The G-20 met last Saturday. Afterward, the group issued a meaningless statement and decided to meet again in March 2009, or perhaps later. Clearly, the urgency of October is gone. First, the perception of imminent collapse is past. Politicians are superb seismographs for detecting impending disaster, and these politicians did not act as if they were running out of time. Second, the
Given the sense in Europe that this financial crisis marked the end of
From Financial Crisis to Cyclical Recession
The financial crisis has been mitigated, if not solved. The problem now is that we are in a cyclical recession, and that every country is trying to figure out how to cope with the recession. Unlike the past two recessions, this one is more global than local. But unlike the 1970s, when recession was global, this one is not accompanied by soaring inflation and interest rates.
All recessions have different dynamics, but all have one thing in common: They impose punishment and discipline on economies run wild. This is happening around the world.
If the world were all about economics, culling is what the Chinese would do. But the world is more complex than that. A culling would lead to massive unemployment. Many Chinese employees live on
Economic Restructuring vs. Stability
The Chinese have therefore prepared a massive stimulus package that is more of a development program to make up for declining
This is not only a Chinese problem. Wherever there is an economic downturn, politicians must decide whether society — and their own political futures — can withstand the rigors recessions impose. Recessions occur when, as is inevitable, inefficiencies and irrationalities build up in the financial and economic system. The resulting economic downturn imposes a harsh discipline that destroys the inefficient, encourages everyone to become more efficient, and opens the doors to new businesses using new technologies and business models. The year 2001 smashed the technology sector in the
The business cycle works well, but the human costs can be daunting. The collapse of inefficient businesses leaves workers without jobs, investors without money and society less stable than before. The pain needed to rectify
Every country in the world is looking inward at the impact of the recession on its economy and measuring its resources. Countries are deciding whether they have the ability to prop up business that should fail, what the social consequences of business failure would be, and whether they should try to use their resources to avoid the immediate pain of recession. This is why the G-20 ended in meaningless platitudes.
Each country is also trying to answer the question of how much pain it — and its regime — can endure. The more pain imposed, the healthier countries will emerge economically — unless of course the pain kills them. Ultimately, the rationality of economics and the reality of society frequently diverge.
Recession and the
There can be endless discussions of why the
This is what recessions are supposed to do. As in
That sounds easy, but the transition actually will be a bloodletting. Current employees of both the automakers and suppliers will be devastated. Institutions that have lent money to the automakers will suffer massive or total losses. Pensioners might lose pensions and health care benefits, and an entire region of the
Here the economic answer, cull, meets the social answer, stabilize. Policymakers have a decision to make. If the automakers fail now, their drain on the economy will end; the pain will be shorter, if more intense; and new industries would emerge more quickly. But though their drain on the economy would end, the impact of the automakers’ failure on the economy would be seismic. Unemployment would surge, as would bankruptcies of many auto suppliers. Defaults on loans would hit the credit markets. In the
The Recession in Context
The people arguing for postponement aren’t foolish. The financial system is still working its way through a massive crisis that had little to do with the auto industry. Some traction appears to be occurring; certainly there was no crisis atmosphere at the G-20 meeting. The economy is in recession, but in spite of the inevitable claims that we have never seen anything like this one before, we have. There is always some variable that swings to an extreme — this time, it is consumer spending — but we are still well within the framework of recent recessions.
Consider the equity markets, which we regard as a long-term measure of the market’s evaluation of the state of the economy. In January 2000, the S&P 500 peaked at 1,455. This was the top of the market. In July 2002, 18 months later, the S&P bottomed out at 935. Over the next five years it rose to 1,519 in July 2007, the height for this cycle. It fell from this point until Nov. 12, 2008, when it closed at 852.30. This past Friday, it was at 873.29.
We do not know what the market will do in the future. There are people much smarter than we are who claim to know that. What we do know is what it has done. And what it has done this time — so far — is almost exactly what it did last time, except that in 2000-2002 it took 18 months to do it, while this time it was done in about 16 and a half months (assuming it bottomed out Nov. 12). But even if the market didn’t bottom out then, and it falls to 775, for example, it will have lost 50 percent of its value from the peak. This would be more than in 2000-2002, but not unprecedented.
The point we are making here is that if we regard the equity markets as a long-term seismograph of the economy, then so far, despite all the storm and stress, the markets — and therefore the economy — remain within the general pattern of the 2000-2002 market at the 2001 recession. That recession certainly was unpleasant, what with the devastation of the tech sector, but the economy survived. At the same time, however, it is clear that things are balanced on a knife’s edge. Another hundred points’ fall on the S&P, and the markets will be telling us that the world is in a very different place indeed.
A massive bankruptcy in the automotive sector could certainly set the stage for an economic renaissance in the next generation. But at this particular moment in time (it’s no coincidence that the crisis in the
There is a powerful counterargument to bailing out the
The only possible solution would be a bailout followed by a Washington-administered restructuring of the auto industry. This causes us to imagine a collaboration between the auto industry’s current management and Washington administrators that would finally put
The geopolitical problem confronting the world at the moment is that it has been forced to offer massive support to the global financial system with sovereign wealth — e.g., via taxes and currency printing presses. The world might just have squeaked through that crisis. Now, the world is in an inevitable recession and businesses are on the brink of failure. A wave of massive business failures on top of the financial crisis might well move the global system to a very different place. Therefore, each nation, by itself and indifferent to others, is in the process of figuring out how to postpone these failures to a more opportune time — or to never. This will build in long-term inefficiencies to the global economy, but right now everyone will be quite content with that.
Thus the financial crisis became a recession, and the recession triggered bankruptcies. And because no one wants bankruptcies right now, everyone who can is using taxpayer dollars to protect the taxpayer from the consequences of mismanagement. And the last thing any one cared about was the G-20 concept for the future of the economic system.