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Economics, Crony Capitalism
More from the Front Lines of the Financial Crisis
Monday, 3 November 2008
What's needed, but not proposed, is a 1930s type Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) plan that refinanced homes at affordable rates and prevented foreclosures. One on a grand scale as part of an enlightened New Deal agenda.In its latest economic outlook, Merrill Lynch economists "worry about inflation, or more precisely," a lack of it. From crashing global equity markets, falling commodity prices, rising unemployment, stagnant wages, over-indebted households, declining production, the continuing housing crisis, and more. All pointing to several future quarters of negative growth. Showing that Fed chairman Bernanke will face "his greatest fear: deflation." An analysis of the coincident to lagging indicators signals "deep recession."
In his October 24, commentary, Merrill's North American economist David Rosenberg sees "economic data deteriorating in a very serious way (and says) we are witnessing unprecedented stuff happen:"
Conclusion: "This recession is unlike any seen in the last five decades." Typically caused by inflation, inventory cycles or aggressive Fed tightening. "This is a balance sheet recession deeply rooted in asset liquidation and debt repayment, and would seem to have more in common with pre-WW I cycles."
Going back to 1855, "a typical recession lasts 18 months." It's no assurance this one won't be longer. Rosenberg thinks it started in January and believes will end "within a month of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) making the call." It defines recession as "a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales." Some say that occurs when economic growth is negative for two or more consecutive quarters.
The signs are evident and growing, yet NBER is usually late making its call. It may hold off until housing shows signs of stabilizing. For some analysts, it's the core economic problem, and as long as it keeps eroding no end of recession is in sight. The latest data aren't encouraging:
On October 28, economist Nouriel Roubini was even more alarming on housing citing "The recessionary macro effect of the worst US housing bust ever." He reported the view of a "senior professional in one of the (world's) largest financial institutions" who emailed him "privately and confidentially." As early as a year ago, he predicted "the worst housing recession in US history" and described "a bust process" in four phases:
He cites clear phase two evidence already:
Roubini agrees with his emailer "with one caveat." He believes we're past the beginning of phase two; most of its aspects have occurred, and we're heading into phase three or close to it; he cites sharply falling home prices; rising defaults in prime and near prime mortgages; also some prime and near prime lenders in trouble; we're also getting close to phase four as "over a dozen proposals to rescue 2 million plus households on the way to default and foreclosure are now being debated in Washington." Debate is one thing. Meaningful action another and likely a ways off at best. Possibly once a new president is in office for something substantial if it comes at all.
Rubini's emailer followed up with another. That consensus now "admits" what it denied last year. The reality of a severe housing downturn. In price action and foreclosures. The worst since the 1930s. But they're still behind the curve by acknowledging "only minor macro effects." He called it extraordinary that a decline this severe is being taken dismissively. "Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this event is the refusal to recognize the possible dimensions, the impact of what is coming." It's "delusional" to believe that the "biggest housing recession in US history will not have severe macro effect. Most of the consensus (according to Bloomberg earlier)" was for 1.8% fourth quarter growth. It then predicted a Q 4 slow growth bottom with "economic growth recover(ing) in soft landing territory (2.5%)."
On what basis, he asks? "Mostly wishful thinking (because of) the economic and financial shocks leading to falling demand (and a worsening housing bust); anemic capex spending; slowdown in commercial real estate demand; sharp private consumption slowdown and weak supply (from weakening ISM - Institute of Supply Management;" falling employment; a glut of new and existing homes; weak auto sales; consumer durables; "a capacity overhang;" and excess inventory); these factors will persist well into the new year.
The latest Q 3 GDP report hints at what's coming. A minus .3% with personal consumption (PCE) dropping 3.1%. The first decline since 1991 and largest drop since falling 8.6% in 1980. Residential construction also fell at a 19.1% annual rate. Its 11th straight quarter drop. It now represents 3.3% of GDP. Its lowest level since 1982. Non-residential investment fell 1% and will likely fall further in Q 4. A quarter likely to be much weaker than Q 3 as most private activity is slowing. Only government spending remains strong.
On October 31, still another disturbing report. Bloomberg reported that the "US Chicago Purchasers Index (the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago, ISM) Falls by Most on Record." To 37.8 down from 56.7 in September, and its lowest reading since the 2001 recession. A clear indication of a deepening downturn. Readings below 50 signal contraction.
Another Shoe to Drop: Credit Cards
Even The New York Times published a rare ahead-of-the-curve October 28 admission. In an Eric Dash article headlined: "Consumers Feel the Next Crisis: Credit Cards." As they're squeezed by an "eroding economy." An "already beleaguered banking industry" is threatened as lenders are sharply curtailing credit card offers and "sky-high credit lines." Even creditworthy consumers are affected because of growing amounts of bad loan losses. An estimated $21 billion in the first half of 2008.
With layoffs increasing, analysts forecast at least another $55 billion in the next 18 months. Around 5.5% of outstanding debt now and may "surpass the 7.9% level reached after the technology bubble burst in 2001." As a result, lenders like American Express, Bank of America, MasterCard and Visa are "tightening standards (and) culling their portfolios of the riskiest customers." Credit lines are being reduced as well, and lenders are avoiding over-indebted consumers. Treading carefully in housing ravaged areas and with customers employed by troubled industries.
It's impacting already strapped households. With lower credit scores. Higher rates for those rated creditworthy. Less willingness to allow high balances. Less availability of loans with many needing them shut out. "The depth of the financial crisis has shocked a credit-hooked nation into rethinking its habits. Many families once content to buy now and pay later are eager to trim their reliance on credit cards....At the same time," lenders are retrenching with one CEO saying "If you're not fearful, you're crazy."
It's seen in mail solicitations slowing to a trickle. "Credit card issuers have realized their market is shrinking and that there is no room for extra credit cards, so they have to scale back," according to Mintel analyst Lisa Hronek. "People are completely maxed out with mortgages, home equity lines and credit card debt."
It's hitting hard on both ends. Rising losses and shrinking profits for issuers. Less credit availability for consumers already strapped and cutting back of necessity. At a time the only bull market is in bailouts. Amidst towering debt levels. Soaring defaults. Wobbly global economies. Some cratering. America teetering. Confidence shattered, and everyone wondering what's next.
First the Banks. Next "the Coming Insurance Meltdown"
According to analyst Mike Larson of Weiss Research. AIG was just the beginning. Falsely called an "anomaly (and that) the rest of the insurance industry is doing just fine." Larson and Weiss disagree and identified "46 insurers with $500 million or more in assets that are at an elevated risk of failure." It's seen in their share prices. Down 80 - 90% for some because the largest US and Bermuda-based insurers have lost $98 billion year-to-date, and they have more in unrealized losses.
A Possible Gotterdammerung?
On October 28, from the Financial Times forum in a Peterson Institute for International Economics Anders Aslund article titled: "It can be worse than the Great Depression." A possibility, not a prediction. Because of "the worst global asset bubble and financial panic" since that time. Because lessons learned then haven't prevented new mistakes, and unlike in the 1920s, "CNBC and Bloomberg can spread worldwide panic instantly." Old blunders may not be repeated, but "new policies (may be) even worse."
Anders laid out a "then" and "now" comparison:
The Global Europe Anticipation Bulletin (GEAB), LEAP/E2020's Disturbing Prediction
In its October 15 28th edition. About a "global systemic crisis." An alert because its researchers believe that before summer 2009 "the US government will be insolvent (and will) default and be prevented to pay its creditors (holders of US Treasury Bonds, of Fannie May and Freddy Mac shares, etc.)." It envisions "the setting up of a new Dollar to remedy the problem of default and of induced massive drain from the US." It gives five reasons for its prediction:
GEAB states: "the whole planet has become aware that a global systemic crisis is unfolding, characterised by the collapse of the US financial system and its contagion to the rest of the world." As a result, "a growing number of global players are beginning to act on their own." In their own self-interest. Because US policies are ineffective. The crisis is very serious and "far more important, in terms of impact and outcome, than" in 1929. With the US economy weaker now than then. Because of unmanageable public debt. Reckless consumer borrowing and spending. Enormous current account and budget deficits. A hollowed out industrial base, and a highly inflated dollar.
With that in mind, it's up to "vigilant" citizens and "clear-sighted" leaders to assure that America won't "drive the planet into a disaster." It will take divergent policies. What's "good for the rest of the world will not be good for the US." America defaulting will be partly from "this decoupling of decision-making...." A new dollar will be "imposed." And "one morning (in) summer 2009....after a long week-end or bank holiday," Americans will discover that their "US T-Bonds and Dollars are only worth 10 per cent of their value...."
A Jesse's Cafe Americain commentary suggests something similar. That in 2009, "the US will be forced to selectively default and devalue its debt." Because of its extraordinary financial needs. A $2 trillion annual deficit. It will take a terrible toll on Treasuries. Forcing a significant drop by 2011. We're approaching "the apogee of the Treasury bubble, with the credit bubble" already broken.
Once market deleveraging subsides, "the dollar and Treasuries will drop, perhaps with momentum, as the rest of the world realizes that the US has no choice but to default." Unless foreign sources (for a while at least) keep buying American debt despite the risk. Offer debt forgiveness. The dollar is devalued short of default. Taxes raised substantially, and debt instruments pay higher interest rates. Even then, these measures may fall short and prove ineffective.
America way exceeded its debt service ability from real cash flows. A turnaround will require a "severe devaluation and selective default." For GEAB down to 10 cents on the dollar. Following on its March 2008 prediction that by yearend "a formidable debacle will affect pension funds (worldwide) endangering the entire system of capital-based pensions." Their revenues collapsing "at the very moment when they should be making their first large series of payments to pensioners." A disturbing picture in the current climate that may reveal other unexpected hazards in the coming months.
On October 28, Bloomberg reported on the Treasury's "unprecedented" 2009 financing needs. To fund a growing budget deficit and raise hundreds of extra billions to contain the current financial crisis. To assure guarantees the government committed for. Almost $6 trillion alone for Fannie and Freddie debt and mortgage securities. With continued growing demands as other obligations arise. Plus over $1 trillion annually for national defense with all expenditure categories included. An impossible burden Bloomberg didn't mention. A deepening dilemma as the financial crisis grinds toward more unsettling realities.
What Euro Pacific Capital's Peter Schiff writes about in his 2007 book "Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse." What he adds to in commentaries on his web site: europac.net. His latest on October 31 titled "The Tales Get Taller." Debunking mainstream explanations for recent dollar strength. A currency he's very bearish on. Because of our extreme profligacy. Decades of borrowing trillions we can't repay. How we blew it on consumption and by letting our industrial base erode.
Our problems are now too big to contain. A possible bankruptcy is ahead. "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."
America's salad days are over, he believes. We've gone from a nation of savers, investors and producers to one of borrowers, consumers and gamblers. Official government statistics lie. They conceal hidden truths. America's house of cards is crumbling. It won't be pretty when it collapses. His advice is get out of the dollar. Get your money out of the country while you can, and gold is one of his recommendations.
Gold is on Paul Amery's mind as well in his Prudent Bear.com October 31 commentary titled "The Credit Crisis Endgame." He sees it likely becoming "a bloody standoff between investors and governments (on a) market for government bonds" battlefield.
He reviewed the unfolding credit crunch stages:
The US for example. While nominal Treasury bond yields declined (10 year T-bonds at 4% October 31), their credit risk component has been increasing since last year. Credit specialists CMA DataVision shows the 10 year credit default swap (CDS) spread rose steadily. From 1.6 basis points in July 2007; to 16 basis points in March 2008; to 30 basis points in September; and to over 40 basis points on October 27. In other words, insuring against a US government bond default rose 25-fold in the past 15 months. The same is true for Britain and Germany.
Some observers find this astonishing. How could America or other major states default on their debt? It would be "the equivalent of a (financial market) nuclear explosion" smashing global economies with it.
Further, the dollar is the world's reserve currency. The Fed can create unlimited amounts of them, so any default would likely be through inflation and devaluation, some argue.
Maybe not, according to University of Maryland's Carmen Reinhart and Harvard's Kenneth Rogoff in their April 2008 paper: "The Forgotten History of Domestic Debt." They explained that throughout history debt defaults have been more common than realized. They're the rule, not the exception, in times of severe economic stress.
Again America for example. Budget and national debt levels have exploded. Bailout amounts will increase them and cause enormous strains. Morgan Stanley forecasts a sharply rising 2009 fiscal deficit. Besides the escalating national debt, to more than double the previous 1983 record. As a percent of GDP, it's expected to be around 70% in 2009. The tip of the iceberg, some say, compared to the private debt to GDP ratio. At an unprecedented 300%, according to University of Western Sydney economist Steve Keen.
He saw the storm coming before most others. He's also very skeptical about the rescue plan and compares it to King Canute's effort against the tide. Given the enormity of the problem, he sees the possibility of the debt pyramid crashing from a violent and uncontrollable chain of defaults, taking the government bond market down with it.
Strains in the US Treasury market are already evident in spite of their historically low yields. Recent auctions have had poor bid-to-cover ratios and long "tails" indicate weak demand. Secondary market delivery failures are also at record levels. Another sign of poor liquidity. If the worst of all possible worlds happens - a US debt default - the consequences will be "cataclysmic for the financial economy." The entire system will be bankrupt.
Where to hide if it happens? Amery suggests a few safe havens. The "ultimate" one being in precious metals. Think gold. Understand also that the $725/ounce October 31 spot price reflects market manipulation (over the short term) to drive it down from its March 2008 high above $1000. As one analyst puts it: I'll "give you three good reasons why gold is (underperforming). First: manipulation. Second: rampant manipulation. Third: incessant, nonstop, unabated, fiendish manipulation."
He also believes the process is only temporary and won't stop the metal's eventual rise. Given the current crisis and its likely duration, it won't surprise experts to see its price above $1000 again before it ends.
A Final Comment
In spite of trillions of asset losses. American and global households hardest hit. Wobbly world economies getting weaker. The virtual certainty of a deep and protracted recession, and the likelihood of no robust recovery when it ends.
Despite all this and Wall Street's worst year in decades, it's celebrating like it always does. With big bonuses. In the many billions of dollars. According to Bloomberg, Merrill Lynch plans $6.7 billion. Goldman Sachs about $6.85 billion and Morgan Stanley about $6.44 billion.
Bloomberg noted that Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Merrill, Lehman Bros. and Bear Stearns paid their employees "a cumulative $145 billion in bonuses from 2003 through 2007," or more than the Philippines' GDP. In 2007, the firms paid out a record $39 billion. In a year when three of them posted their worst quarterly losses ever and their shareholders lost over $80 billion. Two of them no longer exist. Another went into forced liquidation. Their combined 2008 losses should way exceed last year when they're reported.
Yet there's plenty of money for bonuses. Courtesy of ESSA/TARP. For executive pay and dividends as well. At a time all these companies are insolvent. Their survival dependent on federal handouts. US taxpayers are on the hook for them as their consumption declines. According to the Commerce Department at the fastest rate in 28 years. Because they don't get big bonuses. Are maxed out on credit and haven't the money to spend.
But the Fed and US Treasury do and plan to dispense more of it. To other takers lining up. Sovereign nations. Insurance companies. GM and Chrysler perhaps for their reported merger. Dependent on government cash to complete it. Any other company as well deemed worth saving. Big campaign contributors with friends in high places. What beleaguered homeowners don't have.
Floated proposals to help them appear meager at best. For a fraction of the millions in trouble with inadequate suggested funding amounts. A suggested $40 billion for 20 million or more homeowners facing foreclosure. With more at issue as well, according to The New York Times. Giving qualified borrowers a few grace years. Perhaps three. For lower mortgage payments that won't reduce their principal balance. It would only provide temporary relief and delay today's problem for a later time. When households may be no better off than now, yet face higher ARM reset obligations.
What's needed, but not proposed, is a 1930s type Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) plan that refinanced homes at affordable rates and prevented foreclosures. One on a grand scale as part of an enlightened New Deal agenda.
In lieu of "trickle down" to fraudsters, "trickle up" for beleaguered households. An idea so far with no traction for a new administration to consider. The one now in charge has no "imminent" plan, according to White House spokesperson, Dana Perino. On October 30, she added only that "If we find one that we think strikes the right notes....then we would move forward and announce it." Ones so far advanced are for Wall Street. Main street apparently can wait.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to The Global Research News Hour on RepublicBroadcasting.org Mondays from 11AM to 1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on world and national topics. All programs are archived for easy listening.
Mr. Lendman's stories are republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.This story was published on November 3, 2008.
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