The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy

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David Smick keeps a low profile, but experts consider him one of the most insightful financial market strategists in the world. For more than two decades, he has conferred with central bankers (such as Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke) and advised top Wall Street executives and investors, from George Soros to Michael Steinhardt to Stan Druckenmiller. Political leaders (from Bill Bradley to Jack Kemp) have regularly sought his policy advice.

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Overview

David Smick keeps a low profile, but experts consider him one of the most insightful financial market strategists in the world. For more than two decades, he has conferred with central bankers (such as Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke) and advised top Wall Street executives and investors, from George Soros to Michael Steinhardt to Stan Druckenmiller. Political leaders (from Bill Bradley to Jack Kemp) have regularly sought his policy advice.

The World Is Curved picks up where Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat left off, taking readers on an insider’s tour through the private offices of central bankers, finance ministers, even prime ministers. Smick reveals how today’s risky environment came to be—and why the mortgage mess is a symptom of potentially far more devastating trouble. He wrestles with the two questions on everyone’s mind: How bad could things really get in today’s volatile economy? And what can we do about it?

Drawing on riveting anecdotes in language anyone can understand, Smick explains:

  • Why the churning cauldron we call China (the next great bubble to burst) represents a powerful threat to everyone’s pocketbook
  • How Japanese housewives have taken control of their nation’s savings, and why it matters to us
  • How greed-driven bankers and investment bankers have put everyone’s pensions and 401(k)s at risk
  • Why today’s “incredible shrinking central banks” may not be able to save us when the next crisis hits
  • Why the big-money Russian, Chinese, Saudi, and Dubai sovereign wealth funds represent a tectonic shift in global financial power, away from the United States, Europe, and Japan
  • Why the world desperately needs a “big think” financial doctrine to guide today’s dangerous ocean of money
The World Is Curved is the rare book that speaks simultaneously to the Wall Street, Washington, and London elite, yet its apt storytelling shows Main Street readers how to survive in these turbulent times.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Confronting the ever-increasing challenges of globalism and the economic problems plaguing the U.S. from a downward spiraling value of the dollar to the subprime mortgage crisis, Smick argues again and again that the solution to the problem is deregulation and encouraging entrepreneurship. While he examines the U.S. in relation to other emerging and potentially powerful markets (China and India, in particular), Smick argues weakly against Thomas Friedman's more utopian or opportunistic points of view. Jim Bond delivers the book in an accessible and gentle tone. Smick's prose can be a bit inundating, but Bond balances speed with emphasis to keep listeners' attention. A Portfolio hardcover (reviewed online). (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The 2007-08 subprime financial crisis is the jumping-off point for Smick's (Johnson Smick International) examination of current threats to global prosperity. He explains that although the subprime losses are small in the context of world financial markets, a lack of transparency has diminished investor confidence, dried up financial liquidity, and threatened the very foundations of our world financial system. He says that the growth of global financial markets has made it more difficult for central banks like the U.S. Federal Reserve to intercede effectively in times of crisis. Smick compares the subprime crisis to past events like the UK's forced devaluation of the pound in 1992 and Japan's economic stagnation in the 1990s. He warns of pending dangers like an overheating of the Chinese development juggernaut and the present calls for protectionism by U.S. politicians. He favors a global financial system built on transparency and trust. Smick's role for some 30 years as an economic adviser to central bankers and legislators of all stripes gives him a solid perspective on the global financial system. This summing-up of the subprime debacle and other global financial threats, aimed at general readers, is first rate; highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.-Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA

Kirkus Reviews
It's a fraught time, writes hedge-fund guru Smick in this timely book. If the "Chinese juggernaut" doesn't sink us, then class warfare and our spendthrift ways will. Borrowing his title, obviously, from Thomas Friedman's optimistic The World Is Flat (2005), Smick dourly notes that in finance, the horizon is near while the dangers lurk out of sight-"nothing happens in a straight line. Instead, there is a continual series of unforeseen discontinuities-twists and turns of uncertainty that often require millions of market participants to stand conventional wisdom on its head." Seeing over the horizon is the job of sound analysts and good political leaders, who seem to be in short supply. Weathering the fiscal storms is ever harder for numerous reasons, one of them the declining vigor of central banks, another, in the United States, an accumulation of personal debt that threatens to put the economy into a Japan-like state of decades-long stagnation. Globalism, some would object, is a vehicle for weakening national economies, but Smick counters that "liberated global financial markets and free trade" are largely responsible for the creation of vast wealth in the last quarter-century (during which the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose from 800 to more than 12,000) and should not be unduly regulated, since economies seem to be slipping beyond the control of national governments. Instability will thus be the norm in the future, especially inasmuch as private concerns dwarf whole economies: The exposure of the Swiss bank UBS to the subprime mortgage meltdown was four times as large as the entire Swiss economy, Smick observes. Couple profligate habits with an ever-growing Chinese economybeholden to no one, and suddenly the future looks like a roller-coaster ride for even the most aggressive investor. A supremely useful book for portfolio planning, though not the thing to give someone who's inclined to worry about the state of the world. Agent: Fredrica Friedman/Fredrica S. Friedman and Company
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591842187
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/4/2008
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David M. Smick advises some of the world’s most successful money managers through his investment and strategic consulting firm, Johnson Smick International, Inc. He is also the founder, editor, and publisher of The International Economy, an acclaimed quarterly. He has served as an adviser to both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates and has written for such publications as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Smick and his family live in Washington, D.C.
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Table of Contents

1 The End of the World 9

2 A Dangerous Ocean of Money 36

3 Entrepreneurs in a World of Private Equity and Hedge Fund Troublemakers 68

4 Tony Soprano Rides the Chinese Dragon 93

5 Japanese Housewives Take the Commanding Heights 132

6 Nothing Stays the Same: The 1992 Sterling Crisis 159

7 The Incredible Shrinking Central Banks 188

8 Class Warfare and the Politics of Globalization 214

9 Surviving and Prospering in This Age of Volatility 242

Acknowledgments 277

A Word on Sources 281

Bibliography 285

Index 289

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with David Smick

Why did you write this book?

Today the world financial system is still near a dangerous tipping point of uncertainty and chaos. The mortgage crisis was only the beginning. Yet our politicians, from both political parties, fixate on the trivial. Our financial house is on fire, yet our leaders are squabbling over arranging the furniture in the front parlor. Instead, they desperately need to develop a "big think" doctrine that defines America's economic and financial future in the world.

The title The World Is Curved is sure to draw comparisons with Tom Friedman's book The World Is Flat. Why did you select the title? Why is the world now curved? Was it ever flat?

Friedman brilliantly presents the first installment of the globalization story, concentrating on the revolutionizing (flattening) of the global supply chain. But there is a second installment -- the financial side of the story where the world is not flat; the world is curved. You can't see over the horizon. Sight lines are limited. As during the subprime mortgage crisis, we are forced to travel down an endless, dangerously twisting and turning road of volatility with steep valleys and risky mountainous climbs. We can't see financial risk ahead. A small village in Arctic Norway can see its entire financial future destroyed because its financial managers invested heavily in a Citigroup product called a collateralized debt obligation.

How does The World Is Curved differ from other books about our current economic state?

The book demystifies the complicated and terrifying world of international finance. This is a practical, insider's guide to the revolution in global financial markets. I offer numerous anecdotes about my behind-the-scenes experiences in the hedge fund world and in key meetings with prime ministers, finance ministers and central bankers, from Alan Greenspan to Ben Bernanke to the European Central Bank's Jean-Claude Trichet. The book is both frightening yet hopeful.

Why did you feel that now was the time to write this book?

Globalization, the great paradox of our time, has been an impressive wealth-creating, poverty-reducing machine. In the last quarter century of globalized markets, the Dow jumped from 800 to well over 12,000. To match that success the next 25 years, the Dow would have to exceed 170,000. Yet the fruits of globalization are distributed unequally. Globalization itself produces huge pangs of anxiety for average working Americans. Oil and food prices have skyrocketed. There is no denying the globalized financial system both enables and threatens our national well-being. In this year's election, candidates must confront this paradox.

How would you define the future of globalization?

It depends on how politicians and policymakers respond to the fallout from the Great Credit Crisis of 2007-2008. The subprime mortgage crisis exacerbated an ongoing collapse of confidence in the sophisticated financial instruments banks use to diversify and reduce risk. The Federal Reserve, in particular, was caught asleep at the switch. Ultimately, however, the greed-driven bankers and investment bankers deserve the most blame. They set up dubious, off–balance sheet vehicles to hide risk. The lack of transparency created a global crisis of confidence that nearly tanked the world economy and now threatens the future of liberalized capital markets.

Are we still in trouble?

The world still faces a trillion-dollar credit problem. When the credit crisis hit in August 2007, the world's central banks flooded the global economy with liquidity to avoid immediate disaster. Luckily, today's policymakers have learned from the mistakes made in the 1930s. The Federal Reserve also placed all U.S. financial institutions under the government "safety net." Sounds reassuring, but the credit contraction is still likely to linger for years, and could become worse if policymakers aren't careful. In the face of today's powerful ocean of capital, there are limits to the effectiveness of government solutions.

Are the banks still at risk?

Consider the case of UBS, Switzerland's largest bank with major links to the United States. Today, UBS's total financial exposure is more than four times the size of Switzerland's GDP. Translation: In a crisis, the government couldn't bail out the bank even if it wanted to. The rest of the world faces a similar scary situation. True, central banks can forever print money to try to prop up the banks, but even then there are limits because of the potential outbreak of inflation.

So what happens when the next financial crisis hits?

The survival of the world financial system, including our ability to protect the savings and livelihoods of average families, depends on an elaborate game of confidence. Confidence comes from market participants believing policymakers know what they are doing in a system of relatively complete and open transparency. Whether we're prepared for the next crisis depends on the job our policymakers do in restoring confidence.

Why was it so monumental that the Fed stepped in with the Bear Stearns situation?

Friends of mine at the Fed say there was no other choice. I have no reason to doubt them. A collapse of the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns, as the devastation rippled throughout the financial system, would have savaged the pocketbooks and pensions of every working American. Still, policy moves have unintended consequences. The Fed appears to have placed a government guarantee under the entire U.S. financial system, not just the banks. Sounds great, but some new, all encompassing regulatory structure is therefore needed to protect the public interest at a time of financial deleveraging. That means the profitability of the U.S. financial services industry will decline. The bad news is that the health of a nation's financial industry is key to future levels of entrepreneurial initiative and overall prosperity.

You talk about the "incredible shrinking central banks." What does the decline in power of the central banks mean for the future of the world economy?

People picture central banks as having magical powers to step in and save the day. Dream on. I have known most of the world's central bankers in recent decades, including Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, and Ben Bernanke. All would admit the power of the central bank is rapidly diminishing. Worse, in the case of the U.S., interest rates have increasingly become a captive of global financial forces. To a certain extent, therefore, Americans are no longer in complete control of their own monetary policy. That is why central banks, led by the Fed, have become a kind of grand global theater. Because the world's ocean of capital is so huge and powerful, the central bankers have had no choice but to become the lead actors. They use their dramatic skills to try to tease, persuade, charm and bluff the markets. And of course the Lawrence Olivier of this process was Alan Greenspan. It's not quite like The Wizard of Oz with the little man behind the curtain pulling the levers, but the analysis is not completely off the mark. In the end, the incredible shrinking of central bank influence over financial markets is a primary reason the world is curved.

So what's the future of the world financial system?

The financial world is still a dangerous place. That's because the world is flirting with moving away from the last quarter century's model of globalization and free-flowing capital markets toward something more reminiscent of the nineteenth century mercantilist economic model. What I'm describing is an era of backroom rivalries, deal making, and tensions based on ambitious national political agendas with capital flows, and commodities led by oil, increasingly controlled by governments. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to see the picture emerging: financial wealth and power are moving away from the United States, Europe and Japan.

What does this shift mean for the United States in particular, for the jobs and savings of average Americans?

Globalization has produced an ocean of capital that swirls around the world at the push of a button. The good news is that despite the U.S. running current account and budget imbalances since the 1980s, real interest rates have steadily declined and the economy has prospered with vigorous job creation. Yet America must still put its fiscal house in order and set out on a path toward energy independence. Ultimately, however, the future depends on whether the American economy can remain an attractive target for global capital as a focal point for financial safety and entrepreneurial creativity. On this question the jury is still out. Policy matters. If in the next few years our leaders make the correct choices, we can avoid catastrophe and continue the prosperity. But there is no denying the world is at serious risk.

Your comments about doing business in China seem to counter the popular perception that it's a place where businesses and entrepreneurs should focus their energy. Why do you feel that way?

Absolutely nothing about the churning cauldron we call China can be taken for granted. With its rising social, political and financial instability, China represents a powerful case for why the world is curved. When the Chinese bubble bursts -- and they almost always do - the entire world economy will be at risk, most likely from a massive deflationary spiral that will, when all is said and done, hit everyone's pocketbooks. If transparency is the key to the long-term stability of global financial markets, what do any of us really know about the future of China? Economically speaking, China today is the size of three Hollands. Yet recently, China overtook the United States as the largest source of greenhouse gases. Therefore, China's environmental policies are now on a dangerous collision course with its trade goals. In general, the Chinese leadership is attempting to control and direct an unwieldy, chaotic, highly unpredictable economic and financial beast. The job may be impossible.

Where does Japan fit into the global picture?

Japan is the perfect object lesson for how not to run things in the new global economy. A highly successful economy requires a continual process of entrepreneurial reinvention, which is not occurring in Japan. Moreover, Japan is what the United States could become if American policymakers are not careful -- so overloaded with debt that monetary policy becomes largely ineffective at stimulating the economy. Today, the Japanese financial system has become far more decentralized. Who now controls the bulk of the country's savings? Housewives, who increasingly bypass low-yielding Japanese investments and purchase foreign bonds over the Internet. The housewives control the largest pool of money in the world. They have become a major force in foreign exchange markets, and a significant wild card.

What do you hope readers take away from The World Is Curved?

The global financial system is near a tipping point of uncertainty and could come crashing down to the detriment of all of us. Protectionist and class warfare policies, and other policy prescriptions to curb reckless volatility, may be well-intended efforts to deal with the anxieties of global trade and financial markets. But the danger is that they produce unintended consequences that could send us over the edge.

What's the most important thing to watch in the years ahead?

Without a doubt it's whether policymakers allow the continual free flow of international capital to keep globalization's bloodstream pumping. Kill capital flows and you'll kill the global economy. The problem is that the world today lacks a financial doctrine, or even much in the way of a set of informal understandings, for establishing order in a crisis. Instead, we grope and manage incrementally, like trying to perform delicate brain surgery with one hand tied behind our back and the other wearing an ill-fitting boxing glove. Today is very similar to an earlier period of globalization and prosperity, from 1880-1914, which ended with World War I. Soon the seeds were planted for an economic depression. The world can't let that happen again. My book calls for a new financial order and offers other recommendations for surviving and prospering in a "curved" world.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2008

    very disappointing - false advertising

    I bought this book because of all the glowing endorsements by people like Alan Greenspan promising that this book will shed light on what's going on financially. It doesn't. It's mostly fluff, and will not add to your understanding of the mysteries of high finance. Worse, it'll probably discourage you from further investigation. Rather than shed light on things, the author basically keeps repeating that the economy is so complex that even the experts don't understand it 'wait - I thought YOU were an expert, and we're going to explain it to us, no?' and also very fragile, so we peons better not try to mess with it or all hell will break loose we'd best leave it to the big boys to take care of. Well excuse me, but the big boys 'the individuals who run the Fed and Treasury departments, Fannie & Freddie, the regulatory agencies, the credit rating agencies, the investment banks, the mortgage lenders, etc.' are the ones who created this mess, not we little people, and they created it deliberately in order to screw the middle class by transferring even more wealth from our pockets to theirs. The author also repeatedly warns about the dangers of 'class warfare'. But we're already in a class war - the elite started it about 25 years ago, when they began systematically dismantling the middle class. Since that time real wages for the vast majority of Americans have either stagnated or actually fallen. Only the top 5% 'people making over ~$300,000/yr' have seen any real gains, because they're the only ones who can afford significant stock investments. And the real gains have all gone to the top one tenth of 1% - people who make HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS or even BILLIONS in salary every year - these are your investment bankers, hedge fund managers, private equity guys, etc. Meanwhile, the middle class, including most doctors, lawyers and other professionals have been getting squeezed big-time: stagnant or falling real wages, competition from much cheaper foreign labor at all skill levels 'either immigrants or due to off-shoring', a falling dollar, skyrocketing inflation in education and health care expenses, food, oil, etc. Not that long ago, mom could stay home and raise the kids 'and cook delicious, nutritious meals, socialize with other moms, etc'. Now, most families HAVE to have two earners just to get by, everyone's stressed out, everybody's fat because of junk food, divorce rates have skyrocketed, etc. Even Warren Buffet says 'there is a class war, but my class started it, and my class is winning'. The author is right about one thing: middle class people do not hate the rich - we do not begrudge anyone their achievement and resulting wealth. What we do resent is that the system is unfair that we do not in fact have much of a 'meritocracy' at all. So much depends on luck - who your parents were, what schools they sent you to, how much love and support and guidance they gave you, the contacts they set you up with 'or that you made at the elite schools your parents got you into', etc. That means that the average American is pretty much screwed from birth to wage-slavery and never had a chance of participating in this fabulous creation of wealth. Instead, we work longer hours for less money, pay more for everything, and are constantly told that social security, Medicare and even our pensions will most likely not be there for us. This is all bad enough. But then to be told that WE'RE at fault for the mess we're in, and need to cough up trillions of dollars in taxes to bail out the billionaires? That's infuriating.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 24, 2008

    Strong Government - Not Deregulation

    I strongly agree with the comments under the title of "very disappointing - false advertising" Author: Anonymous. In addition, a vibrant and prospering society needs a strong middle class (call in the Democrats) which should not be neglected; but has been for a while now. White collar jobs being outsourced overseas in the absence of any new adequate job replacement is definitely abandoning the middle class. Prices are sky rocketing (garlic press, etc. made in china, selling for 13.00 to 16.00 $) and we were told otherwise, is horrible. Excessive and unfair profiteering should not be the regulators. The rules of Adam Smith alone will not work, we need more government regulations (deregulation has failed so far) and involvement - that's a Strong Government, to protect the middle and upper classes, and the economy. Democrats are always coming to the rescue of all, even the rich. Thanks to the democrats we have had a happy society, especially the rich - are happy, think! We need social programs to help the poor (a little bit more $ (Taxes) from the rich); the rich will benefit more. I love the Democrats ¿ we are far ahead thinking.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2008

    Cutting edge analysis of the unfolding credit crisis

    A must read for anyone wanting to understand what is going on in the world financial markets. Even though the book was just published, events in the financial markets are unfolding so quickly, that I would like to see an addendum to hear David's thoughts on Fannie and Freddie, Lehman and AIG, and the unprecedented actions taken by the Central Banks worldwide which led to the massive stock market rally on Sept 19th, 2008.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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