I remember being at a gathering in Mumbai last November, and a CEO of a major company got up and said that as CEOs we've lost our confidence. It struck me not only for its bluntness but that he was saying it publicly. Now his pronouncement has become commonplace.
A new global survey of 1,124 executives by PricewaterhouseCoopers is echoing those doubts. Only 34 percent described themselves as very confident about the outlook for growth over the next three years, down from 42 percent last year. Only one in five are very confident their revenues will increase over the next 12 months, compared to 50 percent in last year's survey.
Every executive I've spoken with has told me he can't remember a time as bad as this.
The head of PwC, Sam DiPiazza, Jr., put it this way: "The speed and intensity of the recession have rocked the psyche of CEOs and created a global crisis of confidence. CEOs are most concerned about the immediate survival of their companies."
The overwhelming majority of chief executives, 80 percent, are facing higher finance costs, and nearly 70 percent anticipate postponing investments.
Given all the above, it's not suprising that about 76,000 layoffs were announced in just one day this month, and it's likely to get worse before it gets better.
One economist described the global economy like a car stuck in the mud. Authorities keep pushing the fiscal and monetary accelerator, and the wheels keep spinning. If the CEOs surveyed are right about the recession being a long, drawn-out affair, get used to the wheels spinning.
Do you think global CEOs are being too pessimistic about the economy? What advice would you have for a CEO facing a severe economic downturn?
LONDON, England - What is it like being George W. Bush right now? With Barack Obama's presidential inauguration just a few days away, how is the present occupant of the Oval Office spending his last few days in office?
The first seven years of the Bush administration witnessed strong economic gains.
Well, clearly there are the usual decisions to be taken, meetings to be held, visits to be made, people to be hosted and so on. But it's my guess that there is a question that must echo ever more loudly in the mind of any outgoing president of the United States as he prepares to leave the White House: what will my legacy be? And once Mr. Bush has packed his toothbrush and headed back to Texas, the minute-to-minute pressures of office will no longer distract him. As he chews languidly on, say, a pretzel that question will no doubt pop unbidden into his mind.
History can be a fickle prism. What journalists say today about George W. Bush's legacy may not be what the historians looking back from the 22nd century will see. But for now it is clearly 9/11 and his response to it, above all the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, that will be held up as the defining issues of Mr. Bush's administration.
Millions of words will continue to be written about the rights and wrongs of his national security and foreign policy, which under the Constitution are the central concerns of the U.S. president. But one of the pervading ironies of U.S. politics is the way that Americans ultimately vote for their president on the basis of economic achievement and promise.
So what of the Bush economic legacy? It certainly looks ugly. On Friday last week we learned that the U.S. economy had shed 524,000 non-farm jobs in December 2008, bringing the total number of jobs lost in that lamentable year to 2.6 million. The day before, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office put out a forecast that the federal deficit would balloon from $455bn in fiscal 2008 to $1.2 trillion, or more than 8 percent of GDP, in fiscal 2009. That's before you factor in the huge additional fiscal stimulus that Mr. Obama will announce soon after taking office.
Breathtaking, especially when you remember that under the Clinton administration the federal budget moved into surplus, and even stayed there for the fiscal year of Mr. Bush's first inauguration in 2001.
But that was the last year he balanced the federal budget; then came the big tax cuts that were his economic signature, plus the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thought likely to cost Washington a couple of trillion dollars (some economists say much more) by 2017. (To put that into perspective, $2 trillion represents seven weeks' worth of the entire U.S. national output.)
But back to January 2009 and the recession that George W. Bush is handing on to Barack Obama. What triggered that, of course, was the implosion of the U.S. housing market in 2007. It has battered tens of millions of ordinary Americans, exposed the reckless lending of many banks, shredded the balance sheets of many a proud name on Wall Street, triggered a bewildering global financial turmoil and forced a Republican President to swallow free market principles and mount a $700 billion programme of government bailouts.
From this vantage point, the Bush legacy could hardly look worse. But no actor would be judged solely on his last major performance; no sporting hero would stand or fall on the basis of how well he played in the last season before his retirement.
The fact is, the first seven years of the Bush Administration were years of strong GDP growth: before 2008, the slowest rate at which the U.S. economy grew was 3.2 percent in 2001 (during a cyclical downturn) and the fastest was 6.6 percent in 2004, with 2005 and 2006 not far behind that blistering rate.
There were some other strong points - at least until the cataclysm of 2007 and the perfect storm of collapsing house prices, shrinking economies and rising commodity values. Under the stewardship of Alan Greenspan, the Fed kept inflation in check. The Dow soared some 34 percent in the first six Bush years, peaking at 14,164 in October 2007. Under a light regulatory regime the financial sector burgeoned. U.S. businesses and consumers alike reaped huge rewards from the rollout of new technologies. The Internet came of age. Cheap consumer goods from China boosted the feel-good factor. Cell phones and iPods became must-have accessories for most Americans; well into 2007, they could have been forgiven for thinking they had never had it so well.
But then came that terrible cataclysm, the steady slide into recession, a near-40 percent decline on the Dow from that heady peak and the brutality of unemployment for more than 7 percent of the U.S. workforce.
So the years of plenty ended in misery - there'd been plenty too much plenty, it turned out. America had partied, and partied too hard; the present hangover is proving the most painful since the one that afflicted our grandfathers four score years ago.
But is the U.S. president to blame? Will history look kindly on him, saying it was the blind greed of bankers that led them to lend more than humble borrowers could ever afford, and so trigger the housing crash? Will George W. Bush be seen as the victim of powerful global forces that not even the most powerful elected official on Earth could foresee, let alone resist?
What do you think? Will we remember the many boom years or just the bust? Once the U.S. economy recovers, will Mr. Bush's economic legacy be seen in a more positive light?
LONDON, England – It never rains but it pours. Hot on the heels of last year's financial turmoil came the revelation that the New York hedge fund manager Bernard Madoff had said that he had run a giant Ponzi scheme, allowing him to defraud investors to the tune of $50 billion.
Bernard Madoff is accused of a mulit-billion dollar fraud scheme.
Little by little the details have been coming out in the past few days as regulators and now U.S. legislators get to work on their investigations - but the fact is, we will probably never ever discover the whole truth about how much was ripped off, or where Madoff, a former chairman of Nasdaq, has squirreled it away.
That staggering headline number may be as bogus as Madoff's promise of generous and genuine returns: 12 percent a year. We have only Madoff's word for it, and his word is worth less than ... well, you can insert your own well-chosen words here.
Meanwhile, the ninepins are falling. A charitable trust. An Austrian bank. Several wealthy individuals. All brought to their knees because they trusted a man likely to go down as the greatest fraudster of all time.
Of course, none of this is directly related to the brutal falls suffered by global stock markets in 2008, the collapse of leading investment banks or to the U.S. housing bust that triggered both those events. But they and the Madoff scam would never have been possible had it not been for the willingness of sophisticated and responsible adults to cast aside wisdom and experience and to be taken in by the lure of money - to forget that if a thing seems too good to be true, it probably isn't. Even at the height of the bull market, which reputable fund manager ever promised 12 percent returns?
And of course regulators have once again failed in their task of nailing the untrustworthy and their dubious practices. We are left with the gullible in pursuit of the negligent as well as the fraudulent.
Bernard Madoff, we are told, is cooperating with investigators, falling into line with a court-ordered deadline of December 31, 2008, for him to submit a list of assets, liabilities and property to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But so far he alone has been charged, though it seems hard to believe that he ran so extensive a scheme without the support of at least a few confidants.
Not everybody who invested in the Madoff funds lost money. By the very nature of a Ponzi scheme, anyone who took their money out before the scam collapsed would have made the promised mint. But by the same token they have in effect become accomplices of Madoff, or at least fellow profiteers.
This one will run and run; it's probably the first big financial story of 2009.
What do you think? Is Madoff solely responsible? What consequences should he face, along with anyone else who contributed to the fraud? And should investors who made money unfairly from his Ponzi scheme be forced to help bail out those who lost out?
Given that any returns would have been purely the fruits of fraud, are any investors entitled to anything more than the money they invested in the first place?
Post your questions and comments below, and we'll put them to an expert on Friday's edition of Business International. (It's helpful if you also say where you are writing from, and please confine your comments to the Madoff affair.)
LONDON, England - Binge ... hangover ... regret ...resolve.
It's the pattern of the holiday season. Eat and drink too much, suffer for it, wish you hadn't overdone it - and then savor the chance of redemption in the shape of New Year's resolutions. You know the drill: something along the lines of "I will never ever touch a drop again" or "I will never eat so much rich food ever again."
It's also, of course, the pattern of the world economy. Grow too much too fast on borrowed money, and things will feel lovely until the awful day the bust comes. Then comes the pain, only partly offset by the usual measures to remedy it.
Think of interest rate cuts as the equivalent of a couple of aspirin or liver salts.
And of course policymakers and investors alike wish they had all spotted it coming sooner and taken action in time.
So what about the economic equivalent of New Year's resolutions? As we enjoy the tail end of the holidays and cross the invisible frontier that divides 2008 from 2009, what can we promise that we will always do in the future, and what will we swear to avoid?
The world's policymakers are already working hard on tighter, more effective regulation. In the new world that awaits us, banks and other financial services players will have their wings clipped to prevent them from soaring again to the heights of excess.
Economists are busily rewriting their textbooks, airbrushing any passages that suggested that the cycle of boom and bust was history. And of course we journalists are insisting that we were taken in by the same irrational exuberance as everyone else and could only tell the truth as we saw it.
So there will soon be new regulations and a new economic orthodoxy to bow down to. Meanwhile, what can we do to hasten recovery and prevent a recurrence of the current slowdown?
The words of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address in 1933 have have always had great resonance and wisdom: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
As investors sit on great piles of cash, as banks refuse to lend money even to the most promising and worthy of ventures, as consumers steer clear of the shops, and as companies slash jobs, the impact of that "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" is plain.
And we can be sure that it will intensify, as 2009 progresses. It's going to be that kind of year. As Germans say, "Augen zu und durch!" ("Shut your eyes and get through it!")
But if abject fear could be replaced not by misplaced optimism but by a rational prudence, what impact would that have? Would a change in psychology make much difference?
As with the question of climate change, if we changed our attitudes and actions together, could we solve the problem?
What do you think? What New Year's resolutions are you making to beat off the economic crisis? And what do you recommend to the rest of us?
Post your questions and comments, and we'll put them to an expert on Friday's edition of Business International. (It's helpful if you also say where you are writing from.)
LONDON, England – In life, there are always decisions you want to keep on putting off. In my case, the one that always stresses me out centers on the heating oil tank in my garden.
It's no great beauty - a big green plastic job that could probably swallow up two entire bedrooms in one of those Japanese capsule hotels, but which apparently holds 2,500 liters of fuel.In these days of wildly fluctuating crude prices, working out when to fill the wretched thing is a task requiring the greatest wisdom, calculation and foresight.
The seesawing price of oil has given consumers worldwide much to consider during 2008.
It is not helped by the fact that the local company with which we have a supply agreement employs a high-pressure salesman to answer the phone, quote the latest price per liter and coax customers into buying as many liters as possible.
His strong-arm tactics probably earn him an annual bonus which would not disgrace an oil company mogul.
What he knows is that those of us who use oil to heat and cook in the winter (I know, not desperately environmental, we have no mains gas supply but do have a solar panel and turn the oil off for six months each year) can imagine nothing worse than being stranded with an empty tank just as the extended family descends for the holidays and Jack Frost starts to tighten his wintry grip.
Desperate + gullible = ripped off. Game on, I thought last April. I cheated the man on the phone at the oil company of a few pounds in bonus by refusing to buy a full tank of oil at what I felt to be an inflated price of 51.5 pence per liter (around 65 euro-cents or US$1.03).
Instead I persuaded my skeptical wife to order a mere 500 liters, on the basis that this would be enough to last until nearly the end of the year, by which time (I said, crossing my fingers) crude prices would be way back down again from around $110 a barrel and heating oil would be way cheaper.
Over the summer, I chewed my nails as crude rose majestically to $147 a barrel, taking my wife's eyebrows up with it. I could see that I was going to be saddled with yet another financial clanger, my eternal optimism (see last week's blog) dragging the family budget and my personal credibility down with it.
But then my bet started to pay back. Crude prices slid and slid and slid, all the way down to around $40 a barrel.
I started to dream of a holiday in the sun on the basis of all the money we had saved by holding back on buying oil and waiting for the price to drop; after all, if the price drops 10 euro-cents, that's a saving of €250 on a full tank. If you go away to somewhere sunny, you're not even consuming any oil!
Then, out of the blue, my wife rang me at work. The oil in the tank was getting dangerously low and would only last another week.
It might run out just as... well, this is nearly the week before the holidays and you can guess the rest.
But luckily, she told me, she had spoken to the man at the oil supply company and he would fill our tank for 37.5 pence a liter. I sighed.
The connection between crude prices and the price of heating oil to consumer dorks like me is actually more tenuous and delayed than you'd think.
Even so, I valiantly weighed the odds. On the one hand, crude demand is falling, and will probably fall further as the global economy struggles to shake off recession next year.
On the other hand, petroleum prices have been underpinned by OPEC's determination to tighten supply; Saudi Arabia, the "swing producer" in the producer cartel and its biggest player, is already rumored to be cutting the amount of oil it exports.
In the end, the salesman won - more or less. My wife rang around, got a lower quote, called him back and got him to match it.
So next week the truck will roll up, the man will jump out and run out his hose to the green plastic thing, turn a switch - and we'll be warm and cosy over the holidays.
We'll also be £900, or $1,340, poorer off. So were we robbed? Should I have held on, maybe bought another 500 liters (at a slightly higher price; the salesman knows his job)? Or was I right to get my personal big oil deal out of the way before OPEC tightens demand? What do you think? How have changing oil prices had an impact on your life? Post your questions and comments below, and we'll put them to an expert on Friday's edition of Business International. (It's helpful if you also say where you are writing from.) And here are some answers from Philip Sellwood, chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust
LONDON, England - This is all getting seriously ugly. The U.S. labor market shed some 533,000 non-farm jobs in November, and it now turns out that in September - before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the consequent severe volatility on global stock markets - U.S. unemployment was already starting to surge.
It was just a few days ago that we were told the gurus at the U.S. National Bureau for Economic Research had decided that we could use the word "recession" to describe the economic conditions in the United States. But now, with jobs disappearing fast, confidence in shreds and the "Big Three" carmakers holding out the begging bowls in Washington, the word "depression" is starting to be on everyone's lips.
I admit to being the eternal optimist. I'm not ashamed to say so - I would actually hate to be thought of as a pessimist - but must also confess that it comes with a big personal price tag: for example, ever hopeful, I hung on in there in the stock market for longer than was wise. Watch Michael O'Sullivan of Credit Suisse discuss Europe's options
So it pains me to write this, but given that this recession has already lasted longer than many of its peers - and is widely forecast to last longer than most of them – perhaps we can no longer rule out a depression, a prolonged and dramatic downturn lasting well into 2010.
It's a scenario nobody wants. But every government and every central bank in the world is now united in fighting to avoid it
Hours before those U.S. labor market numbers stunned financial markets, Europe was launching a broad-fronted counterattack. The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and Sweden's Riksbank slashed their key interest rates; in the case of the ECB, the 0.75 percentage point reduction was the biggest cut in its 10-year history. In Germany, the Bundestag voted through the federal government's $39 billion fiscal stimulus package, just as the French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose the car-making city of Douai to announce a similar package worth $32 billion.
In fact, each day now brings news of European Union leaders and the European Commission working closely together to show they are putting up a united front against the recession. But what is striking is that nobody says they can stop it in its tracks, whatever they do. The most they can do, say most economists, is soften the pain of recession and ensure it lasts no longer than it has to.
All this comes at a price. France's latest effort to boost its economy will probably lift its national debt to 3.9% of GDP, and like all prudent governments, it will have to pay that back out of the taxpayer's pocket once normality has returned. Virtually every European government will be doing the same: borrowing big-time now, and repaying later.
Central banks also face a dilemma. They have had no choice but to loosen the monetary floodgates in an effort to induce the commercial banks to start lending again; that is essential if businesses are to invest and employ more people, and if individuals are to restart consumer spending.
But lower interest rates take many months to generate their full impact on the economy, and central bankers worry that growth will snap back, forcing up prices and unleashing inflation.
Imagine trying to drive a car along a highway with steering that only responds, say, 30 seconds after you've turned the wheel. How long before you dive into the ditch?
So there is an argument which says that governments and central banks might do better to stay on the sidelines and let the recession take its course rather than take expensive and risky measures which are never going to stop it anyway.
What do you think? Are Europe's governments and central banks doing enough to fight off recession, apart from avoiding policy measures which might make things even worse? Should they actually bother to do anything? Are they just making things worse? Watch Michael O'Sullivan from Credit Suisse Asset Management answer your questions
Ever wondered why we are so worried about falling prices? And how worrying about them can become part of the problem?
Can a simple sofa lead to bigger problems?
Let me offer my own, real experience: I was going to buy a new sofa this month. I have found the one I like in the color I want
I suddenly realized: Hey, prices are falling. I can make do with my old one until the replacement becomes cheaper, or I will buy it in the January sales, when I might get a bargain.
So this month I haven't bought the sofa. The shop didn't get the sale. The factory didn't get the order.
The same may happen next month, and the month after. Certainly I want a new sofa, but I don't want to find the same chair cheaper in a month or two's time.
Of course, by this time the economy will have worsened and I may be more concerned about saving for even worse times ahead - at this rate, the dratted sofa may not get bought until next summer.
Multiply my decision by everyone else and you see how the economic crises - coupled with falling prices - is disastrous.
Now tell me, what changes in shopping or economc decisions have YOU made that, if multiplied, will have a major effect? What purchases are you putting off? What vacations are you not taking, and what home improvements have you delayed?
Let me know, so we can truly see the size and scale of this problem. Watch Jasmine Birtles of Money Magpie.com answer your questions and comments.
WASHINGTON D.C. –- It was always going to be tough meeting the expectations at the G20 on Saturday. Talk of Bretton Woods II before the meeting inevitably raised hopes that would be near impossible to fulfil.
The fact that 20 nations, representing 90 percent of the global economy were present, merely gave the cynics cause to say nothing could get done - even President Bush admitted as much in his closing statement. Everyone expected an anodyne declaration giving something to everyone; thus nothing to anyone.
But the 10-page declaration proved us all wrong. It is considered, detailed and, yes, it sets out short and medium term goals for the G20.
Let’s remember the salient points: fiscal and monetary stimulus from those nations who can; immediate reform of accounting rules to conform to a global standard; new regulations for derivative markets and better early warning of crises; reform of the IMF and World Bank adding weight for the developing world; and a college of supervisors for cross-border investment companies.
These are not just platitudes. They mean business. Why? Because from what I can see the world leaders are angry and frustrated. Despite the cynics, most leaders go into politics to do some good. They don’t want to spend billions of dollars bailing out banks which should be building hospitals, roads and making life better for the electorate. They are furious that they’re stuck with the worst financial crisis in decades and they’re going to wreak revenge on those behind it.
However, there is an overriding hypocrisy that I found too much to take.
In defining the causes the declaration says “policy makers, regulators and supervisors in some advanced countries did not adequately appreciate and address the risks.”
Policy makers? Some advanced countries?
Surely not George Bush, who has been president for eight years? Or Gordon Brown who was Britain’s finance minister for over a decade and is now prime minister? Even Nicolas Sarkozy was France’s finance minister in 2005! The list of the complicit runs much deeper once you take into account officials in finance ministries and central banks who are still in office.
This is a breathtaking case of “someone was to blame” for the crash, conveniently forgetting they were the people either at the wheel or reading the map.
All I wanted to hear was one word: just one.
My Question: Did the G20 actually make a difference?
Or alternatively: Have the guilty politicians got away with the biggest financial swindle of our time? Watch The Economist's Philip Coggan answer your questions
LONDON, England - As the dust settles after an historic U.S. presidential election, the man chosen to be the next Commander in Chief cannot afford to pause and reflect upon the significance of his victory, let alone rest up after the most gruelling and expensive election campaign ever.
What advice would you give to anyone faced with the prospect of losing their job or their home?
The domestic and international goodwill that Barack Obama enjoys today will be short lived.
The millions who voted him into office as an agent for change and the hundreds of millions more around the world who see him as a figure of hope - the man to restore their faith in the United States - face an uncertain economic future.
While Obama doesn't officially take office until January, he will be involved in decisions taken right now, today, particularly concerning the economy and the implementation of the multi-billion-dollar bailout plan.
He faces a daunting burden of responsibility. People have such high hopes, but as recession bites and thousands lose their jobs and possibly even their homes, his "honeymoon" period won't last long.
So, while the president-elect appoints some of the best and brightest of minds to his cabinet and gets to grips with sorting out the mess we're in, we want to draw on the bank of experience that is the CNN audience. You.
Presidents and economic hard times come and go and yet the world keeps turning. Having lived through "downturns" in the past, what advice would you give to anyone faced with the prospect of losing their job or their home?
Many of the people who brought Barack Obama to power were voting for the first time, perhaps too young to have lived through a period of economic gloom such as this.
Just how do you cope with debt and the associated stress? With unemployment and foreclosure?
LONDON, England - When Barack Obama is sworn in as U.S. president on January 20, 2009 he will be taking office on the usual wave of enthusiasm for a new political beginning, but against a grim economic background.
Barack Obama must act quickly to turn around the U.S. economy.
There's a much-told story about a couple becoming utterly lost in the back lanes of some rural area and chancing upon an ancient local inhabitant.
Asked for the directions to their destination, the old man leans on his stick, furrows a wrinkled brow and remarks sorrowfully: "If I wanted to get there, I wouldn't start from here."
Obama won't have any choice, any more than the couple in the story did.
Shortly after the crowds attending the inaugural parade have gone to their homes (assuming they haven't lost them to foreclosure by hard-hit mortgage lenders), ill tidings will reach the Oval Office: the national income numbers for the fourth quarter of 2008.
They will confirm to everyone but a few academic pedants and hair-splitters that the United States will be well into recession by then.
By then, too, the usual remarkable capacity of the U.S. economy to create jobs will be fully exhausted. The unemployment rate will be rising inexorably.
Add all that to a housing market still on life-support, and the feel-bad factor will be overwhelming.
The U.S. consumer will be in parlous state, and retailers will be licking their wounds after a disastrous 2008 holiday season.
So what will the new president need to do to dig his nation out this sticky economic mess?
In fairness, a start has been made by President George W. Bush's administration after a hesitant start.
Fingers crossed, the worst of the financial turmoil is already behind us: the banks have been underpinned by hundreds of billions of dollars of government money and U.S. stocks appear to be escaping out of the cycle of volatility that has marked the past few weeks.
Economic forecasters believe the back end of 2009 will see global recovery - without adding any riders stipulating that what the new U.S. president does will alter the outlook.
But it plainly will.
The holder of the most powerful office on the planet can do more than anyone to influence global economic fortunes, especially if he has the support of the U.S. Congress, which holds the key to the awesome power of the U.S. federal budget (albeit painfully overstretched by the bank bailout plan).
So what should Obama be doing? What will be his most powerful tools? How will he stimulate the economy? How will he best use the "presidential bully-pulpit" to instil confidence into a stricken nation?
Should he adjust the duties of the U.S. Federal Reserve to include an obligation to prevent the formation of financial bubbles? Or would he be well advised to avoid extending the boundaries of economic regulation, while perhaps making sure that the existing framework is used more effectively?
How will he lift the housing market off the floor? And should he reach out to those many Americans suffering the distress and humiliation of being turfed out of their own homes because they can't make the mortgage payments?
Please give us your answers and ideas.
About Business 360
CNN International's business anchors and correspondents get to grips with the issues affecting world business, and they want your questions and feedback.