Lehman is a footnote in the great East-West globalisation crisis
You can see why markets and governments both like to blame Lehman Brothers for the "Great Contraction". Such wishful thinking shields investors from the nasty reality that deeper forces are at work: it absolves officialdom from its own destructive role in fixing the price of credit too low for 20 years, luring us into debt.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
As my colleague Jeremy Warner puts it, Lehman no more caused the economic convulsions of the last year than the assassination of an Austrian prince caused the First World War. There was the little matter of a rising Germany then, and a rising China now. Both scrambled the international system, albeit in different ways.
The 48 hours that killed Lehman and AIG – and would have killed Merrill, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs within a week if Washington had not stepped in – merely brought to a head the inevitable exhaustion of a global order in which the West chokes debt, and the East chokes on export capacity.
As of last week, the ABX index of sub-prime mortgage debt showed that AAA-rated securities from early 2007 were trading at 28 cents on the dollar – AA was at 4 cents, near all-time lows. No one can say that $2 trillion (£1.2 trillion) of sub-prime and Alt-A debt is still trading at panic levels, exaggerating losses. The dust has settled. What we can see is that creditors will never recoup their money.
The housing crash has tipped 15m US home owners into negative equity. A third of sub-prime mortgages are in default. Some 7.8pc of all loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration are in foreclosure or 90 days in arrears. This is why the US Treasury had to seize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the $5.3 trillion pillars of US housing. It is not a liquidity crisis. It is a bankruptcy crisis.
Foreclosures reached 358,000 in August alone. More Americans are being evicted each month than during the entire Depression year of 1932. This is not to pick on America. Variants of the bubble occurred across the Anglosphere, Scandinavia, Holland, Club Med, and east Europe. Defaults will hit with a lag in Europe, but hit they will. The IMF expects global banks to lose $2.5 trillion by next year. So far they have confessed to $1 trillion.
We know why the bubble occurred. Call its Greenspanism. Central banks rescued assets each time there was a hiccup, but let booms run unchecked. They pulled "real" rates ever lower, creating addiction to monetary stimulus. Larger doses were required with each cycle, until we hit zero, and it is still not enough. Debt burdens rose to records across the OECD.
Couldn't they see that this was cheating: stealing from the future? No, they were seduced by "inflation targeting" – watch goods, ignore assets – just as cheap imports from China rendered the doctrine obsolete. It always takes ideology to consummate massive error.
Asia in turn caused a global bond bubble by accumulating $5 trillion in reserves (a side effect of holding down currencies to gain export share). Long-term rates collapsed too. The global credit bubble was complete.
The Great Game can continue only as long as deficit countries – currently, US (-$628bn), Spain (-$109bn), Italy (-$62bn), France (-$58bn), Britain (-$53bn), Greece (-$42bn), and east Europe – are willing to bankrupt themselves buying Asian goods. Obviously, this is absurd.
America's baby boomers have lost 45pc of their net worth. US pay fell 4.8pc in June year-on-year as hours were slashed. US consumer credit has contracted for six months in a row, falling by record $21.6bn in July. The US savings rate has risen from near zero to around 5pc.
"Who will replace the US consumer to power global growth?" asked IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Friday's Le Monde. "We have left the financial crisis, but we are still in the economic crisis. "
There is gaping hole in world demand. It is being filled by governments, all nearing the limit of fiscal stimulus. Some have exceeded it: Spain is to raise taxes by 1.5pc of GDP, and Japan's Democrats are retreating from spending pledges. China is trying to plug the gap, belatedly, by ramping up credit 70pc this year, but it will take a cultural revolution to induce the Chinese to spend. The liquidity is leaking into stocks, metals, and property.
Yes, markets are sizzling, but industrial production is still down 23pc in Japan, 17pc in the eurozone, 13pc in the US and 11pc in Russia. We have a global glut of manufacturing plant. This is why companies will have to slash staff. Don't be deceived: profits can look good at first when firms cut into the bone. It is no strategy for an economy.
We can all agree (except Germany, hiding bank losses) that the G20 in Pittsburgh should tighten ratios for lenders. But will we hear a word about the capital and trade imbalances of late 20th Century globalisation that caused this crisis? Probably not. It is easier to ignore the elephant in the room.