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 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


Generational Dynamics Web Log for 6-Dec-07
Questions and answers about the "credit crunch"

Web Log - December, 2007

Questions and answers about the "credit crunch"

What's going on, and what you can do about it.

I've been getting a lot of questions lately about the economy, so I thought that I'd answer several of them in a posting.

What's a credit crunch, and what's going on?

The easiest way to understand it is this: The world's money is disappearing. Every day, there's less money in the world than there was the day before. Since there's less money available, it's harder to get money, unless you're willing very high interest rates to get it. Hence, there's a "credit crunch."

One result is that banks are hoarding money, and are increasingly reluctant to lend money to one another and to other businesses. This means that even legitimate, creditworthy individuals and businesses are having a hard time getting credit, getting mortgages, or getting loans without having to pay extremely high interest rates.

How could there possibly be less money in the world?

It's not that people are eating dollar bills for lunch.

In fact, paper money is pretty irrelevant these days. Very little money is created by means of printing presses today. Money is created by means of credit, as I explained in my September article, "Understanding deflation: Why there's less money in the world today than a month ago." When a central bank (like the Fed or the Bank of England) wants to create more money, it doesn't run the printing presses more; it simply lowers interest rates, so that there'll be more credit, hence more money.

Unfortunately, financial institutions found that they can use a technique called "leveraging" to create money from credit, essentially going around the central bank. They create a new security and tell you that it's worth $10, but they'll let you buy it for $1 and loan you the other $9. So $10 that didn't exist before now does. It's wonderful. It's magic.

These securities are called "credit derivatives," and among them are CDSs (credit default swaps) and CDOs (collateralized debt obligations).

The credit bubble has created $750 trillion (notional value) in credit derivatives. Are those credit derivatives the same as money? Not exactly. You can't go into the grocery store and pay for your groceries with a credit derivative.

But you CAN use those credit derivatives in your portfolio as collateral for a loan, and then you can use THAT money to buy groceries. So in fact the credit derivatives ARE a form of money.

That's what's been happening up till July of this year. But suddenly people are discovering that the security that was supposedly worth $10 is really worth only $5 or even $2.50 or even $1, and sometimes they're totally worthless. So the process of creating money is now going in reverse. Instead of money being created through credit, today money is being destroyed through credit unwinding.

How much money has been destroyed since July?

A huge amount already. Let's start with an example.

Things really started moving in mid-July, when Bear Stearns announced that its hedge funds were almost worthless. That's because the hedge funds were these CDOs that had been magically created, and were supposedly worth several billion dollars. Well, they discovered that nobody wanted to buy them, and if nobody wants to buy them, then they have no market value, when they're "marked to market."

Since then a number of financial institutions have "gone to the confessional" to explain that, they too, have lost a great deal of money in writedowns because their portfolios contained CDOs that were worthless. These are major financial institutions like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Bear Stearns.

Citibank tried to save itself by means of a fraudulent scheme known as a "Master-Liquidity Enhancement Conduit (M-LEC)." Under the scheme, Citibank and other banks would sell worthless CDOs to each other at inflated prices, in order to establish a phony "market price" for the CDOs. Citibank's fraudulent M-LEC idea didn't take off, forcing the bank to take $16.4 billion in writeoffs of worthless CDOs after all. Citibank might have gone bankrupt except that it was saved by an investment by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

These big financial institutions are announcing more every day, and "mainstream estimates vary as high as $500 billion in writedowns.

Now, that $500 billion is gone. That's money that existed a few months ago, but no longer exists. That's how money gets destroyed.

And that's only the large institutions. We've hardly heard from the small institutions, but we're beginning to. State and local governments in Florida and Montana have to freeze their investment pools because they pools were found to have invested in near-worthless CDOs. And that's the tip of the iceberg. There are tens of millions more small and medium-sized institutions around the world that are going to have similar situations, forcing them to write down their securities.

With $750 trillion (notional) of credit derivatives in the world, it would not be surprising if the total writedown amounted to $7.5 trillion (1%) or even $75 trillion (10%).

Is that all?

Hardly. Because next you have the de-leveraging problem.

When a bank has $1 million in assets available to it, it can loan out 5 or 10 times as much as that, or $5-10 million. That's leveraging.

But if the $1 million in assets suddenly disappears, then there's $5-10 million that it can't loan out any more. That's de-leveraging.

The point of all this is that there's MUCH less money in the world today, and there's less and less every day.

What do subprime mortgage have to do with all this?

For the most part, residential subprime mortgages were the original "seeds" for the credit explosion. Banks started requiring less and less of people wanting mortgages, and by the time it was over, anyone could get a mortgage for any amount with no problem at all, even if they had no assets, no income, no job, and no hope of making the mortgage payments.

These mortgage loans, like any other form of credit, created new money. That new money could then be leveraged into credit derivatives that were worth 5-10 times as much as the original mortgage loans. Those credit derivatives could then be leveraged further. This process could continue several times.

However, there were other "seeds" as well. Requirements for credit cards and other forms of credit were also relaxed, so that people could get credit that way as well. Delinquencies have been rising in credit cards, just as they have in mortgage loans.

And a front-page article in Friday's WSJ is about how delinquency rates have been rising in car loans and even student loans.

Why would banks make loans to people who couldn't pay them back?

Because the banks made money that way. The loan officers made commissions from the loans. I'd be happy to lend you $1 million of someone else's money if I got a $50,000 commission from it. And that's what happened. That's what happened with mortgage loans, with credit card loans, with car loans, with student loans, and so forth.

And then the financial geniuses got hold of the loan contracts and turned them magically into CDOs with phony notional prices. They sold those, and got hefty commissions from selling them.

All along the way, people were loaning out other people's money, and taking fat commissions for themselves.

Isn't that illegal?

You're damn right it's illegal. And I can hardly wait to see some of these financial geniuses get put away.

I've been studying this stuff for a few years now, trying to figure out what was going on.

At first I thought that people were just being na´ve or stupid.

But I've since come to the conclusion that the mess that we're in was done on purpose -- by contemptuous and nihilistic Generation-Xers taking advantage of airhead Boomers (who are even too stupid to price/earnings ratios, as I described in a recent article.)

A web site reader from Belgium wrote to me:

"In Flanders, financial experts appear angry on our business tv station explaining how "stupid" investors are when they are selling their stocks because the problems reside only in the heads of the investors. Unbelievable !!!"

Yes, it is unbelievable, until you realize that the reason that these financial "experts" are talking this way is because they can no longer sell to investors and collect fat commissions. They may call the investors "stupid," but the investors are smart enough to stop paying these so-called "experts."

I'm really starting to pull this information together. Last month I posted an article showing how this lethal arrangement between Boomers and Gen-Xers worked. If you haven't read it yet, then you should -- it's mind-blowing. I'll have a lot more to say about this subject soon.

The point is that a lot of people have committed crimes, and they're going to well-deserved jail.

What's a "structured investment vehicle (SIV)"

This is one of the gimmicks that the financial geniuses created. Their objectives were to collect huge commissions for themselves, while defrauding the general public with securities that they knew had to become almost worthless. The SIV is part of that.

When banks issue these CDOs, they aren't issued by the bank itself. Instead, the bank creates a new "virtual" bank called a "structured investment vehicle." All the "financial magic" is done within the SIV, so that if something goes wrong, then the original bank had nothing to do with it. That's called "keeping structured securities off the balance sheet" of the original bank, a phrase you see often in the press.

However, the same people are involved in both the original bank and the SIV, and so they still PERSONALLY collect the same huge commissions, often in the millions of dollars.

The Calculated Risk blog gave a concise explanation of how SIVs work recently, and it's worth repeating here:

"To understand these stories, it helps to understand the structure of an SIV (Structured Investment Vehicle). (see SIV Accounting for more)

First an SIV has investors - like hedge funds or wealthy individuals - who invest say $1 Billion in the SIV (the equity). Then the SIV issues commercial paper (CP) and medium-term notes (MTN) that pay slightly higher rates than similar duration paper. The typical SIV, according to Fitch, uses 14 times leverage, so in our example the SIV would sell CP and MTN for $14 Billion.

Now the SIV invests this $15 Billion ($1 Billion equity and $14 Billion borrowed) in longer term notes. The idea is simple: borrow short, lend long, hedge the interest rate and credit risks - and the profits flow to the investors in the SIV.

Back to the story: what happens when the CP comes due and no one wants to buy any more? To cover the CP, the SIV might have to sell the longer term assets at a steep discount, and this would trigger a liquidation of the entire SIV. To prevent this "fire sale", the sponsoring banks stepped up and provided the financing to cover the expiring CP."

And just so we know who we're talking about here: When it says "the SIV has investors - like hedge funds or wealthy individuals" -- that's a little misleading. Because the investors also include ordinary people's pension funds and so forth. I don't think that the people of Florida would consider themselves "wealthy individuals," now that their investment pool contains SIV funds that have to be written down.

The last paragraph above is the reason why banks have been forced to "write down" SIV funds: no one wants to buy the commercial paper any more, once the Bear Stearns hedge funds collapsed in July. And they've been desperately using every trick that they could play to keep the fraud going by avoiding the "fire sale" mentioned above as long as possible.

What part do ratings agencies play?

The three ratings agencies -- Standard & Poor's, Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Ratings -- colluded with the banks to defraud the public, as Bloomberg news accused on June 30.

While the bankers were taking fat commissions for themselves, they were also making fat payments to the ratings agencies to provide AAA ratings on the CDOs in the SIVs. This was an essential part of the scheme.

Take, for example, the Florida investment pool that we've been talking about. The people who ran that pool didn't know which securities were good and which were questionable. They just depended on the ratings from the ratings agencies. And one of their internal rules (I assume) is that the pool could invest ONLY in AAA securities.

So if the bank managers pay the ratings agencies to provide AAA ratings on the questionable securities in the SIVs, then Florida and anyone else could invest in them, without even asking any questions. The bankers would get their fat commissions, the ratings agencies would get their fat fees, and the investors would get screwed.

Now, we all know what the bankers and ratings agencies are saying and going to say. "We thought they'd be OK. We were just following the rules. We didn't know that these problems would arise."

So let me make something clear. I've been studying these for several months now, and there is NO CHANCE WHATSOVER that these people didn't know what they were doing.

Sure, maybe the first few deals really were OK. But as time went on, and the rules were bent more and more, there could have been NO DOUBT in the minds of these bankers and ratings agencies that were defrauding the public.

In a recent article, I quoted a March 22, 2007, statement from a Fitch expert, wherein he explained their ratings model. Now, if you want to say that they didn't know what they were doing in 2002, then fine. In 2003? Fine. In 2004, 2005, 2006? Fine. But there is no way in hell they didn't know what they were doing on March 22, 2007. By this time, there can be no doubt that it was absolute fraud.

After Bloomberg accused the ratings agencies of fraud on June 30, they knew they had to change. Since then, they've been re-rating many of the SIV securities, sometimes lowering their ratings as many as 10 or 20 levels lower than the original AAA rating. That's what happened to many of the securities that the Florida investment pool had invested in, and that's why they're currently facing a financial crisis.

Imagine how much better off we'd be if the ratings agencies had correctly rated these securities in the first place. Then innocent victims like the Florida pool would not have invested in them. How much better off we'd be today! But then the bankers and the ratings agencies wouldn't have gotten their fat commissions and fees. Hopefully, they'll have time in jail to think about what they might have done differently. (This question and answer added on 6-Dec.)

What do bubbles have to do with this?

Let's take a break.

Here's a video from a 1957 "Nat King Cole" tv show, featuring a group called the "Merry Macs" singing "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles":

OK, back to work.

This debauched and depraved use of credit created a huge amount of liquidity that poured into various investment vehicles.

The stock market bubble actually began in 1995 with the dot-com bubble. It began to deflate after the 2000 Nasdaq crash, but it started expanding again in 2002, thanks to the creation of credit.

The money that poured into the real estate market created a real estate bubble. That bubble started to deflate late in 2005.

It also created a commodities bubble, with prices of everything from wheat to oil to copper skyrocketing.

The biggest bubble of all was the credit bubble. That bubble started to serious deflate in August with the "credit crunch."

Now, as all these bubbles are deflating, and the amount of money in the world is decreasing day by day, we're headed for a major worldwide financial crisis.

Can't the government do something to fix it?

Governments and central bankers around the world are ready to try a million different things to "fix" it. There was the M-LEC debacle. There's the new proposal to somehow bail out homeowners. There's talk about bailing out the Florida investment pool we mentioned earlier.

With the amount of money in the world decreasing, more and more people and institutions are becoming exposed. Every time some important institution becomes exposed, government officials run around trying to figure out a scheme to save it. However, the problems are occurring faster and faster, too fast for government officials to keep up.

What happened to Japan in the 1990s?

A web site reader wrote to me:

"Instead of a great depression scenario, I think its more realistic to expect something like the Japanese 90's. They had deflation, 80% decline in their major index which took 14 years, and a major housing bubble bust. I think we could get away with a less severe decline (50%?) but I expect a lot of similarities and it will probably take as long to unwind (well at least 10 years anyway)."

The comparison to Japan in the 1990s is perceptive, since that was a regional generational panic and crash for Japan, just like 1929 and what we're facing today. Japan's previous major stock market crash was in 1919.

So you have: Wall Street: Crash in 1929, new bubble in 1995, 66 years later; Tokyo Stock Exchange: Crash in 1919, new bubble in 1984, 65 years later. See this article.

The Nikkei fell from 40,000 to 8,000 -- an 80% collapse before it was over. A similar result can be expected for Wall Street.

There wasn't massive homelessness and starvation in Japan in the 1990s, which would be expected from an 80% stock market crash. I believe that the reason that Japan escaped this is because they were still able to receive support from the economic bubbles in the U.S. and China. A regional crash is not as severe as an international crash, which is what we're expecting today.

Will we see a stagflation, a recession or a depression?

It will be an era of severe depression, worse than the 1930s, with massive unemployment, bankruptcies, homelessness and starvation.

Can something like "circuit breakers" prevent a panic?

"Circuit breakers" are used by the stock markets to try to control a panic. If the market loses, say 15% in one day, then the market closes for a few hours, to let people catch their breath.

Unfortunately, circuit breakers are useless.

A generational crash is an elemental force of nature, like a tsunami.

There will be millions or even tens of millions of Boomers and Generation-Xers in countries around the world, never having seen anything like this before, and not having believed it was even possible, suddenly in a state of total mass panic, trying to sell all at once.

Computer systems will crash or will be clogged for hours, or perhaps even for a day or two. People who had hoped to get out just as the collapse is occurring will be totally screwed, and will lose everything. Brokers and other institutions will go bankrupt. People who went short hoping to make a fortune will find that their brokers' escrow accounts are gone, and they'll be totally screwed, and will lose everything.

Being in the market today, either short or long, is a very high risk proposition.

Has anything like this ever happened before?

What's happening today is identical in many ways to what happened prior to the 1929 stock market crash.

American Prospect's Robert Kuttner recently testified before the Congressional House Committee on Financial Services. He summarized similarities between "the systemic risks of the 1920s and many of the modern practices" as follows: excessive leveraging, misrepresentation, insider conflicts of interest, non-transparency, and the triumph of engineered euphoria over evidence.

The people who lived through the 1929 stock market crash and the 1930s Great Depression learned their bitter lessons about the debauched use of credit. Here's what one web site reader wrote to me:

"My father immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 20s and experienced the great depression in Pennsylvania. When I was a teenager, he told me his generation would not cause another depression because of what they experienced in the 30s. My father would not borrow money - only purchased in cash. Just before his death in 1962, he commented that the current generation was making mistakes his generation had made, and another depression was inevitable. What would he have said observing uncontrolled growth of financial derivatives, and our massive, ever increasing, unrepayable national debt? Having experienced hyper-inflation in Germany, believe he would have said our national debt would be repaid in drastically cheaper dollars."

So what happened leading to the 1929 crash is exactly what's happening today. In fact, the same thing happens every 70-90 years or so. When a generational crash occurs, it traumatizes everyone who lives through it. After that, everything's OK, because once traumatized, people don't abuse credit again.

But when the people who lived through the previous financial crisis have all disappeared (retired or died), all at once, then younger generations use "financial magic" to create money in the same way, by turning credit into worthless securities. That financial magic is called "securitization of credit," and it happens each time, just prior to a new generational financial crisis.

Since the 1600s, there have been five occasions when major worldwide financial crises have occurred, and they all used securitization of credit:

We're now overdue for the next generational crash. It could happen tomorrow, next week, next month or next year, but it's coming soon.

Can I make money shorting Google?

I actually wrote about Google in a recent article. With a price/earnings ratio of about 60, it's way overpriced -- much more so than the rest of the market which is also way overpriced. When all is said and done, its stock price will probably fall to 5-10% of its current value.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean you can make money shorting the stock. The problem is that a lot of brokers and other people will go bankrupt, and a lot of escrow accounts will simply vanish, so when it comes time to collect your money, your counterparty may be unable to pay (or may have committed suicide).

Isn't there some way to make money from this information?

All that Generational Dynamics can tell you is what the trends are. Whether you could make money selling Google short depends on a number of chaotic factors that can't be predicted. I can think of scenarios where you'll make a lot of money, and I can think of scenarios where you'll lose everything. A lot on what happens will depend on timing factors that can't be predicted.

Almost everyone in the market is going to lose a lot of money. If you put your money into Treasuries or into your mattress, then you won't lose anything, and so you'll make a ton of money compared to everyone else. Think of it that way.

How do we protect the money we have?

I recommend staying out the market and out of every investment vehicle except cash and US Treasuries.

A web site reader sent me a pointer to an article on Where to put your money - 5 steps to safety. It's a good read.

Some people talk about investing in gold. Don't do that unless you have plenty of cash around and you want to speculate a bit with what's left over. I can think of scenarios where you'll make money with gold, and I can think of scenarios where you'll lose money.

On the other hand, gold is probably safer than the stock market. However, if you invest in gold, make sure that you take actual delivery of actual gold coins or bars. Don't bother with gold-backed securities or some such, because they may turn out to be just as worthless as CDOs.

Should I grow food so that I can survive in an emergency?

The problem with growing food in a garden is that starving neighbors will steal it. You should stock up on canned and dried food, as well as water, medicines, batteries, etc.

A web site reader sent me a pointer to an article on Survival on a Budget. That might help.

A web site reader wrote to me:

"I've been recently introduced to your website through my son who is a Political Science major at OSU. Right now he's at Marine Officer Training (so scary for the mom) so I can't ask him anything but I was wondering is there a book or advice on the web about handling the looming crisis. I'm a school teacher with limited economic resources and it sounds like I should be preparing for the harsh financial climate possibly awaiting us in upcoming months. Any suggestions would really be appreciated. Your work is so fascinating and brilliant; thanks so much for having the courage to share it with the public."

It's so nice to get a compliment like that.

Unfortunately, I don't know of any other web site even remotely like this one, or any book that covers this material except mine. People in the Boomer generation and Generation-X have a real mental block against even thinking about this stuff, so they shut it out and make up fantasies.

How can you be so sure that the stock market will crash?

Well actually I've been predicting a crash since 2002, based on the fact that the market is way overpriced by historical standards, and that hasn't changed at all. In 2002 I said it would probably happen in the 2006-2007 time frame, and today that estimate doesn't seem very far off.

One of the standards is price/earnings ratios, and here's the current graph, from my recent article "How to compute the 'real value' of the stock market":

S&P 500 Price/Earnings Ratio (P/E1) 1871 to August 2007
S&P 500 Price/Earnings Ratio (P/E1) 1871 to August 2007

Anyone looking at this graph can see that the price/earnings index is poised to fall to well below 10, and when it does, the market will fall to the Dow 4000 range, or below.

As my article showed, the stock market today has a "real value" of about Dow 5000, meaning that it's overpriced by a factor of around 250% -- same as in 1929. That's a huge bubble, and it MUST burst. That's how one can be sure a crash MUST occur. Central banks can defy the laws of gravity for a while, but when it comes to bubbles, there's no way to avoid the rule that I learned when I was watching cartoons on television as a child: What goes up must come down. (6-Dec-07) Permanent Link
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