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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Concern at the IMF: About What?

The Managing Director of the IMF has expressed concern about the probability that their forecasts for economic growth throughout the world must be downgraded. Her foreboding is justified by the regular downward revision of estimates for growth that are being published in various countries, especially in the light of the ongoing crisis in the eurozone and its potential negative impact on its trading partners in other parts of the world. In the face of such a negative mood among Economists, politicians, journalists, bankers and some business managers it is unsurprising that there is a growing feeling of unease among the general public.

During the so-called credit crunch of 2007-8 many governments tried to secure the future of banks in their territories by guaranteeing the deposits that people and businesses had placed in those banks. When banks could not meet depositors' demands for cash from their own resources the government supplied the money. Governments that had control of their own currencies, such as the US dollar and the British pound, could authorise their central banks to create 'new' money and make it available to the banks: some went further and actually create the money with which to buy control of threatened banks. In the USA this process was extended to the one insurance company, AIG, that had ruined itself by creating contracts by which it guaranteed to fund banks in certain circumstances which had been thought highly improbable until they happened to several big banks all at once.

In countries that did not have control of their money supply, notably those in the eurozone, the means available to governments to stabilise the economic situation were seriously constrained. For seven years before the credit crunch occurred the member countries of the eurozone issued bonds and bills [certificates of government debt] denominated in euros; and bonds that had been issued before the creation of the euro had become redeemable in euros. Those governments could not follow the lead of the Americans and the British in creating the money that they had to pay out to buy the bonds that fell due to be cashed: they had to borrow the necessary euros from the European Central Bank or the International Monetary Fund, or tap new funds created by other eurozone governments. In considering any of those options a government was faced with strict conditions attaching to any loan, that usually included the imposition of restrictive economic policies. At an early stage in the banking crisis the Irish government decided to guarantee all banks' obligations, raised a large loan and imposed dramatically restrictive conditions on the economy. Southern European members of the eurozone faced up to the crisis more slowly and then took the very different stance of demanding bail-out loans and prevaricated about imposing the conditions that they had accepted, threatening the northern eurozone countries with progressive economic collapse and political chaos. The northern eurozone countries regard this as simple cheating and are resisting any further concessions to the south unless they are accompanied by enforceable sanctions. Meanwhile the population of the whole Union is getting used to commentators covering the arguments about the possible withdrawal of some countries from the euro or the collapse of the entire venture. The fact that the eurozone is not coterminous with the European Union is widely understood: the Union could survive either the defection of some members or  the total collapse of the single currency.

The possibility of chaos in much of the EU - the world's largest economic bloc - is the cause of worry throughout the world economy. The shabby history of the Union - the political fudges, the pervasive unaccountability of the Brussels bureaucracy and the notorious 'democratic deficit' by which the eurorats have evaded public concerns in aggregating power in their own hands - has created the circumstances in which there is little mass empathy with any proposal to give more power to the Union. Spaniards and Italians would like the Union to be able to grab Germany's wealth and hand it to them in return for promises to which nobody gives the slightest credibility: Germany would never assent to such a scheme. The extension of another loan to Spain, agreed overnight, is an allocation of the existing funds which the Finns and the Dutch and the Slovaks and the Germans have already written off. This time round the northern eurozone members seem to be so little concerned about this further handout that they have agreed to give the Spanish government longer to impose austerity.

 And so the sorry saga drags on. Greece will leave the euro. With that example in their sights it is just possible that the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Italians will accept enough 'discipline' to keep the euro staggering along for a year or two. There is no hope of Europe leading the world economy to a new era of prosperity; and not much sign of the emergent economies or the US providing a 'motor' to drag the global economy into an era of growth. New thinking is needed, urgently.

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