Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Financial Crisis?

This might seem a little off-topic, but it is certainly topical in the temporal sense and it gets my new blog off to a controversial start. I promise to get onto more familiar territory tomorrow with a short post on car mileage standards.

With the benefit of hindsight, and in particular with the revelation that Societe Generale were selling 50 million euros worth of securities into a falling market while US markets were closed for Martin Luther King Day, the dramatic Fed action the next morning seems to me like a panic over-reaction. It is not at all clear to me that further action is required this week, but I fear the Feds don't have much choice because that expectation is already factored in. It is not really the Fed’s job to bail out the stock market, though they would probably argue that they need to do so because of the spillover effect on the real economy. All they are doing is putting things off until the next crisis. If investors think the Fed will always bail them out, there is every incentive to bid prices up again.

Nor do I think we need the much-trumpeted and bipartisan agreed stimulus package. I am not an economist, but as I see it the fundamental cause of this is not Societe Generale’s rogue trader, nor their apparent incompetence in first letting it happen and in the way they liquidated the positions, nor the sub-prime mess, nor even the US housing bubble.

The real problem is that Americans consume more than they produce. That being the case, why would we want to encourage them to borrow and spend more? The next crisis may well be a loss of confidence in the dollar, and by then the dollar may well have lost its pre-eminent position as a reserve currency, which will make it much harder to control the consequences.

So, what has this to do with climate change? Well, if we consumed less we would reduce CO2 emissions not just here in the US but also in China and other countries which export to us. We are fond of pointing out that our carbon intensity is going down in the US – that is to say that we emit less CO2 per unit of GDP – but that is because we have moved so much of our manufacturing abroad. We are also fond of pointing to China’s rapidly growing CO2 emissions, but that is because they are making stuff for us! So, all I am asking is: would it be so terrible if we started consuming less, i.e. just consuming what we can afford, and slipped into recession?

I have raised a lot of questions, and maybe hackles. I certainly do not know all the answers. I am not against growth. Indeed growth is necessary to lift billions out of poverty. The question is, where should that growth be? It seems to me that the current situation is unsustainable. There is no reason, morally or economically, why the American worker should live better than his counterpart in China. (It is sometimes claimed that the American worker earns more because he is more productive, but that reverses cause and effect. The American worker is more productive not because of any innate superiority but because more capital is employed to help him, which in turn is because he is more expensive to employ.) There is no way we can prevent wages converging over the globe. Of course, the Chinese standard of living needs to improve, but maybe also the American standard of living needs also to decline. (Note that by “standard of living” I mean per capita GDP, which in my view is very different from “quality of life.” I will come back to that in future postings.)


Colin Mason said...

I absolutely agree, Tony. Nice post. Americans do indeed overspend what they can afford of over use what they either don't have or comes at a huge price.

Just look at all the SUVs and Trucks in this country. I say that 60-70% of the large SUV and truck owners don't "need" them, but have them because all their neighbors do. These behemoths consume huge amounts of fuel that is expensive and increases our dependence on foreign oil.

pfalcone said...

Ramp it down.....houses are too big, cars are too big. Need to spend more time at home eating supper as a family.

Ros said...

I think most people would agree that "we" need to consume less - but they'd all say that that "we" was actually other people! It's always other people's 4x4s (SUVs), other people's flights, etc.
How do we get people to actually cut their own consumption?

Ros said...

Most people would agree that "we" need to consume less, but they always think "wer" means someone else! How do we get people to realise it means them?