George Soros on the Potential Global Economic Meltdown
Below are some comments about and from George Soros concerning the possibility of an economic meltdown. Text in bold is my emphasis. From the UK Times:
George Soros was 13 when the Nazis invaded his homeland of Hungary. As a Jew, he was forced to adopt a false identity and live separately from his parents in Budapest. Instead of being traumatised by the experience, though, he found the danger exhilarating. “It was high adventure,” he says, “like living through Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Sixty-five years later, he still thrives on danger. He famously made $1 billion on Black Wednesday by shorting the pound, earning him the label of “the man who broke the Bank of England”. Last year, as the world tipped into financial chaos, Mr Soros pocketed another $1.1 billion by correctly predicting the downturn. “I’m an expert in crises,” he says.
The man who has a phobia about math has made his name as the philosopher king of economics – his book The Crash of 2008, out in paper-back next week, has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 1944 he has believed in what he calls “reflexivity” – the idea that people base their decisions on their own perception of a situation rather than on the reality.
He has applied this both to investment and to politics: his skill has been to predict moments of seismic change by identifying a disjunction between perception and reality.
When everyone else was convinced that the markets would automatically correct themselves, the 78-year-old “old fogey”, as he calls himself, was one of the few warning of recession. He put all his chips on “the Barack guy” early on when all around him were still gunning for Hillary Clinton. It’s almost as if he has been waiting for the Great Recession for the past ten years. When we ask whether he prefers booms or busts, he replies: “I have to admit that actually I flourish, I’m more stimulated by the bust.”
This recession, he explains, is a “once-in-a-lifetime event”, particularly in Britain. “This is a crisis unlike any other. It’s a total collapse of the financial system with tremendous implications for everyday life. On previous occasions when you had a crisis that was threatening the system the authorities intervened and did whatever was necessary to protect the system. This time they failed.”
The financial oracle does not know how long it will last. “That depends on how it’s handled. Allowing Lehman Brothers to fail was the game-changing event. That’s when the financial crisis went over the brink.” We could end up with a depression. “Unless we handle it well then I think we would. The size of the problem is actually bigger than in the 1930s.”
The problem in Britain, he believes, is in many ways worse than in America or Germany. “American memory is seared by the Depression, the German memory is seared by hyperinfla-tion but Britain has a pretty serious problem in many ways worse than America because the financial sector looms bigger and the overvaluation of real estate is bigger than in America.”
He is not worried that an auction of government bonds failed this week – “that was a blip”, he says. He would still buy British bonds – “it depends on the price” – but he agrees with Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, that debt is a real problem. It will, he says, put people off investing in Britain. “I think it will have an effect, yes. It is a matter of worry because effectively the hole in the banking system is replaced by increasing the national debt.” There has been some talk that Britain might have to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund. “It’s conceivable,” Mr Soros says. “You have a problem that the banking system is bigger than the economy . . . so for Britain to absorb it alone would really pile up the debt . . . if the banking system continued to collapse, it’s a possibility but it’s not a likelihood.”
He refuses to say whether sterling has yet hit its lowest point. Has he shorted the pound recently? “I had shorted it last year, but I’m not shorting the pound now.” Is the euro under threat? “There is stress in the euro because of the differential in the interest rate that the different countries have to pay,” he replies.
Mr Soros is critical of the tripartite regulatory system set up when the Bank of England gained independence. “I have a different view on how the market operates than the prevailing view. I believe that the authorities have the responsibility to forestall, to counter the mood of the markets . . . I think that the problem was that the Bank of England didn’t have the supervisory authority.”
He does not, however, blame Gordon Brown. “He underestimated the severity of the problem, but then so did most people. Part of the perceived role of a leader is to cheerlead, so you can’t really blame him for that.”
From the day he was born, Mr Soros says, he was attracted to crisis. “It precedes me. I inherited it from my father.” His father had lived through the Russian Revolution and every day after school he would take his son swimming and talk about his experiences. “I sucked it in that way. And then when I was not yet 14, the Germans occupied Hungary, and I would have been deported to Auschwitz if my father hadn’t arranged for false papers. So that was a pretty profound crisis. I had to assume a false identity and live a different life.” He was separated from his parents. “We met occasionally in the swimming pool. But imagine you are 14 years old, you like adventure, and you have a father who seems to understand the situation better than others. It’s very exciting.”
He feels a similar thrill in an economic crisis. “On the one hand there’s tremendous human suffering, which is very distressing. On the other hand, to be able to handle the situation is exhilarating.”
He has always been something of an outsider. He thinks that this makes it easier for him to see through conventional wisdom. “I have always understood how normal rules may not apply at all times,” he says. In recent years he has been arguing against “market fundamentalism” – “the accepted theory was that markets tend to equilibrium”. He believes that the credit crunch has proved him right. “It reminds me of the collapse of the Soviet system, events are always exceeding people’s understanding. The situation is out of control. There’s a shortage of time to adjust to the change. Change is accelerating.”
Like Warren Buffett, he thinks that the complex financial instruments used by the banks were economic weapons of mass destruction. If anything he expected the tipping point to come earlier. “Everybody who realised that this was unsustainable expected it to collapse much sooner,” he says. “It is so devastating exactly because it took so long.”
The urgent task now, he says, is to realise that the system that collapsed was flawed. “Therefore you can’t restore it. You have to reform it.” He worries that politicians have not yet accepted the need for fundamental change and that “a lot of bankers have their head in the sand”.
H e was cast as the villain when Britain was forced out of the exchange-rate mechanism. “I didn’t speculate against sterling to benefit the public. I did it to make money,” he says.
He tells us that he has psycho-somatic illnesses – backaches and pains – that tip him off to changes in the market. “It’s as if you’re a jungle animal, and you see another animal facing you. You have to make a decision: fight or flight? Your hair stands up and you growl and you decide, ‘Am I going to attack because I’m stronger or am I going to run away because otherwise he’s going to eat me?’ You are very tense. And that’s the tension that gives you the backache.”
The G20 summit in London next week is, he says, the last chance to avert disaster. “The odds would favour that it fails because there are such differences of opinion. It’s difficult enough to get it right in your own country let alone with 20 governments coming together, but if it’s a failure I think then the global financial and trading system falls apart.”
If the G20 is nothing but a talking shop then he thinks we are heading for meltdown. “That could push the world into depression. It’s really a make-or-break occasion. That’s why it’s so important.” The chances of a depression are, he says, “quite high” – even if that is averted, the recession will last a long time. “Look, we are not going back to where we came from. In that sense it’s going to last for ever.”