World in a 'Depression' Says UK PM Brown, Er, Maybe?
In a stunning admission today in the British House of Commons, the UK's prime minister Gordon Brown has called the current global economic crisis a 'depression.' He urgently called for all political parties and national governments around the world to rally behind a fiscal stimulus package to jolt the world out of the economic depression. Visibily emotionally shocked and stumbling through his words, he said: "We should agree, as a world, on a monetary and fiscal stimulus that will take the world out of depression."
Tory Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) swiftly seized on his comments then, demanding: "If I heard you correctly I think you said that Britain is now facing an economic crisis which is perhaps the worst for a century. Are you suggesting that what we may be facing is worse than the great depression of the 1930s?"
In the Daily Mail, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said: "The Prime Minister must personally and urgently clarify whether his statement today that the world is in 'depression' was a slip of the tongue, or whether he knows something that we don't know.
"For the sake of confidence he should clear up this confusion. Prime Ministers in particular need to be very careful about their use of language to ensure they don't undermine confidence."
Mr Brown’s slip was ironic given a poll last night that suggested a majority of people – 58 per cent – believe he is refusing to acknowledge the full depth of the economic crisis.
Brown has been on a journey since the global economic crisis first manifested itself in the UK, with the run on the Northern Rock bank in 2007. He has repeatedly said the country has banished 'boom and bust', 'is best prepared in the world to weather the crisis', and has blamed it all on the American sub-prime housing market. Last week his arguments were dealt a nasty blow, when the International Monetary Fund said in fact the UK was the worst prepared of the developed countries to weather the crisis, and that it was plagued with massive debts and an imploding housing bubble.
Gordon Brown was the UK finance minister (chancellor) since 1997 during the boom years and wrote the rules and regulations that governed the UK's financial industry. The subsequent free-for-all quickly spread around the world, and turned London's City into a booming financial centre.
From the Times: The 10 people most responsible for the recession
The global financial crisis has evolved into a worldwide recession of epic proportions. Analysts fear the sudden slump which has followed the credit crunch could even rival the Great Depression of the early 1930s and lead to global stagnation.
But who is responsible?
The bursting of the housing bubble and the collapse in confidence throughout financial markets was not caused by one individual or a single decision, so pointing the finger of blame is a near-impossible task. But Times Money has given it a shot anyway. Here are ten suggestions for the nine men and one woman responsible for the mess we're in. Once you have read our notes, vote in our poll and make your own suggestions in the comment box at the end of the piece.
1. Dick Fuld
Multi-billionaire and US squash all-star Dick Fuld, 62, was CEO of Lehman Brothers when it went bust in September last year. Dubbed the “scariest man on Wall Street”, Dick Fuld is blamed for a litany of mistakes that include leaving Lehman Brothers heavily exposed to toxic US sub-prime mortgage debt and other assets that collapsed in value in the wake of the credit crunch.
His secretive work ethic, which rewarded loyalty over all else, has been criticised for silencing potential whistleblowers. In its final months a series of interested buyers surfaced to save Lehmans, but Mr Fuld would not sell at the prices offered. Had he acted sooner, he would have been able to avoid bankruptcy. Institutional Investor magazine named Dick “America’s top chief executive” in 2006. The collapse of Lehmans triggered the second destructive phase in the credit crunch and laid the foundations for a full blown global recession.
2. Hank Paulson
If Dick Fuld is responsible for the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Henry Paulson, the former US Treasury Secretary, is the man who let it happen. Anatole Kaletsky, of The Times, says: “The global banking collapse could perhaps be described as a bullet in the head, since its proximate cause was a conscious decision by the US Treasury to jeopardise the stability of the world economy in pursuit of an essentially political objective - to show that the Bush Administration was willing to act ruthlessly against at least one big Wall Street investment bank. Until that point, savers and investors around the world had assumed that financial institutions such as Lehman were “too big to fail” and would always be supported by their governments. By shattering this belief Henry Paulson triggered a run on every important bank in the world and caused the sudden implosion of consumer and business confidence seen in the past two months.”
Hank didn’t just let Lehmans fail. He made a series of mistakes in the run up to the Lehmans collapse. He also proposed a £700 billion package to boost the US banking system. And how did Hank come up with a figure of £700 billion? “It’s not based on any particular data point,” a Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes.com, the US financial website. “We just wanted to choose a really large number.”
3. Alan Greenspan
Alan Greenspan was feted for his management of the US economy while he stood in charge of the US Treasury, but has since been put under the spotlight. He was responsible for cutting interest rates to near zero in the US in the aftermath of September 11, flooding the world with cheap and easily available money. Did this pave the way for a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami"? In October last year he said: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organisations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders.”
Allan Meltzer is a professor of political economy at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said: “Alan Greenspan was much too afraid of a slowdown or other recession…he allowed the credit to expand too rapidly."
4. John Tiner/Hector Sants
John Tiner was in charge of the Financial Services Authority, the watchdog that polices the UK ’s complex financial services industry until 2007, when it was taken over by Hector Sants. The FSA failed to keep a close eye on Northern Rock, the Newcastle-based ex-mutual which gorged on wholesale mortgage securitisation and came a cropper as a result. A key parliamentary committee has said that the FSA was guilty of a "systematic failure". Mr Sants accepted that the organisation under Mr Tiner failed to stress-test the business model of Northern Rock and spot signs that the bank was dangerously dependent on interbank funding to remain in business. "We should have been in more intense dialogue earlier", he has said.
5. Fred “the shred” Goodwin
The "world's worst banker" has brought the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Britain's second biggest bank, to its knees. Last week it announced humiliating losses of £28 billion, the biggest in British corporate history, and economists and analysts have concluded that it could soon be fully-nationalised. In mid-January, taxpayers saw their stake in the banking giant increase from 58 per cent to 70 per cent.
Sir Fred joined RBS in 2000 and promptly embarked on a spending spree, acquiring 26 banks in seven years for more than £35 billion. These included NatWest and stakes in America and the Bank of China. In 2006, its share price stood at £13. But at the close of trading on January 28, RBS shares were trading at a near-worthless 15.9p.
In 2000, after the takeover of NatWest, RBS’s board rewarded Sir with a £2.1 million annual salary, including a bonus of £814,000 for the takeover — more than any other UK bank chief received that year. It paled in comparison with his £2.86 million bonus in 2007. Three months ago, in October, Sir Fred left the bank under a dark cloud that has now mushroomed into a thunderstorm. On the day his departure was announced, Sir Fred said he was "sad", adding: "Nobody will ever tell you that they feel good the day they have to step down.” The Prince's Trust recently dumped Fred The Shred and the campaign to strip him of his knighthood is gathering pace.
6. Gordon Brown
Apparently Gordon Brown predicted the global financial crisis ten years ago, in a speech he made to Harvard students. Sadly he did little to prevent it. James Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer during “the longest period of growth” in the UK ’s history, but economists blame Mr Brown for encouraging soaring house price inflation and the spread of credit which fuelled the years of boom and led eventually to the current bust.
In a recent speech to the London School of Economics, George Osbourne, the Shadow Chancellor, said: "Our competitors used the fat years to prepare for the lean years. Britain did not. We are the least prepared country in the developed world to cope with the current financial turbulence. Our financial reputation has been badly damaged by the only run on a retail bank in the world. Our double deficits - external and fiscal - are worse than any other European economy. Taken together, they are worse than the United States." The blame "lies squarely and fairly with Gordon Brown", he concluded.
7. George Bush
The former President was in charge during the boom years when the seeds of the sub-prime implosion were sown, but has failed to take any responsibility for the financial disaster which occurred on his watch. In a speech last year he blamed the bankers in New York for the problems facing his country's economy. “Wall Street got drunk…The question is, how long will it [take to] sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments?”
8. Kathleen Corbet
The credit rating agencies have been blamed for failing to ask tough questions about the collateralised debt products containing so many toxic sub-prime mortgages, which investors traded for millions of dollars during the booming housing years. The three biggest agencies have been accused of taking the word of investors and not properly assessing the risks involved in securitisation. Mrs Corbet was head of the biggest credit rating agency, Standard & Poors, before she quit amidst heavy criticism in 2007. Critics argue that S&P and its main rival Moody's, as well as other agencies, face an inherent conflict of interest, in that many of their clients issue securities that are rated by its analysts.
9. "Hank" Greenberg
Another Hank. This one was head of AIG, the insurance giant that had to be rescued in an £47 billion US government bailout just days after Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bust. Hank was in charge between 1967 until 2005, during which time the insurer got heavily involved in the murky world of credit default swaps. Mr Greenberg appealed to the US Government to save the company last September, saying: "It's a healthy company financially except for liquidity. No organisation around the world has the spread of risk that AIG does. It's a company that opens markets - letting it go down would be a dramatic mistake."
10. Angelo Mozilo
Mr Mozilo was head of the largest sub-prime mortgage lender in the US, Countrywide, until July 2008. Sub-prime lenders in the US have been accused of using misleading marketing to push unsuitable mortgages on sub-prime homeowners who could not afford to service the debt, the root cause of the credit crunch. During the housing boom, Mr Mozilo reportedly earned $470 million in salary and other income. Mr Mozilo has also been under the spotlight for a VIP programme in which politicians and senior officials in the Government were offered favourable mortgage deals. Earlier this month Bank of America agreed to buy Countrywide for about $4 billion (£2 billion). Meanwhile, Mozilo unloaded $141m in stock options before the company's share price collapsed.
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