Ten Things You Must Do!!
Karls Market Ticker! (Excerpt)
Karls Market Ticker! (Excerpt)
Don't say you weren't warned.
So without further adieu, here's my list of 10 things you need to be doing now:
- Stop listening to those who claim that "The Market is telling you the recession is ending/over." Baloney. What was the market telling you in October of 2007 when the SPX hit 1576? That everything was great and "subprime was contained", right? Any more questions on that piece of nonsense?
- Get out of debt - NOW. Revolving debt in particular is murderous. If your credit line hasn't been cut back or your interest rate jacked, you're one of the few. It will happen. Going bankrupt due to increasing debt service requirements (with or without job loss) sucks.
- Stop spending more than you make - in fact, do the opposite - start saving. NOW. You need to be saving 10% of your gross income. Not net or "excess" - gross. These funds serve two purposes: an emergency fund (which you're likely to need) and if you have one already it will also serve as a fund to buy up assets that will be puked up when things get really bad. You don't get wealthy by selling to some other sucker - you get wealthy by buying when nobody has any money to buy - that is, by driving the hardest bargain you can imagine!
- I've said it before but it bears repeating: have the ability to make it even if you lose your job. Most people say three months of reserves are necessary. I've said six months to two years, and I'll reiterate it. And reserves means cash, not credit. Parked in a credit union is ok - but be prepared to make that actual cash in a big honking hurry if you need to. How do you know if you need to? If and when the first Treasury auction fails, the market crashes below the 666 March low and/or a big bank fails, you need to.
- Pull ALL of your business from ANY bank that has received federal assistance. The community banks and credit unions have been screwed by the crony government interests in two ways - first, by regulators allowing bankrupt banks to pay overly-large CD rates when they're insolvent (that's fraud on its face) and second by proposing to tax them through FDIC assessments to pay for the sins of the imprudent. Withdraw your consent and assistance - move your funds to a credit union or local community bank, but before doing so ask to see their financials and look specifically for over-leverage in commercial real estate and other development "assets". HIT THE BAD GUYS IN THE WALLET - THE ONLY PLACE THEY UNDERSTAND!
- If you have assets in the stock market, and have thus enjoyed the rally off SPX 666, either sell or hedge that exposure RIGHT NOW. The upside risk is what - 10%? What's the downside risk? 50% or more. You can hedge effectively with PUTs which have gotten much cheaper as the VIX has fallen, or simply sell out and go to cash. In my opinion you're insane to play for another 10% gain when you may suffer a 50% loss, but that's my view. Just don't say you weren't warned if you do nothing and the collapse occurs!
- Figure out what you're going to do if we suffer a "sudden stop" and be prepared to execute that plan. Consider what a collapse in trucking, for example, does to the food supply into major cities. This is a low-probability risk right now (perhaps 10-20%) but if it happens major cities will become free-fire zones within hours. A gun won't do you a damn bit of good when there's a potential rifle barrel sticking out of every window and the person behind it is interested in the bag of groceries you're carrying. You are not Rambo (and by the way, have you noticed that Rambo always goes after bad guys in some small, flat hellhole? Ever wonder why? With a sniper rifle poking out of every second window even John Rambo doesn't stand a chance.) Those who live on the coasts have hurricane plans. Everyone needs a "sudden stop" plan, and it must not rely on access to credit of any sort, because if "it" happens that access will disappear instantly. For people in rural America, this might not be that big of a deal. For those who live in big cities it is - and its something you probably haven't thought through to the degree you need to.
- Don't count on metals. I know, I know, we're going to hyperinflate and gold is going to the moon. I have one question: Can you eat it, drink it, run your car on it, sleep under it, or screw it? No? That's a problem. A "sudden stop" is not a hyperinflationary event - it has good odds of being quite the opposite. God help you if you put your eggs in that basket and are wrong.
- Acquire lawful means of self-defense. Your odds of being victimized are roughly 1 in 100 annually under normal conditions. What happens when its 1 in 5? Think it won't be? Ok, if doesn't really get bad then you spent money on something you don't need, but you still have it and can sell it (even if you take somewhat of a loss.) If you wait, and then decide you need it, what are the odds of being able to find a firearm? And by the way, weapons you don't know how to use in a competent and cool fashion if you need to are worthless or worse. This means range time and/or professional instruction, and both take time, effort and money. Again, this is called "hedging" - your life and property, this time (instead of your investment portfolio)
- Figure out who your friends are - and aren't. This isn't about who you like. Its about who you can trust with your back - no questions asked. If things get bad the second-to-the-last thing you want to be is alone - right before being around anyone who is less than 100% trustworthy. Think about this point long and hard - this doesn't mean dumping acquaintences now, but it does mean knowing who you group with if you need to - and who you avoid.
Source: Karl's Market Ticker
Lessons of the Global Financial Crisis:
1. The End of Ponzi Prosperity
2. Whatever It Takes!
1. The End of Ponzi Prosperity
2. Whatever It Takes!
3. Built to Fail!
By: Satyajit Das | 04-05-2009
We Are All Keynesians Now!
In January 1971, Richard Nixon recanted years of opposition to budget deficits declaring: "Now, I am a Keynesian." Nixon had borrowed the line from Milton Friedman who had used it in 1965. Then, we embraced Monetarism and flirted with "supply side" economics, christened "voodoo economics" by President George Bush Senior. Now, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis ("GFC"), it seems that we are all Keynesians again.
The GFC is really a "Minsky moment". In Stabilizing an Unstable Economy (1986), Hyman Minsky outlined a hypotheses that excessive risk taking, driven in part by stability lead to market breakdowns - stability is itself destablising.
The current crisis is financial, economic, social and increasingly ideological. Nikolas Sarkozy, President of France, has pronounced the death of laissez-faire capitalism: "c’est fini". World leaders have penned fevered attacks on neo-liberalism. Even religious leaders have spoken out.
Dead economists have been resurrected in support of political positions. As Keynes himself observed: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back."
No "pure" economic model has been implemented in living memory, except perhaps in North Korea. The theories themselves rarely work. John Kenneth Galbraith is reported as saying: "Milton’s [Friedman’s] misfortune is that his policies have been tried."
Criticisms of the ancien regime are substantive and deserved. There have been undoubtedly egregious market failures, management excesses and errors in the lead up to the GFC. But the key lessons of the crisis may be subtler than first evident.
Growth has been driven by cheap and abundant debt and uncosted carbon emissions and other forms of pollution. The reality is that this period of growth may be coming to an end.
All brands of politics and economics have been informed by assumptions about the sustainability of high levels of economic growth and the belief that governments and central bankers can exert a substantial degree of control over the economy. Harry Johnson, the famed Chicago economist, writing about England in the 1970s with his wife Elizabeth in (1978) The Shadow of Keynes provides a vivid description of this pre-occupation: "…faster economic growth is the pancea for all..economic and for all that matter political problems and that faster growth can be easily achieved by a combination of inflationary demand-managementpolocies and poltically appealing fiscal gimmickry."
P.J.O’Rourke writing in Eat The Rich (1998) observed that: "Economics is an entire scientific discipline of not knowing what you’re talking about."
Recent global prosperity derived from a fortunate confluence of low inflation and low interest rates. In the 1980s, brutally high interest rates and recessions squeezed inflation out of the economy facilitating lower interest rates. Low energy prices, following the first Gulf War, helped keep inflation low and fuelled growth.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reintegration of the command economies of Eastern Europe, China and India into global trade provided low cost labour helping maintain the supply of cheap goods and services. Emerging economies provided substantial new markets for products and capital driven by the very high levels of savings in these countries.
Deregulation of key industries, such as banking and telecommunications, fostered growth by increasing access to finance and improved essential infrastructure. Adoption of new technologies, such as information technology and the Internet, improved productivity and assisted growth, though the extent is disputed.
Many countries switched from employer or government pension schemes to private retirement saving arrangements underwritten by generous tax incentives. Rapid growth in this pool of investment capital was also a factor in growth.
Governments, irrespective of political persuasion, benefited from the favourable economic environment. The ability of governments and central banks to control and "fine tune" the economy with a judicial mixture of monetary and fiscal policy became an article of accepted faith. Voters were lulled into false confidence by a mixture of rising wealth, improved living standards and stability.
Elegant theories about the "Great Moderation" or "Goldilocks Economy", with the benefit of hindsight, seem to be little more than narrative fallacies where a convincing but meaningless story is shaped to fit unconnected facts and coincidence is confused with causality.
Growth, in reality, was founded on a series of elegant Ponzi schemes.
Consumption rather than investment drove growth, particularly in the developed world. Debt fuelled consumption became the norm. In the new economy, there were three kinds of people – "the haves", "the have-nots", and "the have-not-paid-for-what-they-haves".
The consumption was financed by borrowings supplied by a deregulated financial system. Many workers’ earnings fell in inflation adjusted terms as a result of global competition and associated outsourcing and off shoring practices. The ability to borrow against the appreciation in owner occupied houses and other financial assets underpinned consumption.
Investors, central banks with large reserves, pension funds and asset managers channeling privatised retirement savings, eagerly purchased the debt. Borrowing fueled higher asset prices allowing even greater levels of borrowing against the value of the asset. This virtuous cycle – a "positive feedback loop" – fueled the "doctor feel good" economy of recent years.
"Financial engineering" replaced "real engineering" in many countries. Entire cities (London and New York) and economies (Iceland) become dominated by the rapidly growing financial services industry. In the US, financial services’ share of total corporate profits increased from 10% in the early 1980s to 40% in 2007. The stockmarket value of financial services firms increased from 6% in the early 1980s to 23% in 2007.
The reliance on financial innovation proved disastrous. In A Short History of Financial Euphoria (1994), John Kenneth Galbraith noted that: "Financial operations do not lend themselves to innovation. What is recurrently so described and celebrated is, without exception, a small variation on an established design . . . The world of finance hails the invention of the wheel over and over again, often in a slightly more unstable version."
Financially engineered growth extended into international trade flows. Since the 1990s, there has been a substantial build-up of foreign reserves in central banks of emerging markets and developing countries that became the foundation for a trade finance scheme.
Many global currencies were pegged to the dollar at an artificially low rate, like the Chinese Renminbi, to maintain export competitiveness. This created an outflow of dollars (via the trade deficit driven by excess US demand for imports based on an overvalued dollar). Foreign central bankers purchased US debt with dollars to mitigate upward pressure on their domestic currency. The recycled dollars flowed back to the US to finance the spending on imports.
The process relied on the historically unimpeachable credit quality of the USA and large, liquid markets in dollars and dollar investments capable of accommodating the very large investment requirements. This merry-go-round kept US interest rates and cost of capital low encouraging further borrowing to finance consumption and imports to keep the cycle going.
Foreign central banks holding reserves were lending the funds used to purchase goods from the country. The exporting nations never got paid at least until the loan to the buyer (the vendor finance) was paid off. Essentially, growth in global trade was also debt fuelled.
Moderate debt levels are sustainable provided the value of the asset supporting the borrowing is stable and significantly higher than the amount of the loan. The borrower or the collateral for the loan must generate sufficient income to service and repay the borrowing. In the frenzied market environment of low interest rates and ever rising asset prices, the level of collateral cover and ability to service the loans deteriorated sharply. In 2005, rising interest rates and a cooling in the US housing market set the stage for the GFC.
Sigmund Freud once remarked that: "Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead. We must therefore accept it without complaint when they sometimes collide with a bit of reality against which they are dashed to pieces." The GFC was the reality on which the fake pleasure of the Great Moderation and Goldilocks economy was smashed.
Taking the Cure
There is currently confusion between the disease and the cure. The "disease" is the excessive debt and leverage in the financial system, especially in the US, Great Britain, Spain and Australia. The "cure" is the reduction of the level of debt that is now underway (the great "de-leveraging").
The initial phase of the cure is the reduction in debt within the financial system. Some of the debt created during the Ponzi prosperity years will not be repaid. Non-repayment of this debt, in turn, has caused the failure of financial institutions. The process destroys both existing debt and also limits the capacity for further credit creation by financial institutions.
Total losses from the GFC to financial institutions, according the latest estimates, will be in excess of US$ 2 trillion. Banks need additional capital to cover assets that were parked in the "shadow banking system" (the complex of off-balance sheet special purpose vehicles) but are now returning to the mother ship’s balance sheet. The global banking system, in aggregate, is close to technically insolvent.
Commercial sources for recapitalisation are limited as losses mount and the outlook for the financial services industry has deteriorated. Government ownership or de facto nationalisation is the only option to maintain a viable banking system in many countries.
Even after recapitalisation the capital shortfall in the global banking system is likely to be around US$ 1-3 trillion. This equates to a forced contraction in global credit of around 20-30% from existing levels.
The second phase of the cure is the effect on the real economy. The problems of the financial sector have increased the cost and reduced availability of debt to borrowers for legitimate business purposes. The scarcity of capital means that banks must reduce their balance sheets by reducing their stock of loans. Normal financing and loans are now being effectively rationed in global markets.
This forces corporations to reduce leverage by cutting costs, selling assets, reducing investment and raising equity. This also forces consumers to reduce debt by selling assets (where available) and reducing consumption.
"Negative feedback loops" mean reduction in investment and consumption lowers economic activity, placing stresses on corporations and individuals setting off bankruptcies that trigger losses for the financial system that further reduces lending capacity. De-leveraging continues through these iterations until overall levels of debt reach a sustainable level determined by lower asset prices and cash flows available to service the debt.
Within the financial sector, de-leveraging is well advanced. In the real economy it is in the early stages. The process echoes Joseph Schumpter’s famous maxim of "creative destruction".
The severity of the crisis was underestimated initially. Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve in March 2007 stated during Congressional Testimony: "At this juncture, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the sub-prime market seems likely to be contained." In April 2007 US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson delivered an upbeat assessment of the economy: "All the signs I look at show the housing market is at or near the bottom… The U.S. economy is very healthy and robust."
The grande mal seizure of financial markets in September and October 2008, with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, a large US investment bank and near collapse of AIG, the world’s largest insurance group, highlighted the seriousness of the problems. Since then national and international "committees to save the world" have implemented a bewildering and ever changing array of measures to try to stave of economic collapse.
The actions – dubbed WIT ("What it Takes") by Gordon Brown, the English Prime Minister - have been focused on trying to stabilise the financial system and maintaining growth in the real economy.
Governments and central banks have moved to remove toxic debt from bank balance sheets, inject share capital to cover losses from bad debts and also guaranteed the bank’s own borrowings to allow them to continue to raise deposits and borrow. Bank of England Governor Mervyn King recently summed up the nature of the UK’s support for the banking system memorably: "The package of measures announced yesterday by the Chancellor are not designed to protect the banks as such. They are designed to protect the economy from the banks."
Governments have provided large amounts fiscal stimulus and support for the housing market (in the US). In addition to the normal "automatic stabiliser" effects of reduced tax income and higher social welfare spending in a recession that push budgets into deficit, governments have launched new spending initiatives focused on infrastructure and direct payments to those most affected by effects of the GFC. Central banks have cut interest rates to levels not seen for decades.
It is not clear whether the actions taken will have the intended effect. As John Kenneth Galbraith noted: "In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension".
King Canute Addresses the Waves
The pretence of global co-ordination in policy responses, reiterated at increasingly frequent G20 summits, does not accord with the reality of individual actions.
Ireland’s anxious reaction to a "run" on Irish banks prompted a blanket government guarantee on bank deposits. This, in turn, led to a flight to Irish banks forcing the implementation of similar arrangements in other countries. The "electronic herd" did not notice that Ireland was guaranteeing deposits totaling over 200% of its own gross domestic production ("GDP") calling into question its ability to honour these commitments if called.
There have been constant shifts in policy. TARP might well stand for Temporary Asset Relief Program (rather than its real name - Troubled Asset Relief Program) as there have been a succession of wholesale changes in the strategy.
The financial initiatives have not led to a significant easing of credit conditions. This reflects the fact that the capital provided is only sufficient to cover continuing losses but insufficient to restore normal lending and financial activity.
Money supplied to banks is not flowing into the real economy. Banks need funds to pay off maturing borrowings of their own as well support assets coming back onto their balance sheet (known by another three letter acronym - IAG - involuntary asset growth). Companies have also drawn down debt facilities, as their own financial position has deteriorated, requiring the banks to finance these requirements.
Governments and central bankers have become frustrated at the failure of policy actions to help the resumption of normal financial activity. Where governments have taken substantial stakes in banks, there is a noticeable drift to "directed lending". Central banks and governments are increasingly bypassing the banking system and providing finance directly to businesses. The Federal Reserve may soon issue credit cards to all Americans under its own brand.
The debates miss the point that debtors still have too much debt and are not able to service it. Until the debt is written down and restructured, credit growth may not resume.
In the TARP Oversight Panel Report of 8 April 2009, Professor Elizabeth Warren observed: "Six months into the existence of TARP, evidence of success or failure is mixed. One key assumption that underlies Treasury’s …. approach is its belief that the system-wide deleveraging resulting from the decline in asset values, leading to an accompanying drop in net wealth across the country, is in large part the product of temporary liquidity constraints resulting from non-functioning markets for troubled assets. On the other hand, it is possible that Treasury’s approach fails to acknowledge the depth of the current downturn and the degree to which the low valuation of troubled assets accurately reflects their worth".
The stimulus packages create different challenges. Well-intentioned infrastructure spending will take some time to have any meaningful effect. Skill shortages in key areas of expertise may slow down implementation. The need to avoid "leakage" where spending flows to overseas recipients in a globalised world is also paramount politically. The return on inadequately targeted infrastructure investment is also not necessarily high.
Governments must also borrow to finance their spending. Many countries implementing fiscal stimulus packages already have large budget deficits and also substantial levels of outstanding public debt.
In 2009, governments around the world will have to issue US$3 trillion in debt. The US alone will need to issue around US$ 2 trillion in bonds (a staggering US$40 billion a week!). This compares to around US$400-500 billion of annual debt that the US has issued in recent years. This debt must be issued at record low interest rates.
China, Japan, Europe and other emerging countries have been major buyer of this debt. It is not clear whether they will continue to buy US government bonds, at least at previous levels. Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, provided a reminder of the importance of this issue in February 2009: "Whether China will continue to buy, and how much to buy, should be in accordance with China’s needs, and depend on the safety and protection of value of foreign exchange." Yu Yongding, a former adviser to the Chinese central bank, recently sought guarantees that the value of China’s US$682 billion holdings of US government debt won’t be eroded by "reckless policies". He asked that the US "should make the Chinese feel confident that the value of the assets at least will not be eroded in a significant way."
At best, the tsunami of government debt may crowd out other borrowers exacerbating existing financing problems. At worst, there is a risk of a collapse of the growing "bubble" in government debt markets as investors refuse to purchase debt at current rates triggering additional losses. In January 2009, long-term interest rates moved up sharply as markets started to absorb the import of government initiatives. As James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, once noted: "I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody."
Current initiatives resemble the "hair of the dog that bit you" cure where ingestion of alcohol is the treatment for a hangover. The current problems can be traced to high levels of debt accumulated by banks, consumers and companies. In effect, this debt is now being replaced by government debt. Simultaneously, the debt fueled consumption of consumers and companies is being replaced by debt funded government expenditure.
Adjustment in the level of debt and asset prices is part of process of through which the global economic system re-establishes itself. Governments and central banks can smooth the transition but they cannot prevent the necessary adjustments taking place. Like King Canute, central bankers and finance ministers cannot hold back the tide.
Multiplication by Zero
Like an athlete using drugs to enhance performance, the global economy used debt and financial engineering to enhance global growth. Increasing stimulus was needed to maintain performance in an unsustainable Ponzi scheme. The removal of performance enhancing drugs has exposed fundamental weaknesses.
A simple way to think about value in the global economy is in terms of Irving Fisher’s transaction equation:
Real Economy = Financial Economy
Real Economy = Quantity of Good times Price of Goods
Financial Economy = Money Supply times Velocity of Money
Quantity of Good times Price of Goods = Money Supply times Velocity of Money
The financial economy represents claims on the earnings and cash flows (both current and future) from producing and selling real goods and services. The financial economy consists of the money available and how rapidly the money can be circulated through the global economy (velocity). Banks provide much of the velocity of money in the economy through its borrowing and lending activities where a small amount of capital is leveraged to create larger amounts of money in the form of debt.
Recent economic prosperity was primarily driven by growth in the financial economy – increased money supplied by central banks augmented the rapid growth of and innovation of financial techniques within the banking system that increased the velocity of circulation. This increased the value of the real economy by increasing prices and also stimulating the expansion in the supply of goods and services.
The GFC has sharply reduced the financial economy, specifically it has decreased the velocity of money. As any student of mathematics knows anything multiplied by zero is itself zero.
The reduction in the financial economy necessitates a corresponding reduction in the real economy, initially in prices and ultimately by reducing the quantity of real goods and services. Falling prices of financial assets (claims on real goods and services) and, more recently, reductions in production volumes reflect the required economic adjustment process.
Government actions, however well intentioned, seem primarily to be based on the recognition that Ponzi or pyramid games are only bad if they end. All efforts are now seemingly directed at keeping the game going for as long as possible!
In 1976, James Callaghan, the Prime Minister, delivered the following grim assessment of Britain’s economic situation that is still relevant today: "We have been living on borrowed time. We used to think you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candor that that option no longer exists."
Government actions, however well intentioned and significant, may entail pouring water into a bottomless bucket.
The key lesson of the global financial crisis (GFC) may be that the current economic order is "built to fail".
The ability to sustain high rates of economic growth, decreed by governments and central bankers, is questionable. The aggressive increase in debt globally resulted in a sharp increase in sustainable growth rates. $4 to $5 of debt was required to create $1 of growth. Approximately half the recorded growth in the US over recent years was driven by borrowing against the rising value of houses (mortgage equity withdrawals). As the level of debt in the global economy decreases, attainable growth levels also decline.
The world used debt to accelerate its consumption. Spending that would have taken place normally over a period of many years was squeezed into a relatively short period because of the availability of cheap borrowings. Business over invested misreading demand and assuming that the exaggerated growth would continue indefinitely creating significant over-capacity in many sectors.
The noveau Jeffersonian trinity - "whoever dies with the most toys wins"; "shop till you drop"; and "if it feels good, do it" – has proved to be unsustainable.
Growth in global trade and capital flows was also "built to fail". It was built on a financing model where sellers of goods and services indirectly financed the purchase. When the buyer is unwilling or unable to pay, the seller suffers doubly - sales fall and also the money advanced to the buyer falls in value.
The GFC has already reduced global trade and cross border capital flows. In late 2008, the World Bank forecasts a fall in global trade volumes for the first time in over 25 years. The Baltic Dry Freight Index, a measure of supply and demand for basic shipping, has fallen 90 % since mid 2008 although it recovered slightly in early 2009. Exports from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China fell between 10% and 40% in late 2008 also signaling reduced demand for commodities.
The Institute for International Finance forecasts net private sector capital flows to emerging markets in 2009 will be less than US$165 billion - 36% of the US$466 billion inflow in 2008 and only one fifth the record amount in 2007. The projected decline in capital flows is around 6 % of the combined gross domestic product of the emerging countries. This compares to a decline of approximately 3.5 % of combined GDP in the Asian financial crisis and 1.5% in the Latin American crisis.
Investors in US government bonds have expressed deepening concern about the safety and security of their investments. Yu Yongding, a Chinese economist and former advisor to China’s central bank, warned in 2008 that: "If the US government allows Fannie and Freddie [government sponsored enterprises] to fail and international investors are not compensated adequately, the consequences will be catastrophic. If it’s not the end of the world, it is the end of the current international financial system." Kwag Dae Hwan, head of global investment, of South Korea’s US$220 billion National Pension Fund noted: "The image of US Treasuries as a safe haven has been tainted by the ongoing financial debacle … A big question mark hangs over whether the US can deal with an unprecedented amount of debt. That is unnerving all the investors, including me."
As the risk of trade and financial protectionism emerges, globalisation of trade and capital flows is reversing - the "flat world" is rapidly going "pear shaped".
Slowing exports, lower growth and loss of jobs are encouraging trade protectionism. Several countries have implemented trade barriers (import tariffs and export subsidies). The fiscal packages in many countries are "economic nationalist" encouraging spending on domestically produced goods and supporting national champions and local industries. The US, France, Germany, Spain have announced bailouts for domestic companies. Asian countries are seeking to weaken the currencies to support exports to maintain global competitiveness. The US Treasury Secretary recently accused China of manipulating its currency drawing angry responses from Beijing.
Financial protectionism has also emerged. Governments are supporting domestic banks and increasingly "directing" lending to domestic firms and households.
Concerns about immigration are emerging. There have been protests in UK against hiring foreign workers. This has serious implications of countries like Mexico, Eastern Europe, India and the Philippines that depend on worker remittances that are already slowing.
In an essay titled "The Great Slump of 1930," published in December of that year, Keynes observed: "We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand."
Failure to Summit
The current crisis calls into question the ability of government and policy makers to maintain control of the economy – Lenin’s "commanding heights".
Governments may not be able to address the deep-rooted problems in the current economic models. Government spending, if it can be financed, may not be able to adequately compensate for the contraction of consumption and lack of investment made worse by over capacity in many industries.
Government spending has little multiplier effect or velocity. The badly damaged financial system means that the circulation of money in the economy is at a standstill. While government spending may provide short-term demand boost and capital injections may partially rehabilitate banks, it is far from clear what will happen when all these measures are reversed.
Governments and central banks have limited available tools. Keynes famously described monetary policy as the equivalent of "pushing on a string". Given that interest rates are now at or approaching zero in many developed countries, there is no string at all.
Fiscal policy could be described as "pulling on the same string". The experience of Japan is salutary. Zero interest rates and repeated doses of fiscal medicine have not restored the health of the Japanese economy that remains mired in a form of suspended animation. The rest of world’s current struggle is to avoid turning "Japanese".
In the run-up to the 1929 election, Keynes discovered a seminal political truth about deficit spending. Lloyd George, an economically challenged politician, was delighted when Keynes provided the rationale for spending taxpayers’ money on social programs to bribe voters.
Keynes absorbed this lesson well and maintained a constructive ambiguity throughout his life allowing him to appeal to politicians who favoured government spending and those who favoured middle-class tax cuts. Writing in the Financial Times (5 February 2009) Benn Steil, Director of International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, succinctly set out current economic thinking: "when the facts are on our side, we pound the facts; when theory is on our side, we pound theory; and when neither the facts nor theory are on our side, we pound Keynes."
Correcting global imbalances provides greater challenges. The world has relied heavily on debt fuelled American consumption to drive global growth. With 5% of the world’s population, the US is 25% of global GDP, 20% of global consumption and 50% of global current account deficit.
The US needs to decrease consumption, increase savings, reduce debt, export more and import less. The countries with large savings and trade surpluses need to do exactly the opposite, specifically encourage domestic consumption. Currently both surplus and deficit countries are doing the opposite of what is required.
The challenge is evident in two telling statistics. Consumption is around 40% of the economy in China against over 70% in the US. Average earnings in China are only 10% of that in the US. The size of the adjustment is substantial.
David Rosenberg, an economist from Merrill Lynch, described the process of adjustment: "This is an epic event; we’re talking about the end of a 20-year secular credit expansion that went absolutely parabolic from 2001-2007. Before the US economy can truly begin to expand again, the savings rate must rise to pre-bubble levels of 8%, the US housing stock must fall to below eight-months’ supply, and the household interest coverage ratio must fall from 14% to 10.5%. It’s important to note what sort of surgery that is going to require. We will probably have to eliminate $2 trillion of household debt to get there, this will happen either through debt being written off, as major financial institutions continue to do, or for consumers themselves to shrink their own balance sheets."
Corrective action will only deepen the recession and disrupt global funding flows. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister, recently indicated that China’s "greatest contribution to the world" would be to keep it’s own economy running smoothly. This may signal a shift whereby China uses its savings to invest in the domestic economy rather than to finance US needs.
Redirection of capital held in central banks and sovereign wealth funds to domestic economies affects the global capital flows needed to finance banking system recapitalisation and spending packages in the debtor countries. Maintenance of the cross border capital flows to finance the debtor countries budget and trade deficits slows down growth in emerging countries and also perpetuates the imbalances.
There is now acknowledgement that the economic model itself is the source of the problem. Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the Chinese central bank, commented: "Over-consumption and a high reliance on credit is the cause of the US financial crisis. As the largest and most important economy in the world, the US should take the initiative to adjust its policies, raise its savings ratio appropriately and reduce its trade and fiscal deficits." More ominously Chinese President Hu Jintao recently noted: "From a long-term perspective, it is necessary to change those models of economic growth that are not sustainable and to address the underlying problems in member economies."
In the GFC, politicians, bureaucrats and central bankers have been exposed to have no more powers than the Wizard of Oz – old desperate men (they are mainly men) behind the curtain running from one lever to another in a desperate attempt to maintain illusions. In the words of the 19th century American humorist Josh Billings: "It is better to know nothing, than to know what ain’t so."
Limits to Growth
The GFC’s seriousness and gravity is unquestioned. Initially, the world viewed the destruction of financial institutions as an entertaining blood sport. There was a sense of schadenfreude as the Masters of the Universe received their comeuppance. The "financial" crisis has now spread to the "real" economy – jobs, consumption, and investment. It is now everybody’s problem.
In the US alone, more than 3.6 million jobs have been lost. In Spain, unemployment has reached the middle teens. Exports and production have fallen in countries as varied as Spain, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan by amounts that beggar belief. An astonishing US$30 trillion of wealth has been obliterated in America alone. Entire countries – Iceland and Ireland – have been savaged.
The GFC coincides with another crisis: the GEC or Global Environmental Crisis. "Toxic debt" and "toxic emissions" increasingly clamor simultaneously for politician’s attention.
Irreversible climate change, scarcity of vital resources (food and water) and falling biodiversity are not unconnected with the existing economic system. Economists and politicians implicitly assume that high levels of growth drive increased living standards, rescuing people from poverty and social development. No limit to economic growth is recognised.
At the launch of the "Redefining Prosperity" project, Tony Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, writing in the New Scientist noted that a UK treasury official accused the authors of wanting to "go back and live in caves". The project sought to raise concerns about environmental and social limits on economic growth. Ironically, the GFC has illustrated the limits and illusions of economic growth starkly.
A lower growth future has political and social implications. For example, China and India are deeply concerned about failing to provide jobs for the millions coming into the workforce each year. One in fifteen migrant workers in China are expected to be out-of-work in 2009. Chinese security leaders have warned about rising social unrest.
Demagogic debates about the ideological differences between neo-liberalism, compassionate capitalism and social democracy are unhelpful. In truth, all competing economic philosophies are underpinned by the same reliance on growth and built to fail economic models.
The world needs to adjust to a new economic order and a world of reduced expectations. In the short run, the primary focus surely should be to dealing pragmatically with the GFC and its potentially devastating human and social costs. There will be time enough for recriminations and blame.
At the fall of the Berlin Wall, when asked - "who won", political scientists cited the triumph of capitalism over socialism. The economist’s response was simply: "Chicago". The reference is to the Chicago Graduate School of Business and its unshakable belief in free markets exemplified in the title of Milton Friedman’s most accessible work – Free To Choose (1990).
The GFC marks the end of unquestioned advocacy of free markets. Wang Qishan, Vice Premier of China, tartly observed: "The teachers now have some problems".
There is no time for "triumphalism" or "mission accomplished" speeches. The GFC brings into question much of established orthodoxy of economic models and approaches. It calls into question social and political models based on high levels of economic growth and financial rather than real economy driven growth. It also questions the ability of mandarins to control the economic engines.
Recently in Canary Wharf, the financial district in London’s docklands, I noticed a small street stand erected by the English Teachers Union to recruit teachers. The two affable recruiters explained that they had heard that there was "a bit of financial crisis". Well-educated and highly motivated bankers who were losing their jobs by the thousands might like to consider a new career teaching.
I questioned the adjustment in salaries – a reduction of 60% to 95% - that the change in careers would necessitate. One recruiter’s response stays with me: "If you haven’t got a job then it’s not relevant is it? It was never real money and it wasn’t going to ever last was it?"
Different strategies exist for dealing with the GFC. Politicians and theoreticians are enjoying their "I told you so" moments. Crisis denial, advocated by Lars Nonbye, general manager of the Nonbye sign-making company in Denmark, places a ban on any talk about the crisis from work premises. The most productive strategy may be to use the GFC to redirect talent and resources into the real economy and adjust living standards and expectations of economic growth.
As Keynes wrote in 1933: "We have reached a critical point. We can ... see clearly the gulf to which our present path is leading….[If governments did not take action] we must expect the progressive breakdown of the existing structure of contract and instruments of indebtedness, accompanied by the utter discredit of orthodox leadership in finance and government, with what ultimate outcome we cannot predict."
© 2009 Satyajit Das All Rights reserved. Satyajit Das is a risk consultant and author of Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives (2006, FT-Prentice Hall). This article draws on the ideas first published in Satyajit Das "Built to Fail" in The Monthly (April 2009) 8-13
Sources: EuroIntelligence: End of Ponzi Prosperity :: Whatever It Takes :: Built to Fail!