More than a decade on from the most devastating financial crisis since the crash of Wall Street in 1929, politicians and commentators have been extremely careful in offering predictions on when the next crisis will occur. Playing with economic predictions is like playing with fire. Nobody knows this better than former British prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, who repeatedly promised ’no return to boom and bust’.
But there are reasons to be concerned. The gradual normalisation of US monetary policy could generate adverse spillover effects and disrupt global financial stability. Red lights are already flashing in Turkey and Argentina. A major correction in the United States’ stock market could trigger a significant shock for the rest of the world. High levels of debt, maturity mismatches and carry trades financed by short-term debt could fuel contagion through financially integrated markets. In addition, the deterioration of multilateral economic relations in the last 18 months might make crisis resolution more difficult than it was in 2008–09.
As things stand, even if we don’t know how the next crisis will materialise, where the epicentre will be and which countries will be hit, we can infer that it will be more disruptive than its predecessor.
What lessons can be drawn from Europe and its experience during the global financial crisis?
The European economy is expected to grow, in real terms, by 2.5 per cent in 2018, a slight slowdown from 2.7 per cent in 2017. Countries that were badly hit by the crisis have finally come out of the tunnel and some, like Ireland and Spain, are in very good shape. Against this overall positive background the European Central Bank (ECB) is slowly and gradually preparing to normalise monetary policy.
For years the economy was Europe’s key problem, now it is politics. The integrity of the European Union (EU) and its single currency is being challenged by populist politics that is building consensus on voter disaffection with rising inequality and the deterioration of living standards. Brexit, refugees and tensions between Germany and Italy on fiscal leeway are now threatening the entire EU project. Europe’s brand of populism is anti-migration and anti-financial globalisation, and resents a supranational construction like the EU that by definition is at odds with economic nationalism.
Italy is the country that could trigger a perfect storm. Some members of the Italian cabinet have been playing with the idea of severing the ties with the Europe’s monetary union in order to regain control of monetary policy. Italy has been struggling for years with poor productivity growth and GDP growth. After some recovery in the past two years, the latter is now slowing down. Youth unemployment is at 35 per cent, one of the highest rates in the EU. Interest rates are on the rise, making it more expensive to pay interest on public debt that currently stands at 132 per cent of GDP. And the expansive fiscal policy promised by the two populist parties now in government is undermining investors’ confidence.
But Italy is not an isolated case. Euro-scepticism is on the rise, especially in countries in eastern and central Europe that joined the EU in 2004. In Britain it has been driven by the idea that an independent trade policy would better serve the interests of the United Kingdom. Having served notice to the EU on March 2017, the UK is due to leave Europe’s single market and custom union in March 2019.
It is unclear what the new relationship between the EU and the UK will look like. Political rifts inside the British government and the ruling Conservative party have resulted in a deadlock. In the meantime, a number of foreign companies, especially those in the banking and financial sector, have announced that they will relocate to the continent to maintain access to the EU market.
The prospect of a hard Brexit has taken a toll on sterling, which has dropped by almost 12 per cent against the US dollar between mid-April and mid-August 2018. The British economy is expected to grow, in real terms, by 1.6 per cent in 2018. But increasing interest rates forced by inflationary pressures and a weak sterling may pose further constraints on economic growth. The UK is a deficit country, with a deficit in the current account of 5.2 per cent of GDP and a high level of personal debt. A series of corporate collapses — most recently, the bankruptcy of the infrastructure company Carillion — may trigger some financial instability.
If there is a lesson from Europe’s experience with the financial crisis, it is to consider the long-term effects of crisis resolution. In 2011 and 2012, at the peak of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, that followed the global financial crisis, efficiency in crisis resolution took priority over legitimacy. Draconian measures were imposed on Greece while fiscal austerity became the norm across the whole region. People, especially those in southern Europe whose economies had been decimated by the crisis, felt the hit and resented being told what to do by unelected bodies such as the ECB, the European Commission and the IMF. Today’s dysfunctional politics is significantly a response to those mistakes.
In 2008–09 international cooperation played a key role in crisis resolution. Even if the G20 did not deliver overall reform of the international monetary and financial system, its broad-based governance system, inclusive of emerging markets, managed to get member states to work together.
Today this cooperation would be more difficult to achieve. While in 2008 politics was fairly neutral, today it is hugely divisive. The United States is in retreat and increasingly unwilling to lead. China is not ready yet to take over and to provide the financial safety net that would be necessary in case of a crisis. Europe, especially the leading countries such as Germany, France and the UK, are primarily focussed on domestic politics.
In 2008, crisis resolution was also possible thanks to the concerted effort of key central banks. Nowadays the power of unelected bodies is rightly questioned and scrutinised. The main lessons from the long financial crisis in Europe may be lost amid economic nationalism. Experts tend to be the repository of such lessons, but there is little respect for experts in today’s politics.
Paola Subacchi is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London and a visiting fellow at ANU.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asian crisis, ready or not’.