Saturday, October 9, 2010

Coming to a Consensus

Way back in time, before there was Twitter, before the perpetual recession had come, in 2007 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had a mere $2 billion in lending commitments on its books. Two billion. Avatar made that in seven weeks. That's the monthly increase in the cost of the Afghanistan war this year. From its inception at Bretton Woods in 1945, the fund had been transformed from an instrument to promote and facilitate trade between its member nations into an object of hate, letters spoken together with derision from Bangkok to Buenos Aires. Well, here we are in a world of two billion tweets a month with much of it stuck in near economic depression where the IMF has $195 billion in loans on its books. This week central bankers and finance ministers from around the world are gathering at IMF headquarters in Washington DC for the IMF and World Bank annual meeting and they'll be on their best behaviour. You see, with about $900 billion at its disposal, the IMF has been charged with saving liberal capitalism.

It's a mixed up muddled up shook up world as we stumble headlong into the second decade of the 21st century but what I'm finding hardest to swallow is the rejuvenation of the IMF's image. There was a reason it only had a couple of billion in loans a few years back; it had lost its legitimacy in the international community. It had morphed from a cold war tool to support dictatorships in South America into a neo-colonial boot across the throat of Africa before becoming a purveyor and destroyer of capitalist dreams beyond the Berlin Wall and finally the instigator of global economic turmoil even further east. By first denying credit to elected governments led by 'left leaning' types such as Allende, Goulart or Ortega who may not have followed Washington's orders then supplying it to dictators that overthrew them, the likes of Pinochet, Branco and Samosa, the IMF was a good soldier in the fight against the Red Menace. Countries such as Senegal have found they are better off following the Beijing Consensus to Washington's nasty version. Privatization and market liberalization that was gonna make everyone rich following the collapse of the commie regime was unleashed without the proper legal framework (read: government institutions, is that irony?) bringing the world Russian billionaire oligarchs, some of whom managed to move to London to buy football teams before the Putin authoritarian backlash. Others languish in prison. The last bit of credibility seemed to evaporate with the steam from hot money that poured into the opening of financial and capital markets ordered by the IMF as a remedy to East Asia's downturn in 1997 transforming a hiccup into worldwide crisis.

It's no coincidence that the three biggest debts on the IMF's books as of August 2010 belong to Romania, the Ukraine and Hungary each owing over $11.7 billion, almost six times the total of outstanding loans three years ago. October 3rd saw the 20th anniversary of the reunification of East and West Germany which heralded the triumph of capitalism over communism, good over evil, opportunity over captivity. Some 8% of the world's population that had lived under the Soviet Communist system traded in one form of enslavement for another as IMF experts marched in to preach the gospel of a new religion, market fundamentalism, as a substitute for the old, Marxism (Well, a twisted Leninism/Stalinism/Gorbachevism?). For the western powers (ie. the banksters) the sudden opening of an untapped, unregulated market was a once in a lifetime opportunity as it lacked the most fundamental building blocks of efficient markets such as anti-trust laws or property rights. This lack of government regulation allowed those who knew which vodka to buy Yeltsin (answer: any) to prosper as most of the population suffered. Americans saw shock therapy through the lens of Reagan's victory putting a McDonald's on Red Square while the reality was the percentage of Russians living in poverty using the $2 standard skyrocketed from 2% in 1989 to 23.8% less than a decade later. The IMF brought Mercedes traffic jams to Moscow but 40% of the country now had to live on less than $4 a day.

The IMF was created to smooth financial crisis when they occur yet seems to have been the cause of political and economic disease as often as the cure. Yes, Virgina, there have been other crises before this latest one and they are coming ever more frequently, powerfully and lingery. That's not a word, but they tend to drag on, with recoveries marked with ever less, and painfully slow, job creation. Our hopes for recovery are resting on the drug dealer of debt that turned many of us into junkies in the first place as much of the world is relying on the IMF pit bosses to keep the casino open. The next crisis is already written into the loopholes lobbied into the financial regulation bill in the US. The last not yet complete judging by ever widening bond spreads in Europe which highlight the uselessness of trying to save the euro by propping up PIGS with more debt and occasionally issuing reports on their progress to soothe jittery markets. An optimist will say the protests in Seattle in 1999 or the street battle in 2001 in Genoa may have lit the fire under the IMF to change its ways. But it seems just the names have changed in this truly grim fairy tale where only the banks get paid as we double down on SDRs instead of structural adjustment loans and implement austerity programs in place of job cuts.

Not being able to know who the bad guy really is helps keep us interested in the story and allows the cycle of crisis to continue. The Greeks, banks, Irish, Al-Qaeda and the government all played a role in putting us in a situation where cuts are going to be necessary along with tax hikes but the biggest baddie in the financial press these days seems to be China. Sure, China's on board, what with the G20 and now a Special Advisor to the Managing Director at the IMF, their cash is needed, but the boss is still European and Canada has a bigger vote than Russia, or Brazil and Mexico combined. The US still has a veto power with over 16% of the vote, as major policy decisions require a supermajority of 85%. For these past 20 years much of the world has gone along with what the IMF prescribed, often having no choice, accept or perish, but there has been growing evidence that there might be another path to choose and many are taking it.

About ten before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1978 the Chinese government began making economic reforms that have brought in a hitherto unknown combination of mixed ownership, basic property rights, and heavy government intervention. On the surface, what distinguished this new capitalism seemed to be the level of government intervention. While this is true, what surprisingly sets Washington and Beijing apart is flexibility. While America opts for nostalgia and ideology instead of pragmatism and progress, the winning model of capitalism is being made in China, like so much else in the world these days. A two-party political system is no better, in fact worse, than a one-party state when both parties are under the control of lobbyists and one of them is bought and paid for by a major media outlet. Whereas the neoliberals and neocons invade nations financially and militarily through loans and bombs in order to exploit their resources, the Beijing Consensus simply builds them infrastructure in exchange for their riches. Roads and hospitals for copper and rare earth metals. Risk capital instead of lives. Seeing the game slipping away, the west, America in particular, is trying to find a scapegoat, blaming the winner for playing the game better.

So we'll continue hearing a lot about the yuan (renminbi? still don't understand the difference) being undervalued while not criticizing too directly as we're still offering the open hand of the G20. After all, it'll be good to spread the blame when things fall apart. The Chinese understand that it wasn't American style management skills that made the US the global economic leader for the past century but a combination of luck and directing the resources of the country in a productive manner. Think of the big money makers of the past century and their connection with government. From the direct to the indirect in the big picture and in the details. Militarily not only conquering markets that needed to be rebuilt after winning world wars or friendly invasions but also directly employing and educating soldiers along with buying and selling all those weapons of war. Boeing, General Electric and Haliburton anyone? All this spending and the hydrogen bomb gave a head start to the computing industry and even gave us the internet. Detroit wouldn't have had the run it did if an interstate system hadn't been built to handle all those cars criss-crossing the continent. There's no secret to China's success, it's much the same recipe America used when it understood that since market forces cannot even do something as simple as finance home mortgages it shouldn't be trusted to restore and maintain full employment, reduce global imbalances or prevent the destruction of the environment while preparing for a future without fossil fuels. China's doing it while somehow being both more overt and less conspicuous. Not wasting energy pretending to be what it's not at home and forcing their ideas on others abroad.

The success of the Chinese approach to modernization has struck the developing world as attractive and the developed as amazing. As the calls to control deficits grow louder and governments are told to cut more jobs, raise retirement ages and lower subsidies while bailing out banks, the Chinese will keep building the things we need and using the proceeds to fund the debt the IMF has ensured we're addicted to. While Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's in person offer of support to Greece (obviously in exchange for market access) was being gratefully accepted, the head of the IMF issued ominous warnings of a currency war being waged by those Chinese. In Europe the cracks are growing as "You can't have a monetary union without a reasonably coordinated fiscal policy" - Orwellian for a true supergovernment from that same IMF director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It gets worse in America where most of the public has been convinced that all things government or intellectual are bad - insert your own Palin 2012 vice presidential nominee here and imagine the outcome. Richard Nixon is attributed Milton Friedman's misquote that "We are all Keynesians now" after breaking the gold standard and reluctantly accepting John Maynard's economic ideas. The IMF was built upon that economist's ideas but I get the feeling that the next great shift in economics will have most of us saying "We are all Chinese now".