10 years after: Time for The Great Normalization?

I have been posting to this blog for a decade now. Hurrah!!!!

My blog began once our website became blog-enabled and I jumped into it with relish just days after returning to work on October1, 2008,  after having taken eight months off to look after my firstborn baby daughter, Noella. My mind was certainly refreshed from the time off, but I was also excited and primed to jump into covering some of the impacts of The Financial Crisis, which had just erupted after simmering and bubbling for more than a year.

I had spent much of that year sitting in a rocking chair, holding a baby, watching hours and hours of Bloomberg TV, which provided incredible live coverage of the biggest financial implosion since 1929. That might not be most people’s notion of great entertainment and baby-soothing material, but I gobbled it all down. I had spent much of my free time in the pre-baby years of the late 1990s and 2000s taking Canadian Securities Institute courses and qualifying for my Derivatives Market Specialist designation, so the crisis was perfectly timed for me to understand. The financial chatter also had a calming affect on the baby, so the two of us were pretty happy for those months.

It’s been convenient having the timing of the crisis so perfectly paired with my blogging, since it has been the backdrop for most issues I have covered since 2008. Looking back through the decade, the time telescopes into a series of crises and explosions foreshortened to a seemingly unending succession of major disruptions. Here are some I just jotted down off the top of my head: the 2008-09 financial meltdown; the seizing-up of world trade; the economic bottom being hit in an atmosphere of despair; the (to some) surprising reflation of commodity and agriculture prices; the dividing of the farming and developing worlds from the urban and western worlds; the Tea Party and Occupy movements; the Arab Spring (part of the commodity reflation phenomenon); the EuroCrisis and fraying of the European Union; the huge distortions of Quantitative Easing; China Rising; the rise of Donald Trump and belligerent populists everywhere; TPP/CETA/NAFTA; NAFTA, NAFTA, NAFTA.

(For my recent series of columns on Lessons Learned from The Financial Crisis, click here.)

To me, all of those sprout from the same stump, with most being cancerous branches shot out from a rotten core, and we’re still clipping the diseased shoots as we nurse the tree back to life. Farmers have been fortunate, being one of the few sectors of the western economy who have fared relatively well during the crisis. Those with land and good crops saw great profits from 2006-14, and escalating land values right up until today.

But it’s beginning to feel like we’re almost at what I’m calling The Great Normalization. Maybe we’re already well inside a period of normalization. Many of the crisis’ problems are still with us, but they don’t seem to be in the ascendant today. The commodity bull market is long dead. Interest rates have been on a relentless rise. Unemployment is grudgingly trudging back towards healthy levels. Supply and demand fundamentals seem more important than speculative money, at least over the medium term. China appears to have topped-out and is probably entering a slower-growth era.

Are we back to the way things were in the 1990s, the 1980s, the 1960s, the 1950s? To me it feels that way, like a return to what most of society generally considers “normal.” The eras of commodity booms, like the mid-2000s-mid-2010s and the 1970s-early 1980s, had a certain feel to them, and I’m no longer feeling that. It feels like a transition back to the normal.

So many things could go wrong now and plunge us into recession. China could come apart, or turn on its neighbours and competitors. The EU could tear itself apart. Donald Trump could act out on some of his threats. Russia could do something that gets out of control. Most dangerous of all is probably the bond market and the gigantic pile of debt the world has piled up since 2008, with debt levels in China, the U.S. and almost everywhere far too high to be sustainable. It’s pretty easy to see how a crisis from somewhere could precipitate a general world recession, and things could get ugly.

But that tends to happen in transition periods. Things seemed pretty dark and bleak from 1978 to 1982. They seemed grim from 1991 to 1994. They were ugly from 2000 to 2002. They were terrifying from 2008 to 2010. Each also led to a new period and better time, even a couple of economic booms. That’s just for society in general, though. For farmers the impacts are often different and sometimes the reverse. If things work out as I suspect and the era of general crisis is falling behind us and we’re returning to “normal,” I’m going to get ready to spend the next ten years blogging about the sorts of farming and agriculture issues that seemed to matter a lot more before 2006 and the crisis. A more sober and restrained future probably awaits us.

If it works out that way, I’m prepared for things to get less dramatic, perhaps be more boring, but probably become less frightening. It’ll be a different world to be blogging about, but not necessarily a worse one.


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