Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Crying Wolf?

Market volatility, especially in equities and currencies, has once again become an issue. Questions over the stability of the Eurozone come on top of indications that the Chinese economy may be overheating. The sabre rattling by North Korea has only added to the sense of unease.

To an extent I see a certain folk memory of the Great Depression driving this unease. After the Wall St crash of 1929, a short term stability was restored, but over the next two years the original liquidity crisis, caused by so much stock being bought on margin, became a solvency crisis, as those wiped out in the crash gradually "restructured". In May 1931 the Austrian bank, Creditanstalt went bankrupt, and the crisis which had begun on Wall St. began to destroy the global banking system.

The current policy makers, led by Ben Bernanke, are close students of the history of the Great Depression. This is why they have been so aggressive in injecting liquidity and solvency where they think it is most needed.

The problem is that this has only moved the problem, not solved it.

Now governments will have to pick up the large bill for bank rescue, and the price of that is that they are being scrutinised more closely than ever. There is only so much demand for government bonds, and in the end governments too must live within their means, at least over the longer term. Whereas in the 1930s governments instituted a "beggar thy neighbour" policy: trade restrictions and high tariffs, now governments know that such protectionism does not work. The result is that they have to make cuts in their own expenditure: you might call it a "beggar thyself" policy.

In the end until the relative position between debt and the total size of the economy is controlled, then governments flirt with a meltdown in confidence. It is not so much what the governments actually do, but what they are expected to do, that is important. Thus both the UK and Germany are announcing dramatic cuts in expenditure. Given the fact that there have been some substantial revisions in the UK debt number which puts the country in a much better position, the cuts now announced may look a little swingeing. Nevertheless this is not about the detail: it is about trust and confidence. If the markets believe that the government can address the deficit in an orderly way, then they will retain their confidence in the system.

It is to the audience in the global markets that the coalition is addressing itself: and the rest of us will just have to be patient- and prudent.


Caron said...

It's always seemed to me to be a very strange way to run an economy, to rely on whether men in suits are feeling confident or not.

agentmancuso said...

but that's exactly the problem: men in suits don't run the economy. (Nor do ladies in twin-sets, for the record). They only tinker with the edges of the economy, and a very good thing too, because the more they try to run it, the bigger the mess they make.
The economy is not an entity in its own right, but the material expression of a myriad of of individual decisions and actions, many of which will be influenced by precisely such non-rational factors as 'confidence'.

Newmania said...

Balanced and wise although I think calling cuts announced thus far 'swingeing' is a bit strong .They are not far from the minimum required to show any intention of balancing and may dangerously miss the political moment.
Frankly as spending has increased by 55% in real terms we are only talking about a return to a few years ago levels which were fine
Fuss about nothing IMHO .
I like your emphasis on free trade fiscal conservatism and you have got the key point right . Retrenchment is about political stability not money .

You wonder just how prosperous this country might have been if it had stuck to these sound principles ...what a waste and who pays ? ... Who always pays , the poorest