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'Clueless' as global crisis worsens

The World Bank is warning of a global downturn worse than that of 2008/09 which saw trade drop by 90% at it lowest point and production following suit. In a sharp about-face from the optimism of its June 2011 report, the Bank now says “the world economy has entered a dangerous period”.

It warns that countries do not have the “fiscal and monetary space” to stimulate the global economy or support the financial system to the same degree as they did in 2008/09. In other words, no rescue packages will be available this time round which is about as stark a message as it comes.

Following turmoil on the world’s financial markets in August, global trade volumes declined at an annualized pace of 8% during the three months ending October 2011, mainly reflecting a 17% annualized decline in European imports. On balance, the World Bank said global economic conditions were "fragile and there remains great uncertainty as to how markets will evolve over the medium term."

In an open admission that they, nor anyone else can do anything to prevent the worsening collapse, Andrew Burns, Manager of Global Macroeconomics and lead author of the report says “the importance of contingency planning cannot be stressed enough.”

The report admits: “An escalation of the crisis would spare no-one. Developed- and developing-country growth rates could fall by as much or more than in 2008/09.”

Underlining the interconnected self-feeding spiral of decline of the global capitalist economy, the Bank’s latest report adds: "The downturn in Europe and weaker growth in developing countries raises the risk that the two developments reinforce one another, resulting in an even weaker outcome." Failure to resolve high debts and deficits in Japan and the United States and slow growth in other high-income countries, could trigger sudden shocks, the report says.

On top of that, political tensions in the Middle East and North Africa could disrupt oil supplies and add another blow to global prospects. In a sign that billions of people in developing countries are to be abandoned to their fate, the Bank warns that they “should evaluate their vulnerabilities and prepare contingencies to deal with a downturn”.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Europe is deepening by the day, as evidenced by the latest unemployment figures in Britain. The number out of work rose to its highest level in more than 17 years in November. The number of people without a job rose by 118,000 in the three months to November to 2.685 million, the highest level since August 1994. The number of young people without a job jumped to 1.043 million in the three months to November, taking the unemployment rate in the age group of 16-24 year-olds to 22.3%.

Unemployment looks set to rise further. Banks and retailers have cut jobs in recent weeks and Britain's largest food group Premier Foods announced yesterday that it would slash 600 jobs in the face of weak consumer demand.

None of this is surprising, given the ConDem coalition’s spending cuts and the crisis within the eurozone economies. In a sign of desperation, the Bank of England is expected to launch another round of “quantitative easing” – aka printing of money – next month in a bid to inject some life into the economy.

The sense of a loss of control at state level is palpable, as the unwinding of the economic and financial crisis continues to outrun governments. As one minister told the London Evening Standard this week: “The thing to remember, the unsayable thing, is that no one, not governments, not bond markets, not ratings agencies, not the World Bank, the ECB or the IMF has a bloody clue what to do about any of it.”

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
18 January 2012

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