Tuesday, 30 August 2011

An Unholy Trinity

Few would disagree with the view that the economies of the world are in turmoil. The news this summer has been dominated by the twin sovereign debt crises of the Eurozone and the US. The case of Europe is well rehearsed. The Eurozone has become a monetary union without an effective mechanism to deliver fiscal co-ordination. As a result, the weaker economies have been allowed to borrow beyond a prudent level with very little adverse consequences. Equally, the Euro provided a vehicle whereby the stronger Eurozone economies could power ahead faster than they otherwise would have done. An imbalance was created between the stronger and weaker Eurozone economies that has now become unsustainable.
Equally, the US has had a poor year to date. The American recovery started to run out of steam in the spring, the second round of Quantitative Easing ended in the first half of the year, and the question of fiscal stimulus and Federal debt has come under the spotlight. The key fiscal issue was the raising of the Federal debt limit. Eventually, a temporary compromise solution was found, but the process of reaching this compromise has demonstrated the polarised nature of American politics and has weakened considerably the position of President Obama. It was for this reason that the US credit rating was downgraded from AAA to AA+.
It could be argued that both of these crises have been exacerbated by weak political systems, and that political reform needs to underpin any effective recovery strategy. This is what we know about already. It has our attention. As a futurist, however, I am intrigued and concerned by what I don’t know. What are the factors that we are overlooking and which may appear important in the future? There are two other major issues that have attracted far less attention – mainly because they are a lot less pressing at the moment – the financial position of the US States and the fragility of the Asian banking system.
Our focus in North America this year has been with the US Federal debt. Another sovereign debt crisis currently developing concerns the finances of the US States. The position of the States reflects the Federal position in that effective deficit reduction is blocked by special interest groups, who obstruct both spending reductions and tax increases. As a result, the levels of State debt have risen considerably in recent years. This is fine, as long as lenders are willing to finance the deficit spending. If the reserve currency status of the US Dollar is weakened, then an immediate impact for the US States is likely to be an increase in the cost of borrowing and a greater unwillingness to lend to them. If the weaker US States were to experience probing by the markets at the levels that the weaker Eurozone nations have experienced this year, then it is likely that the consequences would result in a significant disruption to the US financial system. This vulnerability and the risk of the downside has not been factored into many current economic forecasts. It is possible that US Federal debt could be downgraded even further because of the parlous condition of State finances.
There are those who take the view that the emerging Asian economies – especially that of China - might prove to be the salvation of Europe and America. The size of trade deficits between China and both the Eurozone and the US rather argues against this case. Hopes for an export led recovery in Europe and the US both require an appreciation of the Chinese currency. This has happened to a certain extent – mainly as a device for the Chinese government to keep inflation in check – but nowhere near the degree needed to do the job effectively. The Chinese government continues to manage the exchange rate in a way that minimises the possibility of internal unrest rather than to alleviate recessionary conditions in Europe and North America. This is not set to change.
Monetary conditions within China now require a tightening. Effective action will take a great degree of finesse. The exact quantity of non-performing loans in the Chinese monetary system is unknown, but is thought to be much higher than in Europe, the US, and even Japan. Some estimates suggest that the degree of non-performing loans could be as high as a third of the assets on the balance sheets of Chinese banks. If the monetary authorities tighten too hard, this could expose the volume of these non-performing loans at exactly the wrong time, triggering a Chinese banking crisis. If the monetary authorities are lax in their tightening, then they might not deal effectively with the inflation that is weakening the Chinese banking system in any case. In either situation, a wobble in the Chinese banking system would have major global consequences. The risk of an event of this type has not been factored into many economic forecasts, which assumes ‘business as usual’ in China.
We are of the view that there are three systemic weaknesses in the global monetary system at present – in the Eurozone there is the possibility of disintegration, in the US there is the risk of ineffective debt reduction programmes at both the State and Federal level, and in Asia there is the risk of financial implosion caused by non-performing loans within the financial system. Together, they provide an ‘Unholy Trinity’ of problems facing the world economy. Their resolution requires a degree of political leadership that doesn’t appear evident at the moment, and a degree of consensus building at both the national and international level. To date, that co-operation has been lacking as the various parties have been unwilling to lay aside their narrow interests for a greater common good. For that reason, we are of the opinion that the current economic outlook is likely to be a lot rougher than it otherwise needs to be.
© The European Futures Observatory 2011

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