2011 – year of the economic firestorm
In this grave crisis, the world’s leaders are terrifyingly out of their depth
By Peter Oborne
Ineffectual: an emergency telephone conference among the G7 finance ministers feels as relevant as a Bourbon family get-together in the summer of 1789
Certain years have gone down in history as great global turning points, after which nothing was remotely the same: 1914, 1929, 1939, 1989. Now it looks horribly plausible that 2011 will join their number. The very grave financial crisis that has hung over Europe ever since the banking collapse of three years ago has taken a sinister turn, with the most dreadful and sobering consequences for those of us who live in European democracies.
The events of the past few days have been momentous: the eurozone sovereign debt crisis has escaped from the peripheries and spread to Italy and Spain; parts of the European banking system have frozen up; US Treasuries have been stripped of their AAA rating, which may be the beginning of a process that leads to the loss of the dollar’s vital status as the world’s reserve currency.
There have been warnings that we may be in for a repeat of the calamitous events of 2008. The truth, however, is that the situation is potentially much bleaker even than in those desperate days after the closure of Lehman Brothers. Back then, policy-makers had at their disposal a whole range of powerful tools to remedy the situation which are simply not available today.
First of all, the 2008 crisis struck at the ideal stage of an economic cycle. Interest rates were comparatively high, both in Europe and the United States. This meant that central banks were in a position to avert disaster by slashing the cost of borrowing. Today, rates are still at rock bottom, so that option is no longer available.
Second, the global situation was far more advantageous three years ago. One key reason why Western economies appeared to recover so fast was that China responded with a substantial economic boost. Today, China, plagued by high inflation as a result of this timely intervention, is in no position to stretch out a helping hand.
But it is the final difference that is the most alarming. Back in 2008, national balance sheets were in reasonable shape. In Britain, for example, state debt (according to the official figures, which were, admittedly, highly suspect) stood at around 40 per cent of GDP. This meant that we had the balance sheet strength to step into the markets and bail out failed banks. Partly as a result, national debt has now surged past the 60 per cent mark, meaning that it is impossible for the British government to perform the same rescue operation without risking bankruptcy. Many other Western democracies face the same problem.