Political indecision is making the banking crisis worse

29 05 2009

The news  that British banks are lending less, non-financial companies paid back a net total of £2.3bn to big banks last month, points to what well may happen next in the recession, ie good businesses finding it harder to get loans or overdraft facilities. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is already happening. I was at a round table discussion with a dozen other IT CEOs and Vince Cable, the Lib Dem’s treasury spokesman,  last week in which all agreed that it was getting harder to get money from the banks. Cable himself  said that banks were holding on to their worst customers, to try to stop them defaulting on their loans, but were reducing their good customers in order to rebuild their asset balances. Other figures released yesterday from the British Bankers Association showed that mortgage lending fell to its lowest level for 8 years in April, confirming that potential house buyers are being deprived of credit as well.

It is clear that the banks are doing their utmost to hold on to as much cash as possible. This is because many are basically bankrupt and only being held up by government support and guarantees. They are desperately trying to rebuild their balance sheets as fast as possible, essentially by hoarding cash.

What does this mean? Firstly for businesses that find their overdrafts being curtailed it will lead to cash flow problems and possible business failure. This will lead to further unemployment and deepen the recession.

Secondly it means that the indecisiveness shown by the UK government and others in the face of the credit crunch has come back to haunt us. Two things could have avoided the problem we now find ourselves in. The banks inflicted with toxic debt could have been fully nationalised and made therefore instruments of government policy, in which case they could have been forced to lend. Alternately they could have been fully exposed to the market and forced to write off their losses. This would have led to bank failuire on a huge scale, but good banks would have emerged which could now be lending properly. Instead we have the worst of both worlds, bankrupt banks which are desperate to rebuild their balance sheets to offset the huge toxic debt that most still have.

The collapse of large banks would have been a shock to the system, but the alternative is now years of credit starvation and consequent misery as they try to struggle out of the hole they are in. Indecisiveness at a political level has once again made a bad situation worse.

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After the recession, a New World Order?

27 04 2009
<I>Fixing Global Finance: How to Curb Financial Crises in the 21st Century </> by Martin Wolf

Fixing Global Finance: How to Curb Financial Crises in the 21st Century, by Martin Wolf

Fixing Global Finance: How to Curb Financial Crises in the 21st Century, by Martin Wolf (published by Yale University Press)

Following the ‘credit crunch’ and now the full-blown recession, the big story of the twenty-first century is likely to be the shift in the balance of power between the indebted West and the credited East.  There are some writers on the economy who seem to understand better than others that politics should be seen as concentrated economics. Martin Wolf, associate editor of the Financial Times, is one such writer.

His FT column is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what is happening in the current economic crisis. His latest book is about the problems of the world financial system and the events that led up to the current debacle. In it, Wolf explains both the underlying causes of the recession while also exposing the complex and potentially dangerous political consequences that have arisen as a result.

The central point in the book is that China is now playing a role in the world economy that no country has ever done before. China is ‘both the largest exporter of capital (as the United Kingdom was in the late nineteenth century) and the fastest growing emerging giant (the role played by the United States at that time)’.

China, along with other dynamic exporting nations, such as Japan, built up massive external surpluses of money in the period after 1997. The surpluses were based on the export of manufactured goods to mainly Western countries. By 2006, says Wolf, ‘The total Asian surplus was $511billion ($239billion for China, $170billion for Japan, and $102billion for the rest of Asia). The surplus of the oil exporters was another $396billion… But the US deficit was $857billion.’

So the US deficit was the equivalent of the total surplus of Asia and the oil-exporting countries. As a result, ‘The United States has in turn, been absorbing about 70 per cent of the surplus savings in the rest of the world, with the difference accounted for, not by increased investments, but by higher consumption and a lower rate of savings.’

Wolf is highly critical of the US for consuming rather than investing the massive amounts of imported capital, which ended up inflating the housing bubble and presaged the credit crunch. He sees the problem as one of underconsumption within China and other developing countries. He attributes the running up of huge external surpluses by China and others as a policy response to the Asian crisis of 1997/1998 when currencies collapsed and there were devastating consequences for the economies of some East Asian countries. He argues that ‘The lesson learned by many emerging economies – both those directly affected by the crises and those who have been onlookers – is not to tolerate current account deficits’.

So he sees the growth of external surpluses as a policy decision by developing countries. Others have argued that it is not as straightforward as that (1). China in particular would struggle to reinvest its huge surpluses internally because of the general underdevelopment of huge parts of the country (although its huge internal fiscal stimulus this year is trying to address that problem).

Wolf discusses why China and others have put huge sums of money into the US when the rate of return is so low. Given the problems China has in developing its own economy, the question really should be: what was the alternative, other than keeping the money under the bed? The nightmare scenario now for the Chinese is that the US inflates its way out of its debt, thus reducing the value of Chinese capital in the US.

So while we can understand from the Chinese point of view how we have got to where we are, from the US point of view the problem is completely different. The US and other Western countries, like the UK, have run up massive debts because, as Wolf points out ‘The high income countries have become importers of savings since their savings rates have fallen below their investment rates’.

Quite simply, we in the US and the UK have taken the savings from developing countries and consumed them, leaving ourselves in massive debt. The key question that comes out of this is how this imbalance in the world economy can be righted. As Wolf says: ‘A large-scale flow of capital from poor countries to the world’s richest nations is perverse.’

One consequence of the recession is that the international flow of capital has collapsed. It seems unlikely that, once the recession is over, the flows of capital from East to West will return in the same way. A rebalancing of some sort will have to take place. The West is unlikely to be able to resume its consumption of the savings glut from the rest of the world, certainly to the extent that it has in recent years. Western countries will have to find other ways to finance growth and consumption while we can assume that developing countries will shift their surpluses more towards the development of internal markets.

The rebalancing of the world’s economies will also, of necessity, affect the way the world is managed politically. Currently all of the world’s financial and political global institutions reflect the relative economic weight of countries 40 or 50 years ago. This will have to change. This is where it becomes politically challenging. As Roger Alton has pointed out:

‘The financial and economic crash of 2008, the worst in over 75 years, is a major geopolitical setback for the United States and Europe. Over the medium term, Washington and European governments will have neither the resources nor the economic credibility to play the role in global affairs that they otherwise would have played. These weaknesses will eventually be repaired, but in the interim, they will accelerate trends that are shifting the world’s centre of gravity away from the United States.’ (2)

As a result, some countries will lose power and influence and others will gain. Whether and how this can be managed is going to be the story of the first part of the twenty-first. Managing this shift in the middle of a recession is a huge political task, to which Wolf offers no solution except to argue for a restructuring of the International Monetary Fund. Nevertheless, he has written a fine account of the economic issues underlying the political problems facing the world today.

This book review was published by www.spiked-online.com on 23 April 2009

(1) See Darling, it’s all about the global imbalances, by Stuart Simpson.

(2) The Great Crash, 2008: A Geopolitical Setback for the West, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009