On September 15, 2008 Lehman Brothers collapsed in a heap, a bankruptcy that was followed by a recession in most rich countries. As time goes on, the severity of the disruption becomes both more apparent and more puzzling.
When Lehman failed, it was reasonable to expect the pain to be brief and concentrated. While too many houses had been built in the United States, most of the world’s real economy (comprising factories, offices, retail outlets, construction projects) was doing well. The global financial sector was more distorted, even before investors took fright at the decision to let Lehman go under. But by the middle of 2009, governments and central bankers had agreed to provide bankers and brokers with anything needed to keep them healthy.
Optimism was not justified. Although the countermeasures stopped the deterioration, the rich world now seems stuck in a Lesser Depression – many years of poor economic results and a series of financial crises. In the United States, the euro zone, Japan and the UK, real GDP per person is still lower now than it was four years ago. In all of them, GDP growth is currently either slow or non-existent.
The consumption setback shouldn’t cause too much concern – it wasn’t so bad five or six years ago, when real GDP was last at today’s level. But the enduring recession in the labour market is another matter.
In April 2008 the unemployment rates in the United States, euro zone and UK were respectively 5, 7.3 and 5.3 percent. In April 2012, the corresponding percentages were 8.1, 10.9 and 8.4. More refined indicators – youth unemployment, involuntary part time work and disaffected ex-workers – are even more discouraging. The post-Lehman economy is failing a significant number of people in a fundamental way.