More than 10 years after the start of the Great Recession, the economy has finally healed.
A few metropolitan areas such as Seattle, with large technology clusters, got there first. They were powered in many cases by historic booms. In most other cases, it’s been a long, painful slog.
But it’s not being alarmist to point out some looming risks. Expansions don’t last forever, and this is already one of the longest on record. Beyond that, three areas deserve our attention.
Trade. President Donald Trump is preparing $50 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese imports and is threatening to add another $100 billion.
Most Read Business Stories
China’s response has been measured. Still, Beijing is readying a retaliation of $50 billion on U.S. imports, including agricultural products. These include agricultural products that are a backbone of Trump-supporting states. Not yet named but certainly at risk are Washington apples and cherries.
Also, China fired a warning shot at Boeing. It initially is targeting a small piece of the company’s airliner exports. But the implication is clear for Boeing, which is counting on China for a large share of its business.
Washington is the largest state exporter to China. Last year, it exported goods worth $18.3 billion and billions more in services such as software.
The most important unknown is what comes next? The tariffs might be dialed back and bring a symbolic response from Beijing. Paradoxically, it would likely open China to American financial services, not to the manufacturing sector Trump trumpets (which would largely use robots, not humans, for any output gains here anyway).
Case in point: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech this week. It appeared statesmanlike and conciliatory, but often vague as to deliverables, specifics and timing. One thing is sure: Xi won’t give up his ambitious plan to use whatever means necessary to build China’s advanced industries. That has been a major complaint by the administration.
If Trump continues a hard line, the result could turn into a full-blown trade war, with disastrous consequences for American workers and consumers, as well as the world’s most important bilateral economic relationship.
With this mercurial and scandal-plagued president, one never knows. One moment, he and his advisers are railing about China’s trade surplus over the United States. The next he is saying Xi and he “are very good friends.”
No wonder Reuters on Monday quoted a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying, “Under the current circumstances, both sides even more cannot have talks on these issues.”
Add in the bullying negotiations on NAFTA and antagonism of other allies, and the Trump administration is abandoning nearly eight decades of American leadership on trade. A key element was lowering tariffs.
Now we’re in new territory. The last full-blown trade war was initiated with the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, which helped turn a severe economic contraction into the Great Depression.
A Brookings Institution analysis shows Seattle as one of the metros most exposed to a trade shock, but it’s far from alone.
Debt. Remember shadow banking? Hedge funds and structured investment vehicles are two examples of this complex set of institutions and markets that operate outside conventional banks. This was one of the little-regulated portions of the financial system that played a major role in the bubble and Panic of 2008.
Shadow banking is still here, and possibly dangerous. A report last month from the International Monetary Fund warned of high levels of leverage in shadow banking — and an inability of regulators to track it.
Commercial banks are connected to the shadow banking system. The IMF report says this allows the regulated banks to keep a good deal of debt off their balance sheets — no matter the higher capital requirements imposed on them after the 2008 crisis.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have rolled back the Dodd-Frank bill, imposed after bankster hustles nearly brought down the world financial system. Among its provisions were one to ensure the orderly winding down of a major institution in trouble, to avoid a repeat of the Lehman Brothers failure. Another piece established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Dodd-Frank was weak brew compared with the stringent, Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act. It was overly complex But the bill was the best that could be done given the lobbying power of the banking industry. And years of pushback left much of Dodd-Frank stillborn.
The result: The financial system may not be as stable or safe as we assume.
A rookie Federal Reserve chairman. Trump was eager to oust veteran Fed chair Janet Yellen. Now the central bank chairman is Jay Powell, well regarded but relatively inexperienced. He became a Fed governor in 2012, so wasn’t there for the white-knuckle decisions of 2008-09 that helped avert catastrophe.
Yellen and her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, were there. They are also economists and academics. Bernanke is a distinguished scholar of the Fed during the Great Depression. As chairman, he was determined not to repeat its errors from that era. Powell is a lawyer who also worked for years as an investment banker on Wall Street.
Powell is committed to raising interest rates to head off inflation. That might be a wise decision, as long as the economy stays hot. But is his mind supple enough — and his ability to hold a consensus on the central bank’s policy committee sure enough — if things sputter? Say, from a trade war or trouble in the banking system.
Many post-World War II recessions were caused by an overzealous Fed jacking up rates too fast.
None of these concerns may materialize. But many experts scoffed at those of us who worried about a potential housing bubble around 2006.
And don’t forget that many disasters aren’t the result of a single cause. Instead, a series of relatively small mistakes result in a cascade effect.
The worst usually doesn’t happen. But it did a decade ago. It can again.