The worst is not; So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’
– William Shakespeare
It is said that today is pregnant with tomorrow. What and how we have done things in the past has shaped out today and what and how we do things today determine the shape of our future. To see into the future of our economies, with some small degree of certainty, we have to pay attention to what is happening around us and what we do.
But to get an idea of how the future will be, one has to have a real picture of the present. This is important since a false picture will present us with false alternatives, on which we act which in turn will result in unexpected outcomes (i.e., future that we are not prepared for).
It is not always easy to see through all the false pictures and data that we are constantly presented with. For example, in Norway on February 18th, the real-estate association came out with the statement that the housing crisis was almost over and the bottom was reached. This was plastered all over the place. Next day on February 19, the Norwegian Centre for Statistics came out with its own forecast; stating that house prices will continue to fall for the next year and that situation will deteriorate further.
It was clear to some of us that the real-estate association was putting out false information to drum-up business for its members. But if banks, industrialists, and even politicians also send out false and misleading information, then the average person will make decisions that may be contrary to his or her best interests.
Most of us do not have the time, energy, or even the necessary knowledge to gather and sift through large amount of data. We rely on news media, and the experts to make most of our decisions. Until last year, very few people were talking about the tremendous crisis that was well under way; even though as early as 2006, there were clear signs that the economy was under tremendous pressure.
In this article I will try to provide you with a picture of the present situation and then try to extrapolate based on the current policies adopted by various governments, what the near future will look like.
The current economic situation
Let me tell you in no uncertain terms that we are facing a synchronised global economic depression and I am not the only one that is saying this. In early February, the International Monetary Fund’s chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said the world’s advanced economies — the U.S., Western Europe and Japan — are “already in depression.” Gordon Brown, the UK’s Prime Minister also used the word “depression” to describe the global economy, although his aides quickly said it was a slip of the tongue.
The politicians and others of course avoid using the term “depression” for fear of creating a panic; instead they use terms such as “severe recession” or “one of the most serious financial crises since the great depression,” etc. But they all are saying the same thing, we are in a depression and all the available data support this. An important fact to remember is that this depression is synchronised and this synchronicity has been made possible by the globalization and accompanying deregulation; the very things that were making workers poorer and the rich, richer.
Now the chickens have come home to roost. All economies are now suffering. Such promising economies as Iceland’s saw its GDP shrink by 10%, while the success show case of Europe, Ireland, had its GDP shrink by 6%. Germany, the euro zone’s biggest economy shrank by 2.1% in the three months to December, seconded by Italy, which suffered a 1.8% drop in GDP. The French economy also contracted by 1.2% while IMF put Spain on its vulnerable list. UK’s GDP has also suffered and is forecasted to contract by 3.5% in 2009.
The misery list includes most of the Eastern European countries as well with some such as Ukraine set to experience severe contraction. According to IMF Ukraine’s GDP will shrink by 8 to 10% in 2009. The Russian economic growth is also set to fall. According to the Russian Deputy Economic Development Minister Andrei Klepach the forecast for the Russian economy has worsened to a 2.2-percent contraction in GDP.
Japan’s economy, the second largest in the world, contracted by 12.7 per cent on a seasonally adjusted annualised basis in the fourth quarter and is set to contract further. According to the Taiwanese government, Taiwan’s GDP will shrink by 3% in 2009. Another big economy in Asia is Korea. According to S&P sovereign ratings, Asia’s fourth-largest economy will contract by about 3.5 percent this year. All other South East Asian economies are reporting severe slow down or outright contraction except China.
According to National Bureau of Statistics of China, by comparing the fourth quarter 2007 to that of the fourth quarter 2008, China had achieved a 6.8 percent growth in 2008. However, many believe that this figure is misleading and that the Chinese are hiding the extent of the economic contraction of its economy. They point out that energy consumption in China has substantially been reduced. This could not have happened without a marked slowing down of the economy.
According to the article published in The Epoch Times (17 Feb 09) “Economists at the Standard Chartered Bank estimate China’s growth rate to be around 1 percent. Morgan Stanley analysts estimate it to be at 1.5 percent. This is much lower than the CCP reported 15 percent for the first quarter of 2007. According to economists at Merrill Lynch, the sequential growth rate of fourth quarter of 2008 was zero percent.”
Middle Eastern countries have also been severely affected by the financial crisis. The revenue from their major source of income, oil, has fallen at an incredible rate. Oil prices that were around 120 to 140 dollars last year have come down to around 30 to 40 dollars this year. Every country has slashed its expenditure with the accompanying slowing growth. For example recently UAE was forced to halt construction projects worth $582 billion or fully 45% of all projects. A recent report in New York Times paints a grim picture of the situation in Dubai. The report states that “with Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills).” Iranians, Saudis, Iraqis, Kuwaitis and others have also been forced to slow down or freeze many projects. One must not forget that many of these countries’ petro-dollars are re-circulated back into the US and European economies. Those funds are drying-up fast.
Turkey sitting between the Europe and Middle East is also suffering. Turkey has the largest GDP in the Islamic world. Turkey’s GDP was 750 billion in 2008, the GDP of Saudi Arabia was 600 billion dollar for the same period. A once dynamic economy is now negotiating with IMF for help.
Having surveyed most of the economic landscape of Europe and Asia, we can now look at the world’s largest economy, the US. The US economy is in a terrible shape, with all sectors going through severe depression. Housing market has completely collapsed. The auto industry is going bankrupt. The banking sector is alive only by the grace of the government handouts. The entertainment industry (TV and film industry excluded) is facing severe problems and unemployment is increasing rapidly. The Federal Reserves’ forecast for 2009 shows a contraction of 0.5 to 1.3 percent of the GDP with official unemployment rising to 8.5 or 8.8 percent. Here one should note that this official unemployment rate does not present a true picture, since all those who give-up registering with the unemployment office or are barely working (part-time workers, etc) are not counted as unemployed.
The missing engine of growth
Before we look at the future development we have to remember that there are four factors that power an economy: consumers, investors, government, and a favourable trade balance. Some economies such as China rely on favourable trade balance and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for their growth. For example according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, from 1990 to 2007, China received $748.4 billion in FDI. At the same time, since its economic liberalization, China has recorded consistent trade surpluses with the world. For example China has registered trade surpluses of $102 billion for 2005, $177.47 billion for 2006, $262.2 billion for 2007, and $295.47 billion for 2008. China currently has accumulated nearly two trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves.
In contrast to the China, the United States has relied on consumers and the government for its growth. According to Peter G. Gosselin citing Roach of Morgan Stanley Asia, U.S. consumers constitute only about 4.5% of the global population, yet they bought more than $10 trillion worth of goods and services last year. In contrast the Chinese and Indian consumers combined which account for 40% of the global population bought only $3 trillion worth. He goes on to point out that according to government statistics, from 2001 to 2007, U.S. consumer spending shot up from a little over 73% of the economy to nearly 77%.
If we just look at the differences in consumption levels between US and China-India, we’ll see that these countries are not in a position or have the financial resources to pick-up the slack left by the US consumers. Anyway, China’s growth is based on its exports and the FDI and not its consumers. When the international market shrinks, the Chinese will see (as they do now) a sharp drop in their actual growth. If they try hard they may be able to keep their people’s standard of living at its current level (highly unlikely); but they will be unable to increase consumption. Anyway, according to the Bloomberg (19 January 09), the Chinese unemployment rate has jumped to its 30-year high and will most likely increase further.
How about Japan? Japan also started its economic miracle by export-led growth. Japan saved hard, and worked hard to become one of the largest economies in the world. However, the bursting of the housing bubble in 1990-91 started a deflationary period that Japan has never really recovered from.
If we look at the Consumer Price Indexes (CPI) for Japan, the U.S., and the Euro Area from 1999 to 2006, with 1999 being the base (100), we’ll see that by 2006, the CPI index for US was 122.8, 118.5 for EU and 97.7 for Japan. This shows that until 2006 Japan was still in the grip of deflation.
Add to this the recent financial crisis and you’ll see that Japan is once again entering another deflationary period. In deflationary periods, consumers spend less and try to save more. The fear of losing one’s job, the psychology of ever decreasing prices, and general feeling of doom act against free spending by the consumers. One should also understand that Japanese consumers are reluctant to spend like their American counterparts. According to the available figures (2005), the Japanese consumption was only 55% of the GDP. Compare this to the American consumption of 77%. So the Japanese consumers cannot help either.
What about the EU? Euro zone consumers have a slightly better consumption rate than the Japanese. The consumption rate for Euro zone (2005) was 57% of the GDP. In addition the Euro zone is facing severe financial problems with many countries such as Spain, Ireland, Italy and others facing mounting debt and shrinking export market. Consumers already hit by the housing crisis, financial crisis and now the imminent unemployment crisis cannot be expected to start spending wildly.
So who is going to take the position left vacant by the US and act as the world’s economic locomotive and pull the world out of the depression? The answer is no-one and everyone. The US is clearly not able to do that much. As a matter of fact the US consumers have to get used to lower spending levels for at least a decade, if not for good.
According to Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, as quoted by Aaron Task in Yahoo Finance, American’s standard of living is undergoing a “permanent change” — and not for the better as a result of:
• An $8 trillion negative wealth effect from declining home values.
• A $10 trillion negative wealth effect from weakened capital markets.
• A $14 trillion consumer debt load amid “exploding unemployment,” leading to “exploding bankruptcies.”
“The average American used to be able to borrow to buy a home, send their kids to a good school [and] buy a car,” Davidowitz says. “A lot of that is gone.
Last year when the depth of financial crisis became apparent the US Feds started to aggressively cut interest rates, in the hope of reducing the severity of the crisis. Other countries specially the Europeans soon followed the Americans in cutting their interest rates. As the crisis spread to Asia and the Middle East, they also began to cut their interest rates. But soon it became apparent that this crisis was not like any they had seen since the great depression and simply cutting interest rates was not going to solve the problem.
To start with the housing market had collapsed completely leaving many banks holding worthless pieces of paper. In addition, these papers were (partly) insured by many insurance and financial institutions that weren’t banks, but because of financial deregulations, had acted as banks. They were also hit by the bad mortgage problems. In short, all the financial institutions, banks, insurance companies and others were suddenly in trouble.
This hit the stock markets, with the shares of these institutions taking a nose dive. These institutions are extremely important for the economy. They provide the logistics for financial transactions. Any problem here affects all parts of the economy. So it was not a surprise to see that all normal financial transactions suddenly came to a halt, hitting other sectors of the economy. Share prices of all the affected sectors began to go down and with it the fortune of the share holders. To see the extent of the damage done one just has to look at how much various stock markets have fallen.
The following stock markets data was published by The Economist (21 Feb. 2009) which shows the extent of the fall since Dec 31st 2007:
US (NAScomp) – 44.7%, US (DJIA) -43%, US (S&P 500), Japan (Nikkei 225) -41.3%, China (SSEA) -55.1%, Hong Kong (Hang Seng) -52.9%, Canada (S&P TSX) -53%, Australia (All Ord.) -61%, Britain (FTSE 100) -55.8%, Euro area (FTSE 100) – 59.5%, Euro area (DJ STQxx 50) – 58.7%, France (CAC 40) -56.1%, Germany (DAX) -55.3%, Greece (Athex comp) -73.7%, Italy (S&P/MIB) -63.1%, Netherlands (AEX) -60.4%, Norway (OSEAX) -64%, Denmark (OMXCB) -55.2%, Sweden (Aff.Gen) -57.7%, Russia (RTS, $ terms) -77.1%, Turkey (ISE) -70.3%, India (BSE) -64.9%, South Korea (KOSPI) -62.6%, Taiwan (TWI) -50.5%, Brazil (BVSP) -53%, Argentina (MERV) -56%, Mexico (IPC) -52.9%, Venezuela (IBC) – 55.6%, Saudi Arabia (Tadawul) -56.8%, South Africa (JSE AS) – 54.1%…. WORLD all (MSCI) -51.2%.
For people in general, shares act both as saving and investment. The average person buys share in hope of getting a better return than from the banks. It is also easy to get in and out of the market. The advancements in information and communication technologies, the costs of buying and selling have fallen steadily in the last decade. So now anyone with a computer can buy and sell shares. This ease of entry enticed an ever increasing number of ordinary people to enter the stock markets.
Now the people have been hit by three disasters. First they lost a lot of money in the housing market. This was both real and illusory. First they were hit with the housing crisis. Many have lost their homes or have seen the value of their homes depreciate heavily. Then they were hit with the collapse of the stock markets. Trillions of Dollars, Yens, Euros and Yuans have been wiped-out in a relatively a short time. Then many have lost their jobs and many are uncertain about the future job security. All these have had a tremendous impact on the consumers, forcing many to heavily reduce their consumption, which in turn have begun to affect businesses which in-turn are shedding workers to compensate for the loss of sales and revenues. This is a classical deflationary circle that feed on itself.
The governments’ response to this threat has been to stimulate the economy by pumping large sums of money into the economy. A decade ago, a hundred billion dollar was an astronomical sum. Today we don’t even bother to look at it twice. Today we talk of Trillions. A few hundred billions here and a few hundred billions there soon add up to a few nice trillions; especially the trillions that we don’t have.
Now we face a classical problem: the increasing budget deficits. Exactly when the economy is contracting and tax receipts are falling, the government expenditure is rising rapidly. In addition, the governments are buying bad debts (US, UK, etc) and trying to spend more on whatever they can in order to arrest the increasing unemployment and stimulate the economy. These large sums have to come from somewhere. They can be borrowed or money can simply be printed. The problem is that some governments are opting for both.
The most important economy is of course the US economy. The US government under Bush spent close to one trillion dollars, and now the Obama administration is promising to spend trillions in the years to come to stimulate the economy. With official US debt now close to 11 trillion dollars and climbing fast, the situation is becoming untenable. According to treasurydirect.gov, last year (2008) US government paid $451 billion dollars interest on its debt. Add to this the Medicare and social security obligations and suddenly things look a lot worse than they appear.
So how can the US continue its deficit spending? By issuing treasury bonds and other security certificates of course. Both public and foreign governments buy these securities which are guaranteed by the US government. According to Reuters (18 February 2009), foreign central banks alone held $1.76 trillion dollars in US treasuries. According to the same report: “The combined holdings of Treasuries and agency securities by foreign central banks at the Fed totalled $2.573 trillion, up $11.223 billion.”
The coming inflation
So far the foreign governments and businesses have been willing to buy US debt, but with the current economic downturn things are beginning to change. According to the New York Times, in the last 5 years China has spent as much as one-seventh of its entire economic output buying mostly American debt. However, with the sharp slowdown in its economy, China is finding it difficult to keep buying. China has also come up with its own $600 billion stimulus plan. This along with the falling trade surplus and the falling tax receipt will make it exceedingly unlikely that China can keep financing part of the US government’s deficit spending. The same applies to other countries as well.
So as the economic downturn continues we can expect to see two things: the interest on US treasuries increase substantially to make it attractive and/or the increased printing of money. Printing money is not so farfetched as many would like to believe. Already countries that cannot find willing lenders are resorting to this. A good example of this is UK. With the current plans to nationalise a few more banks (Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland), the UK national debt is set to surpass the £2.2 trillion pound mark. This is 150% of UK’s GDP. It is not then surprising to see that the Bank of England voted unanimously earlier this month to seek consent from the government to start the process of quantitative easing by buying gilts and other securities. Quantitative easing means printing money. With interest rates at 1%, printing money is likely to increase inflation.
Already many governments find it difficult to cover their deficits. It is only a matter of time before they also begin to print money. It is especially appealing for the US government to do this since inflation means a real value reduction in debts. With mounting trade and budget deficit and decreasing tax receipts and the shrinking of the number of willing lenders, US government may not have any choice but to print money.
So far, all governments are reducing their interest rates to historic lows and at the same time spending a lot of money that they don’t have. It will take at least two more years for the economy to stabilise. By stabilise, I mean an arrest in decline rather than outright growth. Once that point is reached we will begin to see the effects of the loose monetary policy: a tremendous rise in inflation which can be accompanied by low economic growth or in other words stagflation.
The fear of stagflation arises from the fact that from all indications, growth will not strengthen anytime soon. It is quite clear now that the US and, to a large extent, the European consumers have been hit hard by the current crisis. There is also the possibility that another banking crisis may still ensue such as the commercial real-estate mortgage defaults and above all the repetition of currency crisis (1997 Asian Financial Crisis). Already we see that China, Japan, Korea and others are setting up a $120 billion currency defence fund to protect Asian currencies against speculative attacks.
The current economic crises have left many countries’ local banks with foreign currency loans that they find difficult to repay in that currency. This and the possibility of defaults have made these countries a good target for speculators. If such an attack starts, many countries will automatically have to devalue their currencies (even more than they already have) or try to defend their currencies. In either case this may trigger yet another crisis that may actually destroy a good portion of many economies around the world.
Even if we assume that no more nasty surprises will appear in the next two years and the economies stabilise, we are left with the reduced levels of consumption around the world, especially in major economies. As I have mentioned above, it is very clear that at least in US, the consumers are not going to recover anytime soon. I have also shown that the Chinese and Indian consumers cannot replace the US and European consumers. So there will be a dearth of market for the goods and services produced by others. In absence of the US, the question will be: which country or countries are able to increase demand to such a degree as to trigger a recovery; a recovery that most likely will be accompanied with high inflation.
In 2006, in the article “The Coming Financial Crises?,” I stated the following:
At the end of the WWII, 45 nations gathered at a United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to address the problems of reconstruction, monetary stability and exchange rates.
The delegates agreed to establish an international monetary system of convertible currencies, fixed exchange rates and free trade. To facilitate these objectives the delegates agreed to create two international institutes: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank). An initial loan of $250 million to France in 1947 was the World Bank’s first act.
Since then there has already been considerable criticism of the roles of IMF and the World Bank. The above mentioned problems and the ongoing trade imbalance in the world have to be addressed by a similar gathering. Sooner or later, both the United States and the rest of the world have to address the existing problems. These problems are not the United States’ alone. We cannot ignore the largest economy on earth. It is said that if United States sneezes, the world catches cold. We have to either make sure that the United States doesn’t catch cold or vaccinate ourselves against it.
I restate my earlier arguments: we need a new Bretton Woods agreement where we can address the existing problems and restructure the world’s economic system. If we don’t do this, and soon, we will face protectionism, low economic growth, and even trade wars. We have ignored this problem for a long time and are now paying the price. What would the price be if we continue to ignore the existing systemic problems?