Last year on this page, I quoted my grandmother's favourite saying that "behind every cloud there's a bigger, darker cloud you haven't seen yet". It's a fitting catchphrase for right now, when every day brings more depressing evidence of serious problems in the world's financial system and the impact these are having on the wider economy. The numbers are getting so excessive that it's almost impossible to keep a grip on the reality of what it all means. President Obama's government alone has pledged to spend something close to $1trn. As the saying goes, pretty soon we'll be talking serious money.
But who should be in charge of spending this money on our behalf? And who should decide which businesses should be bailed out. One problem with picking winners from the crop of firms with their arms outstretched towards Whitehall and the White House is highlighted by Professor Chris Higson at London Business School. Higson told a recent gathering of writers that even well run and efficient firms are less well placed to survive this recession than previous ones. The reason is that for the past decade we have followed the private equity-inspired mantra of having lean and mean balance sheets. Extra fat, including excess inventory or cash, has been trimmed. And with liquidated assets returned to investors rather than retained in the business, many have been left with debt they can't service. Higson likens the situation to Titanic survivors on life rafts: "You'd rather have excess fat to live off when you are on that raft. Not many businesses today have that luxury."
This month we speak to a number of different "survivors". Michael Dell stepped back from the day-to-day running of his eponymous PC firm and saw its fortunes slip. Now he's back, things are looking up. We also speak to survivors of previous recessions to see what tips they have for today. Almost all preface their advice with the caveat that this time things are different. On a more cheerful note, there's an upbeat story on the UK's automotive sector. While the mass-production car firms are in trouble, a thriving sector of small, independent manufacturers are quietly going about their business. It's just this sort of innovative, enterprise economy created by entrepreneurs that will pull us out of this recession into recovery, however big and dark those clouds may be.