At the last summit of European heads of state in Brussels at the end of June, the main theme was youth unemployment, which has now reached 23% of European youth (although it stands at 41% in Spain). Last year, the International Labour Organization issued a dramatic report on 'Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012' in which it spoke of a “lost generation”. According to projections, the generation currently seeking to enter the market place will retire with a pension of just 480 euro – if it actually succeeds in entering the market – because of temporary jobs without social contributions.
After long discussions, Europe’s leaders decided to allocate 6 billion dollars of European money, to fight youth unemployment. After much shorter discussion, they decided to allocate up to 60 billion dollars to support Europe’s banks. This, on top of the striking subsidies already received: the European Central Bank alone has given one thousand billion dollars to the banks at nominal cost.
All the efforts to create a European banking system under a central regulator are now on hold until the German elections in September. As a member of the German delegation at the June summit is reported as saying: ”We know well what we are supposed to do, to calm financial markets. But we are not elected by financial markets, we are elected by German citizens” (IHT, 28 June 2013). And of course, no effort has been made to explain to Germany’s citizens why it is in their interest to show economic solidarity with the most fragile countries of Europe. Democracy, as it is understood today, is based on leaders who follow popular feelings not on leaders who feel their duty to push their electors towards a world of vision and challenges.
The summit was also obliged to accept the blackmail of British Prime Minister David Cameron: either you maintain the subsidies that then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher obtained in 1973, when you insisted that we join Europe (which makes Britain a net recipient of European money), or we will block the European budget. This is because the anti-Europe electorate in Britain is growing and Cameron could not afford to appear weak. But Cameron was one of the strongest proponents of the subsidy for the banks, and no wonder: the financial system now accounts for 10% of the British gross domestic product (GDP)!
It is a very curious situation, in which not only has Europe spent several hundred billion dollars for its banks, it has even invited the International Monetary Fund (whose controlling member is the United States) to join the European Institutions and manage the European crisis. And, in an unprecedented sign of independence and resistance to the United States, Europe has rejected American calls for reducing austerity and starting policies of growth as Washington and Tokyo have been doing, so far with proven success. Nevertheless, what is common to the three most powerful players in the West (United States, Europe and Japan) has been their inability – and unwillingness – to place banks under control and react to their strings of crimes.
Central bankers from the entire world join in the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) based in Basel. Now its Basel Committee on Banking Supervision has come up with a proposal that would tighten the relationship between the capital of the banks and the volume of financial operations they can afford. One of the proposal’s indicators establishes that banks must maintain high-quality capital, like stock or retained earnings, equal to 7 percent of their loans and assets and that the biggest banks may be required to hold more than 9 percent.
This is not exactly a revolutionary proposal, and has been criticised as insufficient by many analysts and regulators. This is confirmed by the fact that the U.S. Federal Reserve estimates that between 90 and 95 percent of banks with assets of less than 10 billion dollars already respect such parameters. Well, even this bland proposal has been received with a howl of protest from many banks, claiming that they would have great difficulty in raising capital. Under the old capitalist economy, no enterprise would run without capital adequate to its need. Today we have a new branch of economy, which wants to play without capital, and expects the state to bail it out if anything goes wrong. So, let us just look briefly at how many times things went wrong without anybody ever going to jail.
On 28 April 2002, then New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, on behalf of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), won a lawsuit ordering 10 U.S. banks to pay 1.4 billion dollars in compensation and fines because of fraudulent activities. One year later, the SEC discovered that 13 out of 15 financial institutions randomly investigated were guilty of fraud. In 2010, Goldman Sachs agreed to a fine of 550 million dollars to avoid a trial for fraud. In July last year, the US Senate presented a 335-page report on the British bank HSBC, the largest in Europe. Over the years it helped drug dealers and criminals recycle illicit money. For example, the bank sent 60 billion dollars in cash by road or plane from the accounts of Mexican drug dealers to its New York Branch. The fine was 1.9 billion dollars. In November 2012, SAC Capital was fined 600 million dollars, and in the same month the second British bank, Standard Chartered, was fined 667 million dollars. In February this year, Barclays Bank announced that it had set aside 1.165 billion euro to face fines for “illicit transactions” (the bank is now under investigation for a very dubious capital increase of 8.4 billion euro in 2008). And in March this year, Citigroup accepted a fine of 730 million dollars for “selling investments based on junk to unsuspecting clients”. These are just a few of the most clamorous cases, and there are many, many more, involving even the Japanese bank Nomura.
We all know that the crisis in which we find ourselves (which, for the optimists, will end in 2020 and for the pessimists in 2025) was originated in the United States by the 10 largest banks which decided to sell derivatives based on junk and certified by the Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s rating agencies. US taxpayers “donated” 750,000 million dollars to the banks, while the British did the same for HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays Bank and Northern Rock.
While this financial disaster was happening, the ‘Big Five’ (Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and Bearn Sterns) paid their executives 3 billion dollars between 2003 and 2007, And, in 2008, they received 20 billion dollars in bonuses while their banks were losing 42 billion dollars.
All of this was certified by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, which control 75% of the world market. Now Standard & Poor’s has been requested to pay 500 million dollars. But what about the millions of people who have lost their jobs? The millions of young people who see no future in their lives? It’s the old story: if you steal bread, you go to jail, but if you steal millions, nothing will happen to you … and if you steal millions in a bank, even less reason to worry.
Meanwhile, back at the summit table, the priority for survival is to allocate taxpayers’ money, even if all talk about youth unemployment. After all, what really matters is that we must be all re-elected …
*Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.