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China's Woes Are Growing, Along With A Debate: Is It 2008 Again?

Panic-driven stock selling. Financial turmoil. Commodity price crashes. Layoffs.

Sound familiar?

Those were among the troubles piling up as the economy was tanking in 2008.

And today, many of those same phrases are turning up in headlines: Stock prices are plunging; China is devaluing its currency; prices for oil and other commodities are tumbling; and miners and drillers are losing jobs all over the world.

Consider: On Thursday, the Dow industrial average dropped 392.41 points, or 2.3 percent, to 16514.10. The S&P 500 declined 2.4 percent, and Brent crude futures fell 83 cents to $33.40 a barrel.

Those drops were all tied to the economic slowdown in China, where stocks plunged about 7 percent in 30 minutes before trading was halted for the day.

When billionaire George Soros looks at what has been happening in the markets, he fears another global financial meltdown.

At an economic forum in Sri Lanka on Thursday, Soros said the turmoil "reminds me of the crisis we had in 2008," according to Bloomberg's account of his speech. In fact, the China-related trouble already is so bad that "I would say it amounts to a crisis," he said.

Soros has made billions by correctly reading financial conditions. So is he right again?

Maybe, but probably not, according to most mainstream economists.

Soros' skeptics note that the billionaire also warned in 2011 that the Greek debt crisis was "more serious than the crisis of 2008."

Outside of Greece, it wasn't.

Still, one can see some parallels with 2008. Here are the cases for — and against — the comparison:

YES — It's a lot like 2008.

  • The 2008 financial panic started with a U.S. housing bubble. Millions of Americans had been building and buying homes with subprime mortgages. When their debt burdens got too great, many were forced into foreclosure. The wave of evictions and bankruptcies caused both a securities crisis and a real estate crash, leading to massive job losses.
  • The Chinese stock panic began last summer when more and more data suggested the country's growth was faltering. The slowdown came in the wake of massive borrowing to build apartments, office buildings and other infrastructure for which there was little demand. Now the asset bubble is bursting there, just as it did here.
  • In the years before the troubles began in each of the two countries, not enough attention had been paid to credit quality or financial misallocation.
  • In the United States, the Federal Reserve responded by cutting interest rates and pumping billions into the economy. In the past year, the People's Bank of China has likewise cut interest rates and showered the economy with billions.
  • So brace yourself: This latest market meltdown is just another phase of a decade-long global crisis. Part I involved U.S. financial markets and real estate; Part II involved sovereign debt troubles in Europe; and Part III involves China's economic slowdown and currency devaluation.
  • NO — It's not like 2008.

  • China's growth may be slowing, but the economy is still expanding there. And though debt has been rising, the government has trillions of dollars of reserves, so it can afford to rescue its banks if necessary.
  • China's stock market is small and its banks are not deeply woven into the global financial system, so the contagion effect will be limited.
  • The U.S. economy is strong enough to pull the rest of the world along in 2016. Americans are saving a lot this winter at the gas pump and on home heating costs. Those savings will give them enough money to spend more freely this year and to help drive global demand.
  • What's happening now is really more like what happened in 1998, when the world saw a number of Asian currency devaluations. That happened after global investors realized that too much of the growth in that region had been driven by pure exuberance and speculation. That realization did trigger a regional crisis, but did not crash global growth. And that's what is happening now — just another painful but necessary correction, not a global crisis.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.
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