The global economic crisis currently underway is, by all accounts, the deepest economic crisis of world capitalism since the Great Depression. It is necessary for the international working class to understand various aspects of this crisis: how it developed, who were the players involved, what were the instruments used during the build-up and what are it’s consequences for the working people of the world. This understanding is necessary to formulate a socialist, i.e., working class, response to these earth shaking events. In a series of posts here on Radical Notes, I will share my understanding of the on-going crisis as part of the larger collective attempt to come to grips with the current conjuncture from a socialist perspective, to understand both the problems and the possibilities that it opens up.
The Big Story
The current crisis can possibly be fruitfully understood if measured against different time scales: the short-term, i.e., in terms of days and weeks; the medium-term, i.e., in terms of months and years; and the long-term, i.e., in terms of decades. This analytical compartmentalization into three different time periods is useful because it demonstrates how long-term trends silently but inexorably created the conditions for the medium-term problem to explode into the short-term problem that has buffeted the economy since mid-September, 2008.
In the short-term, the current financial meltdown is a severe credit crisis, a situation whereby financial institutions have become unwilling or unable to lend and borrow among themselves thereby freezing the flow of credit in the entire economic system; this credit freeze is largely fuelled by a serious loss of faith in financial institutions and in the financial system as such and came to the fore most forcefully in the middle of September, 2008. It is also possible that the credit freeze, and the underlying loss of faith, might explode into a full-blown banking crisis: banking panic leading to run on even healthy and solvent banks.
In the medium-term, the crisis is the unravelling of a stupendously leveraged speculative bubble on real estate that built itself up for about seven years from the beginning of this decade (and century); this speculative bubble was mediated by fancy financial instruments fashioned by Wall Street, running all the way from sub-prime mortgages, asset backed securities (ABS) and mortgage backed securities (MBS), collateralized debt obligations (CDO) to credit default swaps (CDS); this speculative bubble led up to and culminated, when it finally burst in the middle of 2007, in the credit crisis that the US, and gradually the global, economy finds itself in.
From a long-term perspective the present crisis is, of course, more than just about Wall Street and finance and banking; it is a full-blown crisis of the neoliberal turn in capitalism inaugurated the 1970s. Neoliberalism (or the neoliberal counterrevolution) was a response to the structural crisis of capitalism that emerged in the late 1960s. It was a response from the point of view of the upper fraction of the capitalist class, a fraction especially dominated by financial interests. The neoliberal counterrevolution ushered in a capitalism firmly under the sway of finance capital; the neoliberal policy turn was geared towards breaking the power of labour vis-a-vis capital that had gradually built up during the two decades after World War II. The result was stagnant real wages, slow but growing productivity, and hence growing profit incomes especially of the financial sector, increasing financialization and a deregulated economy for finance to operate in.
Stagnant wages created the demand for debt from a working class used to growing consumption spending; huge profit incomes and the shredding of all regulation on finance created the supply. The result was a growing role of debt in the lives of the working class which, over time, led to a huge debt overhang on the entire economy. As the ratio of outstanding debt to income rose, with stagnant incomes for the majority, the financial fragility of the entire system increased; and it is this systemically fragile financial architecture that finally cracked under the weight of the bursting housing bubble. Thus, the long-term build-up of debt in the US economy resulting from the neoliberal counterrevolution, which increased the financial fragility of the system, created the conditions in which the bursting of various asset price bubbles could lead to a severe credit crisis and loss of faith in the entire financial system.
Impact on the Real Economy
Real GDP figures released by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) on October 30 indicated that the US economy was in the midst of a slowdown even before the financial storm hit the world economy in the middle of September. Real GDP in the US contracted at an annual rate of 0.3 percent for the third quarter (i.e., for the months of July, August and September), led by a sharp fall in consumer spending. The financial storm, comprising a severe credit crisis and even a possible banking crisis, will only deepen the slowdown and might even push the US and the rest of the world into a prolonged and painful recession, possibly even a decade long L-shaped recession like the one that Japan witnessed during the lost decade of the 1990s. In such a scenario, fixing the financial mess, dealing with the credit freeze, averting a possible run on the commercial banking system and restoring confidence in the financial system will not be enough to prevent a plunge into a deep, prolonged and painful recession; addressing the credit crisis is necessary but not sufficient to deal with the grave crisis in the real sector. An aggressive fiscal intervention by the US government and other governments around the world, in terms of direct expenditure on goods and services, will be necessary to prevent the slide into a prolonged recession. It is in the interests of the working class to push for such intervention even as it works towards re-building it’s political, social and economic institutions.
(To be continued.)