Iceland is famous for its sagas. But the latest one is truly dramatic: the balance sheets of its privatised financial sector grew from twice to 10 times gross domestic product, in five years. In the absence of a lender of last resort, this story had to end badly. In the panic of 2008, it did.
Because Iceland was a member of the European Economic Area, its banks were allowed to set up branches freely. To raise money, Landsbanki, one of Iceland’s now collapsed banks, set up an internet bank, Icesave, which gulled depositors by offering attractive interest rates. Under the European Union directive, Iceland also had an obligation to establish a deposit insurance scheme, which it did, through a levy on those banks. Read more
Twenty years ago, the conventional wisdom was clear: Japan was the world’s most successful high-income country. Few guessed what the next two decades held in store. Today, the notion that Japan is on a long slide is conventional wisdom. So what went wrong? What should the new Japanese government do? What should we learn from its experience?
We must put this in context. The quality of the train system and the food make a visitor from the UK realise he comes from an utterly backward country. If this is decline, then most people would welcome it. Read more
What would have happened during the financial crisis if the euro had not existed? The short answer is that there would have been currency crises among its members. The currencies of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain would surely have fallen sharply against the old D-Mark. That is the outcome the creators of the eurozone wished to avoid. They have been successful. But, if the exchange rate cannot adjust, something else must instead. That “something else” is the economies of peripheral eurozone member countries. They are locked into competitive disinflation against Germany, the world’s foremost exporter of very high-quality manufactures. I wish them luck.
The eurozone matters. Its economy is almost as big as that of the US. It is three times bigger than those of Japan or China. So far, it has passed its initial test. Nevertheless, the peak to trough decline of the US economy was only 3.8 per cent (second quarter 2008 to second quarter 2009), while the eurozone’s was 5.1 per cent (first quarter 2008 to second quarter 2009). Read more
I have recently been thinking a great deal about my long-dead father. I have been writing a memoir of his life for an exhibition being organised by Vienna’s Exilbibliothek (“Exile Library”) in honour of what would have been his hundredth birthday. But I have also been thinking about him because he would have fully understood what is at stake today.
Born in what was then Austrian Poland on April 23 1910, my father’s life began just after the end of the “noughties” of the 20th century, of which I wrote last week. Moved by his parents to Vienna in 1914, he lived through the first world war, the hyperinflation of the early 1920s and the Great Depression, before leaving for London, just ahead of Hitler’s arrival, in 1937. There he survived internment as an enemy alien and the second world war. Nearly all his relatives, apart from his immediate family, were killed in the Holocaust. The same was true of my mother’s family. While she and her immediate relatives escaped by trawler from the Netherlands in May 1940, her wider family was destroyed. Read more
The only truly global power was in rapid relative decline. Not long before, it had won a pyrrhic victory in a costly colonial war. New great powers were on the rise. An arms race was under way, as was competition for markets and resources in undeveloped areas of the world. Yet people still believed in the durability of the free trade and free capital flows that had nurtured prosperity and, many believed, had also underpinned peace.
That was how the world looked to many at the end of the “noughties” of the 20th century. Yet catastrophe lay ahead: a world war; a communist revolution; a Great Depression; fascism; and then another world war. The world order – built on competing great powers, imperialism and liberal markets – proved incapable of providing the public goods of peace and prosperity. It took calamity, the cold war and the replacement of the UK by the US as hegemonic power to re-establish stability. That then facilitated decolonisation, unprecedented economic expansion, the collapse of communism and yet another epoch of market-led global integration. Read more
“As the last of the official Q3 data came in, the UK found itself in the unenviable position of being the only economy in the [Group of 20 leading economies] to remain in recession”. Thus did Consensus Forecasts summarise the UK’s plight. With the third-largest economic decline, after Japan and Italy, the most indebted households, the biggest fiscal deterioration and the greatest dependency on the financial sector among the Group of Seven leading high-income countries, the UK has suffered a huge economic shock.
Fortunately, the UK also possesses assets. Among these are: a government with the capacity to act; the ability to borrow in its own currency; a flexible exchange rate; a credible monetary regime; a modest initial level of public indebtedness; privileged access to the European market, the world’s biggest; a greater number of top-class universities than any country, apart from the US; and an economy that has shed its most vulnerable manufacturing activities. Read more
The UK is poorer than it thought it was. This is the most important fact about the crisis. The struggle over the distribution of the losses is going to be brutal. It will be made more so by the second most important fact about the crisis: it has had a huge effect on the public finances. The deficits are unmatched in peacetime.
Happily, the general election would appear to offer a golden opportunity for a debate. Is that not the discussion the country ought to have? Yes. Is it the discussion it is going to have? No. What the government would do if re-elected remains, even after the pre-Budget report, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, as Churchill said of Stalin’s Russia. Read more
A country’s exchange rate cannot be a concern for it alone, since it must also affect its trading partners. But this is particularly true for big economies. So, whether China likes it or not, its heavily managed exchange rate regime is a legitimate concern of its trading partners. Its exports are now larger than those of any other country. The liberty of insignificance has vanished. Read more
Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the UK on May 4 1979 and remained in office for more than 11 years. Her government reshaped the politics of the UK and, after the election of Ronald Reagan as president of the US in 1980, these two reshaped the world. But, in the aftermath of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, one that centred upon the US and UK, where the world’s two leading financial centres are located, what is left of the Thatcher revolution?
Mrs (now Lady) Thatcher entered office determined to reverse a national decline marked by high inflation, slow growth and trade union militancy. Her government emphasised monetary control, deregulation, particularly of the financial sector, flexible labour markets, and privatisation. The post-1997 Labour government did not overthrow these policies but built upon them. Labour increased public spending but not hugely: in 2007-08, expenditure was below where it had been under Mrs Thatcher until 1988-89. Labour also abandoned active fiscal policy, adopted inflation targeting, introduced central bank independence and welcomed the vigour of the financial sector. Read more
The Copenhagen summit on climate change is going to fall short. Does this matter? Yes and no: yes, because the case for action is so strong; no, because the likely agreement would be inadequate. Tackling climate change will be hard. It is crucial that we achieve the goal effectively and efficiently. The likely further delays should be used to achieve just that. Read more
Financial crises have devastating impacts on the public finances. The impact is also most severe where the pre-crisis excesses were greatest. Among members of the Group of Seven leading high-income countries, this means the bubble-infected US and UK. The question both countries confront is how soon and how far to tighten. Tightening will have to be substantial. But premature action could be a devastating error. Read more
Windfall taxes are a ghastly idea. They are a sop to prejudice, a burden on risk-taking and a form of arbitrary confiscation. No sensible person should support them. So why do I now find the idea of a windfall tax on banks so appealing? Well, this time, it really does look different. Read more
Barack Obama, president of the US, met Hu Jintao, president of the People’s Republic of China, for a private meeting on Tuesday. The agenda was long, covering the world economy, climate change and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. The last two are the most important, over the long run. But the first is the most urgent. If we do not achieve a healthy global economic recovery, hope of a co-operative relationship is likely to prove vain. Yet such a recovery is far from ensured. Worse, some of what is now happening – particularly China’s decision to depreciate the renminbi along with the dollar – makes healthy recovery less likely. Read more
“A crisis is a strange way to celebrate an anniversary.” This is the wry judgment of Erik Berglöf, chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.* Yet a crisis is what we see in countries that began the march from communism two decades ago. So, has capitalism failed, as communism did? In a word, “no”. Some transition countries are in crisis; transition is not. The same judgment applies elsewhere: capitalist countries are in crisis; capitalism itself is not. But reform is necessary. The great virtue of liberal democracies and market economies is their ability to reform and adapt. They have shown these qualities before. They must do so once again. Read more
Alan Johnson, home secretary, has recently admitted that the government has been “maladroit” in its handling of immigration. This is British understatement. It has been dishonest: it has pursued a radical policy, with profound consequences, on weak grounds, without serious debate. That is why the British National party is on BBC television. Read more
If we are to understand where we are, we must understand where we have
been. This is particularly true if we are to escape from the huge
fiscal deficits being run by many governments. These deficits are not
the result of government stupidity; they are mainly a consequence of –
and response to – private behaviour. We must not ignore this connection. Read more
How did the world economy fall into such a deep hole? It is recovering, but painfully, and after a deep recession, despite unprecedented monetary and fiscal easing. Moreover, how likely is it that a balanced world economy will emerge from this force-feeding? The very fact that such drastic action has been necessary is terrifying. The fact that there is little room for a policy encore is yet more terrifying. Most terrifying of all is that this is not the first time in recent decades the world economy has had to be guided through a post-bubble collapse. Read more
About a month ago, I visited the aero engine factory of Rolls-Royce, in Derby. I was hugely impressed. Making jet engines able to work at extreme temperatures is an extraordinary achievement. Why does the financial industry not work this way? How might we bring the performance of finance close to that of other sophisticated businesses? Read more
A year ago, at the height of the financial panic, the world yearned for a profitable and confident financial sector. It now has what it wants, but hates it. As joblessness soars and the hopes of hundreds of millions of people are blighted, the financial sector’s survivors are thriving. Even bonuses are back. Policymakers have made a Faustian bargain. Success feels like failure. Read more
It is the season of dollar panic. These panic-mongers are varied: gold bugs, fiscal hawks and many others agree that the dollar, the dominant currency since the first world war, is on its death bed. Hyperinflationary collapse is in store. Does this make sense? No. All the same, the dollar-based global monetary system is defective. It would be good to start building alternative arrangements. Read more