The Greek and eurozone turmoil: A crisis with deep roots
The ongoing eurozone
crisis is often projected in the media, somewhat superficially, as wholly
the product of
C. Lapavitsas, A. Kaltenbrunner, D. Lindo, J. Michell, J.P. Painceira, E. Pires, J. Powell, A. Stenfors and N. Teles
THE sovereign debt
crisis that broke out in
The crisis of public debt thus represents Stage Two of an upheaval that started in 2007 and can be called a crisis of financialisation.1 Mature economies have become 'financialised' during the last three decades, resulting in growing weight of finance relative to production. Large corporations have come to rely less on banks, while becoming more engaged in financial markets. Households have become heavily involved in the financial system in terms of assets (pension and insurance) and liabilities (mortgage and unsecured debt). Banks have been transformed, seeking profits through fees, commissions and own trading, while rebalancing their activities toward households rather than corporations. Financial profit has emerged as a large part of total profit.2
has unfolded in different ways across mature countries, including in
the European Union.
The implications for
the eurozone have been severe. Financialisation in the periphery has
proceeded within the framework of the monetary union and under the dominant
Institutional bias and malfunction in the eurozone
The institutional mechanisms surrounding the euro have been an integral part of the crisis. To be more specific, European monetary union is supported by a host of treaties and multilateral agreements, including the Maastricht Treaty, the Stability and Growth Pact and the Lisbon Strategy. It is also supported by the European Central Bank (ECB), in charge of monetary policy across the eurozone. The combination of these institutions has produced a mix of monetary, fiscal, and labour market policies with powerful social implications.
A single monetary policy has been applied across the eurozone. The ECB has targeted inflation and focused exclusively on the domestic value of money. To attain this target the ECB has taken cognisance of conditions primarily in core countries rather than assigning equal weight to all. In practice this has meant low interest rates across the eurozone. Further, the ECB has operated deficiently since it has not been allowed to acquire and manage state debt. And nor has it actively opposed financial speculation against member states. Yet, the ECB has emerged as protector of financial interests and guarantor of financialisation in the eurozone.
Fiscal policy has been placed under the tight constraints of the Stability and Growth Pact, though considerable residual sovereignty has remained with member states. Fiscal discipline has been vital to the acceptability of the euro as international reserve, thus allowing the euro to act as world money. Since it lacks a unitary state and polity, the eurozone has not had an integrated tax system or fiscal transfers between areas. In practice, fiscal rules have been applied with some laxity in core countries and elsewhere. Peripheral countries have attempted to disguise budget deficits in a variety of ways. Nonetheless, fiscal stringency has prevailed during this period.
Given these constraints, national competitiveness within the eurozone has depended on the conditions of work and the performance of labour markets, and in this regard EU policy has been unambiguous. The European Employment Strategy has encouraged greater flexibility of employment as well as more part-time and temporary work. There has been considerable pressure on pay and conditions, a race to the bottom across the eurozone. The actual application of this policy across the eurozone has varied considerably, depending on welfare systems, trade union organisation, and social and political history.
It is apparent that
the institutions of the eurozone are more than plain technical arrangements
to support the euro as domestic common currency as well as world money.
Rather, they have had profound social and political implications. They
have protected the interests of financial capital by lowering inflation,
fostering liberalisation, and ensuring rescue operations in times of
crisis. They have also worsened the position of labour compared to capital.
Not least, they have facilitated the domination of the eurozone by
in the shadow of
joined the euro at generally high rates of exchange presumably to control
inflation, thus signing away some of their competitiveness at the outset.
Since monetary policy has been set by the ECB and fiscal policy has
been constrained by the Stability and Growth Pact, peripheral countries
were encouraged to improve competitiveness primarily by applying pressure
on their workers. But they have faced two major problems in this regard.
First, real wages and welfare states are generally worse in the periphery
than the core of the eurozone. The scope for gains in competitiveness
through pressure on workers is correspondingly less. Second,
has thus risen further within the eurozone. The result has been a structural
current account surplus for
This is not to imply
that workers in peripheral countries have avoided pressures on pay and
conditions. Indeed, the share of labour in output has declined across
the periphery. It is true that the remuneration of labour has increased
in nominal and real terms in the periphery, but productivity has risen
by more - and generally faster than in
Confronted with a
sluggish but competitive
The integration of
peripheral countries in the eurozone has been precarious as well as
rebounding in favour of
The impact of the crisis of 2007-9 and the role of finance
The immediate causes
of the crisis of 2007-9 lay in the
But reality had changed dramatically for banks as liquidity became increasingly scarce in 2008, particularly after the 'rescue' of Bear Stearns in early 2008 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers six months later. To rescue banks, the ECB engaged in extensive liquidity provision, accepting many and debatable types of paper as collateral for secure debt. ECB actions allowed banks to begin to adjust their balance sheet, engaging in deleveraging. By late 2008 banks were already reducing their lending, including to the periphery. Banks also stopped buying long-term securities, preferring to hold short-term instruments - backed by the ECB - with a view to improving liquidity. The result was credit shortage and accelerated recession across the eurozone, including the periphery.
These were the conditions
under which states - both core and periphery of the eurozone but also
In the conditions of financial markets in 2009, with the banks reluctant to lend, the rising supply of state paper put upward pressure on yields. Thus, speculators found an environment conducive to their activities. In the past, similar pressures in financial markets would have led to speculative attacks on currencies and collapsing exchange rates for the heavy borrowers. But this was obviously impossible within the eurozone, and hence speculative pressures appeared as falling prices of sovereign debt.
on Greek public debt on account of the country's large and entrenched
current account deficit as well as because of the small size of the
market in Greek public bonds. Credibility was also lost by the Greek
government because of systematic fiddling of national statistics to
reduce the size of budget deficits. But the broader significance of
the Greek crisis was not due to the inherent importance of the country.
The Greek crisis, therefore, is symptomatic of a wider malaise. It is notable that the institutions of the eurozone, above all the central bank, have performed badly in this context. For the ECB private banks were obviously 'too big to fail' in 2007-9, meriting extraordinary provision of liquidity. But there was no similar sensitivity toward peripheral countries that found themselves in dire straits. It made little difference that the problems of public debt were largely caused by the crisis as well as by the very actions of the ECB in providing banks with liquidity.
To be sure, the ECB has been hamstrung by its statutes which prevent it from directly acquiring public debt. But this is yet more evidence of the ill-conceived and biased nature of European monetary union. A well-functioning central bank would not have simply sat and watched while speculators played destabilising games in financial markets. At the very least, it would have deployed some of its ingenuity, as the ECB generously did when private banks needed liquidity in 2007-9. And nor would it have decided what types of paper to accept as collateral on the basis of ratings provided by the discredited private organisations that were instrumental to the bubble of 2001-7.
Policy options for peripheral countries
The crisis is so severe that there are neither soft options nor easy compromises for peripheral countries. The choices are stark, similar to those of developing countries confronted with repeated crises during the last three decades.
The first alternative is to adopt austerity by cutting wages, reducing public spending and raising taxes, in the hope of reducing public borrowing requirements. Austerity would probably have to be accompanied by bridging loans, or guarantees by core countries to bring down commercial borrowing rates. It is likely that there would also be 'structural reform', including further labour market flexibility, tougher pension conditions, privatisation of remaining public enterprises, privatisation of education, and so on. The aim of such liberalisation would presumably be to raise the productivity of labour, thus improving competitiveness.
This is the preferred alternative of ruling elites across peripheral and core countries, since it shifts the burden of adjustment onto working people. But there are several imponderables. The first is the opposition of workers to austerity, leading to political unrest. Further, the eurozone lacks established mechanisms both to provide bridging loans and to enforce austerity on peripheral members. There is also strong political opposition within core countries to rescuing others within the eurozone. On the other hand, the option of forcing a peripheral country to seek recourse to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would be damaging for the eurozone as a whole.3
Yet, despite apparent legal constraints, it is not beyond the EU to find ways of advancing bridging loans, at the same time enforcing austerity through political pressure. The real problem with this option is not the institutional machinery of the eurozone. It is, rather, that the policy is likely to lead to aggravated recession in peripheral countries, making it even more difficult to meet public borrowing targets. Poverty, inequality and social division will increase substantially. Even worse, it is unlikely that there will be long-term increases in productivity through a strategy of liberalisation. Productivity increases require investment and new technologies, neither of which will be provided spontaneously by liberalised markets.
would probably find themselves lodged in an unequal competitive struggle
The second alternative is to reform the eurozone. There is almost universal agreement that unitary monetary policy and fragmented fiscal policy have been a dysfunctional mix. There is also widespread criticism of the ECB for the way it has provided abundant liquidity to banks, while keeping aloof of borrowing states, even to the extent of ignoring speculative attacks.
A range of reforms
that would not challenge the fundamentals of the Maastricht Treaty,
the Stability and Growth Pact, and the
Hence there have been calls for more radical reforms, including abolition of the Stability and Growth Pact and altering the statutes of the ECB to allow it regularly to lend to member states. The aim of such reform would be to retain monetary union, while creating a 'good euro' that would be beneficial to working people. The 'good euro' strategy would involve significantly expanding the European budget to deliver fiscal transfers from rich to poor countries. There would be an active European investment strategy to support new areas of economic activity. There would also be a minimum wage policy, reducing differentials in competitiveness, and lowering inequality across the eurozone.
The 'good euro' strategy, appealing as it sounds, would face two major problems. The first is that the eurozone lacks a unitary state, and there is no prospect of acquiring one in the near future, certainly not with the required progressive disposition. The current machinery of the eurozone is entirely unsuited to this task. The strategy would face a continuous conflict between, on the one hand, its ambitious pan-European aims and, on the other, the absence of state mechanisms that could begin to turn these aims into reality.
More complexly, the 'good euro' strategy would clash with the putative role of the euro as world money. If fiscal discipline was relaxed among member states, there would be a risk that the value of the euro would collapse in international markets. Were that to happen, at the very least, the international operations of European banks would become extremely difficult. The international role of the euro, which has been vital to the project from the beginning, would come under heavy pressure. Thus, it is not clear that the 'good euro' strategy is compatible with monetary union. In this light, a 'good euro' might end up as 'no euro'. Those who advocate this strategy ought to be aware of its likely implications, i.e., leading to the end of monetary union. Institutional, political and social demands have to be tailored accordingly.
The third alternative is to exit from the eurozone. Even here, however, there are choices. There is 'conservative exit', which is increasingly discussed in the Anglo-Saxon press, and would aim at devaluation. Some of the pressure of adjustment would be passed onto the international sphere, and exports would revive. But there would also be losses for those servicing debt abroad, including banks. Workers would face wage declines as the price of tradable goods would rise. Devaluation would probably be accompanied by austerity and liberalisation, compounding the pressure on workers.
Long-term improvements in productivity would, however, occur only if market forces began spontaneously to develop new capacity in the tradable goods sector. This is extremely difficult for peripheral eurozone countries, with middling technology and middling real wages. It is notable that the ruling elites of peripheral countries are aware of these difficulties, as well as of their own lack of capacity to deal with them. They have implicitly admitted that they possess neither the means nor the will to pursue an independent path. Consequently, conservative exit might lead to stagnation with repeated devaluations and decline in incomes.
There is, finally, 'progressive exit' from the eurozone, which would require a shift of economic and social power toward labour in peripheral countries. There would be devaluation accompanied by cessation of payments and restructuring of debt. To prevent collapse of the financial system there would have to be widespread nationalisation of banking, creating a system of public banks. Controls would also have to be imposed on the capital account to prevent outflows of capital. To protect output and employment, finally, it would then be necessary to expand public ownership over key areas of the economy, including public utilities, transport and energy.
On this basis, it would be possible to develop industrial policy that could combine public resources with public credit. There are broad areas of the national economy in peripheral countries that call for public investment, including infrastructure. Opportunities exist to develop new fields of activity in the 'green' economy. Investment growth would provide a basis on which to improve productivity, ever the Achilles heel of peripheral economies. Financialisation could then begin to be reversed by lessening the relative weight of finance.
A radical policy shift of this type would require transforming the state by establishing mechanisms of transparency and accountability. The tax and transfer payments of the state would then take a different shape. The tax base would be broadened by limiting tax evasion by the rich as well as by capital. Public provision for health and education would be gradually improved, as would redistribution policies to alleviate high inequality in peripheral countries.
A policy of progressive
exit for peripheral countries would come with evident costs and risks.
The broad political alliances necessary to support such a shift do not
exist at present. This absence, incidentally, is not necessarily due
to lack of popular support for radical change. More important is that
no credible political force in
International alliances and support would be necessary in order to sustain flows of trade, skills and investment. These would be far from easy to secure if the rest of the EU remained under the spell of monetary union. But note that progressive exit by the periphery would also offer fresh prospects to core eurozone countries, particularly to labour which has suffered throughout this period. If the eurozone unravelled generally, economic relations between core and periphery could be put on a more cooperative basis.
is Professor of Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies
The above is extracted from the Research on Money and Finance (RMF) report 'Eurozone Crisis: Beggar Thyself and Thy Neighbour' (March 2010). The full report is available on the RMF website (www.researchonmoneyandfinance.org). RMF is a network of political economists with a track record in researching money and finance.
has been extensively discussed by political economists. A useful, but
not complete, survey can be found in van Treeck, T. 2009. 'The political
economy debate on "financialization" - a macroeconomic perspective',
Review of International Political Economy, 16:5, 907-944. The theoretical
views underpinning this report can be found in Lapavitsas, C. 2009.
'Financialised Capitalism: Crisis and Financial Expropriation', Historical
Materialism, 17:2, 114-148; and Dos
2 See, for example: Krippner, G. 2005. 'The Financialization of the American Economy', Socio-Economic Review, 3, 173-208; and Dumenil, G. & Levy, D. 2004. 'The Real and Financial Components of Profitability', Review of Radical Political Economics, 36, 82-110.
3 Editor's note: Since the time of writing, the IMF has become involved but as part of a troika with the EU and the ECB.
*Third World Resurgence No. 253, September 2011, pp 7-11