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? Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. 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

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. Read more

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

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. Read more

By Andrew Sheng and Michael Pomerleano

The national authorities and the international community should be commended for the speed of action taken to stop the spread of the financial crisis. To protect the financial system from the deflation in asset bubbles, the public sector has essentially guaranteed all deposits, rescued systemically important institutions, made large liquidity injections and brought interest rates to zero or near zero under a zero interest rate policy. Almost all systemically important central banks entered into ZIRP under emergency conditions at the same time.

But the polices adopted to combat the crisis are creating their own problems. In the medium term, the treatment may be as expensive as the crisis. Read more

By Eswar Prasad

The financial crisis has taught us a painful lesson that global macroeconomic imbalances can wreak enormous damage on the world economy. Indeed, the centrepiece of the recent G20 Summit in Pittsburgh was agreement on a framework for balanced and sustainable growth to forestall a resurgence of imbalances as the economic recovery gets underway. At the recent IMF-World Bank annual meetings, G20 leaders gave the IMF a mandate to manage this framework by providing hard-nosed evaluations of their countries’ macroeconomic policies. Read more

Ferguson illustration

Our unprecedented, decisive and concerted policy action has helped to arrest the decline and boost global demand.” Thus did the finance ministers and central bank governors of the Group of 20 leading high-income and emerging economies pat themselves on the back over the weekend. They were right. The response to the crisis was both essential and successful. But it is still too early to declare victory. Read more

By Willem Buiter

Pinn illustration

Lord Turner, chairman of the UK’s Financial Services Authority, has set the cat among the financial pigeons by making highly critical comments about the City of London and financial intermediation in general. He recommended some drastic remedies, and suggested considering a global tax on financial transactions – a generalised Tobin tax. James Tobin proposed a tax on foreign exchange transactions to stabilise floating exchange rates and achieve greater national monetary policy autonomy in a world of increasing financial integration. Read more

By Yu Yongding

Ingram Pinn illustration

China has rebounded from the global slump with vigour. In the second quarter, its official figures showed year-on-year gross domestic product growth of 7.9 per cent. Those who doubt the quality of China’s macroeconomic statistics can check its physical statistics: in June, electricity production increased 5.2 per cent, reversing the falls of the previous eight months. It is almost certain that China’s GDP will grow more than 8 per cent this year. Read more

By Ricardo Caballero

Perhaps one of the economic phenomena most akin to witch-hunting is the diagnostic and policy response that develops during the recovery phase of a financial crisis.  Understandably, pressured politicians and policymakers rush to find culprits and sources of instant gratification. All too often they find a ready supply of these in preconceptions and superficial analyses of correlations.  This time around the scapegoats are global imbalances and leverage. Read more

Bromley illustration

Proposals for reform of financial regulation are now everywhere. The most significant have come from the US, where President Barack Obama’s administration last week put forward a comprehensive, albeit timid, set of ideas. But will such proposals make the system less crisis-prone? My answer is, no. The reason for my pessimism is that the crisis has exacerbated the sector’s weaknesses. It is unlikely that envisaged reforms will offset this danger. Read more

Pinn illustration

Is the current crisis a watershed, with market-led globalisation, financial capitalism and western domination on the one side and protectionism, regulation and Asian predominance on the other? Or will historians judge it, instead, as an event caused by fools, signifying little? My own guess is that it will end up in between. It is neither a Great Depression, because the policy response has been so determined, nor capitalism’s 1989. Read more

The following is Martin Wolf’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the US, March 25, 2009

We are experiencing the most dangerous financial and economic crisis since the 1930s. But it is also a crisis for foreign policy: a deep recession will shake political stability a across the globe; and it threatens the long-standing US goal of an open and dynamic global economy. Perhaps most important, the US is currently seen as the source of the problem rather than the solution.

This crisis is, therefore, a devastating blow to US credibility and legitimacy across the world. If the US cannot manage free-market capitalism, who can? If free-market capitalism can bring such damage, why adopt it? If openness to the world economy brings such dangers, why risk it? As the shock turns to anger, not just in the US, but across the world, these questions are being asked. If the US wishes to obtain the right answers, it must address the crisis at home, and do what it can to rescue innocent victims abroad. This is not a matter of charity. It is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Read more

Lord Turner is the UK’s man for all seasons. A few years ago, he fixed pensions. Today, it is finance. The report by the new chairman of the UK’s Financial Services Authority is a turning point. The authorities of a country that used to boast of its light financial regulation have changed their minds: the UK has lost confidence in its financial sector.

“Over the last 18 months, and with increasing intensity over the last six, the world’s financial system has gone through its greatest crisis for at least half a century, indeed arguably the greatest crisis in the history of finance capitalism.” This is the report’s starting point. It advances two explanations for this disaster: exceptional macroeconomic conditions – particularly the emergence of excess savings in large parts of the world – and reliance on “the theory of efficient and rational markets”. As the report notes, “the predominant assumption behind financial market regulation – in the US, the UK and increasingly across the world – has been that financial markets are capable of being both efficient and rational”. So regulators were expected to stay out of the way. In the report’s new view, they should be in the way, instead. The financial sector no longer enjoys the benefit of the doubt: it may burn up the world.

The most important analytical points are that individual rationality does not ensure collective rationality, that individual behaviour is frequently less than rational and that, in consequence, markets can overshoot, in both directions. Above all, such failings create systemic risks: if everybody believes in the same (faulty) risk models, the system will become far more dangerous than any individual player appreciates; and if everybody relies on their ability to get out of the door before anybody else, many will die in the inferno. Read more