Be afraid

… until politicians actually do something about the word economy. – Published on The Economist, 1er octobre 2011.

IN DARK days, people naturally seek glimmers of hope. So it was that financial markets, long battered by the ever-worsening euro crisis, rallied early this week amid speculation that Europe’s leaders had been bullied by the rest of the world into at last putting together a “big plan” to save the single currency. Investors ventured out from safe-haven bonds into riskier assets. Stock prices jumped: those of embattled French banks soared by almost 20% in just two days … //  

… What about the cushion the emerging markets provide? That, too, is getting thinner. Their growth is slowing (as it needed to, since many economies were overheating). Recent falls in emerging-world currencies and stock prices show that financial panic can afflict the periphery too (see article). Some emerging economies, including China, have less room to repeat their 2008-09 stimulus because of the debts that splurge left behind. Monetary policy can be loosened: several central banks have cut rates. But, overall, the emerging world will be less of a buoy to global growth than it has been hitherto.

Some of these constraints are unavoidable. Many governments have less room to support weak economies than they did in 2008. Some caution, too, is understandable from central bankers who have waded ever deeper into unconventional monetary policy. But governments are not just failing to act: they are exacerbating the mess.

Lacking conviction and courage:

In the aftermath of the Lehman crisis, policymakers broadly did the right thing. The result was not a rapid return to prosperity in the West, but after such a big balance-sheet recession that was never going to happen. Now, more often than not, policymakers seem to be getting it wrong. Their mistakes vary, but two sorts stand out. One is an overwhelming emphasis on short-term fiscal austerity over growth. Fixing that means different things in different places: Germany could loosen fiscal policy, while in Britain the reins should merely be tightened more slowly. But the collective obsession with short-term austerity across the rich world is hurting.

The second failure is one of honesty. Too many rich-world politicians have failed to tell voters the scale of the problem. In Germany, where the jobless rate is lower than in 2008, people tend to think the crisis is about lazy Greeks and Italians. Mrs Merkel needs to explain clearly that it also includes Germany’s own banks—and that Germany faces a choice between a costly solution and a ruinous one. In America the Republicans are guilty of outrageous obstructionism and misleading simplification, while Mr Obama has favoured class warfare over fiscal leadership. At a time of enormous problems, the politicians seem Lilliputian. That’s the real reason to be afraid. (full text).

Links:

Greece’s Middle Class Revolt against Austerity, on Spiegel Online International, by Ferry Batzoglou and Jörg Diehl in Athens, September 23, 2011.

Austerity as Spiritual Depression: The Current Economic Assault on the Middle Class, on Tikkun, by Michael Lerner, Sept. 20, 2011.

Read China’s Lips, on Current Concerns, by Stephen S. Roach, Sept. 9, 2011.

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