Money in the making of world society: lessons of the euro crisis

Europe in the global economic crisis

I have been writing about the euro for a decade (Hart 2002, 2007a, 2012), always from a critical perspective, since I have long believed that a single currency cannot address the needs of a large and diverse region. Moreover, the European Union’s ambition to transcend national capitalism by becoming a federal power in the world economy was always compromised by yoking member states to a system whose logic harks back to the gold standard. The contradictions of this fixed exchange-rate regime, conceived of in the euphoria of the “free market’s victory” in the Cold War, were disguised by the long credit boom. Even the financial crisis brought about by the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 was at first represented by Europe’s elites as largely an “Anglo-Saxon” problem. The Italian finance minister joked that his country’s banks were sound since their managers didn’t speak English! The French social model, which Sarkozy had been elected to reform, began to look more attractive overnight. The last three years have seen one failed half-measure after another as the region’s leaders consistently underestimated what was needed to fix the growing sovereign debt crisis in Southern Europe. Germany has become at once a lot stronger and more isolated in the process.

A brief sketch of the history of the global economic crisis is in order. The conversion of the whole world to free market capitalism (“neoliberal globalization”) in the early 1990s coincided with a digital revolution in communications. Wall Street took the lead in exploiting these new possibilities. After the dot com boom crashed in 2000, a regime of low interest rates fuelled speculation in property. American bankers discovered that there was more to be made from lending to people without any money (mortgages, credit card debt) than to people who have some, since higher interest rates could be charged and assets could be seized on default. This led to the invention of “sub-prime” mortgages, lending to borrowers who could not hope to repay, then packaging these debts with other sounder loans for sale in the capital markets with the highest credit ratings possible (Jorion 2007). The banks also insured against bad loans using new instruments such as “credit default swaps” and “collateral debt obligations” (Tett 2010). As the bubble picked up steam, leverage rates escalated; some banks and especially the insurance group, AIG, became wildly over-exposed. The expectation that the bubble would last for ever led to the use of computer models that had no place for a decline in housing prices. Continue reading ‘Money in the making of world society: lessons fro...

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