The Zombie System How Capitalism Has Gone Off the Rails
Part 4: The ECB's Contribution
For the last quarter of a century, Klaus, a management expert, has been working for Metzler, a traditional, private bank based in Frankfurt. He is now a partner and exudes the self-confident nonchalance of a man who knows that his customers need to show up with at least 3 million to become his clients. His biggest asset is reliability. Unlike the large, powerful banks, his bank would be unable to count on government assistance in a crisis. It is not big enough to be too big to fail.
Partly for that reason, Klaus is particularly bothered by the ECB's development in recent years. He sees it as a kind of hedge fund a kind of ministerial administration. Because Europe's major banks are ailing and national governments are at odds, the ECB has developed into the most powerful bureaucracy on the Continent. It controls interest rates and the money supply, drives prices on the exchanges and financial markets, supervises financial institutions and audits governments. According to Klaus, the European Central Bank has all but "replaced" the European bond market.
It made sense at the time, because it protected the monetary union from breaking apart. But now emergency aid has turned into long-term assistance. The effects of ECB measures are subsiding, and financial experts aren't the only ones to notice that their programs have recently done more harm than good.
That was the case with Draghi's latest package last month. To stimulate lending to small and mid-sized companies, the ECB announced its intention to begin large-scale buying of special debt instruments known as asset-backed securities, or ABS. The only problem is that far too few of these securities exist in Europe.
This leads many experts to worry that lenders will simply fill the gap by transforming bad debt from their portfolios into ABSs and pass them on to the ECB. The investment effect would be next to nothing.
Draghi's plan to provide long-term funds to banks if they can demonstrate that they passed it on in the form of loans to companies or households could also prove harmful. They must only offer proof in 2016, meaning they could first invest the money in government bonds, a surer bet these days than corporate bonds.
Achieving the Opposite
Another recent Draghi measure is particularly dangerous: the "negative deposit interest rate." It means that banks no longer earn anything when they park their money with the ECB. On the contrary, they are required to pay for the privilege.
This too is meant to encourage banks to lend. In reality, however, the measure makes the situation even more difficult for financial institutions like savings banks and cooperative banks, which are dependent on customer deposits. Because of the current low interest rates, these banks already earn almost nothing from the spread between savings and lending rates. If interest rates are pushed down even further, profits will continue to decline. "Ironically, this torpedoes the business model of savings banks and cooperative banks, which have thus far managed to survive the crisis in relatively good shape," says Klaus.
Many experts are worried that with measures like these, the ECB is achieving precisely the opposite of what it wants to achieve. Instead of being strengthened, the credit sector is weakened. Instead of reducing risks, new ones are being created. Instead of liquidating ailing banks, they are kept alive artificially.
The economy has had little experience thus far with the new crisis capitalism, with its miniature growth, miniature inflation and miniature interest rates. But economists learned one thing after large credit bubbles burst in recent years, in Japan and Scandinavia, for example: After a financial and banking crisis, the first order of business is to clean up the banks, and to do it quickly and radically. Institutions that are not viable need to be shut down while the others should be provided with capital.
In Europe, however, this process has dragged on for years, under pressure from the financial lobby. The condition of the industry is now so dismal that experts are using metaphors from the world of horror films to describe it. "Zombie banks" are those that are being kept alive artificially with government bailouts and, like the zombies in Hollywood films, are wreaking havoc throughout Europe. They are too sick to lend money to the real economy but healthy enough to speculate with financial investments. Many banks today, says Bonn economist Martin Hellwig, can only "survive in the market by speculating."
What distinguishes the current situation from the wild years before the financial crisis is that speculators were once driven by greed but have since turned into speculators motivated by need.
Private banker Klaus has seen enough on his market app. He closes the phone with a worried look on his face, and then he utters a sentence in the typically convoluted idiom of the financial industry: "If Europe slips into a recession, it could lead to substantial turbulence in the financial markets."
The man who introduced the concept of "inclusion" into the political debate is sitting in his office in Boston. There are mountains of papers on the round conference table: academic papers, pages of statistics from the International Monetary Fund, and the latest issue of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.
Daron Acemoglu is currently considered one of the 10 most influential economists in the world, but the native of Istanbul doesn't think much of titles and formalities. He prefers the relaxed look of the web community: a plaid shirt and jeans, and a Starbucks cup in his hand.
He became famous two years ago when he and colleague James Robinson published a deeply researched study on the rise of Western industrial societies. Their central thesis was that the key to their success was not climate or religion, but the development of social institutions that included as many citizens as possible: a market economy that encourages progress and entrepreneurship, and a parliamentary democracy that serves to balance interests.
The only problem is that such institutions do not arise automatically. They have to be promoted and defended, especially against those social classes and interest groups that use power to seal themselves off from competitors, secure their own benefits and seek to influence lawmakers accordingly.
Extremely well read, Acemoglu can cite dozens of such cases. One is 14th century Venice, where a small patrician caste monopolized maritime trade. Another is Egypt under former President Hosni Mubarak, whose officer friends divided up key economic posts among themselves but were complete failures as businessmen. These are what Acemoglu calls "extractive processes," which lead to economic and social decline.
A Process of Extraction?
The question today is: Are Western industrial societies currently undergoing a similar process of extraction?
Acemoglu leans back in his chair. He isn't one to make snap judgments, and he understands the contradictions of social trends, in the United States, for example. On the one hand, the US is more inclusive today than in the 1960s, because it has abolished racial segregation. On the other hand, says Acemoglu, he has noticed the growing influence of powerful interest groups: the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies and, most of all, Wall Street. "The problem of money in politics," says Acemoglu, "is particularly acute in the case of the financial industry."
US politicians spend up to 70 percent of their time raising money for their campaigns, and Wall Street is one of their most important sources. Experts have calculated that Bill and Hillary Clinton alone have garnered at least $300 million in donations from the financial industry since the early 1990s.
In addition, money is no longer the only factor shaping the connections between Wall Street and Washington, as Acemoglu demonstrated in a recent study about former US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The stock prices of financial firms, with which he maintained close relationships, climbed significantly after his nomination. "The fact that some companies had the ear of the Secretary of the Treasury," Acemoglu concludes, "was, at least by the market view, very valuable."
It has nothing to do with bribery, Acemoglu clarifies. Still, the process highlights the dangerous closeness between the financial industry and the political world, a phenomenon which can be seen elsewhere in the world as well. In Germany, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel took steps to prevent a Greek insolvency at least partly out of consideration for German banks invested there. The London financial industry, to cite another example, was instrumental in blocking EU plans for the introduction of a financial transaction tax. In Switzerland, billionaire Blocher finances referendum campaigns via his political party. "The rich are extremely powerful," Acemoglu says, "and that is a concern."
Limiting that influence is of the utmost importance, Acemoglu believes, so that today's upper-class, high-finance capitalism can once again revert to being a capitalism of the real economy and the societal center. The necessary economic reforms are not Acemoglu's primary focus, even if the relevant proposals have existed for a long time: a fiscal policy that doesn't just benefit the rich; a monetary policy that knows its limits; a reform of the financial and banking industry that separates the traditional savings and lending business from risky investment banking.
That won't be enough, Acemoglu believes. What is needed, he argues, is a new political alliance that takes a stand against the power of the financial industry and its lobby. He sees the anti-trust movement from the beginning of the last century in the United States as a model. It was a broad coalition from the center of society and finally achieved its great victory after decades of struggle: the breakup of major corporations like Standard Oil.
Will something comparable happen with the big international banks? Acemoglu doesn't know, but he is convinced of one thing: Elitist conferences, at which bankers and fiscal policy experts hold sophisticated conversations about "inclusion," will not bring about change.
The organizers of the World Economic Forum once again sent him an invitation to Davos recently. But Acemoglu declined, as he has done several times in the past. "Solutions to the world's problems are not produced in a meeting between Bill Gates and George Soros," he says. "Renewal has to come from below."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan