Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Who is the State working for: the banks or the public?

Who is the State working for: the banks or the public?

In many respects, the ongoing international financial crisis throws into sharp relief the deceit and denials of those who promote financial globalization, whether they sit on the board of the big private banks or move in the higher spheres of the State. Over recent years, the dominant discourse was that all was fine on the debt front: with the introduction of new products, such as the securitization of debts, the risk had been spread among a number of players. No crisis could be expected, profits were astronomical and growth was sustained. 

Today, the edifice is crumbling. How could it be otherwise, when big banks conduct huge operations off the books, erect a house of cards with dubious credit and contribute to the creation of a speculative real estate bubble that eventually bursts? Far from spreading the risk, the system achieved the contrary, with the big banks having accumulated its weaknesses. Each of them then tried to pass the hot potato to its already troubled neighbor.

Instead of acknowledging their mistakes and assuming the consequences, the big banks sought help from the State -- whose actions they are normally quick to disparage. They did not hesitate to seek strong public intervention from the same State they usually consider as too interventionist. In fact, the big banking lobbies have always insisted that the public authorities must respect market forces -- the sole mechanism able to efficiently distribute resources and fix prices at their real values.

Like obedient underlings, the US and European authorities did as they were asked: you do not refuse a favor to the directors of the big banks that support the main presidential candidates and who move in the same close-knit circles... Thus, the rulers quickly came to the rescue of private interests. On the menu: nationalization of the troubled banks, exchange of devalued and distressed debt securities for fresh cash (to the tune of 200 billion dollars in the US), cash injection, rescue plans, decreased interest rates...

In Britain, one of the spearheads of neoliberal globalization, the crisis floored the bank Northern Rock in September 2007, leading to its nationalization in February 2008. Once the ship has been steadied at public expense, it will pass back into private hands. Similarly, in the United States, when Bear Stearns, the country's fifth most important investment bank, found itself short of credit on 13 March, the financial authorities organised a rescue with the help of JP Morgan Chase, which subsequently bought Bear Stearns at a bargain price.

This crisis clearly proves that when management of the world economy is ruled by the logic of maximum profit, society pays an enormous price. The banks have gambled with the savings and cash deposits of hundreds of millions of individuals. Their mistakes have led to huge losses and human tragedy, as was the case with the bankruptcy of the Enron multinational in 2001. Around 25,000 Enron employees found themselves with a paltry pension because the company's pension fund had been diluted by the directors, who had quietly sold their shares for nearly a billion dollars.[1]

In terms of North and South, the similarities are striking. In the South, the debt crisis of the early 1980s was caused by the unilateral increase of interest rates by the United States, leading to a massive hike in the repayments of Third World countries that the banks had encouraged to take out loans at variable interest rates. Simultaneously, the plummeting prices of raw materials and oil prevented them from coping, forcing them ever deeper into a crisis. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), remote-controlled by the United States and the other great powers, then imposed drastic structural adjustment programs on developing countries. The recipe, as in countries of the North, was as follows: a decrease in social spending, complete and immediate economic liberalization, an end to control over the flow of capital, complete opening of the market, massive privatizations. However, contrary to what is taking place in the North, the states of the South have been prevented from reducing interest rates and giving credit to banks, causing serial bankruptcies and severe recessions. Finally, just like today, the State was forced to bail out the troubled banks before privatizing them, usually to the benefit of the major North American and European banking multinationals. In Mexico, the cost of rescuing the banks, in the second half of the 1990s, represented 15% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Ecuador, a similar manoeuvre in 2000 cost the country 25% of its GDP. Everywhere, the internal public debt rose massively because the cost of the rescue plan for the banks was borne by the State.

The economic deregulation of the last decades has been a fiasco. The only constructive solution would be a complete reversal of priorities: strict constraints on private companies, massive public investments in sectors that can ensure fundamental human rights and protection of the environment, the recovery by public powers of the decision-making levers to favor the general interest.

If the neoliberal train pursues its wild journey, a crash is guaranteed. Those who have set it in motion would like to see it go even faster. The most recent proof: after the last elections in France, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy announced its intention to accelerate the reforms, while the electorate had clearly rejected the current choices. Undoubtedly, a major international economic turnaround is impossible without a massive popular mobilization. Forty years after May 68, such a move is increasingly urgent if capitalism as such is finally to be challenged.

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