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Freedom is Against the Law

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by Keith Broaders

Freedom was illegal in the Colonies in 1776 and Freedom is still illegal in America today. Those that signed the Declaration of Independence knew that a tyrannical government would never relinquish its power without resistance.

Governments are supposed to protect the rights of the people, but if they are not held in check, they will begin to abuse the people that they were created to protect. Rather than protecting the people, governments tend to protect the ruling class and enslave everyone else. This scheme will work as long as the people cling to the illusion that they are free.

Goethe, a well known German philosopher, once stated “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”.

It has been the job of the media and government schools to indoctrinate the people into believing that they are free. Slaves are much more productive and easy to control than individuals that know that the financial elite are calling the shots.

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Investors Prepare for Euro Collapse

The fear of a collapse is not limited to banks. Early last week, Shell startled the markets. “There’s been a shift in our willingness to take credit risk in Europe,” said CFO Simon Henry. He said that the oil giant, which has cash reserves of over 17 billion dollars, would rather invest this money in US government bonds or deposit it on US bank accounts than risk it in Europe.

Banks, companies and investors are preparing themselves for a collapse of the euro. Cross-border bank lending is falling, asset managers are shunning Europe and money is flowing into German real estate and bonds. The euro remains stable against the dollar because America has debt problems too. But unlike the euro, the dollar’s structure isn’t in doubt.

08/13/2012
By Martin Hesse

Otmar Issing is looking a bit tired. The former chief economist at the European Central Bank (ECB) is sitting on a barstool in a room adjoining the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. He resembles a father whose troubled teenager has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Issing is just about to explain again all the things that have gone wrong with the euro, and why the current, as yet unsuccessful efforts to save the European common currency are cause for grave concern.

He begins with an anecdote. “Dear Otmar, congratulations on an impossible job.” That’s what the late Nobel Prize-winning American economist Milton Friedman wrote to him when Issing became a member of the ECB Executive Board. Right from the start, Friedman didn’t believe that the new currency would survive. Issing at the time saw the euro as an “experiment” that was nevertheless worth fighting for.

Fourteen years later, Issing is still fighting long after he’s gone into retirement. But just next door on the stock exchange floor, and in other financial centers around the world, apparently a great many people believe that Friedman’s prophecy will soon be fulfilled.

Banks, investors and companies are bracing themselves for the possibility that the euro will break up — and are thus increasing the likelihood that precisely this will happen.

There is increasing anxiety, particularly because politicians have not managed to solve the problems. Despite all their efforts, the situation in Greece appears hopeless. Spain is in trouble and, to make matters worse, Germany’s Constitutional Court will decide in September whether the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) is even compatible with the German constitution.

There’s a growing sense of resentment in both lending and borrowing countries — and in the nations that could soon join their ranks. German politicians such as Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) are openly calling for Greece to be thrown out of the euro zone. Meanwhile the the leader of Germany’s opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Sigmar Gabriel, is urging the euro countries to share liability for the debts.

On the financial markets, the political wrangling over the right way to resolve the crisis has accomplished primarily one thing: it has fueled fears of a collapse of the euro.

Cross-Border Bank Lending Down

Banks are particularly worried. “Banks and companies are starting to finance their operations locally,” says Thomas Mayer who until recently was the chief economist at Deutsche Bank, which, along with other financial institutions, has been reducing its risks in crisis-ridden countries for months now. The flow of money across borders has dried up because the banks are afraid of suffering losses.

According to the ECB, cross-border lending among euro-zone banks is steadily declining, especially since the summer of 2011. In June, these interbank transactions reached their lowest level since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007.

In addition to scaling back their loans to companies and financial institutions in other European countries, banks are even severing connections to their own subsidiaries abroad. Germany’s Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank apparently prefer to see their branches in Spain and Italy tap into ECB funds, rather than finance them themselves. At the same time, these banks are parking excess capital reserves at the central bank. They are preparing themselves for the eventuality that southern European countries will reintroduce their national currencies and drastically devalue them.

“Even the watchdogs don’t like to see banks take cross-border risks, although in an absurd way this runs contrary to the concept of the monetary union,” says Mayer.

Since the height of the financial crisis in 2008, the EU Commission has been pressuring European banks to reduce their business, primarily abroad, in a bid to strengthen their capital base. Furthermore, the watchdogs have introduced strict limitations on the flow of money within financial institutions. Regulators require that banks in each country independently finance themselves. For instance, Germany’s Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) insists that HypoVereinsbank keeps its money in Germany. When the parent bank, Unicredit in Milan, asks for an excessive amount of money to be transferred from the German subsidiary to Italy, BaFin intervenes.

Breaking Points

Unicredit is an ideal example of how banks are turning back the clocks in Europe: The bank, which always prided itself as a truly pan-European institution, now grants many liberties to its regional subsidiaries, while benefiting less from the actual advantages of a European bank. High-ranking bank managers admit that, if push came to shove, this would make it possible to quickly sell off individual parts of the financial group.

In effect, the bankers are sketching predetermined breaking points on the European map. “Since private capital is no longer flowing, the central bankers are stepping into the breach,” explains Mayer. The economist goes on to explain that the risk of a breakup has been transferred to taxpayers. “Over the long term, the monetary union can’t be maintained without private investors,” he argues, “because it would only be artificially kept alive.”

The fear of a collapse is not limited to banks. Early last week, Shell startled the markets. “There’s been a shift in our willingness to take credit risk in Europe,” said CFO Simon Henry.

He said that the oil giant, which has cash reserves of over $17 billion (€13.8 billion), would rather invest this money in US government bonds or deposit it on US bank accounts than risk it in Europe. “Many companies are now taking the route that US money market funds already took a year ago: They are no longer so willing to park their reserves in European banks,” says Uwe Burkert, head of credit analysis at the Landesbank Baden-Württemberg, a publicly-owned regional bank based in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg.

And the anonymous mass of investors, ranging from German small investors to insurance companies and American hedge funds, is looking for ways to protect themselves from the collapse of the currency — or even to benefit from it. This is reflected in the flows of capital between southern and northern Europe, rapidly rising real estate prices in Germany and zero interest rates for German sovereign bonds.

‘Euro Experiment is Increasingly Viewed as a Failure’

One person who has long expected the euro to break up is Philipp Vorndran, 50, chief strategist at Flossbach von Storch, a company that deals in asset management. Vorndran’s signature mustache may be somewhat out of step with the times, but his views aren’t. “On the financial markets, the euro experiment is increasingly viewed as a failure,” says the investment strategist, who once studied under euro architect Issing and now shares his skepticism. For the past three years, Vorndran has been preparing his clients for major changes in the composition of the monetary union.

They are now primarily investing their money in tangible assets such as real estate. The stock market rally of the past weeks can also be explained by this flight of capital into real assets. After a long decline in the number of private investors, the German Equities Institute (DAI) has registered a significant rise in the number of shareholders in Germany.

Particularly large amounts of money have recently flowed into German sovereign bonds, although with short maturity periods they now generate no interest whatsoever. “The low interest rates for German government bonds reflect the fear that the euro will break apart,” says interest-rate expert Burkert. Investors are searching for a safe haven. “At the same time, they are speculating that these bonds would gain value if the euro were actually to break apart.”

The most radical option to protect oneself against a collapse of the euro is to completely withdraw from the monetary zone. The current trend doesn’t yet amount to a large-scale capital flight from the euro zone. In May, (the ECB does not publish more current figures) more direct investments and securities investments actually flowed into Europe than out again. Nonetheless, this fell far short of balancing out the capital outflows during the troubled winter quarters, which amounted to over €140 billion.

The exchange rate of the euro only partially reflects the concerns that investors harbor about the currency. So far, the losses have remained within limits. But the explanation for this doesn’t provide much consolation: The main alternative, the US dollar, appears relatively unappealing for major investors from Asia and other regions. “Everyone is looking for the lesser of two evils,” says a Frankfurt investment banker, as he laconically sums up the situation. Yet there’s growing skepticism about the euro, not least because, in contrast to America and Asia, Europe is headed for a recession. Mayer, the former economist at Deutsche Bank, says that he expects the exchange rates to soon fall below 1.20 dollars.

“We notice that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sell Asians and Americans on investments in Europe,” says asset manager Vorndran, although the US, Japan and the UK have massive debt problems and “are all lying in the same hospital ward,” as he puts it. “But it’s still better to invest in a weak currency than in one whose structure is jeopardized.”

Hedge Fund Gurus Give Euro Thumbs Down

Indeed, investors are increasingly speculating directly against the euro. The amount of open financial betting against the common currency — known as short positioning — has rapidly risen over the past 12 months. When ECB President Mario Draghi said three weeks ago that there was no point in wagering against the euro, anti-euro warriors grew a bit more anxious.

One of these warriors is John Paulson. The hedge fund manager once made billions by betting on a collapse of the American real estate market. Not surprisingly, the financial world sat up and took notice when Paulson, who is now widely despised in America as a crisis profiteer, announced in the spring that he would bet on a collapse of the euro.

Paulson is not the only one. Investor legend George Soros, who no longer personally manages his Quantum Funds, said in an interview in April that — if he were still active — he would bet against the euro if Europe’s politicians failed to adopt a new course. The investor war against the common currency is particularly delicate because it’s additionally fueled by major investors from the euro zone. German insurers and managers of large family fortunes have reportedly invested with Paulson and other hedge funds. “They’re sawing at the limb that they’re sitting on,” says an insider.

So far, the wager by the hedge funds has not paid off, and Paulson recently suffered major losses.

But the deciding match still has to be played.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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European bank runs and failure of Credit-Anstalt in 1931

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21 May, 2012, 14:52
Posted by Zarathustra

The events in Europe right now is essentially a slow-motion bank run (or “bank jog”) on various European banks in the periphery.   Greece, for instance, have been losing deposits in their banks, while Spanish bank Bankia was rumoured to have massive among of deposits being withdrawn.  And of course, in the days of modern banking with internet and other stuff, you don’t even need to see a massive queue outside a bank to know that there’s a bank run.

Disturbingly, what’s happening today in Europe reminds me of something happening more than 80 years ago, when bank failures triggered bank runs virtually in the whole of Europe, later bank holidays in hope to stop bank runs, capital control, and countries going off gold standard.  Sure enough, by thinking about the event in 1931 by no means suggest that I think what happened then will surely happen in 2012.  It is always, however, good to look at the history and see what we can learn from it.

We all knew that the Great Depression started in 1929.  Perhaps lesser known is that one of the more dangerous legs of the slump during the the Great Depression did not start until 1931 when an Austrian Bank Credit Anstalt went bust.

At the time, it was the biggest bank of Austria.  Its failure triggered a European banking crisis, with bank runs started first with Austrian banks, then with German banks.

In Liaquat Ahamed’s wonderful book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, he wrote that while Austria was a small country with the GDP about one tenth of Germany’s, remarkably the failing on its biggest bank sent a massive shockwave to the whole of Europe, an ultimately to the world economy.  While the big central bankers were trying to come up with rescue packages, without the experience of modern central banking, they came in too late, with too little money.

During the time of the Great Depression, it was the French which had the biggest gold reserve after the United States.  At the time of Credit Anstalt’s failure, the French was apparently faring relatively well among European countries.  And not surprisingly, politics was in play in their attempt to save themselves.  France, although financially stronger among European great powers, they were not keen at all to save the Germans and Austrians (perhaps still quite keen to punish them for starting World War One).  When the United States unilaterally forgo war debts from Europe for a year, which included German’s reparation, France was furious.  Liaquat Ahamed quoted that the British Prime Minister at the time Ramsay MacDonald saying that “France has been playing its usual small minded and selfish fame over Hoover proposal…”, while the Bank of England Governor’s Montagu Norman said, according to Ahamed, that “Berlin was being ‘bled to death’ while the French and the Americans were busy arguing” (p. 413).  And sure enough, when the German’s central bank Reichsbank asked Banque de France and the French government for help, that didn’t work. The French government offered some loan with conditions, which the Germans thought of that as “political blackmail”.

As the crisis worsened, Danatbank, at the time the second biggest bank in Germany, went bust some two months later after Credit Anstalt failed.  On 13 July, it failed to open for business, triggering yet another wave of massive bank runs on every other German banks.  With the banking crisis at its worst, a two-day bank holiday was imposed in German to prevent further drain in deposits.  Later, banks in virtually the whole of Europe are closed.

Meanwhile, in London, the government is considering measures to reduce budget deficits even as the banking crisis hit Britain, partly because of UK’s banks exposure to Germany and other countries in the continental Europe, and the Bank of England was losing gold reserve, forcing the Bank to raise interest rate when it should not.  The military’s salary would be cut in hope to plug the budget gap, but the some sailors in the Royal Navy became (predictably) very angry and essentially went on strike, an event which is now known as the Invergordon Mutiny.  Not a particularly huge event, but enough to send a shockwave to the City of London with stock market crashed and a sterling crisis.  In about a week after the Mutiny, Britain was forced out of the gold standard.

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USA: Sub Sea Research Locates Port Nicholson Shipwreck

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Sub Sea Research LLC, a Portland Maine based company located the worlds richest shipwreck, a WWII British Freighter carrying a secret cargo of 71 tons of Platinum sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Cape Cod.

Sub Sea Research (SSR) spent months searching for the elusive ship, the Port Nicholson, torpedoed by German U-boat U87, June 1942. It took two torpedoes and about 7 hours to sink her. U-87 also fired at the troop ship the “Cherokee,” quickly sinking her with a heavy loss of lives.

The Port Nicholson is a steel-hulled, 481 ft. merchant ship, coal fired freighter built in 1918 at the Tynes & Wear shipyard. She was carrying two special envoy USSR agents overseeing the delivery of a very important Lend-Lease payment from the USSR to USA. She along with 4 other commercial vessels were being escorted by an unusually high number of military ships. The normal ratio at the time was near 1:10 or less but this convoy ratio was 6:5. Maybe it was the fact they were delivering 1,707,000 oz. troy, in 400 oz. bars of platinum. Strangely the two USSR special envoy individuals quickly disappeared after being rescued and brought to American shores. They were not de-briefed like all the other survivors were.

SSR first discovered the Port Nicholson in 600-800 feet of water off Cape Cod in 2008. In 2009 SSR obtained legal recognition from the US Courts as the legal owner and salvager of the ship.

SSR researchers corresponded with individuals manning the ships and even spoke with another U-boat captain who was in the same area. They have talked with survivors and relatives of the men of the Port Nicholson and the Cherokee. One Yarmouth, MA author has written a book and is waiting for “the last chapter” of raising the valuable cargo of the Port Nicholson. These researchers also found declassified documents verifying the cargo as well as the debriefing of the sinking.

According to SSR research, the Port Nicholson and four other ships were being escorted by six military ships in a convoy from Halifax to New York. The Port Nicholson is documented to be carrying ~1,707,000 troy ounces of platinum. It may also contain $165M of copper, zinc and war stores. Greg Brooks, one of two SSR founders, said his team has already recovered several identifying and critical artifacts. He has verified that “it is without a doubt the Port Nicholson”.

Late in the summer of 2011, after 100’s of hours of ROV video, they have seen what appear to be bullion boxes containing 4 bars, each being 400 troy ounces of precious metal. “We have seen boxes indicative of those used to store and ship this type of bullion in 1942. Our video clearly shows the box and our inspection class remotely operated vehicles (ROV) could not lift it due to its weight of about 130 lbs.”

A similar discovery occurred in 1981 when the HMS Edinburgh was discovered in the Barents Sea. It too carried a USSR Lend-lease payment. This wreck, in 800 feet of water, took almost three years to salvage in 1981 (Salvage of the Century) and contained $100M of gold (1981 prices). Richard Wharton, one of the original salvagers, provided SSR with photos and dimensions of the wooden boxes from the HMS Edinburg containing the gold bullion bars. These wooden bullion boxes were the same type shipped within six weeks of the Port Nicholson. According to Brooks, “We used our manipulator arm to scale our box dimensions. They appear close and almost exactly match the boxes salvaged in 1981. Mr. Wharton’s photos are almost identical to the boxes we have seen on our wreck. We nudged and pushed the boxes with maximum thrust from our ROV. We have verified these boxes have unusually high mass as one would expect for bullion. What is different from the Edinburgh boxes and unique to ours is that ours are very well preserved and do not easily come apart. Things are very well preserved. We even flipped the pages in a book and the pages remained intact. That was amazing to see.”

“We have been working and planning the site since 2009. Our current equipment is just not enough to handle the 2-5 knot currents, mostly zero visibility and the excessive ocean conditions at the site. It takes us 10 hours from Boston Harbor to get to the site. And, conditions such as these leave few and very small windows of onsite time each year in which we can safely work on the site. We certainly underestimated the conditions and maybe over estimated our capacity even with the 214 ft. M/S Sea Hunter and a 95 ft. ship M/S Son Worshipper fully equipped with a sub, ROVs, 125 ton crane, claw and sonar gear.

Photos taken from the HMCS Nanaimo at the time of the sinking show the Port Nicholson bow straight up in the air. She went down straight and slammed to the bottom vertically, stern first at about 30 mph and is now lying on her starboard side. This position, along with the numerous metal, wires, pipes, booms, debris as well as 70 years accumulation of fishing net snags makes access extremely difficult from the deck side. “The holds are not upright and we certainly are not simply going down into the holds with a lift and pulling up the cargo. We may have to cut into the hull to gain access and that is complicated and requires a different tool set. The ship carried war stores thus requiring even greater caution and safety procedures.”

“There is nothing more frustrating for each of our crew, as well as our financial supporters, to see, touch and feel the bullion box and not be able to quickly and simply retrieve it. There is nobody on this earth who wants to bring up that box more than me. We’ve been at it a while now.”

While the ship, M/S Sea Hunter is capable of remaining on-site in almost any weather, SSR has exhausted the capability of the ROV and support equipment. SSR is now entertaining private support from special technical and financial organizations. The operation needs to re-capitalize so that SSR can order or retain a heavy duty state of the art work class ROV, fully outfitted with the tool set to complete the salvage and bring a bar on deck. This specialized equipment costs about $2.5M, requires well trained support crews and is capable of lifting heavy loads and has a long build/lease lead time of up to 20 weeks.

“Many marine technology firms are very interested in helping and being part of such an exciting treasure salvage project right in Boston’s back yard. They want to share in this once in life time adventure. And, it has a rich local and national history with a high degree of intrigue.”

“We have spoken with some interesting individuals and some family investment groups who are bored with traditional opportunities. They are certainly tired of the significant swings and losses occurring in the market today. They are most intrigued with the unique sense of history and adventure the Port Nicholson treasure simply from the excitement factor.

“Who wouldn’t want to be a treasure hunter, have a real piece of history (1942 platinum) and be able to say ‘I am a real treasure hunter’. It is every kid’s dream to be a treasure hunter and some adults dream of it too!”

“All we have left to do is get the right equipment to bring up the bars we have seen. 2012 is our year to make this all come to fruition!”

Sub Sea Research LLC (SSR), a Maine company founded in 1994, maintains a fleet of ships and scientific exploration equipment to engage in research, conservation, development and exploration activities around the world aimed at finding, recovering or preserving underwater shipwrecks of special historical and cultural significance.

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Global Economic Downturn: A Crisis of Political Economy

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By George Friedman

Classical political economists like Adam Smith or David Ricardo never used the term “economy” by itself. They always used the term “political economy.” For classical economists, it was impossible to understand politics without economics or economics without politics. The two fields are certainly different but they are also intimately linked. The use of the term “economy” by itself did not begin until the late 19th century. Smith understood that while an efficient market would emerge from individual choices, those choices were framed by the political system in which they were made, just as the political system was shaped by economic realities. For classical economists, the political and economic systems were intertwined, each dependent on the other for its existence.

The current economic crisis is best understood as a crisis of political economy. Moreover, it has to be understood as a global crisis enveloping the United States, Europe and China that has different details but one overriding theme: the relationship between the political order and economic life. On a global scale, or at least for most of the world’s major economies, there is a crisis of political economy. Let’s consider how it evolved.

Origin of the Crisis

As we all know, the origin of the current financial crisis was the subprime mortgage meltdown in the United States. To be more precise, it originated in a financial system generating paper assets whose value depended on the price of housing. It assumed that the price of homes would always rise and, at the very least, if the price fluctuated the value of the paper could still be determined. Neither proved to be true. The price of housing declined and, worse, the value of the paper assets became indeterminate. This placed the entire American financial system in a state of gridlock and the crisis spilled over into Europe, where many financial institutions had purchased the paper as well.

From the standpoint of economics, this was essentially a financial crisis: who made or lost money and how much. From the standpoint of political economy it raised a different question: the legitimacy of the financial elite. Think of a national system as a series of subsystems — political, economic, military and so on. Then think of the economic system as being divisible into subsystems — various corporate verticals with their own elites, with one of the verticals being the financial system. Obviously, this oversimplifies the situation, but I’m doing that to make a point. One of the systems, the financial system, failed, and this failure was due to decisions made by the financial elite. This created a massive political problem centered not so much on confidence in any particular financial instrument but on the competence and honesty of the financial elite itself. A sense emerged that the financial elite was either stupid or dishonest or both. The idea was that the financial elite had violated all principles of fiduciary, social and moral responsibility in seeking its own personal gain at the expense of society as a whole.

Fair or not, this perception created a massive political crisis. This was the true systemic crisis, compared to which the crisis of the financial institutions was trivial. The question was whether the political system was capable not merely of fixing the crisis but also of holding the perpetrators responsible. Alternatively, if the financial crisis did not involve criminality, how could the political system not have created laws to render such actions criminal? Was the political elite in collusion with the financial elite?

There was a crisis of confidence in the financial system and a crisis of confidence in the political system. The U.S. government’s actions in September 2008 were designed first to deal with the failures of the financial system. Many expected this would be followed by dealing with the failures of the financial elite, but this is perceived not to have happened. Indeed, the perception is that having spent large sums of money to stabilize the financial system, the political elite allowed the financial elite to manage the system to its benefit.

This generated the second crisis — the crisis of the political elite. The Tea Party movement emerged in part as critics of the political elite, focusing on the measures taken to stabilize the system and arguing that it had created a new financial crisis, this time in excessive sovereign debt. The Tea Party’s perception was extreme, but the idea was that the political elite had solved the financial problem both by generating massive debt and by accumulating excessive state power. Its argument was that the political elite used the financial crisis to dramatically increase the power of the state (health care reform was the poster child for this) while mismanaging the financial system through excessive sovereign debt.

The Crisis in Europe

The sovereign debt question also created both a financial crisis and then a political crisis in Europe. While the American financial crisis certainly affected Europe, the European political crisis was deepened by the resulting recession. There had long been a minority in Europe who felt that the European Union had been constructed either to support the financial elite at the expense of the broader population or to strengthen Northern Europe, particularly France and Germany, at the expense of the periphery — or both. What had been a minority view was strengthened by the recession.

The European crisis paralleled the American crisis in that financial institutions were bailed out. But the deeper crisis was that Europe did not act as a single unit to deal with all European banks but instead worked on a national basis, with each nation focused on its own banks and the European Central Bank seeming to favor Northern Europe in general and Germany in particular. This became the theme particularly when the recession generated disproportionate crises in peripheral countries like Greece.

There are two narratives to the story. One is the German version, which has become the common explanation. It holds that Greece wound up in a sovereign debt crisis because of the irresponsibility of the Greek government in maintaining social welfare programs in excess of what it could fund, and now the Greeks were expecting others, particularly the Germans, to bail them out.

The Greek narrative, which is less noted, was that the Germans rigged the European Union in their favor. Germany is the world’s third-largest exporter, after China and the United States (and closing rapidly on the No. 2 spot). By forming a free trade zone, the Germans created captive markets for their goods. During the prosperity of the first 20 years or so, this was hidden beneath general growth. But once a crisis hit, the inability of Greece to devalue its money — which, as the euro, was controlled by the European Central Bank — and the ability of Germany to continue exporting without any ability of Greece to control those exports exacerbated Greece’s recession, leading to a sovereign debt crisis. Moreover, the regulations generated by Brussels so enhanced the German position that Greece was helpless.

Which narrative is true is not the point. The point is that Europe is facing two political crises generated by economics. One crisis is similar to the American one, which is the belief that Europe’s political elite protected the financial elite. The other is a distinctly European one, a regional crisis in which parts of Europe have come to distrust each other rather vocally. This could become an existential crisis for the European Union.

The Crisis in China

The American and European crises struck hard at China, which, as the world’s largest export economy, is a hostage to external demand, particularly from the United States and Europe. When the United States and Europe went into recession, the Chinese government faced an unemployment crisis. If factories closed, workers would be unemployed, and unemployment in China could lead to massive social instability. The Chinese government had two responses. The first was to keep factories going by encouraging price reductions to the point where profit margins on exports evaporated. The second was to provide unprecedented amounts of credit to enterprises facing default on debts in order to keep them in business.

The strategy worked, of course, but only at the cost of substantial inflation. This led to a second crisis, where workers faced the contraction of already small incomes. The response was to increase incomes, which in turn increased the cost of goods exported once again, making China’s wage rates less competitive, for example, than Mexico’s.

China had previously encouraged entrepreneurs. This was easy when Europe and the United States were booming. Now, the rational move by entrepreneurs was to go offshore or lay off workers, or both. The Chinese government couldn’t afford this, so it began to intrude more and more into the economy. The political elite sought to stabilize the situation — and their own positions — by increasing controls on the financial and other corporate elites.

In different ways, that is what happened in all three places — the United States, Europe and China — at least as first steps. In the United States, the first impulse was to regulate the financial sector, stimulate the economy and increase control over sectors of the economy. In Europe, where there were already substantial controls over the economy, the political elite started to parse how those controls would work and who would benefit more. In China, where the political elite always retained implicit power over the economy, that power was increased. In all three cases, the first impulse was to use political controls.

In all three, this generated resistance. In the United States, the Tea Party was simply the most active and effective manifestation of that resistance. It went beyond them. In Europe, the resistance came from anti-Europeanists (and anti-immigration forces that blamed the European Union’s open border policies for uncontrolled immigration). It also came from political elites of countries like Ireland who were confronting the political elites of other countries. In China, the resistance has come from those being hurt by inflation, both consumers and business interests whose exports are less competitive and profitable.

Not every significant economy is caught in this crisis. Russia went through this crisis years ago and had already tilted toward the political elite’s control over the economy. Brazil and India have not experienced the extremes of China, but then they haven’t had the extreme growth rates of China. But when the United States, Europe and China go into a crisis of this sort, it can reasonably be said that the center of gravity of the world’s economy and most of its military power is in crisis. It is not a trivial moment.

Crisis does not mean collapse. The United States has substantial political legitimacy to draw on. Europe has less but its constituent nations are strong. China’s Communist Party is a formidable entity but it is no longer dealing with a financial crisis. It is dealing with a political crisis over the manner in which the political elite has managed the financial crisis. It is this political crisis that is most dangerous, because as the political elite weakens it loses the ability to manage and control other elites.

It is vital to understand that this is not an ideological challenge. Left-wingers opposing globalization and right-wingers opposing immigration are engaged in the same process — challenging the legitimacy of the elites. Nor is it simply a class issue. The challenge emanates from many areas. The challengers are not yet the majority, but they are not so far away from it as to be discounted. The real problem is that, while the challenge to the elites goes on, the profound differences in the challengers make an alternative political elite difficult to imagine.

The Crisis of Legitimacy

This, then, is the third crisis that can emerge: that the elites become delegitimized and all that there is to replace them is a deeply divided and hostile force, united in hostility to the elites but without any coherent ideology of its own. In the United States this would lead to paralysis. In Europe it would lead to a devolution to the nation-state. In China it would lead to regional fragmentation and conflict.

These are all extreme outcomes and there are many arrestors. But we cannot understand what is going on without understanding two things. The first is that the political economic crisis, if not global, is at least widespread, and uprisings elsewhere have their own roots but are linked in some ways to this crisis. The second is that the crisis is an economic problem that has triggered a political problem, which in turn is making the economic problem worse.

The followers of Adam Smith may believe in an autonomous economic sphere disengaged from politics, but Adam Smith was far more subtle. That’s why he called his greatest book the Wealth of Nations. It was about wealth, but it was also about nations. It was a work of political economy that teaches us a great deal about the moment we are in.

Global Economic Downturn: A Crisis of Political Economy is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”

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