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Time to grow again?

By Ajit Balakrishnan
November 04, 2014 16:30 IST

Growth in the United States might end the long period of economic malaise that has afflicted the world since 2007, says Ajit Balakrishnan.

Last Friday, at the end of three days of absorbing technical lectures and watching demos at an internet technology conference, I decided to catch a moment of peace, sipping my morning coffee and looking out of the window of my room at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.

In the near distance I could see Caesars Palace with its four-acre Garden of the Gods, with Roman statues and marble columns, and just beyond it the Paris Las Vegas Hotel with its half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower.

I opened the Wall Street Journal and was greeted by this extraordinary headline: 'US Economy Grows at Steady Clip'.

The gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States, the report went on to say, had grown at an annual rate of 3.5 per cent.

Could we now conclude that the long period of economic malaise that has afflicted the world economy from 2007 was about to end?

Are economic good times just around the corner, or was this just another illusionary signal?

Las Vegas is a good place to contemplate this question and look back over the past six years if only because Las Vegas is a world where reality and illusion are hard to separate as much as the world's economies have been.

The same spirit of eternal optimism and enormous risk-taking exists in both.

The hotel owners of Las Vegas are masters at creating a magical sense of well-being that loosens every visitor's purse strings.

The Bellagio, for instance, is famous for its water fountains. Every afternoon, one thousand fountains there start shooting water up 40 floors high and sway perfectly choreographed to songs such as Frank Sinatra's Fly Me to the Moon, Elvis Presley's Viva Las Vegas and Michael Jackson's Billie Jean.

Reading some of the accounts of the world's financial crisis since 2007, I get the sense that the present world financial order has some of these Las Vegas-like features.

Start with the "greedy bankers who ruined the world" school of books.

Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at JP Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe points a finger at some very smart people who spent their energies on creating complex financial instruments designed with the specific intention of exploiting regulatory loopholes.

Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System and Themselves is another thriller.

Michael Lewis's The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine is an account of how some financial traders saw the United States real estate market for the black hole it would become and short-sold their holdings well before the problems became evident to the world at large -- and, through these short sales, made billions of dollars.

I have always found the most convincing the view that Raghuram Rajan, now governor of the Reserve Bank of India and at that time a University of Chicago professor, took in his book Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy.

He says that it is too simplistic to blame the policymakers, bankers, traders and others for the catastrophe, that something more fundamental is at work -- a flawed global financial system that makes it easy and possible to take on large-scale risks without having to bear the losses if these bets go sour.

This system, he says, is the result of the world depending on its growth on the American consumer's willingness to continue spending even if it means taking on debt to finance his spending.

What's more, he says, American policymakers are politically pressurised to keep providing such easy credit to overcome the problems created by growing inequality and the absence of adequate social safety nets in the American system.

There is of course a more radical view, one that Aeron Davis, professor of political communication at the University of London, exemplifies.

He points to the role of financial media in spreading a series of narratives about finance itself and its "dangerous creations".

One such discourse, he says, presents financial centres of the City of London and Wall Street as key engines of growth, and gives them "an image of buccaneering, innovative entrepreneurship ... and governments were seduced by this narrative". 

A second discourse, he says, is that financial markets "are self-managing, almost mythical entities that ... will always overcome human fallibilities".

A third narrative is that even non-financial markets such as industrial and labour markets operate best when they work like financial markets.

The final discourse, he says, regularly supports the interests of financial institutions and investors over national governments and democratic processes.

As an example of this, he cites the coverage in London's Financial Times of the 1997 Thai currency crisis, which he says "produced a consistent ideological position that elevated IMF [International Monetary Fund] accounts and demands above those of the Thai government". 

He says that the financial media's consistent "interpreting and filtering every day news reports through the lens of these narratives provides a justification for the actions of financial elites" and "persuaded associated stakeholders elites, as well as ordinary citizens, that such activities were safe... "

May be the strong United States growth will lead the world back to a period of growth and help us all put this painful recrimination behind us.

Ajit Balakrishnan, the founder and CEO of Rediff.com, is the author of The Wave Rider, A Chronicle of the Information Age. ajitb@rediffmail.com

Ajit Balakrishnan
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