Ten years after the Great Recession, nothing’s changed

A decade later, the crisis that threatened to take down the global financial order seems like a bad dream. Now it’s business as usual.

image: Alt-M

In Great Recession, banking institutions creaked and groaned under the weight of flawed investments. Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of a large U.S. investment management firm phoned his wife and asked her to withdraw as much money as she could from an ATM because he feared the banks wouldn’t open the next day. A hedge fund manager sent an email to a journalist during the meltdown saying: “It feels a little like the end of the world.”

But the problems have been fixed, haven’t they?  Yohann Koshy, editor for New Internationalist magazine, is not so sure:

“The world almost did end. And everything stayed the same. Time was borrowed in the form of nationalizations, cash injections and money-printing: space for the financial sector to breathe. But the air is getting thin again (July/August, 2018).”

How we got here.

We went from a stable financial period -one of the longest in centuries- to one designed to fail. The post-war era from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s brought prosperity to everyone: workers and employers alike.

This stable economic period was engineered by the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944 in which a system of monetary rules were applied to the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and Japan. A key feature of the agreement was a stable U.S. dollar to which many global currencies were pegged. The value of the dollar was linked to a quantity of gold held at Fort Knox.

“This ‘gold standard’ forced discipline on the financial system: it was much harder for banks to create credit out of thin air,” says Koshy.

Under Bretton Woods, money was tied to the value of gold and economies were tied to the goods they manufactured. The U.S., already tooled to produce military equipment, switched to produce the world’s goods.

The U.S. dollar became so popular as a global currency that not enough dollars could be printed. President Nixon ended the gold standard in 1971.

This ushered in the era of financialization. With the dollar having no tangible value, economies also became more abstract. Wall Street made money from the production of goods in other countries.

A recession was avoided in the 2000s by the lowering of interest rates. Financial institutions were awash in money and they invested it in exotic and dubious things like derivatives, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. And banks gave mortgages to people to buy houses that they couldn’t afford.

As the world staggered towards financial calamity in 2008, governments injected massive amounts of money into banks to cover their bad investments. Bailouts were given to the very perpetrators of the dubious investments. The chair of Goldman Saks announced that the biggest beneficiary was “Wall Street itself.”

Nothing has been fixed. What will happen the next time the system teeters towards calamity? “Whatever the answer,” says Koshy, “the blame must not be laid at the feet of the migrants, workers and the marginalized, but on those enabling, creating and profiting from a rapacious and crisis-prone financial system.”

As the air gets a little thin in the stratospheric world of finance, we can only hope that the wizards of exotic investments remember 2008.

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The rise and fall of globalization

As the sun sets on globalization, what will a new day bring? The new era will face challenges of rampant parochialism, environmental destruction, inequality and greed.

image: Timetoast.com

The dawn of globalization was unremarkable. Yanis Varoufakis, professor economics and former finance minister of Greece gives the date:

“On Aug. 15, 1971, then-president Richard Nixon announced the ejection of Europe and Japan from the dollar zone. Unnoticed by almost everyone, globalization was born on that summer day (Globe and Mail).”

Before Globalization, it was the dawning of a New Deal (1944). A clever plan, it gave America’s former enemies the resources to rebuild through arrangements such as the Marshall Plan. As an industrial power, the U.S. had shiny new things to sell; now Germany and Japan had money to buy them.

The New Deal ushered in a Golden Age of prosperity. Well-paying jobs, unionization, opportunity grew.  The middle class expanded and inequality shrank.

As a baby boomer, I remember that era. After I graduated from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Electronics, I had a choice of well-paying secure, jobs. After I quit one job and traveled around the world, I easily found another.

The era of globalization in the 1970s promised to reduce global poverty. Before it began to rot at its core, it blushed with ambition.

“Mr. Nixon’s decision was founded on the refreshing lack of deficit phobia particular to American decision-makers,” says Varoufakis. “Unwilling to rein in deficits by imposing austerity . . . Washington stepped on the gas to boost them.”

World-wide prosperity also produced global industrialization. Americans went into debt to buy exports from Germany, Japan and later, China. The American administration didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t care, that cheap global labour was at the heart of industrial decay at home. Why should they care when money was pouring into the U.S. as well as cheap goods?

The flow of global money into the U.S. seems counterintuitive. If Americans were buying global goods, it would seem that the money should be flowing the other way. The magic of Wall Street made it happen.

The deregulation of banks was a catalyst for the financial wizardry of Wall Street. Global investors were attracted by higher interest rates generated by mystical, incomprehensible, investment devices such as derivatives. A lot of the investments went into loans to home-owners who had no way of repaying them.

Then, in 2008, the rabbit no longer emerged from the magician’s hat and the whole financial edifice fell apart.

All that remains of the sad tatters of globalization is massive inequality and loss of jobs in the Western world. Most money sits idle in the hands of the rich while the poor struggle without. Varoufakis characterizes it:

“Its crisis is due to too much money in the wrong hands. Humanity’s accumulated savings per capita are at the highest level in history.”

As globalization sinks below the horizon, two options emerge. One is the walled-state proposed by President Trump and the Brexiters in the U.K. The other is a Universal New Deal that redistributes global wealth, creates new jobs, and lifts the burden of consumer debt.

If such a new deal seems unlikely, it’s worth remembering that the first New Deal and globalization were as well. And if we need an issue to rally around and mobilize action, as World War II once was, we need look no further than the biggest threat to humanity: climate change.