The Iran nuclear deal: a new détente between the Shi’ites and the non-Muslims of the world?

The Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s meant a huge shift in Middle-East politics and the relation between Islam and the rest. Within a period of just a few months, the ancient civilisation of Persia went from a strong ally of the West, to a committed enemy of Western interests. In the next 35 years, the US became the Great Satan; fatwas were pronounced on Salman Rushdie; and Iran got involved in conflicts from Afghanistan to Lebanon. In reaction, Iran was isolated and economically crippled with sanctions.

Now there is an accord between all the 5 permanent UN security members on the one hand and Iran on the other hand. It is thus not merely the US, but also Russia, China, and Europe that has wanted this deal, which involves a lifting of economic sanctions in return for UN inspectors going to suspected nuclear weapons production sites and Iran getting rid of its stock of enriched uranium.

Looking beyond the nuclear issue, this re-alignment with Shi’ite Iran makes perfect geo-political sense. The non-Muslim world, including Russia and China, finds itself in conflict with predominantly Sunni fanatics in a large number of countries. The Chinese authorities worry about their Muslim Uygur minority which is turning increasingly violent. The Russians are battling Muslim minorities in the Caucasus and in the South-East Siberian rim. France and the UK battle Muslim fanatics both at home, in Africa, in Afghanistan/Pakistan, and in the Middle East. The US pretty much fights Islamic militancy everywhere, cheered on by pretty much every non-Muslim power block.

‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, a well-known Arab saying goes, which makes Iran the natural ally of the whole of the non-Muslim world as Iran’s friends have come up against Sunni enemies too in recent years. Continue reading

The Grexit deal, Varoufakis, and anti-greek sentiments

The deal yesterday morning between the Greek PM and the Eurozone Finance ministers is an agreement to reform before talks. By tomorrow evening, the Greek parliament has to accept 4 pieces of legislation on a large range of issues (pensions, labour markets, taxation), after which the other 19 Eurozone countries will start negotiations on another bailout. The European Central Bank has refused any loosening of the conditions for more loans to banks, meaning that Greece will have to keep up its end of the deal whilst its banks are essentially bankrupt and the rest of the countries take their time to negotiate and decide whether they agree with the outcomes.

Any negotiated bailout will need unanimity to go ahead. So the Fins, whose government is dependent on the ‘Real Fins’ who are adamant that there will not be more money going to Greece, would have to agree. The Dutch liberal party PM, who brought a long list of broken Greek reforms to the attention of the Eurozone meeting (backed up by the Slovenians and others) would have to break an election promise not to send any more money to Greece. The German parliament, which is being inundated with stories of Greek corruption in the German press, would have to agree. The Baltic, Irish, and Portugese governments would also have to agree to more money for the Greeks, when the Greeks failed to push through the reforms that they did implement the last 6 years.

Forget it. Not gonna happen. Discussions on whether the reforms are useful or whether they would push Greece into another recession are beside the point: the outside money has dried up and Greece will have to live within its means whilst its government and its banks are bankrupt, so you should see the agreed-upon reforms as the first step of Greece outside the Eurozone. A tragedy for the population of Greece. Continue reading

Re-imagining a Labor election manifesto

Despite the fact that Federal Labor has consistently led in opinion polls over the last year or so by between four and six percentage points, most pundits (including the writer) have very little confidence that Labor will win the next election. In fact I expect they will more than likely lose.

Bill Shorten (assuming he survives as leader) is unlikely to win by continuing with his small target “me too” strategy where there isn’t a cigarette paper’s width between the policies of Labor and the Coalition on hot button issues like national security/terrorism and asylum seekers.

This article is based on the (admittedly courageous) proposition that a small target strategy is not the only way to win an election from opposition. It is possible to achieve government by winning people’s hearts and minds with an imaginative and popular positive policy platform, even though the last Opposition Leader who succeeded in doing so was Gough Whitlam in 1972. Of course I might be wrong, but here is my stab at an election policy manifesto that I reckon Shorten or his successor should adopt:

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Doing over the creditors, Greek style

As Greece’s situation has gone in recent days from bad to worse to worser to even-worserer-than-that, I’ve seen a lot of claims that the European authorities treated Greece’s private creditors too generously back in 2010-2012. My natural tendency was to accept those claims, partly because I wasn’t paying close attention to Greece back then, and partly because creditors have a long history of getting off lightly in these situations.

Let me explain for a moment. The fate of creditors is important in financial disasters, and usually under-examined. People talk about the bailouts of banks and insurers in the 2008 crisis, but it was typically their creditors rather than the institutions and their shareholders that got most of the benefit of those US interventions. Goldman Sachs and Societe Generale, for instance, seem to have won most from the huge AIG bailout, due to regulators’ fears that they would collapse and take the entire world financial system with them. By the time the rescue was done, Goldman Sachs and Societe Generale and their shareholders and management escaped with remarkably little penalty, and Goldman Sachs today is not a charred, smoking corpse but a live colossus of world finance.

That’s a problem. If you really want to avoid moral hazard, you want to make sure in these situations that the creditors get royally ****ed over, in a way that will forever remind the next generation of creditors not to be so ****ing stupid as to lend to organisations like AIG that are taking a bunch of dumb ****ing risks. That will make it more expensive for dumb ****s to borrow money, which is a good thing. But in the process of trying to prevent collapses from taking the whole financial system with them, the regulators often end up saving the creditors.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that regulators save the private creditors far too often. But it’s easy to say this from my comfortable viewpoint. When you have a weekend to make a decision that might end up destroying a piece of the world financial system and ruining a lot of ordinary people’s lives, there is a certain pressure to err on the side of caution.

So when I heard the likes of Steve Randy Waldman saying Greece’s private creditors had gotten off lightly, I assumed he was right.

But it turns out, maybe not.

So far I’ve found only one study of the 2010-2012 Greek bailout’s effects on private creditors whose authors seem really powerfully qualified to make judgements. That study is the 2013 paper “The Greek Debt Restructuring: An Autopsy“, by Jeromin Zettelmeyer, Christoph Trebesch and Mitu Gulati. Trebesch, who wrote an AEJ paper called, irresistably, “The Price of Haircuts”, also maintains a terrific Haircut Dataset of 187 government debt restructurings. 

And this study says Greece’s private creditors got done over pretty good. Indeed, the authors calculate that the 2010-2012 Greek bailout established a new world record for creditor losses.

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Against decentralisation: why crowded is good

From time to time you hear the argument that Australia would be a much better place if only we could actively “decentralise” population. The argument is we should encourage people out of our big cities – notably Sydney and Melbourne – and into smaller cities, like Wollongong and Ballarat. In pursuit of this, various governments over the years have tried to move departments out to regional cities. The Victorian government under John Brumby even ran an advertising campaign in Melbourne encouraging people to move out and resettle in regional Victoria.

This sort of argument has often been based on the idea that these regional areas have lots of existing infrastructure that we can exploit at little cost. It has been encouraged by talk of the “Death of Distance” and “The Flat World” – the idea that globalisation and modern telecommunications are making location obsolete, so you might as well live in the countryside. It’s particularly popular wherever there are plenty of marginal regional electorates.

And this argument seem to be spreading. So here’s the case against spending government resources to actively encourage decentralisation.

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Three perspectives on the coming Grexit

The Greek referendum and the hype leading up to it have gone exactly according to my script of 8 days ago, where I predicted a resounding ‘no’ vote and a Grexit to stop the bank-run, with the other European politicians too offended and belittled by Tsipras and Varoufakis to organise another bailout.

The Grexit is now very likely, so likely in fact that Varoufakis’ friend Jaques Delors is writing open letters to European newspapers to implore the rest of Europe not to let Greece go!

To get a good view of what has happened in the last 15 years and what is going to happen in the coming months, let us take the perspectives of three fictitious people: that of an informed Greek businessman, that of an informed Dutch politician, and that of an American commentator.

The Greek business man, February 2015

Syriza has just had its moment with a landslide victory in the elections, getting the population to believe that the Eurozone countries will indefinitely support their pensions and welfare, and allow Greece to not reform in any meaningful way. Party time!

The election after-party was great, with lots of Ouzo and olives, but I know it can’t last. The other Europeans might have seemed gullible to the extreme so far, but even they will not want to be to be hung out to dry in the media like saps, month after month. At some point, the EU countries will stop lending money to anything Greek and ask to be paid back something, whether that is a government, a bank, or a business. How to plan for this, what to do?

Let’s think about what I stand to lose if the Greek government starts issuing that awful Drachma again, worth a fraction of the current Euros.

Firstly, my bank accounts in Greece will halve in value, if not worse. So I am going to take out all the money from my deposits and park it in Northern European banks, or Northern European treasury bills. Moreover, I will give my uncle, the bank manager, a call so as to invite him for dinner and discuss the possibility of taking out a long-term loan with his bank, Euros I will then also park in Northern Europe. When the Drachma is re-introduced, we both know his bank will be in terrible trouble as it simply will not have the Euros to pay depositors what they are owed, but he and I will be doing very well indeed as our loans will be converted into Drachmas whilst our assets are still in Euros in Northern Europe. I am going to get rich from this!!!

Secondly, once the Drachma comes back, my holiday resort will have Greek workers paid in Drachmas and foreign guests who want to pay in Euros. That should work just fine and, since I know my workers will then be paid a lot less, I can start to withhold their pay in the months just before the reintroduction of the Drachmas. I will then pay them later in fewer Euros or perhaps not at all if the mess is big enough and I manage to go bankrupt for the fourth time this decade. All the assets are in my 2-year old son’s name anyway, so I should be able to get away with that trick again. By the same token, I can make a deal with my old school-mate who is now a tax auditor so as to delay paying my taxes until just after the reintroduction of the Drachma.

Thirdly, I am going to have to think about all that German beer I stock for the tourists and thus have to pay for in Euros. There has got to be a way I can use the coming Grexit to have my beer and not pay at all. They don’t trust me at all over there in Germany, which means they insist I pay beforehand, but perhaps I can wriggle out of that if I have to for a few months. Oh, I know what to do: I am going to set up a post-office business in the Netherlands via which I then buy lots of beer with credit, which I then transport to my resort. Those post-office businesses provide a means for American companies to hide from their tax authorities, so why shouldn’t I set one up to defraud a German beer company? By the time they find out what has happened and have traced things back to me, all the intermediary companies will be bankrupt anyway and I will have that beer but no need to pay for it.

Now, what other opportunities will open themselves up? Continue reading

Syriza: the latest disaster for the left

I don’t have much time to offer anything very considered but want to just say how bemused I am at the carryings on of Syriza. The whole sorry business has been horrible to watch with creditors showing no interest in their own self-interest let alone a little enlightenment in their self-interest. But the Syriza Government? I was and remain a huge fan of how coherent and compelling Varoufakis was in articulating his case – of Syriza’s arrival as some kind of circuit breaker that might rescue Europe from itself as it rescued Greece from Europe.

But to negotiate properly, to negotiate as a broke borrower, you have to be able to show how you’re going to make your loan the creditor’s problem – not just your own. That requires a Plan A – in which the creditors and the borrower negotiate some mutually satisfactory settlement and this needs to be done with a Plan B clearly in view in which the creditors lose their shirts – and the borrower recovers.

I’ve always been kind of surprised at Syriza’s commitment to the Euro. Not that it wouldn’t be saying that it would strongly prefer an outcome in which the Euro remains its sole currency, but that that is all contingent on satisfactory negotiation. And to negotiate credibly in that situation one needs a clear Plan B. Perhaps it might make sense to conceal the plan for a while. But here we are at the end game and there’s no Plan B.

The referendum is a bizarre plebiscite on . . . well no-one really knows what it’s about. The Greek people get to vote on whether they will agree to the Troika’s terms. Those terms are not current. They’ve been withdrawn. Now they’ll probably be back on the table if they Greek’s vote ‘Yes’. But if they vote that way – presumably Syriza’s days are numbered – if it doesn’t resign immediately. And if they vote “No”. Well it’s completely unclear what that means other than that the Greek populace are where they were when they elected Syriza which is to say that they don’t want to pay their government’s debts. Well so what? The German populace want them to pay those debts. So where does that get us?

If BHP Billiton owes NAB a billion dollars, it’s not a very compelling result if a plebiscite of its shareholders say they’d rather not repay the loan. So we have Plan A which is that the Europeans offer Greece a deal that they won’t offer them, and Plan A with a tantrum, which is to say that the Greeks come back to the negotiating table saying “you know how we said we really don’t want to repay the loans. Well we really really don’t want to repay the loans. What do you say now?”

And the thing is that this seems of a piece with the left in so many instances – utterly lacking in the courage of what they claim are their convictions.

Why is a Grexit now likely?

Greece owes the IMF 1.6 billion euro that it doesn’t have but is supposed to pay by tomorrow. Unless the ECB lends it to the Greeks, effectively converting the IMF debt into an ECB debt, Greece is bankrupt tomorrow. In months to come, much bigger debt repayments are scheduled to the ECB-IMF in tranches of 4 billion, and Greece won’t have that money either as its economy is still contracting.

Greece didn’t have the money to pay off the previous debts in the last 5 years either though, and that just lead to more debts in return for symbolic reforms that weren’t implemented.

Why not muddle through then and let the Northern European politicians present a pretend-reform package to their population as a victory? And why would bankruptcy force a Grexit, given that there is no official mechanism to force any country out of the Euro, once it is in?

What is forcing it is the combination of the referendum on the symbolic reforms, together with the bank-run on the Greek banks that has this morning lead to capital controls. Let me explain how the two force a Grexit. Continue reading