Migrants and the downturn

In an interview with La Croix newspaper (in French), the OECD’s Jean-Christophe Dumont looks at how the downturn has been affecting migrants. One major issue is unemployment – in a downturn, immigrants are more likely to lose their jobs than locals. Despite this, emigrants don’t appear to be returning home in large numbers. In part that’s because job prospects back home may be as bad as in emigrants’ destination countries. But it’s also because emigration is often a long-term project involving big adjustments like resettling families, buying property and so on. Most people would think twice before undoing such changes.

Still, the slump has had a noticeable impact on one area – remittances, or the money emigrants send back home. According to World Bank estimates, they’ll be 6% lower in 2009 compared with 2008. As it’s likely to be several years before remittances return to pre-crisis levels, many developing countries will face a continuing shortfall in this important source of income.

Useful links:

International Migration: The Human Face of Globalisation

OECD work on migration

We are a bit bemused


 

A new name to add to the list of those who want to know what caused the crisis: Queen Elizabeth II. During a visit to the London School of Economics, the British monarch asked economists why they didn’t do a better job of predicting the timing and scale of the slowdown, The Observer reports. “She seemed very interested, and she asked me: ‘How come nobody could foresee it?,” Professor Luis Garicano of the LSE told the newspaper.

Stirred by the Queen’s query, some of Britain’s leading economic experts wrote to her to explain what they think went wrong. “Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly on its own merit. And according to standard measures of success, they were often doing it well,” they told her. “The failure was to see how collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction.” While the crisis had many causes, they concluded, “[it] was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.”

A crisis of (over-)confidence?

Malcolm Gladwell is probably the world’s most famous “pop” sociologist. His work often focuses on “how little things can make a big difference,” to quote the subtitle of his bestseller The Tipping Point. No surprise, then, that the financial crisis has caught his attention. Here, he argues that the roots of Wall Street’s crisis were in large part psychological: The overconfidence of many of those working in financial markets, he argues, led them to suffer from the “illusion of control” – an inability to recognise both the limits of their own knowledge and their capacity to control events. Can such overconfidence be reined in? Not easily, says Gladwell: Confidence is the lifeblood of financial markets everywhere, and it’s usually the most confident (and even overconfident) players who score the biggest wins. But if everyone becomes overconfident – i.e., if everyone acts in the hope that their bluff won’t be called – realistic assessment of risks and rewards goes out the window.

If one of us fails, everyone suffers…

Trillions of taxpayers’ dollars were needed to save the very institutions that provoked the worst financial crisis in 60 years. The bailouts seem to have succeeded, but to stop the same thing happening again, the structure of the global financial system has to be rethought, notably to deal with the risks linked to counterparty failure and contagion.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal,  Adrian Blundell-Wignall of the OECD puts forward a proposal to contain risk by addressing what banks actually do. The proposal does not require draconian Glass-Steagall divestment of securities businesses from commercial banks. But it does require some important structural changes for banking conglomerates to make sure that the failure of one does not mean trouble for all.

Useful links:  The Financial Crisis: Reform and Exit Strategies

Mad math

J.P. Morgan saved the financial system twice. In 1895, following the Panic of 1893, the Federal Treasury had almost no gold left, following a run on the gold supply. Morgan came to the rescue, heading a syndicate that loaned enough gold to finance a bond issue that restored the Treasury’s surplus. He saved the day once again in the Panic of 1907, persuading New York bankers to follow his example by pledging money to consolidate the banking system.

So it’s ironic that the bank he founded was in some ways at the root of the current crisis. That may sound surprising, given the usual suspects (Lehman’s, AIG, Bear Sterns…). Yet, as Gillian Tett of the Financial Times explains in Fool’s Gold,  a team from J.P. Morgan invented a product called Bistro (Broad Index Secured Trust offering) that helped to fuel the massive expansion of the credit derivatives market.

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Where your money goes


Most OECD countries have seen huge rises in public debt during the crisis. That’s going to have to be repaid eventually, which is going to mean higher taxes or lower spending or – more likely – both. So, government spending priorities are set to be a hot topic over the next few years. To get a sense of current priorities, take a look at this interactive graphic on the OECD Factblog.

The roots of a crisis­­

To kick off our new site, we will publish From Crisis to Recovery, a new book from the OECD Insights series here on the blog, chapter-by-chapter.   This book traces the roots and the course of the crisis, how it has affected jobs, pensions and trade, while charting the prospects for recovery.

These chapters are “works in progress” and their content will evolve.  Reader comments are encouraged and will be used in shaping the book.

By way of introduction…

The events of 2008 have already passed into history, but they still have the power to take our breath away. Over a matter of months, a succession of earthquakes struck the world’s financial system – the sort of events that might normally happen only once in a century.

In reality, the warning signs were already there in 2007, when severe pressure began building in the subprime securities market. Then, in March 2008, the investment bank and brokerage Bear Stearns collapsed. More was to come. Early in September, the United States government announced it was taking control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two huge entities that underpin mortgage lending in the U.S. Then, in the middle of that month, came news of the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers. A fixture on Wall Street, Lehman had been a home to the sort of traders and dealers that novelist Tom Wolfe once dubbed “masters of the universe”. Around the same time, another of Wall Street’s legends, Merrill Lynch, avoided Lehman’s fate only by selling itself to the Bank of America.

It wasn’t just investment banks that found themselves in trouble. The biggest insurer in the U.S., American Insurance Group, teetered on the brink of failure thanks to bad bets it had made on insuring complex financial securities. It survived only after billions of dollars of bailouts from Washington.

How did the stock markets react? In New York, the Dow Jones Index fell 777 points on 29 September, its biggest-ever one-day points fall. That was a mirror of wider fears that the world’s financial system was on the brink of meltdown. The mood was summed up on the cover of The Economist, not usually given to panic, which depicted a man standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff accompanied by the headline, “World on the edge”.

What happened? Find out by reading the full chapter here The Roots of a Crisis