A NEW DAWN FOR THE IMF: SWITCHING DEBTS TO ASSETS

By Andrew McKillop
21st Century Wire
June 30, 2011

In the gallic joy and media hoopla of yet another French elite politician with almost no knowledge of economics getting the IMF top job, confirming the real role and mission of this fragile institution, its bizarre mutation to financial and economic charlatanism- goes almost unnoticed. The Greek debt crisis however shows this stark and clear.

The IMF and the European Central Bank, with an outgoing French director and an incoming Italian chief, are basically struggling for survival – due to the debt crisis of a country with 11 million inhabitants whose GDP comes in at about 5 percent of EU-27 GDP.

Whoever says IMF and ECB also says ‘US Federal Reserve’, although Ben Bernanke would likely nuance that and distance himself from failed “quantitative tightening” in south-east Europe, to concentrate on failed QE at home. What the IMF and ECB have cooked up in Europe’s PIIGS, with the second I-for-Italy moving upstage in a dangerous way as the Berlusconi empire and media circus crumbles, is nothing short of ultra Keynesian deficit medicine mixed with ultra Neoliberal austerity cures of the IMF 1980s Third World type. The net result is simple: debt has to become assets. Never mind the ideology because if this gambit fails, the euro will fall and a string of European, US, Japanese and other banking houses will shudder and tremble, 2008-style.

OLD AND NEW

The doctrinal mix-and-mingle running through the veins of global central bankers and their bridges to the political deciding elite – the IMF playing master of ceremonies – has become so confused, so bizarre we could call it an ice cream cocktail with chopped gherkins put through a mixmaster. It was not even born to fail – it was simply not biologically possible, but like dinosaurs… it happened. Using Greece as an online, real time exhibit of leading edge financial engineering, the IMF and ECB, along with the European Union and a few Greek politicians, watched by the US Fed and some very engaged private bankers and finance sector players, are creating one of the most massive debt explosions the world has ever seen. All this with the small assets, and big debts of a small country edging along the Balkans.

But the Greek Ponzi-style debt pyramid grows every day; most media reporting gives rather fakely, exact numbers of the type: “As of 9am Wednesday morning, Greek sovereign debt is 365.2 billion euros”, and a slightly less fantasist number for how much Greece has to receive to cover the 31 days of July: 12 billion euro, roughly $ 1500 for every man, woman and child in the country. With borrowing like that, why work ? The second income has arrived, but of course with strings attached.

All eyes are turning towards French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, the first woman to run the IMF or any large financial institution.

The latest 12-billion dollop is the last part of the first debt package masterminded by the IMF and the Europeans, with the ECB in the lead but also including the European Commission and major government players, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel who has publicly said she got on fine with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and will get on fine with Christine Lagarde: it is official.

GREEK FINANCE: WITH STRINGS ATTACHED

The strings attached include the Dr Jekyll part of the two-headed IMF monster: Greece has to perform. It has to achieve 50 billion euro of asset sales, not so easy in a country of 11 million inhabitants operating in the oversupplied Mediterranean package tour business against bankrupt Tunisia and bankrupt Egypt, now selling 8-day holidays at modern hotels, with food and air flights, at around $ 400 per person. With the July monthly instalment from the IMF and the Europeans, the entire Greek nation could ship itself out to Egypt for the month and find something creative to do with the unused assets, back home.

Greece of course also has other assets, like lignite fuelled power plants, toll highways, ports, tanker shipping lines and even a few semi-bankrupt airlines.

The real potential of achieving 50-billion-euro of asset sales in Greece, anytime at all, let alone soon is however rather low – but that doesn’t matter. What is needed is a public attempt at doing it, and here the IMF and its European friends, with their uncertain and perhaps wavering US allies, have stepped back in time to the 1980s Third World debt pantomime, complete with funny noses: all that is needed is a remake of the Club of Paris, bringing worried banks and reassuring IMF officials together, for a debt and asset slaughter, where assets were turned into debts rather fast.

OLD ASSETS, NEW DEBTS

A country like Greece today, or 1980s-style debt strangled Third World countries, or Russia, Argentina and others in the 1990s has so much short-term debt and ever rising interest rates on that growing part of its debt balloon – a lead balloon – that any asset it puts on the block will be depreciated, quick time. The depreciation is rigorously ferocious, something like an aside in a Thorsten Veblen book on cigar puffing, cognac swilling Victorian capitalists. What you thought might bring in 5 billion euros will in fact return 50 million, penny-on-the-dollar style. Under that type of New Reality, austerity has to be Victorian-style, witness a hike in value added tax on Greek restaurant meals from 10 percent to 23 percent: if you have enough cash to eat out, you have enough to pay the IMF and ECB.

Asset sales and state revenue hikes in Greece will therefore, and can only disappoint. Meanwhile, the debt clock ticks on and up, another bailout will be needed, so more assets have to be sold (even if they dont exist) and the austerity program has to be tightened, again. In the Russian case in the 1990s, national pride took a strange New Capitalist turn: roughly 40 percent of the entire population were de-monetized or moved out of the cash economy for several years. To be sure, this had a rather draconian impact on imports, let alone mortality rates, but even if oil was worth nothing in the 1990s, Russia kept on exporting it along with other Sunset Commodity resources – exactly like Argentina. So Russia pulled through, to a certain extent, leaving Putin with a permanent chip on his shoulder regarding Western capitalist partners and iron will to stay a creditor nation. Greece isn’t likely to have a resource-led export revenue boom, like Russia, Argentina and almost all the Jekyll-finance 1980s victims of the IMF in low-income Africa and other Third World countries. This is Europe, meaning new-style rigour in a new-style post-liberal economy – which as we already said is the most bizarre cocktail crock of loony economic tunes a Martian could imagine. Failure is certain. Courage has no place at all in that me-too circus, but it could work in the Greek case:  a sudden and dramatic abandonment of the euro with no prior warning would almost certainly succeed, aided by its shock and horror. The reintroduced drachma would spiral to nothing – but then banks, including the global central bank-surrogate, the IMF, and the would-be federal European ECB would understand they had gone too far with their Veblen medicine and themselves were set to lose everything, too. This brings us straight to a fundamental notion embodied in Keynesianism: if you have a big debt and can’t pay, bankers will stay interested in you. If you have a small debt and can’t pay – go away and die or take a stay in prison.

Greece could shift to a street-friendly military regime of the type which (legend says) saved vodka swilling Boris Yeltsin, install a land army agriculture corps and national sea fisheries corps, develop close and friendly relations with other ruined new democracies of the Mediterranean region, and basically refuse to pay its debt. Playing for time, the new popular regime of Greece would by necessity be populist, and start by ousting all foreign migrant workers from the country, stemming remittance outflows from the country. This again would signal the new popular regime means business. An aggressive financial strategy with all other EU27 nations would also be necessary, carefully using the twin arms of debt default menace, and joint venture asset development promise.

THE POST LIBERAL RECOVERY

The IMF’s present role models and dominant ideology cocktails range from the laughable to the absurd and back again. Even as a gold hoarder and semi-legal trader, operating with the Basle-based BIS, the IMF is a failure and like other new style central banks probably has a lot less physical gold than it claims. All it can offer debt-strapped countries is SDRs and new debt, drawing down and destroying, or depreciating to almost nothing any real assets that happen to fall into its hands.

Recovery is almost officially defined by the IMF as an Act of God, or Inch’allah for the Gulf state petro-monarchies brought onside by the IMF whenever possible.

We can be sure that previous feats of the IMF, especially its decades-long debt financing saga with low-income resource exporter Third World countries, would have dragged on even longer – if there had not been a sudden, strong and sustained upsurge in commodity prices. This upsurge was totally expected by almost any analyst able to use a two-dollar calculator, and totally unexpected by the IMF and its ruling elite politician friends. The IMF therefore has a proven track record of being surprised, and will be surprised by what we can call post-liberal recovery. In Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and across the Med in Tunisia and Egypt this post-liberal recovery is emerging, sometimes quite fast. The restored state, the government, national institutions and national identity all have a post-global economy importance which of course is played down by average government friendly media in presently unaffected countries.

This is a dangerous trend for fuddle-along debt financing and austerity miracles, which only fatten the regular gang of charlatans, who in any case will quickly lose their ill-gotten gains on the gaming tables of the global financial casino. The process is also post-ideology in a major way. Carefully unexplained by dominant media and their business editors, the failed dictators of the Arab world, currently including ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Gaddafi of Libya and al Assad of Syria all played squeaky clean copybook export platform economics, yipped on by IMF-friendly economists and commentators. Inside their countries the story was a lot different. Street resistance was not driven by ideology or by demonstrators waving pictures of Che Guevara – but by citizens sick of not being able to afford to eat and the victims of permanent mass unemployment, casually described by well paid IMF experts as “an adjustment phenomenon”.

Forcing the economy to ground zero, which again is official IMF medicine, drives society to a rapid search-and-select of what counts and what does not. The flimsy global economy and its tinsel promises weigh little, and outright resistance to austerity measures and cures will rise.

The fear of anarchy and revolution in the post-liberal world – and a total loss for global finance players – is now moving up the teleprompter, prompting European, US, Japanese and other remaining defenders of Orthodox ‘no alternative’ economics to throw money at emerging national governments in a string of countries. Played right, Greece might also benefit from this.  

READ MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR AT: 21st Century Wire McKillop Files



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