An interesting and crucial feature of the eurozone crisis, which hardly ever gets mentioned, is the extent to which it corresponds to a massive, lengthy, disguised and undemocratic process of socialisation of debt relations. What started out as a massive build-up of debt/credit relations between private debtors and private creditors has been gradually converted into debt/credit relations between state debtors and state creditors, with the implication that those who will ultimately foot the bill for the inevitable restructuring of the massive ‘debt overhang’ holding the European economy back will be European taxpayers and peripheral-country citizens, rather than the financial sector and its shareholders. The aim of this post is to show why and how this is so, and to highlight the two main phases that have characterised this process.
By way of background, it is worth recalling that the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis and the ensuing Great Stagnation are very much akin to the 1929 Crisis and the ensuing Great Depression: in the build-up to both crises, capital-friendly growth regimes ensured the profitability of investments through direct and indirect wage compression; gave rise to increasing inequality and an increasingly central role of finance; and made up for the detrimental effect (upon aggregate demand) of this rising inequality through a massive increase in private debt. The expansion of credit served as a mechanism not only for recycling profits, but also for households to make up for their relatively stagnant incomes and for firms to expand, merge and modernise. The resulting credit-fuelled demand, again in the build-up to both 1929 and 2007, allowed for ‘roaring’ growth, but sooner or later it had to come up against its limits. And so it did when over-indebtedness reached its ceiling and surfaced as a ‘financial’ crisis, originally emerging in the system’s weakest links (in the first instance, the subprime housing credit market in the US), but ultimately exposing the unsustainable basis on which the entire growth regime was built.
In this sense, the current crisis is indeed global (or at least a crisis of advanced, mature economies as a whole), and it is indeed systemic (for it signals the unsustainability of the neoliberal growth regime). Another aspect to be noticed is the radically different character of this systemic crisis (and the one of the 1930s) vis-à-vis the crisis of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, which was the systemic crisis of a labour-friendly growth regime, brought about by the discouraging effect of declining profitability (in its turn arising out of the workers’ increasing bargaining power) upon investment. And the final background commentary concerns the key difference between the crisis of the 1930s and the current one: while they share the same underlying causes, the crisis of the 1930s took the form of the “Great Depression” because the process of deleveraging was relatively rapid, violent and uncurbed by government action; the current crisis, by contrast, has taken the form of a “Great Stagnation” (after the initial shock in 2007-09) because governments stepped in and halted the process of debt deflation (although the consequence is that there can be no sustained growth, absent inflation or major write-offs, because the ‘debt overhang’ remains in place).
In the eurozone context, this otherwise ‘merely’ socioeconomic process (which is the form it has taken in the US, for example) has taken on an especially serious and international character because of the inherently faulty features of the EMU (the inability on the part of deficit countries to undertake currency devaluations; the requirement that the burden of adjustment falls exclusively upon deficit countries, as opposed to being shared by deficit and surplus countries; the interwoven character of national financial systems and national public finances; and the ‘constitutional’ ban on inflation, which would otherwise provide the means for addressing the ‘debt overhang’).
From this perspective, the story of the eurozone crisis may be summed up in two main phases. Phase 1 corresponded to the socialisation of the debt relation on the debtors’ side: economies whose private sectors were up against the limits of unsustainable indebtedness when the process of debt deflation was triggered in 2007-08 (including Portugal, Greece and Spain) very quickly saw that private debt morph into public debt through two main mechanisms – the direct effect of financial sector bail-outs and the indirect effect of so-called ‘automatic stabilisers’ (declining government receipts and rising expenditures due to economic contraction). Recall that the eurozone’s peripheral economies currently being affected by the so-called ‘sovereign debt crisis’ include countries with vastly different public debt/GDP ratios as of 2007 (36% in Spain, 68% in Portugal, 107% in Greece); what they had in common was the unsustainable levels of net external indebtedness of their economies as a whole by 2007 (78% of GDP in Spain, 87% in Portugal, 115% in Greece). The escalation of peripheral countries’ public debt levels was a consequence, not the cause, of the crisis – and reflected the socialisation of the process of debt deflation on the debtors’ side.
Phase 2 is the one that we’re currently going through: it consists of the process of socialisation of the debt relation on the creditors’ side, as private creditors (particularly banks and other financial institutions in the European ‘core’) are gradually replaced by official lenders as the holders of peripheral countries’ ‘sovereign’ debt. After this debt was socialised on the debtors’ side as of phase 1, the impending inability on the part of the governments in question to service it meant that there were only two options on the table: either those governments defaulted, which would have meant losses for the private creditors, or official lenders like the EC-IMF-ECB troika stepped in (as indeed they did), lending just enough to support the continuing servicing of the debt while private creditors gradually rid themselves of these bonds (as indeed they have been doing over the course of the last 2-3 years).
Given that the public debt/GDP ratios in the crisis countries keeps escalating precisely because of the lethal combination of the dynamics of debt deflation and public-sector austerity (i.e. simultaneous deleveraging across all sectors of these economies, implying recession and decreasing ability to pay), it is increasingly obvious that the sovereign debt of peripheral eurozone countries will eventually and inevitably require a default or serious write-down (not like the Greek one in 2012, which did next to nothing to overcome these structural barriers). This is not a “whether-or-not” question; it’s a ‘when’ question. And when it is that this takes place is important for two reasons: (i) the later the default or write-down occurs, the more the burden will fall upon European taxpayers as a whole as opposed to private creditors; and (ii) the later it takes place, the more time peripheral country governments will have to hold their constituencies to ransom in order to undertake the neoliberal restructuring of their societies in a way which otherwise would never have been possible.
In sum, regardless of the uproar in 2008 against the financial sector, its reckless behaviour and the need to rein it in, the story of the eurozone crisis is a re-run of 2008 in a different, protracted and more subtle form: once again, finance tramples society and forces it to bear the burden of its losses.