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New banking crisis looms as credit crunch returns

Around the world’s biggest economies, gears are being thrown into reverse as credit, liquidity, broad money, leverage – whatever name you give it – turns from the antidote to recession to the source of volatility and a potent systemic threat.

Behind the optimistic PR spin of recovery, signs of growth, falling unemployment, etc., can be heard the unmistakeable beat of very different drums. Joining the credit squeeze by the financial big-shots – the central banks of the USA and China – comes Danièle Nouy, the eurozone’s new chief banking regulator.

She is warning that some of the region’s lenders should be allowed to collapse. “We have to accept that some banks have no future,” she said, anticipating imminent “stress tests” of the sector by the European Central Bank. “We have to let some disappear in an orderly fashion, and not necessarily try to merge them with other institutions.”

As the credit noose is tightened, warnings of debt-deflation grow louder. In contrast to inflation, which erodes the real value of loans, making it easier for borrowers to repay, deflation does the opposite. It makes money dearer, raising the burden of repaying existing loans — and it adds to the stress on fragile banks that hold the loans when borrowers cannot repay.

Just imagine what must be under discussion behind closed doors as inflation slows throughout Europe, and prices fall in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, whilst those in Japan look like heading back in the same direction. What can be going through the heads of the ministers of finance in the heavily-indebted countries – like the UK, United States, Japan? Let alone those in the IMF’s list of 39 heavily-indebted poor countries.

These are among the contradictory pressures that prompted Christine Lagarde’s plea for a new Bretton Woods post-war type meeting. The head of the International Monetary Fund is clearly concerned that unless concerted action is taken, the present stagnation will turn into a full-blown slump.

Her plan is a non-starter. The co-ordinated action that took place to rescue the banks in 2007-8 has given way to every capitalist for themselves. And tensions are growing between economies over scarce resources.

Spratley IslandsThe Spratlys are a group of islands in the South China Sea, in a region hosting estimated oil and gas reserves which place it fourth in the world. The region is also one of the world's most productive areas for commercial fishing, accounting for 35% of the world’s catch in 2010. 

And it is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. More than half of the world's sea-going traffic, by tonnage, passes through the region's waters every year. Tanker traffic is three times greater than through the Suez Canal and five times more than through the Panama Canal. A quarter of the world's crude oil passes through.

No wonder that disputes have simmered since the first oil discoveries were made there in the late 1960s. Until recently, six countries – China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei – were contesting rights over parts of the territory. Now the USA is making threatening noises in response to new claims by China.

US assistant secretary of State for East Asia affairs Danny Russel told Congress that China's vague territorial claims had "created uncertainty, insecurity and instability" among its neighbours. "There are growing concerns that this pattern of behaviour in the South China Sea reflects incremental effort by China to assert control over the area.”  

Welcome to the global economy 2014

Relations between China and Japan have deteriorated over a separate territorial row involving islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China. Last year, China announced an air defence zone in the East China Sea, and said that aircraft flying through the zone must follow its rules.
The United States, Japan and South Korea have ignored this declaration and flown military aircraft through the zone. Politics, nationalism, economic resources and territorial claims mixed with military aggression are, as always, a heady brew. Welcome to the global economy 2014.

Gerry Gold
Economics Editor
12 February 2014

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