Debt is becoming the big issue of the day. Thanks to concerted action by governments, and the dynamism of the Asian economies, the world has hitherto managed to avoid the worst of a global recession. But the bills still have to be paid, and the strain of doing so is putting enormous pressure on economies from Dubai to Dublin. The economists call it "deleveraging". To you and me, it is a case of living within new and tighter financial disciplines: lower credit card limits, fewer overdraft facilities and tighter mortgage conditions.
For national economies, it is a similar painful process, but has geopolitical repercussions. Nouriel Roubini, the economist who "called" the credit crisis and remains one of the great pessimists on the global economy, recently grouped the type of indebtedness threatening economic recovery, into three classes: property-related debt, with which the USA, Britain, Spain and Ireland are struggling; financial debt, which affects many EU countries, Russia and other former Soviet countries; and quasi-sovereign debt, a factor in Ukraine, and Dubai.
Dubai shows elements of all three types. Property prices have plunged, leaving owners and investors under water; the banks are taking hefty provisions non-performing loans; and the travails of Dubai World are evidence of the problem that can arise when investors assume, however rashly, that a company has the backing of the sovereign government. The pain has been most obvious in Europe, where it is putting huge stress on the comparatively young political and economic structures put in place by the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Eurosceptics (those against the idea of greater EU integration) are celebrating at having their direst warnings fulfilled, as the impracticality of imposing uniform financial and economic rules on countries as different as Germany and Greece is made apparent.
Greece has become the focal point of the whole issue. For a number of years, the country has lived beyond its means, with high public spending and an uncompetitive private sector. This economic lifestyle was funded by debt, which was fine as long as borrowing was cheap and available. Now, nobody wants the sovereign bonds that Athens prints. In extremity, the Greeks are reported to have even asked China to bail them out by taking a large chunk of a life-saving bond issue. The global repercussions of a Greek-Chinese financial alliance are mind-boggling, and probably not what the "globalisation" advocates had in mind.
The mere fact that Athens has considered asking Beijing for a bail-out shows the weakness of the central European idea. To lasso together countries as diverse as Portugal and Poland, Spain and the Baltic states, was always going to be a tough proposition. In the post-credit crisis world, it is highlighting the limits of Brussels' power. Strict financial rules on public deficits and interest rates are unworkable, and member countries look outside the EU set-up, to China or other national benefactors, or the IMF, for help. People are speaking seriously of a break-up of the European Union, or at least the demise of the Euro.
Dubai is watching the unravelling of the debt-laden EU with great interest. A banker put it to me last week like this: "If you put Abu Dhabi in the place of Brussels as the banker of last resort of the UAE, Dubai will have to get used to the financial discipline, just like Athens, or look elsewhere." @Body-SubheadNew:Ireland's Muslim market I mentioned in a recent column how Ireland, one of the European countries most badly hit by the financial crisis, was adjusting to the presence of a growing Islamic community. Now comes further evidence that it taking seriously the needs of its 30,000 Muslims.
The Irish government is planning to enact legislation to facilitate the operations of Islamic financial institutions in the country. Chiefly relating to tax changes and other bits of financial fine-tuning, the adjustments are part of the recent budget described as "brutal" by many observers. It shows Ireland is also looking to the future while grappling with the mess of the financial disaster. Ireland faces severe competition in Europe, however. London has for many years seen Islamic finance as a growth area, and has itself adapted financial rules to make it more attractive. France, too, recently declared it was keen to get more of the growing business. Ireland takes confidence from a recent survey showing it to be the world's third most open economy.
The changes will initially affect the wholesale financial markets, making possible the issuance of Islamic bonds (sukuk) for example. But that could just be a prelude to full retail offerings, like shariah-compliant bank facilities and mortgages. There are 30,000 potential customers out there, no small attraction for Ireland's cash-strapped banks. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org