When inexplicable events perplexed our early forbears, village wise men concocted elaborate and colorful explanations to soothe the populace. Earthquakes, hailstorms, and solar eclipses were all ascribed to root causes that made sense to the villagers and increased the esteem of the story tellers. The recent, unexpected surge of the U.S. dollar has led many Wall Street witch doctors to conjure a series of logic-defying tales to give reason to what is surely the random scramble of a confused herd. Wall Street spun similar yarns during the dot.com and real estate bubbles as investors groped for reasons to justify sky high prices.
The recent surge, which has pushed the dollar up more than 30% against some currencies in recent months, is purely a short-term technical phenomenon. The move is caused by global investment deleveraging, in which major financial players are reversing (unwinding) risky trades and piling into what is erroneously perceived as the safest haven they can find. Increasingly, foreign assets, many of which had appreciated more than American assets, have been sold, and the proceeds stashed into U.S. Treasury bonds, which these investors believe to be the Fort Knox of finance. The cascade has caused momentum trades, margin calls, redemptions, and other factors having nothing to do with the underlying fundamentals of the dollar or the U.S. economy. In fact, all that has happened to the U.S. economy, and all that the government has done, and is likely to do, in their misguided attempts to contain the damage, is extremely bearish for the U.S. dollar.
Mesmerized by technical moves and oblivious as always to the fundamentals, the Wall Street brain trust has offered flimsy explanations. One popular rationale is that as bad as things are in the United States, they are even worse every place else. Still another is that since the U.S. was the first country into the crisis that we will be the first nation to come out. Still another is that since our government is acting more boldly than most to tackle the problems, our economy will not suffer as badly as others where governments have been slower to react and more timid in their responses. In addition, many still perceive the United States as the citadel of stability in a world of second-rate economies.
However, if we look beyond these “explanations,” the fundamentals loom simple and irrefutable: American borrowers of all stripes cannot afford to repay the trillions of dollars we owe. Over the past decade, the vast majority of lending has come from abroad, and as Americans don’t pay, the losses show up on foreign balance sheets. Since we blew most of the money we borrowed on consumption, we simply lack the industrial capacity to repay our debts without resorting to a printing press.
In bankruptcy, both the debtor and creditors are affected. However, while creditors take a financial hit, ramifications for debtors are typically more severe. Creditors are generally better prepared to absorb their losses. However, for bankrupt debtors usually much more substantial changes ensue.
Since America is the world’s biggest debtor, with our IOU’s broadly held by every creditor nation, the effects of our bankruptcy are being felt worldwide. However, while our creditors are suffering now, their pain will be temporary and relatively mild compared to what awaits Americans.
So while it may appear to some that things are worse abroad, that is only because the full extent of our problems has yet to be reckoned with. The main lesson our creditors will learn from this crisis is not to lend American consumers any more money. Once the lending stops, our “cart before the horse” borrow to spend economy will crumble. While the rest of the world absorbs their losses and moves on, we will be digging our way out of the rubble for years to come.
Earthquakes are caused by the fundamental shifts of tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s surface. A similar move is underway in the global economy. Describing either event without a basic understanding of either geology or economics will simply result in a tale being told by an idiot. [more]
Insanity is often defined as repeating the same action while expecting a different result. Recent Congressional activity to push through this year’s second economic “stimulus” package certainly indicates that many of our political leaders may have special needs.
Responding to the $150 billion stimulus that was passed at the beginning of the year, I made the following observation in my February 15th commentary Upping the Inflation Dosage : “The failure of the stimulus plan to cure the economy will cause the Government, and the Wall Street brain trust, to conclude that it was simply too small. Their next solution will be to administer an even stronger dose.”
It’s interesting to recall that at the time, just 9 months ago, the $150 billion package caused much hand wringing, especially from Republicans still clinging to notions of Federal restraint. This was before an avalanche of more than $2 trillion in new spending initiatives….before Bear Stearns, wide open discount windows, AIG, Fannie/Freddie, Federal Mortgage Auctions, Detroit loan guarantees, and preferred shares in the banks. In retrospect, the $150 billion stimulus seems quaint. It is not surprising that the latest package is expected to be twice as large. When this one fizzles, look for “Stimulus III” to be even larger.
The problem with our Government’s version of economic stimuli is that it encourages the very activity that brought our economy to the brink of financial ruin in the first place. Quite plainly, the goal of all these plans is to give consumers more money to spend. However, excess consumer spending is part of the problem, not part of the solution. After a decade long spending orgy, market forces are finally trying to restrict consumer spending and dampen credit. But the stimulus looks to provide a new source of funds after savings, income, and credit have been exhausted. Our imbalanced economy is in desperate need of retrenchment, but stimulus plans will effectively hold the firemen at bay while throwing gasoline on the flames.
Politicians may say that the plan is not all about consumer spending, but is designed to fund investment. But investments conceived and executed by governments, and guided by political considerations rather than profit, often yield poor returns. The clumsy hand of the state is no substitute for the invisible hand of the free market. In addition, public sector “investment” often soaks up much of the capital which otherwise would have been available for more efficient private sector uses.
If the government were sitting on a pile of foreign reserves, then at least a stimulus plan could make some economic sense. But of course, that’s not where the money comes from. To finance their largesse, the government either borrows more money from abroad, or gets it from the Fed, which simply creates it out of thin air. Either way, we undermine our economy with additional debt or inflation.
Unfortunately, the one stimulus we do need will not be supplied. To fix our current economic mess we need to diminish the activity that undermined our economy and encourage the behavior that will restore balance. Instead of encouraging Americans to go deeper into debt to buy more foreign products that we cannot afford, Americans should be encouraged to save their money, and produce more goods for export.
Fortunately, no government policy is needed to achieve this. Market forces would produce such incentives on their own. Higher interest rates and tighter credit world force people to borrow less, while simultaneously rewarding those who saved. A falling dollar that would eventually result from a recession would diminish our capacity to import while helping to restore our global competitiveness (provided it was accompanied by lower regulations and taxes) in manufacturing. Of course a lower dollar is not a good thing, but unfortunately it is the necessary consequence of our past profligacy.
Market based solutions would not be painless, which is precisely why our leaders resist them. However, as the saying goes, “no pain no gain”. If we ever expect to make any legitimate progress, a higher pain threshold must be accepted.
If our elected officials really were concerned about easing the burden on consumers, they would be looking for way to reduce government spending. If government was less expensive, taxes could be lowered across the board. The only way for American citizens to spend more is for their government to spend less. Unfortunately, our government and the leading private economists believe that everyone can spend more without any serious consequences on the downside. It’s a comforting idea, but it’s a lie. The truth may not be pretty, but it’s the only path towards a sustainable recovery. [more]
The current stock market crash has spurred a vital national debate about the causes and catalysts of the Great Depression. The dominant school of thought believes that the stubborn refusal of then president Hebert Hoover to intervene after the stock market crash of 1929, and his preference for free market solutions, led directly to the ensuing decade-long catastrophe. Through this lens, our leaders assure us that the most recent raft of government measures will prevent another episode of bread lines, Hoovervilles and pencil salesmen. As usual they have it completely wrong. In my view, the Depression was created precisely because Hoover followed the path that our government is now taking.
When the stock market bubble of the Roaring Twenties (which was created as a result of the loose monetary policy of the newly created Federal Reserve) finally popped, Hoover would not allow market forces to correct the imbalances. His policies were aimed at propping up unsound businesses, artificially supporting prices, particularly wages, and providing Federal funds for public works projects. These moves went well beyond the progressive reforms of Teddy Roosevelt, and established Hoover as the most interventionist president ever up to that point. In fact, much of what eventually became the New Deal had its roots in Hoover’s policies.
However, at the time, there were those who recommended a different course. Andrew Mellon, the long-serving Secretary of the Treasury whom Hoover had inherited from the prior two Republican Administrations, was labeled by Hoover as a “leave it alone isolationist” who wanted to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, and liquidate real estate.” Hoover would have none of it. In fact, during his nomination speech for his second term, Hoover bragged “We determined that we would not follow the advice of the bitter liquidationists and see the whole body of debtors of the United States brought to bankruptcy and the savings of our people brought to destruction.”
Hoover chose to ignore the sound advice of his Treasury Secretary (in contrast to today where the current Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is actually leading the charge over the cliff) and instead used every tool at his disposal to “fix” the problem. As a result, rather than allowing a recession to run its course, with healthy and rapid liquidations of the mal-investments built up during the boom, Hoover inadvertently created what became the Great Depression.
When Roosevelt took office he continued the same failed policies only on a grander scale. The magnitude and the idiocy of many New Deal programs, such as the wage and price setting National Recovery Administration (NRA), compounded the problems. So while Mellon’s advice would have caused a sharp but relatively brief economic downturn (which occurred after the Panic of 1907, for example), the Depression plodded on for nearly a decade until the country began gearing up for the Second World War.
In an amazing feat of revisionist history, somehow Hoover’s interventionist policies have been completely forgotten. It is taken as fundamental that his inaction led to the Depression and Roosevelt’s “heroics” got us out. Unfortunately, since we have learned nothing from history, we are about to repeat the very mistakes that lead to the most dire economic circumstance of the last century.
A major difference however, is that the structure of the U.S economy today is far weaker than it was in the fall of 1929. Years of reckless consumer borrowing and spending, and enormous trade and budget deficits have resulted in a hollowed out industrial base and an unmanageable mountain of debt owed to foreign creditors. Instead of the support of a strong currency backed by gold, the public now must deal with a modern Fed free to print as much money as politicians want. So rather than getting the benefits of falling consumer prices (as happened during the Depression), consumers today will contend with much higher consumer prices, even as the economy contracts.
With Barack Obama now waiting in the wings to conjure a newer New Deal, far larger than even FDR could have imagined, and at a time when we cannot even afford the old one, this will not be your grandfather’s Depression. It may be much worse. [more]
While I have warned for years that the United States was headed into the eye of an economic hurricane, nearly every other "expert" from Washington, Wall Street, the press and academia saw nothing ahead but sunny skies. Now, suddenly, there is an overwhelming consensus that absent the Federal mortgage bailout, my dire forecast would have come to pass. While I'm glad that rose colored glasses have finally been removed from so many eyes, the vast majority of these observers are still blind. In truth, the bailout plan substantially increases the threats to the U.S. economy.
When I wrote my book "Crash Proof", I not only predicted that our consumer/mortgage credit-based economy would fall apart, but that the government would ineptly try to repair it. The magnitude of those potential policies formed the basis of my worst case scenario. My fears have now been confirmed, and the U.S. Government is now set to destroy all hope of economic recovery. [more]