Low interest rates and easy money in the States and in Britain, and almost everywhere else, led to a crisis in the ’sub-prime’ mortgage market and then a credit crunch, which has brought on fears of a recession in the States and in Britain, and almost everywhere else. After a series of interest rate cuts, the latest response of central Banks including the B of E and the Fed has been $200bn of more easy money released by the latter and aggressive open market operations by the former directed towards the same end, along with co-ordinated actions to ease credit by all the other major central banks around the world.
But let’s get the next part of the story straight - what will happen over the next several months/years, unless the current policy direction in these central banking institutions changes. Eased credit in the States and Britain leads to a further bubble in the ’sub-prime’ mortgage market and in other such dodgy financial markets (and probably also a sudden surge of inflation), which in due course will lead to a still worse crisis, and thus quite probably to a full-blown depression. The US and UK nowadays are debt-ridden - debt-sodden, debt-addicted - countries, mortgaged to the hilt. The Fed and the B of E have just redoubled that truth.
Britain could draw a line in the sand here. Britain could do what needs to be done: we could initiate a strict re-regulation of the financial markets. How so? Because the City of London is now in many respects the centre of the financial world. If our kingdom indicated a firm intention to re-regulate big money, it would start to happen, and could build momentum around the world.
However, it won’t be easy. One reason why is of course the sheer depth of our addiction to debt. Another reason is that our neo-liberalised political system is ill-suited to taking such firm politically-led action on the world of finance. Gordon Brown may yet come to rue the day that he set the Bank of England ‘free’ to set its own interest rates etc. The current crisis is exactly the kind of moment when a government needs to have the levers of financial power in its hands, if it is going to get serious about stopping the debt-addiction that is poisoning the world economy, and that will bring down much more than just Northern Rock if it is allowed to continue.
In order to achieve financial sanity, we may have to reform our political economy in ways that run exactly contrary to the free-market orthodoxy that all the ‘main’ parties in this country now mainline on. A retrenched financial system may require a political system that takes back very significant freedoms that for the last 22 years or so (since ‘the big bang’) have been accorded to the City and that for the last 11 years have been accorded to the Bank of England.
But this needs to be done. We are living beyond our means. It is time to get real. It is time for some thrift. It is time to stop believing that economies can keep growing, and debt keep rising, without a reckoning. It is time to admit that the days of easy money are - ought to be - over, and to retrench. Through what they have just done, the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have simply blown a new, bigger bubble that will really bring the whole house of cards tumbling down further down the line. These fantasists (see Larry Elliot’s powerful analysis thereof and his prescriptions to solve the problem, from which I partly draw here) who believe that they can con themselves and everyone else into eternal debt and eternal growth will pay a terrible price.