Who's driving the Global Meltdown?

The action was carefully coordinated for maximum effect. First came an early-morning announcement by the British government that it had crafted a $90 billion rescue package for its banks. Then five central banks from around the world, including the two big ones — the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank — announced a cut in interest rates. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, described the cuts as an "important mark of confidence" that showed an "intimate cooperation" among monetary authorities around the world. Under normal circumstances, such measures would have bucked up moods and stock prices in financial centers across the globe.

Instead, the big concerted action of Oct. 8 passed with barely a shrug from Wall Street. Stock markets worldwide continued to roil, and banks everywhere remained in the firing line. "Confidence has completely crashed, and it will take a while to rebuild it," says Craig Wright, chief economist at the Royal Bank of Canada, who is nonetheless hopeful that these and other measures will eventually start to work. "But it's hard to hear positives in a thunderstorm of gloom."

The mess caused by fast-and-loose mortgage lending in the U.S. has now blown into a perilous global crisis of confidence that has revealed both the scale and the limitations of globalization. Finance is built on trust, and suddenly that trust has been replaced by fear: fear among depositors from Madrid to Macao over the safety of their money; fear among banks worldwide about lending to one another; and now fear among politicians, central bankers and regulators that they don't have adequate tools to fix the problem.

At the root of the troubles are the "toxic assets" — the highly leveraged securities mainly linked to U.S. mortgages — that banks around the world still have on their books. In its latest estimate this month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculated that losses on these now virtually worthless securities could amount to $1.4 trillion. So far, banks have written off less than half that. Concern about who is still holding dud paper has gummed up credit markets, with banks refusing to lend to one another for fear that the borrowers may default or may have themselves lent to other banks that could default. That in turn is causing solvency problems for some financial institutions that rely on short-term borrowing to fund their operations.

The pain will soon come to Main Street — in Beijing and Brussels as much as in Boise. Economists are already outlining the downward spiral that they predict will follow. Banks will cut back on their lending to households and businesses. Mortgages and car loans will become harder to get. That in turn will stifle consumer spending and crimp investment in companies, leading to production cuts and job losses. Judging by previous crises, it can take about 18 months to two years for a financial squeeze to spread to the rest of the economy, which means that 2009 is shaping up to be a bleak year everywhere.

If the global financial meltdown can be traced to an American export — the subprime mess — the U.S. will import the consequences. As the go-go economies of China and India hit the brakes, so too will demand for American goods and services. That will have a knock-on effect on jobs and the earnings of companies that rely heavily on international sales. (One small silver lining: as their economies have slowed down, China and India have decreased their consumption of oil, contributing to a fall in prices, both globally and at the pump.)

In its latest economic outlook, published on Oct. 8, the IMF predicted that the U.S. economy will grow just 0.1% next year, its worst showing in 18 years. Europe is expected to fare no better, and China, India and other emerging economies that have been critical drivers of global economic growth over the past five years are also expected to slow markedly. That means nobody will be able to take over for the U.S. as the locomotive of the world economy, and everyone will drag down everyone else. Overall, the IMF expects world economic growth to slow to 3% in 2009, from 5% in 2007, and it warns, "The world economy is now entering a major downturn in the face of the most dangerous shock in mature financial markets since the 1930s." Wright of the Royal Bank of Canada predicts, "The U.S. will go into a shallow recession, unfortunately followed by a shallow recovery."

Xu Lejiang says it's already happening. He's chairman of Baosteel, one of China's giant steelmakers, and since August, he has had to cut prices twice as demand suddenly cooled off in what had been a booming industry. The era of rapid growth for Chinese steel "will soon be remembered as history," he says. The Chinese stock market has also been hit hard — it's down about 60% this year — but the nation's banking system has for the moment largely been sheltered from the international storm because it's only partly open to the global capital flows that have circulated so many toxic assets. China's economic growth has been a critical factor for the U.S. because working in tandem, the nations have served as the twin motors of world economic growth: American consumers have snapped up everything that the Chinese have manufactured, from toys to apparel, and in return the Chinese have helped to finance America's deficits by accumulating ever larger amounts of U.S. debt. If their economy hits the brakes, Chinese will buy fewer GM cars, Chinese steelmakers will use less U.S. iron ore, and Beijing may want to use its cash reserves for other purposes, including investment at home to stimulate its own economy rather than to bail out the U.S. Treasury.

China's huge currency reserves and its vast holdings of U.S. securities make it a key player in the U.S. financial markets. If the Chinese decided to shift any of their money out of the U.S. or the dollar, it would cause a huge upheaval, potentially sending the dollar skidding and hurting markets even further. For the moment, though, China hasn't given any hint that it's unhappy about owning rapidly depreciating U.S.-dollar assets. (The greenback has actually strengthened in recent days, but some caution that this is temporary.)

Global Problem, Global SolutionIn the event of a severe economic downturn, the U.S. — like other countries — would find it much harder to export its goods and services around the world. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 12 million American jobs depend on trade, including 1 in 5 factory jobs. One in 3 acres of U.S. farmland is planted for export, and many of the nation's biggest corporations, from Coca-Cola to Microsoft and Google, depend on substantial revenues from overseas.

Beyond the immediate economic impact, there are already signs that this meltdown will have longer-term repercussions. One is that policymakers everywhere will have to go back to the drawing board to figure out a more effective system of financial-crisis management. "Governments are making the same mistake over and over again. They're trying to deal with the crisis on a piecemeal basis," says Dennis J. Snower, president of Germany's Kiel Institute for the World Economy. He advocates a far more ambitious solution, including the creation of a new international agency that can act as a lender of last resort to stricken banks. In Washington, Robert B. Zoellick, president of the World Bank, concurs that only a multinational solution can really work. "While American eyes are on the intersection of Wall and Main streets, there is much more to the story," he says. "The response to these crises will have to be larger and global."

Finance has become one of the most international of industries, with major banks spreading their activities across numerous countries and continents, yet regulation still takes place on a national or even more local basis. When banks run into trouble, it's unclear who is supposed to help or how. The favored solution so far — direct government intervention, like the $700 billion rescue package approved by the U.S. Congress or the British plan — isn't an option everywhere. Banks have become so big and so leveraged that their balance sheets can exceed the gross domestic product of the country in which they are based. That's the case in Belgium, the Netherlands and a host of smaller countries, including Iceland, where on Oct. 6 the Prime Minister warned about the possibility of a "national bankruptcy" because several banks with assets larger than the country's entire economy ran into trouble. Uncertainties about crisis-management efforts are contributing significantly to the market instability.

Another possible repercussion: a reexamination of the freewheeling, free-market practices — what the French like to call "Anglo-Saxon capitalism" — that led to this crisis. French President Nicolas Sarkozy kicked off that debate as Wall Street was reeling from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Congress was first debating the bailout package. In a speech in Toulon on Sept. 25, he said the crisis marked "the end of a world that was built on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War — a big dream of liberty and prosperity." As for capitalism, he called for a "new balance" between the market and the state and added, "The idea that markets are always right was a mad idea."

Among Equals, No Longer FirstWherever the debate over ideas leads, it's clear that some things will never be the same. Wall Street's primacy as the world's capital of capital won't disappear, but it will face even tougher challenges not just from London but also from regional financial centers, including Dubai and Singapore. And since financial services are such an important part of the U.S. economy, accounting for a massive 15% of New York's alone, any diminishing of its status as a financial center will have big repercussions on jobs. The dollar too may lose its long-held status as the currency of choice for central bankers everywhere. Snower of the Kiel Institute believes that in the future, "this will be seen as a historic period in which the U.S. will give up some of its reserve-currency role." Asian and Middle Eastern nations that currently hold on to dollars will want to diversify into other currencies, including Euros.

The advantage in having the rest of the world use your currency is that you can borrow easily: that's why the U.S. government and U.S. companies have long been able to borrow cheaply and why mortgage rates in the U.S. have historically been low. If the dollar has to share top billing with other currencies, it will be harder for the U.S. to finance a profligate lifestyle and run big deficits, as the nation currently does. Expect mortgage rates to shoot up and your overseas vacation to get a lot more expensive. In the past, Snower says, "the U.S. could live off the fat of the rest of the world. Now it won't be able to."

For the moment, though, the priority remains trying to stabilize a global financial system that has become worryingly volatile. Announcing Britain's plans to recapitalize its major banks and reach out for a broader international solution, Prime Minister Gordon Brown didn't mince words. "This is not a time for conventional thinking or outdated dogma but for the fresh and innovative intervention that gets to the heart of the problem," he said. The big yawn with which global stock markets greeted the move said it all: given the beaten-down state of the financial system and the questions that continue to swirl around it, far more concerted action is needed if confidence is to be restored.