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The shape of things to come

Image: Giorgia Colletti

Despite a series of stock market scares, see-sawing oil prices and central banks jacking up interest rates, it seems likely that we are going to get through 2018 without experiencing the economic crash that many expected at the start of the year.  But while we may breathe a sigh of relief to have got to the festive season without a complete meltdown, the odds of another crash are still high.

Understanding what might go wrong is a particular problem according to Helen Thompson at the New Statesman.  Not least because 10 years on, we still cannot agree on what caused the last one:

“In July 2008 the then president of the European Central Bank (ECB), Jean-Claude Trichet, declared while announcing an increase in interest rates that the Eurozone’s fundamentals were sound. In fact, a recession had begun in the first quarter of that year.

“The causes of recessions are also sometimes wrongly diagnosed – even in retrospect. For instance, the impact of exceptionally high oil prices and the response of central banks to those prices are still routinely ignored as causes of the US and European recessions in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.”

Thompson’s article sets out a range of weaknesses across the global economy where a new economic meltdown could begin.  China, the (albeit anaemic) growth engine of the global economy for the last decade, has developed debt problems not dissimilar to those in the west in 2008:

“Economic growth in China has been slowing since the second half of 2017, and even the growth of the first half of that year was an interruption of a downward slope that began in 2013. Predictions of a Chinese financial crisis, owing to the country’s huge accumulation of debt since 2008, are made too readily. But China is now caught between a policy shift towards deleveraging to try to avoid such a debt-induced financial crisis, and another debt-financed push for higher growth amid an economic slowdown and a fierce trade war with the US. The Chinese government is struggling under these conflicting imperatives as the country’s dollar reserves fall.”

The Eurozone is also in trouble:

“Growth in the third quarter was the weakest since the second quarter of 2014. Germany’s economy contracted and Italy’s experienced no growth. If the Eurozone’s troubles were confined to Italy, there would be less cause for concern. But even Germany’s powerhouse economy is weakening: retail sales and exports have fallen for several successive months.”

Canada – like the UK – is a basket case just waiting the central bank to add that last interest rate hike to push it over the edge.  Things are more complicated across the border in the USA:

“The official US unemployment rate stands at 3.7 per cent, the lowest since 1969. But this masks a notably low participation rate (62.9 per cent), as significant numbers of people have withdrawn from the labour market. Ever-fewer jobs sustain middle-class lifestyles, especially in cities where housing costs have risen over the past decade.”

Of course, a “black swan” event beyond the areas that Thompson points to might also prove to be the trigger for the next meltdown.  A collapse in the Australian property market, renewed conflict in one of the successor states of the Soviet Union or an oil shock in the Middle East are not beyond the bounds of possibility in 2019.

What is clear, however, is that we are in uncharted territory when it comes to understanding and having any chance of fixing the next meltdown.  As Thompson points out:

“Central banks cannot fix what they set in motion after 2008. There appears to be no way forward that would let this economic cycle play out without risking much more disruption than the typical recession would bring. What is at stake is compounded by the problem of oil: shale production must be sustained by one or more of the following: high prices, extremely cheap credit or investors’ indifference to profitability.

“When a recession does come, central banks are unlikely to be able to respond without wading even further into uncharted monetary and political waters. And major economies will have significantly higher levels of debt than in 2008, interest rates will already be low and central banks will have enormous balance sheets. As a consequence, a policy response comparable to that of 2008 is likely to be more dangerous and insufficient to restore sustained growth. In times of fear, high debt ensures that, beyond a certain point, consumers simply cannot be incentivised to spend more. Even if they were to be tempted with ‘helicopter money’ from central banks – new money distributed freely to citizens – there is no guarantee at all that the money would do much for aggregate demand.”

Unusually for a mainstream academic Thompson – who is a professor of political economy at Cambridge University – grasps the impact of energy on the economy; particularly the hard choices that face politicians and central bankers as we transition from energy growth to energy decline:

“It has become impossible to confront the economic predicaments in the global economy without contemplating sacrifice, whether that be politicians and central bankers choosing where the heavy costs of the next policy response will fall, or recognising the role that energy sustainability has in maintaining material living standards and a liberal international politics…”

Tighter energy, coupled to the central bank policies that have kept business as usual limping along since the last meltdown, has given rise to a populist revolt that has thus far focused on the democratic pathways in liberal democracies, but has also favoured an emboldened nationalist right that has successfully targeted immigration as the cause of people’s woes.  Worse still, via social media, contrarian economists like Steve Keen, campaign groups like Positive Money and even central bank economists themselves, far more people understand that zero percent interest rates and quantitative easing were designed to favour the already wealthy at the expense of the majority of the population.  It would be lunacy for politicians and central bankers to attempt to do the same thing again this time around:

“The 2007-09 recessions exposed the political discontent that had grown in Western democracies over the previous decade. The next recession will begin with that discontent already bringing about substantial political disruption – from Brexit to Trump’s election to the Lega-Five Star coalition in Italy – which in itself has become a source of economic fear. The economic dangers that lurk are only likely to increase political fragmentation, especially when there is little understanding of the structural economic forces that serve to divide people.”

Unfortunately, the political left are like so many rabbits caught in the headlights in relation to the crisis that is coming.  Rather than the right wing economic and social policies of Trump or the European nationalist parties, the left is most opposed to the populism that these movements harness.  The opposite of populism, of course, is elitism… and that puts the political left on the same platform that Marie Antoinette found herself on in October 1793.

There is no written law that says that the political left or even benign liberals have to win in the end – that storyline only works in Hollywood movies.  In the crisis that we are about to face – whether it be 2019 or 2020 – responding with more policies that favour the wealthy while driving the faces of the poor into the dirt can only end one way, as Thompson reminds us:

“History is full of grisly episodes, usually in eras of revolution, when the politics of sacrifice have come to the fore. Indeed, in many ways, the whole ideal of Western liberal democracies in the postwar world has been about the importance of avoiding such a politics, even as the policies governments pursued unavoidably created winners and losers.

“But the conditions for politics have now become much harder, and the collective and individual question of our times has become how we can confront the inescapable political conflict generated by deep economic dysfunctionality without losing the democratic and liberal foundations of political order as we know it?”

The answer to this question might be the same as the answer to the two other existential crises facing us – How can we prevent runaway climate change without undermining our civilisation? And how can we prevent resource depletion and energy decline undermining it?  The answer is very likely to be that we can’t.

As you made it to the end…

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