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Friday, 9 December 2011

The EU and the Eurozone. What Should be Done Next?

Superficially, the easiest thing that could have been done by the EU in the last 24 hours would be to force Germany to open its coffers to 'save' the euro by buying all the bonds that may be issued or guaranteed by the puppet governments that have been installed in Greece and Italy, and may be installed in other economically failed countries. The spokespersons for the 'markets' - and representatives of the Obama Administration - will continue to press for a 'solution' on these lines whenever it appears that the new solution to the euro crisis is open to question.

In the 'markets' so-called hedge funds and other speculative investors have been stockpiling at-risk bonds when they could buy them cheaply, in the expectation that Germany would eventually be forced to 'support' them at higher prices. Germany has declared its commitment to the European Union, and to the euro, for decades and the marketeers think that pride and stubbornness will not let them back off from supporting the new dispensation. The Obama team of died-in-the-wool pre-2008 bankers have done pretty well to consolidate the position of their former employers since the big bail-out of the rationalised banks that were cobbled together in 2007-9.But they are well aware that the ramshackle result could begin to crack if the euro was disrupted, causing the US banks' holdings of euro debt to loose value. The US has been calling-in the moral obligation that is supposedly owed by Europe for US investment in defence during the cold war of 1947 to 1991. Time has moved on. The sensibly selfish basis for US policy, past and present, is clearly recognised and contemporary Europeans do not recognise a continuing obligation.

Germany in 2011-12 does not recognise an ongoing obligation specially to assist European countries that suffered occupation or destruction during the second world war. Huge reparations have been paid, the balance sheet has been cleared, and the anti-German current within Greek protest against financial stringency is self-defeating.

Germany should in no way feel obliged to assist a bankrupt state that got itself into the mess that its proconsular ruler is trying to resolve. Greece is uniquely in that perilous situation at this moment. The Greek people will suffer dramatically lower living standards for an indefinite future because Greek governments doled out more resources than the country had generated continuously for the past three decades. Though different parties won elections from time to time, each government had a popular mandate; and it is the misfortune of modern citizens in any state that they collectively carry responsibility for the accumulation of debts that the elctorate consented to being accumulated.Any Greek could have discovered that their huge salaries, early retirement ages and evasion of taxation were not only exceptional but also blatantly unaffordable when set against national economic data. The typical citizen may have chosen not to take cognisance of the facts: that dereliction alone stimulates fair-minded aliens to inhibit any sypathy for the unfortunate elderly who now have dramatically reduced living standards and no prospect of mitigation in their lifetime.

Economists have been allowed to dominate economic policy with the assertion that 'markets' are efficient. They have handed it down as 'scientific fact' that governments should so arrange affairs that markets are the drivers of the economy. This is utterly ludicrous. Markets are creations of human beings, and only have any life to the extent that human beings take part in them. The people exist under the protection of the state, they can make contracts because the state and its courts-of-law recognise them as legal persons. The companies that exist in markets are licensed to exist by the state. The contracts that people and companies make are only enforcible if the state's courts recognise them to be valid. The state has an unqualified precedence over any business structure and this is an inescapable fact: for Economists and their dupes to presume otherwise is profoundly dangerous.

People have an infinite capacity for cheating, crookery, and fraud; as much as they have the capacity to be creative in the arts and sciences. A few hundred people - mostly science graduates, many with PhDs - have become adepts in black arts that enable them to create derivatives and credit default swaps. They can - and some of them do - set up deals that are designed deliberately to exploit other market participants. They invent and trade in fantastic 'instruments' such as 'shadow shares' that enable a pension fund to put its money into bonds but in parallel with that to buy notional shares, with a promise that if the 'real' bonds fail and the notional shares retain value, then the firm that has sold the shadow share package is contractually obliged to give the pension fund value equivalent to the gap between the value of the bonds that they hold in comparison to the then value of the notional shares. The idea that any financial firm would be able to deliver on such a promise in the event of systemic market failure, without the sort of government support that the banks were given in 2008, is absurd. The contract - and the pension fund with it - would most probably be wiped out. But while the contract is operational [and untested] fees are paid to the conjurers, the pension fund managers get their salaries and the Trustees draw their fees or allowances: only the fund members stand to lose.  The financial services providers have become even more blatant than they were before 2008 in the absurdity of the 'products' that they have offered; and the gullibility of their clientèle seems to be undiminished. The providers made Greek and Irish state debt appear to be sounder investments than they were, by enabling the holders of the bonds to 'hedge' those purchases with derivatives or ghost shares.

Markets that include such cajolery and sheer brass cheek among their trading methods, selling 'products' on which millions of peoples' future incomes depend which have no substance, are profoundly 'imperfect'. It is blatant that knowledge and understanding of the products and of the risks that are inherent in them are not equally understood by purchasers and the people who unknowingly depend on the outcome of the contracts. Essential rules of the system must be defined by the state, the traders must continue to be licensed by the state and the products must be subject to classification by the state. The infantile version of the Tobin Tax that has been proposed in the EU would have no significant impact in regulating the markets as they have evolved in London and New York. It would primarily be a regressive imposition on the day-to-day bank and insurance transactions of the mass of the population. If 'complex products' are to continue to be regulated as financial assets, much more intrusive regulation - more comprehensive than what is currently being proposed by the EU financial regulator - is needed.

But a completely different approach would be more sensible. At the very least, derivatives and most 'swaps'.and many futures and other 'asset classes' should be classified as betting slips; which is the simple truth. As bets, they should be regulated in the UK by the Gambling Commission, not the Financial Services Authorities. They should be subject to gambling tax and not susceptible to regulation by the EU Financial Services Commissioner and his empowering legislation. By trying to exempt Britain - specifically the 'City' - from any new restrictive EU financial services regulation David Cameron has had a Pyrrhic victory. He has not got any significant exemption for British financial services [which he repeatedly points out is 10% of the economy] and he does not have any inkling of the basic fact that much of the 'industry' that he is trying to protect is not finance, but gaming. The appropriate regulatory change should speedily be implemented: then the EU system of financial regulation would not apply.

It would make an amazing positive change to the continentals' perception of Britain and of the activities of the City if the suggested reclassification were to be carried out. If the British Treasury and Cabinet Office will ever be capable of taking this point, they can frame a regulatory regime that will be seen by the rest of the EU as exemplary. Britain's detractors would be wrong-footed and the rehabilitation of the UK would be facilitated. The City need not suffer any great loss of business, insofar as the players can convince their clients that the betting slips that they have been buying to hedge their investments will still serve the same purposes under a more appropriate and honest regulatory regime. I have only a scintilla of doubt that the City lobbies will oppose any reclassification of their 'proprietary' activities because their pride will be offended by their being classified as bookmakers and their greed will baulk at paying higher taxes on a different basis and possibly experiencing some loss of business. But the City and the government have a golden opportunity to escape the very real threat that the new Europe will much more massively deflate the City's income under its tightening and uncomprehending regulatory regime.

Away to the west Dublin has developed huge 'financial services' expertise that is currently underemployed. A swift-footed Irish government - safe within the carapace of the revamped eurozone - can go a significant way to develop a high-level bulk betting regime that could capture a great deal of the market that the City of London stands to loose. That threat [and the possibility that the Swiss may dabble in these markets]  may help to persuade the City that here is a way forward.

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