Europe's looming crisis

It all started with sub-prime loans in the United States. Or did it? As the IMF is called in to bail

It was Europe’s dark secret. While American banks were lending irresponsibly to homeowners who couldn’t pay, European banks were lending to emerging countries who couldn’t pay. Europe’s sub-prime crisis has now come home as heavily-indebted nations of the eastern bloc – Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Baltic states – are collapsing one by one into the arms of the IMF. “Icelandisation” is the new spectre stalking Europe.

And, as with sub-prime in urban America, this latest crisis was shockingly predictable. I visited Latvia at the height of the credit bubble 18 months ago, and it was clearly an accident waiting to happen. Riga, the capital, was bristling with upmarket shopping malls and classy bars that were all quite empty. Stalin-era flats were being sold for $200,000 in a country where the average wage was less than $400 a month. Latvia has hardly any industry, no energy and few natural resources apart from trees. But such was the irrational exuberance of foreign banks like Swedbank, it was awash with credit.

According to the Bank for International Settlements, western European banks have lent more than $1.5trn to eastern Europe. Austria has loans equivalent to 80 per cent of GDP and stands to make huge losses as Hungary and Ukraine collapse.

This week, the Austrian government had to cancel an auction of government bonds because it could not be sure that investors would buy them. It is not inconceivable that Austria itself could end up needing to be rescued.

Other European countries implicated in global sub-prime include Spain, which has loaned immense sums ($316bn) to Latin American countries such as Argentina. Britain has $329bn tied up in Asia - or did until values collapsed in the Asian stock market rout. Japan's Nikkei index fell to a 26-year low this week, wiping out tens of billions of yen. The losses are now winging their way home to British pension funds and banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and HSBC.

Banks behaving badly, then, but what's new there? Well, the Bank of England told us this week that global losses so far from the financial crisis amount to $2.8trn. But this includes only a fraction of the likely losses from global sub- prime, which have yet to land on balance sheets.

Until last week's rout in the Asian bourses, there were still economists who believed that emerging markets would not be greatly affected by the credit crunch. But the theory that developing countries, led by China and India, have "decoupled" from the west, no longer holds water. It is clear that they have been dependent on consumer spending in America and Europe all along - and now that western consumers are staying away from the shops, no one is buying their goods. The Baltic Dry Shipping Index, which tracks the cost of hiring ships for international trade, has fallen by 79 per cent this year, itself a signal of a severe global recession.

Gordon Brown's hints that Britain might be able to spend its way out of this recession has to be considered in this light. There is no guarantee, in such a climate, that the British government would be able to borrow sufficient to pay for further bank rescues (they are sure to come), along with the cost of three million unemployed plus a programme of Keynesian infrastructure spending, however desirable that may be.

Investors are already shunning the pound because of anticipated losses from the UK property crash. Sterling has fallen 28 per cent this year, further than in the Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis of 1992, when interest rates rose to 15 per cent. We could be heading for a classic 1960s run on the pound.

The government had hoped that a devalued pound would stimulate exports and pull Britain out of recession, as happened after Black Wednesday 16 years ago, but the economic climate is different. We make few things to export now and the world is not in a buying mood anyway. And it has had quite enough of our "innovative" financial services. Thus Britain's current account deficit of 6 per cent - what used to be called loosely the balance of payments - has suddenly re-emerged as a major economic issue. Borrowing may be a good thing in a recession, but international financiers, sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and banks may not agree.

The UK has the honour of having been the last G7 country to call in the IMF - during the 1976 sterling crisis - and while the government is not yet filling in the application forms, Britain's finances would not impress the Fund's economists. Standard IMF lending conditions are: privatisation, cuts in government spending and increased interest rates.

We are going in precisely the opposite direction, slashing interest rates, borrowing to spend and nationalising the banks.

Seen another way, this is only an indication of the extent to which the IMF is no longer fit for purpose in the Great Deleveraging. In recent years, the Fund has been an engine of Wall Street neoliberalism and financial deregulation, which leaves it ill-equipped to deal with the new international environment of deflation and banking crashes. In addition, there is a fiscal crisis facing the IMF. It has only about $250bn in reserves to throw at a rolling financial crisis that has now engulfed half the planet, from Iceland to Pakistan. Gordon Brown has called on energy-exporting nations to stump up more cash for the Fund, but there is a strong case, too, for reviewing how the IMF operates. Set up as part of the Bretton Woods financial system in 1944, the Fund was designed to cope with episodic currency crises. It is now having to deal with potential insolvencies in countries the size of Argentina as well as bailing out entire regions such as eastern Europe.

It will have to be very much better capitalised if it is going to perform this role, and it will have to abandon much of its free-market ideology.

We need a new set of interventionist institutions capable of managing financial rescues on an international scale.

Ultimately, what is needed is an international central bank with the resources to provide liquidity guarantees, recapitalise banks and regulate international financial flows. This is an immense task, and the world may not yet be ready for it. But it is not a new idea: John Maynard Keynes argued for precisely this during the Bretton Woods negotiations in 1944. He even suggested a world reserve currency "bancor". This is the kind of thinking we need today.

The alternative, if nothing is done, is international tension, even war. Consider failing Ukraine with its large Russian population and its dependency on Russia for energy supplies, right at the moment when Russian dreams of becoming an energy superpower have been dashed by the collapse of the oil price bubble. Or look at nuclear Pakistan, where the entire country is disintegrating in financial chaos. And what about China? Will all those unemployed workers - where half the toy manufacturers have gone bust - go peacefully back to the paddy fields?

When heads of the "G20" group of nations meet in Washington on 15 November for what is being called "Bretton Woods II" they will not just be dealing with a banking crisis. They will be deciding the future of civilisation.