An observation on the credit crunch.. one year on
It's not normally the case that when a country suffers a hurricane, it soon endures an earthquake. Hurricanes and earthquakes are uncorrelated.
But the main lesson to draw form the events of the last year is that in the economy, when the hurricane strikes the earthquake is not far behind. When things go wrong, everything goes wrong at once.
It's worth having an understanding of this variant of Murphy's law because in general, when life is stable we are good at imagining all sorts of things that can turn sour. But what we are not good at preparing for, is everything turning sour in one go.
I suspect the reason that bad news comes in waves is that economic systems are far more integrated than most of us realise. You change one piece of the machine (turn house price rises to house price falls, for example) and more things are affected than you could have imagined.
And in the economy, because so many different variables are upheld largely by confidence or sentiment, a knock to confidence in one area can easily be the trigger for a knock in confidence somewhere else as well.. (for example, sub-prime disasters in the US damage confidence in the reliability of UK banks .. so no-one lends to them for non-sub-prime mortgages).
Disasters that are correlated with each other are far worse than those that are not - they imply that you don't go from one stable situation to some small perturbation away from stability.
No. You go from one kind of stability to a new, very different stability a long way from the first.
This kind of jump defies the risk modelling that most clever institutions engage in.
This is an interesting issue in a year that has seen a lot of broad economic assumptions change. Just to name four "paradigms lost" since the credit crunch took hold:
the confidence of the financial sector has taken a knock, and with it the presumption that the future of our economy lies in expanding the city ever further
the reliance on consumer spending in the UK (and US) is no longer seen as being able to carry on sustaining the economy - saving is cool again
the unipolar economic world order, centred around the United States, has been significantly diluted as Asia strengthens in relative terms, and the US even depends on exports to Asia to cushion its slowdown.
the idea that raw materials can permanently be cheap has been challenged - commodity price hikes have alerted the world to possible shortages
Is it coincidence that you can say the last year has been significant in all four of these different respects?
Of course not. In many respects, at least the first three of the four are really simple re-expressions of each other.. the same formula that allowed banks to make money, encouraged consumers to borrow and allowed the resultant spending which made the US uni-polar global economy look strong. Un-do the formula and it's not just one thing that changes, but everything.
The harder one to explain of course is the rise in prices in commodities - this is the one that few of us predicted and which defies the usual logic that when the global economy slows down, raw material prices fall.
But we should have been prepared for everything to turn bad at once. In this case the low inflation conditions bestowed upon us by China's cheap exports in the early years of this decade, also led to the inflationary over-stimulation of demand for oil and other commodities.
Next time, we should be ready for the fact that however sure we are of ourselves, however strong the economy: after the earthquake, get ready for the hurricane.