Bilge Erten and José Antonio Ocampo, Guest Bloggers

The ongoing financial volatility in emerging economies is fueling debate about whether the so-called “Fragile Five” – Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey – should be viewed as victims of advanced countries’ monetary policies or victims of their own excessive integration into global financial markets. To answer that question requires examining their different policy responses to monetary expansion – and the different levels of risk that these responses have created.

Although all of the Fragile Five – identified based on their twin fiscal and current-account deficits, which make them particularly vulnerable to capital-flow volatility – have adopted some macroprudential measures since the global financial crisis, the mix of such policies, and their outcomes, has varied substantially. Whereas Brazil, India, and Indonesia have responded to surging inflows with new capital-account regulations, South Africa and Turkey have allowed capital to flow freely across their borders.

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This is the first part of a four-part interview with Costas Lapavitsas focusing on the Era of Financialization and the transformations at the “molecular” level of capitalism that are driving changes in economic performance and policy in both high-income and developing countries. Lapavitsas is a professor of economics at SOAS, University of London, and the author of Financialised Capitalism: Expansion and Crisis (Maia Ediciones, 2009) and Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (Verso, 2014).

Costas Lapavitsas, Guest Blogger

Part 1

Dollars & Sense: Over the past few years we’ve heard more and more about the phenomenon of “financialization” in capitalist economies. This concept appears prominently in your writings. How would you define “financialization”?

Costas Lapavitsas: Well, it’s very easy to see the extraordinary growth of the financial sector, the growth of finance generally, and its penetration into so many areas of economic, social, and even political life. But that, to me, is not sufficient. That is not really an adequate definition. In my view—and this is  basically what I argue in my recent book and other work that I’ve done previously—financialization has to be understood more deeply, as a systemic transformation of capitalism, as a historical period, basically. I understand it as a term that captures the transformation of capitalism in the last four decades. To me, this seems like a better term to capture what has actually happened to capitalism during the last four decades than, say, “globalization.”

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Erinç Yeldan

The concept of the “middle-income trap” had been brought into fashion by Barry Eichengreen and colleagues (see their recent NBER Working Paper). The concept is used to describe the challenges, for countries with GDP per capita of around $16,000 (at 2005 prices), in achieving productivity growth and key institutional transformations.

Many economists have taken note of the fact that, as economies converge to this middle-income level, “easily-accessible” sources of growth based on the transfer of virtually unlimited supplies of labor from rural agriculture to urban centers and towards capital-investment-led high profit sectors gradually lose their stimulating impact. Technologies grow mature and finally become worn out. After this threshold is reached, sources of growth must be derived from technological and institutional advances and productivity gains, which can only be achieved by investments in human capital, research and development (R&D), and institutional reforms. This, however, is no easy task, and countries often get “trapped” at this stage of development, hence the middle-income trap.

Yet, as such, the middle-income trap is an average concept defined by national boundaries. Recent work reveals, however, that divergences persist, and often times are reinforced, between regions embedded within national economies and even within municipalities. In many instances, poverty-stricken regions co-exist side by side with rich and highly productive regions. The persistent co-existence of such divergent structures leads us to ask whether poverty is in fact being reproduced by the workings of the market mechanism favoring high-income regions. This observation has its roots in a long tradition in development economics of duality and dependency theories.

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Timothy A. Wise

Timothy A. Wise, the Director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) and a regular Triple Crisis contributor, announces GDAE’s annual Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

Today my institute will award its annual Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought to economists Angus Deaton and James K. Galbraith for their work on poverty, inequality, and well-being. Angus Deaton’s most recent book, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, is a must-read on the issue. James K. Galbraith’s Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis locates inequality in the context of the recent financial crisis.

As Global Development and Environment Institute co-director Neva Goodwin said in awarding the prizes, “Angus Deaton has demonstrated that inequality is about much more than income differences, focusing on how inequality affects the health and well-being of societies. James Galbraith has shown that inequality isn’t an outcome driven by factors outside of our control, but instead is often a direct result of the policy choices we make.”

You can read more about the Leontief Prize and its illustrious laureates, and about about this year’s prize. You can also watch the ceremony live, including lectures from Deaton and Galbraith on the theme “Health, Inequality, and Public Policy.” The stream below will run from 12:30-2:00 EDT on April 4, 2014.

Triple Crisis welcomes your comments. Please share your thoughts below.

Jesse Griffiths, Guest Blogger

Jesse Griffiths is Director of the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad). The Eurodad report “Conditionally Yours: An Analysis of the Policy Conditions on IMF Loans,” co-authored by Griffiths and Konstantinos Todoulos, was released today.

Ukraine is the latest country faced by a debt crisis to be forced into the arms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The reality of the situation was pithily expressed by the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, who recently said he “will meet all IMF conditions… for a simple reason… we don’t have any other options.”

The European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad) has, over the past decade, produced several reports criticising the excessive and often harmful conditions that the IMF attaches to its loans. The IMF claims to have seen the light and limited its conditions to critical reforms agreed by recipient governments. We decided to put that claim to the test in our latest report, published on Wednesday (April 2), and examined all the policy conditions attached to 23 of the IMF’s most recent loans. What we found was truly shocking. The IMF is going backwards—increasing the number of policy conditions per loan, and remaining heavily engaged in highly sensitive and political policy areas.

Here’s what we found:

  • The number of policy conditions per loan has risen in recent years, despite IMF efforts to ‘streamline’ their conditionality. Eurodad counted an average of 19.5 conditions per programme: a sharp increase compared to the average of 13.7 structural conditions per programme we found in 2005-07.
  • Almost all the countries were repeat borrowers from the IMF, suggesting that the IMF is propping up governments with unsustainable debt levels, not lending for temporary balance of payments problems—its true mandate.
  • Widespread and increasing use of controversial conditions in politically sensitive economic policy areas, particularly tax and spending, including increases in value added tax (VAT) and other taxes, freezes or reductions in public sector wages, and cutbacks in welfare programmes including pensions. Other sensitive topics include requirements to reduce trade union rights, restructure and privatise public enterprises, and reduce minimum wage levels.

Recent studies on related topics by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) and Development Finance International (DFI) have found similar findings.

What is to be done? Trying to cajole the IMF to improve itself is not what’s needed. Instead, we advocate for the IMF to go back to basics and fulfill the role that’s really required. It should focus on its true mandate as a lender of last resort to countries that are facing temporary balance of payments crises. Such countries need rapid support to shore up their public finances, not lengthy programmes that require major policy changes. Why not extend the example of the IMF’s new but little used Flexible Credit Line to all IMF facilities—requiring no conditionality other than the repayment of the loans on the terms agreed?

If countries are genuinely facing protracted and serious debt problems, then IMF lending only makes the situation worse. Instead, let’s prioritise developing fair and transparent debt work-out procedures to assess and cancel unpayable and illegitimate debt. However, the IMF should not be the venue for such debt work-out mechanisms: as a major creditor, they would face an impossible conflict of interest. Of course, this revamped role for the IMF is only possible if it addresses its crisis of legitimacy, and radically overhauls its governance structure to give developing countries a fair voice and vote, and to improve transparency and accountability.

Partners we work with who live under the grim cloud of an IMF programme learn to hate the institution. A conditionality-free IMF with a democractic makeover could be an institution the world could learn to love.

Triple Crisis welcomes your comments. Please share your thoughts below.

Sunita Narain

Australia is a coal country. It is big business—miners are important in politics and black gold exports dominate the country’s finances. But dirty and polluting coal evokes emotions in environmentally concerned people. Coal-based power provides 40 per cent of the world’s electricity and emits one-third of global carbon dioxide, which is pushing the world to climate change.

Given this, on my recent visit to Australia, it was obvious I would be asked about my opinion on Australian coal exports to India. My answer, at the end of a discussion on the environmental challenges the world faces, was that as long as Australia was addicted to coal for energy it would be hypocritical for it to ask countries like India to give up coal. It is also important to note that Australia’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions are the highest—18 tonnes per person per year, compared to India’s 1.5 tonnes per person per year.

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Gerald Epstein

Anton Woronczuk of the Real News Network interviews Triple Crisis blogger Gerald Epstein about the borrowing advantages enjoyed by “Too Big to Fail” banks, due to creditors’ confidence that the banks will be bailed out if they are in danger of failing. Little has changed, Epstein, warns–in terms of the big banks’ advantages or their risk taking–due to the financial crisis or subsequent regulation.

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Martin Khor

The tide is turning against investment treaties that allow foreign investors to take up cases against host governments and claim compensation of up to billions of dollars.

Indonesia has given notice it will terminate its bilateral investment treaty (BIT) with the Netherlands, according to a statement issued by the Dutch embassy in Jakarta last week.

“The Indonesian Government has also mentioned it intends to terminate all of its 67 bilateral investment treaties,” according to the statement.

It has not been confirmed by Indonesia. But if this is correct, Indonesia joins South Africa, which last year announced it is ending all its BITS.

Several other countries are also reviewing their investment treaties.

This is prompted by increasing numbers of cases being brought against governments by foreign companies who claim that changes in government policies or contracts affect their future profits.

Many countries have been asked to pay large compensations to companies under the treaties.

The biggest claim was against Ecuador, which has to compensate an American oil company US$2.3bil (RM7.6bil) for cancelling a contract.

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Yilmaz Akyuz

Reposted from South-North Development Monitor SUNS.

The United Nations Post-2015 Development Agenda should not simply extend the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), or reformulate the goals, but focus instead on global systemic reforms and secure an accommodating international environment for sustainable development.

The MDGs are based on a donor-centric view of development with a focus on poverty and aid. They do not embrace a large segment of the population in the developing world, notably in middle-income countries, which fall outside the thresholds set in MDGs but still have their development aspirations unfulfilled.

It would be agreed that development is much more than the sum total of MDGs or any such arbitrary collection of a limited number of specific targets. But it is not possible to reach an international agreement on all important dimensions of economic and social development and environmental protection.

Any international agreement on such specific development targets would naturally be selective, leaving out many dimensions to which several countries may attach particular importance.

Thus, instead of focusing on selective specific targets in the areas of economic and social development and environmental protection, we should aim at creating an enabling international environment to allow each and every country to pursue developmental objectives according to their own priorities with policies of their own choice. Read the rest of this entry »

Philip Arestis and Malcolm Sawyer

The announcement by the European Central Bank (ECB) of its Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme in July 2012, along with the prior statement by the ECB’s president that the bank would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, restored the confidence of the markets. The interest rates on Italian and Spanish sovereign debt, for example, fell to more tolerable levels.

Further details of the OMT programme have emerged since September 2012, when it was announced that relevant candidate countries would receive help and be allowed access to OMT if they only had complete market access—that is, the ability to get credit from private sources. (The ECB, instead of publishing OMT’s legal documentation “soon” after September 2012, shifted its stance to “only publish when a country applies.”) The ECB shifted to the stricter condition of complete market access from the one of July 2012, under which the programme might help those countries that were simply regaining market access.

The German central bank, the Bundesbank, though, opposes OMT on the grounds that it is close to the monetary financing of budget deficits. In other words, OMT implies clear and direct borrowing by governments from their own central banks, which, it is stressed, is banned by the Maastricht Treaty. It is clear, though, that the treaty permits the ECB to buy public debt in the secondary markets.

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