Friday, 24 February 2012

SOCIALLY-JUST SOLUTIONS vs. SPECIAL INTERESTS: the 'Death Bonds' scam

A former university colleague who was a former CIA analyst/agent used to tell me that that the 'golden rule' means he who has the gold rules. That may sound like an one-liner joke for a late-night comedy show, but it has folk wisdom and rings true. While it is true that there are very sound ideas about how to fix a broken political economy, dysfunctional as it is and causing the wretchedness of two billion people on the planet, the fact is that it is not profitable to alleviate the causes of poverty and to introduce a system that is socially just. Such a course of action would simply entail ending the privileges that the socioeconomic and political elites enjoy. Is ending the privileges of the elites worth the sacrifice so that two billion people do not suffer the indignity of famine and disease?

Even in a basket-case like Greece whose living standards had suffered a setback of at least decade (2012 living standards have reverted to 2001) and are likely to return to living standards of the 1970s or 1960s by 2014, there are socially-just solutions. However, socially-just solutions are not profitable for the socioeconomic and political class. A Greek politician recently proposed that the unexplored oil deposits of Greece could be used to strengthen the faltering social security system that has taken numerous blows and whose beneficiaries are likely to suffer greater reduction in the next few years. That seems like a good socially-just proposal, but there are special interests, from domestic and international bankers to the IMF that demand receipts must be used to pay foreign creditors.

I would propose that the proceeds should not be used to strengthen social security funds or used to pay foreign bondholder debt. The best use is to put the proceeds to work to raise productivity in a number of areas from domestic foodstuff production to greater exploitation of mineral deposits, and value added-products in light manufacturing. This would reduce unemployment (currently at 21%) and strengthen the social security funds, while the proceeds from the secondary productive sectors could be used to meet various needs from social security funds to health care and education. This proposal seems socially just, but it means that it is not putting money in the pockets of bankers and corporate investors, to say nothing of bribes to politicians and trade union bosses. Therefore, it will not fly.

The situation is not different for Portugal, Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The considerable natural and human resources can be utilized to serve the internal market, but in the age of globalization and neoliberalism the prevalence of national capitalism is impossible. Therefore, capital flows from the periphery to the core to strengthen the latter that has caused the global recession of 2008-present.

One small but glaring example of how international finance capitalism in the core countries has been gambling with the political economy is 'death bonds' or 'longevity swaps'. These latest financial products are swaps that cover company pension funds against the risk that their members will live longer than expected, affording investors a premium if they do not live as long and lesser return of they go passed the expected age. The "death bond practice" started in the 1980s with the AIDS awareness when companies bought policies from individuals and them sold them to investment banks and hedge funds.

Given that life expectancy has been on the rise, large international banks, most of them immersed in corrupt schemes, have engaged in practices that the common person associates with Las Vegas gambling or comedy motion pictures. Beyond the issue of morality - a person profiting by the death of the other - one could argue that the 'death bond' speculative business is pure capitalism at its best - or worst - but the question is the degree to which the state subsidizes these products at the expense of the taxpayers.

A Deutsche Bank spokesperson noted that “Deutsche will be structuring them as insurance policies through Abbey Life, rather than as derivative contracts, as some other banks do. This will be more appealing to pension scheme trustees.”Besides Deutsche bank, Credit Suisse, Godlman Sachs, JP Morgan, CITI, and others offer such longevity policies or derivatives to pension schemes. That these banks have received billions of government funds in direct bailouts or other forms such as tax breaks is not enough, big banks are now part of the insurance scam betting that more people die so financial institutions can cash in by investing bailout taxpayer money.

On the surface, there one may think that there is nothing wrong with a gambling-style investor wanting to bet on such financial products. However, this is as long as the banks in which the investor is sinking money do not expect the government to bail them out with taxpayer money, at the cost of slashing social security benefits, wages and benefits. In short, the gambling aspect of finance capitalism is such that it has global ramifications. 

The tragedy of such practices is that Deutsche bank is the most influential institution in Germany's political economy, just as Goldman Sachs, CITI and JP Morgan in the US. While these financial institutions are gambling, they expect the general taxpayer to bail them out, thus causing a global credit crises that impacts the real economy and the decline of middle class and workers' living standards. It is not that there is a shortage of socially-just solutions, only that it is not profitable to adopt them because they do not benefit the socioeconomic and political elites.

This is not an issue of banks with government standing behind them against the public interest, but a much deeper on of parasitic-style finance capitalism that is an obstacle to productive investment for the goal of public welfare. The only solution to such a systemic problem is political, but as long as politicians stand to benefit both in terms of their careers and financially, there can be no solution.
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