‘The biggest risk is not deflation of a bubble. It is the risk of that becoming intertwined with geopolitics.’ Photograph: Getty Images/Time & Life Pictures Creative
The 1st of October came and went without financial armageddon. Veteran forecaster Martin Armstrong, who accurately predicted the 1987 crash, used the same model to suggest that 1 October would be a major turning point for global markets. Some investors even put bets on it. But the passing of the predicted global crash is only good news to a point. Many indicators in global finance are pointing downwards – and some even think the crash has begun.
Let’s assemble the evidence. First, the unsustainable debt. Since 2007, the pile of debt in the world has grown by $57tn (£37tn). That’s a compound annual growth rate of 5.3%, significantly beating GDP. Debts have doubled in the so-called emerging markets, while rising by just over a third in the developed world.
John Maynard Keynes once wrote that money is a “link to the future” – meaning that what we do with money is a signal of what we think is going to happen in the future. What we’ve done with credit since the global crisis of 2008 is expand it faster than the economy – which can only be done rationally if we think the future is going to be much richer than the present.
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This summer, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) pointed out that certain major economies were seeing a sharp rise in debt-to-GDP ratios, which were well outside historic norms. In China, the rest of Asia and Brazil, private-sector borrowing has risen so quickly that BIS’s dashboard of risk is flashing red. In two thirds of all cases, red warnings such as this are followed by a major banking crisis within three years.
The underlying cause of this debt glut is the $12tn of free or cheap money created by central banks since 2009, combined with near-zero interest rates. When the real price of money is close to zero, people borrow and worry about the consequences later.
Next, let’s look at the price of real things. Oil collapsed first, in mid 2014, falling from $110 a barrel to $49 now, despite a slight rebound in the interim. Next came commodities. Copper cost $4.50 a pound in 2011, but was half that in September. Inflation across the entire G7 is barely above zero, and deflation stalks the southern eurozone. World trade volumes have contracted tangibly since December 2014, according to the Dutch government index, while the value of global trade in primary commodities, which scored 150 on the same index a year ago, now stands at 114.
In these circumstances, the only way in which the expanding credit mountain can be an accurate signal about the future is if we are about to go through a spectacular productivity boom. The technology is there to do that, but the social arrangements are not. The market rewards companies that create labour exchanges for minicab drivers with multibillion-dollar valuations. Hot money chases after computing graduates with good ideas, but that is – at this phase of the cycle – as much an indicator of the stupidity of the money as the brightness of the ideas.
China – the engine of the post-2009 global recovery – is slowing markedly. Japan just revised its growth projections down, despite being in the middle of a massive money-printing programme. The eurozone is stagnant. In the US, growth, which recovered well under QE, has faltered after the withdrawal of QE.
In short, as the BIS economists put it, this is “a world in which debt levels are too high, productivity growth too weak and financial risks too threatening”. It’s impossible to extrapolate from all this the date the crash will happen, or the form it will take. All we know is there is a mismatch between rising credit, falling growth, trade and prices, and a febrile financial market, which, at present, keeps switchback riding as money flows from one sector, or geographic region, to another.
A better exercise is to image what archetypes a dramatist might use if they tried to write a farce describing the state of society on the eve of yet another disaster. There would be a character obsessed with property: London is fizzing with young professionals trying to clinch property deals right now. The riverbanks of the Thames are forested with cranes, show apartments and half-occupied speculative developments that will, after the crash, make great social housing.
Then there would have to be a hapless central banker, optimistically “looking through” the figures for low growth, stagnant prices and collapsing trade in order to justify doing nothing.
But the protagonist would have to be a politician. The Kingston University economist Steve Keen points out that, in the run up to 2008, the flawed ideology of neoliberal economics made a dangerous situation worse. Economists put their professional imprimatur on the idea that risky investments were safe. Today, the stable door of economics is firmly shut. Even mainstream bank economists are calling for radical measures to revive growth: Nick Kounis, ABN Amro’s macro-economics chief, called on central banks to raise their inflation targets to 4% and flood the world with money in a coordinated survival strategy.
Instead, it is in the world of geopolitics that the danger of elite groupthink is clearest. The economic danger becomes clear if you understand that printing $12tn incentivises every country to dump the final cost of anti-crisis measures on someone else. But there is now also clear geopolitical risk.
The oil price collapsed because the Saudis wanted to stymie the US fracking industry. Right now, although Russian and American diplomats are capable of sitting together in Vienna, their strike-attack pilots do not communicate as they attack their variously selected enemies on the ground in Syria. Europe, weakened by the Greek crisis, its cross-border institutions thrown into chaos by the refugee crisis, looks incapable of doing anything to anybody.
So, the biggest risk to the world, despite its growing seriousness, is not the deflation of a bubble. It is the risk of that becoming intertwined with geopolitics. Any politician who minimises or ignores this risk is doing what the purblind economists did in the run up to 2008.
Paul Mason is economics editor of Channel 4 News. @paulmasonnews