The Global Economy's Fundamental Weakness
Over the course of the past decade, the global economy has recovered from the 2008 financial crisis by riding a wave of debt and liquidity injections from the major central banks. Yet in the absence of steady wage growth and productive investments in the real economy, the only direction left to go is down.
When Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy ten years ago, it suddenly became unclear who owed what to whom, who couldn’t pay their debts, and who would go down next. The result was that interbank credit markets froze, Wall Street panicked, and businesses went under, not just in the United States but around the world. With politicians struggling to respond to the crisis, economic pundits were left wondering whether the “Great Moderation” of low business-cycle volatility since the 1980s was turning into another Great Depression.
In hindsight, the complacency in the run-up to the crisis was clearly unconscionable. And yet little has changed in its aftermath. To be sure, we are told that the financial system is simpler, safer, and fairer. But the banks that benefited from public money are now bigger than ever; opaque financial instruments are once again de rigueur; and bankers’ bonus pools are overflowing. At the same time, un- or under-regulated “shadow banking” has grown into a $160 trillion business. That is twice the size of the global economy.
Thanks to the trillions of dollars of liquidity that major central banks have pumped in to the global economy over the past decade, asset markets have rebounded, company mergers have gone into overdrive, and stock buybacks have become a benchmark of managerial acumen.
By contrast, the real economy has spluttered along through ephemeral bouts of optimism and intermittent talk of downside risks. And while policymakers tell themselves that high stock prices and exports will boost average incomes, the fact is that most of the gains have already been captured by those at the very top of the pyramid.
These trends point to an even larger danger: a loss of trust in the system. Adam Smith recognized long ago that perceptions of rigging will eventually undermine the legitimacy of any rules-based system. The sense that those who caused the crisis not only got away with it, but also profited from it has been a growing source of discontent since 2008, weakening public trust in the political institutions that bind citizens, communities, and countries together.