Christine Lagarde's Birkin Bag Of IMF TricksEconomics / Global Economy Jul 04, 2014 - 02:10 PM GMT
While Nobody's Watching
Christine Lagarde and the IMF chose the midst of the world football cup and the Iraq and Ukrainian crises as just the right moment to announce new “draconian plans” to solve the debt crisis of the developed countries. Dressed in her Hermes scarf and clutching her uber-expensive Jane Birkin-bag, she laid out the IMF Bagmen's plan, this week.
Who would take any notice of yet another IMF plan when there's so much else going on? Anyway, stock markets (in the developed countries) are at all-time highs and any kind of economic news can be “creatively interpreted” to claw the index a few more percentage points higher. Everything is fine!
She presented the IMF Board's conclusions on the June 13th IMF Staff Report titled “The Fund's Lending Framework and Sovereign Debt”, but this report draws all its advice and recommendations from a 21-page research report of Dec 2013 by IMF economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. Their report started off by saying that debt restructuring, raising inflation to dilute debt, capital controls (including straight expropriation) - and to quote the report “other forms of significant financial repression” - are not only for emerging and developing countries. They are for everybody.
They must be applied, right now, in the developed countries. The Reinhart and Rogoff report (titled 'Financial and Sovereign Debt Crises-Some Lessons Learned and Those Forgotten') was voluntarily alarmist. It said that especially in Europe, what started out in 2008 as “just another crisis” had been allowed to monstrously grow into a full-blown sovereign debt crisis through a “cycle of denial”. This cycle of denial is the muppet-government policy line that the “normal economy” can be restored through mixing austerity, social forbearance, and growth. The denial, the report went on, was due to the comfortable illusion that developed countries are different from and better than developing and emerging countries “and therefore their financial crises should be handled completely differently”.
After The Warm Up - We Get The Meat
Lagarde presented the new IMF policy, and its coming programmes based on the above and similar reports and studies carried out in-house since 2008. To get the new tone, that Lagarde treated as being as nice and shiny as a $6700 Jane Birkin bag from Hermes (older versions already run at $11 000 each), we shift to the aftermath of World War I.
For IMF economists, the sovereign debt crises of the US, nearly all European countries, Japan and other developed countries that have massively grown since 2008 are comparable to the massive debt load run up through 1914-18. In fact, the IMF data shows, it is a lot worse than that.
Calling it “debt forgiveness by default”, the Reinhart and Rogoff report says: the “widespread defaults by both advanced and emerging European nations on World War I debts to the United States during the 1930s” are now largely forgotten – but they happened. They are what is coming.
Other in-house IMF reports, listed in the Birkin-bag briefing that Lagarde waved at reporters, hammer the new official theme that preventing the developed countries' sovereign debt from becoming “an endgame” is almost certain to need heavily muscled financial and economic legislation. There will have to be a combination of financial repression – a generalized tax on savings including pension funds and life assurance - the outright de facto restructuring of public and private debt, debt conversion to “various types of equity”, higher inflation, and an increasingly large variety of capital controls not only covering foreign exchange holdings by individuals and companies. Not only foreign currency holdings will be slammed, but also the suppression of domestic cash transactions “to prevent tax fraud”.
This IMF assault on society is given the George Orwell title “macroprudential regulation”.
Lagarde, despite her origins as a Sarkozy Gurl promoted out of the blue to become France's Economics and Finance minister, applying every neoliberal gimmick of her master, evidently approves the pseudo-socialist spin the IMF applies to promote its financial repression – and sure depression of the economy. The IMF says that “although austerity in varying degrees is necessary” it is no longer sufficient to cope with the sheer magnitude of public and private debt overhangs since 2008.
Various recent reports and studies by IMF economists even include the recommendation to abandon austerity – and push harder on the pedal of financial repression. Christine Lagarde, this July, gave us all a warning of what comes next.
The IMF Richter Scale
IMF reports use an in-house Richter scale for financial-economic meltdowns and explosions, calling it the BCDI Index - the banking, currency, debt default and inflation index. For example in 1998 the index took a value of 4 for the Russian Federation, because there was a simultaneous currency crash, a banking and inflation crisis, and a sovereign default on both domestic and foreign debt. IMF studies on the five-year-long Russian crisis that capped and ended Boris Yeltsin's fatuous application of neolib gimmick policies paint a rosy picture of the crisis-and-recovery process, but during this process that certainly shaped Vladimir Putin's attitude to Western creditors, the deflation was so intense that at times some 40% of all transactions in Russia used no money at all – just barter!
An extended version of the BCDI Index adds stock market collapses to the other 4 criteria. The Russian crisis therefore “scored” 5 on the extended scale, and that is the crisis scale facing us now.
The supposed good news that the 2008-09 financial and economic crisis, in the developed countries, was not on a par with the 1998 Russian crisis because no outright debt defaults occurred is soon cast aside. The Reinhart and Rogoff report, for example, states that developed country sovereign debt, today, is very hard to overstate – they mean impossible. Using various long-term national debt metrics, the IMF is forced to admit that sovereign debt, today, is “approaching a 200-year high water mark”. It is for example far above the intensity racked up by war borrowing in 1914-18.
Hidden in the woodwork, but real, the external debt run up by private banks in the developed countries is not firewalled apart and distinct from sovereign debt as “private debt”. It can instantly become public sovereign debt. As it did in 2008-09. As it will again.
Debt shuffling of all kinds further intensifies the problem. The Eurozone-18 countries, like the US and its 48-lower States, have mixed an mingled all kinds of national public, “semi-public”, local government, and apparent-private debt into a lethal cocktail. Brave figures produced by the IMF, purporting to show a slight fall-off in gross total private + public debt, and private domestic credit (using this as a surrogate for future private debt) in developed countries, since 2010, are themselves qualified by IMF reports and studies.
As a direct result the IMF now takes a deliberately strident tone. Lagarde's July presentation, nicely upstaged and sidelined by the world football cup and civil wars in Iraq and Ukraine, comes to ultra-stark conclusions on the only ways out of the debt crisis.
What the IMF Wants
It says the developed countries have the following options, several of which will have to run together, starting very soon:
Restore economic growth
Intensify and widen austerity
Carry out de facto, plain and simple debt default
Force creditors to accept debt restructuring
Generate “surprise inflation” (the IMF uses this term)
Link financial repression with sustained inflation.
As we know, and the IMF knows, the first menu item is off the menu. The IMF also says austerity is a weak and slow card to play, and might as well be abandoned. No growth cure, no austerity cure.
This leaves the IMF's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the absence of success trying – with increasing desperation – to “rekindle inflation”, the financial repression will have to be chosen and be applied even sooner. The threat of de facto debt defaults, the IMF seems to think, will keep overseas creditors and their home country governments quiet. Forced debt restructuring will demand total obedience from the private banks and the private business sector – which in most developed countries is almost automatic, due to the reality of crony capitalism.
For private persons, the subject is different. The IMF lengthily discusses what it treats as the “privileged status” of savers and persons with life insurance policies and pension plans. These easy riders (using IMF talk) have been over-protected by government for too long. Governments have sunk huge but hidden funds into these supports to individual citizens, enabling them to obtain and expect annual interest rates “of as much as 2% above inflation”. The IMF is harsh on this subject. Its low-interest-rate policy applies with a vengeance to savings, life assurance and pension funds. The IMF wants net annual rates below the CPI (consumer price inflation). This will be the “new normal”.
The IMF does not talk about who will be first to announce a de facto default on sovereign debt. This will obviously be “surprise default” like the “surprise inflation” the IMF so eagerly wants, but because the IMF is steeped in or saturated with Keynesian notions, this would tend to be the biggest borrowers who default first. Lagarde may even be there to snatch a scrap of paper from her Birkin bag, announcing it as: “voluntary debt reduction pacts with overseas friends, partners and creditors”.
You have been warned.
By Andrew McKillop
Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights
Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012
Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.
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