Bank on Fear

Friday, September 19, 2008

We live in an age of anxiety, where the only thing we can bank on is fear. With the Delhi bomb blasts still reverberating, amplified by the threat of future explosions in the capital or elsewhere, comes the shock wave of the US financial crisis, which has sent ripples of panic not just through Dalal Street and Indian financial markets but through middleclass households across the country. Like terrorism, finance today has a global footprint. And, like it or not, India is included in it, often with baneful consequences. Is it just coincidence that the recent bomb blasts in Delhi, and the warning of more to follow, took place shortly after India won its triumphal nuclear waiver at the NSG meet in Vienna? And the buzz on the grapevine was that the Bush administration, backed by American commercial interests, was trying its hardest to push the Indian nuclear deal through the current session of the US Congress, whose nod would signify that this country had indeed emerged as a potential ‘strategic partner’ with the world’s sole hyperpower? Are the attacks on India in any retaliatory way connected to the US military assaults on jihadi camps on Pakistani territory? The answer to such questions is a possibly paranoid ‘Perhaps’. With the proviso contained in the saying: Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. In the globalised world of finance, as that of terror, we are, willy-nilly, karmically tied to US policies and actions, as has been made painfully evident by the so-called subprime crisis which is grabbing prime-time attention in the global media. Thanks to the financial profligacy of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — major US moneylenders who out of feckless greed doled out home mortgages to subprime, or high-risk, borrowers who then defaulted, bankrupting banks who had bought these loans — an estimated 25,000 Indians, mainly in the outsourced IT sector, stand to lose their jobs. Though India Inc is not in danger of overnight becoming India Sink, the economic impact of the US crisis will be felt through all sectors, from bourses to the property market, where employment insecurities compounded with high interest rates deter buyers. With FIIs pulling out funds to stave off debt disaster, the rupee has fallen sharply against the dollar, making imports costlier and further fuelling domestic inflation, which at over 12 per cent is ruinously high, particularly for those who are already living on the outer margins of economic survival. If the poorest of the poor are fearful that their next meal might be the last they can afford, young career-makers in the services sector live in dread of looming pink slips. After a lifetime of work, retirees agonise whether their arduously accumulated savings are safe or will irretrievably be sucked into some financial black hole, leaving them destitute in life’s twilight. An audit of our anxieties might go something like this: We better not go to the market today, just in case there’s a bomb blast. Just as well, in a way. Because if we did go to the market, we’d spend money, which we can ill afford to do seeing as how any day we could be laid off from our jobs. So the thing to do is to keep saving. But if we all save and save, and don’t spend at all, won’t people stop making things since no one’s buying them, and if no one makes things, and no one buys things, won’t there be a recession and we’ll all lose our jobs any way? Never mind, we’ll still have our savings. Where was it that we put them, which bank? Uh, oh. Wasn’t that the one that went bust yesterday? Perhaps gallows humour is the only answer to our age of anxiety. Like the man who told his friend that the financial crisis was keeping him awake at night. Can’t sleep because you’ve lost all your money, is it? asked the friend. No, said the man. I haven’t lost my money, and that’s the problem — it’s stuffed under my mattress which has become so lumpy that it keeps me awake all night.


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