The Shifts and the Shocks

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Martin Wolf. The Shifts and the Shocks: What we’ve learned–and have still to learn–from the financial crisis. London: Penguin, 2014.

British economic journalist Martin Wolf provides a comprehensive account of the global financial crisis and its aftermath. The story unfolds slowly and covers a lot of ground, so the reader needs to read the entire book carefully to get the full picture.

Wolf’s own policy perspective is fairly moderate. He supported much of the economic liberalization and limitation of state power under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but he now believes that liberalization got out of hand and became a major cause of the financial crisis. “The financial driven capitalism that emerged after the market-oriented counter-revolution has proved too much of a good thing. That is what I have learned from the crisis.” He also faults naïve economists for exaggerating the efficiency of free markets and overlooking the signs of increasing instability, thus condoning the risky behaviors that led up to the financial meltdown.

The title of the book refers to Wolf’s distinction between the underlying shifts in the global economy that made financial markets less stable, and the actual financial shocks that caused a sharp contraction of economic activity and created a need for government intervention. In organizing the book, Wolf chose to cover the shocks in Part I and the shifts in Part II. I thought that made the book’s argument harder to follow, reversing the chronological order of events and putting the financial cart before the economic horse that was pulling it. Wolf describes the financial crisis in Chapter 1, but doesn’t discuss the reasons for financial instability until Chapter 4. He only sets the scene briefly by describing four features of an ultimately unsustainable global situation: “huge balance-of-payments imbalances; a surge in house prices and house building in a number of high-income countries, notably the US; rapid growth in the scale and profitability of a liberalized financial sector; and soaring private debt in a number of high-income countries, notably the US, but also the UK and Spain.”

When investors lost confidence in the value of the loans they had made and the assets they had helped inflate, major investment banks failed and credit dried up. That forced governments to intervene, very likely bringing to an end the era of financial liberalization. The US government took over the biggest mortgage lenders, injected capital into failing businesses, lent money to banks at zero or near-zero interest rates, and held down longer-term rates by purchasing private bonds.

Post-crisis recovery and its limitations

Judging from the size of the banks that failed, the financial crisis was even worse than the crash of 1929, but the rapid policy response kept the economic situation from becoming as bad as the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the success of the recovery has been limited by the failure of government to be even more aggressive. Wolf’s verdict is that it rescued the world economy “fairly successfully, but not successfully enough, largely because the fiscal stimulus was both too small and prematurely abandoned.”

The post-crisis recovery has been weak for many reasons: Borrowers reduced borrowing and spending and turned to paying down debt. Investors also pulled back as a reaction against previous overinvestment, especially in housing that buyers couldn’t really afford. Financial institutions became more reluctant to lend, and borrowers could no longer count on inflation to increase the price of their assets while reducing the real value of their debts. The result was a general state of economic “malaise” in which low consumer demand and low investment reinforced each other.

Wolf also discusses “sectoral balances,” the balance of income and spending within the household, corporate, government and foreign sectors of economic activity. When US households and corporations reduced spending and started generating large surpluses, the economy required deficit spending by government to avoid protracted recession. This turned on its head the old idea that government spending crowds out private spending by borrowing money that could be put to better use by business. With the central bank lending money for practically nothing and corporations failing to invest much of it anyway, Wolf argues that “the private-sector cutbacks crowded in the fiscal deficit.” He believes that if the government had followed the advice of conservatives and slashed the deficit, that would have caused an economic depression.

Nevertheless, world economic leaders became so concerned about fiscal deficits that they pledged to cut them in half at the Toronto Summit of 2010. In the US, ideological opposition to government intervention remained strong, heightened by Republican opposition to the Obama presidency:

In the US, for both electoral and ideological reasons, the Republican Party was irrevocably opposed to the idea that the government could do anything useful about the economy except by leaving it alone, and so could not tolerate the possibility that the Obama administration might prove the opposite in the aftermath of the biggest economic crisis for eighty years. It therefore dedicated itself in Congress to preventing the administration from doing anything that might improve economic performance.

The crisis in the Eurozone

While the United States was starting to recover from the financial crisis, “the epicenter of the crisis moved inside the Eurozone, where it subsequently remained.” The contraction of credit exposed weaknesses in European national economies that had been masked by the adoption of a common currency.

When each nation has its own currency, the strength of that currency can reflect the competitiveness of its economy. Weak demand for its products on world markets will usually weaken demand for its currency, and the low buying power of its currency should keep it from buying more than it produces and trades. Investors from stronger economies can lend to weaker ones, but usually at high interest rates to reward lenders for taking more risk. The common European currency papered over these national differences and encouraged an excessive flow of goods and credit from the stronger economies, especially Germany, to the weaker economies of Southern Europe, such as Spain. The fiction that every euro was worth the same made it too easy for the Spanish, Greeks, Italians and others to borrow from German banks and buy German goods. The various economies appeared to be thriving together, but only until the end of the credit boom brought the game to an end.

The credit crunch put the poorer countries in the position of either defaulting on their debts or adopting austerity measures that threw their economies into recession:

Given their difficulty in borrowing and their lack of access to central-bank financing, the crisis-hit countries could not offset these deep recessions, indeed true depressions, with fiscal or monetary stimulus, at least without external support. That was not to be forthcoming on any significant scale. This was partly because Germany, supported by other creditor countries and the European Commission, argued that necessary structural reforms would not occur without remorseless economic pressure and, for that reason, regarded greater external support as counter-productive.

Wolf criticizes Germany for refusing to accept any responsibility for the crisis:

Germany’s focus on the alleged fiscal crimes of countries now in crisis was an effort at self-exculpation: as the Eurozone’s largest supplier of surplus capital, its private sector bore substantial responsibility for the excesses that led to the crisis. As Bagehot indicates, excess borrowing by fools would have been impossible without excess lending by fools: creditors and debtors are joined at the hip. A country that chooses to run current-account surpluses, indeed, one that has built its economy around generating improved competitiveness and increased external surpluses, has to finance the counterpart deficits and must, accordingly, bear responsibility for the wastage of funds.

Wolf thinks it is misleading to blame the European economic crisis on government deficits in particular. What the troubled economies had in common before the crisis were not government deficits but balance-of-trade deficits, which were a consequence of policies in both creditor and debtor countries. After the crisis, private spending declined, but government deficits increased due to falling tax revenues and counter-recessionary spending. Fiscal austerity alone, without any other economic reforms, is a recipe for continued recession.

Emerging economies

Emerging economies in Asia and Latin America generally grew at a faster rate both before and after the financial crisis. Most of them managed to avoid credit booms that would leave them as heavily indebted as the United States or Southern European countries. On the contrary, some of them, especially China, ran large surpluses by exporting more than they imported and investing heavily in other countries. Although this has been a successful growth strategy in the short run, Wolf questions its sustainability. Again, if countries like Germany and China run surpluses, others must run deficits; and if too many countries embrace austerity at the same time, global output must fall. Like Michael Pettis, Wolf thinks it is silly to treat austerity and lending as moral goods, while treating spending and borrowing as moral evils. At the macroeconomic level, the problem is finding a balance, for example by having creditor countries increase domestic demand and debtor countries increase their exports.

My next post will deal with the global economic shifts to which Wolf attributes the financial crisis in the first place.


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