Thursday, October 1, 2009

No need for excitement over temporary recoveries

Those familiar with Jalan Universiti near Universiti Malaya (UM) will remember that some time ago, rush hour traffic jams in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad Secondary School were horrendous. The main reason was that at the intersection of Jalan Universiti, Jalan Kemajuan and Jalan Dato' Abu Bakar, there was a roundabout. Any traffic expert can tell you that a roundabout is suitable only for those places where the traffic volume is not too high. But if the volume is high, a roundabout will only worsen the traffic flow. Only a systematic method of alternating the rights to transverse the roads could prevent a gridlock. The traffic problem was therefore unavoidable as long as the roundabout was there and this had little to do with whether road-users were ethical or civic-minded or otherwise in their attitude. Mercifully, the local authority had the common sense to replace the roundabout with a traffic light junction and a fly-over. Now traffic jams aroundthe location has lessened drastically even during peak hours.

This is similarly the case with the economy. When the financial system is flawed due to its predication on the lending-for-profit industry, there is no avoidance of periods of crises. The nature of the system creates conditions very similar to those of traffic jams. Certainly there will be periods of economic growth, just as there were periods of smooth traffic flow on Jalan Universiti. But that would be around 6.00am when the day has just started. But as more road users enter the road on their way to work, the flow would start to slow down. At 7.00am the first sign of a gridlock would appear. In the context of the US and the global economy those early signs of economic gridlock were around late 2007. At 7.30am the gridlock would be obvious to all. Transposing that to the US economy, this was in 2008 when the sub-prime problem was in full swing. Between 7.30am and 9.00am, the traffic situation around Sekolah Sultan Abdul Samad at Jalan University would be almost at a standstill.

And that is the state of the US economy from 2008 up to now when the credit situation caused the financial system to seize up. Operations at thousands, if not millions, of firms were brought to a stand-still. A large percentage of these firms will also be experiencing insolvency problems, as is the case with General Motors, Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac and Fannie May in the US. Stimulus packages may get the economy moving again but only temporarily. Eventually the system will seize up again and the problem will get worse and worse, due to the worsening credit problem and increased level of indebtedness as the stimulus packages are also carried out using borrowed funds with interest charges attached. Stimulus packages, as economists are only too aware, merely serve to postpone the problem to a later time. Any growth in the economy due to stimulus packages will not be permanent. They will replaced by another period of slow-growth and recession.

In other words, the recovery situations are not unlike the temporary periods of smooth traffic flow at Jalan Universiti. It provides no reason for us to celebrate just as the daily commuting motorists at Jalan Universiti saw no real reason for joy when traffic jams eased up around 11 am. This was because they realised that as long as the roundabout was not removed, traffic congestion and gridlock could occur at any time. In fact they were also very sure that the problem would repeat itself every day between 5 pm and 8 pm and between 7.00 am to 10 am.

Back to the economy, we are now seeing some signs of apparent recovery. Strangely enough, we are now hearing excited comments by some economists who, for reasons best known to them, seem to completely ignore the temporary nature of these recovery periods. They seem to be behaving more like politicians rather than professional economists. Of course we can understand why politicians have to put a positive spin on any news as their political fortunes are dependent on whether the electorate feels good about the economy or not. But why are some economists behaving the same way? The only plausible explanation is that the fortunes of these economists are also probably contingent on those of the politicians.

In any case, we should remind both the politicians and those economists that despite the positive signs in the Malaysian economy, the Japanese economy, which is the second largest in the world, is still mired in a deep slump. In August Japan's exports shrunk by 36%, especially in the auto and steel industries. Much of Japanese exports go to the most important economy in the world - the US. But Japan's export to the U.S. fell by 34.4% this year with the largest decline being in the metal sector which fell by 82.2% in August. The weak Japanese domestic economy is reflected by the fact that its imports fell by 41.3% compared to that of August of 2008. All these reports indicate to us that as far as the world economy is concerned, the traffic jam has not eased up. Furthermore, if we bear in mind that the `roundabout' has not been replaced, it is far wiser for us to be thinking more on how to eventually remove it rather than to waste our time standing by the sides of Jalan Universiti and cheering the temporary easing of the traffic jams. Otherwise the students at Sekolah Sultan Abdul Samad will look at us and think that we are all a bunch of idiots.

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