In this grave crisis, the world's leaders are terrifyingly out of their depth
Certain years have gone down in history as great global turning points, after which nothing was remotely the same: 1914, 1929, 1939, 1989. Now it looks horribly plausible that 2011 will join their number. The very grave financial crisis that has hung over Europe ever since the banking collapse of three years ago has taken a sinister turn, with the most dreadful and sobering consequences for those of us who live in European democracies.
The events of the past few days have been momentous: the eurozone sovereign debt crisis has escaped from the peripheries and spread to Italy and Spain; parts of the European banking system have frozen up; US Treasuries have been stripped of their AAA rating, which may be the beginning of a process that leads to the loss of the dollar’s vital status as the world’s reserve currency.
There have been warnings that we may be in for a repeat of the calamitous events of 2008. The truth, however, is that the situation is potentially much bleaker even than in those desperate days after the closure of Lehman Brothers. Back then, policy-makers had at their disposal a whole range of powerful tools to remedy the situation which are simply not available today.
First of all, the 2008 crisis struck at the ideal stage of an economic cycle. Interest rates were comparatively high, both in Europe and the United States. This meant that central banks were in a position to avert disaster by slashing the cost of borrowing. Today, rates are still at rock bottom, so that option is no longer available.
Second, the global situation was far more advantageous three years ago. One key reason why Western economies appeared to recover so fast was that China responded with a substantial economic boost. Today, China, plagued by high inflation as a result of this timely intervention, is in no position to stretch out a helping hand.
But it is the final difference that is the most alarming. Back in 2008, national balance sheets were in reasonable shape. In Britain, for example, state debt (according to the official figures, which were, admittedly, highly suspect) stood at around 40 per cent of GDP. This meant that we had the balance sheet strength to step into the markets and bail out failed banks. Partly as a result, national debt has now surged past the 60 per cent mark, meaning that it is impossible for the British government to perform the same rescue operation without risking bankruptcy. Many other Western democracies face the same problem.
The consequence is terrifying. Policy-makers find themselves in the position of a driver heading down the outside lane of a motorway who suddenly finds that none of his controls are working: no accelerator, no brakes and a faulty steering wheel. Experience, skill and a prodigious amount of luck are required if a grave accident is to be averted. Unfortunately, it is painfully apparent that none of these qualities are available: Western leaders are out of their depth.
Barack Obama feels more and more like a president from the Jimmy Carter tradition: well meaning but ineffectual. And contemplate the sheer fatuity of the statement issued by Angela Merkel’s office on Friday night: “Markets caused the drama. Now they have to make sure to get things straight again.” This remark reveals in the German Chancellor a basic inability even to grasp the nature, let alone understand the scale, of the disaster facing Europe this weekend. Such a failure of comprehension is entirely typical of a certain type of leader throughout history, at times of grave international urgency.
An emergency telephone conference among the finance ministers of the G7 (membership: United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Canada) has been convened. There was a time when this organisation – with its sublime pretence that financial powerhouses such as India, China and Brazil do not exist – counted for a great deal. This latest discussion feels as relevant as a Bourbon family get-together in the summer of 1789.
Another symptom of the frivolity of the European political class is that the European Central Bank is being urged to intervene in the Italian bond market to restore stability. Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s do not produce ratings for the ECB, but if they did, it would be given junk bond status, or worse. The ECB is bankrupt, and this would be evident for all to see but for the fact that it has grossly overvalued the practically worthless Greek, Irish and Portuguese bonds in its portfolio. At some point, eurozone states will be asked to fill the massive holes in the ECB’s balance sheet, and matters will then get messy. Some may plead poverty; others will point out that the constitution of the ECB specifically prevents it from purchasing national bonds, and that its market operations must have been ultra vires.
Furthermore, it is unclear to whom the ECB – whose dodgy accounting, reckless investments and contemptuous disregard of banking standards make even the most irresponsible Mayfair hedge fund look like a model of propriety – is ultimately accountable. The idea that it can step effectively into the Italian bond market, whose total value of around 1.8 trillion euros makes it larger by far than Greece, Portugal and Ireland combined, is a joke.
Wake up: the eurozone is very close to collapse. It will come as no surprise if some Italian and Spanish banks are forced to close their doors in the course of the next few weeks. Indeed, British holidaymakers on the Continent should be advised to take care: hold only the minimum of the local currency, and treat with especial suspicion euro notes coded Y, S and M (signifying they were printed in Greece, Italy and Portugal respectively). Take plenty of dollars with you, which shopkeepers will certainly accept if there is a run on the banks, or if euros suddenly cease to be legal currency. The precautions may not prove necessary, but there is no point in taking risks.
Where does this leave Britain? First of all, there is no point intruding on private grief. Nothing we can do or say will solve the problems of the eurozone. George Osborne does, however, face one overriding imperative: he must maintain the British national credit. Fortunately, the Chancellor grasps this essential point very clearly. After last year’s general election, he took exactly the right steps to cut the deficit. He must not be driven off course, or the markets will refuse credit to Britain as well (a point that Ed Balls, Labour’s economic spokesman, appears not to understand). An economic firestorm is heading our way, and Britain will be doing very well just to survive.