"This crisis is a moment, but is it a defining one?
By Martin Wolf
Published: May 19 2009 19:48 | Last updated: May 19 2009 19:48
Is the current crisis a watershed, with market-led globalisation, financial capitalism and western domination on the one side and protectionism, regulation and Asian predominance on the other? Or will historians judge it, instead, as an event caused by fools, signifying little? My own guess is that it will end up in between. It is neither a Great Depression, because the policy response has been so determined, nor capitalism’s 1989.
Let us examine what we know and do not know of its impact on the economy, finance, capitalism, the state, globalisation and geopolitics.
On the economy, we already know five important things. First, when the US catches pneumonia, everybody falls seriously ill. Second, this is the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s. Third, the crisis is global, with a particularly severe impact on countries that specialised in exports of manufactured goods or that relied on net imports of capital.
Fourth, policymakers have thrown the most aggressive fiscal and monetary stimuli and financial rescues ever seen at this crisis. Finally, this effort has brought some success: confidence is returning and the inventory cycle should bring relief. As Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, remarked, the global economy is “around the inflection point”, by which he meant that the economy is now declining at a declining rate. ( NB DON )
We can also guess that the US will lead the recovery. The US is again the advanced world’s most Keynesian country. We can guess, too, that China, with its massive stimulus package, will be the most successful economy in the world.
Unfortunately, there are at least three big things we cannot know. How far will exceptional levels of indebtedness and falling net worth generate a sustained increase in the desired household savings of erstwhile high-spending consumers? How long can current fiscal deficits continue before markets demand higher compensation for risk? Can central banks engineer a non-inflationary exit from unconventional policies?
On finance, confidence is returning, with spreads between safe and risky assets declining to less abnormal levels and a (modest) recovery in markets. The US administration has given its banking system a certificate of reasonable health. But the balance sheets of the financial sector have exploded in recent decades and the solvency of debtors is impaired.
We can guess that finance will make a recovery in the years ahead. We can guess, too, that its glory days are behind it for decades, at least in the west. What we do not know is how far the “deleveraging” and consequent balance-sheet deflation in the economy will go. We also do not know how successfully the financial sector will see off attempts to impose a more effective regulatory regime. Politicians should have learnt from the need to rescue financial systems stuffed with institutions deemed too big and interconnected to fail. I fear that concentrated interests will overwhelm the general one.
What about the future of capitalism, on which the Financial Times has run its fascinating series? It will survive. The commitment of both China and India to a market economy has not altered, despite this crisis, although both will be more nervous about unfettered finance. People on the free- market side would insist the failure should be laid more at the door of regulators than of markets. There is great truth in this: banks are, after all, the most regulated of financial institutions. But this argument will fail politically. The willingness to trust the free play of market forces in finance has been damaged.
We can guess, therefore, that the age of a hegemonic model of the market economy is past. Countries will, as they have always done, adapt the market economy to their own traditions. But they will do so more confidently. As Mao Zedong might have said, “Let a thousand capitalist flowers bloom”. A world with many capitalisms will be tricky, but fun.
Less clear are the implications for globalisation. We know that the massive injection of government funds has partially “deglobalised” finance, at great cost to emerging countries. We know, too, that government intervention in industry has a strong nationalist tinge. We know, as well, that few political leaders are prepared to go out on a limb for free trade.
Most emerging countries will conclude that accumulating massive foreign currency reserves and limiting current account deficits is a sound strategy. This is likely to generate another round of destabilising global “imbalances”. This seems an inevitable result of a defective international monetary order. We do not know how well globalisation will survive all such stresses. I am hopeful, but not that confident.
The state, meanwhile, is back, but it is also looking ever more bankrupt. Ratios of public sector debt to gross domestic product seem likely to double in many advanced countries: the fiscal impact of a big financial crisis can, we have been reminded, be as costly as a large war. This, then, is a disaster that governments of slow-growing advanced economies cannot afford to see repeated in a generation. The legacy of the crisis will also limit fiscal largesse. The effort to consolidate public finances will dominate politics for years, perhaps decades. The state is back, therefore, but it will be the state as intrusive busybody, not big spender.
Last but not least, what does the crisis mean for the global political order? Here we know three important things. The first is that the belief that the west, however widely disliked by the rest, at least knew how to manage a sophisticated financial system has perished. The crisis has damaged the prestige of the US, in particular, pretty badly, although the tone of the new president has certainly helped. The second is that emerging countries and, above all, China are now central players, as was shown in the decision to have two seminal meetings of the Group of 20 leading nations at head of government level. They are now vital elements in global policymaking. The third is that efforts are being made to refurbish global governance, notably in the increased resources being given to the International Monetary Fund and discussion of changing country weights within it.
We can still only guess at how radical the changes in the global political order will turn out to be. The US is likely to emerge as the indispensable leader, shorn of the delusions of the “unipolar moment”. The relationship between the US and China will become more central, with India waiting in the wings. The relative economic weight and power of the Asian giants seems sure to rise. Europe, meanwhile, is not having a good crisis. Its economy and financial system have proved far more vulnerable than many expected. Yet how far a set of refurbished and rebalanced institutions for international co-operation will reflect the new realities is, as yet, unknown.
What then is the bottom line? My guess is that this crisis accelerated some trends and has proved others – particularly those in credit and debt – unsustainable. It has damaged the reputation of economics. It will leave a bitter legacy for the world. But it may still mark no historic watershed. To paraphrase what people said on the death of kings: “Capitalism is dead; long live capitalism.”