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Idiot’s guide to global and domestic debt

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Immortal invisible god only wise

by Kumar David

“In light inaccessible hid from our eyes”, is a line from an 1867 hymn set to the tune of a Welsh ballad: it is not a quip about the mystery of global debt but it could well be. Economists don’t enlighten you on the nature and ubiquity of debt because they are muddled themselves. The eclectic hither and thither is recounted in The Economist’s ‘A new era of economics’ – 25 July 2020. There is no shared paradigm, laymen have to cogitate and pick up as best they can. Scientists, finicky about cause and effect cannot suppress the need to frame things in intelligible terms; see if you can pick up anything useful from this idiot’s guide to the ubiquity and explosion of global and domestic public and private indebtedness. Public or national refers to central and local governments. Private is corporate, non-central-bank, bank and household borrowing; the last includes mortgages, personal overdrafts and credit-card indebtedness.

There have been four stages in economic theology since the 1930s. The Keynesian gambit, the neoliberal (Friedman-monetarist) nightmare and the two post-2009 phases. Yes, two phases, the first till about 2018 and the second thereafter which accelerated with Covid-19. I say little on Keynesian macroeconomics or neo-liberalism; the former reigned from the Great Depression till the 1970s when it was invalidated by stagflation, and the latter, that is the neo-liberalism of Pinochet-Regan-Thatcher-IMF, gripped the world by the throat till the 1990s. The last nail in the coffin of dying neo-liberalism was the Great Recession (GR) of 2009-10; the last captain of that sinking ship, Tony Blair, earning himself the epithet Blatcherist. GR proved that unchecked free-market capitalism contained the germs of its destruction in its own DNA, collapsing under its own rationale.

The ratios vary from country to country. In the US Public Debt is about 100% of GDP but semi-Public Debt is small while Corporate and Private Debt are roughly 50% and 70% of GDP. In China Public Debt is not large (48% oh GDP) but Provincial Governments have run wild with infrastructure and waste, which summing up with household debt to over 200% of GDP. In Japan government, debt is 230% of GDP but corporate debt is below 10% and household debt is minimal. For Sri Lanka the big item is Public Debt; nearly 90% of GDP. It doesn’t sound bad, comparatively, but we don’t have the resources to service it.

A feature of the global economy since the 1990s is mounting debt, now astronomical public plus corporate debt, and in the run up to GR acute household mortgages. Strangely, no one asks: “If-all the world is in debt, who is the creditor? Who owns the loot? What the source?” Leaving aside the printing press, a substantive topic of this essay, there are two tangible sources; the enormous wealth accumulated in the hands of the ultra-rich (the “One-Percent”) and public savings in provident funds, social-security coffers and in Japan Post Office Savings accounts. The former is the surplus created by social labour appropriated by capital or siphoned into institutions called private equity, mutual and hedge funds and into mighty investment banks. Maybe half Lanka’s foreign debt is owned to these money-market funds, the other portion to multi-lateral agencies IMF, ADB and World Bank and foreign governments, mainly China and its state banking arms. The point I am driving is that the people of the poor half of the world are deeply in hock to the moguls of international finance capital, including the mighty One-Percent.

The first period of the post-GR phase which lasted for a little less than a decade was characterised in metropolitan centres by measures intended to revive economic growth. Credit was created by central banks (US Fed, EU’s ECB, Japan’s BoJ and limping along, the Bank of England) by the shipload and pumped out to Treasuries, or by purchases of corporate bonds, or shoved into bank vaults. The hope was that there would be investment, growth and employment. It fell flat on its face. Though employment did pick up a bit for reasons too long to detail here, production-capital did not take the ball and run. Instead finance took the money and put it into shares (equities), commercial property and Treasury Bonds, creating an asset bubble.

Central bank money did not go into economic activity; it was siphoned through the ultra-rich into the asset bubble, that is the rich got richer. For this reason, demand for goods and services did not grow (how many bottles of Premier Cru can a millionaire imbibe?). Sans demand, economic growth did not take off in the US, Europe or Japan, hence inflation was stuck below 2% and the economy did not fire up (if inflation escalates, the economy exudes full employment and output is near capacity-output they call it “heating up”). Economic misery in the lower orders created anger and populism (Occupy Movements and radical fundamentalisms). Outrage at the rich getting richer and everyone else getting poorer also triggered the Trump Base, the grip of Marine Le Penn, the popularity of Nigel French, Brexit, near fascists Hungary’s Victor Oban and Poland’s Andrzej Duda, and Hindutva’s Muslim-hating Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. In sum the first phase of post-GR intervention was neither an economic success nor was it politically soothing, it was a failure.

Enter the second post-GR stage starting in 2018 but fouled up and drowned by covid-19. The world’s ruling powers had to take note that growth was not picking up, political resentment was swelling, inflation doggedly low and interest rates peering into the moat of negativity. Then corona hit! It summoned gigantic “stimulus” packages; in the domain of economic theory four schools of were jostling for space.

 

MMT (Modern Monetary Theory)

MMT is really odd in the eyes of regular economists; I too find it difficult to digest. Were I to exaggerate but only a bit, the theory says print money, print as much as you like, it won’t and it can’t do harm. Governments should not break their heads about deficits, central banks should not let inflation fears hold them back, they should create stimulus money by the bathtub and pour it into investment markets; household should party late into the night. The argument is that by turbo charging the economy with cash, productive activity will take off and rising output will defeat the demon of galloping inflation. The more serious-minded supporters of this school want to keep it going only till inflation and growth pick up and unemployment falls sufficiently, then slacken. But I am not persuaded. When inflation hits it hits fast and hard. Governments and the unwary, soaked in debt, will be overwhelmed by rapidly rising interest rates which will drive them to bankruptcy. Going in search of a free lunch is never unproblematic.

 

Fiscal splurge driven  strategies (FS)

The more conventional last-ditch efforts are Fiscal Splurge (FS) and Monetary Control (MC). The former is the de facto method employed, whether consciously named FS or not, in broke, crisis driven, debt wracked or plain basket economies. While these pejoratives do not all apply to Lanka, some do. The bottom line is that in poor countries with high populist expectations, or enjoying electoral democracy that can oust politicians, governments if they wish to survive, have no option but to resort to fiscal deficits. That is spend more than their revenues to keep the masses stoned, an alternative opiate to religion. In a debt-intoxicated country this means monetary policy and fiscal policy have to merge, the former becomes a service provider to the latter; Prof Laxman transmutes into front office receptionist for President and PM.

In the long-term fiscal profligacy has disastrous consequences that are so well-known that I don’t need to dwell on the it here.

 

Monetary control and manipulation (MC)

This is typical of the EU; the US is a mix of FS and MC. With MC power rests in the hands of the central bank not government, finance ministry or treasury – FS is the other way round. The prime example of MC is the European Central Bank, I dare say with the Bundesbank breathing down its neck, which drives a chariot whose lowly drays are individual EU governments. BoJ too is not a sub-contractor of the Japanese government. The Reserve Bank of India tried to talk big in the era of Raghuram Rajan but Governors and the Bank have since been cut down to size. Central banks in dominance use interest rates and money supply to manage inflation with an eye on the side turned towards employment and growth.

 

Restructuring (social concern or state-led)

This is an outlier in a discussion of how capitalist economies (including Scandinavian version) are struggling to cope with explosive debt, income and wealth gaps, and retain social instability. The two key concepts in understanding this fourth option are restructuring and involvement of the state. State-led, but market sensitive and capitalism-accommodative, one party China seems an obvious prototype but it is not an exemplar because this essay is focussed on capitalist (the majority) nations of the world. An imagined President Bernie Sanders Administration in the US is a hypothetical example of this option. I don’t need to explain how this will be different from the US we know, but the point of this essay is that US national debt is large and will be larger in the hypothetical case. At the moment in the debate about coping with a belly-up economy, staggering stimulus packages are on Congress’ table – the Republicans want to cap it at $2 trillion, Democrats to push it up to $3 trillion. Hypothetical Bernie and his Squad will make it larger.

Whatever the version, stimulus money will be part channelled to government (Treasury Bond purchase) and a comparable sum will be siphoned into corporate bonds and private assets. Soaring debt will undermine faith in America’s ability to measure up to its commitments and will damage faith in the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Debt has come to stay in every corner, an unwelcome guest determined to hang on till there is a global transformation. Sri Lanka is a footnote to the story.

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Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Features

Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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