Opinion

Ian Bremmer

The countries not letting a crisis go to waste

By Ian Bremmer
July 25, 2013

In 2008, before the financial crisis had even reached its nadir, Rahm Emanuel famously said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Emanuel’s quote became the conventional wisdom for crisis management, even if the idea is age-old: John F. Kennedy Jr. famously pointed out that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one for “danger” and one for “opportunity. 

Nearly five years after the global economic meltdown, we can now look at the world’s major powers and assess how well they’ve responded to their various crises. Three categories emerge. Who took advantage of crisis? Who never really had a true crisis? And who is letting crisis go to waste?

A crisis unwasted: Japan and the Euro zone

Let’s begin with Europe, which experienced a real and urgent crisis. Remember that as little as 18 months ago, the media and bond markets had the euro zone pegged for imminent fracture, when the debts of its member countries and the untenable divide between its core countries and those on the periphery threatened to overwhelm the political unity and economic cohesion that the bloc enjoyed. A lack of fiscal coordination, political and monetary dexterity, and balance between strong and weak states pushed the world’s largest economic bloc into existential crisis.

But with the help of Germany, bolder monetary policy from the European Central Bank, and some very painful budget-control measures, Europe has emerged on sounder footing, and the prospect of collapse is firmly behind it. There has been a fundamental restructuring, and now Europe is on the mend. The looming crisis itself helped affect structural change. Without market pressure and alarm bells, the periphery would not have been shaken from complacency, nor would the ECB have taken a bolder stance to put a floor under the crisis.

Japan had a very different crisis than Europe did. Two “lost decades” didn’t spur the Japanese into action. Japan went through nearly 20 years of stagnation, stuck in a whirlpool of deflation, low growth and rising public debt that prevented the country from competing as the rest of the world’s powers modernized their economic approaches. What shook Japan out of its malaise? In part, it was an increasingly acrimonious challenge from China, which has surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. Japanese voters’ economic and security fears from the regional superpower prompted them to give Shinzo Abe another crack at the prime minister post. He’s used it to create an economic plan heavy on stimulus, join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact negotiations, and work toward making all “three arrows” (monetary easing, government spending and structural reform) of his economic plan take flight. It’s still unclear whether Abe’s ambitious plans will succeed, but there is no question that Japan has converted its slow-motion crisis into a remarkable opportunity.

A crisis untrue: United States and China

It was only two years ago when all anyone in Washington could talk about was the debt ceiling. The S&P downgraded the U.S.’s credit rating, Congress embarrassed itself, markets plunged and then everyone just moved on. What’s happened since? America went over the fiscal cliff by a day, the debt ceiling is still a bargaining chip in Washington power politics, and Congress couldn’t avoid the sequester that subsequently took effect. 

And yet America’s still kicking and its major stock market indices continue to reach new heights. That’s because the only genuine emergency America experienced was its banking crisis, and in 2008 and 2009 Washington met the challenge, much like the euro zone met its own existential threat. The U.S.’s standing is so firm that it’s hard to saddle it with a structural crisis like the ones we saw in Europe and Japan. Debt matters less here — for at least as long as the United States can continue to finance it at such low rates.

In that sense it’s true that the U.S. failed to take advantage of a crisis a few years ago — but that’s because the crisis wasn’t big and imminent enough. Americans were not desperate enough to force their leaders to change.

There are plenty of looming threats that might eventually beget a full-fledged American crisis. For example, income inequality isn’t a crisis today — it’s an alarming and growing problem in the longer term. That’s why Occupy Wall Street resonated. But it faded before forcing any structural change in the American political system, leaving a potential crisis for another day.

China is a similar story. Many fear a hard landing in China — a drop in economic growth rates that leads to unsustainable unemployment, posing a threat to the Chinese political system. And yet, China remains stable. Its growth is declining, but manageably, and its state capitalist model is inefficient but still robust for the near future. This is the kind of casual, slow change you expect to see when a country doesn’t face an imminent shock to the system. Does China have huge hurdles on the horizon? Absolutely. The demographics are worsening, state capitalism cannot last forever, and an enriched citizenry will increasingly demand more accountability and transparency from its government. But none of these are sufficiently urgent to send Beijing into crisis management today. For the time being, China might be tackling these issues insufficiently precisely because they are not yet worrisome enough to warrant a broader response.

A crisis unacknowledged: France

In the third and final category, we have a country in crisis that has refused to acknowledge it. That country is France. France is facing deep structural troubles, with an unemployment rate above 10 percent, an underproductive workforce, fiscal imbalances, and unsustainable spending on social services and pensions. Today, public spending in France has reached 57 percent of GDP — good for first place in the euro zone — even though 15 years ago, France’s tally was on par with Germany’s. And the French haven’t given President Francois Hollande the political capital necessary to do enough about it — nor did Hollande really make his case any easier. He campaigned on a platform that pushed back against much of the austerity that the country so sorely needs. Because France was considered part of the European core, it was able to skirt the wave of euro zone pressure that led to change in the periphery.

On June 8th, Hollande declared, “What you need to understand is that the crisis in Europe is over.” He was more or less correct, and that’s precisely the problem. The rest of the euro zone leveraged its crisis to make structural changes; the peripheral European states have already made their corrections (even if it came at a painful social and economic cost). France used the euro zone’s turbulent restructuring to brush its own inaction under the rug. 

Some countries have proved far more adept at crisis management than others. And some countries are not facing true crisis at all; while that explains their complacency, it is no justification for it. After all, those who work to avoid a crisis in the first place are in a category above the rest.

This column is based on a transcribed phone interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: G8 countries leaders (From top C, clockwise) Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama, France’s President Francois Hollande, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta,  European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attend a working session at the Lough Erne golf resort where the G8 summit is taking place in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 18, 2013.  REUTERS/Yves Herman

Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Fascinating! We get recent articles that claim that the economic crisis in Europe is worsening with no end in sight, then others that claim the crisis is over. Whom are we to believe? Maybe a more important question is whose agendas do these contrary views support?

It’s interesting that this author believes that the prices in the stock market are a key indicator of the economic state of a country. Amusing… Of course, the Plutocrats, the One Percenters, believe that with all their wizened hearts.

The Plutocrats who hold European debt are thrilled by the austerity measures and explosive cyber-Euro growth since they get paid first! The actual economies haven’t displayed the same positive effects. Unemployment is worsening and those in poverty still increasing. So, whose view is the predominant one? It seems we’re back to feudal times: Screw the Pee-Ons! Their needs are no longer important.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

I find this a little strange. France is part of the Eurozone. The UK is not.

Whatever crisis there is in France, it looks to me worse for the UK. We have higher debt and lower productivity.

Our balance of trade is chronically negative. We are over financialised and there seems to be no industry other than financial services that is truly competitive in a global market place.

The government is cutting spending. The budget deficit is still there, but investment in the sort of economic capacity that we need to grow is not.

We have not dealt with the financial crisis, but our government has not wasted it politically.

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive
 

I perceive the world through numbers. Everything has its metrics that allows to describe the nature of the issues. It applies esp. to economy. According to any economic, industrial indicators/statistics US and UE in 2012 are at least 5% off, mainly 10% off the 2007 levels (energy/oil/electricity consumption, major consumer goods, real average wages, employment (full time jobs), output of major industrial products etc.). It is especially fascinating in US because population rose from 302 million in 2007 to 315 million in 2012, over 4% growth so on per capita basis all economic indicators are even more negative. So i do not understand your optimism, what data back it up ?(Dow and NOMINAL US GDP are not indicators if not corrected off QE effects).
The main problem from my point of view is not crisis itself because UE/US population are well to do on average, and few live in subsistence. The crisis speeds up the rate of geopolitical changes as major economies of developing countries where immune to it, and i mean mainly China.

In 2007 China GDP was 25% of US GDP , in 2012 it was 53% of US GDP. In 2007 Chinese oil consumption was 37,8% of US, in 2012 55,1% of US. Electricity consumption China in 2007 75% of US, in 2012 116% of US.

Everybody is talking about financial crisis, but long term structural crisis of US is mainly dependent on much too high (and rising) reliance on hydrocarbons. US has highest per capita usage of hydrocarbons among net importers. US can’t rely its electricity production on natural gas, it is not Saudi Arabia, Quatar,Iran or Russia.
In 2012 oil consumption 820 million tons, natural gas 650 million tons of oil equivalent, in total 1470 milion tons of oil. 1 ton is about 7,5 barrels so in total 11 bilion barrels a year. At 100$ per barrel it is 7% of US GDP, even US cannot afford that bill. Of course natural gas price in US is depressed at the moment 4-5 times lower that world prices, but shale gas is a 10 years short term phenomenon with big hangover.
Majority of UE contries are ready for 200$ crude (usage per capita in richest like Germany is half of US level), economies were rebalanced since 70′s, is US ready ?

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive
 

I think the USCA (United States of Corporate America) certainly did take advantage of the banking crisis. Just look at the total GDP the big five investment banks controlled before and after.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •