Prediction is a mug’s game; you are more likely to miss something important than demonstrate insight. And yet it is the only good way to put your insights to the test. Science may be mostly about gathering and reviewing evidence, but the true test of its worth is prediction. And so, in line with tradition for this time of year, I feel I must have a go.
When I started to think about it, my feelings about 2018 were anticlimactic. The British political deadlock will continue: there will be no election and no change of PM. The Brexit negotiations will somehow manage to put off the more difficult problems yet again, probably through a transition deal that will look very like staying in the Single Market. The investigation into the Trump’s campaign’s connections to Russia may snare members of his team but not the man himself; he will stay in office. The Democrats may take the House of Representatives, but they won’t manage to retake the Senate. And so on. Things will limp on much as they are now.
But none of that is very brave. It just guessable, keep-your-head-down fare that does not put my understanding of the world under any real stress. And yet proposing something more exciting is a matter of luck, especially if I am confining my predictions to a twelve month period. I need to look at things another way. Where do I see trouble brewing, even if the chances of something breaking in 2018 is less than 50%?
Let’s start with the world financial system. There is something unstable about it, even if it does not look as dangerous as it did in 2007 – it is more like the tech bubble of 2001. Asset prices look too high, largely because there is more saving than than the system is able or willing to convert into productive investment. This applies to the West, where too many assets are piling up in the hands of businesses and rich individuals, while many forms of investment are commercially unattractive to most people. And it applies to China, where there is something not right about the volume of money invested, especially through state owned businesses; a lot of useless assets don’t seem to have been written off. But what will be the proximate cause of a financial crisis? A Chinese banking breakdown? Inflation breaking out in the US? A panic in the property markets? And when will the crisis strike? Personally I feel that government bonds are a better bet than other asset classes in the medium term, though that would not be the case if inflation got going. But that is more of a threat in America than it is in Europe or Japan.
And there is something not right with the capitalist system. Technology has changed the way it works, and our political systems have not caught up – rather like the mid 19th Century world in which Marx wrote Das Kapital. Most conventional economists really haven’t grasped this or it implications. The answer will be political change, but what? Without answers, political pressures will build up, and not just in the developed world. It is fashionable to suggest that liberal democracy is in danger, but the situation in the autocracies of China, Russia and Turkey, to name but three, don’t actually look any less tractable. But where will the political system crack? Governments have become better at repression. And there is no convincing alternative to sell. Yet.
What of Britain? The Conservatives look to be in deep disarray, but they have a lot of strengths – especially the widespread fear of the alternative, and the substantial funding that could unlock. We need to remember how close Theresa May came to a triumph, with the coherent ideology of Nick Timothy behind her – she might have destroyed Labour’s working class base. Their introversion did for them in the end. Can a new leadership revive their fortunes? I see similar strengths and weaknesses in Labour. Are they peddling new or old wine in their old bottles? I suspect more new than their critics give them credit for, which will make them a much stronger proposition. But there is an introversion too. The leadership is not sharing its thinking about what to do with this country; it just wants disparate people to project their hopes onto their vague pronouncements, so that they can gain power; only then might they share their real thinking with us. Meanwhile, the tensions within British society – the stagnation of the left-behind places, the squeezed funding for public services and benefits – will serve to increase frustration. Something spectacular could break the deadlock. But what and when?
And Europe? This looks like another deadlock. The populist xenophobes may have stalled a bit in 2017, but they are alive and well. It is striking that Poland’s ruling party remains very much in control, in spite of the fact that many Poles do not share their paranoia – their economic policies, which involve widespread cash handouts, are popular, and may not be as disastrous for the economy as many critics suggest. Economics is at the heart of politics – and politics is at the heart of economics. But the biggest threat to European stability comes from Italy, where elections are to be held in 2018. We might well get a strong pushback from that country against the way the Eurozone is run, at a time when German politics is being pushed in the direction of more conservatism on the Euro, and not putting Germany’s savings surplus to constructive work across the zone. That conflict could cause the system to break. But maybe the French can intermediate to give the Italians what they want while making the Germans feel they have won?
In America I see a strange mix of euphoria and anger. The tax reforms passed before Christmas were a big win for the Republicans, and it will give them real momentum. While the Administration, and the tax reforms, are generally unpopular, relentless propaganda from the many rich winners may baffle floating voters for a bit. That could be good for the Republicans in the congressional elections. It is a tall order for the Democrats to take either house, especially the Senate, where Republicans have plenty of opportunity to win back seats lost at Barack Obama’s high point. But the Administration’s malign neglect of the healthcare system could bite back.
Perhaps more significant for the world as a whole is the thought that China and the USA are on a collision course. Donald Trump is itching to start a trade war with China, to reverse what he sees as America being ripped off. China’s ambitions are increasingly global. At the moment the two have come to an uneasy accommodation, with North Korea a joint focus of attention. But this looks unsustainable; China will not stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, as only a military intervention of some kind will achieve that, and China surely does not have the appetite for that. But a trade war between China and the USA would be an attack on one of the central economic and political pillars of the early 21st Century world. It would be extremely destabilising economically and politically. China still needs exports to the US to sustain its economy; the US still requires to be bankrolled by Chinese money. This is surely the most likely source of a financial crisis.
And then there is the risk of war. North Korea is determined to develop a genuine nuclear threat to America, and this is a huge provocation. It’s not a happy situation when we seem to be relying on military men to provide the restraint on the President.
So to summarise: the two critical developments to watch are a clash between Germany and Italy over the economic management of the Eurozone, and a clash between the US and China over trade. Either or both could precipitate a global financial crisis resulting in a substantial reduction in asset values and the banking woes that would follow from that. I am cautiously optimistic that the problems of the first of these will be contained; I am not at all optimistic on the second.