Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer let fly on Occupy Wall Street, why the GOP's cynical economic strategy is designed to make things worse, and whether China wants to ride to the rescue.
- By Benjamin Pauker
Ben Pauker is executive editor, online, at Foreign Policy. Ben came to FP in May 2010 from World Policy Journal, where he was managing editor from 2007-2010. A native of New York, he grew up in Brazil, Australia, and Thailand and has written for Harper's, the Economist, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. He is the co-founder of the Gastronauts, the world’s largest adventurous-eating club, and, in the course of reporting but mainly to see if it was possible, has smuggled small arms out of Central Africa.
With protesters occupying Wall Street and European voters deciding on whether to support the failing peripheral states, Foreign Policy went back to its two favorite economic and political prognosticators — Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer — for another spirited debate on what the coming months hold.
The news isn’t good. "There’s a huge amount of anger," says Roubini, better known as Dr. Doom for having predicted the 2007-2008 financial crisis. He sees another recession coming; the only question being "whether it’s going to be a plain-vanilla recession or one as severe as the last."
So, can Barack Obama do anything to stem the tide? Not in an election cycle, says Bremmer — head of the Eurasia Group political-risk analysis firm and moderator of FP‘s The Call blog — and we should be worried about political contagion across the Atlantic, too.
But surely the fiscally sound, sensible Germans won’t let Europe fall apart, right? Roubini’s answer is even more ominous: "Things that should not occur sometimes do occur — even if they lead to disaster."
Could China rescue the eurozone? Don’t bet on the Chinese "white knight," says Bremmer; they’re a lot more interested in watching Greece crash and then "bottom feeding."
Foreign Policy: What do you think of the Occupy Wall Street protests? Have you been down to see them?
Nouriel Roubini: I stopped by. My view of it is that it is a symptom of the economic malaise that we’re facing not just in the United States, but all over the world. It started with the Arab Spring, and of course, poverty, unemployment, corruption, inequality eventually leads to people becoming restless. But now, you have middle-class people in Israel saying we cannot afford homes; you have middle-class students in Chile saying we don’t have education; you have riots in London; people smashing Mercedes and BMWs of fat cats in Berlin and Frankfurt; you have an anti-corruption movement in India. It takes a lot of different manifestations, but we live in a world with a lot of economic insecurity, of worries about the future, of inequality, poverty, of concerns about jobs. And [Occupy Wall Street] is the manifestation in the U.S.
In 2009, [President Barack] Obama told the bankers, "I’m the only one who’s standing between you and the pitchforks." The bankers got the bailouts; they were supposed to extend credit, extend mortgages. They did pretty much nothing, and they went back to the same actions as before: making money through trading. At this point, I think people are fed up with it. Rightly or wrongly, there’s a huge amount of anger.
FP: Ian, do you think the so-called 1 percent feels any pressure to change its practices?
Ian Bremmer: Less than you think. It’s very clear that there is rising animosity toward the financial sector. It’s true in the United States and in Europe, as well. And I do think these economic protests have legs, even though they’re very poorly organized and it’s not entirely clear what they are or what the agenda is. And I say that because we’re in an election year and there are a lot of wealthy, vested interests that are both on the Democratic and the Republican side that will try to throw money at these guys and tap into some of that anger. We’ll see where it goes.
Having said that, the United States is not Egypt. It’s not as if you have unemployment in the U.S. and as a consequence people starve. You still have a lot of political apathy in the United States. You also have a country — frankly, much like Saudi Arabia — where a lot of immigrants come in and take jobs that the average American, even an unemployed American, wouldn’t necessarily want. 9.1 percent unemployment is very, very high, and it’s an outrage in this country to have that level of sustained unemployment. Yet it appears to be something that Washington is prepared to tolerate. We don’t see an urgency in Washington to truly address the issue, certainly nothing like the urgency you see in Europe today.
So I don’t think the 1 percent is coming under the kind of pressure that would force them to take a different position.
NR: I would make the point that, however, while I agree with what Ian says, that the "official" unemployment rate is 9.1 percent — but the one that includes discouraged workers who have left the labor force or partially unemployment has gone from 16.2 percent to 16.5 percent. And if you add to it the millions of people that you have in jail in the U.S. — which is four times the amount of any civilized country as a share of population — than unemployment is probably closer to 20 percent. And that’s just among the average population. For minorities, the youth, or unskilled people that don’t have a high school degree, the number is closer to 30 percent. It’s a stressful situation.
The U.S. might not be Europe, but the U.S. is not used to having an unemployment rate so high — and staying so high. Usually, when you get a recession the monetary and fiscal stimulus leads to a recovery of jobs in short order. But this is becoming chronic and longer term. Either the United States becomes like Europe — and we’ve already extended unemployment benefits three or four times over — or otherwise you have a much bigger social welfare state and safety net. Or you’ll have people rioting in the streets. We have to do something either way. Either we’ll have a fiscal problem or a social problem.
FP: What can the Obama administration do at this point? And is Washington ignoring the situation in Europe? Are there any levers the administration can pull to stop a European contagion coming back across the Atlantic?
IB: I wouldn’t say the United States is ignoring Europe; we saw that with Timothy Geithner’s trip over to Poland a couple weeks ago. But the willingness of the Europeans to listen to U.S. advice (however well-intentioned) in this environment, especially given the problems of America dealing with its own economy … it’s not quite as problematic as telling the Chinese what to do … but it’s not that far off. The ability of the Americans to have a significant impact at the strategic-thought level and at the policy-influence level on Europe is very, very low.
The willingness of the United States to have an impact — outside the IMF where the impact is significant with Europe — in terms of Americans reaching into their pockets, that’s obviously a political non-starter, given both the U.S. economic situation domestically as well as the political environment around elections. We are in election cycle. Even when you’re not in the doldrums with huge amounts of political polarization, it’s always hard to get anything passed in this environment. It’s even more so. But that does not mean that gridlock is the name of the game. Clearly, when crises exist in the United States — either true crises like the Lehman bankruptcy, or manufactured, like the debt-limit issue or the two averted government shutdowns and the $1.3 trillion supercommittee — Congress has actually shown that it can act at the last moment. It’s not efficient, it’s not the optimal way to run policy, but it’s not gridlock.
NR: If the Obama "jobs plan" is not passed, we’ll have a fiscal drag on the United States next year of something like $350 billion because of the expiration of the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits, infrastructure spending, you name it. So what the Obama plan does is to avoid a 2 percent of GDP fiscal drag and provide a fiscal stimulus at a time when state and local governments are retrenching. So the net of it will be closer to zero, even if it were to be implemented. My view of it is that the Republicans are not going to let it pass, or only let pass a small fraction. They’re going to wrap themselves around the fiscal austerity excuse or that he wants to pay for it by taxing the wealthy, and maybe only half of it is going to be passed — maybe some unemployment benefits or pieces of the payroll tax. But that implies that you’ll have a nasty fiscal drag of about 1 percent of GDP, at a time when growth is barely positive — which will tip us into negative growth.
I think this is a political calculus on the part of the Republicans. They’ve taken a Leninist approach, you know, of the worse is the better. This is an election year. If the economy gets worse and they don’t pass, this plan then the chance that Obama gets reelected is smaller. They think he’ll be a one-term president. If so, they’ll inherit not just a nasty recession, but something probably worse. But I think it’s a political calculus they’re playing — even if it’s going to hurt the economy.
FP: Ian, you think the Republicans’ economic plans are intentionally cynical?
IB: Not across the board, no, but I think the closer we get to November of next year, the more so they’re going to be. I think that Obama made a choice that he was going to go further down the taxation and more maximalist route early on. The Republicans decided that they were going to respond even more than in kind. And I think Obama came back after the midterm elections, after taking a drubbing, and said, "I’m going to play centrist with you." Some of the Republicans didn’t buy it, but more of them sensed weakness, and I think that’s how they’re playing it.
With the enormous anti-Washington sentiment right now, it’s much easier to complain. The election is in the absolute doldrums. It almost doesn’t matter which candidate the Republicans put up; the election is about Obama. Now, Obama is an extraordinary candidate, and he’s going to have a lot of money. I wouldn’t bet against him at this point in the actual elections, but clearly that’s the Republican strategy. And I think the Republican economic plans are part and parcel of that strategy.
FP: Nouriel, are we already in a second recession?
NR: We’re not yet there, but my own analysis suggests that the U.S., the eurozone, and the U.K. are going to end up in a contraction — whether you call it a double dip or a continuation of the first dip is a just semantics — by Q4 or Q1, we’re going to be there. Certainly, we’re there already in terms of economic contraction in the peripheral of the eurozone — and soon the core will be in an economic contraction. We’re almost there in the United Kingdom. The U.S. data are slightly more mixed, but in my view, they’re going to lead us to this economic contraction.
The question, in my view, is not whether we’re going to have a double dip, but whether it’s going to be a plain-vanilla recession or one as severe as the last with the financial crisis. The answer to that question depends on whether things in the eurozone periphery — whether the defaults or exits of the member states — become disorderly or not. If that were to happen, it’s going to be Lehman all over again, maybe Lehman to the power of two….
But what about this $2 trillion bazooka that Europe needs? Even if you believe that the 440 billion euros of the European Financial Stability Facility is not sufficient, because half of it is already committed to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and the banks. So what’s left for Italy and Spain? It’s only 200 billion euros, but you have to potentially backstop 3 trillion euros of their debt.
Now, people say when push comes to shove, Germany’s going to do the right thing because the alternatives are the destruction of the eurozone or the collapse of Germany as another Lehman…. But you have timing constraints, political constraints, legal and constitutional constraints, and credit risk. And the average German — as opposed to the average politician — is going to say enough is enough.
Things that should not occur sometimes do occur — even if they lead to disaster … like with crises, like with wars. So saying it cannot occur just because the alternative is too bad to fathom, I think, is a bit too easy to say.
FP: Ian, should we be concerned that Germany or the Northern European economies don’t have the political will or economic foundation to pull the rest of Europe out of this crisis?
IB: I think there’s the question of where the funding is going to come from and whether they can act fast enough to handle market downturn — which can move faster than politics. And that is an open question and a real risk, along with the liquidity of banks in Europe. But that’s very different than politics. We talk a lot about economic contagion but not enough about political contagion.
If you were to create a mechanism where, say, Greece were to leave the eurozone, that mechanism would be incredibly difficult to set up; it would also require approvals across all the European parliaments and ultimately, if it passed, would also create a mechanism for other countries. And there’s not a lot of interest in that. It’s true that among the Germans and the Northern Europeans there’s a lot of animus; they’re saying, "Why are we being called upon to pay for these guys"? But not a lot of people are willing to talk to them about how much they’ve benefited from having a eurozone.
But we should never underestimate the ability of European institutions to make policy, despite domestic political constraints. These institutions are strong, and these constituencies have been ridden roughshod over before. If it were up to individual constituencies, Turkey would never have been brought in the EU as a candidate member. Similarly, the Lisbon Treaty never would have been signed. You wouldn’t have spiraling EU institutional budgets while austerity is being forced on peripheral institutions, and for that matter, you wouldn’t have had a Greek bailout.
FP: Could the Chinese come in with a massive injection of capital into the eurozone?
IB: Everyone’s been asking them that. But over the last few months, the Chinese have been the Chris Christie of the European bailout. They keep saying they’re extremely interested, but few people — myself included — think they’re going to make a major, swoop-in huge purchase…. Even though it’s an authoritarian state, you still need consensus to make those decisions. I think the Chinese are much more interested in, after a Greek default, coming in and bottom feeding and buying up all sorts of assets. I wouldn’t say they won’t play any role in backstopping the euro, but I wouldn’t count on them being the white knight riding in to save the day. China’s disappointed us on many, many fronts in terms of global leadership — in part because of lack of maturity and because they’re still a developing state. Europe is not the place where China will suddenly emerge, playing the role that the United States used to play.
NR: Every time there is a European country getting in trouble — Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy — there’s a noise about China coming in to buy their bonds. The first observation I’d make is that in the past when Mexico and Korea were in trouble, they would go and knock at the door of the United States. But right now the U.S. doesn’t have the fiscal resources or the political will to backstop the eurozone, so it’s already a sign of the changed times. So now they go to China.