Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The financial markets are all Greek to me...

Greece is in crisis. I grew up with such headlines being a relatively regular occurrence as the regime of the colonels lurched from crisis to crisis through the 60s and 70s until democracy was restored. The causes of the current troubles are complex and beyond the comprehension of most mortals (certainly this one).

But at the heart of Greece's current problems are the bond markets. The way the media talks about these exchanges where cash is swapped for Government debt, you'd think they were operated by god-like powers who were above being questioned for their actions. I thought the credit crunch, if it's achieved nothing else, has at least dethroned the masters of the universe.

But no, these impersonal forces are still very much in control of events. Take this quote 'The market is now looking at every country with a lot of curiosity.' It was said this morning by Gilles Moec, senior European economist at Deutsche Bank, in response to questions about why the stock markets across Europe are falling.

In a sense he's right. Markets, those collections of individual decision makers with certain amounts of money to spend seeking products at a price they're prepared to pay, are looking for profits across Europe. But in a more profound sense, his comments illustrate the levels of denial at the heart of our current crisis - not just in Greece but across the globe.

The markets are moved by people like Moec and hundreds of others who make decisions based on their political views, religious outlook, knowledge of economies and how they work, the fact that they got to work with indigestion following a dodgy breakfast on the go and congestion on the metro. It's people who decided what to buy and sell and how much they're prepared to pay. The fact that the deals are in billions of dollars does make them impersonal; it just means that the sums involved are eye-wateringly huge.

But each of the deals is made by a trader pushing the button on his mouse or shouting into a phone. And perhaps we need to start calling these people - a highly paid, enormously powerful minority across the globe - to account for their actions.

This is why it's good that the US Senate is giving Goldman Sachs a hard time for developing products that appear to have been designed to benefit from the failure of other financial instruments.

This morning's election press conferences were all about party leaders trying to show how they will cut the deficit to ensure the market will continue to fund to Britain's national debt. The trouble is that such cuts fall disproportionately on the poor, the unemployed, the long-term sick and disabled; they risk creating new pockets of intractable, generation-after-generation deprivation in parts of the UK. And all to satisfy the markets, all to ensure our credit rating doesn't go from triple A to junk as Greece's has.

As the crisis deepens isn't it time for a different way of organising our financial affairs? Shouldn't those who want  to lead us being saying something about this?

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