🔒 Warning: World is not safer after 2008 financial crisis – FT

EDINBURGH — The 2008 financial crisis, sparked by excessive debt and lax credit checks, hammered global markets and decimated jobs. A decade on, the world looks like it has recovered but be warned: it is not safer. As a respected British economist, Martin Wolf, notes, very little has changed since before the debt-induced shock rippled across economies. Instead of taking the opportunity to carry out reforms to improve the fabric of economies, decision-makers have reverted to type. As a result, the rich have got richer, the poor are poorer, with an elite of politically influential insiders benefiting the most. – Jackie Cameron

By Thulasizwe Sithole

Leading economic commentator Martin Wolf has warned global business leaders that the world is not safer after the 2008 financial crisis. Vested interests in a rent-extracting economy make countries vulnerable to another similar shock.

Writing for the Financial Times, Wolf asks what happened after the global financial crisis. “Have politicians and policymakers tried to get us back to the past or go into a different future? The answer is clear: it is the former.”

To be fair, he continues, they have tried to go back to a better past. “That is what happened in 1918. Then they had just come out of a devastating war. So the new ideas were about peace — ‘collective security’ and a League of Nations. But they wanted to return to the prewar economy, especially the gold standard.”


Wolf says that, in 1918, they mostly wanted to go back to a better version of the past in international relations but after the crisis of 2008, they wanted to go back to a better version of the past in financial regulation.

“In both cases, all else was to stay the way it was. The chief aim of post-crisis policymaking was rescue: stabilise the financial system and restore demand. This was delivered by putting sovereign balance sheets behind the collapsing financial system, cutting interest rates, allowing fiscal deficits to soar in the short run while limiting discretionary fiscal expansion, and introducing complex new financial regulations.

“This prevented economic collapse, unlike in the 1930s, and brought a (weak) recovery. Note how closely these actions hewed to the pre-crisis policy consensus. Central banks acted as lenders of last resort, as they should. They also played the dominant role in macroeconomic stabilisation, as pre-crisis thought suggested,” he says.

“Their principal instrument remained interest rates, though they included long rates this time, because short rates reached zero. Shortly after the worst of the crisis had passed, fiscal policy turned towards austerity. The financial system is much as before, albeit with somewhat lower leverage, higher liquidity requirements and tighter regulation.

“Efforts to lower debt in the private sector were modest. The financial crisis was a devastating failure of the free market that followed a period of rising inequality within many countries. Yet, contrary to what happened in the 1970s, policymakers have barely questioned the relative roles of government and markets.”

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Conventional wisdom still considers “structural reform” largely synonymous with lower taxes and de-regulation of labour markets, points out Wolf. “Concern is expressed over inequality, but little has actually been done. Policymakers have mostly failed to notice the dangerous dependence of demand on ever-rising debt.”

Monopoly and “zero-sum” activities are pervasive, he writes. “Few question the value of the vast quantities of financial sector activity we continue to have, or recognise the risks of further big financial crises. It is little wonder populists are so popular, given this inertia, not to mention the miserable experience of so many citizens since the crisis and, in important cases, before that.”

Turning to the prickly issue of the world voting in right wing politicians as leaders, Wolf explains that politics abhors a vacuum. “Ideas as dangerous and divisive as those of US president Donald Trump or Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, are bound to fill it. One cannot beat something with nothing.”

Read also: George Soros warns: Another financial crisis looms! Read his full speech here

Although the financial crisis has cast a long shadow, there are some ways to fix global economic problems, says Wolf. “Some have argued for a shift from debt to equity finance of house purchases. Others have called for the elimination of the tax deductibility of debt interest. Some note the perverse impact of executive incentives. Some argue convincingly for higher equity requirements on banks, rejecting the argument that this would halt growth.”

Others ask why only banks have accounts at central banks and why we are letting the taxation of capital collapse. “And why are we not trying to revitalise antitrust? An all-embracing new ideology may be unavailable today. That is probably a good thing. But good ideas do exist. A more likely cause of inertia is the power of vested interests.”

Today’s rent-extracting economy, masquerading as a free market, is, after all, hugely rewarding to politically influential insiders, points out Wolf. ‘Yet the centre’s complacency invites extremist rage. If those who believe in the market economy and liberal democracy do not come up with superior policies, demagogues will sweep them away. A better version of the pre-2008 world will just not do. People do not want a better past; they want a better future,” he adds.

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