Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Let's not (Christmas) party like it's 2007

The heady days leading to the global financial crisis were never meant to last so there is no point in expecting to turn back the clock

It is the time for great merriment but Christmas office parties across London still leave many wishfully thinking back to the good old days.  Despite much talk of an economic recovery, it can still be tough to find reasons to be cheerful about and less cash being spent by companies on seasonal festivities is another reminder of this.  But we should not be asking Santa for a return to the days of lavish Christmas dos with workmates and big entertainment budgets (if they ever did exist).  The economy of old which allowed such excesses could only bring in a few good years of partying before the good times inevitably turned bad. 

Living the high life on borrowed time

The boom times that were still in swing a decade ago seem a long way off.  It was a time when all seemed good with the economy and nothing much would go wrong.  This spirit seemed best exemplified by the exuberance among economists who (mistakenly) thought that their ideas had conquered the ups and downs of the economy.  The great evil of past decades, inflation, had been kept in check and the recession following the dotcom bust passed without much strife. 

This new stable economic environment seemed to benefit the finance sector most of all.  Banks came up with new ways of making lots of money with bankers themselves reaping much of the rewards.  Even some among the rest of us got to enjoy a sprinkling of the good life with many companies splashing out the odd treat on their workers (especially around Christmas time) even if this generosity was not reflected in wages.

The enthusiasm was infectious and we all wanted our share.  The result was loads of new debt as our spending reflected these new aspirations even if our income was lagging behind.  Even the governments in many countries spent beyond their means and got their finances in a mess.  Since inflation remained subdued despite the elevated spending, interest rates never rose by much enabling the debt levels to soar beyond what was prudent.  And banks were only too happy to lend since new financial products, such as mortgage-backed securities, allowed them to pass on increasingly dubious loans to others.

Not banking on trouble

This was one party that could not go on for ever.  An increase in debt is good for spurring the economy along but this can only go so far until lending becomes more reckless.  The final straw was mortgage lending in the United States where new rules encouraged housing loans to individuals who were never likely to be able to afford repayments (so-called sub-prime mortgages).  The many who lost their jobs (including Your Neighbourhood Economist) and even their homes in the ensuing financial turmoil ended up with little to show from the good years.  Yet, on the other hand, the exorbitant pay packets received by many bank employees left them sitting pretty whatever was to happen.

We should all feel repentant like Christmas drinks where we get carried away and make a fool of ourselves.  One way of stopping ourselves getting into trouble is to rein in the banking sector.  This does not mean the equivalent of alcohol-free Christmas festivities but just stricter rules to make sure that things don’t get out of hand.   The perils of too much debt should have always been obvious but it is inability of the banking sector and the financial markets to suitably regulate lending that is perhaps the biggest lesson that we need to address.

Time to sober up

Any economic growth does not count for much if we have to give back most of the gains after a few good years.  Yet, giving up on this easy way of making ourselves richer also means that we cannot expect the economy to grow like in the past.  It will take hard work and sensible policies rather than financial wizardry to make genuine improvements in our standard of living.  The trade-off being that we can create a world where our jobs and what we make for ourselves is more secure.

The government could have a big role to play in this especially since companies are not investing as much as they used to.  Greater spending on infrastructure and education as well as lower medical costs would be a good start to help increase productivity (and wages) as well as going some way to propping up spending.  The solution sounds simple enough but politics is never easy especially at a time when the easy option is for politicians to offer up false promises.  It is voters most of all that need to be realistic in terms of what is achievable.  No party is worth a hangover on the scale of the global financial crisis.

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