Buttonwood: Voters versus Creditors

Written on November 25, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Europe, Globalization & International Trade, Political Economy

Market discipline works when other controls fail

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, spoke for many Europeans when she said last year that “We must re-establish the primacy of politics over the markets.” The Europeans created the euro to prevent the crises caused by currency speculators, only to find themselves pushed around by bond investors.

Politicians have often cursed the markets. Harold Wilson, a British prime minister, used to fulminate against the “gnomes of Zurich” who speculated against the pound. In the mythology of the British Labour Party, a “bankers’ ramp” pushed the party out of office in 1931. James Carville, a political adviser to Bill Clinton, wanted to be reincarnated as the bond market so he could “intimidate everybody”.

In theory, there is an easy answer. If you don’t want to be bothered about the bond markets, don’t borrow from them. The finance ministers of Norway and Saudi Arabia have no cause to worry about their borrowing costs because they are net creditors.

Not all nations can be creditors, of course. But John Maynard Keynes’s plans for the post-1945 monetary system were aimed at limiting the imbalances that arose in the interwar system, and have popped up again in the past 20 years. Since this involved restricting the rights of surplus nations, his plans were circumscribed by Washington, a nice irony now that America is a debtor nation.

After the Bretton Woods system collapsed in 1971, trade imbalances ceased to be much of a constraint on the developed world. Financial markets seemed happy to provide the money to allow countries to run deficits on both the fiscal and trade accounts. This may have led to a fatal complacency on the part of governments, which assumed that their credit was limitless. But rather like Northern Rock, the British bank that became too dependent on the wholesale markets for funding and collapsed in 2007, countries such as Greece and Italy have discovered that investors can suddenly withdraw their favours.

Is the latest run the action of speculators, as Silvio Berlusconi mused in his farewell statement? On the contrary, the sell-off is probably down to caution. The Greek debt deal required private-sector investors to take a 50% hit, while official investors would be repaid in full. This made private-sector investors worry about potential losses elsewhere. They have shifted their assets into the perceived safety of Germany and Britain. In addition, it seems that banks are selling off bonds in an attempt to shrink their balance-sheets and meet new rules designed to make them safer. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on November 19, 2011 (from the print edition | Finance and economics).


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