Watching the World

| Sat Nov. 28, 2009 1:31 PM EST

John Judis a few days ago on the possible fallout from the Dubai World crisis:

You have to remember that the Great Depression only became “great,” that is, global, when an obscure Austrian bank went under in 1931, and set off a massive financial explosion around Europe.  Capitalism is an irrational system that is often full of unpleasant surprises. The collapse of Dubai World may turn out to be nothing.  But it could also turn out be one of those unpleasant surprises.

Hopefully not.  But this has always been my biggest concern.  A slow jobless recovery seems all but certain at this point, but I also think we'll be lucky if that's as bad as it gets.  The nightmare scenario is that something like Dubai World panics investors and sends them fleeing back to quality; Eastern Europe can't roll over its debt; Brazil goes kaboom as hot money suddenly stops flowing; Western European banks start to fail; etc.  You can fill in the rest.  I was unpleasantly reminded of all this by the lead to this story in the Washington Post today:

DUBAI CRISIS IS WAKE-UP CALL
Investors weigh risks in emerging economies

Global markets were jolted in recent days following the threat by a state-owned company in Dubai to default on its debt, as investors reawakened to the risks posed by mammoth debts in developing economies.

After the credit collapse of 2008, financial folks rushed to tell us that they had learned their lesson.  But a lot of us were skeptical: sure, maybe they'd learned their lesson for a few years while the wounds were still fresh, but what about five years from now?  Ten?

In the end, though, it didn't take five or ten years.  It took one.  Twelve months after the catastrophe of September 2008, hot money is racing around the globe, the carry trade is as big as ever, Wall Street profits are at record highs, and the chase for supposedly risk-free returns seems to be as widespread as it's ever been.  That combination didn't end well even when it took place against the background of a strong economy, so how's it likely to end against the background of a weak and fragile one now that investors are "reawakening"?

Beats me.  I sure hope I'm just a worrywart.