurozone, and indeed the whole EU, in the future. Neither the Greek government nor the European Commission want the IMF involved. The only reason the IMF is still involved is that the creditors want it to be. And the reason the creditors want the IMF involved is that they do not trust the Commission to deliver the harsh penance they have prescribed for Greece. The IMF has been cast in the role of creditors’ second. Unfortunately, this is not how the IMF sees itself. It is still trying to act as a neutral broker, crafting a deal acceptable to both sides. It has repeatedly called for substantial debt relief, and has also demanded deep reforms to the Greek economy. But because it is no longer perceived as neutral, its call for debt relief is ignored while its reform initiative is inevitably seen as a disguised demand for more austerity.
[..] Greece’s pension expenditure as a proportion of GDP is the highest in the EU, even though payments are only about 70% of the EU average. That’s the problem with quoting fixed payments like pensions (and debt service) in relation to GDP: as GDP falls, the cost rises. The Greek economy is now about 27% smaller than it was in 2008, and still shrinking. The IMF’s case is that pension cost as a proportion of GDP is now unsustainable, and further, that the creditors are not going to agree to debt relief while pension cost remains so high. It is probably right on both counts. But once again, what really matters is the psychological framing.
[..] the IMF’s position is untenable. Since it can no longer credibly claim to be neutral, it must explicitly back one side or the other. If it backs neither, it will de facto be seen as supporting the creditors – and that is not consistent with its international mandate, since it effectively means giving up its quest for substantial debt relief (since the creditors have no desire to agree to this). But coming out in support of Greece probably means abandoning its long-standing commitment to ensuring fiscal sustainability through pension and tax reforms. It appears an impossible choice. If the IMF can concede neither of these, then it must do what it should have done long ago. Walk.