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Panic as new meltdown looms

On the eve of the third anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers – the investment bank which became the icon of the crash of 2007/8 – the world’s financial markets are once again in a febrile state little short of panic.

Exposure to Greek debt this morning led the ratings agency Moody’s to downgrade two French banks, indicating how close to another financial meltdown we are.

A Greek default, which will threaten the euro as a trading currency, seems impossible to avoid. Interest charges on lending to the Greek government have gone off the scale. One three-year bond, which was trading at 20% in June, now commands an astonishing 172%.

Jeremy Warner, the Telegraph’s senior business commentator, warns:

Greece is already effectively a cash only economy. Most forms of credit has effectively dried up, the Greek banking system is finished, and capital controls to prevent what little money that remains from leaving the country are surely only a matter of time. European banking must prepare for the worst as far as Greece is concerned.

Charges on Italy’s €1,900bn debt mountain have also soared to record levels. The desperate Berlusconi government is offering state-owned properties and power companies for sale to the managers of China’s investment funds.

As the second phase of the global capitalist crisis breaks through, stark new figures tell the human story of millions of lives throughout the world, already wrecked by failed and now abandoned attempts to bring about a return to growth.

In 2010, 46.2m Americans fell below the poverty line, taking the rate to 15.1% of the population from 11% in 2000. More US citizens are living in poverty than at any time since records began more than 50 years ago according to the US Census Bureau.

With the more affluent having so far managed to stabilise their income, the 2.3% drop in median household income of all Americans in 2010 from the previous year masks a much greater decline for those below the line. Increasing long-term unemployment has depressed wages and left many without any income at all.

The number of Americans without health insurance rose by nearly 1m people to 49.9m. Nearly a quarter of American children are now living in poverty. Their number increased for the fourth year in a row to 22%, the highest since 1993.

Across the border, Mexico had 53 million people – half the country's population – living in poverty in 2010, according to the Monterrey Institute of Technology, with almost 20% in extreme poverty. Even for those working, according to the Bank of Mexico, 95% of the 800,000 jobs created in 2010 paid only $10 a day.

In Greece, poverty has visibly increased on the streets of the capital of four million, where people huddle in sleeping bags in empty alleys and can be seen rummaging through rubbish containers, looking for food or scraps of metal or glass to sell.

NGO Klimaka estimated the population living on the streets has increased by a quarter to 17,000-20,000 over the past two years. With Greek unemployment now over 16%, the new homeless come from all walks of life.

In the UK, the number of homeless families rose by 10% to 44,160 households in the past year, the first increase since 2004. Real incomes for UK families have dropped by 3.5% in the last year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

IFS researcher Robert Joyce, predicted the future in quietly measured tones:

The current economic downturn began more than three years ago, and may seem like old news. But, as in other developed countries, the most severe consequences of the recession on UK living standards have only just begun to be felt, and will continue to be felt for years to come.

The global economic contraction the collapse of Lehman Brothers set in motion is driving debt-strangled Europe and everywhere else towards a second, far more devastating implosion. The Arab Spring could well be followed by the European Winter.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
14 September 2011

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