The one-sentence description of Oliver Wyman's doomsday scenario is: The world is slowly inflating a commodities bubble that could burst just like the housing market in 2008, creating an even more devastating worldwide recession.
THE COMMODITIES BUBBLE
Let's start in 2011. The world is in a three-speed recovery, with Europe at the bottom, the U.S. in the middle, and Asia growing between 6 and 10 percent. If you're an investment bank looking for high returns, where do you look? The fastest gains are in the hottest markets, and the hottest markets are in the developing world. In particular, commodities investments (gold, silver, platinum, rare earth metals, oil) have soaked up lots of excess global money supply and central banks have dropped their interest rates. Commodities-rich economies like Russia, Brazil and the rest of Latin America have been key beneficiaries.
In the U.S. housing bubble, over-valued homes encouraged families to go on a debt-fueled spending spree In the commodities run-up, emerging economies are on their own spending sprees, building up their cities and digging out more valuable metals. But just as the housing bubble was powered by a false faith that home prices would rise forever, it's wrong to believe that commodity prices have no ceiling due to insatiable demand from China, India and other developing countries.
THE BUBBLE BURSTS
The year is 2013. Western banks are investing heavily in new growth markets. Emerging economies are raking in investments to finance huge development projects and live outside their means (Real stat: in Brazil, public debt rose 13 percent in 2010 and household debt-to-income doubled in five years). Both sides are betting on the continued rise of commodity prices.
What could go wrong? The smallest prick could puncture the bubble. Now look at China, the world's largest commodities buyer. Prices for Chinese goods continue to rise dramatically in 2013 and the country's cheap currency isn't appreciating fast enough to offset rising food and metal prices. To fight back rampant inflation, China hikes up its interest rates and accelerates its currency appreciation. This has two side-effects. First, exports fall hurting the economy. Second, home values stop rising, hurting middle class Chinese families.
The Chinese economy, once an unstoppable commodity consumer, slows down. Investors freak out. Commodity prices collapse and the countries that export them (Russia, Brazil, Latin America, Africa) find themselves in the same position as an over-leveraged home owner in 2008. They've made promises based on the rising price of an asset whose price is suddenly collapsing. Everybody pulls back at once. It's another global recession.
The first wave hits international banks with direct exposure to Latin American development projects. The second wave hits U.S. insurers with indirect exposures through investments in infrastructure funds and bank debt.
The third wave hits Western governments. A price crash in commodities along with a banking crisis could move developed countries dangerously close to deflation. Governments would respond the same way they responded to the Great Recession: by spending lots of money. But do we have the capacity to absorb another round of deficit spending? It's not clear.
To review how Great-Great Recession 2015 would affect the world:
1) The commodity producers -- Latin America, Africa, Russia, Canada and Australia -- will have seen the price of their chief asset plummet overnight.
2) China, the world's largest commodity importer, will have unwittingly created its own painful squeeze by getting trapped between inflation and an undervalued currency.
3) The developed world economies will have seen another round of foolish betting require yet another round of government bailiouts.
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