The Great Unravelling: a system in meltdown: Part 1
It didn’t have to be coronavirus. It didn’t have to be Storm Ciara (or Dennis, or Jorge). The delusions of neoliberalism stand at the edge of an implosion just waiting to happen. But, as with the emperor’s new clothes, global leaders are too fearful to say that their economic model has been stripped naked. How quickly delusions crumble.
The last week has seen stock markets tumble at rates unseen since the 2008 crash. In the US, an emergency meeting of the Fed dramatically cut interest rates by 0.5 per cent (to 1.25 per cent) in an effort to make life easier for business. It won’t work. This crisis is so much bigger. Wild weather and coronavirus are ganging up to form an economic “perfect storm.” It will only get worse.
Initially, the industrial world had only a passing interest in the coronavirus outbreak in China: stupid Chinese, eating the wrong stuff it thought — good job that an authoritarian state could turn a city of millions into a quarantine zone.
But now Italy has followed suit. In a dramatic, middle of the night statement, the Prime Minister announced the quarantining of a whole region of northern Italy, affecting 16 million people around Milan and Venice. Even this may be too late. The ramifications are massive.
Start with China. Its output accounts for around a quarter of global manufacturing, huge quantities of which are currently stored up in containers that cannot get out of Chinese ports. China also accounts for one quarter of global automotive production and provides 8 per cent of global exports of automotive components for other manufacturers, many of whom rely on just-in-time assembly processes. The same applies to steel and plastics, chemicals and high-tech telecoms.
The ripple effect of these logjams is running through the entire industrial economy, including a shortage of available containers themselves. And when goods don’t flow, nor do payments associated with them. First-world firms struggle to work out how to pay bills (and workers) in the same way that China is having to pay workers to stay at home in quarantined areas. That’s why markets began to panic and why central banks are having to intervene.
It takes around 40 days for tankers to come from China to the West. Those arriving now set off before China went into lockdown. The real shortages will start to kick in this month.
Seasoned analysts already quietly warn that the consequential global stagnation is likely to be with us to the end of September. This is without the situation getting any worse — which is increasingly a pipe dream.
The picture gets even more complicated once you add in the backlog of stranded “reefers” in Chinese ports. Reefers are refrigerated tanker units that normally supply the world with frozen consumption products. Not only are they unable to move — they are now stuck in the wrong places and are not available for shipping other people’s refrigerated goods either.
It is at this point you must factor in the wild weather we’re all being dragged through. One way or another, food production systems are being thrown into crisis, with no globalised supply lines to step in as the safety net.
The UK Treasury official who has just advised that agriculture is unimportant to the UK economy could barely have been more mistaken. Real alarm bells should be ringing all around Parliament about the amount of crops that will rot in the ground of waterlogged fields around the land. How are we to feed the public throughout the coronavirus crisis?
During the lorry drivers’ dispute, supermarkets warned the (then) Labour government that Britain was only ever nine meals from disaster. This was where Britain’s rush into globalised, just-in-time, food-supply policies had taken us. Coronavirus, Brexit and wild weather make food insecurity even worse today. If areas around Britain are pitched into quarantine, there will be massive questions about how much food can be accessed — let alone how much will make it to the family table.
Food security is an issue Parliament has barely touched on. Yet if Boris Johnson continues to be the perfect role model of self-isolation, it is hard to see where political leadership of such a debate will even take place.
Day by day, Johnson’s leadership looks more like Rod Hull and Emu than a Prime Minister in charge of Cobra.
The most cynical part of this crisis, however, is the reluctance of political leaders to call what we are facing “a pandemic.” This isn’t just semantics. To grasp what’s going on you need to look more to the murky intentions of Donald Trump than to British medics.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of a pandemic is relatively clear. It is “an epidemic or actively spreading disease that affects two or more regions worldwide.”
This clearly describes today’s geographical spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus and its significant clusters of cases far from China; principally in Italy and Iran. Countries closer to China, like South Korea, have also experienced an explosion in novel coronavirus infections. And Europe and the US are rapidly catching up.
The key issue is early containment. This is why California has declared a state of emergency and why Italy has closed all schools, colleges and universities until April. It is why football matches are to be played in empty stadia, why Lufthansa has grounded 150 of its aircraft, and why hotel bookings in affected areas are down by 90 per cent. These are the everyday examples of an economic implosion. No wonder the markets are panicking.
The World Bank has launched a $12bn fund to help developing nations deal with “the epidemic.” But this is where the politics turns ugly. Behind the scenes, casino spivs stand to lose lots of money if we call this a “pandemic” not an “epidemic.” It all goes back to “Pandemic Bonds.”
In June 2017, the World Bank announced the creation of “specialised bonds” that would fund the previously created Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEFF) in the event of an officially recognised (ie WHO-recognised) pandemic.
The high-yield bonds were sold under the premise that those who invested would lose their money if any of six deadly pandemics (including coronavirus) occurred. If a pandemic did not occur before the bonds mature on July 15, 2020, investors would receive what they had originally paid for the bonds along with generous interest and premium payments.
This is why Trump has gone out of his way to pooh-pooh use of the word “pandemic.” If we don’t call it out until after July 15 speculators get paid and it’s the public who then pick up the bills.
The creation of so-called “pandemic bonds” was intended to transfer pandemic risk in low-income countries to global financial markets. According to a World Bank press release on the launch of the bonds, the WHO backed the World Bank’s initiative.
However, the Bank used a peculiar structure to fund the bonds. It included “over-the-counter derivatives that transfer pandemic outbreak risk to derivative counter-parties.” In doing so the Bank claimed it would “attract a wider, more diverse set of investors.”
Critics described this convoluted system as “World-Bank- enabled looting” — enriching intermediaries and investors by inviting a form of pandemic gambling. Why not just give the funds to a body like the Contingency Fund for Emergencies at the WHO, so funds go directly to affected countries in need?
The first “pandemic bond” raised $225 million, at an interest rate of around 7 per cent. Payouts are suspended if there is an outbreak of new influenza viruses or coronaviridae (SARS, MERS).
The second, riskier bond raised $95 million at an interest rate of more than 11 per cent. This bond keeps investors’ money if there is an outbreak of filovirus, coronavirus, lassa fever, rift valley fever, and/or Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever.
The World Bank also issued $105 million in swap derivatives that work in a similar way.
In 2017, $425 million of these “pandemic bonds” were issued, with sales reportedly 200 per cent oversubscribed. For many, they looked more like “a structured derivative time bomb” — one that could upend financial markets if a pandemic was declared by the WHO.
And that’s where we are now. Call it a crisis. Call it an emergency. But whatever you do, don’t use the word “pandemic” because it might kill the market.
There is no way to magic this crisis away. We must manage our way through it as best we can. But calling a pandemic a pandemic would at least treat countries and communities as human entities, not just chips in casino capitalism.
8 March 2020