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A House of Cards

When a return to 'normal' spells crisis

Gamblers, speculators and investors on the world’s capital markets are watching and wondering what is going to happen now, in the wake of the US Federal Reserve’s decision to begin slowing the growth of credit.

There is widespread concern that the relatively minor reduction of $10bn per month in the US quantitative easing programme – from $85bn to $75bn – will trigger a new, much greater period of volatility than occurred last year, when the proposal for “tapering” was mooted.

The latest World Bank report is couched in terms which attempt to calm and limit precipitate action by the people who manage the world’s capital whilst preserving what they claim are “healthy signs” for the masters of the global economy, if not for the 99%.

Nevertheless the Bank warned that “a severely negative response to the return of monetary policy to normal might lead to capital flows to emerging markets falling by up to 80% for several months.”

Despite its professed humanitarian objectives for eradicating extreme poverty, reducing inequality, improving health and promoting environmental sustainability, in practice the World Bank is a key agency for promoting global capital.

In the 1980s it used a policy of so-called “structural adjustment”, drawing countries hit by crisis into debt dependency in exchange for a damaging involvement in labour-intensive production of commodities for export to the globalising economy. The result was impoverishment for millions.

The Bank became increasingly subject to the demands of corporations which were busy growing into transnational behemoths. In the 1990s it was instrumental in the adoption of the “Washington Consensus”. This involved the dismantling of international controls on capital flows, deregulation of markets, privatisation of public utilities and reducing the independence of national governments.

Now the Bank is attempting to assess the likely consequences of the slowing and ending of five-year post-crash, loose-money global hysteria and to prepare countries for what is to come. Its attempt at being encouraging is hardly convincing, predicting a modest “acceleration” in global growth.

Its assessment of risks and uncertainties provides a more sobering view. In the eurozone area things are particularly gloomy, with the report admitting that there “is still a long road ahead before all of the problems that the global financial crisis laid bare are fully resolved”.

The World Bank acknowledges that the “drivers” of the growth required to come out of recession “remain unclear” and adds:

Moreover with the banking sector still weak and details on a fully fledged banking union still being worked out, the currency bloc remains susceptible to shocks, including a tightening of policy in the United States.

It expresses concern about “significant amounts of spare capacity” that have opened up and “a permanent deterioration in job skills and employability of the jobless”. The report adds:

At the same time, continued sharp credit contractions raise the spectre of deflation, which could exacerbate debt overhang problems and result in a much more muted recovery than considered in the baseline.

And in China where extreme volumes of credit have limited the slowing of growth since the crash, the Bank warns that “abrupt unwinding of investment in China [there] remains a possibility, which if realised could sharply reduce GDP by 3% or more with significant knock on effects in the region and other economies with close trading linkages”.

Today’s news direct from China won’t be encouraging for the calm, measured approach the World Bank would like to see. The uncontrolled shadow banking sector now accounts for more than 30% of total finance in the world’s second biggest economy, up from 23% a year ago.

There’s a recipe for global volatility, if ever there was one.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
15 January 2014

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