The key source of risk in the new year is the global deleveraging that lies at the heart of our financial crisis. We will see more of its effects in 2011 and it won’t be pretty. To understand the situation better, let’s try an analogy.
Imagine you have a relative or friend who is in tremendous debt. Your feelings about helping him could be colored by how he got into dire straits. Was it because of plain bad luck — he lost his job — or because he spent his money lavishly?
Moreover, those feelings are entirely independent of your ability to help, which may be constrained no matter how much your desire to help. And obligation can trump a lack of ability in cases in which you have no financial cushion, only a couch cushion.
This scenario describes the situation in Europe today. The Germans and other EU creditor nations do not feel all that connected to the Greeks or Portuguese and resent having to bail them out. But they know the failure to do so will have devastating and disorderly consequences, such as the collapse of the European banking system (in particular German and French banks).
So they reluctantly bail out Ireland and Greece, and soon Portugal, Spain and Italy. No one is happy. The debtor nations have foreigners imposing austerity on them. They feel they have lost their independence, and indeed they have. The creditor nations are hosting unwanted new “guests,” and can’t spend their wealth for their own needs anymore.
The U.S. historically has enjoyed a much closer sense of brotherhood across our borders. But that sense of kinship will probably be tested this year. Citizens of states that have acted responsibly will be reluctant to bail out states whose elected representatives spent recklessly. Let’s pray the U.S. can somehow keep it together. Proposals to add a new state chapter to the bankruptcy code, by obviating external bailouts, would be a step in the right direction.
Much political capital will be expended to sort all this out, and resilient markets have proven that financial capital can be usefully deployed even amid political and economic crisis. But none of this should obscure the very real problems of the friend or relative in need. Bill Gates and his 16 billionaire buddies can’t solve that one alone. That’s where you and I can make a difference.
A decade ago, Harvard professor Robert Putnam observed the phenomenon of “bowling alone” — the idea that in our atomistic society people no longer joined leagues. That was so pre-crisis. When there is a paucity of financial capital (which supports employment) and a misallocation of political capital (which kills jobs), we need to fight back with social capital. Today we must join whatever private groups are personally meaningful to us and make sure there is food, housing and job support for those in need. And, of course, a family member in need takes precedence.
The return on this kind of investment is guaranteed, and may be just what it takes to sustain us through the political and financial turmoil of the new year.