The world economy is a mess. The system, notionally governed by the invisible hand of the market, is no longer governed in any meaningful way: private excess puffs up bubbles that government indulgence ensures can never burst. We seem condemned to volatile commodity prices, wild capital flows, worsening imbalances in trade, taxation and income, and—before long—the next sovereign debt crisis. And then there’s inequality. During lockdown, the total wealth of billionaires rose by $5 trillion to $13 trillion in 12 months, the most dramatic surge ever registered on the annual Forbes billionaire list.
Where do such riches come from? Compared to before the pandemic, there’s less real economic activity: we are collectively poorer. And yet within a year of the great panic of March 2020, many asset prices were surging. Wall Street and the City of London are again awash with liquidity—and in a speculative mood. One vogue is for something called SPACs, or “special purpose acquisition companies.” That sounds so vague as to bring to mind the South Sea Bubble companies of 1720, whose pitch is remembered as “carrying on an undertaking of great advantage but nobody to know what it is.”
How is this mismatch between financial markets and underlying reality possible? Because just like in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the civil servants in our central banks spotted the dreadful potential of unchecked panic, and rode to the rescue of private speculators by flushing the system with made-up money through a process we’ve come to know as quantitative easing.
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