Is the U.S. economy about to experience a major downturn? Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of signs that economic activity in the United States is really slowing down right now. Freight volumes and freight expenditures are way down, consumer confidence has declined sharply, major retail chains all over America are closing hundreds of stores, and the “sequester” threatens to give the American people their first significant opportunity to experience what “austerity” tastes like. Gas prices are going up rapidly, corporate insiders are dumping massive amounts of stock and there are high profile corporate bankruptcies in the news almost every single day now. In many ways, what we are going through right now feels very similar to 2008 before the crash happened. Back then the warning signs of economic trouble were very obvious, but our politicians and the mainstream media insisted that everything was just fine, and the stock market was very much detached from reality. When the stock market did finally catch up with reality, it happened very, very rapidly. Sadly, most people do not appear to have learned any lessons from the crisis of 2008. Americans continue to rack up staggering amounts of debt, and Wall Street is more reckless than ever. As a society, we seem to have concluded that 2008 was just a temporary malfunction rather than an indication that our entire system was fundamentally flawed. In the end, we will pay a great price for our overconfidence and our recklessness. (Read More….)
By Julien Toyer MADRID | Tue Jun 5, 2012 5:44am EDT
(Reuters) – Spain said on Tuesday that credit markets were closing to the euro zone’s fourth biggest economy as finance chiefs of the Group of Seven major economies were to hold emergency talks on the currency bloc’s worsening debt crisis.
Treasury Minister Cristobal Montoro sent out the dramatic distress signal in a radio interview about the impact of his country’s banking crisis on government borrowing, saying that at current rates, financial markets were effectively shut to Spain.
“The risk premium says Spain doesn’t have the market door open,” Montoro said on Onda Cero radio. “The risk premium says that as a state we have a problem in accessing markets, when we need to refinance our debt.
The country, which enjoyed rapid growth after it joined the euro at its launch in 1999, is beset by bank debts triggered by the bursting of a real estate bubble, aggravated by overspending by its autonomous regions.
The risk premium investors demand to hold Spanish 10-year debt rather than the German equivalent hit a euro era high of 548 basis points on Friday, on concerns that Spain’s fragile banking system and heavily indebted regions will eventually force it to seek a Greek-style bailout.
Montoro said Spanish banks should be recapitalized through European mechanisms, departing from the previous government line that Spain could raise the money on its own and prompting the Madrid stock market to rise.
But his comments on Spain’s borrowing sent the euro down after the 17-nation European currency earlier hit a one-week high against the dollar on expectations that a conference call of G7 finance ministers and central bankers may hasten bold action.
The European Central Bank holds its monthly rate-setting meeting on Wednesday and European Union leaders meet on June 28-29 to discuss their strategy for overcoming the two-year-old crisis which has already seen Greece, Ireland and Portugal forced to accept international bailouts.
Investors have fled peripheral euro zone sovereign debt for the relative safe haven of German Bunds and U.S. and British government bonds amid worries about Spain’s banking crisis and fears that a June 17 Greek election could lead to Athens leaving the euro, setting off a wave of contagion around the euro area.
Spain will test the market on Thursday by issuing between 1 billion euros ($1.24 billion) and 2 billion euros in medium- and long-term bonds at auction.
Emilio Botin, chairman of the nation’s biggest bank, Banco Santander told Reuters Spanish banks needed about 40 billion euros in additional capital, adding that “there is no financial crisis in Spain”. Montoro said the figures were “perfectly accessible”.
But his dramatization of the debt situation set a stark backdrop for the conference call of the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Britain, plus European Union officials, which two G7 sources said would start at 1100 GMT.
Montoro’s comments appeared aimed at pressuring the ECB and EU paymaster Germany to find ways of intervening. But the central bank has so far shunned calls to resume purchases of Spanish government bonds, and Berlin has said it is up to Madrid to decided whether to apply for assistance if it needs help.
Spain has been trying to persuade EU partners to allow direct aid from the euro zone’s rescue fund to recapitalize its banks without making it submit to the political humiliation of a full-fledged assistance programme, officials say.
The festering euro zone crisis has sparked mounting concern outside Europe, with the United States fretting that it could further harm its faltering economic recovery, and countries such as Japan and Canada fearing fallout for the global economy.
“We have reached a point where we need to have a common understanding about the problems we are facing,” Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi told reporters.
Ottawa and Washington both called for action after a G7 source said fears that capital flight from Spain could escalate into a full-fledged bank run had triggered the emergency talks.
“Markets remain skeptical that the measures taken thus far are sufficient to secure the recovery in Europe and remove the risk that the crisis will deepen,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
In a sign of increasing concern about the euro area’s debt crisis, Australia’s central bank cut interest rates by 25 basis points to 3.50 percent, the lowest level in two years. It cited further weakening in Europe and a deterioration in market sentiment.
PRESSURE ON BERLIN
Pressure is building in particular on Germany, the biggest contributor to euro zone rescue funds, to back away from its prescription of fiscal austerity for the region’s weaker economies and to work harder on fostering short-term growth.
Berlin argues that it is already doing its share by encouraging above-inflation domestic wage settlements, accepting the prospect of higher-than-usual German inflation and most recently agreeing that Spain should have more time to achieve its fiscal targets.
Furthermore, Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the door on Monday to the prospect of a euro zone banking union in the medium term, saying she would discuss with EU authorities the idea of putting systemically important cross-border banks under European supervision.
A German government strategy paper seen by Reuters sets out a timetable for closer fiscal union in the euro zone, but Berlin does not expect final decisions on strengthening economic policy coordination until March 2013, with only a roadmap being agreed at this month’s summit.
A G7 source familiar with plans for the call said the group would urge more progress at this month’s EU summit, though this alone would probably disappoint global markets.
Central banking sources said the ECB could contribute by cutting its main interest rate, lowering its deposit rate to try to shake loose some 700 billion euros parked overnight in its vaults by anxious banks, or by providing a third big liquidity injection to banks.
Some analysts believe the bank is more likely to await the outcome of the Greek election and the EU summit before taking decisive action.
A G7 source said there was only a very small chance the G7 would go as far as to pledge coordinated action to curb excessive currency volatility. Japan, for one, fears a strong yen, which has been a safe haven for investors during the euro zone crisis, could help tip its economy into recession.
The G7 could also call for concerted action at the upcoming summit of the wider Group of 20 major economies in Mexico on June 18-19, the source said. The G20, which includes China, played a prominent role during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
A G20 official in Asia said the grouping, which also includes Brazil and India, could look to put pressure on Germany to switch to stimulus mode, as part of a wider call for strong, developed economies to step up spending.
“Germany and Canada could be seen as those having fiscal capabilities among the advanced economies,” the official said.
- Merkel rejects debt sharing as Obama urges Europe action (ekathimerini.com)
- Spain wants euro zone fiscal authority (news.yahoo.com)
- Spain tries to calm investors amid market pressure (seattlepi.com)
Kaduna refinery (photo from nigerianbestforum.com)
Published: 29 January, 2012, 11:11
As Nigeria spirals into instability, historian and economic researcher Frederick William Engdahl argues a recent government decision to lift subsidies on imported fuel in the oil-rich nation bears the mark of Washington Consensus shock therapy.
In the article below, Engdahl explains his view.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and its largest oil producer, is from all evidence being systematically thrown into chaos and a state of civil war. The recent surprise decision by the government of Goodluck Jonathan to abruptly lift subsidies on imported gasoline and other fuel has a far more sinister background than mere corruption, and the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) is playing a key role. China appears to be the likely loser along with Nigeria’s population.
The recent strikes protesting the government’s abrupt elimination of gasoline and other fuel subsidies, that brought Nigeria briefly to a standstill, came as a surprise to most in the country. Months earlier, President Jonathan had promised the major trade union organizations that he would conduct a gradual four-stage lifting of the subsidy to ease the economic burden. Instead, without warning he announced an immediate full removal of subsidies effective January 1, 2012. It was “shock therapy” to put it mildly.
Nigeria today is one of the world’s most important producers of light, sweet crude oil—the same high-quality crude oil that Libya and the British North Sea produce. The country is showing every indication of spiraling downward into deep disorder. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States and twelfth largest oil producer in the world on a par with Kuwait and just behind Venezuela with production exceeding two million barrels a day.
The curious timing of IMF subsidy demand
Despite its oil riches, Nigeria remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. The known oilfields are concentrated around the vast Niger Delta roughly between Port Harcourt and extending in the direction of Lagos, with large new finds being developed all along the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.Nigeria’s oil is exploited and largely exported by the Anglo-American giants—Shell, Mobil, Chevron, Texaco. Italy’s Agip also has a presence and most recently, to no one’s surprise, the Chinese state oil companies began seeking major exploration and oil infrastructure agreements with the Abuja government.
Ironically, despite the fact that Nigeria has abundant oil to earn dollar export revenue to build its domestic infrastructure, government policy has deliberately let its domestic oil refining capacity fall into ruin. The consequence has been that most of the gasoline and other refined petroleum products used to drive transportation and industry, has to be imported, despite the country’s abundant oil. In order to shield the population from the high import costs of gasoline and other refined fuels, the central government has subsidized prices.
Until January 1, 2012, that is. That was the day when, without advance warning President Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan announced immediate removal of all fuel subsidies. Prices for gasoline shot up almost threefold in hours from 65 naira (35 cents of a dollar) a liter to 150 naira (93 cents). The impact rippled across the economy to everything including prices of grains and vegetables.
In justifying the move, Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi insisted that “The monies will be used in provision of social amenities and infrastructural development that will benefit Nigerians more and save the country from economic rift.”President Goodluck Jonathan says he is phasing out the subsidy as a part of a move to “clean up the Nigerian government.” If so, how he plans to proceed is anything but apparent.
The huge unexpected price hike for domestic fuel triggered nationwide protests that threatened to bring the economy to a halt by mid-January. The president deftly took the wind out of protester sails by announcing a partial rollback in prices, still leaving prices effectively double that of December. The trade union federation immediately called off the protests. Then, revealingly, Goodluck Jonathan’s government ordered the military to take to the streets to “keep order” and de facto prevent new protests. All that took place during one of the bloodiest waves of bombings and murder rampages by the terrorist Boko Haram sect creating a climate of extreme chaos.
The smoking gun of the IMF
What has been buried from international accounts of the unrest is the explicit role the US-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) played in the situation. With suspicious timing IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde was in Nigeria days before the abrupt subsidy decision of President Jonathan. By all accounts, the IMF and the Nigerian government have been careful this time not to be blatant about openly announcing demands to ends subsidies as they were in Tunisia before food protests became the trigger for that country’s Twitter putsch in 2011.
During her visit to Nigeria Lagarde said President Jonathan’s ‘Transformation Agenda’ for deregulation “is an agenda for Nigeria, driven by Nigerians. The IMF is here to support you and be a better partner for you.” Few Nigerians were convinced.On December 29 Reuters wrote, “The IMF has urged countries across West and Central Africa to cut fuel subsidies, which they say are not effective in directly aiding the poor, but do promote corruption and smuggling. The past months have seen governments in Nigeria, Guinea, Cameroon and Chad moving to cut state subsidies on fuel.”
Further confirming the role US and IMF pressure on the Nigerian government played, Jeffery Sachs, Special Adviser to the United Nations (UN) Secretary General, during a meeting with President Jonathan in Nigeria in early January days after the subsidy decision, declared Jonathan’s decision to withdraw petroleum subsidy “a bold and correct policy.”
Sachs, a former Harvard economics professor, became notorious during the early 1990s for prescribing IMF “shock therapy” for Poland, Russia, Ukraine and other former communist states, which opened invaluable state assets for de facto plundering by dollar-rich western multinationals.
Even more suspicious is the manner in which Washington and the IMF are putting pressure on only select countries to end subsidies. Nigeria, whose oil today sells for the equivalent of $1 a liter or roughly $3.78 a US gallon, is far from cheap. Brunei, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia all offer their petrol very cheap to their people. The Saudis sell their oil at 17 cents, Kuwait at 22 cents. In the US gasoline averages 89 cents a liter.
That means the IMF and Washington have forced one of the poorest economies in Africa to impose a huge tax on its citizens on the implausible argument it will help eliminate corruption in the state petroleum sector. The IMF knows well that the elimination of subsidies will do nothing about corruption in high places.
Were the IMF and World Bank genuinely concerned with the health of the domestic Nigerian economy, they would have provided support for rebuilding and expanding a domestic oil refinery industry that has been allowed to rot, so that the country need no longer import refined fuels using precious state budget resources.The easiest way to do that would be to expedite a two-year-old deal between China and the Nigerian government to invest some $28 billion in massive expansion of the oil refinery sector, to eliminate need for importing foreign gasoline and other refined products.
Quite the opposite—the criminal cabal inside the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) and the Government making huge profits on the old subsidy system are suddenly making double and potentially triple more to maintain the old corrupt import system, and, of course, to sabotage Chinese refinery construction that could put an end to their gravy train.
Cutting their nose to spite the face…
Rather than benefit ordinary Nigerians as the IMF proclaims to want, the elimination of the subsidies has further pauperized the 90 per cent living on less than $2 a day, according to Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Nigerian Central Bank governor. An estimated 40 million Nigerians are unemployed in the country of 148 million.
Because transport costs are a significant factor in delivery of food to the cities, food price inflation has soared along with costs of public transportation for the majority of poorer Nigerians. According to the Nigerian Leadership Sunday, “prices of commodities which shot up as a fallout of the fuel pump price increase have refused to come down.” Everything from street vegetable sellers to carwashes to roadside photographers are feeling the shock of the rise in fuel prices. Unemployment is rising as small businesses fold.
The argument of the IMF and the Jonathan administration is that by freeing fuel prices, funds would be available to more social services and rebuilding Nigeria’s “infrastructure.” Both the IMF and the government know it would have been far more economically viable to replace the current corrupt system of importing refined gasoline and fuels with investing in rebuilding Nigeria’s domestic refining capacity.
Son Gyoh of the Nigerian Awareness for Development organization asks, “Would it not be more expedient to pressure government to service the refineries to full production capacity, given the implications on overhead and competitiveness for local industries?”
Gyoh pointed to the source of the problem: “Why have successive governments left the refineries in a state of disrepair while spending huge on subsidy? Is there any chance that the savings from subsidy withdrawal will go directly into rehabilitating the refineries? Does deregulation imply NNPC will no longer operate a monopoly in importation of refined petroleum product, or is this lobby a self-serving lifeline to continue its monopoly? ” He concludes, “In any case, there is good reason to doubt subsidy removal will solve the fuel scarcity problem as the cabal will only regroup to change tactics, a fact Nigerians are only too aware of.”
After Nigeria partly nationalized its oil sector in the late 1970s, it also took control of Shell Oil’s Port Harcourt I refinery. In 1989, Port Harcourt II refinery was built. Both refineries fell into serious disrepair after 1994, when the Abacha military dictatorship cut the “take” of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company NNPC from domestic sale of refined oil products such as gasoline from 84% to 22%. That caused a cash crisis for NNPC and a halt to refinery maintenance. Today only one of four refineries operates at all.
What developed since was a system of NNPC importing foreign gasoline and other refined products for Nigeria’s domestic needs, naturally at a far more expensive cost. The price subsidies were to relieve that higher import cost, hardly a sensible solution but a very lucrative one for those corrupt elements in the state and private sector making a killing, literally, off the import process.
NNPC criminal enterprise
The IMF is well aware of the real cause of Nigeria’s fuel industry problems. A Nigerian legislative committee examining the sources of the industry’s problems recently released a report documenting that at least $4 billion annually is taken from taxpayers in fuel industry corruption with the state Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) at the center. According to the commission, “every day, fuel importers drop off 59 million liters of fuel. The country consumes 35 million liters daily. That leaves 24 million liters of oil available for smugglers to export, paid for by government fuel subsidies. This costs the Nigerian people roughly $4 billion yearly, according to Reuters.”
The Nigerian government has said that the 7.5 billion dollars spent yearly on fuel subsidies could be used to provide desperately needed infrastructure. But they omit any mention of the rampant siphoning off of $4 billion of oil by black market smugglers, reportedly with connivance of high NNPC government officials, to sell to neighboring countries at a hefty profit. The refined imported fuel is reportedly smuggled into neighboring countries like Cameroon, Chad and Niger where petrol prices are far higher, according to Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, Deputy Governor of Kano State.
China as IMF target?
One major geopolitical factor that is generally ignored in recent discussion of Nigerian oil politics is the growing role of China in the country. In May 2010, only days after President Jonathan was sworn in, China signed an impressive $28.5 billion deal with his government to build three new refineries, something that in no way fits into the plans of either the IMF, or of Washington, or of the Anglo-American oil majors.
China State Construction Engineering Corporation Limited (CSCEC) signed the deal to build three oil refineries with Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), in the biggest deal China has made with Africa. Shehu Ladan, head of NNPC, said at the signing ceremony that the added refineries would reduce the $10 billion spent annually on imported refined products. As of January 2012, the three Chinese refinery projects were still in the planning stage, reportedly blocked by the powerful vested interests gaining from the existing corrupt import system.
A report in China Daily last November quoted Nigeria’s Olusegun Olutoyin Aganga, the minister of trade and investment, that Nigeria was seeking added Chinese investors for its energy, mining and agribusiness industries. Last September on a visit to Beijing, Nigeria central bank governor Lamido Sanusiannounced his country planned to invest 5 per cent to 10 per cent of its foreign exchange reserves in China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB) or yuan, noting that he sees the yuan becoming reserve currency. In 2010 China’s loans and exports to Nigeria exceeded $7 billion, while Nigeria exported $1 billion of crude oil, Sanusi stated.
Until now Nigeria has held some 79% of her foreign currency reserves in dollars, the rest in Euro or Sterling, all of which look dicey given their financial and debt problems. The move of a major oil producer away from dollars, added to similar moves recently by India, Japan, Russia, Iran and others, augurs bad news for the continued role of the dollar as dominant world reserve currency. Clearly some in Washington would not be happy with that.
The Chinese are also bidding to get a direct stake in Nigeria’s rich oil reserves, until now an Anglo-American domain. In July 2010, China’s CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation) won four prospective oil blocks – two in the Niger Delta and two in the frontier Chad Basin, with plans to become core investor in the Kaduna refinery, and construction of a double track Lagos-Kano railway. China’s oil company, CNOOC Ltd also has a major offshore production area in Nigeria.
The IMF and Washington pressure to lift subsidies on imported fuels is at this point in question, as is the future of China in Nigeria’s energy industry. Clear is that lifting subsidies in no way will benefit Nigerians. More alarming in this context is the orchestration of a major new wave of terror killings and bombings by the mysterious and suspiciously well-armed Boko Haram. This we will look at next in the context of Nigeria’s recent transformation into a major narcotics hub.
F. William Engdahl, author of A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
- Viewpoint: Nigeria’s President Jonathan backs down (bbc.co.uk)
- Seun Kuti: ‘End of fuel subsidy is treason against Nigerians’ (worldnewsflesh.wordpress.com)
- Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan defends fuel cut (direcmood.wordpress.com)
- Nigeria’s government squeezed by subsidy protests, militant movements (cnn.com)
- Occupy Nigeria – a reactionary occupy movement? (ethanzuckerman.com)
- REVELATIONS FROM HOUSE PROBE: Wanted; Subsidy on sincerity (vanguardngr.com)