“When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it. . . . A married woman grabs at her baby; an unmarried one reaches for her jewel-box.”
-- Sherlock Holmes from A Scandal in Bohemia, by Arthur Conan Doyle
When a central bank thinks its house is on fire, it too will rush to save the thing valued most. In the United States, the central bank has rushed to save the bonuses and dividends of its Wall Street clientele by hiding away the bad assets that can no longer be foisted on gullible investors. In Europe too the response of central banks has been to save the wholesale banking and securities industry rather than the consumers and businesses underlying the real economy’s longer term productive strength.
For a comparative of what is valued elsewhere, it is worthwhile to look at what is being saved. I received in my inbox yesterday documents outlining the efforts being taken by the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to address the liquidity crisis in their respective jurisdictions. They are available online here (Hong Kong) and here (PRC). The contrasts with the West are striking, and humbling.
Hong Kong is swiftly introducing a scheme to guarantee credit to SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and exporters. China is introducing controls to limit bank credit to over-extended speculative sectors, accelerate rebuilding in the regions affected by the earthquake earlier this year, and promote improvements in local infrastructure, education and economic adjustment.
Holmes would have been disgusted by a married woman who grabbed her jewel-box in preference to her baby. In the same way, I am disgusted by the central banks preserving the privileges of the financial elite in preference to the jobs, incomes and businesses powering the real economy. The US and UK authorities may criticise the banks for their inaction in freeing up lending to commercial businesses constrained by the credit crunch. The Hong Kong and Chinese authorities are implementing guarantee schemes and innovating initiatives to rapidly address the problem.
As Holmes would have considered a child’s life worth more than jewels, I consider the workers and businesses in the real economy as meriting greater protection than the financial elite. It is not merely that I think the financial elite little better than criminals for their irresponsible excesses of recent years, but that I fear long term harm and political instability will come from neglecting the needs of the real economy.
Shortsightedness is a peculiar affliction of the Western economies. We cannot seem to project the consequences of our actions beyond the next quarterly report, fiscal year or - at most - election cycle. Eastern policy makers have a capacity for longer vision – and longer memory – which makes them appreciate sooner the potential consequences of bad policy. Perhaps this is a consequence of the longer term dedication required to gain political ascendancy in their less cyclical heirarchy.
That China's leadership is concerned with the implications for the real economy – and political stability – was confirmed this morning in an unusually blunt public statement by the chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission. From the Financial Times:
The downturn in the Chinese economy accelerated over the past month and could lead to high unemployment and social unrest, the country’s top economic planner warned on Thursday.
Zhang Ping, chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said the government needed to take “forceful” measures to limit the slowdown in the economy, which included Wednesday’s large cut in interest rates and a sharp increase in fiscal spending. The rate cut was the fourth since September.
“The global financial crisis has not bottomed out yet. The impact is spreading globally and deepening in China. Some domestic economic indicators point to an accelerated slowdown in November,” Mr Zhang said on Thursday at a rare news conference.
Mr Zhang’s warning about the potential for social unrest as a result of factory closures underlined the mounting concern in Beijing about the fallout from the global financial crisis.
“Excessive production cuts and closures of businesses will cause massive unemployment, which will lead to instability,” Mr Zhang said.
As Jim Rohm observed, “Failure is not a single, cataclysmic event. You don't fail overnight. Instead, failure is a few errors in judgement, repeated every day.”
The crisis in debt markets has been rolling since the sub-prime collapse of August 2007. The increasing illiquidity of commercial paper, trade credit, municipal finance and other debt markets was foreseeable and inevitable. And yet the central banks and treasury authorities of the Western nations have done nothing to shield these essential sectors from the ill effects of the financial sector implosion while giving virtually unlimited funds to the banks authoring the collapse.
Any discussion of China always invites criticism of its anti-democratic governance. It is worth remembering that the philisophical defense of democracy lies in the proposition that it is more likely over time to serve the interests of the electorate than a system which disenfranchises the people from the determination of their leadership. If the democratically elected governments - through their appointed executives and central bankers - are free over an extended timespan to ignore the interests of the people, then how is a Western democracy superior to a Chinese bureaucracy? From looking at the policies and practices of the past year, the merits of Western democracy are not immediately apparent in ensuring that policy responses to the financial crisis are aligned with the interests of the people. Even over the past decade, it is not clear that the policies of the democratic Western governments have aimed to strengthen and broaden the economy to benefit of the electorate rather than a narrow, self-serving elite.
According to Brad Setser, the World Bank is projecting increases to China’s trade surplus in 2009 as falling commodity prices lower production costs. Those unelected bureaucrats are doing something right.
If China and Hong Kong recover sooner, prosper more, and gain global political and economic authority in consequence, it will be because they made fewer mistakes and made them less persistently than their Western counterparts. If the promoters of democracy want to strengthen their case, they might best do so by ensuring that their leadership adheres to policies which promote the longer term health and well being of the economy as a whole rather than the short term enrichment of an undemocratic elite.