The damage to the real economy is becoming apparent. In America consumer credit is now shrinking, and around 159,000 Americans lost their jobs in September, the most since 2003. Some industries are hurting badly: car sales are at their lowest level in 16 years as would-be buyers are unable to get credit. General Motors has temporarily shut some of its factories in Europe. Across the globe forward-looking indicators, such as surveys of purchasing managers, are horribly gloomy.
If the odds of a rich-world recession have risen towards a near certainty, the emerging world as a whole is slowing rather than slumping. China still seems fairly resilient. Taken as a whole, though, growth in the world economy seems likely to slow below 3% next year—a pace that many count as recessionary. So the prospects are grim enough, but a continuing credit drought would make this much worse.
Lessons old and new
The lesson of history is that early, decisive government action can stem the pain and cost of banking crises. In the 1990s Sweden moved to recapitalise its banks quickly and recovered quickly; in Japan, where regulators failed to tackle toxic debt, the slump lasted for most of the decade. The twist is that this credit crisis is deeper (it affects many more types of markets) and broader (many more countries). Any solution has to be both more systemic and more global than before. One country trying to mend one part of its banking system will not work.
The idea of a comprehensive solution sounds simple, if expensive. But politicians have found it hard to grasp. Europeans have remained stubbornly wedded to the notion that the mess was “Made in America”; John McCain and Barack Obama talk as if it was all down to the greed of modern bankers. But financial excesses existed centuries before a brick had been laid on Wall Street. As our special report this week lays out, today’s bust—and the bubble that preceded it—had several causes besides dodgy lending, including a tide of cheap money from emerging economies, outdated regulation, government distortions and poor supervision. Many of these failures were as evident outside America as within it.