The Broadbent Blog

Broadbent Reads: Crashed by Adam Tooze

Book Review

Adam Tooze. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Viking. New York. 2018

The global economic crisis is now more than a decade old, and is far from definitively behind us. Indeed, many fear, with good reason, that the recent, uneven and lethargic global recovery may soon come to an end, and that the next crisis of global capitalism could be even worse than that of 2008.

The financial crisis and resulting crisis of the real global economy triggered by the collapse of  Lehman Brothers and other major Wall Street banks has already prompted the release of a small library of books. ( The best, to my mind, is Martin Wolf's, The Shifts and the Shocks.) But Adam Tooze provides us with the first truly comprehensive account. It is the work of a contemporary historian who draws on political and economic theory to frame a compelling and disturbing narrative, and is likely to become a standard and indispensable reference.

Over more than six hundred pages, Tooze looks at the origins and implications of the financial crisis around the world, proceeding chronologically, geographically and thematically. In an extraordinary work of scholarship, he surveys the global political economy and financialized capitalism of the pre crisis period, the unfolding of the financial crisis in the United States and Europe, the spread of the crisis to developing countries and Eastern Europe, the extraordinary response of China, the euro zone crisis and the agonies of Greece and Southern Europe, and the political implications of the crisis.

He offers a coherent account of how the crisis set the stage for the rise of right-wing populism around the world, and speculates on how the global economy may evolve in a new age of explicit and escalating rivalry between the United States and China. What is at stake is the possible collapse of the “neo liberal” global economic and political order.

One relatively novel argument made in the book is that the global economy has to be seen, not so much as a set of discrete national economies trading with each other, as a vast “macro financial” web of  corporate balance sheets and financial flows. In such a world, states can rapidly experience an exit of capital and economic collapse without necessarily running large trade or public finance deficits, while the hegemonic power, the United States, can readily finance such deficits by virtue of the unique status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency.

Tooze does not look in detail at the underlying contradictions of the pre crisis period, but he does note the key point that growth in an age of rising inequality and redistribution of income from labour to capital was dangerously reliant upon the growth of private debt, speculative bubbles, and the recycling of global trade surpluses to deficit countries, notably from China to the United States. He broadly endorses the view that neo liberal global capitalism has been associated with “secular stagnation” due to inadequate demand, offset only by the massive expansion of debt. As he notes, the fear was that crisis would result from a collapse of the US dollar, but instead it came from the collapse of global finance due to a massive accumulation of bad debts dispersed across the world. In response to the crisis there was, somewhat ironically, a flight to the US dollar as US government bonds were seen as the safest asset available.

Where Tooze departs a bit from the standard account is in his understanding and insistence that this was not just a crisis of the US banks, but a crisis of global and especially North Atlantic finance. Tight links between the Wall Street banks, the City of London, and the major European banks produced a global systemic financial crisis, not a crisis of so-called Anglo-Saxon capitalism as many European critics have argued. The euro crisis was also the consequence of low quality debt and speculative housing bubbles in some countries (the UK, Spain) rather than the excessive growth of public debt. Indeed the fiscal problem of countries hit by crisis in southern and eastern Europe were mainly the result of the crisis of the real economy which increased government deficits and debts, and the decision of many governments (most notably Ireland) to transfer bad bank assets to the public sector.  

Building on the historical analysis of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin in The Making of Global Capitalism, Tooze argues that the global economy has been economically and politically dominated by the United States, which remained in 2008, and remains even more so today, the only power capable of providing global economic leadership. “The crisis had the effect of re-centering the world financial economy on the United States as the only state capable of meeting the challenge it posed.” He recounts how the US Treasury and the US Federal Reserve were absolutely key to resolution of the crisis of the banks in 2008, extending liquidity (very low interest US dollar credit lines) to global and not just US banks.

Similarly, massive US government purchases of distressed financial assets to bail out the financial system through the TARP and other programs were extended from the US banks to major European and even developing country banks. Key officials like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner won the day when they argued for “big bazooka, shock and awe” tactics to stabilize the financial system.

While there was a lot of bungling, experimentation and political resistance along the way, the US Treasury and the US Federal Reserve were indeed able to stabilize the US financial system fairly quickly by a combination of outright injections of new capital and arm twisting to force mergers. “Hair cuts” for those who had caused the crisis by investing in high risk, low quality assets and through reckless speculation and outright fraud were modest at best.

These bail-outs have been widely criticized, with good reason, for saving financial capital at the expense of working people who had to endure high unemployment and a huge wave of home foreclosures. But the US political system, even progressive Democrats included, would not even contemplate nationalizing the banks. In that context, a viable financial system and normal credit flows had to be restored by socializing bad debts.

The alternative to bail outs was to experience what happened in the eurozone, a failure to deal with insolvent banks through “extend and pretend” half measures which postponed an outright collapse of the banking system but without dealing with bad debt. “The eurozone, through willful policy choices, drove tens of millions of its citizens into the depths of a 1930s style recession. It was one of the worst self-inflicted disasters on record.” Tooze argues that the euro area also effectively sidelined itself from any pretensions to global economic leadership.

Fortuitously, US leadership also extended to domestic and internationally co-ordinated fiscal policy in response to the collapse of the real economy. The stimulus program of the Obama administration could and should have been far bigger and lasted far longer, as was understood by those who had learned the lessons of the Great Depression in the 1930s. But again it was much more significant than similar stimulus programs in the UK and Europe endorsed by a new global forum, the G20 as an immediate fix. In Britain and Europe there there was a quick return to fiscal austerity and deep spending cuts long before growth and employment had recovered, with Germany and smaller Northern European countries demanding harsh and indeed sadistic fiscal measure as the precondition for any help to heavily indebted countries. In the most troubled countries, there was a death spiral as insolvent banks became every more shaky as the real economy collapsed and interest rates soared well above those of Germany.

The euro zone as a whole failed to act until very late in the game, when the European Central Bank finally announced in July, 2012 that it was prepared to “do what it takes” to bring down interest rates on debt denominated in euros. This failure was partly due to institutional architecture (the narrow mandate of the ECB, tight rules on fiscal policy) and partly due to German insistence that recovery had to be based on austerity and wage discipline to restore global competitiveness, without heed to the immediate consequences. Greece was crucified as a salutary lesson to others. Today, the banking crisis is far from fully resolved, most notably in Italy, public debt has reached very high levels in some countries where the crisis has hit hardest, and output has grown little above pre crisis levels while unemployment remains very high.

Tooze further notes and details that China was an absolutely key player in resolving the crisis through massive fiscal stimulus, and continued willingness to retain and expand its enormous holdings of US dollars. “China's response to the financial crisis it imported from the West was of world historic importance, dramatically accelerating the shift in the global balance of economic activity towards East Asia.” To give an idea of the scale, between 2008 and 2014, China built 10,000 kilometres of rail capable of running trains at 360 km per hour, in the process gaining a massive technological advantage. And health care coverage was extended from 30% to 90% of the population through expansion of subsidies and a massive construction program for health care facilities.

Tooze endorses and details the argument that the bail outs of finance, massive unemployment and fiscal austerity set the stage for a major discrediting of centre left neo liberal parties and the rise of right-wing populism in the US, the UK in the form of Brexit, and much of  Europe. In the United States “in the name of economic nationalism and the American dream, the right wing claimed the cause of systemic change, while the Democratic Party establishment filled the middle ground the Republicans vacated. “ Trump explicitly challenges the global capitalist order in the form of America first economic nationalism and rejection of global institutions like the WTO.

More widely, “(s)ince 2007 the scale of the financial crisis has placed the relationship between democratic politics and the demands of capitalist governance under immense strain. Above all, this strain has manifested itself ... in a crisis of the political parties that have mediated the two.” Moderate parties of the centre left which championed global capitalism and did little to alleviate the impacts of the global crisis on working people have paid a high political price, threatening the future of the global system as is it still exists. Social democracy in the eurozone has massively retreated as the populist right has rejected globalism and even the European Union  itself in favour of economic nationalism and racial xenophobia.

Looking to the future, Tooze notes with many others that the recent global recovery has been built on the fragile base of continued growth in debt with very limited reform of global finance. Future crises are hard to predict, but are inevitable. He could, perhaps, have said more about what a stable and equitable growth model might look like.  What he instead stresses, rightly, is the crisis of global political capacity to regulate the system. “With Trump as president and the Republicans dominating Congress, it is an open question whether the American political system will support even basic institutions of globalization let alone any adventurous crisis fighting at a national or global level”

The eurozone is seemingly incapable of resolving its own problems, as not just the UK but also Italy and the right in France look to the exits. Meanwhile, “China's economic triumph is a triumph for the Communist Party. This is still the fundamental reason for doubting the possibility of truly deep co-operation with China in global economic governance. Unlike South Korea, Japan or Europe, China is not a subordinate part of of the American global network.”

We indeed live in profoundly dangerous times. Fortunately Adam Tooze has given us a narrative and analysis that illuminates where we have been, though he has no clear view of how progressive forces should and could re-shape the crisis prone and deeply inequitable global capitalist system created in the run-up to 2008.