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|Crisis, what crisis?|
The Guardian - August 12th 2008
What, pray, is all the fuss about? Since August 9th last year, we have (according to the sages at the IMF) been in “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” Aditya Chakrabortty, in these pages last week (“Capitalism lies in shambles, and the left has gone awol”, August 7th) was the latest to claim that the past year’s “financial drama” has produced “a bonfire of capitalist certainties.” Phooey.
If this is the worst crisis since the Great Depression then we must have all been living pretty cushy, gilded lives since the 1930s. If this is all it takes to destroy capitalism (or at least its certainties) then it is a wonder why the
For the past year has actually not been very bad at all—unless you are a banker, a bank shareholder or Gordon Brown, and few will shed tears for any of those. Unemployment, that traditional begetter of rebellions against capitalism, hasn’t risen at all. In fact it has dropped from 5.4% to 5.2% of the workforce. The economy grew in the year to the second quarter by, oh my gosh, just 1.6%. Earnings have been rising by—yikes!—3.8% a year. Let’s all head for the hills.
The only statistics that point strongly in a downward direction are those for bank shares, house prices and mortgage lending. So far this has really been a crisis just for the Daily Mail and the Financial Times. Oh, and the IMF. Most ordinary people have been affected more by inflation, in the form of rising petrol and food prices, than by anything connected to the supposed crisis of capitalism. Any who can remember the unemployment of the early 1980s or the early 90s, or the inflation of the 1970s and 80s, ought to be shaking their heads in disbelief at all the kerfuffle over what is just a mild slowdown.
That is surely the real reason why the left has “gone awol”. The sort of people the left are most concerned about have not been affected very much, at least not since they felt a twinge of worry about their savings in Northern Rock last autumn. And since the basic reason why petrol and food prices have been rising is that a lot of poor people in China and India have been getting wealthier and that their central banks have not been clamping down on monetary growth, inflation is not going to provide much traction for anti-capitalist campaigners.
This is not intended to make light of 5.2% unemployment, which amounts to 1.6 million people, nor of the issues of poverty and inequality. But those issues have not changed in the past year: they were there during the prosperous years and they are there now. They have not been altered for better or for worse by the credit crunch.
Of course, these sanguine views may just be akin to the judgement of the proverbial building-jumper who remarks when halfway to the ground that so far the fall hasn’t been too bad. Perhaps we will soon hit the ground with a thud. We might: there are reasons to think that things could indeed get worse. But they still don’t amount to anything that justifies the hyperbole.
In the past month the oil price has fallen by more than 20% and food prices have also been falling. Partly, this is because more oil is being pumped and more food is being grown. But also this good news has happened for the bad reason that global economic growth is slowing and hence demand for energy and food. Much of that slowdown has happened in
The first year since the credit crunch began has been a mild affair chiefly because exports from
If that happens, then some of the doom-laden predictions about the credit crunch could begin to come true. Rather than just being a matter of banks writing off loan losses for sub-prime mortgages and complex derivative securities, a much weaker economy could make the loan defaults spread into corporate and consumer borrowing, adding to the banks’ losses and making them even less willing to lend.
That sort of downward spiral is what a true credit crunch would consist of, and if it were to last a long time it could even bring some sort of crisis for capitalism. Essentially, that is what happened in
Yet it is not at all clear that this is what is going to happen. If petrol and food carry on getting cheaper, the Bank of England will start to cut interest rates. China, India and other emerging markets will grow more slowly if their central banks do start to take inflation seriously, but by “slowly” is meant 8% and 6% respectively and there is no reason to expect their slowdown to last very long. Globally, there is no credit crunch: money is abundant.
“Crisis, what crisis?”, as a Labour prime minister once didn’t quite say, in rather worse times than today’s.
Bill Emmott is the author of “Rivals—How the Power Struggle between