The Walking Debt

Tomasz Konicz, January 3, 2023
Over-indebtedness, inflation, the threat of recession and impotent politicians: the current wave of crises is likely to take full hold even in the western centers of the capitalist world system

New decade, new crisis? In mid-June, the European currency area, which had already been on the verge of collapse in the course of the euro crisis, once again seemed to switch into panic mode. The European Central Bank (ECB) felt compelled to hold a special meeting on June 15 after European financial markets were hit by rising interest rate differentials, or spreads, between German and southern European government bonds. In particular, the spread between German and Italian government securities is considered a reliable crisis indicator because Italy, the third-largest European economy, has a high level of government debt, at 150 percent of gross domestic product (in 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic, the country’s debt was 135 percent), which makes the interest burden on Italian government bonds grow particularly quickly in the event of any turmoil. Moreover, Italy has below-average growth rates, so there is little prospect of reducing the debt burden in the foreseeable future. The OECD’s economic forecasts, which are regularly revised downwards anyway, assume growth of 2.5 percent for the country this year and only 1.2 percent next year.


The Italian bond market acts as a kind of early warning bell, which struck hard in mid-June: The yield on Italian government bonds rose to more than four percent, and the spread with the Bund was almost 250 basis points (2.5 percent) at one point. What had happened? The ECB had previously held out the prospect of following the Fed’s lead and countering the eurozone’s runaway inflation of 8.1 percent with a monetary turnaround towards a restrictive monetary policy. The European “currency guardians” thus announced that they would abandon the zero interest rate policy that had effectively been pursued for eleven years, i.e. since the last euro crisis, and raise key interest rates. In addition, a gradual phase-out of the government bond-buying programs, which are used to reduce the interest burden in the South and increase the money supply, was to be initiated. The mere announcement of a departure from the expansionary monetary policy led to an increase in the interest burden in the southern periphery of the eurozone.

At its special meeting, the ECB then decided to continue buying the bonds of “weaker euro countries,” if necessary, in order to keep the gap to German government bonds within tolerable limits, which immediately led to a reduction in the risk premium between Italian and German government securities. One of the ECB’s goals is not to further inflate its balance sheet, which grew to eight trillion euros during the pandemic and was less than five trillion euros before the pandemic began, by buying securities. The revenues generated from maturing government securities are now to be used to buy up new bonds until the end of 2024. With a volume of 1.7 trillion euros, the ECB thus still has plenty of leeway to replace German bonds with Italian ones, for example. But with this the central bank has already partially withdrawn from the expansionary monetary policy that was announced for the purpose of fighting inflation.

With the situation developing in Italy, a member of the Eurozone whose gross domestic product (GDP) is around ten times that of Greece is now threatened with a debt crisis. In the coming year alone, government liabilities south of the Alps amounting to almost 290 billion euros are due for refinancing, while Greece has a GDP of 180 billion euros. For this reason, it is effectively impossible for the Federal Republic, as the dominant power within the Eurozone, to subject Italy to a dictate of austerity, such as that imposed on Greece by former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), without endangering the existence of the entire European currency area. Italy is indeed too big to fail. So if Berlin were to try to drive the country into a similar downward deflationary spiral that once ensnared Greece, it would be tantamount to blowing up the eurozone, as was already favored during the euro crisis by the openly reactionary sections of the German functional elites in the FDP and on the right fringe of the CDU (the “values union”).

Currently, it is Bundesbank President Joachim Nagel that is pushing back against the ECB’s crisis policy, repeating the old German demand that political conditions – mostly austerity programs – be coupled with financial aid for crisis states. In view of high inflation, Nagel spoke of “dangerous waters” into which the ECB was entering if it bought bonds of southern European states as soon as their interest rate differential with German government bonds reached a speculative level. It is not clear at all how a normal market reaction to the high debt burden in the south of the eurozone can be distinguished from a speculative one.

The ECB’s lurching course of action in monetary policy, which consists of cautiously raising key interest rates on the one hand and continuing to print money by buying up government bonds on the other, is an expression of the power-political constellation within the EU. Berlin, where the monetarists call the shots, will get its interest rate hike, while the south of the Eurozone, which favors an expansionary monetary policy, can count on further bond purchases. That’s why the European central bank is much more hesitant about raising key interest rates than the Fed, which has already raised the key rate to 1.75 percent.

So ten years after the euro crisis German Europe is once again at an impasse: the ECB should actually raise interest rates quickly and significantly to curb inflation. And at the same time the “guardians of the currency” would have to keep interest rates low to prevent a new debt crisis in the South and avert the threat of recession. The battle over the course of monetary policy is not a purely European phenomenon; similar disputes between Keynesians and monetarists are also taking place in the US. The connection between the great pandemic-related flood of money and global inflation was most recently discussed, for example, before the US Senate Finance Committee, which the Biden administration’s Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had to face at the beginning of June. Berlin’s role was played by the Republican opposition, which claims that inflation and the “overheating” of the economy were fueled by the $1.9 trillion stimulus package.

At the same time, these debates between Keynesian advocates of expansionary monetary policy and neoliberal monetarists point to the increasing internal contradictions and tensions of capitalist crisis policy, which can hardly be bridged in the current crisis surge. And an accumulation model that could lead out of the crisis of late capitalism – the economic forecasts for the USA as well as for the euro area are gloomy – cannot simply be conjured up. Basically, both sides in the monetary conflict, which is fueled by national or class interests, are quite right in their diagnoses at the bedside of capitalism, but their “therapeutic proposals” are wrong. Expansionary monetary policy does indeed cause inflation to rise, specifically in the financial sphere, where the “liquidity injections” of central banks in the 21st century led to corresponding speculative bubbles, i.e. to inflation in securities or real estate prices. At the same time, monetarism together with the neoliberal austerity regime – as Schäuble brutally executed on Greece – lead to the economic collapses that are well known from Southern Europe.

The late capitalist crisis policy thus finds itself in a dilemma. Deflation or inflation: there are only different crisis paths along which the unalterable devaluation of value can proceed. Either money is devalued in its capacity as a general equivalent (inflation), or the devaluation process takes hold of capital in its form as constant and variable capital – as factories, machines and wage-dependent people who become economically superfluous.

In the course of the 21st century, not only have global mountains of debt grown faster than world economic output, but interest rates have also declined steadily since the breakthrough of neoliberalism and the financialization of capitalism, because after the bursting of each speculative bubble the world financial system had to be saved from collapse with low interest rates and money printing. The current distortions on the financial markets indicate that the transition to a new speculative cycle is hardly possible. Capitalist crisis policy has ridden its horse to death. And inflation, which previously played out predominantly in the financial sphere, is arriving in the so-called real economy.

It was precisely the failure of Keynesianism at the end of the 1970s that paved the way for neoliberalism, which used a period of extremely high interest rates (the Volcker shock) to get a grip on inflation and lay the foundation for the take-off of the financial markets and the financial market-driven bubble economy of neoliberalism that is currently collapsing. At the time, high interest rates acted as a magnet, attracting investment-seeking capital to the US financial sphere. Now the long-forgotten stagflation is returning on a higher ladder. The most important difference between today’s wave of inflation and the historical period of stagflation is the extreme indebtedness of the world system. A period of high interest rates, as initiated by then Fed Chairman Paul Volcker starting in 1979, no longer offers a way out today.

At present, neo-Keynesians in particular are encouraging the creation of myths that suppress the systemic causes of the crisis in favor of external phenomena. According to them, the causes of increasing inflation are solely the consequences of the pandemic and, even more so, of the Russian war of aggression. This is reminiscent of the interpretation of the historical period of stagflation, which is still popular today, that it was due solely to the oil price shock of 1973. The end of the Fordist boom and thus the structural crisis of capitalism are ignored.

However, the current wave of inflation is not merely war-related “Putinflation.” Even a cursory glance at the development of inflationary dynamics clearly shows that it had already begun before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in response to the central banks’ pandemic-related flood of money. In order to absorb the first deflationary shock after the pandemic outbreak, global stimulus measures reached a multiple of what was spent to stabilize the world financial system after the bursting of the real estate bubbles in 2007/08. In this sense, the “external” shocks act at best as crisis accelerators. The flood of money, in interaction with the bursting of the global liquidity bubble – the “everything bubble” – must be understood as the primary cause of the devaluation of value that is now setting in.

The capping or disruption of global trade and production chains during the pandemic and the Ukraine war explains, above all, the recent acceleration of price inflation. But even in the case of the Ukraine war, the interaction with the crisis process is obvious, since Moscow, in classic imperialist fashion, launched the attack on Ukraine in response to the growing dislocation and unrest in the post-Soviet space, which was instrumentalized by the West. In addition, the full-blown climate crisis is driving inflation because it leads to production shortfalls – such as crop failures – and increased demand for energy – Brazil, for example, had to import more natural gas because a prolonged drought limited hydroelectric power generation.

The socio-economic consequences of the recent crisis will in all probability no longer be able to be passed on from the centers to the periphery. Particularly in the Federal Republic of Germany, which has so far been largely spared by the crisis, and where the fear of the crisis alone has given Nazi parties double-digit election results, the coming political upheavals could be dramatic.

Originally published in konkret in 08/2022

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