Really too big to fail.
Posted on 12:34, August 17th, 2011 by Pablo
Market responses to the US debt crisis and financial downgrade have been like king tides as of late, and inevitably speculation centers on the possibility of a “double dip” global recession (this speculation is more than rhetorical. Gold and other precious metal prices have spiked overt the last three weeks as investors flee the stock, bond, commodity and currency markets). There is much talk, some fearful and some hopeful, of a global meltdown of epic proportions. The argument goes that downgrading the US credit rating devalues US Treasury bonds and the dollar, which slows US private investment at home and abroad, decreases domestic consumption, increases unemployment and generally prolongs the recession begun in 2008. This ripples negatively across the globe given the interconnectivity of commodity chains and the central role of the US in them. Be it on the Left or the Right, the belief in state bankruptcy is taken as an article of faith.
The reality is different. What is happening is a fiscal crisis of the Western State rooted in a cyclic crisis of capitalism. Arguments about the blown-out US public debt obscure the fact that it is the result of the same conditions that produced the 2008 recession and which are at root the cause of the next one. For the last thirty years the ‘bubble” of private debt was replicated by the US Government, in the last decade under the strain of simultaneously fighting two prolonged low intensity conflicts. In Europe public debt was in part procured in order to compensate for private debt (via the provision of subsidized entitlements). Capital was lent on looser and looser terms as interest payment calculations came to rival returns on productive investment as the dominant macroeconomic logic. The market in financial derivatives boomed, then busted, bringing with it a crisis in small scale property ownership at the same time that major manufacturers were being bailed out by the US government.
There is a difference, however, between the private sector and the State when it comes to fiscal crises. The analogy between States and firms is overdrawn. Firms go bankrupt; States do not. States may default on loans and suffer the indignities of downgrading by financial institutions, but they do not go out of business. The reason is simple. States with a presence in the global economy may fail but they do not cease to exist.
Modern states are political entities with other measures of power beyond economic resources, are rooted in historical and cultural ties within more or less fixed borders, have distinct political systems and political regimes that govern them, and are therefore sheltered from the hard realities that beset wayward market agents in a globalised system of production, service and exchange. More importantly with regard to the social and political relations of production, the modern nation-state supercedes the market at any specific moment even while being generally subject to its rhythms and dictates. It is, after all, a capitalist type of state that is not reducible to the productive apparatus.
Imagine even if the US defaulted on its current obligations. Its credit rating would fall further in parallel with the value of its currency, but how long will that last? Even if the US fails its financial obligations, it would be the markets that push for a debt restructuring favourable to it. As the core of the global economy, the US is simply too big to fail because its financial collapse would reverberate widely and deeply through the world. In fact, with the exception of undeveloped failed states and microstates with minimal economic resources to promote, virtually all modern states can survive a fiscal crisis and default.
Take Argentina, which in 2000 defaulted on its foreign loans, uncoupled its currency from the US dollar and then renegotiated the terms of its obligations. Since most of the outstanding balance was interest rather than principal, foreign creditors were eventually forced to settle on terms favourable to the Argentines (about 60 cents on the dollar lent). The weakened Argentine peso stimulated commodity exports and attracted foreign investment in resources and primary goods. In spite of endemic corruption, political interference and a multitude of market inefficiencies, over the last five years Argentina has averaged growth rates in excess of six percent and attracted the highest levels of foreign investment ever even while maintaining a large public deficit.
Greece, the poster child of all that is supposedly wrong with governments and societies that do not couple entitlements with production, is another such case. What would happen if Greece defaulted on its recently rescheduled loans? Will it cease to be? what it could do is drop out of the Eurozone, replace the Euro with the much less expensive drachma, and print money to fund its domestic obligations. Somee foreign investors may flee, but local capitalists will continue to engage the domestic market, people will continue to consume, albeit at lower rates with regards to imported goods, tourists will still flock to see the historical sites and visit the islands, and the country will continue to exist. In fact, should it be successful at restructuring its economy on more internally-focused terms out from under the straitjacket of Eurozone obligations (say, by making its tax collection system more rational and efficient), it could serve as a model for the other “PIGS” nations—Portugal, Ireland and Spain—as well as Italy.
It was Northern European, mostly German capital, directly and channeled through the European Central Bank, which sought to recycle in the European periphery the super-profits accrued during the last two decades of derivative market expansion. These are the creditors who took the risk in the PIGS and who now demand debt repayment schedules rooted in austerity measures and privatization programs. They are also the beneficiaries of a strong Euro, unlike the weaker Southern European economies now under siege. Should debtor countries in Europe decide to reconfigure their economies around a devalued national currency a la Argentina, the European Union will be finished as a currency regulator. Here the sub-regional ripple or contagion effect makes each of the PIGS too big to fail, something that is magnified in the case of the US. Loss of credit rating and a high debt to GDP ratio, in others words, does not translate into State bankruptcy.
The larger point is that states can default but they cannot be bankrupted because they are not solely economic agents but instead sovereign political actors with interests that transcend a financial bottom line. They can be upgraded and downgraded as financial risks, but even if investment falls and inflation rises, they will not disappear. Think of Brazil and Argentina in the late 1980s when inflation ran at over 1000 percent per year. Did they disappear? Did all foreign investment dry up? Did local markets crash?
Truth be told, capitalism, led by finance capital, was on overheated overdrive for the two decades before 2008, only slowing down briefly after events such as 9/11, even when objective conditions advised against the maintenance of the macroeconomic policies private agents used to calculate the speed of their returns. Western States emulated private agent logics, whereas Asian banks and sovereign wealth funds were less keen to adopt derivatives-led financial approaches backed by increasingly unsecured loans (although some of that did creep into Asian markets as regional economies attracted Western investment).
Here is where global networks come in. Rather than wage war on States with economies in default, other States that are debt free or less indebted work to cover their investments, and those of their private agents, in the debtor States. This means that even if private agents in the debtor States fail as a result of their market excesses or miscalculation, and State treasuries do n not have enough reserves to cover their debts, States remain open for business, perhaps even on more favourable terms depending on the nature of sovereign debt restructuring agreements (public debt for equity swaps are one measure that can improve State efficiencies as a result of restructuring). Inefficient producers are expelled from the market; inefficient States muddle along.
The entire Western capitalist combine was due for a retrenchment given the downward slope it has been on since spending, both public and private, exceeded productive output in material goods and services. So long as money could be made off of lending money and risks were passed on to increasingly lower-level actors, early 21st century capitalism saw States tax and spend without coherent productive purpose (which mirrored the approach of the financial markets). This was a good political calculation but not a sound economic grounding for future productive growth within current capitalist parameters. Thus the turn towards private sector retrenchment in 2008, with public sector retrenchment now following.
We hear about the demise of various States because they can no longer afford to repay what they have borrowed in order to maintain whatever it is that is considered precious to national identity and political stability–public goods and entitlements in Europe, a war machine in the US. Retrenching Western States may not be able to provide these services in the measure they used to, but thy remain (however diminished) as linchpins of an international system that has its origins in the Treaty of Westphalia rather than Bretton Woods or the Washington Consensus. States are the ties that bind that global system of exchange, and Western States continue to have a central role in it even as the system moves towards increased multipolarity.
Markets and politicians alike need to be cognizant of this fact, because as Keynes pointed out, it is political conditions, not economic conditions, that are the best guarantors of long-term investment. Rather than the economic particularities of a given investment climate at a specific moment in time, political stability offers better conditions for secure future private return. A stable national polity is the best guarantee of profit even if the public books are not balanced. That is the political cost for the social peace that is the basis for economic stability.
Ironically, it was the short-term focus of the macroeconomic logics that propelled the “bubble” that led first to the financial crisis of 2008 and now to the current conditions of political impasse and social instability in many liberal democracies. That is where the convergence of the fiscal crisis of the Western State and the cyclic crisis of capitalism can lead to liberal democratic State failure: when it produces a crisis of legitimacy of the political elite, often confused with regime crisis, that once rooted in and superimposed on the economic downturn and social unrest constitutes an organic crisis of the State. The UK evidences these type of pre-conditions.
Rather than demand zero-sum tax cuts and a diminished State role in guaranteeing the social relations of production, the priority of the market during a State fiscal crisis should be to to express confidence in the State because delegitimisation of the latter is an absolute guarantee of disasterous market consequences for the private actors involved with them in the event that they are overthrown or fragment. That is where market ideologues have failed in their basic obligation: to help foster the political and socio-economic conditions in which stable rates of private return are generated. Instead, they are exacerbating the crisis with their jitters, demands and panic trading. This will not lead to an organic crisis in most liberal democratic states (which will muddle along), but it could produce legitimacy crises in newly democratic states or those with significant social cleavages. Even then the prospect of State, as opposed to regime or private sector failure, is unlikely.
All of which is to say that when it comes to the fiscal crises of modern Western States, this too shall pass.