12 Feb 2015, 2:15am
debt economy:
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  • Zorba the Gr€€k is still skint after five years

    As the euro continues to fall amid disappointment that the EU has not come up with a solid rescue plan for Greece, Zorba makes an appearance

    Patrick Blower, Feb 2010

    It was five years ago to the day that I saw this livedraw on what was then the Guardian’s Comment is Free 1. Only one of the leaders in the cartoon is still standing after the five years, – five years is a really long time in politics.

    In those heady days, a nervous Ermine was still at work, but had roughed out a flight plan for the exit. All this turbulence in the market seemed hazard and opportunity, and I was convinced the Euro was going to blow, the internal contradictions of a finance union without a transfer union, the lack of common cause.

    None of these things have changed, but I underestimated the doggedness with which people cling to old forms, and of course perhaps the preparations the rest of the eurozone felt they needed to do to bolster the creaking edifice against Grexit. Even now it’s hard to say – will I look back at this in five years time and wonder how nothing has changed? Exactly how long can the markets stay irrational while the entirety of the Eurozone grinds its way into insolvency.

    Just like then, it feels that the forces are gathering for a showdown. It is in points of change that opportunity arises and destruction threatens. The five year anniversary seems to be a good one to invoke the spirit of Zorba the the Gr€€k once again. The world has still not recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, there is still too much capital chasing not enough productive assets. Greece is a symptom as well as a cause – the Eurozone serves two masters. As Lincoln observed the problem in a different field

    A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

    Abraham Lincoln, 1858

    So too with the Eurozone, it lumbers endlessly from crisis to crisis, and it is time for it to become one thing or another. It has crushed too many dreams already, and it needs to shape up or to start to cut away the dead wood, and become small enough to for a political and transfer union to hold. Or the United States of Europe needs to be constructed.

    To call in another American view on the fiasco, I was glad to hear Greenspan finally call it out in public

    “I believe [Greece] will eventually leave. I don’t think it helps them or the rest of the eurozone – it is just a matter of time before everyone recognises that parting is the best strategy.
    […]

    The problem is that there there is no way that I can conceive of the euro of continuing, unless and until all of the members of eurozone become politically integrated – actually even just fiscally integrated won’t do it.”

    Until that comes to pass or the whole misbegotten enterprise disintegrates from its internal inconsistencies the rotting corpse that was wounded by the original financial crisis will endlessly stink up the place and ruin Europeans’ lives – particularly young folk by the looks of it.

    As a young man I was unlucky enough to graduate into Thatcher’s first recession in 1982, but although deep it recovered relatively quickly compared to the 2008 recession that seems to be combining with other strategic shifts in the workplace. In Britain although these problems may be affecting the quality of jobs, in the Eurozone and southern Europe there seems to be grinding youth unemployment as well as a general protracted recession – five years of that is a serious hit on one’s working life. No wonder there is a Greek youth brain drain.

    Can’t pay, won’t pay

    The Greeks are never going to repay the debt in Euros. Writing the debt off which is what Syriza seem to want isn’t going to help them in the long run either. They are yoked by the Euro to people that like to live in a different way. Let’s see what happened in the past. I hit up these guys for some historical USD to GDR, GBP and DEM from 1990 to 2001. I then normalised everything to a value of 1 on Jan 1990. Basically you needed 2½ times as many Drachma to buy a US dollar in 2000 than you’d needed 10 years before. Germans, who didn’t exactly have a great 1990s needed roughly the same and even in Blighty we only needed about 20% more GBP to buy that dollar. You can quibble as to what sort of store of value a US dollar represents but the difference cancels that out. There’s something different about the way Greece likes to do things and its currency reflected that.

    As time went by you needed more and more drachma to buy that US dollar

    When Zorba the Gr€€k was drawn, roughly the same distance as is covered by this chart had elapsed after the drachma was crash-locked to the Deutschemark’s proxy the Euro. Now it’s 1.5 times the space covered by this chart. There’s no point in resetting this to zero now, it’s a structural difference. In a true currency union like the United States, rich parts continuously transfer money to poor parts, else a New York City dollar would appreciate against a Detroit, MI dollar – in the chart above you’d need a lot more Detroit dollars to buy a beer in NYC at the end than at the start.

    The Greeks may be the canary in the coal-mine

    Those Gr€€k €uro debts ain’t gonna get paid. There’s a history lesson in this for the rest of us too. In the good times it’s easy to believe in financial promises, but in the end a lot of finance is just that, promises. A lot 2 of my ISA is also promises, so are all those British mortgages taken out of overinflated house prices at low interest rates by people who will never earn enough in a lifetime to discharge those debts unless something changes. At the moment the lens is focused on Greece, but it can move, and maybe zoom out. Odd things are happening in the economy – we have created a lot of money to buy off the day of reckoning in 20o8 and after seven years it’s still not finding things of value to stand proxy for, companies are hoarding cash because they can’t invest it to make things people can/will buy more of. It’s not necessarily all bad. Maybe it is the final denouement of consumerism -the Post Carbon Institute’s Richard Heinberg in a curiously upbeat mode

    The practical result of declining overall societal EROEI 3will be the need to devote proportionally more capital and labor to energy production processes. This is likely to translate, for example, to the requirement for more farm labor, and to fewer opportunities in professions not centered on directly productive activities: we’ll need more people making or growing things, and fewer people marketing, advertising, financing, regulating, and litigating them. For folks who think we have way too much marketing, advertising, financialization, regulation, and litigation in our current society, this may not seem like such a bad thing; prospects are likewise favorable for those who desire more control over their time, labor, and sources of sustenance (food and energy).

    […]

    The energy glut of the 20th century enabled us to embody energy in a mind-numbing array of buildings, infrastructure, machines, gadgets, and packaging. Middle-class families got used to buying and discarding enormous quantities of manufactured goods representing generous portions of previously expended energy. If we have less energy available to us in our renewable future, this will impact more than the operation of our machines and the lighting and heating of our buildings. It will also translate to a shrinking flow of manufactured goods that embody past energy expenditure, and a reduced ability to construct high energy-input structures. We might find we need to purchase fewer items of clothing and furniture, and fewer electronic devices, and inhabit smaller spaces. We might also use old goods longer, and re-use and re-purpose whatever can be repaired. We might need to get used to buying more basic foods again, rather than highly processed and excessively packaged food products. Exactly how far these trends might proceed is impossible to say: we are almost surely headed toward a simpler society, but no one knows ultimately how simple. Nevertheless, it’s fair to assume that this overall shift would constitute the end of consumerism (i.e., our current economic model that depends on ever-increasing consumption of consumer goods and services). Here again, there are more than a few people who believe that advanced industrial nations consume excessively, and that some simplification of rich- and middle-class lifestyles would be a good thing.

    I grew up in a simpler London, and when I look around me at the shocking waste and inefficiency of consumerism compared to only 40 years ago I do wish we could distil the many great and genuine innovations and improvements from all the destructive busywork and tat that takes away.

    Why? For crying out load, why?

    Consumerism. Why did this misallocation of resources happen?

    Perhaps Greece rubbing up against the evil heart of darkness in the common cause assumptions of the Euro is reminding us that in the battle of illusion against reality the latter tends to win out over time. We tell ourselves many stories round the virtual campfires weaving meaning into the flickering shadows on the wall. Although these myths are symbolic, not all of them are true. It is going to be an increasingly difficult task to find a way of turning cash into usefully productive long-term assets against a background of secular stagnation, and making easy assumptions is probably not the way to do it. Much of the appreciation is asset prices like shares and houses doesn’t reflect an increase in underlying value or future income stream in the case of shares. It merely reflects the increased amount of QE money chasing those assets. Anybody could be a great investor over the last few years with that sort of tailwind, though the day of reckoning seems to be getting closer with the help of our Greek friends shining a light on what unrealistic claims upon the future look like.

    The Greeks want to live with a currency that depreciates faster than the Germans. It is called the drachma. Possibly if Northern Europe wants its money back from the repudiated € loans, sue Goldman Sachs who aided the Greeks get into the Euro under false pretences, and good luck with that. It’s always good when seeking repayment to pressure people who actually have some money, and the Vampire Squid would seem to be where a lot of the money ended up 😉

    Goldman Sachs arranged swaps that effectively allowed Greece to borrow 1 billion Euros without adding to its official public debt. While it arranged the swaps, Goldman also sought to buy insurance on Greek debt and engage in other trades to protect itself against the risk of a default on those swaps. Eventually, Goldman sold the swaps to the national bank of Greece.

    The drachma is dead. Long live the drachma.

    Notes:

    1. Sadly along with it’s other faults the Internet is not forever – because meaning is held on the transitory relations of bits of spinning discs and network switchery that somebody has to pay for the rust that is linkrot  never sleeps. Analogue media coded information in what they were and didn’t need a constant supply of power and rent, though they had their own decay mechanisms. I was surprised to find this was hard to get hold of again after only five years. For me at least the Guardian’s link doesn’t play, but the artists own livedraw site still has it. I used a youtube link
    2. okay – all of it – a solar flare/EMP would vaporise the lot, but even without that some promises are more hand-waving than others
    3. energy return on energy invested – how much energy you have to invest in getting energy
     
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