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News round-up, March 14, 2023 by GERMÁN & CO

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CEO, Germán & Co

Germán José Manuel Toro Ghio, son of Germán Alfonso and Jenny Isabel Cristina, became a citizen of planet Earth in the cold dawn of Sunday, May 11, 1958, in Santiago, capital of southern Chile....

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  • Mar 14, 2023

Editor's thoughts…

Where is the global economy heading? Can Latin America withstand a potential new banking crisis?

With a lot of effort, Latin America has managed to survive this last year's pandemic economically period, in addition to potent sources of political instability, starting with Chile, followed by the giant of the region, Brazil, the infinite crisis in Argentina, and what to say about Peru where presidents unbelievably last milliseconds in office.

And as if that were not enough, with a Venezuela whit unpredictable destiny, Colombia tried vainly to advance the peace process. As always, a colorful and wonderful Mexico in Neruda's words, but always undefined and full of surprises, and Central America that have failed to recover from the ups and downs of the previous century.

And now Latinamerican is relegated by the global geopolitical echos and war crises; its primary focus is Europe, with a second focus on the Formosa Strait, which barely separates Taiwan from Mainland China by 182 kilometers (and 130 at the minimum), whit a third guest whose hobby is to launch fireworks periodically to emphasize that —-he is present there—-, which has forced Japan to abandon its pacifist post-World War II policy.

According to the World Bank's current X-ray of the economic state of the post-pandemic region of Latin America and the Caribbean's recovery from COVID-19, the pandemic was expected to grow by 3% in 2022. Still, global uncertainty and low growth rates of 1.6% and 2.3% are expected in 2023 and 2024. Countries to consolidate recovery, promote growth and reduce poverty and inequality must continue to invest in social programs and infrastructure, improve the efficiency of public spending, and address the effects of climate change. Following crises, opportunities can emerge in the industry sector, such as accelerating digitalization, improving market competitiveness, and increasing economic efficiency. However, if structural factors are addressed, strong and sluggish growth is likely to continue and be sufficient to make progress in the fight against poverty and social tensions. The pandemic has caused an estimated loss of 1.5 years of learning, mainly affecting the youngest and most vulnerable.

Policies for re-enrollment and retention, to recover primary education leveling of learning, prioritization of fundamental competencies, implementation of programs to meet learning goals, and development of teachers' and students' health, psychosocial and emotional well-being are needed. Green growth is an opportunity for the region, as it contributes only 8% of global GHG emissions and has enormous potential in renewable electricity and natural capital. Climate change is causing significant economic and social losses, and the World Bank has doubled its climate finance and initiated country-level diagnostics to support countries' climate and development goals.

Most read…

Washington’s bank rescue fails to erase all doubts after Silicon Valley Bank collapse

[‘Is this a bailout?’ and six more questions about the weekend bank collapses]

“Banks don’t live or die based on what the stock price is,” she said.


A Brussels murder mystery: Who knifed the banking union (again)?

The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank means questions are again being asked about why the EU can’t tighten its rules.


Oil prices fall $1 as SVB collapse spooks financial markets

"The market had previously expected a strong recovery of the Chinese economy, but the latest February inflation rate was only 1% year-on-year, reflecting the current deflationary state of the Chinese economy and weak demand," he said.


EU to revamp power market, aiming to blunt price spikes

By encouraging nations to employ more contracts that lock in stable, long-term power costs, draft versions of the EU plan detail measures to make consumers less vulnerable to short-term volatility in fossil fuel prices.


EU drafts rules to stop power suppliers cutting off vulnerable consumers

According to the letter, written under the direction of German legislator Michael Bloss, millions of people in Europe presently have to decide between heating their homes or buying food for their families.


Opinion | Is Joe Biden a Stealth Socialist?

Whatever you call him, the Republican attacks won’t work.

POLITICO.COM, Opinion by JEFF GREENFIELD, 03/14/2023

“We’re living in a volatile world…

it’s easy to get distracted by things like changeable commodity prices or a shortage of solar panels. But this wouldn’t be true to our purpose – we can’t allow ourselves to lose sight of our end goal; said Andres Gluski, CEO of energy and utility AES Corp

  Image: Germán & Co

Washington’s bank rescue fails to erase all doubts after Silicon Valley Bank collapse

[‘Is this a bailout?’ and six more questions about the weekend bank collapses]

“Banks don’t live or die based on what the stock price is,” she said.


Washington’s banking rescue had a rocky start Monday on Wall Street, as the government’s response to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank failed to quell doubts about the health of some midsize banks and left investors debating whether the Federal Reserve would be forced to change course in its fight against inflation.

The day began with President Biden at the White House seeking to calm fears of a banking crisis before leaving Washington for a California swing.

“Americans can have confidence that the banking system is safe. Your deposits will be there when you need them,” the president said in midmorning remarks from the Roosevelt Room.

In Silicon Valley, relieved customers lined up outside SVB branches to withdraw funds they had feared would be lost. Depositors at the bank’s Menlo Park location said they waited up to two hours to get their money in cashier’s checks. The only evidence of the failed bank’s new owners was a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. new release taped to the door.

On Wall Street, bank stocks were ravaged, with regional institutions hit hardest. First Republic Bank, another midsize bank, saw its share price fall nearly 80 percent before ending the day down 62 percent. The plunge came despite word that the bank had shored up its balance sheet with a capital infusion from JPMorgan Chase.

Even some of the nation’s largest and best-protected banks were shunned. Shares of Citigroup lost more than 7 percent while Wells Fargo fell 6 percent. Broader stock markets were flat.

“Payrolls are being met in Silicon Valley.

There aren’t massive outflows that we can see. So I think that means it has been reasonably successful,” said Lawrence Summers, a former treasury secretary.

“But the financial system suffered a shock and, while the emergency room physicians have done a good job, the patient is not back to full health.”

While the market response was noteworthy, falling stock prices pose no immediate threat to the banks. So long as depositor withdrawals remain at customary levels, healthy banks can continue to operate even as their share prices gyrate, said Karen Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, a Washington consultancy. Bank health is determined by the amount of capital they hold in reserve to absorb losses and the adequacy of their available assets to meet any depositor withdrawals.

[‘Is this a bailout?’ and six more questions about the weekend bank collapses]

“Banks don’t live or die based on what the stock price is,” she said.

Still, the appearance of cracks in the nation’s regional banks has caused an extraordinary turnabout in financial conditions that has triggered a swift change in investor expectations of Fed interest rate actions.

Less than one week ago, Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell told Congress that interest rates might need to go higher than the central bank had expected to bring inflation under control. Wall Street analysts expected the Fed to raise rates by up to half a percentage point at its next meeting March 22 and warned that the Fed’s benchmark lending rate could go as high as 6 percent from the current target of 4.5 percent to 4.75 percent.

Now, 40 percent of investors expect the Fed to leave rates untouched and to start cutting them by midsummer, according to the CME FedWatch tool, which is based on futures prices.

The government is scheduled to release the next consumer price index reading Tuesday. If inflation remains stubbornly high, the Fed will be caught between its anti-inflation mandate and its need to maintain financial stability.

Goldman Sachs late Sunday said it expects the Fed to pause its year-long campaign of rate increases. “Fed officials are likely to prioritize financial stability for now, viewing it as the immediate problem and high inflation as a medium-term problem,” the firm’s economists said in a research note.

Evidence that investors were increasingly skeptical that the Fed will be able to continue raising rates also could be seen in the rush to buy government securities. Investors bought so many two-year Treasury securities that the yield plunged below 4 percent on Monday from more than 5 percent last Wednesday - the sharpest three-day plummet since the 1987 market crash.

Authorities’ remarkable Sunday intervention to safeguard the banking system followed days of mounting concern that the troubles at SVB, the favored bank of tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, would spread to other institutions.

A person leaves one of the Signature Bank branches in New York, Monday, March. 13, 2023. President Joe Biden is telling Americans that the nation’s financial systems are sound. This comes after the swift and stunning collapse of two banks that prompted fears of a broader upheaval. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Ruling that the failure of SVB and a second troubled lender, Signature Bank of New York, posed a “systemic risk” to the economy’s financial plumbing, federal officials closed both banks, guaranteed their deposits beyond the $250,000 statutory limit and removed their management teams.

At the same time, the Fed established a new lending program to allow any other bank to obtain unlimited loans by pledging as collateral assets such as Treasury securities. The effort is designed to address problems many banks have been facing, as a result of the Fed’s interest rate increases and their own investment choices.

Unlike its normal bank lending, the Fed will make loans for up to one year and will value the pledged securities at their original value rather than their depressed market price.

Banks at the end of last year had $620 billion in unrealized losses on such securities, which saw their value erode as the Fed raised interest rates.

Authorities’ intent was to eliminate any doubt about the safety of depositors’ funds. But several regional banks, including Pacific Western Bank in California and Zions Bank in Utah, remain the focus of scrutiny and speculation. Investors worry that some banks might share SVB’s reliance upon a narrow depositor base and assets that have lost value during the past year of rising interest rates.

First Republic said Sunday that it had more than $70 billion in liquid funds, after its recent infusion from JPMorgan. In a joint statement, the bank’s chairman, Jim Herbert, and chief executive Mike Roffler said, “First Republic’s capital and liquidity positions are very strong, and its capital remains well above the regulatory threshold for well-capitalized banks.”

In January, the company reported strong financial results with $1.7 billion in profits on revenue of $5.9 billion.

On Capitol Hill, the administration’s action won backing from the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. The Fed and FDIC have “taken the right approach, and they’ve used their powers in a way that is appropriate,” Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) said in an interview. “I think we have a financial system that is equipped to deal with this, and it is my hope the actions by the FDIC and Fed will calm this current storm.”

On Monday, the plan also drew a qualified endorsement from S&P Global Ratings, which called the Fed initiative “robust” and said it should “reduce the odds that unmanageable deposit outflows spread widely.”

But the ratings agency cautioned that it remained unclear how depositors would respond.

“The jury’s still out,” said Marc Chandler, chief market strategist at Bannockburn Global Forex in New York. “I don’t know if it stops the run.”

In Wall Street computer chatrooms, traders are debating the need for the government to do more. If additional banks suffer deposit runs, the government may need to explicitly guarantee all uninsured deposits in the banking system, some have said, according to Chandler.

In 2008, the FDIC did just that under its Temporary Account Guarantee Program, a measure that remained in force through 2012.

The administration’s approach did not mollify all lawmakers.

In the days before its intervention, the U.S. government received an offer to buy the embattled Silicon Valley Bank, according to Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), a member of the chamber’s banking committee who said he learned about the matter at an FDIC briefing Monday afternoon.

Hagerty said he did not know the bidder. But he said that “evidently they turned the offer down in the hopes of getting something better later.”

The FDIC declined to comment on the situation.

The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, reported Monday that regulators were planning to make a second attempt to find a buyer for SVB.

Other lawmakers separately said they had pressed the government in recent days for information about the auction, though regulators remained tight-lipped.

“What we should have seen is a properly run auction process. Instead, what they did was hijack the systemic risk exception,” Hagerty said, noting that the burden could fall on local banks, which in some cases are taxpayers, and may owe more in fees.

As officials reiterated that the financial system remained sound, some banking industry veterans were reasonably confident about navigating the storm.

“Things will be bumpy for a couple of days,” said Bert Ely, a banking consultant. “Then - assuming there are no new disruptions - things will calm down.”

  Image: Germán & Co

A Brussels murder mystery: Who knifed the banking union (again)?

The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank means questions are again being asked about why the EU can’t tighten its rules.


It's the latest Brussels bubble whodunnit: Which country wielded the knife against the EU's half-formed banking union this time?

As the collapse of U.S. lender Silicon Valley Bank again shines a light on the fragility of the world's financial system, speculation grows within the EU’s corridors of power about who or what prompted the European Commission — at the last minute — to pull a controversial piece of banking legislation.

The plan for tighter rules on bank bailouts mysteriously dropped off the Commission's agenda for last week, and it's now expected to be M.I.A. for at least a month. Or even longer.

And there couldn't have been a worse time for Europe's banking union plan to suffer another flesh wound.

The decision to delay came ahead of the collapse of SVB, which had $209 billion in assets — requiring a U.S. government backstop for all depositors and exposing gaps in the framework for handling failing banks.

While SVB's business model was relatively unusual, and heavily dependent on the tech industry, the bank was a mid-sized lender in the bigger U.S. market.

The on-hold EU rules are aimed at stopping a middle layer of banks from receiving public money in a crisis, and the U.S. decision to rescue all SVB depositors will raise questions about whether Europe's framework could do the same to stop a bank run.

There are plenty of countries with a motive to delay the latest EU proposal. Plenty of other protagonists too. At POLITICO we’ve donned our fedora to investigate the most likely list of suspects, as officials and diplomats point fingers at each other behind the scenes.

While individual countries will often happily claim credit for blocking a reviled piece of EU law, anyone holding up the banking union — one of the EU’s hallmark projects to strengthen banks and build a single market — would be publicly reneging on previous political commitments. And that could now be particularly ill-timed after the events of the weekend.

So, the assailants have been working in the shadows — which in Brussels means writing strongly-worded letters and meeting commissioners in private.

But curtain-twitchers along Rue de la Loi and the Schuman roundabout suggest there are five possible culprits:

Suspect No. 1: Germany

Germany has previous. Berlin last year killed off an EU-wide deposit insurance scheme due to concerns over joint debt and bad flashbacks to the eurozone crisis. That led to the current mandate for Brussels to close loopholes in the bank crisis management and deposit insurance (CMDI) review.

This time round, Germany is likely to want an exemption for its politically sensitive protection schemes for cooperative and savings banks, making it suspect number one.

“It seems clear it is to do with Germany, I don’t know any other [member country] who made blocking concerns at this phase,” said one EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussion.

But Berlin isn’t taking the blame. “We’re not requesting a delay or postponement of the CMDI review. The review is an important step in the work of the Banking Union,” said a German diplomat.

Suspect No. 2: France

That brings us to our second suspect. At an EU level, Paris generally fights tooth and nail to protect the interests of its big banks. While the delayed set of reforms are predominantly aimed at smaller lenders, France doesn’t want any more costs imposed on its larger institutions.

But the French, too, say they’re not responsible for CMDI’s disappearance.

“We fully support the principle of an ambitious reform of the crisis-management framework, but we realize that these are positions that are not yet consensual in the Council, and the Commission no doubt judged that it needed a little more time to see what level of ambition to include in the project,” said a French economy ministry official.

Suspect No. 3: Unintentional driveby

And so, there’s a third theory.

Germany and France signed up to a single-page statement with the Netherlands and Finland that was sent to the Commission back in December, raising concerns over the risks involved in expanding the use of national deposit guarantee schemes.

Some Brussels insiders think that gave the Commission pause because the EU executive would immediately face a blocking minority. But a second EU diplomat said it was “not fair” to blame the letter because it reiterated longstanding issues and was not intended to prompt a delay.

The plot thickens. But one thing is clear from our expert sleuthing: the proposal is being held up politically within the Commission. As well as the pressure from EU countries, that could be because of waning appetite at the top of Brussels officialdom.

And that brings us to our fourth suspect.

Suspect No. 4: Ursula von der Leyen

Yes, the European Commission president herself.

With only a little over a year left in this Commission’s five-year term, does von der Leyen really want to bring forward a political contentious reform on the esoteric issue of mid-sized bank bailouts?

“I just get the impression anything controversial is being kicked into touch,” said a third EU diplomat.

Suspect No. 5: Some guy with the documents in his drawer

But the most plausible — and by far the more boring option: Brussels bureaucracy. The Commission knows it will face tough opposition on the content, so its army of officials are making sure its plans are as watertight as possible, and before EU capitals attack them in public.

There may be some frantic rewriting going on. The Commission could also be playing a clever double bluff, by getting EU capitals to clamor for the reforms to come out.

“The Commission remains committed to bringing forward a proposal on CMDI,” said an EU official.

The longer it takes though, the more doubt there is over whether the thing's still alive at all.

And in case you are interested in the forensics ...

The Commission’s plans are expected to bring more mid-sized banks into the resolution framework, a major post-financial crisis reform that means shareholders and creditors rather than taxpayers swallow losses if a bank fails.

Under the missing plans, countries would be able to use their national deposit guarantee schemes — which protect deposits to the tune of €100,000 — upfront to cover losses, rather than only after a collapse, and change their debt ranking.

A middle tier of banks, which until now haven't fit neatly into the resolution regime and have continued to receive public money in a crisis, would then be able to meet conditions to access an EU rainy-day fund that would pay for their exit from the market.

All of that is hugely controversial and risks pitting EU goals of closer integration against national fears of being on the hook for losses in another country. So, our suspects may not have needed much provocation.

Now, the collapse of SVB and its potential implications also throws a wildcard into the mix.

  Image:design by Germán & Co, licensed through Shutterstock

Oil prices fall $1 as SVB collapse spooks financial markets

"The market had previously expected a strong recovery of the Chinese economy, but the latest February inflation rate was only 1% year-on-year, reflecting the current deflationary state of the Chinese economy and weak demand," he said.


March 14 (Reuters) - Oil prices fell more than $1 on Tuesday, extending the previous day's slide, as the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank rattled equities markets and sparked fear about a fresh financial crisis.

Brent crude futures were down 87 cents, or 1.1%, at $79.90 a barrel at 0345 GMT. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures (WTI) dropped 85 cents, or 1.1%, to $73.93 a barrel. On Monday, Brent fell to its lowest since early January, while WTI dropped to its lowest since December.

The sudden shutdown of SVB Financial (SIVB.O) triggered concerns about risks to other banks resulting from the U.S. Federal Reserve's sharp interest rate hikes over the last year. It also spurred speculation on whether the central bank might slow the pace of its monetary tightening.

U.S. authorities launched emergency measures on Sunday to shore up confidence in the banking system after fears of contagion from the failure of Silicon Valley Bank led to a sell-off in U.S. assets at the end of last week and state regulators closed New York-based Signature Bank (SBNY.O) on Sunday.

Beyond the Silicon Valley Bank shockwaves, oil prices were also under pressure due to signs of a weaker-than-expected economic recovery in China, despite the lifting of its strict COVID-19 restrictions, said Leon Li, an analyst at CMC Markets.

"The market had previously expected a strong recovery of the Chinese economy, but the latest February inflation rate was only 1% year-on-year, reflecting the current deflationary state of the Chinese economy and weak demand," he said.

China's statistics bureau released data last week showing consumer inflation in the world's second largest economy slowed to the lowest rate in a year in February as shoppers remained cautious even after pandemic curbs were lifted in late 2022.

In U.S. supply news, the American Petroleum Institute is expected to release industry data on U.S. oil inventories on Tuesday.

Six analysts polled by Reuters estimated on average that crude inventories rose by about 600,000 barrels in the week to March 10.

Seaboard: pioneers in power generation in the country

…Armando Rodríguez, vice-president and executive director of the company, talks to us about their projects in the DR, where they have been operating for 32 years.

More than 32 years ago, back in January 1990, Seaboard began operations as the first independent power producer (IPP) in the Dominican Republic. They became pioneers in the electricity market by way of the commercial operations of Estrella del Norte, a 40MW floating power generation plant and the first of three built for Seaboard by Wärtsilä.

  Image: Germán & Co

EU to revamp power market, aiming to blunt price spikes

By encouraging nations to employ more contracts that lock in stable, long-term power costs, draft versions of the EU plan detail measures to make consumers less vulnerable to short-term volatility in fossil fuel prices.


Electrical power pylons of high-tension electricity power lines are seen in Brussels, Belgium, November 24, 2022. REUTERS/ Johanna Geron

BRUSSELS, March 14 (Reuters) - The European Commission is set to propose a revamp of Europe's electricity market rules on Tuesday, aimed at expanding the use of fixed-price power contracts to shield consumers from severe price spikes like those experienced last year.

The European Union vowed to overhaul its electricity market after cuts to Russian gas after its invasion of Ukraine last year sent European power prices soaring to record highs, forcing industries to close and hiking households' bills.

Draft versions of the EU proposal, seen by Reuters, outline measures designed to make consumers less exposed to short-term swings in fossil fuel prices - by nudging countries to use more contracts that lock in stable, long-term electricity prices.

Future state support for new investments in wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and nuclear electricity, for example, must be done through a two-way contract for difference (CfD).

Two-way CfDs offer generators a fixed "strike price" for their electricity, regardless of the price in short-term energy markets.


Countries would also need to do more to encourage power purchase agreements (PPA) - another type of long-term contract to directly buy electricity from a generator - such as by providing state guarantees for such contracts.

Fossil fuel-powered generators would not receive this support. The aim is to direct support towards the huge investments in renewable energy EU countries need to quit Russian fossil fuels and meet climate change goals.

Other elements aim to push gas out of Europe's energy mix faster - for example, by requiring countries to expand energy storage and other alternatives to replace the role gas plants play in balancing the power grid.

Currently, power prices in Europe are set by the final generator needed to meet overall demand. Often, that is a gas plant, so gas price spikes - like those caused last year by Russia slashing gas deliveries - can send electricity prices soaring.

Despite Brussels pitching the reforms last year as a chance to "decouple" gas and power prices, the draft proposal - which could still change before it is published - avoids the deep electricity market reform that countries, including Spain and France, have called for, opting instead for more limited tweaks to stabilise prices.

Another camp of countries, including Germany, Denmark and Latvia, have warned major changes could scare off investors.

EU countries and the European Parliament must negotiate and approve the final rules, with some pushing for a deal by the end of the year.

Marco Foresti, market design manager at the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E), said the draft proposals had been met with "a bit of a sigh of relief" among those concerned about disrupting the functioning of short-term energy markets.

  Image: Germán & Co

EU drafts rules to stop power suppliers cutting off vulnerable consumers

According to the letter, written under the direction of German legislator Michael Bloss, millions of people in Europe presently have to decide between heating their homes or buying food for their families.


BRUSSELS, March 13 (Reuters) - European Union countries will have to protect vulnerable consumers from being cut off by electricity suppliers if they cannot pay their bills, according to draft EU rules due to be published on Tuesday.

The proposal is part of a broader upgrade of Europe's electricity market rules, which Brussels pledged to rewrite last year when soaring gas and electricity prices, driven by Russia cutting gas supplies to Europe, left consumers across Europe struggling to pay their energy bills.

A draft of the proposed law, seen by Reuters on Monday, said: "Member States shall ensure that vulnerable customers are protected from electricity disconnections."

The draft added that suppliers and national authorities should make measures available to help vulnerable consumers manage their energy use and costs.

EU countries decide which consumers to class as "vulnerable", based on factors such as income level or relying on health equipment that runs on electricity, such as a ventilator.

Currently, there is no explicit legal protection against disconnections, although the EU requires energy suppliers to give consumers information about support like prepayment systems and debt management advice ahead of a planned disconnection.

The article on disconnections was not in a previous draft of the proposal, reported by Reuters last week.

Green members of European Parliament wrote to the European Commission on March 8 urging it to ban disconnections for vulnerable people in the upcoming proposal.

"Millions of people in Europe currently have to make the choice between either buying food for their family or heating their home," said the letter, led by German lawmaker Michael Bloss.

Some governments have already banned disconnections nationally, such as Ireland, which did so this winter for vulnerable consumers struggling with soaring energy bills.

The draft EU power market reform, which could still change before it is published, would also expand the use of long-term fixed-price power contracts, to attempt to shield consumers from price spikes.

Cooperate with objective and ethical thinking…

  Image: President Joe Biden’s new budget proposal, with high taxes on the mega-rich and expanded medical help for the working- and middle-class, has only fueled the attacks that go back at least to the 2020 campaign. | Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

Opinion | Is Joe Biden a Stealth Socialist?

Whatever you call him, the Republican attacks won’t work.

POLITICO.COM, Opinion by JEFF GREENFIELD, 03/14/2023

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.

There may be deep divisions within the Republican universe these days — over trade, Ukraine, Trump, Fox News — but there’s one unifying assertion: President Joe Biden is hell-bent on taking the United States down the road to socialism.

Biden’s new budget proposal, with high taxes on the mega-rich and expanded medical help for the working- and middle-class, has only fueled the attacks that go back at least to the 2020 campaign. It was the dominant theme of the GOP convention; it’s how National Review attacks Biden’s student loan forgiveness program; it’s how Nikki Haley and Matt Gaetz decry the president’s budget. Donald Trump, never one for subtlety, simply labels Biden and his supporters “communists.”

In one sense, this is very old wine in not-so-new bottles. Attempts to brand progressive policies as “socialist” go back — literally — for more than a century. Measured by its accuracy and its political impact, it’s not proven all that potent. But given the persistence of the tactic, it might be useful to set down a few key notions:

  • Joe Biden is at pains to assert that “I’m a capitalist. I’m not a socialist.”

  • A lot of what Biden is proposing would look quite at home in Scandinavia and Western Europe.

  • Those nations aren’t really “socialist” at all, even if they’re celebrated by America’s best-known socialist.

  • Republicans really, really hate socialism — but will also scream bloody murder if Democrats suggest they want to so much as touch the most obviously socialistic programs of the American government.

Making sense of these assertions does not require squaring a circle; what it does require is an understanding of just how amorphous the term “socialist” is, and why whatever you call Biden’s various policy goals, they are firmly within the American political tradition — and may indeed be very smart politics, at that.

All through his two presidential runs, Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked what it meant that he called himself a “democratic socialist.” Invariably, the Vermont independent would point to the Scandinavian nations and their universal health care, paid family leave and free college education. (He did not call for the government to “control the means of production and distribution,” the classic definition of socialism and an omission at odds with the Democratic Socialists of America, a 92,000-member organization that asserts: “We want to collectively own the key economic drivers that dominate our lives, such as energy production and transportation.”)

But are Denmark, Sweden and Norway really “socialist” nations? They wouldn’t cut it for the DSA. The private sector is alive and well, businesses have a lighter tax burden than in the U.S., and even their health care systems are far from totally public. In Sweden, by one estimate, some 40 percent of health clinics are private, for-profit enterprises.

Indeed, throughout the industrialized world, the traditional goal of socialism has long since been jettisoned, even as elements of its core philosophy have been embedded in government policy. For example, Germany, whether run by center-right Christian Democrats or center-left Social Democrats, is a resolutely capitalist land, but its laws also require workers to be well represented on large corporations’ supervisory boards, where key decisions are made. In Britain, the Labour Party under Tony Blair renounced nationalization almost 30 years ago. The last Labour leader to embrace the idea, Jeremy Corbyn, presided over a historic walloping at the polls, and current leader Keir Starmer says he would not nationalize the energy industry (though a significant element of the party’s rank and file embraces the notion of “common ownership”).

Ideas like universal health care and expansive workers’ rights have long carried the label of “social democracy”: if not full socialism, then the notion that the government should craft a strong social safety net, impose higher taxes on the wealthy and limit the private sector’s power. (Those who see the hand of Karl Marx in such ideas — as Ronald Reagan did when he assailed the idea of Medicare back in 1964 — need to contend with the fact that the father of government-financed old age and health insurance was the ardent anti-socialist Otto von Bismarck, who first proposed the idea in 1881).

In the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, the left had its champions and Biden was most certainly not among them. But even the most committed Bernie Bro might acknowledge the president’s progress toward nudging the United States toward social democracy.

Consider the elements of Biden’s bipartisan $40 billion investment in semiconductor manufacturing — itself an impressive display of industrial policy. The package comes with strings, the New York Times notes. Companies have to pay union wages; they have to share some of their profits with the government; they have to provide free childcare for their workers; they have to run their plants with environmentally friendly energy sources. These proposals are of a piece with some of the more ambitious Biden policies, some of which, like the expanded child-tax credit, have expired, and some of which, like capping the price of insulin for seniors, remain in place and have been embraced by the private sector. His recent State of the Union address contained a swath of proposals to limit the power of private companies, whether by capping excessive airline baggage fees or hidden credit card charges.

The response to all of this from Republicans has been to raise the specter of “socialism.” Last month, the GOP-controlled House voted 328-86 for a resolution declaring that “socialist ideology necessitates a concentration of power that has time and time again collapsed into communist regimes, totalitarian rule, and brutal dictatorships. … Congress denounces socialism in all its forms, and opposes the implementation of socialist policies in the United States of America.” If the goal was to split their opponents, Republicans succeeded: More than 100 Democrats voted for the resolution which, taken literally, would condemn the policies of some of America’s most resolute allies, and which was clearly designed to throw shade at the president.

Of course, almost as vociferous as the GOP’s denunciation of socialism was its fury at the very idea the party might be moving to lay a finger on the two most clearly socialistic elements of U.S. policy — Social Security and Medicare.

When Biden used his State of the Union address to note that “some” Republicans were suggesting cuts in the programs — most specifically Sen. Rick Scott of Florida — GOP lawmakers erupted in anger. Scott, for his part, quickly amended his proposal sunsetting government programs by exempting the popular social insurance systems. It calls to mind the cry of a citizen at a congressional town hall meeting years ago: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” (Notably, Donald Trump also deserves some credit for steering the GOP away from a free-market orthodoxy intent on gutting retirement programs.)

It’s a little unfair to ascribe cognitive dissonance solely to Republicans. The confusion about what consists of “socialism” is pervasive. Polls show Americans disapprove of “entitlements,” but overwhelmingly approve of Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits — in other words, programs people are entitled to by law. Sanders’ idea of free tuition for public colleges may seem a reach, but a generation or two ago, free college was widely available. City University of New York was famously tuition free from 1847 until 1976, and many state universities once imposed only fees. In some places, community college is still free.

A large majority of Americans see health care as a right, even as majorities of Americans say the government is too powerful and tries to do too much. This dissonance was crystalized by the election victory of Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed in his 1981 Inaugural Address that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” and then presided over a government that was bigger when he left it. (For that matter, Margaret Thatcher never tried to repeal Britain’s national health insurance.)

In this populist moment, Biden has also won applause from the left and right for flexing government’s muscle when it comes to cracking down on Big Tech and the growth of monopolies, be they in the form of airlines or book publishers. Biden is showing his Rooseveltian roots, not just FDR but TR.

A long-running debate exists over why socialism failed to take root in the United States, unlike in Europe. In the near run, the success of Biden’s “social democracy” efforts will stand or fall on whether he can — as many of his Democratic predecessors did — define his policies not as the importation of a foreign ideology, but as part of a continuing effort to make the economic playing field fairer and safer without changing the fundamental rules of the game.

For a century or more, those efforts have met with powerful resistance, even as the political consensus gradually shifts toward a more robust American welfare state. The most recent example: Republicans have given up their efforts to repeal Obamacare after years of pushing to do just that. It turns out that, with a little more modest ambitions, “socialism” has found a home of sorts in this land of individual freedom — as long as you call it something else.


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