Pit Schultz on Mon, 21 Sep 1998 11:22:53 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> testimony of george soros

[this is not about cigars - but it needs a bit more meat about the history
of the IMF, world bank etc. see Mexico - who is gaining in the end? who is
speculating with the final support of the IMF? the debt virus is spreading
and the real pyramide scheme is the "long boom" let's get more info about
this... /p]


Committee on Banking and Financial Services

September 15, 1998

This hearing is very timely because the global capitalist system which has
been responsible for the remarkable prosperity of this country in the last
decade is coming apart at the seams.  The current decline in the US stock
market is only a symptom, and a belated symptom at that, of the more
profound problems that are afflicting the world economy.  Some Asian stock
markets have suffered worse declines than the Wall Street crash of 1929
and in addition their currencies have also fallen to a fraction of what
their value was when they were tied to the US dollar. The financial
collapse in Asia was followed by an economic collapse.  In Indonesia, for
instance, most of the gains in living standards that accumulated during 30
years of Suharto's regime have disappeared.  Modern buildings, factories
and infrastructure remain, but so does a population that has been uprooted
from its rural origins.  The Japanese banking system is in deep trouble.
The world's second largest economy just reported an annualized 3.3 %
decline in economic activity for the second quarter.  Russia has undergone
a total financial meltdown.  It is a scary spectacle and it will have
incalculable human and political consequences.  The contagion has now also
spread to Latin America.

It would be regrettable if we remained complacent just because most of the
trouble is occurring beyond our borders.  We are all part of the global
capitalist system which is characterized not only by free trade but more
specifically by the free movement of capital.  The system is very
favorable to financial capital which is free to pick and choose where to
go and it has led to the rapid growth of global financial markets.  It can
be envisaged as a gigantic circulatory system, sucking up capital into the
financial markets and institutions at the center and then pumping it out
to the periphery either directly in the form of credits and portfolio
investments, or indirectly through multinational corporations.

Until the Thai crisis in July 1997 the center was both sucking in and
pumping out money vigorously, financial markets were growing in size and
importance and countries at the periphery could obtain an ample supply of
capital from the center by opening up their capital markets.  There was a
global boom in which the emerging markets fared especially well.  At one
point in 1994 more than half the total inflow into US mutual funds went
into emerging market funds.

The Asian crisis reversed the direction of the flow.  Capital started
fleeing the periphery.  At first, the reversal benefitted the financial
markets at the center.  The U.S. economy was just on the verge of
overheating and the Federal Reserve was contemplating raising the discount
rate.  The Asian crisis rendered such a move inadvisable and the stock
market took heart.  The economy enjoyed the best of all possible worlds
with cheap imports keeping domestic inflationary pressures in check and
the stock market made new highs.  The buoyancy at the center raised hopes
that the periphery may also recover and between February and April of this
year most Asian markets recovered roughly half their previous losses
measured in local currencies.  That was a classic bear market rally.

There comes a point when distress at the periphery cannot be good for the
center.  I believe that we have reached that point with the meltdown in
Russia.  I am not making any predictions about the stock market, but I am
ready to assert that we have reached that point.  I have three main
reasons for saying so.

One is that the Russian meltdown has revealed certain flaws in the
international banking system which had been previously disregarded.  In
addition to their exposure on their own balance sheets, banks engage in
swaps, forward transactions and derivative trades among each other and
with their clients.  These transactions do not show up in the balance
sheets of the banks.  They are constantly marked to market, that is to
say, they are constantly revalued and any difference between cost and
market made up by cash transfers.  This is supposed to eliminate the risk
of any default.  Swap, forward and derivative markets are very large and
the margins razor thin;  that is to say, the value of the underlying
amounts is a manifold multiple of the capital employed in the business.
The transactions form a daisy chain with many intermediaries and each
intermediary has an obligation to his counterparties without knowing who
else is involved.  The exposure to individual counterparties is limited by
setting credit lines.

This sophisticated system received a bad jolt when the Russian banking
system collapsed.  Russian banks defaulted on their obligations, but the
Western banks remained on the hook to their own clients.  No way was found
to offset the obligations of one bank against those of another.  Many
hedge funds and other speculative accounts sustained large enough losses
that they had to be liquidated.  Normal spreads were disrupted and
professionals who arbitrage between various derivatives, i.e.:  trade one
derivative against another, also sustained large losses.  A similar
situation arose shortly thereafter when Malaysia deliberately shut down
its financial markets to foreigners but the Singapore Monetary Authority
in cooperation with other central banks took prompt action.  Outstanding
contracts were netted out and the losses were shared.  A potential
systemic failure was avoided.

These events led most market participants to reduce their exposure all
round. Banks are frantically trying to limit their exposure, deleverage,
and reduce risk.  Bank stocks have plummeted.  A global credit crunch is
in the making.  It is already restricting the flow of funds to the
periphery, but it has also begun to affect the availability of credit in
the domestic economy.  The junk bond market, for instance has already shut

This brings me to my second point. The pain at the periphery has become so
intense that individual countries have begun to opt out of the global
capitalist system, or simply fall by the wayside.  First Indonesia, then
Russia have suffered a pretty complete breakdown but what has happened in
Malaysia and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong is in some ways even more
ominous.  The collapse in Indonesia and Russia was unintended, but
Malaysia opted out deliberately.  It managed to inflict considerable
damage on foreign investors and speculators and it managed to obtain some
temporary relief, if not for the economy, then at least for the rulers of
the country.  The relief comes from being able to lower interest rates and
to pump up the stock market by isolating the country from the outside
world and squeezing short sellers.  The relief is bound to be temporary
because the borders are porous and money will leave the country illegally;
the effect on the economy will be disastrous but the local capitalists who
are associated with the regime will be able to salvage their businesses
unless the regime itself is toppled.  The measures taken by Malaysia will
hurt the other countries which are trying to keep their financial markets
open because it will encourage the flight of capital.  In this respect
Malaysia has embarked on a beggar-thy-neighbor policy.  If this makes
Malaysia look good in comparison with its neighbors, the policy may easily
find imitators, making it harder for others to keep their markets open.

The third major factor working for the disintegration of the global
capitalist system is the evident inability of the international monetary
authorities to hold it together.  IMF programs do not seem to be working;
in addition, the IMF has run out of money.  The response of the G7
governments to the Russian crisis was woefully inadequate, and the loss of
control was quite scary.  Financial markets are rather peculiar in this
respect: they resent any kind of government interference but they hold a
belief deep down that if conditions get really rough the authorities will
step in.  This belief has now been shaken.

These three factors are working together to reinforce the reverse flow of
capital from the periphery to the center.  The initial shock caused by the
meltdown in Russia is liable to wear off, but the strain on the periphery
is liable to continue.  The flight of capital has now spread to Brazil and
if Brazil goes, Argentina will be endangered.  There is general panic in
Latin America.  Forecasts for global economic growth are being steadily
scaled down and I expect they will end up in negative territory.  If and
when the decline spreads to our economy, we may become much less willing
to accept the imports which are necessary to feed the reverse flow of
capital and the breakdown in the global financial system may be
accompanied by a breakdown in international free trade.

This course of events can be prevented only by the intervention of the
international financial authorities.  The prospects are dim, because the
G7 governments have just failed to intervene in Russia, but the
consequences of that failure may serve as a wake-up call.  There is an
urgent need to rethink and reform the global capitalist system.  As the
Russian example has shown, the problems will become progressively more
intractable the longer they are allowed to fester.

The rethinking must start with the recognition that financial markets are
inherently unstable.  The global capitalist system is based on the belief
that financial markets, left to their own devices, tend towards
equilibrium.  They are supposed to move like a pendulum: they may be
dislocated by external forces, so-called exogenous shocks, but they will
seek to return to the equilibrium position.  This belief is false.
Financial markets are given to excesses and if a boom/bust sequence
progresses beyond a certain point it will never revert to where it came
from.  Instead of acting like a pendulum financial markets have recently
acted more like a wrecking ball, knocking over one economy after another.

There is much talk about imposing market discipline but, imposing market
discipline means imposing instability, and how much instability can
society take?  Market discipline needs to be supplemented by another
discipline: maintaining stability in financial markets ought to be the
objective of public policy.  This is the general principle that I should
like to propose.

Despite the prevailing belief in free markets this principle has already
been accepted and implemented on a national scale.  We have the Federal
Reserve and other financial authorities whose mandate is to prevent a
breakdown in our domestic financial markets and if necessary act as
lenders of last resort.  I am confident that they are capable of carrying
out their mandate.  But we are sadly lacking in the appropriate financial
authorities in the international arena.  We have the Bretton Woods
institutions, -- the IMF and the World Bank -- which have tried valiantly
to adapt themselves to rapidly changing circumstances.  Admittedly the IMF
programs have not been successful in the current global financial crisis;
its mission and its methods of operation need to be reconsidered.  I
believe additional institutions may be necessary.  At the beginning of
this year I proposed establishing an International Credit Insurance
Corporation, but at that time it was not yet clear that the reverse flow
of capital would become such a serious problem and my proposal fell flat.
I believe its time has now come.  We shall have to establish some kind of
international supervision over the national supervisory authorities.  We
shall also have to reconsider the workings of the international banking
system and the functioning of the swap and derivative markets.

These issues are beyond the competence of Congress.  There is, however,
one issue which is very much within its purvue.  That is the request to
authorize an increase in the capital of the IMF.  I am aware that Congress
was greatly influenced by the testimony given by George Schultz opposing
such an increase.  I hope my remarks will serve to contradict that

George Schultz argued that it is better if markets are allowed to look
after themselves than if they are looked after by regulators.  There is an
element of truth in his argument: regulators do make mistakes.  The IMF
approach clearly did not work, otherwise we would not find ourselves in
the current situation.  But that does not mean that financial markets can
look after themselves.  Everybody looking out for his or her self-interest
does not lead to equilibrium but to what Alan Greenspan called irrational
exuberance and afterwards panic.

George Schultz inveighed against the moral hazard of bailing out
irresponsible investors and speculators.  Here he has a valid point.
Bailouts did encourage irresponsible behavior not so much by speculators
-- because we know that we have to take our lumps when markets decline --
but by banks and other lenders who could count on the IMF coming in when a
country got into difficulties.  The IMF imposed tough conditions on the
country concerned but it did not impose any penalties on the lenders. This
asymmetry in the treatment of lenders and borrowers is a major source of
instability in the global capitalist system and it needs to be corrected.
It has to be a focal point in the soul searching that the IMF must
undergo, but I am glad to say that the IMF is learning fast.  In its $2.2
billion program in Ukraine, it is imposing a new condition: 80% of
Ukraine's treasury bills have to be "voluntarily" rescheduled into longer-
term, lower yielding instruments before the program can go forward.  This
is a long way from the Mexican bailout of 1995 where the holders of
Mexican treasury bills came out whole.

The moral hazard now operates in the opposite direction; in not enabling
the IMF to do its work when it is most needed.  Congress bears an awesome
responsibility for keeping the IMF alive.  I am convinced that the
attitude of the Congress was already an important element in the failure
to deal with Russia.  As you probably know I have foundations in many of
the formerly communist countries.  Some of these countries are badly hit
by the fallout from the Russian collapse.  Countries like Moldova and
Romania have no one else to turn to but the IMF.  The IMF is perfectly
capable of assisting them.  It would be tragic if it ran out of resources.

Replenishing the capital of the IMF will not be sufficient to resolve the
global financial crisis.  A way has to be found to provide liquidity not
only at the center but also at the periphery.  I believe there is an
urgent need for the creation of Special Drawing Rights which can be used
to guarantee the rollover of the already existing debt of countries which
receive the IMF's seal of approval.  If there is no reward for good
behavior, meltdowns and defections will multiply.  But such radical ideas
cannot even be considered until Congress changes its attitude towards
international institutions and the IMF in particular.

So far our stock market has escaped relatively unscathed and our economy
has actually benefitted from the global crisis but make no mistake: unless
Congress is willing to support the IMF, the disintegration of the global
capitalist system will hurt our financial markets and our economy as well
because we are at the center of that system.

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@desk.nl and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@desk.nl