In May 2010, Greece turned to the EU and IMF for help. But the nation has paid a heavy price in lost output and soaring unemployment.
Read more: Greece: Three years after the bailout
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In May 2010, Greece turned to the EU and IMF for help. But the nation has paid a heavy price in lost output and soaring unemployment.
Read more: Greece: Three years after the bailout
Christine Lagarde’s inspectors should see that Britain is crying out for investment, not more austerity
Dear IMF officials,
Don’t be blinded by a single ray of sunshine. Britain may have avoided a triple-dip recession, but all the other economic news is weak at best.
At the heart of the problem are the country’s ultra-conservative banks and building societies. Either they are short of funds or reluctant to lend to all but the most financially secure borrower. As Vince Cable put it yesterday, they are working on a “pawnbroker business model” demanding “heaps of collateral” that he likened to a gold watch.
The result is that few small and medium-sized businesses can access the cheap credit on offer from the Bank of England.
Homebuyers are in a similar fix. Some estate agents report that cash buyers make up almost 50% of the house purchases in recent months. Housebuilding remains at levels not seen since the 1920s.
As you pointed out on your visit last year, the Treasury has room for manoeuvre should it want to promote growth. The trouble is that all the fiscal loosening this year will just go to overstressed hospitals, a bigger pension bill and a school system coping with a baby boom. There was little extra in the last budget for investment.
Among the voices over here calling for a more cautious approach to austerity are the former City regulator Lord Turner, who warned yesterday that the slowdown caused by aggressive cuts could trigger a cycle of debt.
“I think the difficulty is that when the public debt levels go up in the crisis you feel you’ve got to get that under control
Chancellor is determined to resist pressure for greater boosts to growth in talks this week, arguing harm would outweigh benefits
George Osborne will warn the International Monetary Fund that a U-turn on the government’s budget plans would do more harm than good when officials from the Washington-based organisation arrive in London on Wednesday for two weeks of talks.
The Treasury intends to reject the IMF’s call for an easing in the pace of deficit reduction and will insist that any change in the strategy is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Alarmed at the flatlining of the British economy in 2011 and 2012, the IMF said last month it was time for Osborne to do more to boost economic growth and urged that he should rethink plans to cut the government’s structural budget deficit by 1% of national income in 2013-14.
The chancellor was stung by the criticism, which was seized upon by shadow chancellor Ed Balls as evidence the government had damaged the economy with an over-aggressive austerity approach.
Despite the government’s poor showing in last week’s local elections, Osborne has no intention of changing course but is keen to avoid a public call for a volte-face from the IMF, which initially was a strong supporter of the coalition’s approach to tackling the UK’s record peacetime budget deficit.
Treasury officials intend to show that any change to the strategy followed for the last three years would damage the government’s credibility in the financial markets and that the subsequent increase in long-term interest rates would outweigh any benefits from cutting taxes or increasing spending.
They will also say that the sluggishness of the UK economy in 2012 was a result of the drop in exports to the crisis-hit eurozone, rather than weak consumer spending.
The IMF has become more concerned about the health of the UK economy over the last year and has called for a rethink of fiscal policy – tax and spending – unless the pace of growth picked up. Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s chief economist, embarrassed the chancellor last month when he singled out the UK as a country that had the scope to ease fiscal policy to boost growth. The chancellor was particularly irritated by Blanchard’s comment that the UK was “playing with fire” by refusing to change tack.
IMF officials are likely to point out in the discussions that the level of national output in the UK is still more than 2% below its peak five years after the recession began in early 2008. By contrast, the US and Germany have both more than recovered the ground lost in the slump.
Osborne’s team knew about Blanchard’s views but expected any concerns to be raised by the IMF in the Article IV discussions – the organisation’s annual economic health check on its 188 member states – that begin this week. IMF deputy managing director David Lipton will issue advice to the government on 22 May at the end of the discussions.
The Treasury will say that the economy is gradually on the mend and that the IMF’s anxiety about the weakness of growth has already been addressed in recent policy initiatives.
Osborne believes that the “help to buy” measures announced in the budget to stimulate the housing market, and last month’s decision to target lending to small and medium-sized businesses in a beefed-up Funding for Lending scheme, should be taken into account by the IMF before it calls for a budget volte-face. And it will insist that the loss of credibility suffered by the UK from changing course would outweigh any benefits from fine-tuning the government’s financial plans.
The Treasury will argue that budget plans are in line with the advice the IMF has been dispensing to rich countries following the deep slump of 2008-09: that there are other western nations doing a faster repair job on their public finances, despite even weaker growth; the IMF’s view about the need for a different approach is not shared by Brussels.
The European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs Olli Rehn said last week: “The level of public debt is projected to rise to close to 100% next year.
“There really is no case for a discretionary fiscal loosening in the UK. It is important the UK follows through with consistent consolidation of public finances to achieve a more sustainable fiscal position.”
Chancellor to beef up £80bn loans scheme amid US calls for Britain to tone down austerity measures
George Osborne will announce an expansion of the Bank of England’s £80bn funding for lending scheme (FLS) ahead of a visit to Britain by the International Monetary Fund next month, as he seeks to head off calls for a softening of government austerity plans.
High-street banks are to be given added incentives to extend credit to small and medium-sized businesses in an expansion to the scheme, due in the next fortnight.
An IMF mission arrives in London for two weeks of talks on 8 May and Osborne plans to launch the beefed-up FLS in an attempt to persuade the fund that the coalition can boost growth without doing a U-turn on its deficit-reduction strategy. Discussions between the Treasury and the Bank have concluded that high-street lenders need further inducement to pass on the benefits of subsidised lending to companies.
The FLS was launched last August and offered subsidised credit to high street banks, provided they passed on the benefits to households and businesses. Figures so far have shown a pick-up in lending for mortgages but no increase in business lending. The Bank always envisaged that it would take time for loans to SMEs to increase, but minutes of the April meeting of its nine-strong monetary policy committee, released last week, signalled support for an expansion of the scheme.
With the business secretary, Vince Cable also pressing for action to help SMEs, Osborne has been keen for the Bank to increase the generosity of the FLS, but the need to target help to the corporate sector has been given added urgency by the imminent arrival of the IMF for its annual article IV consultation.
Last week, the IMF embarrassed the chancellor by urging a rethink of a tax and spending policy that will involve cutting Britain’s structural budget deficit by 1% of national output this year.
The fund has told the chancellor that it is worried about the weakness of demand in the UK and will be asking whether he has any alternatives to changes his budgetary stance.
The chancellor was stung by last week’s criticism from the fund. He argued that he had already taken steps in the budget to boost growth. He pointed out to Christine Lagarde, the fund’s managing director, during talks in Washington last week that the government had already adopted a flexible approach to austerity by pushing back the timetable by two years for debt to peak as a share of national output.
But the IMF is convinced that the UK is still operating well below its full potential. It is keen to discover in its talks next month why the economy has failed to respond to four years of unprecedented monetary stimulus. During this time bank rates have been pegged at 0.5% and the Bank has created £375bn of electronic money through its quantitative easing programme.
The fund believes that its rich-country members have generally been over-hasty in their aggressive approach to deficit reduction, and that less of the fiscal pain should have been front-loaded.On Saturday, a communique released at the end of a meeting of the IMF’s policymaking committee said that where country circumstances allowed, governments should avoid responding to weak growth with fresh attempts to cut deficits, focus on the underlying health of public finances once the effects of the ups and downs of the economic cycle were taken into account, and allow borrowing to rise if activity was depressed.
It added that monetary policy alone was not sufficient to produce a lasting global recovery, noting that a credible medium-term plan to improve the state of public finances together with structural reform were needed.
“Eventual exit from monetary expansion will need to be carefully managed and clearly communicated”, it said, reflecting widespread concerns in Washington last week that central banks faced a tricky task when the time came to raise interest rates and to sell the government bonds purchased under QE programmes.
British Chancellor George Osborne has said he will stick to his current economic plan despite calls from the IMF to rethink his austerity-led approach.
More here: VIDEO: Osborne: ‘UK economy is healing’
As IMF officials gather this weekend in Washington, Mohamed A. El-Erian assesses the problems and solutions to the IMF’s twin personality.
Continue reading here: The IMF needs to overcome its bipolar personality
The latest IMF loan does not ‘rescue’ Jamaica, whose debt must be written off if its people are to take control of their economy
Many people in Jamaica would have trembled as they read the financial press last week, telling them that their country is, again, due to be “rescued” by a loan package put together by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Over 40 years, Jamaica has been “rescued” on countless occasions. In the 1980s, the island became almost a byword for “structural adjustment”. Jamaica is one of the most indebted countries, spends twice as much on debt repayments as it does on education and health combined, and looks set to miss several millennium development goals. After four decades of austerity, the country has a few lessons for the likes of Greece, Portugal and Ireland.
The IMF has announced a $1bn (£650m) loan to “help” Jamaica meet huge debt payments due in coming years. As usual, the loan is to be accompanied by four years of austerity – precise details still pending, though a pay freeze, amounting to a 20% real-terms cut in wages, has been agreed.
This austerity will be applied to an economy that has effectively not grown since 1990. Huge debt has been a constant burden, with foreign debt payments of more than 20% of government revenue every year. When the financial crisis hit, the island was pushed into full-scale recession, before being pounded by Hurricane Sandy last year.
But Jamaica’s problems go back much further. The island’s economy has been shaped by centuries of violence, plunder and slavery. Hundreds of thousands of lives were wasted on sugar plantations, which “kept the wheels of metropolitan industry turning” in Britain.
Jamaica never recovered from slavery; former slaves remained deeply impoverished, and the economy almost totally dependent on foreign capital, mining and raw materials, while importing food and other essentials.
Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1962, but it was only in the 1970s that the government of Michael Manley initiated policies to reduce dependency on foreign capital, improve living standards and fight inequality. He supported health and education, nationalised industries, increased taxation on foreign investment and encouraged agricultural self-sufficiency.
Manley became a major figure on the global stage, joining leaders of the non-aligned movement to support the New International Economic Order – a radical set of economic policies to give developing countries genuine economic independence and reduce global inequality. In 1975, Manley told Americans: “Gross maldistribution of the world’s wealth and food is no longer a moral offence only. It now represents the greatest practical threat to peace and to any desirable development of mankind.”
But his project ran up against the oil crisis of the 1970s. As the price of imports rocketed and exports fell, Jamaica was forced to run up debts. When interest rates rose at the start of the 1980s, debt payments shot up: from 16% of exports in 1977 to a gigantic 35% by 1986.
This gave the IMF and World Bank the leverage to impose large-scale structural adjustment policies. The impact was devastating. During the 1980s, the number of registered nurses fell by 60%. Abolition of food subsidies and currency devaluation made the cost of food rocket, while the IMF held down wages. Health, education and housing were run into the ground. Many suffered what Oxfam called “a grim daily struggle to pay for food, clothing and transportation – even on the part of people who 10 years ago would have been considered middle-class”.
Ten years later, Manley returned to office, accepting the impossibility of creating an independent economy, and embracing neo-liberal policies as the only solution, much to the delight of the US and IMF.
There has been no progress in cutting hunger, or increasing basic water and sanitation provision. In 1990, 97% of children completed primary school. Now only 73% do. In 1990, 59 mothers died in childbirth for every 100,000 children born. Now it is 110.
Jamaica has repaid more money ($19.8bn) than it has been lent ($18.5bn), yet the government still “owes” $7.8bn, as a result of huge interest payments. Government foreign debt payments ($1.2bn) are double the amount spent on education and health combined ($600m).
Jamaica is classified as upper middle income. It was never eligible for debt relief. It has gone through deals with domestic private lenders to reduce interest rates, with little impact on government debt. As always, foreign creditors are fully protected.
Jamaica is not alone. Several Caribbean countries are also dangerously indebted. The IMF itself says: “Since growth in the current environment is virtually non-existent, significant fiscal consolidation is inevitable, but may not be enough to bring down such high debt levels.” Translation: countries like Jamaica need to make deep cuts, but because there is and will be no growth, the debt will remain.
The IMF “rescue” is a rescue for Jamaica’s creditors. It spells more suffering for its people. As Europe enters a fourth year of debt and austerity, Jamaica enters a fourth decade. The island’s debt needs to be written off, to open up the possibility for a better future and allow the people to take control of their economy.
The IMF is very interested in spreading its money and influence in Egypt, but concerns remain over US-style policies and Morsi’s legitimacy
Egypt is on the front line in the International Monetary Fund’s battle to remain relevant despite the rapidly shifting balance of power in the 21st century global economy. IMF officials are in Cairo, haggling with the Muslim Brotherhood government about the conditions of a proposed $4.8bn loan.
During the eurozone crisis, the IMF has frequently been regarded as a voice of reason, forcing Europe’s policymakers to face up to the scale of the financial disaster. But many ordinary Egyptians see the Washington-based institution as a stalking horse for the US-backed policies they sought to overthrow by occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab spring. Abolishing costly food and fuel subsidies is on the IMF agenda, for example – a controversial issue in a country with a history of “bread riots”.
Egypt desperately needs cash. Its foreign currency reserves are running low and it risks being unable to afford essential fuel and food imports. But some campaigners argue that the tax rises and subsidy cuts the government is negotiating with the IMF in return for a loan are strikingly similar to reforms drawn up by the reviled Mubarak regime.
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said earlier this year: “The IMF needs to have the commitment of the political authorities that can actually endorse the programme, own it, and propose it to the population as theirs.”
But Mohga Kamal-Yanni, an expert on Egypt at Oxfam, disagrees: “The IMF prescription for the Egyptian economy is going to be really, really damaging. They don’t want to accept that there are other ways to raise government income.”
She argues that the cash squeeze is being caused by the fragile legitimacy of new president Mohamed Morsi, with the associated turmoil unsettling investors and markets. The IMF blames the crisis on the economic situation, she says, but it’s actually caused by the political situation. Egypt’s allies, including Qatar, have come to its aid with bilateral loans.
However, Sargon Nissan of the Bretton Woods Project thinktank says the IMF is determined to extend its reach in the countries where the Arab spring has brought democracy. “The IMF is desperate to lend to them,” he says. “Europe is a quagmire; eastern Europe is not a good place to lend; and the Middle East is a hugely significant region, in which the IMF’s major sponsor, the US, has major geopolitical interests. The IMF is very clearly prioritising support for this region, and Egypt is the key country.”
He argues that the IMF should be cautious about entering talks with a regime whose legitimacy has been widely questioned since Morsi granted himself sweeping new powers last year. These powers were later repealed, but elections under a new constitution are not due until later this year.
“The really disturbing thing is that they’re willing to work in Egypt and in a number of the transitional countries without those countries necessarily having a sufficient democratic mandate,” he says. He says the IMF should instead be making a short-term, emergency loan, with few conditions – an option the Egyptian government declined in 2011.
International Monetary Fund warns on the effects of budget spending wrangles on a slowing US economy
America’s budget wrangling is holding back recovery in the world’s largest economy, according to a leaked draft of forecasts from the International Monetary Fund that coincided with data showing a dip in consumer confidence and weaker spending in the nation’s shopping malls.
Official figures from Washington showed that retail sales in March dipped by 0.4% in March – worse than Wall Street had been anticipating and the second monthly fall since payroll taxes and income tax rose at the start of 2013.
Chris Williamson, economist at Markit, said: “This weakness is possibly linked to increased payroll and income tax hikes which took effect at the start of the year, and will inevitably add to worries that the US economy is slowing as we move into the spring as automatic budget spending cuts come into force. With this in mind, the Fed will be more cautious about sending signals that it is preparing to ease back on policy stimulus.”
Meanwhile, the monthly snapshot of sentiment conducted by Michigan university showed consumer confidence dropped to its lowest in nine months.
The downbeat news came as the Bloomberg news agency reported that the International Monetary Fund would trim its growth forecast for the US in next week’s half-yearly World Economic Outlook.
Bloomberg said a leaked draft of the WEO showed that growth in the world’s biggest economy would be 1.7% in 2013, down from 2% in January when the IMF last updated its predictions.
The report said automatic cuts as part of the deal between the White House and Congress to tackle America’s budget deficit were the reason for the lower forecast for US growth this year. Action by Tokyo to combat inflation has led to the Fund increasing its estimate of Japanese growth in 2013 from 1.2% to 1.5%, but there has been no change in its forecast of a 0.2% contraction in the eurozone economy. The forecasts may be updated before their official release next Tuesday, but the draft leaked to Bloomberg has the global economy expanding by 3.4% in 2013, down from 3.5% in January.
Finance minister reportedly lashed out at mission chiefs from EU, ECB and IMF as pressure builds over next repayments
Almost three years after Greece narrowly avoided bankruptcy with its first bailout from the EU and IMF, the country’s relations with its international creditors have taken an unexpected turn for the worst.
The Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras was forced to step in on Sunday after stalled negotiations became bogged down in acrimony when visiting inspectors resumed talks last week.
Indicative of the tensions, Athens’s normally mild-mannered finance minister, Yiannis Stournaras, reportedly lashed out at mission chiefs from the EU, ECB and IMF during a heated exchange in his office on Thursday, telling them they could “take the keys” to the economy ministry if they continued to demand more austerity from a nation experiencing a sixth straight year of recession.
Emerging from the building, the economics professor uncharacteristically labelled the talks as “very difficult” and gave a taste of his own frustration. “The negotiations for the next loan tranches are still very difficult. I can assure you that things are not simple at all,” he said.
After troika representatives abruptly cancelled a meeting with Stournaras late on Saturday, Samaras tried to smooth over the cracks. At stake are two slices of aid worth €8.8bn (£7.5bn) that have been put on hold because of the slow pace of structural reforms.
The first instalment, of €2.8bn, is contingent on the governing coalition agreeing to sack 25,000 civil servants by the end of the year and 150,000 by 2015. The demand has placed what is being called “intolerable pressure” on Samaras’s already fragile administration, with his two junior leftwing partners openly opposing the measure at a time when unemployment is nearing a record 30%.
Highlighting the discord, the administrative reform minister, Antonis Manitakis, in charge of streamlining the bloated public sector and aligned with the small Democratic Left party, threatened to resign – a move that would dramatically undermine the government’s unity.
Other sticking points, according to well-placed sources, include the recapitalisation of Greek banks – and a possible merger between the National Bank of Greece and Eurobank – and a highly contentious property tax levied through electricity bills the conservative-led coalition pledged to scrap when it assumed power last June.
Household incomes have fallen by as much as 50% since the debt crisis erupted in Athens more than three years ago. In an attempt to placate lenders and keep a restive population at bay, Samaras and his coalition partners proposed last week that the property levy be substantially reduced by broadening the tax base to include farmland and undeveloped real estate. Creditors, so far, have failed to react.
Greece faces two debt repayments, including €3.6bn in maturing treasury bills, this month and next. “Not reaching an agreement is not an option,” said Pandelis Kapsis, a prominent political commentator and former government spokesman. “There may be a delay [in disbursement of rescue funds] but there is absolutely no way we can move ahead without an agreement,” he told the Guardian.
Greece is likely to suffer from the turmoil in Cyprus, whose economy is expected to contract sharply following its own bailout agreement. But last week Samaras spoke for the first time of an economic recovery amid signs that fiscal consolidation was finally beginning to pay off.
“Even those who until recently had their doubts are today convinced that we can make it,” he told an audience in Athens, insisting that with private sector hirings outpacing firings in March the country was at long last breaking the vicious cycle of recession.
The investment bank Morgan Stanley also predicted that Greece would achieve a primary surplus by the end of the year, saying it was now optimistic about the country.