Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday snippets - crisis response to the GFC, the Australian party system with a dash of rising sea levels

Quite a gripping piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Elizabeth Knight, 'They came with suitcases for cash': Westpac chief. The introduction follows. Its worth a browse. 

Westpac boss Gail Kelly has described scenes of customers arriving at bank branches with suitcases looking to withdraw their cash as the global financial crisis hit its nadir five years ago.

On the fifth anniversary of the collapse of US investment banking giant Lehman Brothers, Ms Kelly reveals the depth of Westpac's concerns, its crisis management and the extent of collaboration between the big four bank chiefs, government and the Reserve Bank.

I was in China that September as handbag at, of all things, an international conference of insolvency practitioners where my wife was a delegate. As the situation worsened, those attending started to leave, called back to their various home bases. Crises are good for the insolvency business.

I remember being surprised when I got back to Australia at the depth of local concern. It was that that really drew me back into writing on economics and the economy. Elizabeth's piece shows just how close Australia came to a real bank run. It also shows the strength of the Australian system.

Moving to current times, Don Aitkin has run two pieces (Is Labor the true dynamo of Australian politics? and Is Labor the true dynamo of Australian politics?) looking at the Australian party system over time. Like me, Don's formative roots actually lie in the country, the world of the Country Party. Like me, he grew to early adulthood in New England; by accident of alphabet, Don was the first student enrolled at the newly autonomous University of New England.

Although I disagreed with him on certain points, more as I came to know more, Don had a big impact on my thinking. In the seventies there was a flowering of books on the Australian country and country movements. This was work written from a non or even anti metro perspective, an exploration of ideas and politics outside the bounds set by Australia's big metro centres that generally, dominate Australian thought and politics.

I do wonder about Don's typology though, especially when it comes to the definition of conservative. It seems to me that that's shifted, that the old classifications may no longer be relevant.

Changing directions, over on Northern River geology, Rod Holland had a short piece on fluctuating sea levels on the North Coast, A history of unstable North Coast sea levels?. We saw a little of the importance of changing climate and sea levels in the ABC First Footprints series. Looking at layers in the coastal dunes revealed by erosion, Rod wondered about higher sea levels during the Holocene period:

According to Baker et al (2001a & 2001b) the last time the sea level was 1 metre higher than present was around 2400-1800 years ago. Maybe, the layer is a preserved berm from a beach that existed at the time of the Roman Empire (sometimes referred to as the Roman Warm Period). I don’t know for sure, but to my thinking it seems quite plausible.

I have a professional if still poorly informed interest in this type of thing because it affects the first part of the major history that I am trying to write. However, one doesn't have to be a believe or a sceptic in human induced climate change to understand that sea levels can vary. A return to the sea levels holding 2,000 years would indeed have quite a dramatic impact on the Australian coast line!


Anonymous said...

".... the strength of the Australian (banking) system" - Really? Have a look at their capital ratios (shareholder equity) in relation to their asset base. Also, since Australian banks were net borrowers from the rest of the world during the GFC, it protected them from the dodgy exposures of US and European banks (as net lenders). 'Strength' substantially by sheer luck rather than by design I should have thought.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, DG. Your capital ratio point has been discussed here before; kvd in particular has been much concerned with this.

I actually agree with you to some degree on the luck issue, but in broader not just bank terms. The whole situation would have been much worse if our currency had not declined just as our trade position was improving.

The fact that the banks were net borrowers from the rest of the world was actually also one of our vulnerabilities. Your comment here triggered me to bring up some much earlier writing I did on the onset of the Great Depression.

I would still broadly stick to my point, I think, for at least three reasons: our regulatory system was better; the banks' risk assessment processes appear to have been better after that earlier near death experience; and coordination in between banks and government agencies worked well.

However, I accept that these variables extend beyond the strength of the Australian banking system itself.