We are too fragile, fiscally as well as psychologically. Our economies, cultures and polities are still paying a heavy price for the Great Recession; another collapse, especially were it to be accompanied by a fresh banking bailout by the taxpayer, would trigger a cataclysmic, uncontrollable backlash.
Call this a protest? You ain’t seen nothing yet Photo: PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI / REUTERS
The public, whose faith in elites and the private sector was rattled after 2007-09, would simply not wear it. Its anger would be so explosive, so-all encompassing that it would threaten the very survival of free trade, of globalisation and of the market-based economy. There would be calls for wage and price controls, punitive, ultra-progressive taxes, a war on the City and arbitrary jail sentences.
Two men walk along the road to Los Angeles in 1937, during the Great Depression
For fear of allowing extremist or populist parties through the door, mainstream politicians would end up adopting much of this agenda, with devastating implications for our long-term prosperity. Central banks, in desperation, would embrace the purest form of money-printing: they would start giving consumers actual cash to spend, temporarily turbo-charging demand while destroying any remaining respect for the idea that money needs to be earned.
History never repeats itself exactly, but the last time a recession was met by pure, unadulterated populism was in the Thirties, when the Americans turned a stock market crash and a series of monetary policy blunders into a depression. President Herbert Hoover signed into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, dreamt up by two economically illiterate Republican senators, slapping massive taxes on the imports of 20,000 goods and triggering a global trade war. It was perhaps the most economically destructive piece of legislation ever devised, and it took until the Nineties before the damage was finally erased.
That is why we must all hope that the turmoil of recent days in the financial markets, and the increasingly worrying economic news, will turn out to be a false alarm. It would certainly be ridiculously premature, at this stage, to call a recession, let alone a financial crisis. But at the very least we are seeing a major dose of the “dangerous cocktail of new threats” rightly identified at the turn of the year by George Osborne, a development which will have political repercussions even if the economy eventually muddles through.
Investors in equities, including millions of people with private pensions and Isas, have already lost a fortune; they won’t be too happy when they begin to realise the extent of the damage. Growth is slowing everywhere, and the monetary pump-priming of the past few years is looking increasingly ineffective. Traders believe that interest rates won’t go up in Britain until 2019, and there is increasing talk that negative interest rates could become necessary across the developed world, further crippling savers.
No positive spin can be put on any of the latest developments. Banking shares have taken a beating; China’s slowdown continues; Maersk, the shipping giant, believes that conditions for world trade are worse than in 2008-09; industrial production slumped in December, not just in Britain but more so in France and Germany; energy prices are devastating Middle Eastern and Russian economies; and sterling has tumbled.
It is always a sure sign that panic has broken out when financial markets respond badly to all possible scenarios. The prospect of higher interest rates? Sell, sell, sell. A chance of lower rates? Sell, sell and sell again. A rise in the price of oil is met with as much angst as a decline. The financial markets remain addicted to help from central banks: they are desperate for yet more interventions, regardless of the consequences on the pricing of risk, the allocation of resources or the creation of unsustainable bubbles that only enrich the owners of assets.
This is exactly the tonic that the populists have been waiting for. Despite their dramatic emergence, they have so far failed to make a real breakthrough. The SNP was unable to win the Scottish referendum and the National Front didn’t gain a single region in France. Mariano Rajoy remains Spain’s prime minister, and anti-establishment parties have been thwarted in Germany. Even lighter forms of populism, such as Ed Miliband’s, were rejected. Syriza’s victory in Greece was one of the few genuine populist triumphs; but it was soon crushed by the combined might of Brussels and Frankfurt.
The Republican presidential nominee often proclaims that his presidency will make America a “great” country again
This could be about to change. The fact that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both won their respective New Hampshire primaries is certainly one remarkable indication of the state of mind of many US political activists. Any economic relapse would help Marine Le Pen’s chances in next year’s French presidential election, and further undermine Angela Merkel’s sinking popularity in Germany.
But it is in Britain that the immediate impact could be the greatest. The Brexit debate is already being overshadowed by the migration crisis, undermining the Government’s attempts at portraying a Remain vote as a safe, low-risk option; a sustained bout of economic volatility would further ruin the pro-EU case, especially given that the eurozone, rather than the City, is likely to emerge as one of the epicentres of any fresh crisis. It would be hard for bosses of large financial giants to credibly tell the electorate to vote Remain when their own businesses are in crisis.
Britain will noticeably outperform the EU this year: our labour market remains strong and our banks far better capitalised than many of their eurozone competitors, too many of which are still sitting on massive amounts of bad debt. The Chinese slowdown is worse for Germany than for us. But while the Eurosceptic cause to which some of us are partial is likely to benefit from the turmoil, it would be madness for anybody who cares about this country’s future to feel anything but dread towards the economic threats facing the world. The sorry truth is that there is very little that governments can do at this stage, apart from battening down the hatches and hoping that central banks succeed in kicking our problems even further down the road.