High-Trust and Low-Trust Societies, Banks, and Europe

Pawel Morski:

A “banking system responsive to local needs” quickly becomes “piggy bank for local politicians”.

Well, local politicians are elected, after all. Democracy is a thing. But I know what he means. That Spanish caja that was run, into the ground, by the Catholic Church. That kind of thing. WestLB back in the day when it financed William Hague’s best friend buying all the pubs and the Ministry of Defence married quarters and Peer Steinbrück was its regulator, before it blew up and the explosion threw him all the way from Hannover to Berlin and he got to be federal finance minister, SPD leader, Mr Prudent McBluebollocks an’all.

Does Neal Ascherson really not know about HypoVereinsbank?

I think the operational question here, certainly as far as the UK is concerned, is “are we a low-trust or a high-trust society?” It works for the Germans (for some values of works, and except when it doesn’t work), it doesn’t work for the Spanish (except of course when it did).

Sparks = high trust, cajas = low trust. We like to think we are a high-trust, low-corruption north European country, but I often think the history of the UK post-1979 is the history of an emerging low-trust society.

Of course, when we were canonically much more trust-y, Jimmy Savile was raping everything in sight, the Met Police was basically our biggest organised crime gang, and the MOD was perfectly happy to test nuclear weapons on our own soldiers. But then, trustful Germany has had some pretty decent scandals. Do you remember before Wolfgang Schäuble was All Better Now, when he was responsible for a massive illegal party financing system linked with the Elf-Aquitaine scandal? ‘Course you do. And further back, when he did precisely the same thing with German arms manufacturers?

But trust is an interesting concept. If you knew for a fact the people you dealt with were honest, you wouldn’t need to trust them. Trust and betrayal go together. High-trust societies are ones where people behave as if they could trust each other, and that choose to deal with the inevitable abuses of trust in certain ways. Low-trust societies are ones in which people behave as if they cannot trust each other, and especially, as if there was no realistic hope of sorting out abuses of trust later.

I actually wonder if the distinction is really about what happens after a breach of trust is discovered. J.K. Galbraith’s bezzle, the inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in an economy, is a universal phenomenon but the means of dealing with it differ dramatically. When an aeroplane crashes into the ground, in the UK or, say, the Netherlands, the first people on the scene after the fire brigade are the AAIB inspectors, whose mission is to establish the facts. In Italy, or Greece, the first people after the fire brigade are the police, come to arrest any of the crew who survived. The distinction is telling. If you can’t expect justice, and you can’t expect the truth, you might as well practice cynicism like you practice an instrument, as a skill or even an art.

In a sense, social trust is an ideology. We choose to believe that our neighbours are basically decent people in a civilised society, or that of course they’re all the same and all crooked, but wouldn’t you be if you had the chance, and so you better look after number one. And if it is an ideology, it is part of the political sphere and it can be changed. Now there’s something for you – hope. But I fucking hate hope and hope-mongers, so…ah.

One way of looking at Francois Hollande’s campaign for the “moralisation of politics” is an effort to do just that, to keep France from becoming even more of a low-trust society than it already is. Of course, whether France is a Latin country (stereotypes: Catholics, inflation, tourists, Picasso, bureaucracy, conspiracy politics) or a northern one (stereotypes: Vikings, Gothic buildings, electrical engineering, the Republic, international modernism, ENA) is a cliche up there with whether Britain is facing Europe or the high seas or whether Russia is in Europe. But perhaps there’s some truth to it. Is it…spreading?

Low-trust societies, I think, emerge when the norms imposed by the elite are both compulsory and also impossible, and especially when the elite doesn’t seem to practice them itself. You could put it another way: it’s Berlusconi’s Europe, and we’re just living in it.

Daddy, what did you do at the University?

From the department of cross-European otherness: some German politicians never finished their university degrees. Apparently, this is shocking. To the point where some of them worry about explaining it to their sons, and Green leader Claudia Roth gets hate mail for it.

That said, more than one confesses to having their staff regularly edit their Wikipedia entry to eliminate the stain. Now, that is shocking.

Start Making Sense

“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” — From Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads

Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart (RR) in the latest exchange of fire with Paul KrugmanContinue reading

The Real Experiment That Is Being Carried Out In Japan

The future never resembles the past – as we well know. But, generally speaking, our imagination and our knowledge are too weak to tell us what particular changes to expect. We do not know what the future holds. Nevertheless, as living and moving beings, we are forced to act.John Maynard Keynes

Discussions of the population problem have always had the capacity to stir up public sentiment much more than most other problems.
- Gunnar Myrdal

Last Thursday the yen broke through the psychological threshold of 100 to the US dollar. On Friday the slide continued (see chart), even dropping very close to 102 to the USD at one point before strengthening slightly on the run in to the G7 finance ministers meeting. Continue reading

Does Portugal Have Its Own “Shortage Of Japanese” Problem?

In a number of posts recently I have highlighted the impact of declining workforces on economic growth (here, for example, or here, or here) and the way the policies persued to address the Euro debt crisis are having the impact of  accelerating the movement of young people away from the periphery and towards the core (here, or here) thus accelerating the decline in their working populations and exacerbating their growth problem. This issue has been already highlighted strongly in Japan’s ongoing crisis, and has to some extent come to be known as the “shortage of Japanese” problem following Paul Krugman’s memorable use of this expression to explain  why Japan’s economic performance seemed so poor to so many. Continue reading


Introductory Statement by Jörg Asmussen, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, in exchange of views with the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee of the European Parliament on financial assistance to Cyprus –

If the sovereign had shouldered these massive recapitalisation needs, debt would have risen to 145% of GDP. This would have critically endangered public debt sustainability. At the same time, traditional ways of burden sharing by the private sector bank creditors were limited, given little junior debt outstanding in banks.

The Eurozone has an effective* traditional way of burden-sharing with non-depositor creditors?

In particular, it was decided to cover the capital needs of the two largest banks exclusively through the own contributions of uninsured depositors and senior and junior debt holders. The creditors of the two banks would not be made worse-off than they would have been in the case of liquidation, which would have been the alternative to the programme. 

The Eurozone has a criterion that bank debt writedowns can be justified as long as the creditors are not worse off than they would have been under liquidation?

If only Ireland had thought of these things in 2010!

[*i.e. that doesn't endanger debt sustainability]

The Suitcase Mood

Suitcase mood is a Russian website with travel and tourism content. The term is also a popular expression widely used within Russian culture to describe the state of mind which grips a voyager on the brink of a journey. The mood is often associated with a ritual which involves the departing person sitting, sometimes accompanied by family or friends, in the vicinity (when not actually on top of) the packed suitcase, ostensibly to try to remember if there is anything they have forgotten to take and bid loved ones farewell. Sometimes, however,  the phrase can take on a different, and rather darker, meaning. It can be used to describe someone who is fed up with the status quo, has become footloose and decided they simply want out. “This will never change,” might be the thought, “I’m leaving”. In my mind’s eye I even see the person having the thought seated on their suitcase adopting the posture of Rodin’s thinker, turning over and over again whether they are doing the right thing, even while those around them vent their sadness in a bath of tears and alcohol. Or maybe I have just been watching too many Russian movies. Continue reading

The A-b-e Of Economics

And the world said “Let Shinzo Abe be”, and all was light.

A new craze is sweeping the planet. Known by the title “Abenomics” over the last couple of years it has been steadily gathering adepts in financial markets across the globe. Despite the fact Abe’s move fits comfortably within the austerity vs growth policy axis, at the heart of the new approach lies not a strategy to directly create growth per se, but rather one to try to induce inflation. For those who have not been following the Japan saga as it has developed over the last twenty odd years this whole debate may seem like a strange way of thinking about things. After all isn’t inflation supposed to be a bad thing, one central banks are supposed to combat? And how can a country possibly become more ever more competitive by force-feeding itself inflation?

Of course, falling prices are not necessarily in-and-of themselves a bad thing – as any old consumer will tell you – since products get cheaper and cheaper with each passing day. So the run of the mill consumer might find life in Japan quite a pleasing and desirable thing, especially if that particular consumer happens to be retired and living on a fixed income derived from savings as indeed many contemporary Japanese actually are. Falling prices only really become a problem in a more general macroeconomic sense if they lead people to postpone consumption, and if this postponement becomes self-perpetuating in a way which leads prices to continually fall, as the combination of constant productivity increases and stagnant demand serve to produce perpetual oversupply. Falling prices also represent a nasty headache for policymakers since while prices go down the value of accumulated debt doesn’t, and herein lies the rub. So additional “stimulus” which doesn’t lead to increasing nominal GDP simply pushes the sovereign debt even farther along an unsustainable trajectory.

As everyone now recognizes and accepts Japan has a rapidly ageing population and an ageing and contracting workforce. This is the end result of several decades of very low fertility. The number of children in Japan fell to a new low in 2013, while the amount of people over 65 has reached a record high as the population ages and shrinks. This demographic background, which has really been obvious to demographers for years, has only lately come to be regarded as a significant factor in the “Japan problem” by economists. This neglect has most probably been due to the influence of a deep seated predisposition among adherents of neoclassical growth theory to think that population dynamics don’t fundamentally influence economic performance in the long run. For many years the Japan phenomenon was simply seen as a classic example of what Richard Koo terms a “balance sheet recession” wherein the need for the private sector to deleverage from excessive indebtedness leads to a form of structural under-consumption.

Perhaps the most important thing which the whole Abenomics episode has brought to light is the urgent need to bring the existing corpus of economic theory somehow up to date with our modern realities. Despite all the talk of policies for “growth, growth, growth” a simple look at the population outlook in OECD countries and especially the potential work force numbers suggests that, at some point or another, economic growth will turn broadly negative. So the real point is there is an experiment being conducted in Japan, but the experiment isn’t Abenomics (which I suspect won’t work, and could end badly). No, the experiment is about learning to grow old with dignity, not as individuals, but as societies. It is about managing debt in a time of deflation, about giving opportunities to the young, even while the force of the ballot box rides with the old, and about finding ways to ease that rate of work force decline to give some additional room to allow productivity to help, which means both immigration and helping the young – at they are the ones who start families.

The remainder of this post can now be found in my Kindle e-book published with Amazon.

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