Thursday, 15 December 2011

A Happy New Year? Not Likely!

This is the time of year when pundits pull out their reviews of the year past and their appraisals of the year to come. Normally I find that sort of exercise uninteresting. 2012, however is something of an exception. Many of us are aware that an old Mayan Calendar seemed to indicate the end of the world in 2012. We have very little truck with this, but we are aware of a number of fundamental changes that are likely to come to a head in 2012. As always, the story about the future has its roots in the recent past.

Many observers have failed to notice that a new Credit Crunch - CC2.0, if you like – has started. It originated in Europe in July 2011, and has been progressively worsening over the course of the autumn. The cost of inter-bank lending has quintupled between July and December 2011, and has reached a point where European banks are starting to cease lending to each other. The main impact, so far, has been felt at the more peripheral edges of the EU. Whereas, for example, five years ago it was common for Hungarian households to take out a Euro denominated mortgage from an Austrian bank, nowadays that avenue of finance has dried up. Whilst this creates a precarious position, given a high degree of skill on the part of the monetary authorities, it ought not to have tragic consequences.

What would really start things moving would be a run on a bank. Looking at the fragility of the global banking system, a number of weak spots do stand out. For example, the Cypriot banking system is in an exceptionally precarious position. Between 2008 and 2011, Cypriot banks took deposits from the Black Sea Basin that are over five times the Cypriot GDP. This money was then, by and large, invested in Greek Sovereign Debt (Cyprus has an exposure to Greek Sovereign Debt amounting to 160% of GDP). If we take a probabilistic view of the CDS market, then we can arrive at the conclusion that the markets are factoring in a 100% chance of a Greek default within the next five years. Should those depositors from the Black Sea Basin take fright at that prospect and withdraw their funds from Cyprus, it is hard to see how the Cypriot financial system would survive. This, or a number of similar situations, would then provide a test of credibility for the European Central Bank.

To date, the ECB has struggled in its role. We are of the opinion that tightening monetary policy early in 2011, and then having to loosen it again later in the year, was ill considered. The problem is that the political constraints placed upon the ECB prevent it from acting as a central bank. It isn’t able to act as a lender of the last resort and it doesn’t have the capacity to raise adequate funds in the currency that it is supposed to govern. In all fairness, this is partly a consequence of a lack of fiscal cohesion within the Eurozone rather than an inherent fault with the ECB. Nonetheless, it means that, should pressure be placed upon liquidity within the Eurozone, it does not have the capacity to adequately deal with the problem. If the ECB were to seek to deal with a liquidity crisis through a bout of Quantitative Easing (which, constitutionally it has ruled out), we calculate that it would now need access to about €1.5 trillion to €2.0 trillion. The funds that it currently has (about €0.5 trillion) are not sufficient to do the job.

It is easy in the UK to adopt a certain Schadenfreude about the situation in Europe, but a few moments contemplation of the second and third order effects of a European liquidity crisis soon takes the smile off our face. The UK banks have collectively lent German and French banks €1 trillion, who have then lent that money forward to the peripheral sovereigns – mainly Italy and Greece. A similar situation applies to the US banking sector (although American banks have been pulling back from Europe late in 2011), who in turn have received much of their liquidity from the Far East. The world is still as interconnected as it was in 2008 and the transmission of pain will be equally as quick.

Our opening position for 2012 is not a good one at all. It is entirely possible that a miracle will occur – that governments which have recently been acting in a self-centred and narrow minded way will suddenly see the case for co-operation and generosity as a way out of the current mess – but we will assume that the national interests will still prevail and that co-operation will remain limited. That acts to draw up a bleak picture for 2012. We have an extremely fragile monetary system, most fiscal systems are over-stretched, and growth is virtually absent within the world economy. Some may point to the Far East – particularly China – as a source of vitality, but we are of a different opinion. The prospect for growth in China is likely to fall below the threshold needed to maintain internal order, and, with a change in government scheduled for 2012, this may top the Chinese agenda for much of the year. To make matters worse, there are early signs that the Chinese property bubble is bursting. If that were to be the case in any significant way, then Europe would not be the only source of monetary contagion in the global monetary system in 2012.

It would be foolhardy for us to suggest exactly how things are likely to turn out in 2012 because there are so many variable factors that could have a large impact on the year. We could almost characterise 2012 as the year of the ‘Wild Cards’ (low probability, high impact events which result in systemic chaos). However, we can point to some of the issues that may dominate. One such issue is the number of elections that are due for the year. Elections are scheduled in Germany, France, and the US, which does not auger well for economic growth. We ought not to expect bold and courageous policy initiatives this year, even in the face of an acute need for them. If we are very lucky, then we will see the continued burning down of the long fuse that is the debt overhang in the developed world. This provides something of a boundary for what we can expect in 2012. If we are really lucky, and barring any truly silly policy mistakes, then a good result for 2012 will be to continue to bump along the bottom.

There is also a reasonable chance of the anticipated recession developing into a full blown recession. One of the great policy achievements in 2008-09 was the co-ordinated and timely intervention of the G20 nations to prevent recession turning into depression. These factors are absent in 2012. The ability of governments to use the lever of fiscal expansion is far more constrained now than it was then, both politically and financially. The G20 has been captured by the austerity agenda, and it would be a very brave politician to run against this conventional wisdom at the moment. Of course, courage in the face of impending elections is rarely seen. However, the longer term consequences of the austerity agenda have yet to be played out, and may start to become evident in 2012. We have already seen disruption on the streets of European and North American cities. This may well become more violent as time goes on.

We have already seen the suspension of democratic institutions in Europe. How this works out in terms of legitimacy and sovereignty have yet to be seen, but we may well see the start of this process in 2012. For example, the Greek austerity plan is not the product of the Greek democratic process, it is an agenda forced upon the Greek people by their German and French banking creditors. When the Greek Prime Minister suggested that the people be given a voice in the austerity plans, he was forced out of office and replaced by a technocrat with no democratic mandate at all. This has weakened the legitimacy of the Greek government. Our correspondents in Greece suggest that the country is starting to become ungovernable. For example, the absence of a democratic legitimacy means that it is now viewed as acceptable in Greece if citizens don’t pay their taxes. After all, these are taxes imposed by German banks. 2012 has the potential for being a year where civil defiance tops the political agenda.

And this is if things go well! At the other end of our expectations, there is a reasonable possibility of a financial implosion, the consequences of which could be catastrophic. Of the four weak spots in the global financial system (the Eurozone, the US Federal deficit, the US States deficits, and the Chinese banking system), two are showing signs of rapid movement to a critical position. If the Chinese banking system were to suffer acute stress, then it is reasonable to expect the repatriation of part of the Chinese trade surpluses that are currently parked in US Treasury Bonds. This is definitely dark scenario territory. In some of the darker scenarios that we have been working on this year – particularly those based upon the break up of the Eurozone – the immediate loss of output is somewhere between 8% to 10% of global GDP. This quite rapidly becomes a world of deflation and social disorder. As we have mentioned before, in November 2008 as it happens, NICEY (Non-Inflationary Continuously Expanding Years) has become NASTY (Non-Accelerating Socially Turbulent Years), and the prospect of a financial implosion is very nasty indeed. 

2012 is likely to be a very dangerous year. But what of beyond that? Assuming that the Mayans were wrong, and that 2013 follows on from 2012, what hope can we have for the future? We are quite pessimistic about this decade. The debt overhang, sluggish growth, and institutional reform are all going to take a number of years to unwind. In 2009, we thought that the UK debt overhang could be resolved by 2018. We are a bit more bearish now – owing to the fiscal policy mistakes that are currently being made – and we can argue quite well that the debt overhang may be with us some time longer. We are of the view that we are currently in a phase of what Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’ and what the followers of Kondratiev would refer to as the ‘long winter’. As sure as night follow day, so does spring follow winter.

We are starting to see the commencement of the Sixth Wave of technological advance. This doesn’t have shape or form at the moment, but we take the view that it is likely to coalesce around the technologies of scarcity. At some point further down the line in this decade, the results of the monetary loosening that we are currently experiencing will transform itself into rising prices. Prices of what? We are of the view that the prices of base resources – Food, Energy, and Water - are likely to rise. We have already seen some evidence of this during the period 2006-2009. This is the stimulus that is needed to trigger the Sixth Wave. We are of the view that, just as the great wage inflation of the 1970s provided the trigger for the labour saving technologies of the Fifth Wave (the ICT revolution), so a great resource inflation around 2020 will stimulate investment in resource conservation technologies during the next decade. This investment boom is likely to be the source of the economic growth that is needed to fully address the debt overhang and to provide the new jobs that will soak up the unemployed pool of labour.

Good policy can bring forward this vision just as much as poor policy can defer it. We are of the view that authorities can now, even in an era of austerity, start to prepare for this future by building the infrastructure for it. This need not be physical infrastructure and it need not cost a great deal of money. It could be fostering connections within a community, it could be inspiring the aspirations within a community, or it could be raising the intellectual base of a community through educational and social initiatives. The physical infrastructure is likely to be built in response to the creation of a social infrastructure, using whatever resources that are to hand. After all, it only takes an internet connection to organise a Tweetup. It is our hope for 2012 that we shall see many more of these low cost, high impact initiatives.

2012 is unlikely to be a prosperous year. However, the Law of Undulation has not been abolished, and from our present lows we should aspire for future highs. It is in our hands to sow the seeds of our future prosperity in 2012, and we invite everyone reading this to join us in doing so.

© The European Futures Observatory 2011

2 comments:

Stephen McGrail said...

Stephen,
You should see the book The Sixth Wave (recently published in 2010) for an almost identical argument
http://sixthwave.org/

My review of it - partly critical, partly positive (as these things typically go...) - was published in Journal of Futures Studies:
http://www.jfs.tku.edu.tw/15-3/R02.pdf

Cheers,
Stephen McGrail

Stephen Aguilar-Millan said...

Dear Stephen,

You are right that we find the Sixth Wave argument to be convincing. I had come across the book, but I hadn't seen your review. Thanks for that.

It seems that we are a supping from the same well, in that Carlota Perez's work is instrumental in this way of thinking. We have used this to guide our WFS Europe programme for both 2010-11 and 2011-12.

I have used the thinking for a harder commercial edge privately for a while (i.e. in what should I be investing to take advantage of the Sixth Wave?), and this thinking is just about ready for a public outing. I plan to make it my contribution to the WFS conference volume later this year.

Many thanks for your comments,

Stephen