Capitalism

By Alistair Milne

Debt is a drug. High levels of debt used for unproductive purposes result in a temporary economic high. But after the high there is the inescapable low. Who should pay the bill when it eventually comes due? Should it be the debt user, for eagerly borrowing more than they can comfortably repay? Should it be the debt provider, for knowingly supplying more debt than they can reasonably expect to be paid back? Or should others rally round to help reduce the burden?

The struggle by Greece to repair its public finances is a big challenge to the European single currency. But the underlying question is no different from other previous debt crises, such as Imperial Spain in the 16th and 17th century, Latin America in the 1980s or most recently in US subprime mortgage lending. Who pays? 

Germany says “nein”. That is the most important conclusion to be drawn from the debate on eurozone economic policy. What the German government is saying is that the eurozone must become a greater Germany. But this policy would have profoundly negative implications for the world economy.

Continue reading “Excessive virtue can be a vice for the world economy”.  Please leave your comments in the box at the end of Martin Wolf’s column.

Anybody who looks carefully at the world economy will recognise that a degree of monetary and fiscal stimulus unprecedented in peacetime is all that is prodding it along, not only in high-income countries, but also in big emerging ones. The conventional wisdom is that it will also be possible to manage a smooth exit. Nothing seems less likely. So let us consider the endgame, instead.

The remainder of this column can be read here. Please post comments below.

So what did I make of this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos? It felt like sitting at the bedside of somebody who had survived a heart attack but was unsure how long it would take to recover full vigour, if, indeed, he would at all. The mood of “Davos men” (yes, they mostly still are) was, as my colleague, Gideon Rachman, has pointed out, one of anxiety. Meanwhile, the participants in a still predominantly western meeting looked at the youthful vigour of emerging economies with admiration, envy and even fear.

For me, the highlight of the programme was the economic outlook session on Saturday.* This is not only because I was moderator. The starting point for the discussion was an obvious one: the policy interventions of late 2008 and 2009 have been a resounding success. The outcome has been a far briefer and shallower recession than most participants imagined a year ago. That is obvious from the successive consensus of forecasts for 2010. For almost every significant economy, the forecast for growth this year is higher than it was a year or even six months ago (see charts). The world economy survived the heart attack in the financial system. 

Briefly, during the takeover bid for Cadbury by Kraft, I thought the UK might proclaim a “strategic chocolate” doctrine. Fortunately, that did not happen. Less fortunately, if history is any guide, the takeover of Cadbury is quite likely to be a flop. If so, the winners will be the shareholders of Cadbury, the advisers for both sides and those who arranged the loans. The right question, then, is not about chocolate. It is about the market in corporate control itself.

For high priests of Anglo-American capitalism, this question is heresy. They would insist that shareholders own the business and have a right to dispose of their property as they see fit. They would add that an active market in corporate control is an essential element in “shareholder value maximisation”, on which an efficient market economy rests. Yet, after financial markets have gone so spectacularly awry, the question whether companies should be left to the markets is being raised. 

As part of the FT’s week-long series on the Brics emerging markets, experts on each of the four economies will contribute to the debate about the role of Brics consumers in the global economy. The last entry focuses on China, read the entries from the other countries below.

By Michael Pettis

Given the speed of its economic transformation, its sky-high bank-stock valuations, the unprecedented size of its accumulated reserves, and its much-advertised desire to change the global monetary system; it is tempting to assume that China will radically transform the world’s capital markets and financial systems with the same ruthless speed with which it has transformed export markets.

But this won’t happen.  Beijing is skeptical of arguments supporting rapid financial and monetary deregulation, and policymakers continue to measure the usefulness of the financial system mainly to the extent that it serves the needs of rapid growth in manufacturing and infrastructure. This means continued heavy-handed control of the capital allocation process and the level of interest rates, the relinquishing of which are the two key measures of real financial sector liberalisation.

China’s main impact on the global financial system will continue, for the foreseeable future, to be limited to its massive accumulation of reserves. And because the US is still the only economy large and flexible enough to accommodate the high trade surpluses that the Chinese economy relies on, it will continue to accumulate dollars. 

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. 

Pinn illustration

“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. 

This post, in the Financial Times’ Economists’ Forum, argues that narrow banking is not the answer to systemic fragility. 

By Roger E. A. Farmer

According to a widely-held consensus view, the world is slowly emerging from the Great Recession of 2008. Growth in China is projected to top 8 per cent in 2009. Australia raised the interest rate on the Australian dollar last week and the US and UK economies are showing signs that unemployment growth has slowed even though the unemployment rates in both countries are very high. Sometime soon, perhaps in the spring of 2010, perhaps earlier, the Fed, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England are likely to respond to the perceived global recovery by reducing the sizes of their balance sheets and raising interest rates on overnight loans.