Monday, June 27, 2011

Pop bubbles before they can cause havoc

Don't drop your bundle yet. It would be a brave person - braver than me - who denied any possibility of another global financial crisis.

Sure it's possible, but it's far from certain. And another financial crisis might be like we eventually realised the last one was: more North Atlantic than global.

The Bank for International Settlements is the central bankers' club. And central bankers don't warn of catastrophe if they really fear one's on the way. When things really are near crisis point, they are calm and reassuring.

So this is the world's bank manager issuing wayward clients with a stern lecture on the need to mend their ways. The bank is saying, don't assume the problems are limited to Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The big North Atlantic economies - the United States, Britain and much of Europe - have huge, unsustainable levels of government debt, and should the financial markets lose confidence in those countries' efforts to get on top of their debts, another crisis is possible.

It's preaching against the optimistic attitude in those countries that the crisis has passed and it's back to business as usual. No, no, back to the grindstone.

To that extent it's dead right: those economies face at least another decade of low growth as they grind away at reducing their public and private debts.

This is not a message aimed at us. We could be affected by another financial crisis but we're just as well placed to cope as we were with the first.

Our banks remain well supervised, with few loans to the worst-affected governments. Our government debt is laughably small compared with the US and Europe. Our interest rates are not too low.

If there's one lesson from the first crisis, it's that our fortunes depend much more on Asia than on Europe and America.