Wed, Nov 17, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Epic financial crisis threatening to engulf both the US and EU

By Will Hutton  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

There were two stories this month that will have world-shaping implications. The first was in a Paris hospital and a compound in Ramallah. The other, unfolding in the world's foreign exchange dealing rooms, hardly made it beyond the business pages, but deserves to be taken just as seriously. We witnessed the storm warnings of what promises to be a financial crisis of epic proportions, threatening both the US and the EU.

Europe and Asia have both been on the receiving end of massive foreign currency speculation for the past 20 years and the countries concerned have been left badly scarred. Italy, France and the UK have suffered currency crises that have overshadowed their politics for years. In Asia, the experiences of Indonesia and South Korea tell a similar story.

The one country to have blithely sailed on through all this turbulence has been the US, but that is what is about to change. The political consequences for US President George W. Bush promise to be every bit as difficult as they have been for other governments. The dollar has been insulated because it is the linchpin of the international financial system. The US possesses the currency that is the everyday unit of account in international trade and finance; even al-Qaeda uses it to finance its terror network.

The US has used this happy fact to go on an international rake's progress, spending regularly more abroad every year than it earns by a massive US$500 billion. Its cumulative international debts stand at some US$3 trillion. The rest of the world accepts the dollars because it needs and wants to; until the euro, there was no other choice.

So the endless supply of dollars has gone on, springing as if like a mile-high geyser from a burst financial water-main and building up a growing lake of currency, mopped by the world's central banks, principally those in Asia, with Japan and China leading the pack.

The big question in international finance is whether this process can carry on indefinitely, because there are different rules for the US and the dollar, or whether the dollar will fall like every other currency whose economy takes on debts that ultimately it cannot service.

Earlier this month, the markets suggested the answer -- the dollar is no different. It touched record lows against the euro in what the president of the European Central Bank called a brutal fall.

For more than a decade, the world economy has rested on a Faustian pact: the rest of the world will soak up any amount of dollars the US wants to provide as it imports more than it exports, builds up its network of military bases and fights its wars and invests in factories and offices worldwide to supply the US market with cheaply made goods and services. More than half of the US' imports come from overseas affiliates of US companies.

The US lives beyond its means, but the rest of the world has the opportunity to ship goods into the globe's greatest market. China's growth has been predicated on this capacity; it, in turn, has sucked in imports from Japan and Europe and so the world economy has motored on.

Bush's re-election, though, has changed the fine calculus. He declares he has a mandate to be radical and the markets are pricing the consequences. He will cut more taxes and be assertive abroad, spending billions in Iraq and elsewhere; the geyser of dollars will gush ever more powerfully.

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