The credit crunch

Saving the system

At last a glimmer of hope, but more boldness is needed to avert a global economic catastrophe

CONFIDENCE is everything in finance. Until this week the politicians trying to tackle the credit crunch had done little to restore this essential ingredient. In America Congress dithered over the Bush administration’s $700 billion bail-out plan. In Europe governments have casually played beggar-my-neighbour politics, with countries launching deposit-guarantee schemes that destabilise banks elsewhere. This week, however, saw the first glimmers of a comprehensive global answer to the confidence gap.

One clear sign was an unprecedented co-ordinated interest-rate cut on October 8th by the world’s main central banks, including the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England and (officially a coincidence) the People’s Bank of China. Various continental European countries also set about recapitalising their banks. But the most astounding developments were in America and Britain. The Fed doubled the amount of money available to banks on a short-term basis to $900 billion and announced that it would buy unsecured commercial paper directly from corporate borrowers. More surprisingly, Gordon Brown’s government, hitherto the ditherer par excellence, produced the first systemic plan for dealing with the crisis, not just providing capital and short-term loans to banks but also offering to guarantee new debt for up to three years (see article).

This is certainly progress, but it is not enough (see our extended finance section). The world’s finance ministers and central bankers, gathering in Washington, DC, this weekend for the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank, should deliver a simple message: more will be done. The world economy is plainly in a poor state, but it could get a lot worse. This is a time to put dogma and politics to one side and concentrate on pragmatic answers. That means more government intervention and co-operation in the short term than taxpayers, politicians or indeed free-market newspapers would normally like.

The patient writhing on the floor

If the panic that has choked the arteries of credit across the globe is not calmed soon, the danger will increase that output in rich economies will not simply shrink, but collapse. The same could happen in many emerging markets, especially those that rely on foreign capital. No country or industry would be spared from the equivalent of a global financial heart attack.

Stockmarkets are in a funk. But the main problem remains the credit markets. In the interbank market the prices banks pay to borrow money from each other are still near record highs. Meanwhile corporate borrowers have found it hard to issue commercial paper, as money-market funds have fled from all but the safest assets. In emerging markets bond spreads have soared and local currencies plunged. And whole countries have begun to get into trouble. The government of Iceland has had to nationalise two of its biggest banks and is frantically seeking a lifeline loan from Russia. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, says there could be balance-of-payments problems in up to 30 developing countries.

The damage to the real economy is becoming apparent. In America consumer credit is now shrinking, and around 159,000 Americans lost their jobs in September, the most since 2003. Some industries are hurting badly: car sales are at their lowest level in 16 years as would-be buyers are unable to get credit. General Motors has temporarily shut some of its factories in Europe. Across the globe forward-looking indicators, such as surveys of purchasing managers, are horribly gloomy.

If the odds of a rich-world recession have risen towards a near certainty, the emerging world as a whole is slowing rather than slumping. China still seems fairly resilient. Taken as a whole, though, growth in the world economy seems likely to slow below 3% next year—a pace that many count as recessionary. So the prospects are grim enough, but a continuing credit drought would make this much worse.

Lessons old and new

The lesson of history is that early, decisive government action can stem the pain and cost of banking crises. In the 1990s Sweden moved to recapitalise its banks quickly and recovered quickly; in Japan, where regulators failed to tackle toxic debt, the slump lasted for most of the decade. The twist is that this credit crisis is deeper (it affects many more types of markets) and broader (many more countries). Any solution has to be both more systemic and more global than before. One country trying to mend one part of its banking system will not work.

The idea of a comprehensive solution sounds simple, if expensive. But politicians have found it hard to grasp. Europeans have remained stubbornly wedded to the notion that the mess was “Made in America”; John McCain and Barack Obama talk as if it was all down to the greed of modern bankers. But financial excesses existed centuries before a brick had been laid on Wall Street. As our special report this week lays out, today’s bust—and the bubble that preceded it—had several causes besides dodgy lending, including a tide of cheap money from emerging economies, outdated regulation, government distortions and poor supervision. Many of these failures were as evident outside America as within it.

With a flawed diagnosis of the causes of the crisis, it is hardly surprising that many policymakers have failed to understand its progression. Today’s failure of confidence is based on three related issues: the solvency of banks, their ability to fund themselves in illiquid markets and the health of the real economy. The bursting of the housing bubble has led to hefty credit losses: most Western financial institutions are short of capital and some are insolvent. But liquidity is a more urgent problem. America’s decision last month to let Lehman Brothers fail—and the losses that implied to money-market funds that held its debt—prompted a global run on wholesale credit markets. It has become hard for banks, even healthy ones, to find finance; large companies with healthy cash flows have also been cut off from all but the shortest-term financing. That has increased worries about the real economy, which itself adds to the worries about banks’ solvency.

This analysis suggests that governments must attack all three concerns at once. The priority, in terms of stemming the panic, is to unblock clogged credit markets. In most cases that means using central banks as an alternative source of short-term cash. This week the Fed took another step in that direction: by buying commercial paper, it is now in effect lending direct to companies. The British approach is equally bold. Alongside the Bank of England’s provision of short-term cash, the Treasury says it will sell guarantees for as much as £250 billion ($430 billion) of new short-term and medium-term debts issued by the banks. That is risky: if left for any length of time, those pledges give banks an incentive to behave recklessly. But a temporary guarantee system offers the best chance of stemming the panic, and if it were internationally co-ordinated it would be both more credible and less risky than a collection of disparate national promises.

The second prong of a crisis-resolution strategy must aim to boost banks’ capital. A new IMF report suggests Western banks need some $675 billion of new equity to prevent banks from rapidly reducing the number of loans on their books and hurting the real economy. Although there is plenty of private capital sloshing around, there is a chicken-and-egg problem: nobody wants to buy equity in an industry without enough capital. It is becoming abundantly clear that government funds—or at least government intervention—will be necessary to catalyse the rebuilding of banks’ balance sheets. Initially, America focused more on buying tainted assets from banks; now it seems keener on the “European” approach of injecting capital into their banks. Some degree of divergence is inevitable, but more co-ordination is needed.

Third, policymakers should act together to cushion the economic fallout. Now that commodity prices have plunged, the inflation risk has dramatically receded across the rich world. With asset prices plummeting and economies shrinking, deflation will soon be a bigger worry. The interest-rate cuts are an important start. Ideally, policymakers would not use only monetary policy. For instance, China could do a lot to help the rest of the world economy (and itself) by loosening fiscal policy and allowing its currency to appreciate more quickly.

A long wait

Even in the best of circumstances, the consequences of the biggest asset and credit bubble in history will linger. But if the panic is stemmed, it could be a manageable problem, cushioned by the economic strength in the emerging world. Efforts at international economic co-operation have a patchy record. In the 1980s the Plaza and Louvre accords, designed respectively to push the dollar down and to prop it up, met with mixed success. Today’s problems are deeper and more countries are involved. But the stakes are also much higher.

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