When the U.S. economy catches cold, the rest of the world gets pneumonia. That's
because much of the wealth of the rest of the world depends on selling stuff to us,
and/or on investing in our economy.
The cold we've caught from the subprime mortgage crisis is pretty serious. As of
Oct. 22, our stock market was down 40 percent for the year.
But, as the erudite cynic who writes for the Asia Times under the pen name
"Spengler" notes, it's a lot worse almost everywhere else. Brazil's stock market is
down 59 percent; China's 62 percent, Russia's 72 percent. The Nikkei, the Japanese
stock exchange, closed Monday at its lowest level in 26 years.
The purpose of the $700 billion bailout bill was not to prop up the stock market,
but to thaw credit markets. The health of these are measured typically by the
LIBOR, the London Interbank Offered Rate, the rate of interest at which banks loan
money to each other. The LIBOR for three month loans fell last week to 3.535
percent, down from a peak of 4.819 percent on Oct. 10, but higher than the 2.816
percent it stood at before the stock market meltdown.
Americans have to pay more interest to borrow money now than we did before the
crisis began, because lenders want more protection against possible defaults. But
the price of default protection is much higher for what used to be called "emerging"
economies, and what might more appropriately now be called "at risk" economies.
With LIBOR at 3.5 percent, Turkey has to pay about 11 percent to borrow dollars;
Russia 15 percent, Pakistan 30 percent, Spengler noted.
The schadenfreude (pleasure at the misfortune of others) our enemies in Russia, Iran
and Venezuela experienced when our stock market melted down has been replaced with
fear as the price of oil has sunk with it. Totalitarian regimes tend to mismanage
Iran and Venezuela have nothing going for them except for the sale
of oil, and they need high prices for it to keep their troubled economies afloat.
According to Mohsin Khan, Director of Middle East and Central Asia at the
International Monetary Fund, Iran's "break even price is $90 a barrel." Deutsche
Bank estimated Venezuela needs an oil price of $95 a barrel to keep its budget in
balance. Oil prices fell to near $60 a barrel Monday, with further declines
considered likely. If they stay at this level for some months, the potential for
civil unrest in Iran and Venezuela is high.
Desperate times can cause desperate men to do desperate things. The global economic
crisis swiftly may become a national security crisis of a magnitude we haven't seen
since World War II.
Spengler thinks the financial crisis will push already troubled and nuclear armed
Pakistan further towards radical Islam. Turkey, heretofore the most peaceful,
democratic and pro-Western of Islamic countries, also will drift towards the dark
By far the most dangerous wild card is Iran. The ethnic Persians from whom the
rulers come are a minority in country where most of the other minorities would
rather affiliate with some other country the Azeris with Azerbaijan, the Kurds
with Iraqi Kurdistan, the Ahwaz Arabs with the Iraqi Arabs on the other side of the
Shatt al Arab. And the mullahs are unpopular with most of the ethnic Persians.
While those connected to the regime have siphoned off some $35 billion in oil
revenues, most Iranians live at a subsistence level. They are able to make ends
meet only because of massive subsidies for food and fuel subsidies that will be
trimmed or ended altogether if oil prices remain low. Unemployment and inflation
exceeded 30 percent before oil prices plummeted.
The mullahs may conclude the only way to keep from being overthrown is to seize the
oil resources of their neighbors in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (whose oilfields
are in the predominantly Shia area along the coast).
If the mullahs regard the new U.S. President as weak and inexperienced, they may
regard the rewards from such a reckless gamble to be worth the risk.