Greece

Let’s just suppose for a moment that the Greek debt crisis can somehow be resolved without a disorderly default or the collapse of the Euro. As I have written previously, I very much doubt that it can, and today’s news gives little cause for hope. Although the leaders of both of Greece’s major parties agreed this morning to the latest round of austerity measures, the EU powers have backed away from ratifying the deal, demanding a further 325 million Euros in budget cuts. The Greeks now know how the Turks must feel, constantly on the cusp of a final agreement with the EU, but never quite getting to the finish line. This latest wrinkle will no doubt be ironed out within days, if not hours. It requires a much greater leap of faith, however, to believe that this will resolve the crisis once and for all. But suppose it does. What then? [click to continue…]

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Draco, the seventh-century BC Athenian legislator from whom we get the word “draconian” replaced the system of blood feud and oral law with a harsh, but transparent, written legal code. One of the provisions of Draco’s code was that any debtor whose status was lower than that of his creditor was forced into slavery. It’s hard not to think of Draco when contemplating the current to and fro between the Greek government and the “troika” of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund, representing Greece’s creditors, trying to avert a sovereign default and keep Greece from leaving, or being ejected from, the European monetary union. These discussions are more properly considered a dictation of terms rather than negotiations. [click to continue…]

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Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-leaning freshman Senator from Florida, recently said something remarkably intelligent, if self-evident, which appears to elude most Washington policy makers. “We don’t need more taxes,” he said, “We need more taxpayers.”

This is axiomatic for anyone trying to reform tax systems and increase government revenue, which I have done in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. In most of these countries, as well as in places like Greece and Italy, most people (and companies) do not pay taxes, at least not officially. Tax administrations are both inefficient and corrupt; if you’re lucky you will never attract the attention of the taxman, and if you’re not, a bribe – possibly significant, but almost certainly less than your true tax liability – will do the trick. And when garbage piles up in the streets and public money vanishes into the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, it is natural for citizens to decide government is not worth whatever taxes they are supposed to pay.  In most of these countries, it is foreign individuals and corporations, who lack the proper connections, who are not steeped in the arcane rules of the game, and who try to obey the law, who shoulder much of the tax burden. The cell phone company, the brewery, and the oil and mining companies – and their foreign employees – are easy and highly visible targets, and governments never tire of trying to change the rules, imposing new taxes or demanding a share of the company.

The United States, of course, is not Nigeria or Greece. As hard as it may be to follow the letter of the law when the tax code runs to 10,000 pages, most people and companies try their best, exploiting whatever advantages they and their accountants can find, but rarely committing any deliberate infractions, cash payments to the guys who help carry your furniture up to the second floor apartment notwithstanding. The IRS is too effective, and the penalties too great, for most of us to chance it. And, at least until now, most Americans have thought that paying taxes is one’s duty as a citizen. [click to continue…]

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Even in the midst of an ongoing Euro-zone crisis with no obvious solution in view, investors have no trouble distinguishing between one European country and another, as the yield spread between German and Greek government debt (currently 860 basis points, or 8.6 percentage points) clearly demonstrates. Why, then, are investors so amazingly dense by comparison when it comes to emerging markets? Why do they – willfully, it seems – refuse to recognize that there are huge differences between, say, Chile and Venezuela, which lumping them together into an emerging markets basket or a Latin America basket can only obscure?

Ten days ago, while the Egyptian democracy movement was still gathering steam and uncertainty abounded as to the political fate not only of Egypt but of the entire Arab world, the Financial Times reported that investors had pulled more than $7 billion out of emerging markets equity funds during the preceding week. This was the biggest withdrawal in over three years, which the FT attributed to “turmoil in the Middle East and rising food inflation [which] raised fears of economic instability.” Egypt, it said, may have been the catalyst, “but the fund outflows also reflected deeper unease about economic overheating in China, India, Brazil, and other big emerging economies.” The article went on to quote several fund managers who said that developed markets now represent greater value than emerging ones and as proof pointed out that nearly all of the $7bn lost to emerging markets had been reinvested into funds focused on the United States, Europe, and Japan. Though the magnitude of emerging market outflows and developed market inflows during the week of January 31 was the biggest so far, it was the fifth consecutive week in which investors had fled emerging markets for the relative safety of the big developed markets. Apart from political turmoil, investors apparently were spooked by rising inflation in emerging markets. The proof? Indonesia, Brazil, India, and South Korea have all raised interest rates this year. [click to continue…]

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Attentive and loyal readers of this blog will recall that I wrote, almost exactly a year ago, about China’s proposal to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency with the special drawing right (SDR), a unit of account used by the IMF, which is based on a weighted basket of currencies that includes the dollar, the euro, the yen, and the pound. I wrote then that this proposal had virtually no chance of being adopted, one reason being that the Europeans would be loath to abandon their new currency, which already accounted for a growing share of world reserves, in favor of a faceless accounting unit. [click to continue…]

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