Did we miss a trick? June 2, 2010 at 6:06 am
Larry Elliott has a thought provoking article in today’s Guardian. He quotes Roubini, who says
… that it is precisely because the downturn has been handled more deftly this time that the impetus for deep, structural reform has faltered. “Had policymakers failed to arrest the crisis, as they failed during the Depression, the calls for reform today would be deafening: there’s nothing like ubiquitous breadlines and 25% unemployment to focus the minds of legislators.”
But, thankfully, policymakers did avoid most of the mistakes of the 1930s and we are where we are. In the circumstances, what the future holds is either full-blown recovery courtesy of the breathing space provided by central banks and finance ministries; another crash preceded by what the late socialist thinker Chris Harman described as “zombie capitalism”; or reform and renewal.
Full recovery would mean that the global economy could continue to prosper even when governments withdraw the support provided by low interest rates, tax cuts and higher public spending. That looks improbable, particularly since there is likely to be a simultaneous tightening of fiscal policy in many countries.
Zombie capitalism is where governments continue to buy up worthless paper from banks, where fundamentally insolvent institutions are kept alive for fear that their failure would cause systemic risk, where every country tries to export its way out of trouble, where the shrinkage of the financial sector depresses growth rates, and where the global imbalances between surplus and deficit countries remain worryingly large. That looks a more likely option.
What, then, are the prospects for reform and renewal? At the very least, this route is likely to be long, hard and strewn with setbacks. It may not be chosen … until there is system failure.
This is an interesting thesis. I don’t wholly buy it, but the idea that precisely by doing enough to fix the immediate problem, but not enough to address its causes, we have left ourselves exposed to a Japanese style slow, shallow but long lasting recession is interesting. Certainly by missing the chance to nationalise the worst affected parties, such as RBS, we also lost the opportunity to restructure banking broadly. It might well turn out that that ideologically-motivated decision was a bad one. That won’t be clear for some years, and it may well be that the summer 2010 panic is minor. But if it isn’t, we will be criticising 2008’s crisis management for some time.