We would all rather not see a second coming of The Great Depression which followed the stock market crash of 1929. Central bankers across the globe have been rushing to reduce interest rates drastically in 2008/9 and some of them are resorting to Quantitative Easing (QE) at present with some success...
Combined with falling currencies, governments are part-nationalising banks and buying up toxic assets. Their moves may cause asset prices to stabilise, although the probability remains low. We can only hope that they are successful and prices do not continue to fall throughout 2009 and 2010 due to a chronic shortage of loan renewals and credit.
The effects of the Wall Street Crash on 1929 were spread from the financial sector to the rest of the economy by a phenomenon known as debt-deflation. It works as follows: at the beginning of the year, a farmer borrows a 1,000 dollars from a bank to buy some fertiliser with the expectation of selling the produce on the open market at 2,000 dollars. If, come the time of the sale, the produce value has fallen to 500 dollars, then the farmer will not be able to pay off the 1,000 dollars loan. A bank can cope with isolated defaults of this kind. But if the price of all goods and services keeps falling, then the bank is likely to be hit by many similar default cases. Once deposit holders get wind of the situation, they may want to withdraw their savings and a bank run may ensue. News of one bank run may set off a string of similar bank runs elsewhere, even at banks which have not lent money to borrowers affected by deflation.
The American economist Irving Fisher -- famous for the Fisher equation, Fisher hypothesis and Fisher separation theorem -- first put the concept of debt-deflation forward in the journal Econometrica in 1933 as "The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions". His idea was largely ignored or forgotten by economists until it was proven in the early 1980s by a little-known Stanford University Assistant Professor by the name of Ben Bernanke, who is now the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Today, Fisher's ideas ought to be on the mind of every equity and other types of financial instruments holder along with those who are central bankers.
How relevant is Fisher's original debt-deflation article to what we are experiencing now? Fisher warns that of the many different factors that make a depression into a Great one, all play a subordinate role compared with "two dominant factors, namely over-indebtedness to start with and deflation following soon after". He articulates that "the two diseases act and react to each other", and "the very effort of individuals to lessen their burden of debts increases it, because of the mass effect of the stampede to liquidate in swelling each dollar owed", or, in other words, "the more the debtors pay, the more they owe". In short, debt combined with falling prices can be a fatal combination.
Fisher presents a chronology of events in several stages that together constitute a Great Depression, the last stage includes now familiar themes:
1. Runs on banks;
2. Banks curtailing loans for self protection;
3. Banks selling investments; and
4. Bank failures.
The "post-Cold War" era between 1989 and 2007 suddenly and rudely ended in 2008, as The Great Unwind began to work its way through every nook and cranny of our economies. What was, not long ago, perceived as an isolated problem in the US residential market, followed by the biggest upset in the global financial markets, has come to be understood as a massive process of deleveraging the entire global economic architecture within which we all exist. As a result of The Great Unwind, humanity has unexpectedly found itself revisiting the events of 1929 in search of lessons for what we should and should not be doing right now. JK Galbraith in "The Great Crash: 1929" discusses five causes for why the economy becomes fundamentally unsound:
1. The bad distribution of income;
2. The bad corporate structure;
3. The bad banking structure;
4. The dubious state of the foreign (current account) balance; and
5. The poor state of economic intelligence.
We find ourselves entering a period in which global relations are defined by rising nationalism, socialism, deflation, hyper-inflation, sovereign debt default, extremism, rich world hubris, stepped-up environmental damage, and expanding problems of health and poverty everywhere. These varying afflictions seem to have been spurred on by a triple crisis in food, fuel and finance, ie, the 3Fs, which were highlighted in Q1/Q2 2008. What was to have been a "New World Order" is being revealed as a greater disorder, much of it flowing from the top downwards, from the North to the South.
There is a widespread search for the origins of this newly emerging disorder as the world seeks to define appropriate remedial measures. Humankind seems to hanker for some kind of static equilibrium in which we can identify rights and wrongs, good and evil, civilised and uncivilised behaviour, and ultimately, stabilising and destabilising actions. Between 1945 and 1989 we had a clear and static equilibrium, essentially defined by Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Now there seems to be a wistful desire for some new framework of black and white rules and constraints against which we can measure our human activities and our use of the planet's extremely limited resources. But we can no longer have a world defined by MAD or some ideologically established duality. The USSR is gone and the US finds itself in a fundamentally altered state following the dissipation of its long period of soft power and the withering of its financial muscle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Great Unwind seems to be moving faster and faster, seemingly approaching the speed of light, as its effects spread far beyond the financial markets to the world beyond. Now we seem faced with the necessity of living in chaos and adjusting to a new kind of dynamic equilibrium in which human activity interacts fluidly without regard to national borders, constrained by the world's resources at any given moment but continuously altering those boundary conditions with human-made synthetic alternatives to the earth's resources via the use of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, distributed computing and communications.
We are now being forced to confront the inadequacy of duality as a way of guiding our decisions. "The Great Unwind" is propelling us towards non-duality ever faster, as we enter a brave new world of continuously changing opportunities and limitations in the years ahead.
Once upon a time the world was a simpler place. Kings were on their thrones, the people farmed the land, merchants grew rich, and from time to time there would be wars between neighbouring kingdoms. It may not have been a golden age, but at least it was relatively easy to understand. The world has started working differently in the past hundred years. Government has become multi-layered, trade is conducted through cryptic financial institutions and esoteric financial instruments, technology has become the province of experts, and we have found ourselves subject to social forces and ideologies that are difficult to understand and to differentiate, yet are inextricably intertwined. Add to that the rapidity of change, and the spread of mass information and disinformation. As a result, we have a bewildering complexity of perceived dualities which are propelling us towards a dynamic equilibrium in which the only way to make sense of the world's economies and socio-political structures is to see them as an interconnected non-dual matrix.
In the West we have been struggling for many years with the fundamentals of right and wrong, good and evil, natural and human-made problems and solutions. But in the light of non-duality, these concepts seem to have become slippery guides to human decision making. Ideologies of capitalism and state socialism, of free markets and centrally planned social order have been made obsolete by pragmatic innovations on the part of governments, business enterprises, and individuals alike. There is no clear definition of hero and of villain. The roles of hero and villain seem to change continuously, depending on the part being played at any given moment. We find ourselves in need of both the right and the left and unable to choose sides. If we take sides, we are trying to eliminate half of reality, which is impossible. For many years, the capitalists have been trying to describe the communists as the evil side. Some capitalists even have the illusion they can survive alone, without any need for the other half. If we look at the latest version of capitalism, in 2008/9, we can see shades of communism in the grand-scale intervention of governments to prop up banks and to nationalise many of them. And if we look deeply at communism, for example, in China, we see spreading capitalism. If we look deeply at the rose branch, we see the thorns; if we look deeply at the thorns, we see the rose branch. In this international non-dual matrix, each side pretends to be the rose, and calls the other side the thorn. If we take their statements at face value, we are unable to recognise the inherent dynamic equilibrium in which we live, without static duality concepts as our guide.
Survival means the survival of human kind as a whole, not just a part of it. If the South cannot survive, then the North is going to crumble. If the West cannot survive, then the East is going to crumble. Decoupled economies are a myth in the 21st century. No nation can go it alone. China and India cannot have continuous unencumbered GDP growth whilst the West falters. If countries of the Third World -- the Emerging Economies -- cannot pay their debts, we are going to suffer in the North. If we do not take care of the Third World, our well-being is not going to last, and we will not be able to continue living in the way we have been much longer. These threats are already manifesting themselves as "black swans". In fact, we can even say that 2008 was a "black swan year" and 2009 is turning out to be similarly full of surprises. Some would argue that there are so many black swans flying in the sky around us in 2009 that it is difficult to see the sky save the black swans.
The world which we know from studying history has been dramatically transformed in the last hundred years. We are now faced with powerful, large-scale governance and social institutions that can be enormous sources of social good, but also be sources of suffering and entrapment if they do not work as originally envisaged. We need to look out for institutionalised greed, ill will and ignorance, which perpetuate duality. The collective decisions made in the next generation or two carry enormous consequences for the future of human society and the biosphere. The days when we could ignore all those decisions and remain indifferent to them are over. Our past, present and future are inseparable and exist in one space time continuum and the way we live, the way we think, alters that dynamic equilibrium instantaneously.
In Zen thinking, "We study the self to forget the self. And when we forget the self, we become one with the thousand manifestations." In many ways we still strive to live in a duality economy, manifest as a war economy, based essentially on two poles: us and them. We have done so since World War II, which "rescued" many of the G7 nations from The Great Depression -- if brutal and tragic war can ever be considered a rescue. Now capitalism itself has become part of an unending war on nature and the environment.
It is when we have reached the situation of needing more than 2.4 planets worth of natural resources to carry on global GDP expansion, that the world economy has begun to hit the buffers and the financial institutions have begun to shake and crumble. While technology will continue to move the buffers, the world's quest for never ending economic growth will continuously test those buffers which prevail at any given moment. The upshot is disorder. Disorder is nothing new in the human world. East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas have all gone through cycle after cycle of violent change -- oppression at home, exploitation abroad, and bloody warfare. Much of it has been driven by various combinations of fanatic ideological beliefs, whipped-up nationalisms, and institutionalised greed. The great civilisations have had moments of peace and marvellous cultural and artistic accomplishments, punctuated by eruptions of mass hysteria, outbreaks of violence, and war after war after war. This is the result of human determination to resort to duality in thinking and an endless desire to restore and to preserve a static equilibrium.
If we are to thrive in the 21st century, beyond The Great Unwind, we have to think in a new way and metamorphose individually and collectively towards the dynamic equilibrium of a non-duality matrix. What does this mean? We are all one and fundamentally connected with each other in an inseparable way, the sooner we see the rainbow coloured humanity as one, the East and West as one, the North and South as one, the faster we will come to terms with this turmoil. There is hope if we can think in this new way!
The Financial Times article can be read by clicking here.
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