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Je Suis(se) HSBC! – The austerity odd or ad?

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While the wealthy evade billions in taxes, ordinary citizens continue to bear the burden of budget cuts. Meanwhile, those who resist are punished for it. Is our austerity world an upside-down normalcy and reality? Je Suis(se) HSBC!! Isn’t it odd, or it’s just another (unintentional) ad?

“What is rewarded above is punished below … Profits are privatized, losses are socialized.”
Ultimately, major scandals like HSBC’s Swiss tax evasion scheme are merely flash points offering us a clearer view of the hidden dynamics at work in the world economy. Credits: telegraph.co.uk
This week it was revealed that HSBC — Europe’s biggest bank — has been actively running and propagating a massive tax evasion scheme through its Swiss subsidiary, allowing some of its wealthiest international clients to hide over $120bn in undeclared assets in 30.000 secret Swiss bank accounts. Leading British regulators, MPs and government officials were aware of the malpractices and the names of potential tax evaders (including movie stars, drug lords and heads of state), but never pressed criminal charges.

Instead, the UK — like the rest of Europe — ushered in an age of austerity. Where the billions of the rich escaped to Switzerland and the Caymans, the benefits of the poor were cut “to balance the budget.” Last year, David Cameron pledged to slash “wasteful” public spending for another decade, as it “comes out of the pockets of the same taxpayers whose living standards we want to see improve.” The irony of the Prime Minister speaking from a golden throne was hardly lost on anyone. Welcome to the topsy-turvy reality of austerity politics.
As for HSBC, of course the diligent observer will not have been very surprised by the news of the bank’s umpteenth mega-scandal. Already back in 2012, financial journalist Matt Taibbi made it clear that HSBC had been engaged in “more or less the worst behavior that any bank can possibly be guilty of.” So far, the bank has managed to avoid prosecution despite laundering billions of dollars for some of the most notorious Mexican drug cartels as well as a Saudi bank linked to Al Qaeda, and systematically rigging interbank interest rates and reaping lavish profits in the infamous LIBOR scandal.

The decision of US and UK regulators to reach deferred prosecution agreements with HSBC and not to press criminal charges in these scandals signals the double standards at the heart of our contemporary justice systems. In the US, where more than half of the prison population is doing time for minor drug offenses, the white collar criminals who aid and abet the violent traffickers of these same drugs get off with a slap on the wrist. As Taibbi puts it, “for the crimes [HSBC] committed, getting away with just [a fine] — and it’s not even their money, it’s the shareholders’ money — it literally is a get out of jail free card.”

Yet it is very important not to let the criminal behavior of a single bank distract us from the bigger picture. HSBC is but one notoriously scandalous player in a financial system that is dominated by some of the most criminal organizations of our times. Focusing our wrath on individual acts of misbehavior risks missing a deeper dimension. While it is the illegal practices that mostly hit the headlines and cause indignation, the real theft still occurs within the bounds of the law — in the everyday transactions and ordinary financial operations at the heart of these banks’ business models.

In this sense, the greatest scandal of our times is systemic in nature and rests upon the wholesale transformation of the world economy over the past four decades. With the onset of financialization in the 1970s, the international banking system began to act like Galeano’s magnifying glass: grossly amplifying pre-existing inequalities and inverting reality in the process. In the first instance, the system sucks up billions in interest and tax money from below. Starting with the bankruptcy of New York City in 1975 and the Mexican debt crisis of 1982, austerity became the key mechanism whereby the banks effected a historically unprecedented redistribution of resources from the bottom to the top.
At the other end, the magnifying glass created the preconditions under which the world’s wealthiest businesspeople, Third World dictators and white-collar criminals could further increase their accumulated capital — obtained through decades’ worth in pillage and plunder of state resources and common property — and stuff it in offshore bank accounts and foreign assets, where this immense stolen wealth largely escapes taxation, regulation and criminal investigation.

The financial privileges obtained through this process, which has been referred to by David Harvey as “accumulation by disposition”, stand in direct relation to the fiscal deprivation at the bottom. Ultimately, major scandals like HSBC’s Swiss tax evasion scheme are merely flash points offering us a clearer view of the hidden dynamics at work in the world economy: what is taken from one side shows up at the other. In a word, there is no such thing as austerity; there is only an outrageously skewed redistribution of resources. In this upside-down world of financial capitalism, money doesn’t trickle down — it steadily flows upwards.

The result is a stable set of outcomes in which profits are perennially privatized and losses are systematically socialized. Those who question this state of affairs are told that “there is no alternative,” and those who actively resist — like the social movements and progressive governments in Latin America and Southern Europe — are ruthlessly punished for it. First the cops will beat ordinary citizens over the head when they protest, then investors will beat popular governments over the head when they do the same. Foreign capital is withdrawn, bond yields spike up, stock markets collapse. Where the bankers above are rewarded for criminal behavior, those who struggle for justice from below find themselves imprisoned within the narrowing perimeters of the permissible.

It should be clear by now that to this systemic injustice there can only ever be systemic answers. Of course regulators should actively pursue criminal charges against HSBC for its latest mega-scandal, but without powerful anti-systemic movements to carry demands for social justice forward, meaningful change remains unlikely. To turn the looking glass around and put the world back on its feet will require mass mobilization and political organization on a scale we have not been able to imagine so far. Now more than ever we need to take back to the streets and start developing a coherent transnational project to confront the criminal rule of global finance head on.

First published by the ROAR Magazine.

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Economy

Free-Market Capitalism and Climate Crisis

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Free market capitalism is an economic system that has brought about tremendous economic growth and prosperity in many countries around the world. However, it has also spawned a number of problems, one of which is the climate crisis. The climate crisis is a global problem caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These externalities are chiefly a consequence of day to day human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and conventional agriculture. The climate crisis is leading to rise in temperatures, sea levels, and more erratic weather patterns-The floods in Pakistan and depleting cedars of Lebanon are vivid instances for these phenomena, which are having a devastating impact on the planet.

One of the main reasons that free market capitalism has contributed to the climate crisis is that it prioritizes short-term economic growth over long-term environmental sustainability. Under capitalism, companies are primarily motivated by profit and are not required to internalize the costs of their pollution. This means that they are able to pollute without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. Additionally, the capitalist system is based on the idea of unlimited growth, which is not sustainable in the long-term. As long as there is an infinite demand for goods and services, companies will continue to produce them, leading to ever-increasing levels of pollution and resource depletion.

Another pressing issue that free market capitalism is recently going through is that it does not take into account the externalities of economic activities. Externalities are the unintended consequences of economic activities, such as pollution and climate change. Under capitalism, companies are not required to pay for the externalities of their activities, which means that they are able to continue polluting without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. In her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate” Naomi Klein argues that the current system of capitalism is inherently incompatible with the urgent action needed to address the Climate crisis.

To address the climate crisis, it is necessary to put checks and balances over the free market capitalism and/or make a way towards a more sustainable economic system. This can be done through a number of different effective policies, such as:

Carbon pricing: This can be done through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which would make companies pay for the carbon emissions that they are producing. In the article “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” authors suggest that revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce the carbon emissions.

Increasing renewable energy investments: an increment in the investments in clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, can result in the reduction in  the use of fossil fuels.

Regulating pollution: Governments can regulate pollution to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere.

Encouraging sustainable practices: Governments can encourage sustainable practices, such as recycling and conservation, to reduce the use of resources.

It is remarkable that evolving Capitalism can be harnessed to address the climate change. The private sector has the resources and innovation to develop and implement new technologies and sustainable practices, but they need the right incentives and regulations to do so. Finding the balance between economic growth and environmental protection must be a priority for capitalists.

The free market capitalism has been the driving force behind global economic growth, but at the same time, it has contributed to the ongoing climate crisis. The solution to this problem is not to reject capitalism, but rather to reform it to the societies’ suitable demands. Government should consider providing a level playing field so as to make the probable transition from fossil-based energy systems to Green energy technologies possible. The capitalists should not consider short-termism over long term environmental sustainability. Government intervention to put a price on carbon emissions, invest in renewable energy, regulate pollution, and encourage sustainable practices is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis and build a sustainable future for all. However, here is the catch:  Is achieving net-zero-carbon emissions by mid-century a probable target? The answer is quite uncertain, however it is critical point to strive for in the face of  escalating Climate Crisis.

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Egypt’s “Too Big to Fail” Theory Once Again at Test

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Authors: Reem Mansour & Mohamed A. Fouad

In the wake of 2022 FED’s hawkish monetary policy, the Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt, saw an exodus of about USD20bn of foreign capital.  A feat that exerted pressure on the value of its pound against the dollar slashing it by almost half.  This led to USD12bn trade backlog accumulating in Egypt’s ports by December 2022.

Meanwhile, amidst foreign debt nearing USD170bn, inflation soaring to double digits, and a chronic balance of payment deficit, Egypt became structurally unfit to sustain global shocks; the country saw its foreign debt mounting to 35% of GDP, causing the financing gap to hover at USD20billion. 

While it may seem all gloom and doom, friends from the GCC rushed to inject funds in the “too big to fail” country, sparing it, an arguably, ill-fate that was well reflected in its Eurobond yields spreads and credit default swaps, a measure that assesses a sovereign default risk. 

For the same reason in early 2023, the IMF sealed a deal worth of USD3bn, with the government, which unlocked an extra USD14bn sources of financing from multilateral institutions, and GCC sovereign funds, to fill in a hefty portion of the annual foreign exchange gap, albeit  a considerable amount averaging USD6bn per annum is yet to be sourced from portfolio investments.  

With the IMF stepping in, the Egyptian government agreed on a structural reform program that requires a flexible exchange rate regime, where the Egyptian pound is set to trade within daily boundaries against the US dollar, rationalize government spending, especially in projects that require foreign currency; and most importantly the program entails stake-sales in publicly owned assets, paving the way for the private sector to play a bigger role in the economy.

In due course, through its sovereign fund, Egypt planned initial offerings for shares in companies worth about USD5-USD6bn, and expanded the sale of its shares in local banks and government holdings to Gulf investment funds. 

Through the limited period of execution of these reforms, the EGP hit a high of 32 against the greenback, and an inflow of portfolio investments amounting to USD1bn took place, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. 

Simultaneously, Citibank International, cited a possible near end of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar.  Also, in a report to investors, Standard Chartered recommended to buy Egyptian treasury bills, and pointed to the return of portfolio flows to the local debt market in the early days of January, 2023. Likewise, Fitch indicated the ability of the Egyptian banking sector to face the repercussions of the depreciation of the pound, and that the compulsory reserve ratios within Egyptian banks are able to withstand any declines in the value of the pound because they are supported by healthy internal flows of capital.

While things seem to be poised for a recovery, the long term prospects may lack sustainability.  The Egyptian government needs to accelerate its plans to shift gears towards a real operational economy capable of withstanding shocks and dealing with any global challenges. Egypt, however has implicitly held the narrative that the country is ‘too big to fail”. This is largely true to the country’s geopolitical relevance, but even this has its limitations when the price to bail far outweighs the price to fail.

Former President George W. Bush’s administration popularized the “too big to fail” (TBTF) doctrine notably during the 2008 financial crisis. The Bush administration often used the term to describe why it stepped in to bail out some financial companies to avert worldwide economic collapse.

In his book “The Myth of Too Big To Fail” Imad Moosa presented arguments against using public fund to bail out failing financial institutions. He ultimately argued that a failing financial institution should be allowed to fail without fearing an apocalyptic outcome. For countries, the TBTF theory comes under considerable challenge.

In August 1982, Mexico was not able to service its external debt obligations, marking the start of the debt crisis. After years of accumulating external debt, rising world interest rates, the worldwide recession and sudden devaluations of the peso caused the external debt bill to rise sharply, which ultimately caused a default. 

After six years of economic reform in Russia, privatization and macroeconomic stabilization had experienced some limited success. Yet in August 1998, after recording its first year of positive economic growth since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was forced to default on its sovereign debt, devalue the ruble, and declare a suspension of payments by commercial banks to foreign creditors.

In Egypt, although the country remains to face a number of challenges, signs remain relatively less worrying than 2022, as global sentiment suggests that leverage will be provided in the short-term at least. Egypt’s diversified economy, size and relative regional clout may very well spare the country the fate of Lebanon. However, if reforms do not happen fast enough, the TBTF shield may become completely depleted.

Hence, in order to avoid an economic fallout scenario a full fledged support to the private sector’s local manufacturing activity and tourism is a must.  Effective policies geared towards competitiveness are mandatory, and tax & export oriented concessions are required to unleash the private sector’s maximum potential and shift Egypt into gear.

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Sanctions and the Confiscation of Russian Property. The First Experience

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After the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, Western countries froze the assets of the Russian public and private sector entities which had been hit by blocking financial sanctions. At the same time, the possibility that these assets could be confiscated and liquidated so that the funds could be transferred to Ukraine was discussed. So far, only Canada has such a legal mechanism. It will also be the first country to implement the idea of confiscation in practice. How does the new mechanism work, what is the essence of the first confiscation, and what consequences can we expect from the new practice in the future?

Loss of control over assets in countries that impose sanctions against certain individuals has long been a common phenomenon. The mechanism of blocking sanctions has been widely used for several decades by US authorities. A similar methodology has been adopted by the EU, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and some other countries. Russia and China may also resort to these tactics, although Moscow and Beijing rarely use them. In the hands of Western countries, blocking sanctions, however, have become a frequent occurrence. Along with the ban on financial transactions with individuals and legal entities named in the lists of blocked persons, such sanctions also imply the freezing of the assets of persons in the jurisdiction of the initiating countries. In other words, having fallen under blocking sanctions, a person or organisation loses the ability to use their bank accounts, real estate and any other property. Since February 2022, Western countries have blocked more than 1,500 Russian individuals in this way. If you add subsidiary structures to them, their number will be even greater. The volume of the property of these persons frozen abroad is colossal. It includes at least 300 billion dollars in gold and foreign exchange reserves.

This is not counting the assets of high net worth Russian individuals worth $30 billion or more which have been blocked by the G7 countries. However, the freezing of property does not mean its confiscation. Although the blocked person cannot dispose of his assets, it formally remains his property. At some point, the sanctions may be lifted, and access to property restored. In practice, restrictive measures can be in place for years, but theoretically, the possibility of recovering assets still remains.

After the start of the special military operation (SMO), calls began to be heard in Western countries to confiscate frozen property and transfer it to Ukraine. Confiscation mechanisms have existed before. For example, property could be confiscated by a court order as part of the criminal prosecution of violators of the sanctions legislation. However, such mechanisms are clearly not suitable for the mass confiscation of property. Blocking sanctions are a political decision that do not require the level of proof of guilt that is required in the criminal process. To put it bluntly, the hundreds of Russian officials or entrepreneurs put on blocking lists for supporting the SMO did not commit criminal offenses for which their property could be subject to confiscation. The sanctions have spurred the search for such crimes in the form of money laundering or other illegal operations. But the amount of funds raised in this way would be a tiny fraction of the value of the frozen assets. To implement the idea of confiscation of the frozen assets of sanctioned persons and the subsequent transfer of the proceeds for them, Ukraine needed a different mechanism.

Canada was the first country to implement such a mechanism. The 2022 revision of the Special Economic Measures Act gives Canadian authorities the executive power to order the seizure of property located in Canada which is owned by a foreign government or any person or entity from that country, as well as any citizen of the given country who is not a resident of Canada (article 4 (1)). The reason for the application of such measures may be “a gross violation of international peace and security, which has caused or may cause a serious international crisis” (Article 4 (1.1.)). The final decision on confiscation must be made by a judge, to whom a relevant representative of the executive branch sends a corresponding petition (Article 5.3). Furthermore, the executive authorities, at their own discretion, may decide to transfer the proceeds from the confiscated property in favour of a foreign state that has suffered as a result of actions to violate peace and security, in favour of restoring peace and security, as well as in favour of victims of violations of peace and security, or victims of violations of human rights law or anti-corruption laws (art. 5.6).

The first target of the new legal mechanism will be the Canadian asset of Roman Abramovich’s Granite Capital Holding Ltd. The value of the asset, according to a statement by Canadian authorities, is $26 million.

Roman Abramovich is on the Canadian Blocked List, i. e. his property is already frozen, and transactions are prohibited. Now the property of the Russian businessman will be confiscated and, with a high degree of probability, ownership will be transferred to Ukraine. This is a relatively small asset (from the standpoint of state property), but the procedure itself can be worked out. Further confiscations may be more extensive.

The Canadian experience can be copied by other Western countries. In the US, work on such a mechanism was announced back in April 2022. although it has not yet been adopted at the legislative level. In the EU, such a mechanism is also not finally fixed in the regulatory legal acts of the Union, although Art. 15 of Regulation 269/2014 obliges Member States to develop, inter alia, rules on the confiscation of assets obtained as a result of violations of the sanctions regime. The very concept of violations can be interpreted broadly. So, for example, Art. 9 of the said Regulation obliges blocked Russian persons to report to the authorities of the EU countries within six weeks after blocking about their assets. Violation of this requirement can be regarded as a circumvention of blocking sanctions.

There are several consequences of the Canadian authorities’ initiative.

First, it becomes clear that the confiscation rule is not dormant. Its use is possible and is a risk. This is a serious signal to those Russians and Russian companies that have not yet come under sanctions, but own property in the West. It can be not only frozen, but also confiscated. This risk will inevitably be taken into account by investors and owners from other countries, which could potentially be the target of increased Western sanctions in the future. Among them are China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others. It is unlikely that the confiscation of Russian property will lead to an outflow of assets of these countries and their citizens from Canada and other Western jurisdictions. But the signal itself will be taken into account.

Second, the Russian side is very likely to take retaliatory measures. Western companies are rapidly withdrawing their assets from Russia. The representation of Canadian business in the Russian Federation was small even before the start of the operation in Ukraine. If the practice of confiscation becomes widespread, then the Russian side can roll it out in relation against the remaining Western businesses. However, so far, Moscow has been extremely hesitant to freeze Western property. While the US, EU and other Western countries have actively blocked Russians and their assets, Russia has mainly responded with visa sanctions. The confiscation could overwhelm Moscow’s patience and make the retaliatory practice more proportionate.

Finally, the practice of confiscation modifies the very Western idea of sanctions. It currently implies, among other things, that the “behavioural change” of sanctioned persons would result in the lifting of sanctions and the return of property. The freezing mechanism was combined with this idea. However, the confiscation mechanism contradicts it. Sanctions now become exclusively a mechanism for causing damage.

From our partner RIAC

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