Globe and Mail Update
February 23, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
Harvard author and financial crisis guru Niall Ferguson has landed with a thud in Ottawa, spreading messages that could make even the most confident policy makers squirm.
The global crisis is far from over, has only just begun, and Canada is no exception, Mr. Ferguson said in an interview before delivering a presentation to public-policy think tank, Canada 2020.
Policy makers and forecasters who see a recovery next year are probably lying to boost public confidence, he said. And the crisis will eventually provoke political conflict, albeit not on the scale of a world war, but violent all the same.
“There will be blood.”
Will invoking the Great Depression bring it on?
The Buy America penchant pushed by the U.S. Congress in passing the recent stimulus bill was only the tip of the iceberg.
Abu Dhabi buying Nova Chemicals at bargain-basement prices on Monday is a sign of things to come, with financial power quickly being transferred over to the world's creditors – namely sovereign wealth funds – and away from the world's debtors.
And much of today's mess is the fault of central bankers who targeted consumer-price inflation but purposefully turned a blind eye to asset inflation.
The Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, and author of The Ascent of Money, A Financial History of the World, sat down with The Globe and Mail's economics reporter, Heather Scoffield.
Heather Scoffield: Canadian leaders frequently argue that Canada is in better financial shape than elsewhere in the world, and therefore should fare better during this crisis. Do you agree?
Niall Ferguson: Canada is [considered] a winner because its banks are less leveraged, bank regulation here has been tighter, because its housing market hasn't been in a bubble quite the same way. It's tempting to conclude from that ... that Canada will be less hard hit in the crisis than the United States. But that is unfortunately wrong. Because this is a very unfair crisis. The epicentre is the United States, but the rest of the world, and particularly America's trading partners, will get hit harder than the U.S.”
“It suggests virtue is its own reward. You don't get any reward beyond the self-satisfaction of having been virtuous. This is a crisis of globalization. Therefore, the more an economy depends on the global system, the harder it hurts. Canada is not finding the worst. Asian economies are going to be really slammed this year. But it's an unfair world. The U.S. won't be as badly affected as most countries.”
Heather Scoffield: Is the U.S. able to escape with less pain because it has more resources to throw at its problems?
Niall Ferguson: “Partly because they can throw so much at it, and they can do it at a lower cost than anybody else, because the U.S. retains the safe-haven status, which makes the world so unfair. Here is the world's biggest economy, which gave us subprime mortgages, rampant securitization, the collateralized debt obligation, Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch. It is, in a sense, the fons et origo of this crisis. And yet, because it retains safe-haven status, in a global crisis, investors want to increase their exposure to the U.S. Hence, the dollar rally. Hence 10-year Treasuries down below 3 per cent yields. It's almost paradoxical that an American crisis ... reinforces the status of the United States as a safe haven.”
Heather Scoffield: Surely that safe-haven status would be revoked if China loses faith in the U.S. ability to finance its debt?
Niall Ferguson: As you know, Chimerica – the fusion of China and America – is one of my big ideas. It's really the key to how the global financial system works, and has been now for about a decade. At the end of The Ascent of Money, I speculate about whether or not that relationship will survive. If it breaks down, then all bets are off, for the U.S. and indeed for Asia. I think that's really the key point. Both sides stand to lose from a breakdown of Chimerica, which is why both sides are affirming a commitment to it.”
“It's very interesting that the Chinese in the last week were saying such soothing things around the [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton visit. This was only days after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner used the dreaded ‘m' word – currency manipulation.
Heather Scoffield: Why would the U.S. administration poke a stick in China's eye like that?
Niall Ferguson: “You obviously have to recognize that Democrats have been more hawkish on China for some time, than the Republicans ... But I think Tim Geithner is smart enough to know that this is a very dangerous game to play and I would be very surprised if you heard that word again pass his lips.”
Heather Scoffield: Did the Clinton visit improve the China-U.S. relationship?
Niall Ferguson: It looks like it....The line is very clear from China. They've consistently made their position clear. They want the status quo. They do not want this thing to break down. They were kind of appalled when Geithner said the ‘m' word. And they took full advantage of Hillary Clinton's visit to smooth ruffled feathers and restate their commitment. It's a very good bilateral relation. That bilateral will is important here. The Chinese believe in Chimerica maybe even more than Americans do.
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