Cyprus is paying a painful price for bowing to international capital

Being controlled by global financial interests does not benefit ordinary people, their economy or democracy, writes the Jubilee Debt Campaign's Tim Jones.

A small country is being brought to its knees by a huge banking system which has recklessly been lent money from overseas. Controls on money leaving the country have had to be introduced. The size of the debts owed mean there is no way the government can simply bailout the banks. For Cyprus in 2013 read also Iceland in 2008.

Both small islands let themselves become home to casino banks many times the size of their actual economies. Banks borrowed money from overseas, lending it on again in even greater quantities. But when these loans could not be paid, the banks were bust, threatening the savings of all those with accounts in the banks, including normally Icelanders and Cypriots who had no idea their money was being put on a global roulette wheel.

In 2008, the Icelandic government could simply not afford to bailout its banks. Instead it sought to protect savings of domestic Icelanders, a limited bailout, whilst letting the reckless banks go bust to their foreign creditors. Iceland inevitably went through a crisis, but its economy is now growing, unemployment falling, and its experience measures favourably against that of Ireland, Spain and even the UK.

Iceland’s approach is a good lens through which to try to assess what is happening in Cyprus. The original plan of last week was madness, hitting domestic savers however small their savings. Now the deal rightly protects Cypriots who had been told by the EU that their deposits up-to €100,000 were safe.

Depositors over €100,000 will see their claims taken into a bad-bank, from which they could get back very little. Reckless lenders to banks via bonds will also take a hit on their loans, unlike under the original plan. This appears to be fair; there is no reason why Cypriot or other taxpayers should bailout reckless lenders such as rich Russians, hiding their money away in a secretive tax haven. In many ways it repeats the Icelandic experience. However, by hitting Cypriots as well as foreigners, it could have major ramifications for Cyprus’ businesses. It is also questionable whether the EU is only allowing this approach this time because it is rich Russians who are set to lose out, not German, French and British banks.

And so we come to the "help" from the EU through bailout loans. Cyprus’ government cannot afford to protect all the deposits under €100,000, even though the EU has brought in a collective rule to that effect. Not having its own currency, Cyprus has no ability to bring in inventive policies to keep money moving round the economy. But by taking €10 billion of loans from the EU and IMF, Cyprus is taking on a further debt of 60 per cent of national income, on top of the over 60 per cent already owed, and with national income set to crash. These loans are not payable, yet as with Greece, Portugal and Ireland today, or Africa and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, huge suffering is about to be imposed in the name of trying to pay.

True assistance from the EU would be to provide this support as grants, a policy which would be fair given that it is to protect the EU wide deposit protection policy, and necessary because of the existence of the single-currency. The European Central Bank could create the one-off money to do so, with no visible impact anywhere else.

Cyprus is not Iceland. The single currency, and the failure to discriminate between domestic and foreign lenders to banks, means the crisis for the Cypriot people is set to be far worse. The EU should be giving real help to prevent the destruction of the economy and many peoples lives.

Much debate in Cyprus has seemed to be driven by the fear of what will happen if all the foreign financiers leave. But it is the very same people who have driven the country into crisis. The controls on moving money out of Cyprus need to be rigorously enforced to give some protection, just as they were in Iceland, and in Argentina following its default in 2001, and Malaysia during the Asian Financial Crisis. Thankfully the EU is turning a blind eye to the Lisbon treaty which prevents all regulations on the movement of money between countries. But the pity is that other such regulations were not used to prevent the reckless lending into the country in the first place.

Regulations on the movement of money between countries were common-place in the decades after the second world war, a period when there were hardly any debt crises. After they began to be removed in the 1970s, such crises have become common place, affecting every continent from Latin America and Europe, to East and Central Asia and now Europe today.

The crisis in Cyprus shows how damaging the banking industry can be when it gets too large, just as in Iceland, Ireland, Spain and the UK. For the country to emerge from this crisis, Cyprus, like so many other countries, needs to get control over its banks in order to get them to invest in productive industries, rather than being part of a global speculation and tax avoidance ring.

Being controlled by global financial interests does not benefit ordinary people, their economy or democracy. Whilst Cyprus is going someway to making reckless lenders share in the pain, the failure to truly discriminate between domestic and foreign debts, and the lack of real help from the EU, means much suffering lies ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tim Jones is policy officer at Jubilee Debt Campaign. Jubilee Debt Campaign is part of a global movement demanding freedom from the slavery of unjust debts and a new financial system that puts people first.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?