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You may recall back to last fall, when then Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulsen got Congress to pass his $800 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Recovery Program) proposal, almost overnight.
The idea was this: Banks have huge volumes of mortgage-backed securities in their portfolios. These securities are CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), CDOs-squared (CDOs of CDOs), CDSs (credit default swaps), and numerous other highly leveraged structured securities designed by brilliant financial engineers just a few years ago.
These securities are now being called "toxic assets" or "toxic waste," because they're worth a lot less than thought.
There's no market for these securities any more, and when forced to sell via a "fire sale," banks are getting 20 or 30 cents on the dollar. If banks are forced by "mark to market" rules to mark down the values of these assets to 20-30 cents on the dollar, then many banks immediately become essentially bankrupt, for all practical purposes.
So the TARP program was supposed to purchase the toxic assets at something like 60-80 cents on the dollar, so that banks can get them off their balance sheets, and still survive. Paulsen got his $800 billion, but unfortunately he never got around to buying up all those toxic waste securities. For some strange reason, he just never got around to it. I guess he must have spending too much time working out at the gym, or something.
Anyway, early in February, President Obama gave a press conference at which he announced that the shiny, brand new Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, would announce the details for how the banks would be saved. The next day came and and Geithner gave his own press conference but, for some strange reason, he provided absolutely no details whatsoever. I guess he must have spending too much time celebrating the inauguration, or something.
I've said repeatedly what the problem is. The problem is that there are many tens of trillions of dollars worth (nominal value) of this toxic waste, perhaps over a hundred trillion, and there isn't enough money in the world the buy them all.
That's the ice water reality that keeps striking these government officials.
People keep saying, "Why doesn't the government just buy these things up?" Or, "Why doesn't the government just nationalize the banks?" Or, "Why don't we just let these banks fail, and the market will dispose of the toxic waste?"
The problem is that none of these "solutions" has any chance of working. When you're talking about many tens of trillions of dollars of toxic waste, there's literally no way to deal with it, without massive and widespread homelessness, bankruptcies, poverty, and starvation.
The dot-com, real estate, credit and stock market bubbles took almost 15 years to grow. By using leverage, and leverage on leverage, and leverage on leverage on leverage, there are now well over $1 quadrillion worth of structured securities in the world.
All those bubbles have to deflate before things can return to normal. And it can't be done overnight. If it took almost 15 years for the bubbles to expand, then it will take a similar period of time for the bubbles to deflate. This crisis has barely begun.
So finally, Tim Geithner had to do SOMETHING. The investors were demanding it. The Congress was demanding it. The public was demanding it. The President was demanding it.
So he came up with a "public-private partnership" that tries to use allow the market to dissolve the toxic waste. The Treasury won't buy the toxic waste from banks, as it would have with the TARP plan.
Instead, a bank can sell the toxic waste to certain third party investors, and the Treasury will put up 86% of the purchase price. The purchaser need put up only 14% of the purchase price, providing 6 to 1 leverage.
But by another arrangement, the FDIC will put up half of the remaining price. So the investors only puts up 93% of the purchase price, providing 13 to 1 leverage.
It wouldn't be a straight sale. Instead, several of these investors would bid on the toxic waste at an auction. That way (it is hoped), a realistic market value for the toxic assets will be established.
If the value of the toxic waste assets goes up, then the investors will make money. If the value goes down, then the investors lose less than they would have otherwise.
This doesn't solve the size problem in any way that I can see. There are still many tens of trillions of dollars worth of these things, and now the US government only has to pay 93% instead of 100%. That isn't going to make any difference.
As I've been saying for years, we're in a deflationary spiral. People keep asking me why there won't be hyperinflation instead of deflation, but that's impossible. Here's why.
According to the Bank of International Settlements, there are over $1 quadrillion ($1,000 trillion) worth (notional value) of credit derivatives and other structured finance securities in the portfolios of financial institutions around the world.
Now, if mortgage-backed securities are turning out to be worth only 20-40 cents on the dollar, how much will these other securities turn out to be worth?
Some people say that most of them are solid, and that they'll be worth at least 90 cents on the dollar. I have my doubts, but let's suppose it's 90 cents on the dollar.
That means that the $1 quadrillion worth of securities will lose $100 trillion in value. There just isn't enough money in the world to make up for that. And it might be even more than $100 trillion.
So we spent 15 years leveraging debt to create a massive credit bubble over $1 quadrillion in size. Now there's a deleveraging process going on. That bubble is leaking, and all that money is disappearing.
So if there's less money (fewer dollars) in the world, then dollars become more valuable, and that's deflationary. Nothing can be done to stop that.
The above is not a fanciful story. It's really happening. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Bank of International Settlements said that Europe’s banks face a $2 trillion dollar shortage, and they're going to have trouble rolling over their debts. That's deflation.
Pity poor Paul Krugman, the man who received the Nobel Prize for Economics because he hated George Bush. His view of any dilemma was to blame the problem on the evilness of George Bush's ideology, and his solution was to do what anyone else suggested, as long it was different from what George Bush wanted.
On the day that Krugman won the Nobel Prize in October of last year, he was congratulating the UK and the Europeans for announcing a bailout and other steps that "exceed expectations," steps that the US didn't take. He indicated that the reason that the US didn't take these steps earlier is because of "ideology," and that finally there was a plan that WOULD work.
There have been several new bailouts and stimulus packages since then, and nothing has worked. And it can't possibly be because of ideology, because George Bush is gone, and the new President doesn't do ideology; he "makes decision based on facts, rather than ignoring them."
So now Krugman has to deal with the fact that things keep going downhill, and it's not because of some ideology. He's learning a little more about the real world.
In a recent opinion column, he calls Geithner's proposal "cash for trash," and says that it fills him "with a sense of despair."
In an interview on Bloomberg TV he expanded his thoughts on the subject, and said some very interesting things. Here are some excerpts (my transcription):
The problem with the plan is that -- first of all, it's a pretty bad deal for the taxpayers. It's not very well focused on the most troubled banks. And it's very unlikely to produce enough gain in the prices of these things to make the most troubled banks viable again.
It's a very diffuse, ill-defined instrument. ...
There's a reasonable case that [the toxic assets are] somewhat undervalued. So there are banks holding stuff at 60% of face value, and the market value, if they were to try to sell it, is 30 cents. And maybe it's really worth 40 cents. That's a possibility.
But what's pushing that price from 30 to 40 -- first of all wouldn't be enough to make the banks want to sell it, because they don't want to mark down stuff they're holding on their books. They're really afraid of what that would do to their [measure?] capital. Basically they can't handle the truth.
And do we really think that's enough to make the banks whole, even if they do so. It's not enough to say that the stuff may be somewhat undervalued. There's a good case that it is, though that's not for sure. But it has to be grossly undervalued for this plan to be capable of doing more than just handing some extra money to people who are holding toxic waste. ..
[Question: As the economy improves, won't the values of some of these toxic assets increase?]
Well, yeah, but you have to believe that there's really the possiblity of a self-fulfilling prophecy here -- if only people feel better about this stuff that the economy will surge so much, and the value of these assets will surge so much that it will make everything fine.
To believe that, you really have to believe that most of the problems facing the banking system are the results of a more or less irrational panic, that there isn't a fundamental huge loss facing the system. I don't think that's right. Essentially our banking system -- some of the biggest banks -- bet heavily that home prices in 2006 made sense.
The idea that consumer debt at unprecedented levels relative to consumer incomes -- made sense. Those bets were wrong. It's a tremendous loss that you can't wish away. That even if you had full return to the normality of the markets would still be there.
And if you can't make it go away, then the idea that we're going to get this self-fulfilling thing with the economy improves, confidence improves, everything fixes itself is just not going to happen.
Because the other things are not in place. We have stimulus plan that is helpful but not nearly big enough to produce recovery. There is nothing out there suggesting that we're going to have an economic recovery any time soon. We might see the pace of decline level off. But the idea that we're going to bounce back to full employment any time in years is hard to credit at this point.
So you really don't want the centerpiece of your financial strategy to be based up on hope that something isn't true might be true."
This is a very striking assessment from Krugman, much gloomier than anything from him in the past.
Krugman gives specific reasons why Geithner's new proposal won't work, but that's not the most surprising thing.
What's surprising is that Krugman is just one step away from concluding that NOTHING will work.
I could hardly believe my ears when I heard him say, "To believe that, you really have to believe that most of the problems facing the banking system are the results of a more or less irrational panic, that there isn't a fundamental huge loss facing the system."
Krugman is repudiating the common wisdom of the time, that fundamentals don't matter, that only words matter.
I remember how shocked I was in 2004 then Ben Bernanke congratulated himself and the Fed for using words -- Fed statements that interest rates would be kept low -- were all that was necessary to keep stock prices up. I couldn't believe that the head of the Princeton economics department could possibly say anything so stupid. But in fact, Bernanke's claim was just the common wisdom.
This common wisdom is shared by President Obama, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, CNBC, Bloomberg TV, the Wall Street Journal, and almost everyone else.
Krugman has now repudiated the common wisdom, and his own ideological beliefs. It will be interesting to see where this leads.
Krugman isn't the only one who's suddenly decided that the common wisdom must be wrong.
Here's what Tom Brokaw said last Sunday on Meet the Press, in explaining why people are so angry:
Apparently the only people who still believe the common wisdom are President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
President Obama clearly believes that if he goes on the Leno show or ESPN and other media outlets, and he talks confidently, then he'll "restore confidence." He believes that because that's the way he got elected President, and he believes that if he can win an election that way, then he can turn the economy around that way.
Most incredible of all, Obama continually claims that the way to save the economy is essentially to implement universal health care, as well as a large energy program that would defeat global warming. It's possibly his repeated claims that the more you spend the more you'll save that are the most bizarre to me.
From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, "restoring confidence" is impossible. There is a generational change in behaviors and attitudes going on, and it's only begun.
Here are the attitudes that are changing:
Politicians, journalists and analysts expect the opposite of all of these. They imply that with the right words and right incentives and right regulations, trust will be restored to the financial system, and people will start borrowing and spending again.
What they're expecting is that people will return to the "bubble mentality" that's existed for the past twenty years.
From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, that's impossible. The current generations of Boomers and Gen-Xers are suffering from their own abuses, and the young people in the Millennial generation are watching all this and learning lessons about trust, spending, debt and credit that they will live by as long as they're alive -- just like your grandparents.
More important, all the bailouts and TARP programs, as well as Geithner's new plan, depend heavily on the assumption that people will quickly return to this "bubble mentality." If there were no other reason why Geithner's plan has to fail, this reason would mean its failure anyway. No one alive today will return to the "bubble mentality" of the past years.
Last week, Jay Leno asked President Obama why people weren't being sent to jail. Obama said, "Here's the dirty little secret though: most of the stuff that was done was perfectly legal."
I strongly disagree, and I'll briefly repeat the reasons.
As I wrote a year ago in "Brilliant Nobel Prize winners in Economics blame credit bubble on 'the news,'" experts who were complicit in originally creating the toxic assets, like Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, are lying and making excuses, like blaming it on the news or on the Iraq war.
The universal excuse is that when these toxic assets were designed in the early 2000s, no one knew that they would fail. But even if that were true in the beginning, that excuse falls apart later.
Maybe that excuse works for toxic assets sold in 2003, 2004, 2005, or even 2006. But by 2007, it was perfectly clear that the housing bubble had burst, and that interest rates were rising. So by 2007, the financial engineers should have stopped creating new toxic securities, the bank marketing departments should have stopped selling them, the ratings agencies should have stopped giving them AAA ratings, and the monoline insurance agencies should have stopped insuring them.
But that didn't happen. By 2007, the volume of toxic assets actually increased substantially, and they were designed, sold, rated and insured as before. What happened was that everyone wanted to get their fat fees and commissions before the game was up.
This is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that massive fraud was committed in 2007, by people who knew exactly what was going on. There is no question in my mind that it could be proven that hugely illegal activities were going on, and that they could be proven in court by prosecutors who could subpoena the relevant paperwork.
The reason that isn't happening is that, like Stiglitz, the prosecutors were complicit in the fraud. The government regulators and prosecutors had access to the data that these toxic assets were becoming worthless, but they did nothing about it, probably because they didn't want to harm their own investments.
I frequently quote John Kenneth Galbraith on this web site, especially his 1954 book The Great Crash - 1929. His son, James K. Galbraith, is an economics professor at University of Texas.
In an a recent interview with Der Spiegel, James Galbraith described what's been happening as a "culture of complicity" in response to a question about the German bank Hypo Real Estate:
The representation of such a quality of this security without examination is fraud. Perhaps Hypo Real Estate has legal recourse to these rating agencies for having relied on their fraudulent ratings.
Actually I doubt that, as there was some hidden understanding between such banks and rating agencies. The language they used reveals a different story than the one bank managers are selling to the public these days. "Liars' loans," "toxic waste," or my favorite: "neutron loans" -- loans that destroy the people but leave the buildings intact. These were the words to describe these loans and they were used by the people who were working in this industry. They reveal a culture of fraudulence on a massive scale. And of course governments now have to come to recognize that these are things they have to deal with. ...
There was clearly a systemic failure. But that does not mean there was no criminal energy around. The language one uses to describe these things is very important. I tend to stay away from neutral terms like "systemic failure" or "bubble," because these terms imply the innocence of the people involved -- and I can't see that. ...
The reality of the financial crisis is that it was caused by a culture of complicity. That makes it so difficult for people to come to grips with it, especially for people who were involved, who were denying it themselves and who were partially aware of the extent of the damage. Probably many of them thought they would get away with it and now they realize that they have created an enormous slump."
This is exactly the point that I've been making. When politicians and analysts make excuses for what happened, it's to hide their own complicity.
So what did President Obama mean when he said that nothing illegal had occurred? Is he completely ignorant of what's going on, or is he hiding his own complicity? You decide.
And let's make it clear: The culture of complicity has not disappeared. The people in the same lethal combination of Boomers and Gen-Xers that caused the current catastrophe are still around, and they're still making it worse. Geithner's plan, as well as the various bailouts and stimulus plans, are part of the culture of complicity and are making the problem worse, prolonging it, and guaranteeing that the bankruptcies, homelessness and poverty will be even worse than they might have been.
You'll recall the Bernie Madoff is the man who defrauded thousands of investors out of $65 billion.
Madoff himself has been quoted as saying, "In today’s regulatory environment, it's virtually impossible to violate rules. This is something that the public really doesn’t understand. But it's impossible for a violation to go undetected, certainly not for a considerable period of time." When Madoff said that, he had already been violating the rules and defrauding people for decades.
Two weeks ago, the CBS show 60 Minutes ran a news segment on Harry Markopolos, the man who repeatedly complained to the SEC that Bernie Madoff's claimed returns were mathematically impossible. He made five separate submissions to the SEC, in May 2000. October 2001. October, November, and December of 2005, and then again June 2007, and finally April 2008.
Markopolos said there were only two plausible explanations: either Madoff was using insider information to rack up the huge profits or he was running a giant Ponzi scheme. Both of those are illegal.
I identify very closely with Markopolos' story. In 2002, I was eating lunch at the mall reading the Boston Globe, when I saw a graph of the Dow Industrials going back to the early 1900s. I took one look at it and said, "Ohmigod, the stock market is going to crash." (Yes, it was that obvious, just from the graph.) Later, I did the detailed analysis.
I was really naïve at that time. I thought that once this problem was identified, people would want to know about it and take immediate action. Instead, I was simply blown off. That's what happened to Markopolos.
There's another similarity. Markopolos said, "I would say that hundreds of people suspected something was amiss with the Madoff operation. If you look at who the victims were not, you'll notice that the major firms on Wall Street had no money with Mr. Madoff."
In other words, Markopolos believes that hundreds of people knew that Madoff could be criminal, though he doesn't know precisely who they were.
I set up this web site in 2002-2003 with the purpose of publishing analyses and predictions, so that people could judge for themselves whether the predictions were right or wrong. There are tens of thousands of people who now read this web site regularly. I don't know who they are, but I assume that most of them know that we're headed for a major financial crash, and they're preparing for it.
Just as Markopolos said that it was mathematically impossible for Madoff to have been doing what he was doing legally, I've shown that it's mathematically impossible to avoid a major stock market crash and a new 1930s style Great Depression. (See: "How to compute the 'real value' of the stock market.")
But most people go to great lengths to main their state of denial.
I was talking to a friend, and I told him that I believe that one of the most important statements of the last decade was Alan Greenspan's testimony to Congress in February 2005, when he completely repudiated his earlier views on the dot-com bubble.
My friend said, "You must be wrong, because if what you're saying is right, then it would have been very big news, and all the news shows would have reported it."
I said, "You can check Greenspan's testimony for yourself," but to no avail. This person did not want to know the truth, and nothing could change his mind.
There was another 60 Minutes segment that I want to comment on -- the March 12 interview with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
As I watched the interview, I realized that I have a great deal of respect for him as a man.
Now, no one has been as bitingly critical of him as I have. I've been relentless in mocking his policies, and pointing out that they couldn't possibly succeed, as indeed they haven't. And last year I wrote, "WSJ's page one story on Bernanke's Princeton 'Bubble Laboratory' is almost incoherent."
But of the people that I criticize, I find most of them to be personally sleazy, taking ideological positions on the left or right designed to cover up their own personal failings, and their own complicity in the disasters of our time.
But what I see in Bernanke is a somber, modest man who talks openly and honestly about what's going on, who really believes what he's saying, who doesn't put an ideological spin on it, and who feels personally devastated about the state of the economy, much of which he feels personally responsible for.
As much as I want to believe Bernanke, I just can't understand what's going through his mind. I don't expect the average man on the street to understand the Law of Mean Reversion, but I do expect the head of the Princeton University Economics Department to understand it, and how it provides a mathematical proof that a new Great Depression is almost 100% certain. In the 60 Minutes interview he said that he expects the recession to level off this year, and growth to begin again next year. Does he really have so little understanding of the long-term damage caused by the dot-com, real estate, credit and stock market bubbles? Or is he saying what he's saying because he doesn't dare talk about what he knows to be the truth? You decide.
Last year, I wrote the article, "One, Two, Three ... Infinity," in which I compared to the ever-increasing government spending plans to a book by George Gamow that I read in school in the 1950s.
I've really lost track of it all. It seems that ever week there's a new stimulus plan or new budget or new bailout plan that adds a trillion dollars to the national debt. It's a process that has no possibility of succeeding, and is mind-boggling in its stupidity.
One phrase I hear all the time from the journalists, politicians and analysts is, "When this thing is over ...."
Thus, you might hear this: "When this thing is over, the Fed will have to raise interest rates again."
The assumption always seems to be that "this thing" will be over by the end of this year, or the beginning of next year. The assumption is that people will return to their "bubble mentality," and the credit bubble will start growing again. Of course that's impossible, as I explained earlier.
But there's another insidious assumption being made. The assumption is that the reason for the budget deficit in the Bush administration is from the Iraq war, and that Obama is going to end the Iraq war, and end the deficit.
Here's a chart that I posted a couple of years ago. It comes comes from the Calculated Risk blog from 2005:
This graph shows that the huge deficit, which was supposedly caused by the Iraq war, actually began in 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, with the dot-com crash. The outlays caused by the Iraq war were not particularly large by the standards of the preceding three decades. What mattered was the collapse of tax revenues.
At the beginning of 1996, President Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over." What nobody knew then was that tax revenues were going to increase substantially in 1996, and every year after that, thanks to the dot-com bubble.
In fact, tax revenues depend on the state of the economy, and have almost nothing to do with anything else. Tax revenues went up in 2006 because of the credit bubble, and this year they're going to crash dramatically, because corporate earnings, and the economy in general, are crashing.
Just as President Clinton was pleasantly surprised in 1996 when tax revenues surged, President Obama is going to be very unpleasantly surprised this year, when the weakened economy delivers substantially lower tax revenues.
Perhaps that's why the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a report last week saying that the deficits will be much larger than President Obama's estimates.
So President Obama is making incorrect assumptions on multiple levels.
He's assuming that "when this thing is over," people will return to their old "bubble mentality," and they certainly will not.
And he's assuming that tax revenues will hold steady, even though reported corporate earnings have been crashing.
All of the Obama administration's assumptions are completely wrong. Tim Geithner's new toxic asset plan doesn't have a prayer of working.
The Obama Administration is a full partner and leading advocate in the culture of complicity. That's why Washington's budget plans are going to be a frigging disaster.
(Comments: For reader comments, questions and discussion, as
well as more frequent updates on this subject, see the Financial Topics thread of the Generational Dynamics forum. Read
the entire thread for discussions on how to protect your money.)
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