Be it the United States or the European Union, most Western countries are so highly indebted today that the markets have a greater say in their policies than the people. Why are democratic countries so pathetic when it comes to managing their money sustainably?
In the midst of this confusing crisis, which has already lasted more than five years, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt addressed the question of who had “gotten almost the entire world into so much trouble.” The longer the search for answers lasted, the more disconcerting the questions arising from the answers became. Is it possible that we are not experiencing a crisis, but rather a transformation of our economic system that feels like an unending crisis, and that waiting for it to end is hopeless? Is it possible that we are waiting for the world to conform to our worldview once again, but that it would be smarter to adjust our worldview to conform to the world? Is it possible that financial markets will never become servants of the markets for goods again? Is it possible that Western countries can no longer get rid of their debt, because democracies can’t manage money? And is it possible that even Helmut Schmidt ought to be saying to himself: I too am responsible for getting the world into a fix?
The most romantic Hollywood movie about the financial crisis isn’t “Wall Street” or “Margin Call,” but the 1995 film “Die Hard: With a Vengeance.” In the film, an officer with the East German intelligence agency, the Stasi, steals the gold reserves of the Western world from the basement of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and supposedly sinks them into the Hudson River. Bruce Willis hunts down the culprit and rescues the 550,000 bars of gold, which, until the early 1970s, were essentially the foundation on which confidence in all the currencies of the Western world was built.
Creating Money out of Thin Air
Until 1971, gold was the benchmark of the US dollar, with one ounce of pure gold corresponding to $35, and the dollar was the fixed benchmark of all Western currencies. But when the United States began to need more and more dollars for the Vietnam War, and the global economy grew so quickly that using gold as a benchmark became a constraint, countries abandoned the system of fixed exchange rates. A new phase of the global economy began, and two processes were set in motion: the liberation of the financial markets from limited money supplies, which was mostly beneficial; and the liberation of countries from limited revenues, which was mostly detrimental. This money bubble continued to inflate for four decades, as central banks were able to create money out of thin air, banks were able to provide seemingly unlimited credit, and consumers and governments were able to go into debt without restraint.
This continued until the biggest credit bubble in history began to burst: first in the United States, because banks had bundled the mortgages of millions of Americans, whose only asset was a house bought on credit, into worthless securities; then around the globe, because banks had foisted these securities onto customers in many countries; and, finally, when these banks began to totter, debt-ridden countries turned private debt into public debt until they too began to totter, and could only borrow money from banks at even higher interest rates than before.
At the moment, the world has only one approach to getting out of this labyrinth of debt: incurring trillions of even more debt.
A GENERAL strike; protesters on the streets; parliamentary battles over austerity measures needed to unlock rescue funds; and a sinking economy with an ever bigger debt burden. The situation in Athens this week is grimly familiar—and not just because Greece has had so many similar weeks over the past couple of years. There are also eerie echoes of the developing-country debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s.
The experience of dozens of debt-ridden countries in Latin America and Africa holds lessons that Greece’s rescuers ought to heed. For years, the IMF and rich-world governments tried to help them with short-term rescue loans. But the most indebted started to recover only when their debts, including those owed to official creditors, were slashed. In Europe, Poland also provides a precedent: its economy took off in the 1990s after it too was given a break by its creditors.
Greece is in the same boat. Provided that the country’s parliament passes the 2013 budget on November 11th, a fresh infusion of rescue funds will stave off imminent catastrophe (see article). Yet Greece’s economy won’t recover until it has more debt relief. That should involve, broadly, a two-part process: first, agree on a plan to reduce debt if certain targets are met; then cut the debt in stages over the next decade.