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Big picture: crisis, crash, depression?

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Paul Mason | 07:58 UK time, Monday, 6 October 2008

As I write, my colleague Robert Peston is telling a woman styling herself the "Chief Secretary to the Treasury" what the government's policy on nationalisation is....

It is a function of the tech revolution which created this situation that we are all now bombarded with too much information to process. Iceland's bailout this morning, Germany, Austria and Denmark join Ireland and Greece in guaranteeing deposits, and now the UK papers have caught up with Idle Scrawl and are reporting the UK government considering taking equity stakes in the banks. And in the USA, TARP-II is beginning to take effect. I am simply going to sum up, bullet points, what I think is going on. Really big picture and assertive, but here goes:

1) There are two kinds of contagion driving the financial crisis:
a) the unwinding of bad debts following the detonation of Lehman and AIG. People are starting to pick over this and Fannie/Freddie. The withdrawal of funds from hedge funds is a subset of this
b) what Nouriel Roubini calls a "silent run" on the banks. It's not a material run - except at the edges - but a confidence run. Huge amounts of the deposits of businesses and high-value individuals remain un-guaranteed and that is draining confidence.

2) I am still struggling to work out the interaction between these two unfolding events: we will mainly know in hindsight for example with Hypo. However together the two contagions are driving the Eurozone financial crisis.

3) The credit freeze is the secondary effect of both the Lehman/AIG week, and the US Congress's failure to pass the original TARP. It has built, gone global and is being amplified by feedback loops. Thus on Roubini's blog it says traders reporting that the end of last week was the worst ever: no interbank lending going on.

4) The credit freeze creates both short and medium turn crises for the commercial sector: businesses in both the UK and USA are reporting facing ad hoc demands for higher interest and cannot get credit. Debt rollover problems are also facing the state of California and other US state and city-level administrations. We are maybe weeks away from a big corporate default. That will drive the crisis to its next level.

5) The real-world recession is gathering apace. My local Tesco has suddenly filled with sliced bread and own-label products. The first big corporate bankruptcy will spark initial attempts at a government bailout, followed by contagion.

6) On the basis of all the above, the world's governments are facing the following challenge: to stop a global banking crisis on a scale the world has never known. This is not hyperbole. We have had 1929 but never a global 1929. This is not just 1929: it was started by bank failure and has now moved into the "run on the banks" phase. But governments are already taking measures it took years to evolve in 1929-33 - and taking them within 4 weeks.

7) The missing event is a stock market collapse: we are in slide-to-crash territory already but a collapse will wipe out large numbers of the global middle classes - especially in the emerging markets.

Here are the questions:
a) Can governments act decisively and in collaboration to stem the panic?
b) Can the corporate sector be inoculated from a series of defaults, bankruptcies and closures?
c) Will the global stock markets crash, crater and refuse to come back for a decade (as in 1929)

If the answer to all three is no, then the only two examples we have from history suggest that the world economy will enter a decade-long depression. You've heard of the 1930s - but worth also a look at capitalism's first "Great Depression" 1873-1896. Both depressions were driven and coincided with a contraction in world trade and protectionism. Both created major international rivalries driven by economic rivalry.

To put it bluntly the world is pretty much in the same situation as Iceland: it has borrowed way more than it could afford to borrow and huge amounts of capital will now have to be wiped out because they are fictional. We replaced an economy based on high wages and long-term investment with one based on debt and speculation. There will be many versions, politically, of where we go from here, but society is being posed point blank with the question: what sustains a high-consumption society if not wages or debt?

I will tell you the answer in ten years time.


  • Comment number 1.

    if someone gets a march up from Jarrow to London then it will something to worry about but all we had yesterday was a half marathon through Jarrow so we are a long way off from 1929 and all that but if Mandy gets a second mortgage........then all bets are off

  • Comment number 2.

    "What sustains a high-consumption society if not wages or debt?"

    Good question indeed - and the answer is not a service economy based on expensive mobiles and, ahem, banking. Shame we don't have a manufacturing base, a car industry, or a mining industry anymore.

    Terrifying, but brilliant analysis Paul.

  • Comment number 3.

    "What sustains a high-consumption society if not wages or debt?"

    Why is debt necessary?

    I can see that you 'need' high wages to have the income to buy stuff if so disposed, but accepting debt in the equation seems unnecessary.

    Yes, by accepting and facilitating it the vendor side does 'buy' a sale a bit earlier, but at great risk. And surely no one enters a contract without the expectation of being paid?

    Hence all debt would seem to be is a mechanism permitted to pander to a lack of patience or other short term aim.

    Mind you, if the shortfall does get covered by others I can see its attraction.

    I sell. You buy. 'They' owe. Nice one.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    oh dear the post has been blocked? says a lot.

    was it because i gave my view on peston's style?

  • Comment number 7.

    Paul, you very fairly ask,
    "Can governments act decisively and in collaboration to stem the panic?"

    You seem to be implying a need for a 'new Bretton Woods'. Surely any such international conference on finance effectively be a cover for the formal recognition of a decline in American power in favour of China and the BRIC countries more generally?

    Hands up who thinks that's likely to acceptably within the Beltway or in the Westminster/Whitehall/Square Mile triangle.

  • Comment number 8.

    The fact that Yvette 'HIPs fiasco' Cooper is now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is surely something which would be difficult for even Tina Fey to satirise.

    The phrase 'sending out a boy to do a man's work' springs to mind...

  • Comment number 9.


    At times like this, we need qualities in the individuals comprising government, that are inimical to the insidious Westminster Model.


    The factors giving rise to this calamitous state of governance have all been rehearsed here and some attempts at a way forward offered.

    We need a champion - a hero - a rallying point. A person of maturity, rarely apparent in daily life, who will risk all in the interest of a worthwhile future for the many. Do such exist? Or has 'Education X 3' done its work and reduced us all to headless battery chickens?

  • Comment number 10.

    Debt is necessary because under our current monetary system, money is debt. Without debt there would be no money, and without money, no debt.

    Also .. Mr Mason I encourage you to process this information:

    Then maybe you shall understand.

  • Comment number 11.


    As so often: our language offers insight.

    The practice of goods given over against 'credit' (all too often - extended credit) has become a 'given good' in our decadent culture.

    Another given good is school. What was once 'education' (the drawing out of human potential in an individual) is now 'schooling' gathering the young together to cost-effectively (a) free up mothers for work and (b) cram-in Mammonish expertise.

    Then there is 'democracy' and a host of other failures - like war as a tool of advancement.

    Is it not obvious that The Ape Confused by Language has advanced 'a synapse too far' and, if this is to be overcome, must apply itself more diligently to achieving any claim to civilisation?

  • Comment number 12.

    Important as this issue is, and I am sure there are many out there who can understand the "in's" and "out's" of the various banking systems and it's on-going effect upon our economic stability.

    I personally found myself lingering on the first line of this story, namely the use of the words, "This woman, styling herself as the Chief Secretary of the Treasury."

    Does this man have an issue with a woman being in this position? is she not entitled to address herself as such; why demean this woman and her professional status, I am sure she has worked hard as most women have too to get where she is.

    As thought provoking as your article was and if I might say, an expert view of what is really going on out there, please spare a thought for respecting other people's abilities, even when thery are only "women."

  • Comment number 13.

    GOOD GRIEF (#12)

    I got the impression that gender was of no account in Paul Mason's chosen construction.

    If I am proved in error, I will post an apology.

  • Comment number 14.

    No12: As a lifelong anti-sexist I make no gender bias in exploring the dilemmas of those in power. But I am sorry if it sounded sexist: it probably did and I did not think about it.

    Thank goodness you have not noticed my lighthearted comparison of Ms Cooper with Pullman's Mrs Coulter - however that is Philip Pullman's sexism not mine.

    Are you, by the way, really a Franciscan nun? Pleasure to have you on the blog - I was schooled by the Salesians, though if you Google me on the blogosphere you will see it did not really do me much good!

    Thanks - Paul

  • Comment number 15.

    What amazes me is how this has now become a government problem i.e. you and me the taxpayer!!!

    The banks lent money irresponsibly, everyone has lived on credit for over a decade and these risks were spread worldwide being used as "security" for more debt.

    Now creditors are asking for their money, due to global lack of confidence, all hell has broken loose.

    There is not enough money globally to pay it back!!
    Add to this the rate cuts are not being passed on to you and me, we have credit grid-lock.

    And some how all EU governments i.e. you and me the taxpayer, must guarentee our own savings !!!!

  • Comment number 16.

    Clearly there is no "solution" in terms of supporting the system. The "market" is now more powerful than the governments, so either the Central Debt merchants publish money like a Zimbabwean dictator and support the market, China cherry picks various corporations, or massive social unrest fundamentally forces a new dynamic of economic activity.

    What worries me is next year hundreds of thousands of troops are going to be dragged back to economies with no futures for them. A galling possibility is a resurgent oil back Shia led OPEC alliance could be the only people willing to spend money, and what better way to counterstrike, than to own your enemies economy. What did we fight for, those troops will ask.

    1930's Germany anyone?

  • Comment number 17.

    RE: 12 sister-renate-fcsf

    You have missed the point.

    He was drawing attention to the fact that someone who claims the title of "Chief Secretary to the Treasury" still needs to hear government policy on nationalisation explained by a journalist. This is surreal - to put it very mildly.

    It happens that the "someone" is a woman. If the Chief Secretary had been a man and this blog entry had started with the words -

    "As I write, my colleague Robert Peston is telling a man styling himself the "Chief Secretary to the Treasury" ..."

    you wouldn't have made any comment at all, would you?

    Thinking about that fact might help you to discover some real sexism.

  • Comment number 18.

    This was a light hearted comment directed solely at the opening quote not the "chosen construction" I found the entire article truly enlightening; not being versed in the ways of market forces ect. I could not and would not offer further comment than that.

    If you find it apropriate to apologise, I will accept it graciously.

  • Comment number 19.

    As I explained to barriesingleton I was merely offering light hearted comment on the opening lines.

    In answer to your question about my being a Franciscan nun, it is yes, though a rebel one at that. I work within the Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered communities providing pastoral support when this has been denied by the "main stream" Churches. Being the only Catholic Transgendered Franciscan nun in the UK can have it's advantages; as my facebook page will show.

    I must take up your offer and do a bit of Googling.

    Every blessing

    Sr. Maria Renate

  • Comment number 20.

    Re: 17 hants_gw

    I would like to refer you back to Paul's response; he was able to see the gentility within my comment. I leave all the disecting to the boys, not my forte I am sorry to say.

    I am not aware of the fact that I personally need a lesson in sexism, my line of work brings me up front and fully focused on the issue of sexism in our society.

    I appreciate the reasoning behind your need to cmment on a small part of my writng. Now that you have seen a little more of the picture you will have a fraction more understanding, one hopes.

    Every blessing

    M. Renate

  • Comment number 21.

    Paul, you're one of the first commentators to mention (psssst) "the consumer", well indirectly: "what sustains a high-consumption society if not wages or debt?". Our wages seem to have been getting higher in past decades (although we're told they have not), and our levels of debt, as individuals, businesses and institutions, have certainly risen dramatically. Either way our expectations, for a higher and higher standard of living, has outstripped both wages and now debt.

    The system is busted and we, and the planet, are suffering. I'd like to see more people concentrating on the role of the consumer in this whole picture. We are all, as consumers, a huge part of the problem, and whether we like it or not, will have to be a big part of the solution, in adjusting our lifestyles to a more sustainable model.

  • Comment number 22.

    Nice to see an attempt at big picture analysis, your attempts to keep us informed are much appreciated Apparently we are not to be allowed to be privy to what our government thinks as the 'Chief Secretary to the Treasury' doesn't appear to think it is our place to be told. Remind me, this is still a democracy isn't it ?

    Our Political class seem to be in a state of panic and so far at least have given us no confidence in their capacity to lead us out of this mess. The Labour government's strategy seems to be to throw our money at the banks and chant the meaningless mantra that 'we will do whatever is necessary'. Whilst The Tories Plan seems to be to abandon their opposition role and line themselves up as cannon fodder for whatever Brown decides.

    If the poor taxpayer is to have any confidence in the political class, they need to show us evidence that they understand the root cause and that the solution/s they are proposing manifestly addresses that cause, rather than being a cover for protecting their own interests.

    From what the media have reported so far the crisis revolves around the Banks effectively withdrawing from their assigned economic role. As this role is crucial to all our well beings one might have thought that our government would be acting swiftly and decisively in the national interest. (That was the line they adopted when Miners withdrew their labour.) Would we not expect our PM to address us directly, explaining the problem and seeking public / parliamentary assent to whatever solutions are proposed. Yet so far all we have had is analysis-light platitudes as government ministers react to the latest event.

    In the absence of any effective parliamentary scrutiny its been left to the Media to explore and explain and challenge government. But the media haver their own agenda . Print media have their own 'editorial' lines to follow whilst the electronic media is dominated by a government funded monolith that sees itself has having a legitimate social role as well as a journalistic one and which has thus been accused of being uncomfortably close to the party in power.

    We the taxpayer are thus left still in the dark and with the niggling suspicion that our political masters are clueless and trapped in a cycle of panic.

  • Comment number 23.


    Way to go, sister!

  • Comment number 24.


    Reading #12, 18, 19, 20, in sequence, I can only quote dear departed Eric Morcambe: "THERE'S NO ANSWER TO THAT".

    With a light heart . . .

  • Comment number 25.


    You paint an apocolyptic picture. These latest events are extremely worrying. I personally have been following events closely since the collapse of NR over a year ago.

    It's reassuring to know that Yvette Cooper's grasp of the situation merely mirrors those who work under her in more junior positions, namely, Kitty Ussher who performed equally uninformed at a not too long ago Commons Treasury Select Committee. Another case of the blind leading the blind leading the economy.

    Why don't you take the 'bull by the horns' and discuss the best kept secret that is the fraud of FRACTIONAL RESERVE BANKING?

    On Ropert Peston's blog earlier today, someone challenged all readers to find the mention of the FRB system in the header title (i.e. of a URL) on any story on all of the mainstream press' and media's websites on the entire internet (i.e. any story at all....not just about the current financial crisis).....and you know what, it comes up with ZILCH. This is more than a coincidence and proof positive that the mainstream media are complicit in the cover up of the fraud that is the FRB system sham.

    However, it's now being mentioned on many other blog sites (not just on the BBC's) as the root cause of this systemic banking failure. This crisis cannot begin to be properly addressed, or indeed fixed, unless the root cause of the problem has been clearly identified.

    Even The Grauniad has begun to report this subject as the root cause for these problems. They ran the following story 'Solving the banking crisis' a week ago.

    I challenge you to address this in one af your forthcoming blogs or on air asap. The situation now merits, at the very least, some of your 'airtime'. Go on! something to be remembered for...if not only for honest journalism.

    If I am pressed to offer you a solution or an alternative then I can only refer you to our building society model which I believe to be similar to ultra conservative French, German and Spanish banking models....or, if all else fails, the Islamic banking model that does not allow usury or the charging of interest.

    I eagerly (no, desperately!) await your reply.

    'It's a wonderful world!'

  • Comment number 26.

    Excellent analysis Paul. Its significant that today we are seeing a scenario worked out that only the more extreme bloggers were considering 18 months ago.

    Your opening comment is right on the button, without going into personalities, I find things quite frightening when we have someone like that in a position of such importance. I have to go back to the 1930's to locate politicians whose only function appears to be mind-control and who offer nothing believable or of substance. This isn't a party political point. I voted for them :-(

  • Comment number 27.

    On 6 Oct 2008, at 11:32, blogpaulmason wrote:

    Dear BBC Blog contributor,

    Thank you for contributing to a BBC Blog. Unfortunately we've had to remove your content below

    Postings to BBC blogs will be removed if they appear to be potentially defamatory.

    You can find out more about Defamation at

    You can read the BBC Blog and messageboard House Rules in full here:

    If you can rewrite your contribution to remove the problem, we'd be happy for you to post it again.

    Please note that anyone who seriously or repeatedly breaks the House Rules may have action taken against their account.


    The BBC Blog Team

    A reply has been in order:

    Dear Sirs,

    As I cannot see a problem, and you have not seen fit to specify what it might be out of a myriad possible options and catch-alls, I am currently unable to rewrite it.

    Care to explain which Disparaging the individual in their office, profession or trade or the organisation's office, profession or trade.

    You are having a laugh, right?

    I'd say that by this definition almost no content should even get on your broadcast (especially some satirical shows) output, let alone a blog.


    No reply as yet.

  • Comment number 28.

    Ta for posting.

    Not sure editing out the key sections I was referring to helps much, mind.

  • Comment number 29.

    This whole crisis has come about by getting credit with credit which used to be taboo. All credit should be linked to a tangible asset, not a client cbase , nor a site hit count...
    We are going to hit a major recession. Just look at the longterm graphs Perhaps out of this we will get 'olde worlde' companies that expand slowly and surely by reinvesting part of its own profits. Let's do away with fly by night companies that have no reserves to tide them over during slow times. Let the bad anks sink into the abyss...

    Can anyone give an estimate of how much global cooling could take place from this world slowdown?

  • Comment number 30.

    Just one further point... If in a couple of months the Christmas trade becomes a big flop, then, with nothing to look forward to, the markets will plummet.
    I expect to see more patios being dug up and planted with spuds!

  • Comment number 31.

    paul you say "I will tell you the answer in ten years time" surely you know the answer workers power???


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