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Is America the New Russia?

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by Martin Wolf

13 Apr 09 | FT

Is the US Russia? The question seems provocative, if not outrageous. Yet the person asking it is Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In an article in the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Prof Johnson compares the hold of the “financial oligarchy” over US policy with that of business elites in emerging countries. Do such comparisons make sense? The answer is Yes, but only up to a point.

“In its depth and suddenness,” argues Prof Johnson, “the US economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets.” The similarity is evident: large inflows of foreign capital; torrid credit growth; excessive leverage; bubbles in asset prices, particularly property; and, finally, asset-price collapses and financial catastrophe.

“But,” adds Prof Johnson, “there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests – financiers, in the case of the US – played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse.” Moreover, “the great wealth that the financial sector created and concentrated gave bankers enormous political weight.”

Now, argues Prof Johnson, the weight of the financial sector is preventing resolution of the crisis. Banks “do not want to recognise the full extent of their losses, because that would likely expose them as insolvent … This behaviour is corrosive: unhealthy banks either do not lend (hoarding money to shore up reserves) or they make desperate gambles on high-risk loans and investments that could pay off big, but probably won’t pay off at all. In either case, the economy suffers further, and, as it does, bank assets themselves continue to deteriorate – creating a highly destructive cycle.” >>>

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Written by Editors

16 April 2009 at 3:23 pm

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