Double-dip recession: European banks and American politicians are both making big mistakes.

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Aug. 6 2011 6:50 AM

Dumb Ideas From Both Sides of the Atlantic

European banks and American politicians are both making serious economic mistakes.

Article from www.project-syndicate.org
The European Central Bank. Click image to expand.
A euro logo stands before the headquarters of the European Central Bank

The Great Recession of 2008 has morphed into the North Atlantic Recession: It is mainly Europe and the United States, not the major emerging markets, that have become mired in slow growth and high unemployment. And it is Europe and America that are marching, alone and together, to the denouement of a grand debacle. A busted bubble led to a massive Keynesian stimulus that averted a much deeper recession but that also fueled substantial budget deficits. The response—massive spending cuts—ensures that unacceptably high levels of unemployment (a vast waste of resources and an oversupply of suffering) will continue, possibly for years.

The European Union has finally committed itself to helping its financially distressed members. It had no choice—with financial turmoil threatening to spread from small countries like Greece and Ireland to large ones like Italy and Spain, the euro's very survival was in growing jeopardy. Europe's leaders recognized that distressed countries' debts would become unmanageable unless their economies could grow and that growth could not be achieved without assistance.

But even as Europe's leaders promised that help was on the way, they doubled down on the belief that noncrisis countries must cut spending. The resulting austerity will hinder Europe's growth and thus that of its most distressed economies. After all, nothing would help Greece more than robust growth in its trading partners. And low growth will hurt tax revenues, undermining the proclaimed goal of fiscal consolidation.

The discussions before the crisis illustrated how little had been done to repair economic fundamentals. The European Central Bank's vehement opposition to what is essential to all capitalist economies—the restructuring of failed or insolvent entities' debt—is evidence of the continuing fragility of the Western banking system.

The ECB argued that taxpayers should pick up the entire tab for Greece's bad sovereign debt, for fear that any private-sector involvement would trigger a "credit event," which would force large payouts on credit-default swaps, possibly fueling further financial turmoil. But if that is a real fear for the ECB—if it is not merely acting on behalf of private lenders—surely it should have demanded that the banks have more capital.

Likewise, the ECB should have barred banks from the risky credit-default-swap market, where they are held hostage to ratings agencies' decisions about what constitutes a "credit event." Indeed, one positive achievement by European leaders at the recent Brussels summit was to begin the process of reining in both the ECB and the power of the American ratings agencies.

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Indeed, the most curious aspect of the ECB's position was its threat not to accept restructured government bonds as collateral if the ratings agencies decided that the restructuring should be classified as a credit event. The whole point of restructuring was to discharge debt and make the remainder more manageable. If the bonds were acceptable as collateral before the restructuring, surely they were safer after the restructuring and thus equally acceptable.

This episode serves as a reminder that central banks are political institutions, with a political agenda, and that independent central banks tend to be captured (at least "cognitively") by the banks that they are supposed to regulate.

And matters are little better on the other side of the Atlantic. There, the extreme right threatened to shut down the U.S. government, confirming what game theory suggests: When those who are irrationally committed to destruction if they don't get their way confront rational individuals, the former prevail.

As a result, President Barack Obama acquiesced in an unbalanced debt-reduction strategy, with no tax increases—not even for the millionaires who have done so well during the last two decades, and not even by eliminating tax giveaways to oil companies, which undermine economic efficiency and contribute to environmental degradation.