Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Debts

When someone buys a Lottery ticket, they do so in full knowledge that it will be a miracle if they get their money back. Come Monday morning, they don't march indignantly into the local corner shop demanding, "Where's my money?"

When someone lends to someone else, they know there is always a risk that they won't get their money back. Shit happens, some of which can be insured against. A prudent lender will want to know what the money is going to be used for and whether the person lent to is likely to be both able and willing to repay. The greater the risk, the greater the rate of return - the interest - expected.

Society expects that if you have incurred debts you will at least try to repay them. But it also accepts that sometimes you won't be able to. In the latter situation, nowadays instead of the Debtor's Jail, everyone is expected to Move On. Like marriages, loans don't always work out.

"The French have always had a sure instinct for investing in bankrupt countries" - British Treasury Official 1928, quoted in Liaquat Ahmed, Lords of Finance.

When Greece was on its borrowing spree, lots of big institutions were also on lending sprees. Big banks like France's BNP Paribas bought lots of Greek bonds - in other words, they lent to Greece. Recklessly it seems. They didn't ask what Greece was going to do with the money or whether it was likely to be able or willing to pay it back. Because it was "sovereign debt", BNPs men in suits - or their computer programs - did not really consider the risk of default. They had their eyes fixed on their commissions and bonuses from these very big trades.

Now we are in a situation (and have been for a couple of years) where Greece fesses up and says that though it's willing to repay its debts, truth is, it can't. It pissed the money it borrowed up the wall.

The response of the banks - and other governments in Europe - has been to say that though Greece will have to be excused some of its debt, for the most part, the debt must be paid. Other people must pay it, people like German taxpayers. In this way, BNP Paribas won't go bust and the men in suits won't lose their shirts.

All this raises a completely different question about debt, When should I pay my neighbour's debts?

Parents sometimes pay their children's debts, just because it's their children. Friends sometimes help out their friends because they are their friends. Probably people do help out their next door neighbour who is in difficulty. And people put small ads. in Private Eye asking for help and giving their bank account details.

But Germany paying for Greece?

It does happen, and all the time. For example, Northern Ireland on the periphery of the UK is not a viable state. If it was as independent as Greece, it could not balance its budget. Locked into the sterling zone, it would not have the option of devaluing to improve its competitiveness. The only alternative to a vicious circle of cuts and deflation is for someone else to bail it out. This is what the UK parliament does, annually, using revenues from English taxpayers. Northern Ireland is subsidised, heavily and recurrently.

There are no obvious gains from this generosity, except lower bills for policing civil disorder in Northern Ireland. But that could have been achieved by throwing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, forcing it to choose between independence and uniting with the Republic of Ireland.

English taxpayers don't really notice what is going on for two reasons. First, some of them think that they are In It Together with Northern Ireland - one language, one flag, one Queen - even if they would never dream of going there for a holiday. Second, there is no English Parliament to raise awkward questions about all this subsidising of peripheral regions.

So the way to make German taxpayers think of Greeks as their neighbours whose debts they should pay is simple. A United Europe Parliament, analogous to the UK Parliament. And no Bundestag to raise awkward questions.

The only alternative is to let Greece default and for everyone to Move On. That's what used to happen in the old days.

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