Martin Wolf

Martin Wolf is associate editor of the Financial Times and chief economics commentator

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. 

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. 

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). 

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. 

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. 

“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. 

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. 

Ingram Pinn illustration

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. 

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. 

Ingram Pinn illustration

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.