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Money Managers for Mankind? China in the Age of Global Governance, Part III
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
3 March 2016
Originally posted at Occupy.com on 9 February 2016
In pursuing the strategy toward China of “integrate, but hedge,” the United States and its G-7 allies attempted to manage China’s global financial role, giving the world’s second largest economy a greater stake in the existing system while attempting to prevent alternative or antagonistic emerging market economies from gaining power.
However, due to the slow pace of reforms and their often disappointing results – case in point: the five-year delay of International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms that would give China and other emerging economies greater influence in the Fund and World Bank – China has turned to creating its own development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And while China was developing the AIIB over the course of 2015, China was not only hedging its own bets – it was also advancing a strategy of “integration” on the monetary front. In the world of currencies, central banks and the global monetary order, China had an important year.
The main issue has been the inclusion of the Chinese currency – the yuan, or renminbi – in the elite basket of currencies managed by the IMF known as Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). Consisting of four of the world’s most traded currencies (the U.S. dollar, the euro, Japanese yen and British pound), the SDR is a currency unit whose value is weighted among those four currencies and used in IMF transactions between nations and central banks. But the real importance of the SDR basket is that it is a symbolic grouping of the few select currencies (and countries) that dominate the global monetary system. They are the most traded, saved and important currencies in the world, giving the countries and institutions that control them inordinate power in the global monetary and economic system.
China has lobbied for years to be included in the SDR basket, as both a sign of its global economic status and as a recognition of its new geopolitical power. But for China to be included, it needed to meet a number of criteria related to how easily tradable the currency is, how many central banks use the currency as a reserve asset, and whether or not interest rates are determined by market forces. Eswar Prasad, an economics professor at Cornell University who was previously the China country director at the IMF, commented that “this is ultimately going to be decided on political rather than economic merits.”
In laying the groundwork for inclusion, the IMF announced late last May that the renminbi was no longer considered to be “undervalued” – a long-held complaint of the IMF, United States and other G-7 nations that felt for such a large economy to maintain such a cheap currency gave it an overwhelming trade advantage, keeping its products cheaper and thus more competitive in international markets. Thus, the IMF’s declaration paved the way for consideration of the Chinese currency to be included in the SDR.
When the G-7 finance ministers and central bank governors met in Berlin in late May, they discussed the potential inclusion of the renminbi in the SDR basket. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble said that “it is desirable in principle” but “the technical conditions must be examined.” The G-7 countries continued to push China to reform its capital markets in order to increase its potential for inclusion. This pressured China to implement further market reforms to “liberalize” its financial markets, allowing for private financial institutions to play a larger role in managing the country’s economy (as opposed to being more state-directed and managed).
Earlier that same month, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), China’s central bank, approved roughly 30 foreign financial institutions to invest its domestic bond market, giving banks like HSBC, BNP Paribas, Société Générale, ING and Morgan Stanley greater access to the world’s third largest bond market (following the U.S. and Japan). China made moves over subsequent months to increase the access of foreign central banks and sovereign wealth funds to its bond market, as the country continued reforms that liberalized its economy. However, China still remained hesitant to adapt market forces too quickly or too fully that might have the effect of destabilizing the economy.
In August, the IMF recommended that while the renminbi should be added to the SDR basket, with a final decision to be made in November, the currency’s actual addition to the basket should not take place until September of 2016. This was in order to allow the country to implement further financial reforms and give banks, central banks and asset managers enough time to adjust their currency holdings to a slightly reformed monetary order. Some G-7 countries, such as Germany, France, Britain and Italy, favored a quick inclusion of the renminbi to the SDR, but Japan and the U.S. favored a more cautious approach.
Then, partway into August, China shocked global financial markets with a rapid currency devaluation – done partly to provide a boost to its own slowing economy – raising criticism from several countries that China was engaging in a currency war to lower the value of the renminbi in order to boost exports at the expense of other nations. However, because China’s currency is so closely tied to the U.S. dollar, as the dollar has risen in value over the past year or so, China’s currency has risen with it. This has put further strain on China’s economy and decreased its competitiveness relative to other global currencies whose value has declined relative to the rise of the dollar. That’s why, when China devalued in August, it explained the move as an attempt to move more towards a market oriented value for its exchange rate.
China was accused of currency manipulation due to its sudden devaluation, though it was in fact more accurately a response to the pressures from the manipulated changes in the value of the big currencies (U.S. dollar, Japanese yen and euro), which fluctuated in response to the winding down or ramping up of their respective Quantitative Easing (QE) programs. China managed to mute some harsher criticisms of its move by quickly announcing further market-oriented reforms to its financial and interest rate markets.
At a meeting of G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors in early September, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew pressured his Chinese counterparts to continue the process of implementing market reforms, and specifically allowing markets a larger say in determining the value of the Chinese currency.
In mid-November, the IMF officially recommended that China be included in the SDR basket, which would “turn its currency into one of the pillars of international finance,” noted the New York Times. However, the final decision was to be made by the IMF’s Executive Board at the end of the month, where the G-7 countries have the power to pass or block any final moves. Following the IMF staff recommendation, China’s central bank announced that it would be implementing further reforms to allow markets more of a say in setting interest rates. And in late November, the IMF Executive Board voted in agreement to let the renminbi be included in the SDR basket, effective October 1, 2016.
Then, partway into December, China announced that it would begin to measure the value of its currency against a basket of 13 currencies instead of just the U.S. dollar. This would give the currency more room to fall in value relative to the U.S. dollar’s rise, and would give the country more “monetary independence” from the decisions and actions of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The announcement came just as the Fed was set to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade, a move that would drive the U.S. currency even higher and put even more pressure on China as its economy continues to slow. In response, the Chinese currency hit a new four-year low against the U.S. dollar, increasing the country’s trade competitiveness.
The rise of China is one of the most important economic stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and will continue to remain so. While the United States and the G-7 seek to “integrate, but hedge” their bets in bringing China into the structures of global economic governance, such as through inclusion into the SDR basket, China continues to pressure for greater political power commensurate with its economic weight, “hiding its brightness, biding its time.” But the time is increasingly present, visible with China’s founding of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as a potential rival to the World Bank.
The integration of China into the structures and systems of global economic governance will have lasting ramifications. Not simply because it represents a shift from the dominance that the G-7 nations held over the global economy for the past four decades, but because the Chinese model of state-run totalitarian capitalism itself presents an alternative approach to constructing a market economy. As China increasingly becomes a part of the governing structure of the world economy, its model will gain increased influence. Indeed, if war and hostilities between the other great powers are to be avoided, the future of global capitalism may well rely on a combination of Western markets and institutions backed up by totalitarian institutions like the regime in Beijing.
Given that the capitalist system is experiencing a crisis in its legitimacy – with warnings from the head of the Bank of England, the IMF, and influential financial dynasties that the system is increasingly under threat due to its excesses – democracy may no longer be compatiblewith capitalism. And totalitarian state structures may be the only way to save capitalism from itself.
When the IMF Meets: Here’s What Happened At the Global Plutocracy’s Pow Wow in Peru
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
26 October 2015
Originally posted at Occupy.com
On October 6, the finance ministers, central bankers and development ministers from 188 countries convened for the Annual Meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Lima, Peru. The yearly gathering is one of the top scheduled events on the calendar of economic diplomats, bringing them together for private discussions, seminars and press conferences with journalists. And of course it’s a big deal for the thousands of private bankers and financiers who are there to cut deals with the chief financial policymakers in those 188 IMF-member nations.
It was ironic that this year’s meeting took place in Peru at a time when emerging market economies are experiencing increased economic problems: the result of a combined slow-down in economic growth in China, a collapse in commodity prices, and threats by the U.S. Federal Reserve to hike interest rates in the near future. Indeed, talk of China, interest rate hikes and emerging market crisis was plentiful in Peru. Central bankers, unsurprisingly, came out generally in favor of raising rates, with top monetary officials from emerging markets saying they more feared the uncertainty about when rates would rise than the rise itself, and urged the Fed to simply get on with it.
Global Pow Wow
The annual meetings bring together the Board of Governors of the IMF, made up of the central bankers or finance ministers from the Fund’s 188 member nations. But the Governors are given their marching orders from the 24-member International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC), made up of ministers and central bank governors from the 24 major constituencies represented on the IMF’s Executive Board, and whose membership largely reflects that of the Group of Twenty (G20).
The IMFC held their meeting in Lima on Oct. 9, presided over by the committee’s chairman, Agustin Carstens, the Governor of the Central Bank of Mexico, and the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde. In attendance were the finance ministers of Japan (Taro Aso), India (Arun Jaitley), Argentina (Axel Kicillof), Brazil (Joaquim Levy), France (Michel Sapin), Italy (Pier Carlo Padoan), Germany (Wolfgang Schauble), Singapore (Tharman Shanmugaratnam), Great Britain (George Osborne) and the United States (Jack Lew), along with top-level central bankers from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Norway, Algeria, Colombia, Belgium and China.
Also participating in the IMFC meeting were Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England and Chairman of the Financial Stability Board (FSB); Jaime Caruana, General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS); Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice President of the European Commission; Angel Gurria, Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), and other top representatives from OPEC, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
These various financial diplomats met and made prepared statements, but the real work and decision-making took place in the IMFC’s off-the-record discussions. These discussions also included, as usual, a joint meeting between the IMFC and the G20, after which the G20 held a press conference discussing recent agreements made by the world’s top economic diplomats collectively representing roughly 85% of global GDP.
The meetings followed the consistent hierarchy of operations among the world’s most powerful economies, starting with a private gathering of the finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of Seven (G7) nations, including the U.S., Germany, Japan, UK, France, Italy and Canada. This was followed by a gathering of ministers and monetary chiefs from the G20 nations (consisting of the G7 plus China, Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, Argentina, Australia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia and the European Union). The heads of the world’s major international organizations also attended these meetings, functioning effectively as a steering committee for the global economy. The G20 then held a joint session with the IMFC, which functions as the steering committee of the IMF.
The IMFC’s communiqué following its meeting warned that global economic growth was “modest and uneven” with increased “uncertainty and financial market volatility.” Risks to the global economy “have increased,” it noted, in particular for emerging markets.
Apart from the IMFC and G20, a number of other important meetings took place on the sidelines of the annual gathering, many of which prominently featured bankers. One of the most important gatherings of global financiers was the Annual Membership Meeting of the Institute of International Finance (IIF), a consortium of roughly 500 global financial institutions including banks, asset managers, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds, central banks, credit ratings agencies and development banks.
From Oct. 9-10, the world’s top bankers and financiers then held luncheons and private meetings with the world’s top economic policy-makers, who were also invited to attend or speak at the conference proceedings. The IIF’s opening ceremony was addressed by Peru’s President Ollanta Humala Tasso, and included guest speakers like the finance minister of Indonesia and central bankers from Thailand and Malaysia, as well as the top Swedish central banker, Stefan Ingves, who serves as chairman of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) which is responsible for shaping and implementing global banking regulations known as Basel III.
On the second day of the IIF’s meeting, guest speakers included top officials from Brazil’s finance ministry, the World Bank, and a keynote address was delivered by the governor of Canada’s central bank, Stephen S. Poloz. The rest of the day included talks by finance ministers and central bankers from Colombia, Chile and Peru; a top official from the central bank of France; and an official from the Financial Stability Board (FSB), which is a group of global central banks, finance ministries and regulators responsible for managing stability of financial markets.
Another important gathering in Lima was the Group of Thirty (G30), presided over by its Chairman Jean-Claude Trichet, the former President of the European Central Bank. The G30 was established in 1978 as a nonprofit group of roughly 30 sitting and former central bankers, finance ministers, economists and private bankers, with the aim “to deepen understanding of international economic and financial issues” and “to examine the choices available to market practitioners and policymakers.”
Among the G30’s current members are former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker; Mark Carney of the Bank of England and Financial Stability Board; Jaime Caruana of the BIS; Mario Draghi of the ECB; William C. Dudley of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King; economist Paul Krugman; Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda; Bank of France Governor and BIS Chairman Christian Noyer; Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan; Tharman Shanmugaratnam of Singapore; former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers; Chinese central banker Zhou Xiaochuan; and top bankers from UBS, JPMorgan Chase, BlackRock and Goldman Sachs.
This year, the G30 held its annual International Banking Seminar in Peru, “an invitation-only, off-the-record forum that allows for frank discussion and debate of the thorniest issues confronting the central banking community,” bringing together “over fifty percent of the world’s central bank governors, the Chairmen and CEOs of the financial sector, and a select few academics to debate financial and systemic issues of global import.”
The meeting included a short speech by Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer, who told the audience that the Fed’s interest rate rise was “an expectation, not a commitment.” Fischer acknowledged that “shifting expectations concerning U.S. interest rates could lead to more volatility in financial markets and the value of the dollar, intensifying spillovers to other economies, including emerging market economies.” He reassured his audience, however, that the Fed will “remain committed to communicating our intentions as clearly as possible… to assist market participants, be they in the private or the public sector, in understanding our intentions as they make their investment decisions.”
Behind Closed Doors
But the true importance of the annual IMF meetings is not what happens in formal proceedings and seminars, but the various secret meetings of finance ministers, central bankers and private financiers that take place on the sidelines of the official conference. In these closed-door events, a select group of government and monetary officials, primarily those from the G7 and G20 nations, were invited to wine and dine with bankers at decadent dinners and lavish parties, and speak to private gatherings of the world’s top investors and money managers. It’s here, in these various meetings, where the world’s chief financial diplomats were able to meet, greet and receive praise or criticism from their true constituents: the global financial elite.
As usual, the annual pow wow of the global plutocracy came and went with little comment outside the financial press. But as always, the annual IMF meetings – and the more secretive, simultaneous gatherings of global economic diplomats and financiers on the sidelines – represented the core of global economic governance, manifest in the various ad-hoc committees that in essence rule the world.
These individuals’ main interactions were not with the populations in their home nations – the people who suffer under austerity, who have to “adjust” to the restructuring of their societies into “market economies” – but rather with those from whom they have the most to gain: bankers, billionaires and financiers. And rest assured, when the officials retire from their central bank and finance ministry positions, they will be stepping out of their membership in the G7, G20 and IMFC, and into the boardrooms of JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, BlackRock, Barclays and Deutsche Bank. They will be well rewarded, with large salaries and bonuses for a job well done while in public office. And the revolving door of global economic governance will keep turning.
A Year in the World-Traveling Life of U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
Originally posted at Occupy.com
15 October 2015
Jacob Joseph (“Jack”) Lew is one of the two most powerful financial diplomats in the world, the other being his central banking counterpart, Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board. As the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Lew has been the most important economic official inside the Obama administration since his confirmation in February 2013 following the president’s re-election.
Prior to serving as Treasury Secretary, Lew was White House Chief of Staff to President Obama from 2012 to 2013, and Director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2010 to 2012, a position he also held in the Clinton administration from 1998 until 2011. Lew was also Deputy Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2010. But from 2006 to 2008, he worked at Citigroup, overseeing the bank’s $1.8 billion in wealth management assets, and was then appointed as one of Citi’s senior executives.
Lew’s appointment to Citigroup was made on the recommendation of the bank’s then-Chairman Robert Rubin, the former Treasury Secretary from the Clinton administration (1995-1999), with whom Lew worked closely. When Lew left the bank to join the Obama administration immediately following the 2008 financial crisis and the billions in bailouts his bank received, Lew got a bonus of almost $1 million from Citigroup on top of his more than $2 million in regular earnings from the bank.
Tracking Lew’s Movements
In examining the role played by the Treasury Secretary to shape U.S. and global economy policy, it’s revealing to look at his schedule over the course of a year. After reviewing Secretary Lew’s schedule of phone calls and meetings in 2014, it’s easier to understand what it means to be one of the world’s most powerful financial diplomats. More than any other high-level official, Lew was in consistent contact with Yellen, having held over 30 phone calls or meetings with the Federal Reserve Chairperson over the course of the year, which included regular lunch or breakfast meetings.
As the two top diplomats and managers of the American economy and the U.S. dollar, it makes sense for these two individuals to meet frequently, both to assess the economic outlook and to devise a common U.S. position at international meetings – like the bi-annual meetings of the IMF steering committee known as the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC), as well as the secretive meetings of finance ministers and central bankers of the Group of Seven (G7) and Group of Twenty (G20) nations.
Officially founded in 1976, the G7 sits at the center of global economic governance, meeting at the head of state level once a year, and holding multiple meetings and conference calls among the finance ministers and central bank governors of nations that comprise its membership: the U.S., Germany, Japan, France, UK, Italy and Canada. The G20, on the other hand, was founded as a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in 1999, and only started meeting at the head of state level in late 2008 in the midst of the global financial crisis.
Jack Lew was in frequent contact with his G7 peers, including all of the finance ministers and most of the central bankers. In addition to the gatherings of the G7 and G20, Lew spoke or met with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble roughly 20 times throughout 2014. In the same period he met or spoke with the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, roughly 16 times; with European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi some 15 times; and with Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso 14 times.
Secretary Lew also had extensive contact with French Finance Minister Michel Sapin and his predecessor Pierre Moscovici, who became European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs; Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan; Canadian Finance Minister Joe Oliver; and Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England and Chairman of the Financial Stability Board (FSB), an institution that brings together central bankers, finance ministers and regulators to oversee the global management of financial markets. Lew spoke or met with Carney some 12 times throughout the year.
But apart from Yellen, the high-level official with whom Lew had the most contact was Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the IMF and a former French Finance Minister; Lew met or spoke to Lagarde roughly 23 times in 2014, including at the meetings of the G7 and G20, which the IMF Managing Director typically attends.
The G20 has a much wider membership than the G7, though it includes all of the G7 nations in addition to Australia, the European Union, and major emerging market economies such as China, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Turkey, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Indonesia and South Korea. The heads of major international organizations like the IMF, World Bank, Bank for International Settlements (BIS), World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also typically attend the meetings of the G7 and G20.
Following Yellen, Lagarde and Schauble, Secretary Lew was most frequently in contact with Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey, with whom he met or spoke roughly 17 times throughout the year. While Australia is not even a member of the G7, it would typically seem odd to have such extensive communication between its Treasurer and the U.S. Treasury Secretary. But Australia was hosting the G20 meetings in 2014, and thus Hockey closely coordinated with Lew on meetings that involved financial officials convening four times during the year.
Another name that stands out is Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Singaporean Finance Minister who held nine separate calls and meetings with Lew, and 13 including those of the G20. Shanmugaratnam became Finance Minister of Singapore, a wealthy Asian city-state, in 2007, and has also held the dual role as head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the country’s central bank. In addition, Tharman serves on the board of directors of Singapore’s large sovereign wealth fund, GIC, which manages between $100 and $350 billion in assets, including significant stakes in Citigroup and UBS, Switzerland’s largest bank.
The likely reason why Lew had such frequent contact with Shanmugaratnam – the chief financial diplomat of a country that is neither a member of the G7 nor the G20 – is because in March of 2011, Shanmugaratnam was appointed Chairman of the IMF’s steering group, the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC), made up of finance ministers and central bank governors from the nations represented on the Fund’s Executive Board.
Lew attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January of 2014, where he held private bilateral meetings with Mark Carney of the Bank of England (and FSB), Saudi finance minister and central bank governor Ibrahim Al-Assaf, ECB President Mario Draghi, and Mexican Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, who was another emerging market diplomat with whom Lew had frequent contact throughout the year (eight separate phone calls and meetings, or 12 including those at the G20).
In February, Lew traveled to Australia for the first G20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors under the chairmanship of Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey. Lew moderated a session of a conference hosted by the Institute of International Finance (IIF) and held private meetings with German Finance Minister Schauble, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and top financial diplomat Ali Babacan, and Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso. And just before the official G20 meetings began, the G7 countries got together for a quiet one-hour meeting as well.
As the Spring Meetings of the IMF were starting in April, Jack Lew held private meetings with Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, Videgaray of Mexico, Draghi of the ECB, Saudi Finance Minister Al-Assaf, and Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega. Once again, Lew attended a private one-hour gathering of the G7 ministers before attending a wider G20 meeting of ministers and central bank governors on April 10. The following day, Lew attended the joint G20-IMFC meeting, and continued with G20 meetings for the rest of the day.
In September, Lew once again traveled to Australia for a special meeting of G20 financial diplomats, during which time Germany served as host for a private lunch meeting of the G7 finance ministers and central bank governors. He returned to Australia in November for the main head-of-state summit of the G20, where he privately met with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia, China, France, Japan, and with Mark Carney of the FSB.
As the chief financial diplomat from the most powerful nation and economy in the world, Jacob Lew is the central figure among G7 diplomats with whom he is in frequent contact, while closely coordinating with the chairs of the G20, the IMFC, and the heads of international organizations like the IMF and FSB. Through these and other groupings, Treasury Secretary Lew sits at what can only be understood as the absolute center of global financial diplomacy and governance.
Who Rules Europe?
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
22 July 2015
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Between Berlin and a Hard Place: Greece and the German Strategy to Dominate Europe
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
7 July 2015
“They just wanted to take a bat to them,” said former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, referring to the attitude of European leaders towards debt-laden Greece in February of 2010, three months before the country’s first bailout. Mr. Geithner, Treasury Secretary from 2009 until 2013, was attending a meeting of the finance ministers and central bankers of the Group of Seven (G7) nations: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada.
It was the first occasion he had to meet Germany’s new Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, presenting an opportunity to pressure the Europeans to end the crisis. The Europeans, specifically Germany and the European Central Bank (ECB), always had the ability to end the crisis. Putting up enough money in a regional bailout fund or allowing the ECB to fund governments (acting as a ‘lender of last resort’) would provide enough reassurance to the markets that no country would go bankrupt and therefore the crisis would end. It was referred to as the ‘big bazooka’ option, but Mr. Geithner had no such luck in convincing the Europeans to act quickly, largely due to German resistance.
The Europeans arrived at the G7 meeting in the remote Arctic Canadian city of Iqaluit wanting “to teach the Greeks a lesson” and “crush them,” explained Mr. Geithner. The Treasury Secretary warned them, “You can put your foot on the neck of those guys if that’s what you want to do,” but they still had to take action to reassure markets that the crisis would not spread to other countries, or threaten the euro itself. “I thought it was just inconceivable to me they would let it get as bad as they ultimately did,” said Mr. Geithner.
As the United States and the rest of the world would learn, the European strategy for the debt crisis that began in Greece and spread across the eurozone would be dictated by Germany, “the undisputed dominant power in Europe.” More than five years later, the Americans are still pressuring the Europeans to resolve their debt crisis problems, but to little effect. The stakes are now even higher as the U.S. fears the possibility of losing Greece to Russia, a conflict in which Germany is increasingly involved.
The Americans would attempt to influence Europe’s crisis through extensive contact between Mr. Geithner and Mr. Schauble at the German Finance Ministry, Mario Draghi at the ECB, and Christine Lagarde at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Americans knew that for anything to get done in Europe, you needed the Germans and the central bankers on board. The U.S. spy agency, the NSA, was even wiretapping the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, top officials of the Finance Ministry and the ECB, with a particular interest in economic issues and Greece.
Germany’s political strategy was to allow the debt crisis to spread, creating the pressure required to force eurozone nations to accept German demands of restructuring their economies in return for financial aid from the EU. The German magazine Der Spiegel described Frau Merkel’s overall European strategy: “the aim was to solve the debt crisis in a step-by-step fashion.”
“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” said the Chancellor in May of 2010, shortly after the first Greek bailout program was agreed. “The euro is in danger. If we do not avert this danger, then the consequences for Europe are incalculable and then the consequences beyond Europe are incalculable.” Merkel worked closely with Mr. Schauble at the Finance Ministry and her Minister of Economics, Rainer Brüderle, to write a draft proposal outlining the changes Germany wanted in the European Union.
The German publication Der Spiegel was leaked a copy of the draft, and concluded: “Berlin is serious about taking the lead as the euro zone struggles with a suddenly weak currency.” Germany wanted a Europe where the European Commission had the power to suspend the voting rights of nations for violating the eurozone’s debt and spending laws, including plans for managing the bankruptcy of a member nation. “Europe,” said Angela Merkel, “needs a new culture of stability.” But that culture would be enforced through the destabilizing power of financial market crises.
The German bet was that the EU could outrun financial markets, using the crisis as an opportunity to advance fiscal and political integration and impose their demands upon the rest of Europe, while simultaneously preventing markets from creating a crisis so severe that it threatened the euro or the economies of the more powerful nations. Without the pressure of financial markets, the EU could not force its member nations to restructure their economies and societies. Chancellor Merkel would frequently describe the European debt crisis to her colleagues as a “poker game” between financial markets and politicians. The first to flinch would lose.
In 2011, Bloomberg noted that Merkel was “turning Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis into an opportunity to reshape the euro region in Germany’s image,” concluding that she had “pulled ahead for now in her battle to restore policy makers’ mastery over the market.” A biographer of Merkel explained, “It’s policy by trial and error.”
Merkel’s powerful Finance Minister, Mr. Schauble, was one of the chief architects of the German strategy for Europe’s crisis. In March of 2010, he wrote in the Financial Times that, “from Germany’s perspective, European integration, monetary union and the euro are the only choice.” But aid comes with strings attached and harsh penalties for violations. “It must, on principle, still be possible for a state to go bankrupt,” wrote Mr. Schauble. “Facing an unpleasant reality could be the better option in certain conditions.”
The German minister believed “the financial crisis in the eurozone is not just a threat, but an opportunity,” as markets would “force the most debt-laden members of the 17-nation currency union to curb their budget deficits and increase their competitiveness.” This would pressure governments to accept further integration into a “fiscal union” defined and shaped by Germany. “We need to take big steps to get that done,” Mr. Schauble said in 2011. “That is why crises are also opportunities. We can get things done that we could not do without the crisis.”
Financial markets were happy to oblige the German-EU strategy, as the crisis would force the reforms long demanded by banks as a solution to the irresponsible spending of governments: austerity and structural reform. From 2002 to 2012, Josef Ackermann led Germany’s largest bank, Deutsche Bank. In 2011, the New York Times described Ackermann as “the most powerful banker in Europe” and “possibly the most dangerous one, too,” standing “at the center of more concentric circles of power than any other banker on the Continent.”
When the financial crisis struck in 2008, Angela Merkel and Josef Ackermann established a close working relationship, though not without its ups and downs. “We have a cordial and professional relationship,” said Mr. Ackermann in 2011. The banker would advise Frau Merkel on her strategy through the financial and debt crises, also working closely with Jean-Claude Trichet, then-president of the ECB. From his “seat at the nexus of money and politics,” Ackermann was “helping to shape Europe’s economic and financial future.”
After he left Deutsche Bank in 2012, Ackermann delivered a speech to the U.S.-based think tank, the Atlantic Council, where he outlined Germany’s overall strategy for Europe’s crisis. When asked why Germany simply didn’t say that it would do whatever it took to protect the euro and eurozone nations from bankruptcy (thus ending the financial crisis), Ackermann explained that it was largely due to a “political tactical consideration.” While such an option would surely end the market panic and save the euro, it would be unacceptable to the German public, let alone the German parliament.
But another major problem, noted Mr. Ackermann, was that if Germany made such an announcement, other eurozone nations “would then say, well, why then go on with our austerity programs? Why go on with our reforms? We have what we need.” Thus, he said, “I think to keep the pressure up until the last minute is probably a – not a bad political solution.” However, “if it comes to the worst,” with the potential of a eurozone collapse, the banker had “no doubt” that Germany would come to the rescue.
If the eurozone collapsed, not only would an economic and financial contagion spread with drastic consequences for all its members and the world economy as a whole, but there was also a strong political element. “A fragmented Europe has no way for self-determination,” said Mr. Ackermann. “We will have to accept what the United States, China, India, Brazil and other countries will finally define for us.” But Germany was to define the future of Europe.
“My vision is political union,” said Chancellor Merkel in January of 2012. “Europe has to follow its own path. We need to get closer step by step, in all policy areas.” In the Chancellor’s Europe, Brussels (home of the European Commission) was to be given immense new powers over member nations. “In the course a long process,” she said, “we will transfer more powers to the Commission, which will then work as a European government.” Outlining the EU’s path to a federation of nations functioning like individual states within the U.S., Merkel said, “This could be the future shape of the European political union.” Further integration among eurozone nations was a major objective, she explained, “we need to give institutions more control rights and give them more teeth.”
As Chancellor Merkel and other German leaders would frequently remind the rest of Europe and the world, with 7% of the world population, 25% of global GDP and 50% of world social spending, Europe’s economic system was unsustainable and uncompetitive in a globalized economy. Germany’s vision for Europe was aimed at introducing “rules to force Europe’s economies to become more competitive.” But competitiveness was defined by Germany, and thus, “the rest of Europe needs to become more like Germany.”
Germany wanted Greece and the rest of Europe to impose ‘budgetary discipline’ through austerity measures: cutting public spending in order to reduce the debt. But these are painful and highly destructive policies that depress the economy, impoverish the population, destabilize the political system, undermine democracy and devastate the wider society. If you live in a country where the government funds healthcare, education, social services, welfare, pensions and anything that benefits the general population, under austerity measures, now you don’t! Not surprisingly, austerity is always unpopular with the people who are forced to live through it.
Only in times of crisis can austerity be pushed through. When financial markets threaten to cut a country off from its sources of funding, it must to turn to larger nations and international organizations for financial aid. “The current strategy of the EU,” wrote Wolfgang Münchau in a November 2009 article for the Financial Times, “is to raise the political pressure – perhaps even provoke a political crisis – with the strategic objective that the Greek government might eventually relent.” And the government would have to relent to the diktats of Germany and “the Troika”: the European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who collectively managed Europe’s bailout programs.
In early 2010, European banks held more than 141 billion euros of Greek debt, with the largest share being held by French and German banks. The first bailout largely went to bailout these very banks. Karl Otto Pohl, the former President of the German Bundesbank noted back in 2010 that the Greek bailout was about “rescuing the banks and the rich Greeks,” especially German and French banks. As the Troika bailed out the banks, these institutions took on the Greek debt.
The second bailout organized by the Troika largely went to paying interest on Greek debt owed to the Troika. Thomas Mayer, a senior adviser to Deutsche Bank, said, “the troika is paying themselves.” Between May 2010 and May 2012, Greece had received roughly $177 billion in bailouts from the Troika. A total of two-thirds of that amount went to payoff bondholders (banks and rich Greeks), while the remaining third was left to finance government operations.
In 2015, a study by the Jubilee Debt Campaign noted that of the total 252 billion euros in bailouts for Greece over the previous five years, over 90% ultimately went “to bail out European financial institutions,” leaving less than 10% for anything else. At the time of the first bailout in 2010, Greece had a debt-to-GDP ratio of roughly 130%. As a result of the bailouts and austerity, the debt ratio has risen to 177% of GDP at the beginning of 2015. Thus, after more than five years of supposed efforts to reduce its debt, that debt has grown substantially.
But the banks are no longer the largest holders of Greek debt. Today, the Troika owns 78% of the 317 billion euro Greek debt. Greece now owes the IMF, ECB, and eurozone governments a total of 242.8 billion euros, with the largest single holder being Germany with more than 57 billion euros in Greek debt. And now the Troika wants to be paid back. “In short,” wrote Simon Wren-Lewis in the New Statesman, “it needs money from the Troika to repay the Troika.”
The effects on Greece of more than five years of living under the domination of Germany and the Troika have been palpable. Greece is a ruined economic colony of the European Union. Austerity in Greece led to the creation of “a new class of urban poor” with more than 20,000 people being made homeless over the course of 2011, and dozens of soup kitchens and charities opening up to attempt to address the growing social and human crisis.
As austerity continued to collapse the economy, unemployment and poverty soared. By 2013, more than 27% of Greeks were unemployed and 10% of school-age children were going hungry. Between 2008 and 2013, the Greek government cut 40% of its budget, healthcare costs soared, tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers were fired, drug costs rose, as did drug use with HIV infections doubling and a malaria outbreak was reported for the first time since the 1970s, while suicide rates increased by 60%.
By early 2014, more than a million Greeks were left without access to healthcare, accompanied by rising infant mortality rates. A charity director in Athens noted that, “Alcoholism, drug abuse and psychiatric problems are on the rise and more and more children are being abandoned on the streets.” By 2015, roughly 40% of children in Greece lived under the poverty line while the richest Greeks, responsible for roughly 80% of the tax debt owed to the government, were hiding tens of billions of euros in offshore accounts.
Unemployment has grown to 26% (and over 50% for youth), wages dropped by 33%, pensions were cut by 45%, and 40% of retired Greeks now live below the poverty line. Just prior to the Greek elections that brought his party to power in January of 2015, Alexis Tsipras wrote in the Financial Times that, “This is a humanitarian crisis.” Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning former chief economist of the World Bank, wrote in late June of 2015 that, “I can think of no depression, ever, that has been so deliberate and had such catastrophic consequences.”
Thus, the German-Troika strategy of prolonging the debt crisis to reshape Europe has resulted in a human, social and political crisis that threatens the future of democracy in Europe itself. Germany has, in effect, established an economic empire over Europe, largely operating through the Troika institutions, all of which are unaccountable technocratic tyrannies.
The first pillar of the Troika is the International Monetary Fund (IMF), based in Washington, D.C., just a few short blocks down the road from the White House and U.S. Treasury Department. The United States is the largest single shareholder in the IMF, and the only one of its 188 member nations with veto power over major Fund decisions. The Financial Times referred to the IMF as “a tool of US global financial power.”
In 1977, U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal described the IMF as “a kind of whipping boy” in a memo to President Carter. In return for a loan to a country in crisis, the Fund would demand harsh austerity measures and other ‘structural reforms’ designed to restructure the economy along the lines desired by Washington. “If we didn’t have the IMF,” wrote Blumenthal, “we would have to invent another institution to perform this function.”
In the early 1990s, the IMF was managing ‘programs’ in over 50 countries around the world, and was “long been demonized as an all-powerful, behind-the-scenes puppeteer for the third world,” noted the New York Times. In 1992, the Financial Times noted that the fall of the Soviet Union “left the IMF and G7 to rule the world and create a new imperial age.” Operating through the Troika, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde took a “tough love” approach to Greece, with the Fund being referred to as “the toughest” of the three institutions.
The European Central Bank (ECB) is another pillar of the Troika, run by unelected central bankers responsible for managing the monetary union, with its headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, home to the German central bank (the Bundesbank) and Germany’s large financial sector. Throughout the crisis, Brussels has pushed to give the ECB more powers, specifically to oversee the formation and management of a single ‘banking union’ for the EU. The ECB has, in turn, advocated for more power to be given to Brussels.
The ECB played a central role in the debt crisis, pushing Greece into a deep crisis in late 2009, making “an example” of the country for the rest of Europe, blackmailing Ireland into accepting a Troika bailout program, then blackmailing Portugal into doing the same, and putting political pressure on Italy and Spain to implement austerity measures.
In late 2014, ECB President Mario Draghi rebooted efforts to advance integration of the economic and monetary union. When the anti-austerity Syriza government came to power in Greece in early 2015, the ECB was placed to be “the ultimate power broker” in negotiations between the country and its creditors. A member of the central bank’s executive board welcomed the democratic victory in Greece by warning, “Greece has to pay, those are the rules of the European game.”
The ECB took a hardline approach to dealing with Greece, increasing the pressure on Athens to reach a deal with its creditors, with The Economist referring to the central bank as “the enforcer.” This unelected and democratically unaccountable institution holds immense, undeniable power in Europe.
The European Commission is the third pillar of the Troika based in Brussels, functioning as the executive branch of the European Union overseeing a vast bureaucracy of unelected officials with responsibility for managing the union. Throughout the crisis, the Commission has been given sweeping new powers over economic and spending policies and priorities of member nations.
Brussels was to be given the centralized power to approve and reject national budgets of eurozone nations, establishing a technocrat-run ‘fiscal union’ to match the ECB’s role in managing the monetary union. EU institutions would have “more powers to serve like a finance ministry” for all the nations of the eurozone, potentially with its own finance minister, “who would have a veto against national budgets and would have to approve levels of new borrowing,” said Mr. Schauble, the German Finance Minister.
In 2007, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso mused aloud during a press conference. “Sometimes I like to compare the E.U. as a creation to the organisation of empires,” he said. “We have the dimension of Empire but there is a great difference. Empires were usually made with force with a centre imposing diktat, a will on the others. Now what we have is the first non-Imperial empire.” Eight years later, it is clear that the EU is officially an imperial empire, using bailouts not bombs, choosing the Troika over tanks, Brussels over bullets, austerity instead of armies, advocating for consolidation instead of colonization.
Philippe Legrain, a British political economist, author, and adviser to President Barroso from 2011 to 2013 wrote that the debt crisis “divided the euro zone into creditor nations and debtor ones,” and the EU’s institutions “have become instruments for creditors to impose their will on debtors, subordinating Europe’s southern ‘periphery’ to the northern ‘core’ in a quasi-colonial relationship. Berlin and Brussels now have a vested interest to entrench this system rather than cede power and admit to mistakes.”
“In general,” wrote Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times in 2007, “the [European] Union has progressed fastest when far-reaching deals have been agreed by technocrats and politicians – and then pushed through without direct reference to the voters. International governance tends to be effective,” he concluded, “only when it is anti-democratic.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the past five years of crisis is that in a Europe under the rule of Germany and the Troika, the people and democracy suffer most. For democracy to survive in Europe, the technocratic tyranny of the Troika and debt-based domination of Germany must be challenged. Democracy is too important to be sacrificed at the altar of austerity. It is any wonder why Greeks voted ‘no’ to the status quo?
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a freelance researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada.
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