This week’s lengthy cover article in Germany’s Der Spiegel is definitely worth reading. Non-German readers can even read it in English there.
By the way, Bernhard of Moon of Alabama shows us the cover here. The title there is “The price of Haughtiness” (or perhaps, Hubris). Inside the mag, the title is “The End of Arrogance: America Loses its Dominant Economic Role.”
The team of staff writers who wrote it start out by noting how irrelevant and old-hat George Bush’s speech at the UN last week seemed to many of the diplomats who heard it:
- He talked about terrorism and terrorist regimes, and about governments that allegedly support terror. He failed to notice that the delegates sitting in front of and below him were shaking their heads, smiling and whispering… The US president gave a speech similar to the ones he gave in 2004 and 2007, mentioning the word “terror” 32 times in 22 minutes… George W. Bush was the only one still talking about terror and not about the topic that currently has the rest of the world’s attention.
“Absurd, absurd, absurd,” said one German diplomat. A French woman called him “yesterday’s man” over coffee on the East River. There is another way to put it, too: Bush was a laughing stock in the gray corridors of the UN.
The article continues by noting that even Chancellor Angela Merkel, long a very close ally of Bush’s on the world scene, has started to express ill-concealed anger about his misgovernance of the US economy:
- There was no mention of loyalty and friendship last Monday. Merkel stood in the glass-roofed entrance hall of one of the German parliament’s office buildings in Berlin and prepared her audience of roughly 1,000 businesspeople from all across Germany for the foreseeable consequences of the financial crisis. It was a speech filled with concealed accusations and dark warnings.
Merkel talked about a “distribution of risk at everyone’s expense” and the consequences for the “economic situation in the coming months and possibly even years.” Most of all, she made it clear who she considers the true culprit behind the current plight. “The German government pointed out the problems early on,” said the chancellor, whose proposals to impose tighter international market controls failed repeatedly because of US opposition…
Merkel had never publicly criticized the United States this harshly and unapologetically.
The writers comment,
- This is no longer the muscular and arrogant United States the world knows, the superpower that sets the rules for everyone else and that considers its way of thinking and doing business to be the only road to success.
A new America is on display, a country that no longer trusts its old values and its elites even less: the politicians, who failed to see the problems on the horizon, and the economic leaders, who tried to sell a fictitious world of prosperity to Americans.
Also on display is the end of arrogance. The Americans are now paying the price for their pride.
Gone are the days when the US could go into debt with abandon, without considering who would end up footing the bill.
The article contains a helpful short appraisal of the way in which the globalization of financial markets in recent years has allowed the swift worldwide spread of the contagion from the financial crisis that originated with the problems of the US’s sub-prime mortgage market:
- The financial assets that economies hold abroad have grown more than sevenfold in the past three decades. By late 2007, the market volume for derivatives, which are used to bet on interest rate, stock and credit risks worldwide, had reached a previously unthinkable level of $596 trillion (€411 trillion).
At the same time, the number of players has multiplied. The banks stopped being the only ones in control of the industry some time ago. Nowadays, hedge funds bet on falling stock prices and mortgage rates, private equity companies buy up failed banks and bad loans, and wealthy pension funds keep the fund managers afloat.
The “greater complexity of linkages within and between the financial systems” now has one man worried, a man whose profession ought to provide him with a better idea of what’s going on: Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank. In a recent speech at New York University, Europe’s highest-ranking central banker complained about the “obscurity of and interactions among many financial instruments,” often combined with a “high level of borrowing.”
The inventors of these complex securities hoped that they could be used to distribute risk more broadly around the globe. But instead of making financial transactions more secure, they achieved the opposite effect, increasing the risks. Today the notion of using “many shoulders for support,” the constant mantra of the gurus of financial alchemy, has proved to be one of the catalysts of the crash.
American economist Raghuram Rajan, whom ECB President Trichet is frequently quoting these days, had a premonition of the current disaster three years ago. The total integration of the markets “exposes the system to large systemic shocks,” Rajan wrote then in a study. Although the economy had survived many crises before, like the bursting of the Internet bubble, “this should not lead us to be too optimistic.” “Can we be confident that the shocks were large enough and in the right places to fully test the system?” Rajan asked. “A shock to equity markets, though large,” he continued, “may have less effect than a shock to credit markets.”
There was certainly no shortage of warnings, and there were many voices of caution…
New York economist Nouriel Roubini presented the most accurate scenario of a crash, from the bursting of the real estate bubble to the domino-like demise of major banks. Roubini, known as a notorious alarmist, now predicts a prolonged recession in the United States that will drag down the entire global economy with it. “The US consumer has consumed himself to death,” says Roubini.
Paul Samuelson, the doyen of the world’s economists, predicted this bitter outcome three years ago. “America’s position is under pressure because we have become a society that hardly saves,” Samuelson, 90 at the time, said in an interview with SPIEGEL. “We don’t think of others or of tomorrow.”
And now the global conflagration is a reality, triggered by cleverly packaged US subprime mortgages sold around the world…
The writers quote Bernd Pfaffenbach, Merkel’s chief negotiator on foreign trade issues, as saying that now the relative conservatism that Germans have shown in financial matters is now paying off:
- “One can see that we are on a more solid base,” says Pfaffenbach, who refers to the crisis as a “purifying storm.”
Pfaffenbach isn’t the only one to see the problem in this light. The American bank crash has prompted economists and politicians worldwide to prepare for the end of an era of turbo-capitalism driven by the financial markets.
The financial industry — especially in the United States — will shrink considerably, while the significance of the real economy will increase. Once again, the government will have to base its supervisory function on the old banker’s principle: security first.
They conclude that a “new chapter in economic history has begun,”
- one in which the United States will no longer play its former dominant role. A process of redistributing money and power around the world — away from America and toward the resource-rich countries and rising industrialized nations in Asia — has been underway for years. The financial crisis will only accelerate the process.
The wealthy state-owned funds of China, Singapore, Dubai and Kuwait control assets of almost $4 trillion (€2.76 trillion), and they are now in a position to buy their way onto Wall Street in a big way.
But they have remained reserved until now, partly as a result of poor experiences in the past. The China Investment Corp., for example, invested in the initial public offering of the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, and invested $5 billion (€3.45 billion) in Morgan Stanley. In both cases, it lost a lot of money.
But time is on the side of the Chinese…
Both in Asia and the United States, expressing schadenfreude over the decline of the United States as a superpower is out of place. The risk is too great that if America goes into a tailspin, it will drag the rest of the world down with it.
It is true that we are in a period of unprecedented interdependence among all the world’s major power centers. This inter-dependence means that, as I have long argued, if the crisis is well handled by the leaders of the major powers we have a fair chance that the transition from a US-dominated world to a more multipolar system can be effected without major strife or bloodshed.
That will take a good measure of realism, humility, patience, and vision from all the leaders concerned, inside and outside the US. Leaders and publics, both, I would rather say.
But here’s the thing. We are now at a seminal point in world history where (a) There is actually quite enough capacity to produce enough material stuff to give everyone on earth the prerequisites of a decent life; (b) Most people understand the counter-productive and destructive nature of war; and (c) In the United Nations we have a system of rules and norms for international engagement that, though far from perfect, is still far, far better to have than not to have, and that can certainly be further reformed.
So we can do this. Yes, we can. Provided we bear in mind two of the strongest norms in the UN system: the strong norm against addressing disagreements through warfare, and the equally strong norm that stresses the equality of all human persons.