Sunday, 17 January 2016

More gloom

In the second edition of the book I made some remarks that turned out to be prescient about what at the time I wrote it was the nascent financial crisis. Since it is rather rare for my – or any other social scientist’s - predictions to come true I rather regretted the fact that in updating for the third edition I had to excise them. I’m now working on the fourth edition but by the time that comes out (at the end of this year) I suspect that I will have been overtaken by events and that by then we will be well into another, probably worse, crisis. So I’m going to get my prediction in now.
Of course I’m not the only person saying this. Last week a leading strategist at Societe Generale said the same thing and the Royal Bank of Scotland advised its clients to sell their equity holdings in anticipation. Stock markets across the world are in sharp decline, and the collapsing prices of oil and basic commodities are precipitating a global deflation. At the heart of all this is the slowdown in China and, in particular, the massive growth in corporate debt there, much of it due to a real estate bubble and the rise of a secondary banking sector.
Meanwhile, personal debt in most countries – from Sweden to Thailand - is also rising to higher levels than at the time of the 2008 crisis. Although in the UK and US it is not yet at the same levels as it was then, it is also rising. Once again in the UK much of this debt is related to a house price bubble and lax bank mortgage lending, but also rising is unsecured debt sometimes used simply to cover basic living costs.
If there is another financial and economic crisis the consequences will be much graver than in 2008 for two reasons. One is that the capacity, both financial and political, of nation states to bail out banks will be much more limited. So much the worse for the banks, it might be said; but it will not just be the banks that suffer. The reason why, post-Lehmann’s, the US and other governments stepped in was not because of an outbreak of Keynesianism but because they saw the political and economic consequences that would follow if the cash machines, literally, ran out of money. This time round there's every chance that that will happen.
Second, the intervening years have seen a growing precariousness of employment, symbolised but not limited to the rise of the zero hours contract, as I have written about elsewhere on this blog. At the same time there has been an erosion of welfare provision. Thus the ability of ordinary people to weather another crisis is much more limited. In many countries – Greece and Spain amongst the most obvious examples – the capacity of families to provide support for unemployed young people and pensioners has already reached breaking point. It is one thing to give such support to tide over short-term problems, quite another to do so on a more or less permanent basis.
For, as the distinguished political economist Andrew Gamble (2014) suggests in an excellent book, crisis is now likely to be permanently embedded within the global economy, in the absence of some major shifts in ideology and public policy. Of that, there seems little chance. Despite some initial impetus for reform after the 2008 crash almost nothing came of it. There was no new settlement and no new deal, and every prospect, therefore, of another crash. It looks to me as if 2016 will be the year we see it. 

Gamble, A. (2014) Crisis Without End? The Unravelling of Western Prosperity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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