Global Financial Crisis – What next?

OPINION – With the solvency of the western banking system seriously in question, there is a temptation to hope that if only the latest bold last ditch rescue plan will work we can go back to the good old days of 2006.

But it’s possible to construct an argument that the banking crisis is just the cold sweat, not the flu that follows on. The problem is not just that the banking system has been broken by an orgy of foolish lending, but moreover that huge swathes of the global economy are predicated on that foolish lending and the consumption it allowed.

The bubble wasn’t just in real estate, leaving the financial system holding the bag, the bubble was in consumption.

That is not to say that the current scrambling to save the system is pointless; there is a very big difference in the damage that will be done by a disorderly deleveraging compared with a slightly slower, more controlled one.

The banking crisis will have very serious negative effects on the real economy, and the cost will grow. This is true even if the ATM machines continue working, our deposits are safe and gold, bullets, canned goods and bottled water don’t become 2008’s best asset allocation choices.

The core of the issue isn’t even solvency. It’s the way in which the debt which is causing the banking insolvency distorted, distended and hollowed out economies around the world.

It caused a massive misallocation in the English speaking economies into property and into consumption that could only seem to make sense to people drunk on property price appreciation. It caused a less huge but still significant misallocation elsewhere; I think we will see that a lot of what was being produced by Europe and Asia’s vibrant export industries were products that America and Britain will find they can do without, or with much less of.

Don’t get me wrong: the banking crisis is extraordinarily dangerous, but the changes in the global economy that are needed are even more profound. Savings rates are going to need to rise in the developed economies of the English speaking world, and consumption drop. Those economies are also going to have to place a higher priority on producing goods and services they can sell abroad.

MARBLE COUNTERTOPS AND PERSONAL TRAINERS

There are lots of parts of the "service economy" that very likely won’t exist in two years time, or only in a very feeble way. Take for example the phenomenon in the United States and Britain of downsized late middle-aged people setting up small service businesses. Very often they used a combination of their redundancy payment plus equity extracted from their houses to provide themselves with working capital, and often to supplement their earnings.

So, someone who, for the purposes of argument, used to work for IBM in the Hudson Valley starts a business installing marble countertops. For four of the last six years that has been a good business, but the people paying for it were only able and willing to do it so long as the illusion that consumption is investment could be maintained. That is over, and significant parts of the U.S. economy will need to be repurposed, and will need to do so at a time when we are suffering asset price deflation and may well get real deflation. The recession will be long and probably ugly.

Or consider a very typical British story, a woman who hating the grind of her job at an insurance company and possessed of a modest house that is now worth 13 times her annual wage, decides to set up shop as a personal trainer. She’s done reasonably well and had a great deal of flexibility and satisfaction. But her clients will likely cut back on personal training as times get tough.

Just think about your own lives and the people you know: how many of them do jobs that didn’t exist 15 years ago but have nothing really to do with new technology? Many of those jobs are enjoyable and worthwhile offshoots of a credit bubble and will have a very difficult time surviving its demise.

Similarly, it will be tough for those English speaking economies’ global enablers. China will need to find somewhere else to sell many of its goods. The grand bargain of China buying U.S. Treasury bonds to finance consumption in the United States will come under enormous and dangerous strain.

Europe too, as well as other exporters, will hit difficulties; not just in their banking systems, which helped to finance the binge, but in their automotive and consumer electronic industries, just to name two.

There is no doubt the needed changes can happen and that these innovative and creative economies can rebalance. But it is going to be very painful.