In a SPIEGEL interview, British historian Niall Ferguson discusses Barack Obama’s historical election, Europe’s hopes for the new president, the consequences of the economic crisis and his idea of “Chimerica” — the economic alliance between Beijing and Washington.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Ferguson, were you moved when you saw the future president, Barack Obama, in Chicago?
Ferguson: Yes, it was a very moving moment. It was similar to the release of Nelson Mandela. When Obama was born, in 1961, mixed marriages between blacks and whites were still illegal in one-third of the American states.
SPIEGEL: Historically speaking, that was yesterday,
Ferguson: Of course. But we are talking about ordinary discrimination, not just the legacy of slavery. And it had not disappeared. It is astonishing that the transformation from a racist America to an America that elects a black man to the White House was possible within that period of time. Even the world’s most dogmatic conservative ought to be moved.
SPIEGEL: You initially favored John McCain?
Ferguson: I have become a convert in the last six months because of Obama’s extraordinary combination of rhetorical genius, coolness under fire and organizational skills. This was the best election campaign we have ever experienced.
SPIEGEL: Which doesn’t necessarily have to mean a great presidency.
Ferguson: What it means is enough: the death of racism, the end of the original American sin and, most of all, the right reaction to end the economic crisis. Obama can stimulate self-confidence because he is so calm and collected. He will not simply put an end to the crisis or ensure that banks lend money again. He is a politician, not the Messiah. But he can change the national mood. Americans are lucky that they were able to elect him now, just as the panic reached its climax. It is as if they had voted Roosevelt into office earlier, in 1930, and not in 1933.
SPIEGEL: Shouldn’t the world have seen it coming, the economic crisis we are now experiencing?
Ferguson: Of course, it has been clear since 2006. I know that for many people it doesn’t feel that way. They are horrified because they were taken by surprise, and they are in a panic because the enemy comes from within. The system is the enemy. And they don’t understand the nuances of the crisis, which makes them afraid.
SPIEGEL: In retrospect, historians are usually right. What did you foresee in 2006?
Ferguson: Excessive debt. The debts of private households and the financial institutions reached levels that could no longer be offset. Then came the bubble in the real estate market, when prices doubled even though the houses weren’t worth the money. But most of all, there was the ignorance of the bankers, hedge fund managers and financial experts in the political arena, who did not want to recognize something that was plain as day.
Ferguson: That a liquidity crisis could happen. That they would run out of money. “Impossible,” everyone was saying at the time.
SPIEGEL: It sounds a little self-opinionated for you to claim that you had predicted all of this for years.
Ferguson: Oh, I’ve been wrong before. The thing I was wrong about was the trigger.
SPIEGEL: The trigger?
Ferguson: I had believed that the price of oil would be the cause of the world economic crisis, and that the necessary trigger would be a second defenestration, a second Sarajevo and perhaps even a war, a truly major war.
SPIEGEL: Iraq and Afghanistan don’t count?
Ferguson: Too small. I had believed that a geopolitical event would lead to a credit crisis, but this crisis is so fundamental that it was capable of triggering itself. Money disappeared, and now companies can no longer refinance, can no longer borrow anything. Now it’ll be bloody.
SPIEGEL: Are the bubbles happening with greater frequency than before, or is this just the way we perceive it? Or has the world economy consisted of a single super-bubble for some time now, as speculator George Soros says?
Ferguson: There have been bubbles large and small, again and again since 1700. First there was the tulip bubble and then, in 1890, it was all about the gold mines. No, we haven’t even changed the rules of the game. If a central bank makes loans available to speculators at low interest rates, we have a bubble. Always, it’s guaranteed. Yesterday, today and tomorrow again.
SPIEGEL: Do you consider the US government’s so-called bailout plan and the Europeans’ investments in banks to be pointless?
Ferguson: No, but it is not clear that they will work. We have a situation like 1914 or 1931, and the financial and fiscal authorities have learned from history. They are doing the right thing. They are trying everything to prevent us from getting into a Great Depression.
SPIEGEL: With success?
Ferguson: We will see. So far, success has meant that relatively few banks have collapsed, whereas in the 1930s it was thousands. At that time, the gross national product dropped by 30 percent and there was 25 percent unemployment in the United States. This time we will have a painful recession, but not figures like those. What I truly criticize is the fact that so much time was wasted.
SPIEGEL: What was lost as a result?
Ferguson: Flexibility. Clout. A lot of money. Many, many possible solutions. The US treasury secretary should have flown to Beijing and could have solicited investment in American banks, which would have benefited everyone. Those who combat a crisis early on can prevent its effects from becoming too entrenched.
SPIEGEL: Is confidence in the market’s ability to purify itself dead?
Ferguson: Yes. But a true Armageddon was needed before the Republicans could be made to understand. A world war without war, a state of emergency, was needed. Now we are responding the way they did in World War I: with moratoriums, suspension of trading, new money. It’s fascinating. And it wasn’t the fault of Alan Greenspan …
SPIEGEL: … the former Federal Reserve Bank chairman …
Ferguson: … who believed that the market would regulate everything, and yet the assignment of blame is too simplistic. We are all at fault. Who in America or Great Britain didn’t take out a loan for a house that was far too expensive or for a car? And then all of these bubbles come to resemble one another, but the financial world is immune against the whole thing.
Ferguson: Most managers leave the educational system completely unequipped for the decisions they will have to make. They learn business as a mathematical discipline. They know nothing about what happened before their careers began. Many working on Wall Street today don’t even know what happened in 2000, after the Internet boom.
‘A Crisis of the Western World’
SPIEGEL: Does the system teach people to be irresponsible?
Ferguson: And to be naïve. For these people, it must have felt as if nothing could go wrong between 2001-2007. When that happens, one is tempted to make one’s own experience part of the theory of financial history.
SPIEGEL: Is it a coincidence that this crash began in the United States?
Ferguson: It could have started anywhere. The system was an upside-down pyramid, a pyramid made up of securities, derivatives, bets and loans, and all of it was balanced on a fragile tip consisting of mortgages. If it had happened someplace else, the consequences just wouldn’t have been as dramatic. But it had to tip over. It was a crisis of the Western world, and then it turned into a global crisis.
SPIEGEL: Will Barack Obama truly change the world? Or world politics?
Ferguson: Yes, by virtue of his very existence. The world is waiting for him, ready for a different America. The United States has the opportunity to remake itself without Obama having to make many changes to its foreign policy. He will close Guantanamo and declare an end to torture. All he has to do is change the tone and the game will already change because he is the one playing it. That is the real phenomenon. By virtue of his sheer existence, he reestablishes American credibility.
SPIEGEL: There are concerns in Germany that a President Obama will demand more soldiers for Afghanistan. On the other hand, there is hope that he will pursue multilateral policies.
Ferguson: Both are justified. Obama will certainly focus on Afghanistan, while at the same time attempting to withdraw Americans and get international soldiers. A true challenge could arise if Iran or al-Qaida tried to test Obama. Al-Qaida hasn’t been taken over by J.P. Morgan yet, and Iran won’t abandon its nuclear policy just because a black man is in the White House. Both dangers still exist. However, I believe that all of these issues, including Kyoto, will initially fade into the background because the economic crisis will demand our attention for a long time.
SPIEGEL: What will the consequences of the crisis be?
Ferguson: New York could turn into Venice.
SPIEGEL: A museum of itself?
Ferguson: At least in the distant future, in 100 or 200 years. The more that happens in Asia, the better London’s position will be, even from a geographic standpoint. The same, of course, applies to Shanghai, or Hong Kong.
SPIEGEL: Life is unfair.
Ferguson: Money has never been fair.
SPIEGEL: Isn’t Europe better equipped for times of crisis? More modern?
Ferguson: Perhaps, but Europe will be more severely hit by the crisis. In Great Britain, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany, the financial sector constitutes a higher percentage of the gross domestic product than in America, which is why the impact will be far greater in Europe. And Russia, Iran and Venezuela are feeling the brunt of falling oil prices.
SPIEGEL: In other words, the United States could become a winner in the current crisis, for which it bears the blame?
Ferguson: Absolutely. Obituaries are premature. It depends on how China reacts. The Chinese have achieved exchange rate stability and protected the dollar with artificial interventions. They will continue their policies because they now own vast numbers of dollars and export goods that are paid for in dollars. The United States and China are involved in a marriage like my wife’s and mine.
SPIEGEL: The wife …
Ferguson: (laughs) … spends what the husband saves and earns. A very healthy equilibrium. It will remain that way.
SPIEGEL: What is so healthy about it?
Ferguson: It has always been the case that one economy offsets the weaknesses of others. There is nothing wrong with that. The United States can afford to pay for this crisis as long as it gets cheap money in Beijing — that is, by paying not much more than four percent interest. And China needs its exports to the United States to continue growing. Chimerica …
SPIEGEL: … that’s what you call the structure of the Chinese and US economies in your new book …
Ferguson: … is no chimera, but rather a functioning alliance. Of the big three — China, Russia and America — two always join forces in a coalition, and neither China nor the United States has any reason to prefer Russia as a partner.
SPIEGEL: And yet the American deficit cannot be healthy.
Ferguson: Well, it’ll balance itself out a little now. But if the United States had a balanced budget, it would be a shock for the global system. No one can seriously want this to happen. If the Americans started saving the way the Chinese do, that’s when we would have a Great Depression!
SPIEGEL: That was one of Barack Obama’s key warnings: “We borrow money in China and use it to buy oil in Saudi Arabia.” During the campaign, he repeatedly promised that he would put an end to this.
Ferguson: A few foreign policy advisors will probably explain to him very quickly that he would be better off not to touch the relationship with China.
SPIEGEL: But there is some truth to his sentence.
Ferguson: That’s true, but it is also an over-simplification. Americans want to buy goods inexpensively, and the Chinese can produce inexpensively. Does anyone want to upset this system? Imbalances should exist in a global economy. Nations grow at different rates, and the system is there to transfer profits and savings from one place to another. This makes much more sense than the financial autarchy of the 1950s, when there were no international transactions.
SPIEGEL: It’s hard to believe. In the end, you think everything is fine the way it is?
Ferguson: No, but the subject isn’t the deficit or America’s dependence on China. China has become somewhat more self-confident and America somewhat more insecure, but China is no rival for America, neither militarily nor economically. The subject is dependence on oil, which is a technological subject, not a financial one.
SPIEGEL: Responsible politicians …
Ferguson: … would borrow money in China and invest in clean technology, in wind power and solar power. That would be a rational strategy. It was crazy to borrow money in China and burn through it by speculating in the real estate market.
SPIEGEL: So you don’t think lending is the problem?
Ferguson: It never has been. Lending transactions are the basis of the economy. It isn’t lending, it’s investment. If you don’t invest, but just consume, you bring about your own ruin.
SPIEGEL: Will European-American relations change?
Ferguson: Yes, but not in the way many Europeans expect. Democrats and Republicans are not that different on foreign policy. In fact, there is much more continuity than you would think. Will Obama be the antithesis to Bush? No, because the national interests of the United States have remained the same.
SPIEGEL: Obama has not had a relationship with Europe so far.
Ferguson: And for that reason he will see Europe as a single entity. He’ll be surprised, because he doesn’t know whom to call when he wants to speak to Europe. Europe will present itself to him as a group of sovereign states, and Messrs. Sarkozy and Brown, and Ms. Merkel, will all want to be his best friend, each of them on their own.
SPIEGEL: What will the new American president be able to achieve economically, if anything?
Ferguson: He promises a feeling of change, not necessarily real change. But the feeling is already important enough. This whole crisis has to do with trust and self-confidence. We need a US president who brings renewal.
SPIEGEL: So what can Obama do?
Ferguson: He can give a great inauguration speech.
SPIEGEL: And what else?
Ferguson: Give more great speeches.
SPIEGEL: He can’t do more?
Ferguson: No, because he will have the least latitude of all presidents we can remember. Obama wants to assemble a nonpartisan government, and we will experience a more cautious first 100 days than we did under Bill Clinton. He will be cautious to the point of being boring. This will be precisely his great strength.
SPIEGEL: Where does the problem lie?
Ferguson: With Hank Paulson.
SPIEGEL: What does the current treasury secretary have to do with Obama?
Ferguson: Because of his big bailout plan, Paulson has already spent the money for Obama’s healthcare reform and for his tax cuts. The money is gone.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Ferguson, we thank you for this interview.