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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008

Bright side of the U.S. financial meltdown

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Rather than curse the current financial darkness, let us try to light candles. Without blowing our credibility entirely, let us see if we can illuminate the brighter side of this global meltdown. Here is a trio of pluses to try on for size.

No. 1 is that the United States will probably now have to lecture the world a lot less on economic issues. How wonderful! That, at least, should reduce global rhetorical warming. Asia, in particular, deserves get a break from Uncle Know-It-All.

The American financial establishment, it seems, is now raising the same systemic questions about the financial practice of "shorting" companies and stocks as were raised by angry Asians during the Asian Financial Crisis. Then, even otherwise well-regulated economies and companies were attacked by Western hedge funds betting ravenously that currencies and stock prices in the region would fall.

The Asian argument was that such shorting (betting on downturns) can create self-fulfilling prophecies of lower stock and currency values. Back then, a smug America would not listen. But now that the tables have turned, the long and short of it is that the U.S. establishment is having Asian-like doubts.

Listen to what the head of Morgan Stanley, a frequent short-broker itself, said the other day about the effect of all the shorting of his own huge company: "There is no rational basis for the (downward) movement in our stock or credit-default spreads," complained John Mack. "We're in the midst of a market controlled by fear and rumors, and short-sellers are driving our stock down."

Asians may be permitted to derive a measure of sad pleasure from the sight of a huge U.S. investment bank reeling from a dose of its own medicine.

A second quantum of solace will come when almost everyone realizes that the U.S. can no longer continue to shell out $2 billion a month for the Iraq War. "There is no such thing as a free war," said the widely respected Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in a speech the other night in Los Angeles. "And this has been a particularly expensive war."

Much of our Iraq War debt, which Stiglitz calculates is at least $3 trillion, has been financed by foreign investors, including China and Japan. That can't continue much longer. Expect pressure to end the war to intensify. For those of us who never liked this war, the bottom line is this: the sooner the better.

The third arguable plus of this crisis is the renewed sense of the remaining relevance of U.S. economic vitality. Note that AIG, the insurance giant based in the U.S., is being saved by the Bush administration on the principle that AIG is too big to fail. That is to say: the crush of a potential avalanche of historic proportions, unlike the periodic light snowfall, is not worth risking if it can be prevented.

This makes logical sense: But here's another entity that's also too big to fail: the United States. Petty geopolitics aside, Asia has much more to lose than gain if the U.S. tanks. Asian governments and private investment institutions have socked a chunk of their collective life savings in various high-quality U.S. government investments. The totality of their commitment is awesome. If they panic and pull out now, while the market is down, they pull the rug out from under their sovereign strategic plans.

Asia knows that an unhealthy U.S. is bad medicine for everyone, including Asia. Asia's goals are not to conqueror territory or impose values but rather to avoid poverty and to continue economic development. The region's persistent pragmatism is a source of its strength.

Consider this summary observation from famed Princeton physicist and essayist Freeman Dyson: "The first decade of the twenty-first century has changed the world in a hopeful direction. In that decade, China and India decided that money is more important than ideology. It means that China and India, like Britain three hundred years earlier, will become rich countries. Asia, which is the center of gravity of the world population, will henceforth be rich rather than poor."

That would happen eventually even if the U.S. were to disappear from the face of the earth. But it will take Asia much longer and the road will be much steeper without a vibrant U.S.

Perhaps Asia can take comfort in the axiom that at some point what falls down almost always gets back up on its feet again. This will be good for everybody.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate has been writing about Asia since 1996. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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