Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Struggling With A Great Contraction

Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently returned from vacation.   It is interesting to see where this “top” economic commentator stands after taking off from his weekly writing for a full month. 

His view on his return: The major economies of the world are “Struggling with a great contraction.” ( His concern is not with the possibility of a “double dip” recession, but with something more sustained.  He asks, “How much deeper and longer this recession or ‘contraction’ might become.  The point is that, by the second quarter of 2011, none of the six largest high-income economies had surpassed output levels reached before the crisis hit, in 2008.”  Hence, the great contraction.

The turmoil in financial markets that was seen in August, he contends, tells us, first, that “the debt-encumbered economies of the high income-countries remain extremely fragile”; second, “investors have next to no confidence in the ability of policymakers to resolve the difficulties”; and third, “in a time of high anxiety, investors prefer what are seen as the least risky assets, namely, the bonds of the most highly-rated governments, regardless of their defects, together with gold.”

A pretty succinct summary…what?

There is too much debt around which means that all the efforts that governments are making to get the economy moving again face the up-hill battle of over-coming the efforts people, businesses, and local and regional governments are making to reduce their debts. (

While national governments deal with their own excessive debt loads and deficits, their central banks have responded with undifferentiated policies to flood banks and financial markets with sufficient liquidity in order to provide time for banks, consumers, businesses, and local and regional governments to “work out” their positions as smoothly as possible. (

The hope seems to be that “time will heal all things.”

Whereas there is too much deb around, there is too little leadership.  I will quote Wolf on this: “In neither the US nor the eurozone, does the politician supposedly in charge—Barack Obama, the US president, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor—appear to be much more than a bystander of unfolding events.” (

If there are no leaders, then policy decisions tend to be postponed as long possible, and then, when a result is finally forthcoming, the outcome is more like a camel, something that appears to be an inconsistent piecing together of incompatible parts.

And, this is supposed to produce confidence?  To quote Mr. Wolf again: “Those who fear deflation buy bonds; those that fear inflation buy gold; those who cannot decide buy both.” 

The point being that it is not a time to commit to the future, to invest in real assets or investments.  Hence, the economies of the “high-income” nations stagnate, unemployment remains excessive, and public confidence continues to be depressed.   

Such a general condition argues for a continuance of the economic malaise and not a more robust recovery any time soon.  Hence, the great contraction.

Mr. Wolf still has hope: “Yet all is not lost.  In particular the US and German governments retain substantial fiscal room for manoeuvre…the central banks have not used up their ammunition.”  

But, this hope is based on the existence that leadership in these governments will arise.  Policy makers will come to their senses: “The key, surely, is not to approach a situation as dangerous as this one within the boundaries of conventional thinking.”  

Therein lies the problem.  Mr. Wolf is looking for the hero to ride in on her/his white stallion and provide the leadership necessary to clean up the mess and get things going forward on the right path. 

He has just argued, however, that that leadership does not seem to exist.  So, where is the leadership going to come from?

With all the debt loads outstanding, just how much can be done to overcome the drag on the spending and the economy coming from the efforts of many to de-leverage. 

The Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have flooded the world with liquidity.  Their effort here is to give banks, consumers, businesses, and governments time to work out their bad debts.  This also provides time for banks and others to fail, consolidate, and/or raise capital without causing major disruptions to the whole financial system. Banks in the United States continue to fail, banks in the US and Europe continue to consolidate, and banks in the US and Europe continue to raise capital. 

Since debt seems to be the major problem here, the only other major suggestion that has been made that could relieve the credit crisis is to relieve debtors of some of their debt burden.  This would mean that some parts of the debt would need to be written off.  Whereas many have suggested such a program, the difficulty of creating such a problem is in the details and no one seems to have come up with any acceptable details of such a program.  Some have suggested that inventing such a workable and just program of debt reduction is nearly impossible.

So, we are back to square one…there are no “good” options.  And, when there are no “good” options, potential leaders tend to disappear into the woodwork.  It is easy to “lead” when you can create credit without end and encourage everyone to own a house and attempt to guarantee people jobs for their lifetime.  But, real leaders are the ones that can stand up and lead when there are no good options.

It is just that few want to be “out front” when none of the options are nice and comfortable.      

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