The fire next time

At the CSaP conference last week there was an interesting session on what (if anything) we have learned from the 2008 banking crisis. The consensus was not reassuring. The banking system we have now is still dangerously fragile, despite all the ‘stress testing’ of banks etc. And, as always, we prepare to fight the last war. Barry Eichengreen, whose book, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, The Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of History, is a must-read on this stuff, said something bracing about this towards the end of the session. In the course of a discussion of where we should be looking for the early-warning signals of the next catastrophe, he said: “I think we’ve done a good job of putting in place an early-warning system for the last crisis”. (My emphasis.)

So what kinds of shocks could trigger another collapse? Two candidates were discussed. One was Grexit — the departure of Greece from the Euro and the chaos that would ensue from that. The other is a crisis in the Chinese economy triggered by a collapse in its housing and construction sector. A few days later, I talked to an expert on the Chinese property market, who poo-poohed the idea. And then, today, I find in the New York Times this quote from Henry Paulson’s new book, *Dealing with China:

“Frankly, it’s not a question of if, but when, China’s financial system will face a reckoning and have to contend with a wave of credit losses and debt restructurings.”

Note: not if but when. And Paulson is bullish on China!