March 24, 2013

We are not ruled by a cabal of Lex Luthors and Blofelds. We are ruled by the Three Stooges

EUobserver Blogs

rehn doesnt have a cat
Jeroen Dijsselbloem doesn’t actually have a white cat that he strokes during Eurogroup meetings. Christine Lagarde does however have a whip with a poison Kryptonite tip.

One of the most frightening aspects of the crisis is how it appears that our leaders are increasingly at a complete loss as to what to do.

It’s common to come across popular spitting fury at the ‘banksters’ and ‘conmen’ who govern us, as though those with their hands on the levers of the European system are moustache-twiddling cartoon-mastermind villains of unbounded venality (cf. Matt Taibbi’s characterisation of Goldman Sachs as a ‘vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’).

But as we peer goggle-eyed and gap-jawed at the scale of the debacle of the Great Cypriot Bank Robbery and the blame game that has followed, it is manifest that we are so very, very far from being ruled by a cabal of cat-stroking Lex Luthors and Ernst Stavro Blofelds of finance. On the contrary – we are ruled by the Three Stooges of finance.

Each of the individuals involved in the negotiations last weekend has been eager to stress how he or she was not responsible for coming up with the idea of imposing the ‘stability levy’ on those with under €100,000 in deposits. All actors have been keen to seek out their preferred media outlet to plead their case.

Different outlets have published in the last few days their versions of the inside story. Peter Spiegel’s in the Financial Times is particularly comprehensive and has the ring of truth to it.

(Although I should say here: Why isn’t anybody screaming “Hello? What’s with all the Kremlinology? Why do we have no choice but to report on decision-making of this import and impact on domestic laws and finances in essentially the same way that we report on the election of the Pope? Why does the Eurozone’s de facto legislature operate like a papal conclave?”)

The ECB’s Joerg Asmussen basically said: ‘It wasn’t us.’ Cypriot officials said: ‘It was Schaeuble.’ Schaeuble said: ‘It was the Cypriots, the Commission and the ECB.’ ‘Rehn started it.’ ‘No I didn’t.’ Unnamed officials darkly hint that the Cypriots care more about Russian oligarchs than they do their own people while Nicosia publicly accuses the ECB of blackmail. France says they never supported the plan. Fingers are pointed at the Finns, Slovaks and Dutch as bullies egging the big kids on.

But all we have to do is go read the press statements of Saturday morning to find very few dissenters from the arrangement. Even European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who had nothing to do with the crafting of the deal and should have been free to be more critical publicly if he really felt that way, as of Saturday had only timid concerns, agreeing that depositors should pay for some of the bailout, and only called for an exemption for those with sums under €25,000, however much he is now thundering at the injustice of what has happened.

The most enlightening nugget in the FT’s investigation is when we find out that a proposal to exempt low-level depositors ‘was only actively supported by Ramon Fernandez, the French treasury chief – a fact that supports [French finance minister Pierre] Moscovici’s claim to have been an early opponent of the levy on smaller savers. “The rest did not care.”’

That is to say they all, with the possible exception of France, share the blame.

Over in the UK, British Chancellor George Osborne’s scramble on Sunday to reassure UK depositors in Cyprus that they will be reimbursed (at a back-of-the-envelope cost of £138-200 million), reeks of something of an afterthought, not least because his deputies (underlings? henchmen?) later wobble, saying that only ‘most’ of any monies seized will be recompensed.
And the Eurozone’s conclave of necktied cardinals all quickly row back after the fury on the streets of Nicosia and the Cypriot parliament does its democratic duty and pushes back, rejecting the deal (the first domestic parliament in Europe brave enough to do so).

They all just seem so utterly at a loss as to what to do, other than to stick to the received consensus wisdom of TINA – There Is No Alternative.
Attempting to pin the blame on a particular actor misses the point. We have to remember that not just in the Cypriot case, but for each of the euro-crisis intensive-care patients, there is a role that the ECB plays, that the IMF plays, that the European Commission plays, that the Council of Ministers/Eurogroup/European Council plays, and that local elites play. 

Positions are often overlapping but conflicting, representing the different elite domestic and/or institutional interests to which a particular actor is most sympathetic.

Yet when we take a helicopter view, we see that the shock-therapy course is agreed by all, regardless of nationality, institution or party. Asmussen and Dijsselbloem are social democrats and Anastasiades is a conservative. Truly, anyone who still believes that there is any difference on economic questions between Europe’s social democrats and conservatives any more can only be a member of one of these two rapidly dwindling tribes.

So saying that the Cypriot debacle is all the EU’s fault or all Berlin’s fault may be incorrect, but saying that it’s all the local comprador elites’ fault is also incorrect. It is a complicated interplay of interests between these different actors, just as Greece’s late Pasok prime minister, George Papandreou may have been thrown under the bus by the Frankfurt Group for threatening a referendum on a second bailout – but ideologically he represented nothing different.

Russian vs European oligarchs

And as if the raid on bank account-holders with less than €100 large was the only egregious act performed in the wee hours of last Saturday in Brussels in any case. What about the 70-something couple for whom €120,000 maybe is their life savings? Or the small and medium-sized businesses for whom that sum represents a payroll account?

And if there really is the concern on the part of the rest of Europe about Russian oligarch accounts, could they not have been forfeited instead? Why are no senior bondholders – hedge funds or other holders of Cypriot sovereign debt even talked about as subjects for bearing some of the pain?

All those who signed off on Saturday’s deal endorsed once again a programme of austerity, privatisation (of utilities) and structural adjustment worth some 5.75% of GDP – the same recipe that has such a depression-beating success elsewhere. The record is broken. Beyond its injustice, the strategy plainly is not working. As elsewhere, an economy already in recession will be bludgeoned by additional austerity, likely meaning a second or third kick at the bail-out can somewhere down the line, in turn requiring still further austerity in a vicious cycle.

The focus on who is to blame also occludes the step change from private to public of threats of economic violence from Frankfurt and Berlin that has occurred in the wake of the Cypriot parliament disobedience. The threats aren’t new, but they have been made privately until now. And their wrath is something to behold. So now we have an ultimatum from the ECB that it will cut off its Emergency Liquidity Assistance, snuffing out the oxygen to Cypriot banks. They will collapse, with all the social dislocation that would bring.

Schaeuble, unused to being defied, roared: “The ECB has made it clear that without a reform programme for Cyprus the aid can’t continue. Someone has to explain this to the Cypriots and I think there’s a danger that they won’t be able to open the banks again at all.”

Someone has to explain this to the Cypriots. The same refrain we’ve heard throughout the crisis, but with added bile: Vote how you like, dum-dums, so long as it’s the right way.

And lest we think France somehow gets a gold star in all this, her representative on the Eurogroup Working Group, which comprises deputy finance ministers or senior treasury officials from the 17 eurozone members, as well as representatives of the ECB and Commission, has this to say as regards democracy in Cyprus: “The (Cypriot) parliament is obviously too emotional.”

Lastly, where is this sudden concern about tax havens and Russian oligarchs and organised crime coming from anyway? Leaving aside the bail-out cash that never actually lands in Greece but heads straight back to northern reckless lenders, the ‘oligarchs’ of core European finance, the chutzpah of a Dutch chair of the Eurogroup or a Luxembourgish finance minister making any noise about tax havens is breathtaking.

Ah, I hear you say, but European oligarchs aren’t quite like Russian oligarchs. They aren’t up to their tits in organised crime.

Well, let’s have a look at the shenanigans of UK multinational bank HSBC, ordered twice by US regulators in 2003 and 2010 to tighten its anti-money-laundering activities. Then in November last year, it was found that HSBC had set up offshore accounts in the Channel Islands tax haven of Jersey for suspected drug-dealers and other criminals, prompting Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to launch an investigation. The following month, HSBC was fined $1.9 billion for allegedly laundering some $881 million in drugs cash for cartels. The company turned a blind eye to Mexican drug cartels using its branches to launder millions, with staff also stripping identifying information off transactions from embargoed countries such as Iran and Sudan. The company has also been accused of laundering money for terrorist groups. But of course, as the aforementioned Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi put it in his investigation of the case, HSBC is ‘Too big to jail‘.

There aren’t Russian oligarchs who are eeevil and European oligarchs who are saintly. There are just oligarchs.

And of course the useful idiots – the bungling stooges – who abet them.