[Marxism] Buiter on regulatory capture and sovereign defaults

Marv Gandall marvgandall at videotron.ca
Wed Apr 8 11:05:49 MDT 2009

More interesting commentary from Willem Buiter, the LSE economist and a
leading critic of the bank bailout schemes. Buiter prefers to believe that
Wall Street exercises undue influence because government officials are
oblivious to it ("cognitive capture") but is finding it "increasingly hard
to deny the possibility that the extraordinary reluctance of our governments
to force the unsecured creditors (and any remaining non-government
shareholders) of the zombie banks to absorb the losses made by these banks,
may be due to rather more primal forms of state capture." !!! He sees a weak
recovery sometime next year, but in the context of a lingering systemic
fiscal crisis, slow growth, spending cuts, the monetizing of the national
debt and the "non-negligible" possibiity of sovereign debt defaults in the
US and the UK.

*    *    *

The green shoots are weeds growing through the rubble in the ruins of the
global economy
Willem Buiter
Maverecon blog
Financial Times
April 8, 2009

The Great Contraction will last a while longer

This financial crisis will end.  The Great Contraction of the Noughties also
will come to an end. But neither the financial crisis nor the contraction of
the global real economy are over yet.  As regards the financial sector, we
are not too far - probably less than a year - from the beginning of the end.
The impact of the collapse of real economic activity and of the associated
dramatic increase in defaults and insolvencies by non-financial enterprises
and households on the loan book of what is left of the banking sector will
begin to show up in the banks’ financial reports at the end of the summer
and in the autumn.  By the end of the year - early 2010 at the latest - we
will know which banks will survive and which ones are headed for the scrap
heap.  With the resolution of the current pervasive uncertainty about the
true state of the banks’ balance sheets and about their off-balance-sheet
exposures, normal financial intermediation will be able to resume later in

Governments everywhere are doing the best they can to delay or prevent the
lifting of the veil of uncertainty and disinformation that most banks have
cast over their battered balance sheets. The  banking establishment and the
financial establishment representing the beneficial owners of the
institutions exposed to the banks as unsecured creditors - pension funds,
insurance companies, other banks, foreign investors including sovereign
wealth funds - have captured the key governments, their central banks, their
regulators, supervisors and accounting standard setters to a degree never
seen before.

I used to believe this state capture took the form of cognitive capture,
rather than financial capture.  I still believe this to be the case for
many, perhaps even most of the policy makers and officials involved, but it
is becoming increasingly hard to deny the possibility that the extraordinary
reluctance of our governments to force the unsecured creditors (and any
remaining non-government shareholders) of the zombie banks to absorb the
losses made by these banks, may be due to rather more primal forms of state

History teaches us that systemic financial crises are protracted affairs. A
most interesting paper by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, “The
Aftermath of Financial Crises”, using data on 10 systemic banking crises
(the “big five” developed economy crises (Spain 1977, Norway 1987, Finland,
1991, Sweden, 1991, and Japan, 1992), three  famous emerging market crises
(the 1997–1998 Asian crisis (Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the
Philippines, and Thailand); Colombia, 1998; and Argentina 2001)), and two
earlier crises (Norway 1899 and the United States 1929) reaches the
following conclusions (the next paragraph paraphrases Reinhart and Rogoff).

First, asset market collapses are deep and prolonged. Real housing price
declines average 35 percent over six years; real equity price declines
average 55 percent over a downturn of about 3.5 years.  Second, the
aftermath of banking crises is associated with large declines in output and
employment. The unemployment rate rises an average of 7 percentage points
over the down phase of the cycle which lasts on average over four years.
Output falls (from peak to trough) an average of over 9 percent, but the
duration of the downturn averages around 2 years.

Nothing more can be expected as regards a global fiscal stimulus.  Indeed,
the G20 delivered nothing in this regard.  It would have been preferable to
maintain the overall size of the planned (or rather, expected) global fiscal
stimulus but to redistribute the aggregate (about $5 trillion over 2 years,
as measured by the aggregated changes in the national fiscal deficits) in
accordance with national fiscal spare capacity (I believe the World Bank
calls this ‘fiscal space’).   This would mean a smaller fiscal stimulus for
countries with weak fiscal fundamentals, including the US, Japan and the UK,
and a larger fiscal stimulus for countries with strong fiscal fundamentals,
including China, Germany, Brazil and, to a lesser degree, France.

The effect of the Great Contraction on potential output growth

Furthermore, a likely consequence of the fiscal stimuli we have already seen
or are about to experience is a negative impact on the medium- and long-term
growth potential of the global economy.  The reason is that, if fiscal
solvency is to be maintained, there will have to be some combination of an
increase in the tax burden and a reduction in non-interest public spending
in most countries when this contraction is over.  The inevitable effect of
the crisis and the contraction is a higher public debt burden and therefore
a larger future required primary government surplus (as a share of GDP).
Almost any increase in the tax burden will hurt potential output - just the
level of the path of potential output if you are a classical growth groupie,
both the level and the growth rate of the path of potential output if you
are an adept of the endogenous growth school.

In the study of Reinhart and Rogoff cited earlier, the authors conclude that
the  real value of government debt tends to explode following a systemic
financial crisis, rising an average of 86 percent in major post–World War II
episodes. The principal cause of these public debt explosions is not the
costs of “bailing out” and recapitalizing banking system.  The big drivers
of these public debt burden increases are rather the collapse in tax
revenues that comes with deep and prolonged output contractions (the
operation of the automatic stabilisers) and discretionary counter-cyclical
fiscal policies.

For political expediency reasons, cuts in public spending are likely to fall
first on maintenance, public sector capital formation and other forms of
productive public expenditure, including spending on education, health and
research.  Welfare spending in cash or in kind is likely to be the last to
be cut.  The result is again likely to be a lower level (or level and growth
rate) of the path of potential output.

The risk of ’sudden stops’ in the overdeveloped world

In a number of systemically important countries, notably the US and the UK,
there is a material risk of a ’sudden stop’ - an emerging-market style
interruption of capital inflows to both the public and private sectors -
prompted by financial market concerns about the sustainability of the
fiscal-financial-monetary programmes proposed and implemented by the fiscal
and monetary authorities in these countries.  For both countries there is a
material risk that the mind-boggling general government deficits (14% of GDP
or over for the US and 12 % of GDP or over for the UK for the coming year)
will either have to be monetised permanently, implying high inflation as
soon as the real economy recovers, the output gap closes and the
extraordinary fear-induced liquidity preference of the past year subsides,
or lead to sovereign default.

Pointing to a non-negligible risk of sovereign default in the US and the UK
does not, I fear, qualify me as a madman.  The last time things got serious,
during the Great Depression of the 1930s, both the US and the UK defaulted
de facto, and possibly even de jure, on their sovereign debt.

In the case of the US, the sovereign default took the form of the abrogation
of the gold clause when the US went off the gold standard (except for
foreign exchange) in 1933. In 1933, Congress passed a joint resolution
canceling all gold clauses in public and private contracts (including
existing contracts).  The Gold Reserve Act of 1934 abrogated the gold clause
in government and private contracts and changed the value of the dollar in
gold from $20.67 to $35 per ounce.  These actions were upheld (by a 5 to 4
majority) by the Supreme Court in 1935.

In the case of the UK, the de facto sovereign default took the form of the
conversion in  1932 of Britain’s 5% War Loan Bonds  (callable 1929-1947)
into new 3½ % bonds (callable from 1952) on terms that were unambiguously
unfavourable to the bond holders.  Out of a total of £2,086,000,000
outstanding, £1,500,000,000, or something over 70%, was converted
voluntarily by the end of 1932, thanks both to the government’s ability to
appeal to patriotism and joint burden sharing in the face of economic
adversity and to ferocious arm-twisting and ‘moral suasion’.

I believe both defaults were eminently justified.  There is no case for
letting the interests of the holders of sovereign debt override the
interests of the rest of the community, regardless of the financial,
economic, social and political costs involved.  But to say that these were
justifiable sovereign defaults does not mean that they were not sovereign
defaults.  Similar circumstances could arise again.

While I consider an inflationary solution to the public debt overhang
problem (and indeed to the private debt overhang problem) to be more likely
in the US and even in the UK than a sovereign default (or ‘restructuring’,
‘conversion’ or ‘consolidation’, as it would undoubtedly be referred to by
the defaulting government), neither can be dismissed as out of the question,
or even as extremely unlikely.

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