Experts are busy assessing the signs of an oncoming global recession and a new financial crash, poring over charts, columns of figures and graphs, reading about warnings from the International Monetary Fund among others.
Why are they so deeply alarmed?
Globally, manufacturing is in a recession. US production is contracting and jobs are disappearing as Trump’s trade war bites. China is still growing, but at its slowest pace in nearly 30 years. In Germany, formerly the European powerhouse, the whole economy, not just its manufacturing base is shrinking.
You can’t touch it, taste it, or smell it, but in its six-monthly Global Financial Stability Report, the International Monetary Fund warns, not least, of the danger lurking in the monstrous build-up of risky debt held by major corporations.
Fuelled by low and below-zero interest rates on borrowed money, this is debt they won’t be able to service as the recession deepens, profits continue their decline and turn into losses. It was the failure of US homebuyers’ ability to continue servicing their sub-prime mortgages that triggered the crash 2007/8. This accumulation of corporate debt is on another scale entirely.
You can already see some of the worldwide effects in the bankruptcy of travel firm Thomas Cook, the global repercussions of the sudden, rapid decline and fall of office rental co-working company WeWork, wiping tens of billions from its market value. Even the surprising failure of pawnbrokers Albemarle and Bond and payday lender Money Shop are warning signs of the looming meltdown.
What can these failures and the ongoing ‘retail apocalypse’ tell us?
For decades, production of ever-cheaper commodities of every kind has expanded, funded largely by credit issued by central banks on the hope of profits to come, derived from gig-economy conditions of exploited labour.
But, globally, the imposition of wage-squeezing austerity has placed limits on the ability of people to respond to the enticements of the increasingly targeted, personalised adverts. So the market for everything has become super-saturated. Too much stuff, chasing too few buyers.
People can no longer afford to redeem the valuables they’ve pawned, nor are others wanting to buy what’s on offer from unredeemed pledges. With too much productive capacity and too much office space, the system is suffocating in its own superfluity, just as its waste products are suffocating life on the planet.
You can’t touch, taste, or smell carbon dioxide either, but other than that, debt is very different. Debt isn’t a substance, but a relationship between creditor and debtor. And in the years since the last crash, governments and central banks have developed a dangerously toxic relationship with corporations.
They’ve used a variety of measures including inventing money through quantitative easing and historically-low, even negative interest rates to encourage corporations to borrow and invest. It hasn’t worked. A saturated market means falling profits, and falling profits deter investment. Instead, stock markets have inflated, property prices soared and the rich-poor divide has widened.
The increasingly volatile debt-credit relationship that ties governments to corporations is now on a path of mutually-assured destruction.
It’s not just corporations that are drowning in debt. Argentina is just one of several countries facing state bankruptcy – unable to repay its bondholding investor- creditors and asking the IMF for help.
The response to governments’ impotent attempts to stave off the deepening crisis are evident in the protests and riots against austerity measures on the streets of Chile, Lebanon and Ecuador. These are the more obvious signs of the social unrest that produced the rejection of the status quo in the election of Trump and the majority for Brexit.
Meanwhile, the unrepayable mountain of corporate debt grows faster than the experts can get to grips with the figures. What could trigger a crash this time?
Just about anything.