Ten years after Lehman, the doomsayers are back in business
Ten years ago tomorrow we first saw the pictures that became the iconic symbol of the Global Financial Crisis — thousands of ex-employees of bust investment bank Lehman Brothers leaving Manhattan offices carrying cardboard boxes of possessions, heading into an uncertain financial world that appeared on the verge of collapse.
Those poor wretches had lost big-paying jobs and had skills that appeared obsolescent. They were coalface workers in an industry that had brought the global financial system to the brink of collapse. Who would want them in future?
In fact, they need not have worried. The threatened “great recession” turned out to be a sharp, but short-lived downturn in the global economy, and in a couple of years things were virtually back to normal.
That the 2008 crisis did not turn into something much more serious was principally down to two things: The action of the US government in saving its financial institutions from meltdown, and the economic stimulus packages of the rest of the world — principally China — that ensured global business carried on almost as before.
Nowhere is this effect better illustrated than in the oil price. In May 2008, oil was $140 per barrel, but by early 2009 it was $30. Yet a couple of years later it was once again approaching all-time highs, around $125 a barrel. (The fact that it crashed again in 2014 had little to do with the global economy and all to do with the economics of the oil industry.)
Since 2008, one growing sub-profession within the ranks of the economists has been that of crisis predictor
A decade on from Lehman, all looks good again, especially from the perspective of the US, where the crisis began. Equity markets regularly break through previous highs, economic growth is around 4 percent, and corporate earnings are better than ever. Oil is at the “goldilocks” level between $70 and $80.
Coupled with the fact that the global financial system appears to have learned some of the lessons of 2008 — with tighter regulatory controls and capital requirements — it all adds up to a feelgood factor of historic proportions. What could possibly go wrong this time?
Since 2008, one growing sub-profession within the ranks of the economists has been that of crisis predictor. Experts who claim to have spotted the impending meltdown in 2009, or who conversely did not spot it and now want to make sure they are not caught out again, make a good living out of sounding warning bells.
They have identified a list of factors that could play the role of collateralized debt obligations in 2008, pricking the global bubble and sparking another crisis. These are their fears:
DEBT. Here the lessons of 2008 have not been learned. The world is in hock as never before. Global debt — financial, government, corporate and household — stood at $247 trillion in the first quarter of 2018, compared to around $180 trillion in 2008.
The Middle East has joined in the borrowing spree. A recent presentation by economist Nasser Saidi in Dubai highlighted the fact that the “new normal” of oil prices had led to government debts in the region increasing by 10 percent per year since 2013. The region has substantial reserves to partly offset these debts, but still faces significant debt repayments between now and 2022.
THE END OF CHEAP MONEY. Quantitative easing — essentially the printing of money via government asset purchases — was a big reason the world got over 2008 relatively quickly. Most economists agree it cannot go on forever, and central banks around the world are looking at strategies to bring QE to a gentle “tapering.”
But what happens when this massive tide of liquidity is withdrawn? Goldman Sachs recently highlighted the effect of a sudden end to QE, and the negative effect it would have on asset values around the world. Rising interest rates — a declared policy of the Federal Reserve — would also signal the end of the post-crisis era of cheap money.
STOCK MARKET CRASH. American equity markets — which determine the state of health of the rest of the world’s markets — have never been so highly valued. The Dow Jones Index has nearly doubled since 2008, while the MSCI world index has recouped all the 2008 losses and more.
But what goes up must come down. Morgan Stanley recently warned that we are on the cusp of a bear market in world equities, that could depress share prices for the next few years. That does not amount to a crash, but other factors could turn a gentle downturn into a collapse.
GEOPOLITICS AND TRADE WARS. Many experts think that the fragile state of world political affairs could be the pin that bursts the financial bubble. President Trump’s trade wars, especially with China, could escalate into more intense conflict; sanctions on Iran could spark greater hostilities in the Middle East.
American economist Nouriel Roubini, the “doctor doom” of 2008 who predicted the severity of the crisis then, believes geopolitical tensions will produce a “perfect storm” by 2020 — US election year — that policymakers will be ill-equipped to handle.
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai