The West’s Luck has Run Out

Why I fear the west’s luck has run out

By Luke Johnson

Published: January 28 2009 00:23 | Last updated: January 28 2009 00:23

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Over the months I have told my colleagues at Channel 4 and the Royal Society of Arts that this is not just a financial hiccup, or something happening to the City and Wall Street.

We need to make programmes, do research and deliver lectures about this moment – because this downturn is very bad indeed. It will sear itself into a generation’s memory and scar lives. It may well be the worst slump most of us have ever experienced. It surely needs to be recorded and discussed, while solutions are sought – and in the meantime we have to struggle through it.

For at least a year I have been as restrained and positive as I felt I could be. I am past all that now. It is time for some blunt talk, I fear.

It is clear that as a society we must learn something painful and radical – how to live within our means – because the credit just is not there any more. The easy money is all gone, and there will be no more for a long time.

Previous assumptions simply do not apply. Homeowners should forget about houses going up in value – all that is history. They are places to live in. So cut back on your outgoings. Pay rises are off the agenda. Wholesale pay cuts may yet become common. Put some cash aside if you possibly can; you might lose your job. I fear most citizens’ plans for the future must be put on hold. This is not something happening to other people – we are all in trouble.

‘Prepare for a wrenching, unstoppable redistribution of wealth – and I am not talking about domestic taxes’

Business must adjust to the idea that this stagnation could last for many years. The age of free money from mad lenders is finished. The growth game is over. Whole swathes of industry are on life support. The banks are in desperate straits. If their management cannot see that, then they are even more incompetent than they are portrayed.

Indeed, too many of us still fail to see just how severe conditions are, and how horrible things are likely to get. This is not a correction, a brief hiatus until the upward march once more resumes. At some point, the Japanese, Chinese and Saudi buyers of US and European government bonds will see just what miserable value they offer. Then governments may have to stop all the runaway state spending and bail-outs, and even put up interest rates.

Plenty of observers, including me, have criticised the media for being too gloomy. I am now beginning to believe that they have not been gloomy enough, if they want to reflect the true consequences of our profligacy and past conceit.

After all, who wants to face up to the bleak reality that confronts us? The experts say we will not suffer a repeat of the 1930s slump. Indeed, we have to contend with fresh issues. Like the fact that there are 1.5bn recent additions to the capitalist workforce in China and India – hard-working, increasingly well-educated people, all keen to better themselves. Meanwhile, modern logistics and communications mean trade and production can take place almost anywhere if it makes economic sense.

So why should industrious Asians earn a tiny fraction of what citizens in the west earn? Especially when they have so much of the cash and productive resources, while we have deficits, high costs and poor demographics.

Prepare for a wrenching, unstoppable redistribution of wealth – and I am not talking about domestic taxes. For too long it has been more profitable in the west to finance consumption rather than production. That cannot continue. I am afraid that the west’s credibility – and luck – has run out.

This vast reordering of our economic system has only just begun. We shall have to cancel all the self-indulgence of endless welfare spending and cultivate rather more of a work ethic and a sense of self-sufficiency. Expectations must be modified and attitudes altered profoundly. Expect years of negligible growth, permanent high unemployment, declining property prices, higher taxes, crumbling currencies and falling living standards.

We shall look back on the last decade and think: we never realised what we had until it was gone.

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The writer is chairman of Channel 4 and runs Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm