lunedì 5 gennaio 2015
"Systemic importance", "radical parties", and democracy in the Eurozone
(la versione italiana è qui...)
In a previous post of this blog I published an email by Angelantonio Castelli, a physicist who happens to belong to my small virtual class (first blog in economics in Italy). He was so kind as to draw our attention on the meaning the words “systemic importance” have for the German government. Quite obviously, and fully legitimately, for the German government “systemic importance” means “risk for German owned banks”. Angelantonio’s graph showed that the exposure of German (and French) banks to Greece fell quickly over the last two years (not such a big discovery, of course, but something the Italian media will never show to their audience), which means that now Greece can leave, if it dares.
I produce here some further graphs, answering the following questions: what about Italy? And what countries are of “systemic importance” to Germany now? The data are well known. I will then draw a simple political conclusion, that will prove right. If it ever proves wrong, you know where I live: here!
Firstly, this is the exposure to Greece of Germany, France, and the Netherlands (I left aside Switzerland, which is important and interesting, but outside the Eurozone – and proud of it):
Netherlands pattern is about the same, on a smaller scale (but mind the many statistical breaks in the series: detailed information available on the BIS website).
Next, this is the exposure of Germany, France, and the Netherlands, to Italy:
Once again, we have a similar pattern: a very apparent trend reversal in bank lending since the onset of the crisis (mind the break in the Netherlands’ series!). However, in our (Italian) case, international lending stabilizes after the “whatever it takes” bluff at the mid-2012 (yes, it is a bluff, and you know it, and even Mario knows: let us see what happen in 2015, not just tomorrow!).
Then, I show you the consolidated lending by Germany, France and Netherlands to Greece and Italy, just for you to know that there is a small difference in size:
(I know you suspected that Italy was larger than Greece, and you are not too surprised, but believe me: many people ignore such simple details, and it is really worth providing them, if we wish democracy to work as it should, not as technocrats want – more on democracy below).
Finally, this is how the exposure of Germany towards its main partners evolved over time:
And, once again, no big surprise: Spain was the bigger problem, and this is the reason why it was (and still is) allowed to repeatedly break the European budget rules. Everybody knows that in a balance sheet recession public indebtedness is needed to favor private sector deleveraging (have a look at Boltho and Carlin’s paper, if you can). Basically, the German rule of the Eurozone was so kind as to allow the Spaniards to transform non-performing loans of German banks (private debt of Spanish firms and households towards Germany) into Spanish public debt (I suppose you remember that Spanish public debt was virtually zero before the crisis, don’t you?).
By the way, this is a clear illustration of the purposes of the “anti-austerity/pro-euro” frame adopted by the “left” all around in the Eurozone. You know, those silly guys who keep “threatening” Germany, asking it to relieve “its” absurd austerity rules? I call them “the appealian”, because they are so keen to write (and underwrite) utterly wise and spectacularly ill-timed “appeals” that nobody will read. If there was a political will to cooperate in the Eurozone, we would not be in such a crisis. Full stop. So, what is the point to write “appeals”, once it is so clear that nobody is willing to ever look at them? They are at best of no “systemic importance”, and at worst of some help to Germany, that in the present situation is already managing its “austerity” in a very flexible way (as the Spanish case demonstrate).
Finally, a few words about Hans Werner Tsipras.
Do you remember when the European “progressive”, open-minded people, in Europe and elsewhere, were so happy because they felt that Hollande was about to change the economic landscape of the Eurozone? Well, it turns out that they missed a little detail. Now they are missing a big one.
If you think that our worst problem is Eurozone economic predicament, you are grossly mistaken. Our first problem is democracy, for the reasons so neatly expressed by Axel Leijonhufvud five years ago. The Eurozone is the apex of the vincolo esterno (external constraint) political philosophy, well described by Kevin Featherstone. Central bank independence is the mean to a well-defined and openly declared end: subtract the governance of sovereign states to elected politicians in order to empower a non-elected transnational technocratic elite (please, have a look at Featherstone’s paper before starting your populist rants about the European dream). The euro embodies central bank independence through article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It then follows that every people defending the euro nowadays, be it directly, like Mr. Draghi, or indirectly, like the "appealians" or Hans Werner Tsipras, is actually defending this political philosphy. Unfortunately, it turns out that this philosophy was (and still is) grounded on two very unsound bases: the naive confidence in the existence of a “purely technical” economic optimum, and the Machiavellian and paternalistic view that the “good shepherds” could lie to the sheep in order to push them in the right direction.
On the first point, I allow myself to point out to your attention that optimal inflation is not like optimal room temperature, which is well known to lie in a small range between 20 and 23 °C (68 and 73 °F), and which can be regulated by a technical device; there is no widely agreed-upon definition of an optimal inflation rate, the Sheridan’s approach of the ECB (the only good inflation is dead inflation) has pushed us beyond the verge of a complete disaster, and since inflation affects wealth and income distribution (as Leijonhufvud reminds us), you cannot have it regulated by the “thermostat” of a technocratic central bank: you need politicians, and a central bank obeying to them. Well, sorry, I was wrong. Not “you need”. You should, if you believe in democracy, which is something nobody can force you to do.
On the second point, it is well known that the disastrous consequences of “putting the cart before the horses” (in Dominick Salvatore’s words), i.e., of proceeding to monetary union before political union, were well-known not only to the profession, but also to the political elites. There is a huge literature in the political science field showing that the “federalist” approach to “Europeanisation” was based on the firm belief that proceeding the wrong way would cause crises, but those crises would have a positive outcome, because they would push the sheep (i.e., you) towards the right end: the United States of Europe, supposed to be the end of nationalism (much in the same way the United States is, or...). Italian readers may find it useful to have a look at Roberto Castaldi’s paper, “Single currency and political union”. Castaldi, a distinguished researcher in a reputed Italian university, explain us that:
Ma il fallimento del Congresso del Popolo Europeo mostrava che da sola tale crisi storica non permetteva di mobilitare i cittadini europei a favore della federazione. Ciò richiedeva l'emergere di crisi specifiche dei poteri nazionali, ovvero di problemi percepiti socialmente che non potevano trovare soluzione nel quadro nazionale. L'emergere di tali crisi costituiva la finestra di opportunità per l'avanzamento del processo di unificazione, e ne determinava la possibile direzione: una crisi economica poteva permettere avanzamenti sul terreno dell'integrazione economica... Le crisi costituivano opportunità per lo sviluppo di una "iniziativa" federalista.
which means (for differently European readers):
But the failure of the European People Congress showed that the historical crisis (of the nation States, translator’s note) did not allow the federalists to mobilize European citizens in favor of the federation. To this end, specific crises of national sovereignty were needed, i.e., socially perceived problems that could not be solved within the national framework. The occurrence of such crises was a window of opportunity for the progress of the unification process, and determined its direction: an economic crisis would favor developments towards economic integration... Crises were opportunities for the development of a federalist “initiative”.
In other words, the European elites knew very well that a crisis was ahead. In the Italian case, we have direct evidence of this (besides authoritative studies, like the one I just quoted). For instance, the minutes of the Italian Chamber still reports Giorgio Napolitano’s speech against Italy’s accession to the EMS. His word make it plain that he was fully and completely aware of the dangers that this process would bring about: de-industrialization of the weak countries and deflation all around (to the damage of the working class, which at that time he was supposed to defend, being a communist, and a former supporter of this unfortunate event).
Against this background, monetary unification was “sold” by those elite as a big deal for their constituencies. In Romano Prodi’s (in)famous words, Italian people “would earn as if they would work one day more, by working one day less”. This is what he told to his constituency in Italy, but he was lying, because at the same time he was releasing interviews to the Financial Times where he openly confessed that he was fully aware of the fact that Europe was not ready for the single currency, that this would cause a crisis, and that the crisis would force the European citizens to adopt the correct “political instruments” (e.g., labour market flexibility).
Needless to say, democracy cannot work if politicians (and the media system) purposely and consistently lie to their constituencies. You may have whatever opinion of the supposed Christian roots of Europe, but whatever you mean and whatever the God you believe in (if any), Jesus Christ’s words: “truth will set you free” (John, 8:32) are a political truth. Admittedly a long-run one, but still a truth. Lying to the European constituency has brought us to slavery (under the markets’ domination).
Now, have a careful look at Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
Hans Werner Tsipras in Greece, and Podemos in Spain, are fighting their political battle with the same weapons as the European elite did: by lying to their constituencies. They refrain systematically from pointing out the nowadays universally recognized source of our troubles (the euro), and they keep making promises they will never be able to keep: banging their little fists on the big European table in order to “force” Frau Merkel to do what they want.
Here in Italy we had a recent example of where this course of action brings: to failure. The Five Stars Movement of Grillo, which was supposed by everyone in Europe (except me) to be anti-euro, has actually refrained to take any definite stance on this issue, on the basis of the assumption that too definite an attitude would frighten their “median voter”. It was better to elude “hot” topics, in order to reach the power, and only afterwards do the “right thing”. Following this approach, they ran a populist, "anti-clique", “anti-corruption” (i.e., anti-government intervention in the economy) campaign, which proved successful the first time (in 2013 political elections), but self-defeating immediately afterwards (in the local elections of June 2013, and even more in the European elections of May 2014).
Much in the same way, Hans Werner Tsipras is not mentioning the euro, supposedly because he think this would frighten the Greek “median voter” (in full Stockholm syndrome), Podemos in Spain is running an “anti-corruption” campaign, and both are focusing on public debt issues, while even the ECB has long recognized that the problem lies elsewhere: in private lending from the North to the private sector of the South (do you remember the graphs above? That was private debt. And please have a look at Constancio’s speech and slides).
It is worth noting that the two supposedly “radical-left” parties in Europe owe their success to a full endorsement of the frame put forth by the European technocratic elite: namely, that the crisis was determined by public debt, whose abnormal growth (well, it as actually a decrease) was engendered by the public sector inefficiency and corruption.
This implicit endorsement will of course favor their accession to the power, for two reasons: it does not disturb the elites (that are really happy to have the supposed opposition endorsing their Weltanschauung!), and it does not disturb the constituency, which hears a familiar story. At the same time, this endorsement does not contradicts too much their supposed “anti-austerity” stance. Once again, the opposition to austerity is not such a bad deal for Northern creditors (as the graphs above should prove: it allowed them to transfer their NPL’s to the balance sheets of the stressed governments!), and it is of course favored by the “progressive” constituency. Yes, indeed what the “appealians” want is at the same time less State, and more State. But this in principle is not a contradiction: everybody wants less (corrupted) State and more (efficient) State. Me too, for sure! However, in countries like Italy (just to quote one), corruption (which of course needs to be eradicated) was always widespread, even when the country grew at a 3% pace. So, why are we not growing now? And why are other, equally corrupted, countries growing?
Summing up, these “radical” approaches will fail, because they are as anti-democratic as the elite approach was.
It is high time to tell the truth. If you keep repeating that the problem is “corruption”, public debt, austerity, or whatever, and not the euro, you will have the median voter, but the final result will not be the expected one (use your power to force Germany to do what you want), but the opposite one: you will be crushed (as Beppe Grillo was in Italy) by the blackmail of the median voter, who will never understand where the problem is (because you never did something to inform him) and will therefore ask you to destroy the remainder of the (corrupted?) State, which according to the elite’s journals is the culprit, giving more way to the elite you were supposed to fight!
Not such a huge success for supposedly left-wing movements, is it? In fact, chances are that they will fail. But should they win, both the above graphs, and political intuition, show that they will never be able to change the course of our crisis. Just let us imagine how this would happen: Hans Werner, or Podemos, reach the power, then they appear on a balcony and tell to the people: “Countermand, comrades: the euro and private finance, not the clique and public debt, was the problem!”. Well, I will not say that this will never happen. But should it happen, they would immediately lose a large share of their constituency: snakes and ladder, you know?
Remember the words of that ancient blogger: truth will set you free. Any political movement that really intends to change things in Europe should never ever do the same political mistake as the criminal elite that carried out the European project so far: become trapped in its own lies.
Just to give you an exemple: Alessandro Di Battista (a Five Stars MP) statement a few days ago was a wonderful piece of dadaist policy: "If there is no toilet paper in our schools, blame corruption". Well, after having experienced the troika (if we ever do, which is likely, with such statesmen!), I think we will put corruption in perspective...
European citizens are adults, they deserve and can afford to hear the truth. And the technical truth is that we need a nominal realignment now: we need to overcome the euro, that was a huge historical mistake, and restore flexibility among European currencies. Have you ever dropped a crystal and a plastic glass at the same time? Which one broke? And why? Yes, right: because it was not flexible enough.
Think of it.
If you don’t believe me, nor Jesus Christ, believe your eyes. This will avoid us the painful need to remove the shards of the Eurozone.
P.s.: all the above implies that the victory of Syriza (or Podemos) will have no real impact. If it does, you will remember my words. If it does not, you will forget them. So is life...