Global Agenda: Borrowing from 'them'

Banks, in particular, are hoarding cash and are loth to lend to almost anyone, whether households, businesses or even sovereign countries.

By PINCHAS LANDAU
August 2, 2012 23:44
2 minute read.
Landau with Greek counterpart Papaconstantinou

Landau with Greek counterpart 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Energy and Water Ministry)

Is there a real threat of Israel “becoming like Greece and Spain?” Could this country lose access to the international markets, so that no one would want to lend to us? On what basis do creditors stop lending to countries that want to borrow? Those were the central questions posed in last week’s column.

The answer to the first question is that there is no substance to the shrill and melodramatic threat being hurled at us at every opportunity by our silly, childish and theatrical prime minister and finance minister. One reason, entirely sufficient in itself, is that Israel has become a net creditor to the world. It owns more financial assets overseas than the rest of the world owns here. In that sense, it doesn’t actually need to borrow. But the government does have a large and growing budget deficit, and the country has a large and growing deficit in its global trade.

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Why we have those deficits and who is responsible for them is open to debate, but what is undeniable is that they need to be financed. That means we need to borrow, because we don’t want to sell assets to finance what ought to be a temporary shortfall; that would be equivalent to drawing on your pension scheme or selling your home in order to cover some unforeseen expenses or a temporary drop in income.

If we are so strong financially, to the point that we are net creditors to the world, there should be no problem raising loans in the international markets – and certainly no risk of losing access to them. However, the markets themselves have become both panicky and finicky, whilst the lenders – banks and large financial institutions – have serious problems of their own to deal with.

Banks, in particular, are hoarding cash and are loth to lend to almost anyone, whether households, businesses or even sovereign countries. Maybe their behavior is insane, or maybe it is actually the acme of sanity – either way, there is a significant danger that we will lose access to the markets not because we are not good debtors, but because the potential lenders are not good creditors or simply because the markets themselves have become dysfunctional.

Fortunately for us, Israel does not have to rely very much on foreign borrowing via either banks or the global bond market. The Israeli public generates a large pool of savings, which ideally are invested in the private sector, but which the government can access when it needs to. Obviously, a situation in which the government consistently demands the lion’s share of domestic savings will have a cumulatively negative impact on the economy – indeed, that is how Israel got into severe trouble in the early 1980’s, and how other countries have done the same recently or are doing so currently. But having a pool of domestic savings is critically important.


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