1. Financial markets have stabilized – largely because people believe that the government will not allow Citigroup to fail. We have effectively nationalized any banking system losses, but we’ll let bank executives enjoy the full benefits of the upside. How much shareholders participate remains to be seen; there will be no effective reining in of insider compensation (my version; Joe Nocera’s view). For more on how we got here, see the Frontline documentary that airs on Tuesday and Paul Solman’s explainer wrap up.
2. The real economy begins to bottom out, although unemployment will not peak for a while and could stay high for several years. Longer term growth prospects remain uncertain – has consumer behavior really changed; if finance doesn’t drive growth, what will; is the budget deficit under control or not (note: most of the guarantees extended to banks and other financial institutions are not scored in the budget)?
3. More broadly, there is sophisticated window dressing in the pipeline but no real reform on any issue central to (a) how the banking system operates, or (b) more broadly, how hubris in finance led us into this crisis. The financial sector lobbies appear stronger than ever. The administration ducked the early fights that set the tone (credit cards, bankruptcy, even cap and trade); it’s hard to see them making much progress on anything – with the possible exception of healthcare.
4. The consensus from conventional macroeconomics is that there can’t be significant inflation with unemployment so high, and the Fed will not tighten before late 2010. The financial markets beg to differ – presumably worrying, in part, about easy credit leading to dollar depreciation, higher import prices, and potential commodity price inflation worldwide. In all recent showdowns with standard macro models recently, the markets’ view of reality has prevailed. My advice: pay close attention to oil prices.
5. Emerging markets are increasingly viewed as having “decoupled” from the US/European malaise. This idea was wrong in early 2008, when it gained consensus status; this time around, it is probably setting us up for a new bubble – based on a “carry trade” that now runs out of the US. The ”appetite for risk” among investors is up sharply. The G7/G8/G20 is back to being irrelevant or merely cheerleaders for the financial sector.
By Simon Johnson