After months of confusion, we are about to close a painful chapter in the economic crisis of 2008-2009. With the imminent passage of the $800 billion stimulus package combined with the roll-out of the next stages of the government-orchestrated bank bailout and recapitalization, we are about to end the talking phase and enter the doing phase. While no one can say for sure whether these plans will work, it’s certain that they will have an effect.
Each month, the Federal Reserve releases its latest minutes of its last meeting along with its projections of economic activity (www.federalreserve.gov). The minutes just released indicate that its prior forecasts have been tweaked a bit, with update projections for unemployment over the next two years, GDP growth, and inflation. As new data become available, the hundreds of economists at the Fed revise and recalculate numbers, which means that any forecast rarely lasts more than a few months.
The media is abuzz with the news that the former head of McKinsey consulting, Goldman Sachs director and current board member of Proctor & Gamble Rajat Gupta has been charged with insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He is now the highest-profile individual to be implicated in the widespread investigation driven by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara that has already ensnared dozens of lower-level traders and Raj Rajaratnam, former head of hedge fund Galleon.
So Hu came to Washington, met with some CEOs, had a nice dinner and a 21-gun salute, and opened the Chinese purse to the tune of $45 billion in new business between China and the United States. The buzz was mostly positive, and the billions didn’t hurt. But it’s safe to say that most Americans are hardening into a view of China as a hostile competitive threat, and many Chinese have concluded that while the 20th century may have belonged to the United States, the 21st belongs to them.
Over the next two weeks, Cancun will be in the spotlight for something other than spring break madness. As host of the annual climate summit that once saw such promise in Kyoto in 1997, Cancun in 2010 is framed by the spectacular failure of last year’s Copenhagen talks and by the stark realization that nearly 200 nations simply cannot agree on anything of consequence.
The economy continues to limp along, and from the debate in this U.S. election season, it seems as though the path to restoring economic vitality is terra incognita. Over the past generation, economic advances have been jump started by fundamental changes: first, globalization, and then the rise of the internet economy.
So bipartisanship isn’t dead. By a vote of 348-79, Democrats and Republicans alike put aside their acrimonious differences and agreed, at least for a moment, to stop blaming each other for the sad state of American economic life. Instead, they agreed to blame China.
The Greek debt crisis finally spilled over in full force to U.S. markets, aided and abetted by extreme statements emanating from such esteemed and prominent voices as Muhammed El-Erian of the large bond investor Pimco, who warned that Greece could be just the beginning of sovereign debt catastrophes. In the space of minutes, the major U.S. indices plunged more than 10%, fueled by the same programmatic electronic trades that were part of the battering in late 2008 into 2009. And then in the space of 15 minutes, they recovered, without — it’s fair to say — much human decision-making during that interval (and if an individual even tried trading during those 30 minutes, they would have found it difficult or impossible, as web sites such as schwab.com were completely overwhelmed with traffic).
Last week, I published an essay in Time magazine about debt, arguing that our current preoccupation with the federal deficit and with debt in general is a dangerous distraction from the real issue (namely, our inability to invest and spend wisely to create the economy of the future). The problem isn’t debt per se - after all, the U.S. government took on much more debt during and after World War II, and few would argue that was bad policy or led to disaster. The problem is that we aren’t spending our debt productively; instead, we’re frittering it away on consumption, tax rebates, military budgets to pay for Cold War-era weapons systems, pork projects, or other forms of spending that will not yield returns in the future.
In his current Asian trip, President Obama visits Japan, then addresses a forum of leaders in Singapore, and eventually ends up in Seoul to discuss nukes and North Korea. But make no mistake, the axis of this week is the time Obama will spend in China, which has catapulted to the forefront of international affairs and is on its way to joining the United States as the alpha and omega of the global economic system.
While Washington is glued to the drama over health care, over the past few days, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been in Beijing meeting with Chinese leaders including Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao. In a series of communiqués, they celebrated the “strategic partnership” between the two countries and charted a course of future close relations.
The economic relationship between China and the United States is the defining issue of our day. While debates over health care are vital to American society, and while challenges ranging from Iran to Afghanistan to North Korea are real, nothing will determine the arc of the coming decades — or will shape domestic life and prosperity in the United States — more than the emergence of China as a global economic superpower unrivaled except by America.
For years, Americans have been fulminating about China and its policy toward currency. While many of the debates are technical and laden with econo-speak, they boil down to the simple conviction that China is unfairly manipulating its currency to keep it undervalued against the dollar. The result is to give China unfair advantages in trade - flooding the US with cheap goods, hurting labor wages world-wide, and accumulating massive surpluses in the process.
With Wall Street — and the Federal Reserve — in a headlong rush to declare the recession over, the economic data has indicated that the simple binary recession/no recession framework obscures more than it reveals. Yes, defined purely in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the recession looks to be winding down, with strong indications that GDP is about to turn positive after a long and painful swoon.
As the United States and China wrap up their two-day “Strategic and Economic Dialogue,” it’s more apparent than ever that the two find themselves in a marriage that neither can easily dissolve and that neither fully wants.
So the United States lost to Brazil in the final of the FIFA Confederations cup, in that thrilling but painful tale of two halves, with the U.S. up 2-0 only to see Brazil roar back (or rather dance and prance and glide with balletic ferocity) and win 3-2. All I can say is, thank god.
President Obama’s speech in Cairo last week as well as the candid and heated debates in Iran during its contentious presidential election provide yet another opportunity to revisit the sterile images of Islam that dominate the discussion both in the West and throughout the Muslim world as well. That discussion is framed by Muslim terrorists or extremists on the one hand squaring off against secular but resentful populations on the other. That is one facet of a kaleidoscope, a potent one but in no way the only one.
The financial markets are again getting pummeled, both domestically and globally; the nearly $800 billion stimulus package signed with fanfare by President Obama has done little to alter the mood. In fact, if you read through financial websites and assorted blogs on politics, economics, or anything related to those, you will find a nearly endless sea of misery. The level of anger, pessimism, despair, and sheer hopelessness seems to reach new peaks every week, in inverse relation to the movement of global equity prices and the size of individual retirement accounts.
As Wall Street continues its slow-motion hari kari, tens of millions of people on the lower-end of the income spectrum are finding that their access to credit is becoming all but nonexistent. As banks set aside ever more cash to cover themselves against potential future losses, the credit spigot that flowed so promiscuously to riskier customers is now not flowing at all.
If you were not one of the 2 million people watching the inauguration on the Mall in Washington, you could watch the spectacle on any number of television channels. Flipping between ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS would have yielded different commentary but largely the same mood: euphoria, awe at the magnitude of electing the first African-American president, and somber urgency about what confronts our financial system and the world. Yet, even as Obama warned of a difficult road, the crowds were wildly enthusiastic, and millions were moved. Main Street has turned a corner.
The current economic crisis has claimed many victims, but what has changed most is the way that the United States is viewed, perhaps permanently. That isn’t ideology; it isn’t declinism; it’s a fact. For all the talk in past year about the shifting balance of power globally, until now it has been just that — talk. Saying that the emerging world of China, India, Brazil and the rest have assumed a new place is like saying that a new army is well-equipped with sharp uniforms and cutting-edge weapons. That doesn’t mean it can fight. Until tested in battle, it’s just a guess. The economic crisis of the past two months has been such a test, and the results are clear: talk of the emerging world as the wave of the future isn’t just speculation; it’s a permanent reality.
So here we are once again on the precipice, at least in terms of global stock markets and credit markets. Another bout of nail-biting panic is hardly unexpected, though it’s always surprising when otherwise sane people veer sharply into hysteria. It’s a good, albeit painful, reminder that the bonds of what we call civilization are always more tenuous than we would like to believe, that things like “value” and “worth” and “the economy” are ultimately the products of human beings simply agreeing on a set of rules. Stocks, bonds, gold, silver, none have any intrinsic value, nor do Gucci handbags, Deere lawnmowers, and GM trucks (in case anyone was wondering about that one). We act as if they do, because it gives us some sense of an orderly world, and because the alternative is just too unsettling to live with on a daily basis.
So the G20 met over the weekend, and if there was any doubt before, there should be none now: the financial balance of power is shifting. China, Brazil, even Japan can all claim more sound economies than the United States, and they collectively let it be known that they would no longer take marching orders from the Washington consensus. They expect a voice, and they are not asking permission.
Everyday, my mailbox gets inundated with reports from strategists and economists. Two years ago, most were predicting a fairly rosy scenario for the global economy - and to be fair, so was I. Today, most are predicting a dire future of negative growth and economies mired in a deep and intractable recession. The predictions of the past were mostly wrong; there is little reason to believe that today’s forecasts will be much better.
We are now in the season of scapegoats. The brays for justice and villains grow daily, and this week has seen a walk of shame as various participants in the credit debacle sit in front of Congress to be scolded and upbraided for their sins. Many of the goats today, and none more than former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, were heroes only a short while ago - yet another vivid illustration of the ancient words of the mythical king Croesus: “Count no man happy till he’s dead,” or to put it another way, “it ain’t over till it’s over.”
As of today, the global financial system is gripped by panic. In the past two weeks since the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the fear and chaos have accelerated dramatically, and the failure of Congress to pass its proposed $700 bailout bill on Monday unleashed a new wave of panic. That is the situation we find ourselves in now, with safe havens almost non-existent save for those betting against the market completely, or who have retreated to cash. Relief rallies notwithstanding, this is a market in the grip of animal spirits, and the stampede is heading for the exits.
The near-miss of Gustav and the laughable (but effective) spin of the Republicans to foreswear politics and put on their “American hats” means that we can now resume watching our regularly scheduled show of politics. Obama’s acceptance speech last week was long on pocketbook issues, and short on foreign policy, and McCain will need to do the same. Indeed, his pick of Palin — who has zero foreign policy experience — highlights that this election is revolving around economic issues.
A rousing speech from Michelle Obama and we’re off. With the conventions in full-bloom, we will be treated to two weeks of constant coverage. In fact, with 4,000 delegates at the Democratic Convention and 15,000 members of the media, the convention in Denver is as much a media event as a political one — and that may be an understatement. The same will be true when the Republicans gather next week in Minneapolis-St. Paul. With every aspect of the agenda meticulously scripted in advance, the only drama will be scripted and produced, not spontaneous, and there will be as many surprises as there were at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing: none
The recent polls showing a dead-heat race between Obama and McCain also indicate that economic issues are the single most important concern for voters, by far. And few people seem to feel that either candidate is doing much to address the underlying problems.
The purchase of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America and the bankruptcy and collapse of Lehman Brothers are the latest — albeit most dramatic - installments of the ongoing credit crisis that began last August 2007. The bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the fire-sale purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase in March were also greeted with fear and dread, and if the past is any guide (which, by the by, it may not be), today will not be the final chapter.
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