There seems to be no in-depth discussion on what is actually going on with Malta’s economy, so Minister of Finance Edward Scicluna can count on the obliviousness of his cabinet colleagues to draw up schemes unilaterally.
Now, I have nothing personal against Scicluna, and this is not meant to offend him. This is simply my analysis and personal opinion of the situation. If you don’t like it, you can move on to the next thing. It should not be considered as financial advice and you should formulate your own opinion about the situation.
The biggest problem with Scicluna is that he comes from a very different world and background to my generation, the so called “millennials”. Scicluna has lived in a world where the stock-market has always gone up, and where the gradual inter-connectedness of the global-economy increased market opportunities, capital and jobs. Back then, if you wanted to make money you could simply put unvest in a stock-market index fund like the S&P 500 and one fine day sell it at a hefty profit. The millennial generation has lived in a period where it witnessed this mega-capitalist edifice crumbling down, first with the 2008 crisis and with the current crisis today. The millennial generation has also experienced significant challenges to get ahead in life, especially given the fact that they have been mostly excluded from the property market. So, it is obvious, that the millennial generation has a very different perspective of capitalism from Scicluna and the boomer generation.
The generational perspective is probably why Scicluna genuinely believes that this economic rut is temporary and everything will get back to normal after the pandemic is over. It is also probably the reason why central bankers, most of them octogenarian males and baby boomers, keep pumping liquidity into the financial system in the form of quantitative easing genuinely believing that some day this liquidity may stick and things return to normal again.
Scicluna has drawn up a liquidity package of bank guarantees for commercial credit, despite the fact that Maltese banks still charge high interests in a negative-rate environment. The aim of this package seems to be to provide local companies with loans to survive the economic rut. But the obvious questions is, why would companies take more loans at this stage if they don’t know when the economy will start picking up? Why would anyone want to take the risk right now, especially with Maltese banks still charging high interest rates? The biggest and obvious problem right now is that companies have no revenues, and if they have existing loans to pay, they are going to get crushed.
I am not criticisng the liquidity-package either – it may actually be useful to many companies who need quick credit-lines to keep on going, but there seems to be one very common method shared by boomers in their solutions to economic problems: debt. Debt, debt, debt and more debt.
The Central Banking system is incentivising and encouraging this debt with its quantitative easing and low interest-rates – governments can sell bonds easily with the easy credit provided to big banks – this system ensures that both government and banks are liquid. And who is paying for and sustaining this system? In Malta’s case, the ultimate payer is us, the companies and the working people who have to pay more than 3% over our loans. In this bizarre system, which sounds like a sophisticated Ponzi-scheme, the banks get a small profit and their shareholders get an insignificant dividend-payment as their stock price keeps crashing. Meanwhile, the Euro against the US Dollar is losing its value and some predict it may keep depreciating significantly.
Admittedly, Scicluna has to work in this environment and there seems to be very little he can do as Minister of Finance of a small EU nation-state, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent and fail to look at the bigger picture.
One obvious solution to our problems is to halt bank-loan payments and restructure the debt, and/or provide debt jubilees to companies and individuals excluding building companies which have been grossly irresponsible in their excessive speculation and irregular construction all over the islands. Now, this may require the government to step up its ownership in local banks and take a strategic lead. Such a strategy may be unimaginable to a baby boomer who has got so accustomed to a certain perspective on capitalism to the extent that’s an equivalent to a dogmatic and a religious approach: if we have problems in the economy, we’ll simply pump liquidity into the system by increasing debt, and which we will pay tomorrow. Another big risk we are ignoring is the exposure of the local banks to a highly-leveraged construction industry. We still don’t know the extent of bad debts our local banks have. Meanwhile, we have to think about vulnerable people and we need to quickly provide them with necessities: food and shelter. There is an unprecedented number of lay-offs going on at the moment and many workers have problems paying their loans and their bills. Instant relief in the form of debt-jubilees and direct social payments are needed to help these people.
It is not I, an insignificant soul in a miserable rock (Napoleon’s description, not mine) that is asking for radical measures to be taken. At this point of our political process in the world, there is an inevitable discussion going on about the fundamental social and economic relationships of the economy’s participants. The Republicans have turned to socialist measures as they scurry to provide helicopter money in the form of 2,000 dollar cheques to every individual – a measure which had been derided by most of the liberal technicians and economists. So, right now, the Republicans and the Democrats have come to terms with the idea that one of the ways to help ordinary people during a time of crisis is to literally hand them over some cash to spend.
There are many things we can do in Malta to redraw our economy to ensure that everyone is protected and build a more just economy in the process. We have to survive this pandemic and this economic lock-down, but we also run the risk of waking up tomorrow with an array of problems which would cost us even more money if the current structural problems are not addressed. Once again, it is also important to stress that it is delusional to believe things will ever be the same again. These are turbulent times of historic proportions and we will be waking up to a very different tomorrow after this pandemic is over. We still don’t know where we are heading.