Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Greatest Depression Has Begun - Or Is It Ending?

What surprises me is how fast it's collapsed. The economy showed signs of rot, but nearly everyone was caught off guard with just how completely it caved in on itself. Remember? The economy wasn't even the top campaign issue until late in the summer.

But there's no denying that this is an economic collapse and it's not finished yet. I've been through the stages of grief and have finally reached acceptance - this is an unavoidable result of an artificially inflated economy and untrammeled greed. Maybe I didn't contribute to it, maybe you didn't, but we're all paying for it.

Gerald Celente at the Trends Research Institute has been calling this one long before it began. Now he's calling it the Greatest Depression. I hope he's wrong but I suspect he may be right.

A remarkably talented news photographer, fresh from her global award win, says her newspaper is announcing pay cuts, trying to prevent layoffs. She worries she'll lose her home and she's angry. She has a right.

But finally, finally, a bit of hope. A Wall Street watcher with a good track record who says the black clouds aren't here for as long as people like Celente predict.

No country appears to be immune: Japan's economy is worse than the US. And here's the latest from China from the Washington Post.

IWU, China -- Li Jiang was hungry. Huddled in the freezing rain with more than 1,000 other people at 6 a.m., he stood patiently in line hoping he had come early enough to get some of the free rice porridge steaming in giant cauldrons nearby.

It was an unfamiliar feeling for Li. For the past 11 years, he had been making a comfortable living on a steady stream of construction and factory jobs that afforded him fancy cellphones and other modern luxuries. But he was laid off two months ago, and it has been impossible to find work since.

"This is an unfair society," said Li, 27. "The government isn't giving much help, and there are too many bosses who are out to cheat us." It is the first time in his life, he said, that he has felt such deprivation.

Six months into what economists and labor experts say is China's worst job crisis since it began market reforms 30 years ago, many among the most vulnerable -- an estimated 20 million workers who lost their jobs after migrating from the countryside to cities -- are becoming desperate.

As tens of thousands of manufacturing companies have collapsed amid slowing demand due to the global economic crisis, the laid-off workers can no longer find jobs in the cities. For many, returning to their rural roots is not a possibility because their families' farmland has been sold off to make room for shopping malls, office high-rises and apartment complexes -- leaving them with no safety net. Even those lucky enough to have kept their farming plots have been hit hard by a drought -- the country's worst in 50 years, according to the government -- which has affected up to 80 percent of the land for winter crops.

"The drought has had a big impact on farmers. Some villages are out of food," said Lu Xuejing, a professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing. The impact has been especially pronounced in the nation's northwest, in provinces such as Gansu, where high temperatures combined with sparse rainfall have dried up riverbeds and killed wheat crops. This convergence of factors has meant the unthinkable for a country that in recent years has enjoyed double-digit growth in gross domestic product: As many as 10 percent of China's 130 million migrant workers face what Renmin University professor Yao Yuqun calls "bread-and-butter issues." They are having trouble putting food on the table because "they no longer have farmland, and they lost their jobs in the cities," Yao said.

Food lines like the one in Yiwu recall the worst period in modern Chinese economic history -- the 1958-61 famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward, when, as part of a plan to transform a largely agrarian society into an industrialized one, millions abandoned their farms to work in factories, leading to food shortages.

China is not in any danger of that happening again. Since then, the country has kept generous reserves of grains, pork and other staples, and it has an estimated $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves that it can use to buy the food it needs from elsewhere.

The challenge for China's leaders is to ensure that no one goes hungry, without moving the country back to the iron-rice-bowl era, when the state guaranteed cradle-to-grave employment.

The central government has responded to the sharp economic contraction by focusing on job creation and vocational training rather than handouts with its $586 billion stimulus package. Some city and provincial governments have taken a different approach, handing out food coupons for the first time. They have also distributed vegetable oil and other essentials, but these programs are limited.

Meanwhile, China's social welfare system is a work in progress and will be one of the main items on the agenda this week at the annual meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing. A proposal to create a universal safety net that includes unemployment insurance for all citizens was released for public comment in December, but it is yet to be implemented.

Wealthier citizens are trying to fill the gap between what the government is offering and the need they see in their neighborhoods, by starting soup kitchens and other charitable endeavors like the one in Yiwu.

As it has gradually opened up its economy, China has periodically struggled with high unemployment. The most recent crisis before this one was in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, when many of the country's state-owned enterprises were privatized. But that shift affected only one segment of the population. "There was almost no problem with migrant workers and fresh graduates from college. However, now the unemployment problem is nationwide," said Chen Bulei, a labor law researcher at Renmin University in Beijing. Chen said that the unemployment issue today "is not only a simple economic problem," but also a social one. This has been evident in the protests that unemployed workers have staged in recent months.

"It's like migrant workers are crossing a river to reach the bank. Right now they are just in the middle of the river. The moving has not yet finished -- can they obtain equal treatment as city citizens? If this cannot be solved effectively, migrant workers are a very unstable factor," Chen said.

A year ago, Yiwu was a showcase for a booming China. The streets were filled with shiny new cars shuttling businessmen to meetings to sign multimillion-dollar manufacturing deals for products such as blankets, calculators and toys. Restaurants were doing brisk business in shark-fin soup and other delicacies. Hotels were overbooked.

These days, the mood in Yiwu is depressed.

Storefronts for exporters that have gone out of business are boarded up. Rows of sleeping migrant workers fill the sidewalks. On a recent weekday morning, people lined up for the rice porridge being given away by Lin Ruxin, who owns a local printing factory.

Lin, 50, said he opened the food station in early January when he began to notice that more and more people were gathering in front of the unemployment office and that many of them would stay there the whole day without eating. He organized a few volunteers and dipped into his savings to fund the breakfast service. They begin cooking at 10 p.m. and work all night until about 6 a.m., when they start giving away the food. Each serving also includes some pickled vegetables and two buns.

"I feel for them," Lin said. "When I was a child, I went through the Cultural Revolution, and when I started my own business, I also had a hard time. Everywhere I went, I got knocked down. This is the situation the migrant workers are in now."

Many of the people in the food line are down to their last 10 or 20 yuan, the equivalent of a few dollars, and have hawked all their worldly possessions. They eat crouched in corners or on the street as cars whiz by.

"To be honest, the porridge is tasteless and the buns have no nutrition, but when you have no money, everything tastes delicious as long as it can fill you up," said Li, who does not even have enough money for the bus fare to get him back home to Guizhou, a province about 950 miles away, in China's southwest.

Nearby are Wu Kailing, 40, his wife, Wen Shengju, 40, and their daughter, Wu Ying, 14. They had not been able to find any work in their home province of Sichuan and saw something on television about this city's small commodities market. But they have not found work, and they have used up their life savings.

Wu said that his family has one-third of an acre of land at home and that that is not enough to feed his family, "so going home, we'd still go hungry." His one hope is for a better life for his daughter. "I don't care what she does in the future -- I just hope she won't be like us. I feel we are not treated fairly."

When Lin started the food line two months ago, the 1,200 portions he was giving away each day would last about two hours. These days every bit is often gone in 45 minutes.

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