According to trend researchers. the human evolution moves in cycles; some are short, about 10 years, others are a bit longer. about 50 – 60 years. But the most fundamental changes in life on earth comes along about every 500 years or so. These changes are often dramatic and violent. What we are experiencing right now may very well be one of the really big turning points in the history of mankind.
“But, remember, a global paradigm shift implies a significant change in opportunities, and not just risks.”
Mohamed A. El-Erian
One of the most sound characteristics of the global crisis I’ve read in quite some time comes from Mohamad El-Erian, CEO of the worlds largest bond fund, PIMCO. El-Erian faces the reality with no fear, admitting that there is no way of predicting what will happen next and points to four crucial factors that you should be watching if you want to be able to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
“The sense of uncertainty prevailing in the West is palpable, and rightly so. People are worried about their futures, with a record number now fearing that their children may end up worse off than them. Unfortunately, things will become even more unsettling in the months ahead,” El-Erian writes.
The following commentary was first published as a part of Project Syndicate.
This version appeared at Al Jazeera a few days ago:
The United States is having difficulties returning its economy to the path of high growth and vigorous job creation.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets of US cities, and thousands of others in Europe, to demand a fairer system. In the euro zone, financial crises have forced out two governments, replacing elected representatives with appointed technocrats charged with restoring order.
Concern about the institutional integrity of the euro zone – key to the architecture of modern Europe – continues to mount.
This uncertainty extends beyond countries and regions.
Those looking around the next corner also worry about the stability of an international economic order in which the difficulties faced by the system’s Western core are gradually eroding global public goods.
It is no coincidence that all of this is happening simultaneously.
Each development, and certainly their occurrence in tandem, points to the historic paradigm changes shaping today’s global economy – and to the anxiety that comes with the loss of once-dependable anchors, be they economic and financial or social and political.
Restoring these anchors will take time.
There is no game plan as of now, and historic precedents are only partly illuminating. Yet two things seem clear: Different countries are opting, either by choice or necessity, for different outcomes, and the global system as a whole faces challenges in reconciling them.
Some changes will be evolutionary, taking many years to manifest themselves; others will be sudden and more disruptive.
Yet, as complex as all of this sounds – and, by definition, paradigm changes are complicated affairs that, fortunately, seldom occur – a simple analytical framework may help shed light on what to look for, what to expect and where, and how best to adapt.
The objective is not to account for everything, but rather to pinpoint a small number of variables that can explain key factors, albeit neither perfectly nor fully.
Using this approach, it is possible to argue that the future of many Western economies, and that of the global economy, will be shaped by their ability to navigate four inter-related financial, economic, social, and political dynamics.
The first relates to balance sheets.
Many Western economies must deal with the nasty legacy of years of excessive borrowing and leveraging; those, like Germany, that do not have this problem are linked to neighbours that do. Faced with this reality, different countries will opt for different de-leveraging options. Indeed, differentiation is already evident.
Some, like Greece, face such a parlous situation that it is difficult to imagine any outcome other than a traumatic default and further economic turmoil; and Greece is unlikely to be the only Western economy forced to restructure its debt. Others, like the United Kingdom, have moved quickly to take firmer control of their destiny, though their austerity drives will inevitably involve considerable sacrifices.
A third group, led by the US, has not yet made an explicit de-leveraging choice. Having more time, they are using the less visible, and much more gradual, path of “financial repression”, under which interest rates are forced down so that creditors, including those on modest fixed incomes, subsidise debtors.
De-leveraging is closely linked to the second variable – namely, economic growth.
Simply put, the stronger a country’s ability to generate additional national income, the greater its ability to meet debt obligations while maintaining and enhancing citizens’ standards of living.
Many countries, including Italy and Spain, must overcome structural barriers to competitiveness, growth, and job creation through multi-year reforms of labour markets, pensions, housing, and economic governance. Some, like the US, can combine structural reforms with short-term demand stimulus. A few, led by Germany, are reaping the benefits of years of steadfast (and underappreciated) reforms.
But growth, while necessary, is insufficient by itself, given today’s high unemployment and the extent to which income and wealth inequalities have increased. Hence the third dynamic: the West is being challenged to deliver not just growth, but “inclusive growth”, which, most critically, involves greater “social justice”.
Indeed, there is a deep sense that capitalism in the West has become unfair. Certain players, led by big banks, extracted huge profits during the boom, and avoided the deep losses that they deserved during the bust.
Citizens no longer accept the argument that this unfortunate outcome reflects the banks’ special economic role. And why should they, given that record bailouts have not revived growth and employment?
Calls for a fairer system will not go away. If anything, they will spread and grow louder. The West has no choice but to strike a better balance – between capital and labour, between current and future generations, and between the financial sector and the real economy.
This leads to the final variable, the role of politicians and policymakers. It has become fashionable in both the US and Europe to point to a debilitating “lack of leadership”, which underscores the extent to which an inherently complex paradigm change is straining traditional mindsets, processes and governance systems.
Unlike emerging economies, Western countries are not well-equipped to deal with structural and secular changes – and understandably so. After all, their histories – and certainly during what was mislabeled as the “Great Moderation” between 1980 and 2008 – have been predominantly cyclical. The longer they fail to adjust, the greater the risks.
Those on the receiving end of these four dynamics – the vast majority of us – need not be paralysed by uncertainty and anxiety. Instead, we can use this simple framework to monitor developments, learn from them, and adapt. Yes, there will still be volatility, unusual strains, and historically odd outcomes.
But, remember, a global paradigm shift implies a significant change in opportunities, and not just risks.
* * *
Well, it is of course important not to lose faith.
However, “De-leveraging,” “economic growth,” “social justice,” and “leadership” – right now the two first are anemic, the two others are more or less absent.
Not cause for the greatest optimism…
Recommended reading: “Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How It Changes Everything”
- The Anatomy of Global Economic Uncertainty (dinmerican.wordpress.com)
- See the financial crisis as a chess game with 4 pieces (flowingmotion.jojordan.org)
- The great de-leveraging (ftalphaville.ft.com)
- Europe’s Debt Crisis Spirals out of Control Europe is an accident waiting to happen (xkorpion.wordpress.com)