Christine Lagarde's "tough love" is an insult to Greece

By urging Greeks to pay up without whingeing the IMF chief has revealed her deep historical and cult.

You are crossing the road, a little absent-minded. About two-thirds of the way, you become aware of oncoming traffic. And right then, in that moment of panic, instead of speeding up to the safety of the near pavement, you freeze. Or, even worse, you try to turn and go back to where you came.

It is an illogical reaction to a simple, urgent problem. We’ve all done it. But when the head of the International Monetary Fund behaves in such a way, faced with the oncoming juggernaut of economic crisis, it is a source of deep concern.

In an interview for the Guardian, Christine Lagarde did exactly that. She chose to tell Greece it was payback time. “That’s right”, she said calmly, “Yeah.” She chose to talk about starving babies in sub-Saharan Africa to strengthen her call to Greece to stop whingeing and pay up. She chose to pinpoint tax evasion by a fraction of the population of a country which accounts for less than 0.5% of the world’s GDP as the sole source of the world’s economic woes. She chose to bury her head in the sand.

But, while her argument has been loudly lauded as “tough love” in many a luxurious Northern European dinner-party, over a glass of cheeky Beaujolais Nouveau, the most rudimentary scrutiny reveals it to be strategically, economically and intellectually flawed.

Her stance shows a complete misunderstanding of the psychology of a nation which has suffered nearly five years of recession and the severest of austerity cuts; a nation which is increasingly and vocally rejecting foreign interference and which is being pushed to political extremes in the upcoming election.

What was the idea, strategically, behind such a statement? If anyone seriously believed that having a representative of the IMF – the Grand Protector of the financial status quo – tell Greece to put up and shut up, would have the effect of encouraging people to vote for centrist pro-austerity parties, then they understand the mood there even less than I thought.

There are very few ways one could make such a move even more cack-handed. One could choose, as the vessel of such sentiments, an ex-Finance Minister of a Eurozone country; perhaps someone who left France with its highest deficit in 60 years. One could choose someone currently under investigation for not just one but two cases of fraud in shady financial deals. One could even accompany this interview with a pictorial which showed her dispensing thrift advice, while displaying a deep tropical tan, heavy jewellery and expensively tailored clothes.

And from such a throne of non-credibility, came the attractively packaged but intellectually hollow arguments.

First, the insidious idea that the misery engulfing the people of any nation is to be ignored, on the basis that there is even worse misery elsewhere. That in some way helping Greece – a member of the European Union for thirty years – is a direct alternative to helping “little kids from a school in a little village in Niger”. There is no such proposed programme to help little kids in Niger, you understand. This is a fictional programme, part of the IMF’s varied portfolio of fictional charitable work, that could, possibly, maybe happen, if only Greeks stopped being so selfish.

The hollow nonsense continued to flow freely. Faced with the question of women without access to a midwife when they give birth, patients dying without access to drugs, the elderly dying alone for lack of care and children starving, Lagarde’s response is simply to say that it is very easy for them to help themselves. How? "By all paying their tax. Yeah."

That’s right. Because, plainly, it is the same mothers without access to midwives, the elderly without care, the sick who cannot afford the newly introduced €5 hospital admission fee, the children without food, who have hoards of taxable income and are busily trying to send it to banks in Switzerland, while starving. Greece as one homogenous, tax-dodging mass responsible for its own downfall.

Which all enforces the grand illusion that all this is nothing to do with a global financial crisis, brought about by the very interests that the IMF represents. Instead, it was a Greek time-bomb waiting to explode. This, however, creates some difficulty in explaining the IMF’s assessment of Greece in May 2008. It boasted headlines like; “The Greek economy has been buoyant for several years and growth is expected to remain robust for some time”; “The Greek banking sector appears to be sound and has thus far remained largely unaffected by the financial market turmoil”; and “in view of Greece’s membership in the EMU, the availability of financing for the external deficit is not a concern”.

Presumably, what is implicit in Lagarde’s comments is: We got it wrong then, but you should take our advice now. We’re definitely, definitely right this time. The IMF is, after all, the forensic scientist of the world’s financial woes. “It's not either austerity or growth, that's just a false debate”, Lagarde explains. “Nobody could argue against growth. And no one could argue against having to repay your debts. The question and the difficulty is how do you reconcile the two, and in which order do you take them? I would argue that you do it on a country by country case.”

I invite Christine Lagarde to name one example, one country, one case where the IMF decided that repaying a debt came second to growth.

It certainly was not Malawi – ordered by the IMF to sell its grain reserves in 2001 to private companies in order to repay a debt with 56% interest (which it had been advised to take by the IMF); a move which directly caused hundreds of people to die the next year.

It certainly was not Argentina which, having been the busty centrefold of IMF policies throughout the 1990′s sticking religiously to all IMF advice – privatising everything but their anthem, liberalising industries, lowering corporation taxes while tightening public spending, suffered one of the most catastrophic economic collapses in 2001. The IMF demanded it got paid first and actively lobbied against discounts to creditors.

As a matter of fact, there appears to be not a single example of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment policies applied to a crisis situation where they haven’t brought more misery and stagnation. Its obsession with austerity has recently been described as “dangerous” for European recovery, by the OECD.

Nobel-winning Joseph Stiglitz, put it at its bluntest: “When the IMF arrives in a country, they are interested in only one thing. How do we make sure the banks and financial institutions are paid?... It is the IMF that keeps the speculators in business. They’re not interested in development, or what helps a country to get out of poverty.”

So, should we simply discount Christine Lagarde’s noisy drivel? Should we ignore the IMF’s advice altogether? That would be a mistake. This is, for instance, what they said about the UK economy: “The financial sector is strong and well supervised with a principle-based approach. The fiscal framework is good, and the mission focused on how to build fiscal cushions needed to respond to adverse shocks.”

They said this in 2007, a year before the entire house of cards collapsed on our heads – a collapse for which our children’s children will be paying, for many decades to come. The conclusion, therefore, must be that one should never ignore the IMF’s advice. One should study carefully what is being advocated, then do precisely the opposite.

Many Greek voters certainly plan to. That’s right. Yeah.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Labour's investment bank plan could help fix our damaging financial system

The UK should learn from the success of a similar project in Germany.

Labour’s election manifesto has proved controversial, with the Tories and the right-wing media claiming it would take us back to the 1970s. But it contains at least one excellent idea which is certainly not out-dated and which would in fact help to address a key problem in our post-financial-crisis world.

Even setting aside the damage wrought by the 2008 crash, it’s clear the UK’s financial sector is not serving the real economy. The New Economics Foundation recently revealed that fewer than 10% of the total stock of UK bank loans are to non-financial and non-real estate businesses. The majority of their lending goes to other financial sector firms, insurance and pension funds, consumer finance, and commercial real estate.

Labour’s proposed UK Investment Bank would be a welcome antidote to a financial system that is too often damaging or simply useless. There are many successful examples of public development banks in the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and Korea. However, the UK can look closer to home for a suitable model: the KfW in Germany (not exactly a country known for ‘disastrous socialist policies’). With assets of over 500bn, the KfW is the world’s largest state-owned development bank when its size is measured as a percentage of GDP, and it is an institution from which the UK can draw much-needed lessons if it wishes to create a financial system more beneficial to the real economy.

Where does the money come from? Although KfW’s initial paid-up capital stems purely from public sources, it currently funds itself mainly through borrowing cheaply on the international capital markets with a federal government guarantee,  AA+ rating, and safe haven status for its public securities. With its own high ratings, the UK could easily follow this model, allowing its bank to borrow very cheaply. These activities would not add to the long-run public debt either: by definition an investment bank would invest in projects that would stimulate growth.

Aside from the obviously countercyclical role KfW played during the financial crisis, ramping up total business volume by over 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011 while UK banks became risk averse and caused a credit crunch, it also plays an important part in financing key sectors of the real economy that would otherwise have trouble accessing funds. This includes investment in research and innovation, and special programs for SMEs. Thanks to KfW, as well as an extensive network of regional and savings banks, fewer German SMEs report access to finance as a major problem than in comparator Euro area countries.

The Conservatives have talked a great deal about the need to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing. However, a real industrial policy needs more than just empty rhetoric: it needs finance. The KfW has historically played an important role in promoting German manufacturing, both at home and abroad, and to this day continues to provide finance to encourage the export of high-value-added German products

KfW works by on-lending most of its funds through the private banking system. This means that far from being the equivalent of a nationalisation, a public development bank can coexist without competing with the rest of the financial system. Like the UK, Germany has its share of large investment banks, some of which have caused massive instabilities. It is important to note that the establishment of a public bank would not have a negative effect on existing private banks, because in the short term, the UK will remain heavily dependent on financial services.

The main problem with Labour’s proposal is therefore not that too much of the financial sector will be publicly owned, but too little. Its proposed lending volume of £250bn over 10 years is small compared to the KfW’s total financing commitments of  750 billion over the past 10 years. Although the proposal is better than nothing, in order to be effective a public development bank will need to have sufficient scale.

Finally, although Brexit might make it marginally easier to establish the UK Investment Bank, because the country would no longer be constrained by EU State Aid Rules or the Maastricht criteria, it is worth remembering that KfW’s sizeable range of activities is perfectly legal under current EU rules.

So Europe cannot be blamed for holding back UK financial sector reform to date - the problem is simply a lack of political will in the current government. And with even key architects of 1980s financial liberalisation, such as the IMF and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, rethinking the role of the financial sector, isn’t it time Britain did the same?

Dr Natalya Naqvi is a research fellow at University College and the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, where she focuses on the role of the state and the financial sector in economic development

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