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Markets keep falling as world economic trends continue to plunge.
I feel like it's 2006 all over again.
At that time, I was railing against the depraved and debauched use of credit that had created the massive real estate and credit bubbles, and about the fact that the bubbles were growing bigger and bigger.
I was beginning to discuss the lethal combination of nihilistic, destructive, greedy Generation-Xers, combined with stupid, arrogant greedy Boomers. The Gen-Xer financial engineers created structured securities that turned out to be worthless, and the stupid Boomers, including some Nobel prize-winning economists, encouraged them to do it so that they could all make money while defrauding the public.
But let's not forget that it wasn't just financial engineers and their bosses in investment banks who defrauded the public. It was ordinary people filling out "liar loan" mortgage applications, it was real estate brokers, home builders, loan brokers, insurance agencies, ratings agencies, and practically any person who had the opportunity to make money by lying or defrauding someone.
And the circumstantial proof that these people all knew what they were doing came in 2007. At that time, it became apparent to everyone that these mortgage-backed securities were fraudulent, and that "liar loans" were backfiring. But instead of stopping, these fraudulent activities actually sped up and increased, so that these people could get their fat commissions and pay checks while there was still time to defraud someone. These people had complete contempt for everyone but themselves, and would not hesitate to really screw other people if it meant that they would make some money from it.
Once the credit crisis began in August 2007, and I wrote, "The nightmare is finally beginning," I expected this behavior to come to a screeching halt, but I was shocked to see one "bailout" after another occur. Bush Administration officials and other regulators actively directed financial institutions to continue defrauding the public by lying about the values of securities in their portfolios.
As I've been saying repeatedly for years, this continuing fraud, and debauched and depraved use of credit, has been ubiquitous. It affects people at all levels in multiple countries and industries, and of all political persuasions. It's generational. It comes from the disappearance of the survivors of WW II -- the Silent generation, that took care of all of us for decades.
Now that the Silents are gone, the Boomers are in charge. But they have no idea how to lead or govern, since they've spent their lives arguing with their parents, but never actually accomplishing anything. With the Silents gone, the Boomers have allowed themselves to be led by the nihilistic Gen-Xers, who have contemptuously rejected all Silent values, and have no hesitation in destroying anything that came before.
So now we have a change in Administration, but we still have the same Gen-Xers and Boomers. Democrats are no different from Republicans in this regard, as we've already seen with Democratic governors Elliot Spitzer and Rod Blagojevich. This is generational, not political.
In this new Administration, we have a Gen-X President Obama with total contempt for Boomer and Silent values, with a background in "community activism" whose proponents have traditionally viewed America as a country of criminals whose greatest sin is an ideological unwillingness to spend vast sums of money on the poor.
The Gen-X President Obama is dealing with Boomer politicians in his Administration and in Congress who have no ability to lead, and who have no ethical values except to do anything to get elected.
If you look at the above graph, showing public debt as a percentage of GDP, you can see that public debt really took off around 1982, when Boomers first took middle management positions and the first Gen-Xers came of age, and has been proceeding with horrific exponential growth through the Reagan, Bush41, Clinton and Bush43 Administrations.
So this isn't a political issue. It's a generational issue.
I know that many people were, like me, absolutely stunned this week to hear President Obama put forth a $3.6 trillion budget -- following a $700 billion bank bailout and an $800 billion stimulus package.
My head is still spinning from this. We're seeing a chaotic free for all to spend as much money as possible, in any way possible.
There's no fiscal discipline whatsoever -- discipline is a piece of crap that only Silents would want. There's no setting of priorities at all -- that's another piece of crap from the old folks who don't use iPods. Any sort of common sense is total crap to Gen-X President Obama and the Boomer and Gen-X people around him and in Congress. All restraints are crap, crap, crap, crap, in the opinion of people who believe that any such restraints are "ideological" vestiges of President Bush's administration, which wanted to screw poor people by starving them, and screw the rest of the world by fighting the war on terror.
And after proposing the most gargantuan spending program in history, President Obama claims he's going to be "fiscally responsible." In order to do that, he's going to tax "rich people" and businesses, draining money from people and businesses that have employees.
And finally, while all this is going on, he's going to implement universal health care, and solve global warming. Why not?
Now I have to return to a couple of articles that I wrote in December: "The effects of massive fiscal stimulus," and "The effects of massive fiscal stimulus - Part II."
In those articles, I discussed a presentation by Richard C. Koo, Chief Economist at Nomura Research Institute, comparing Japan's 1990s deflationary spiral with America's in the 1930s and today. (It's still worth watching the entire video of that presentation, as you can do by following the link in the above referenced articles.)
I said at that time that Koo's presentation is one of the few things I've seen in years that have forced me to reevaluate my thoughts on the coming financial crisis, and indeed they have, by showing how the government can react to ameliorate the effects of a massive deflationary spiral.
What's most important is that government money has to be spent so that it returns to the Treasury. In the ideal case, the money is used on some project, creating jobs. The money goes through one person or business after another, creating more jobs, until some person or business either saves it in a savings account, or uses it to pay down debt. Either way, the money goes into the bank. Since we're in a credit crunch, the bank won't lend the money out again, but instead will invest it in the safest way possible -- by investing in US Treasuries. Thus, the money returns to the Treasury.
My objection to the Administration's spending plans is not their size (though that's a big problem), but the undisciplined "kid in a candy store" approach that ignores the requirements of a successful stimulus package, replacing them with ideologically motivated choices that would wreak further destruction on the economy.
Let's begin by explaining why the stimulus and spending plans cannot possibly work at this time, irrespective of what the Obama administration does:
The same story applies to Japan in the 1990s. According to Koo, the stimulus spending didn't begin to have any effect until the late 1990s, well after the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) crash in 1990, and well after most of the deflationary spiral had been worked through.
This refers to what I call the problem of "leakage." The stimulus spending theory requires that all money return to the Treasury, in the manner described above. But if some of the money is used to purchase foreign goods, then "leakage" occurs. In the case of Japan, leakage could be offset by exporting goods to other countries, and they had willing buyers. In the current case, there will be few such buyers.
In this environment, what we're going to be seeing for the next few years is massive bankruptcies and homelessness. The best thing that a stimulus package can do AT THIS TIME is to prevent the loss of as many homes and businesses as possible.
Instead, the Obama administration is exhibiting enormous hostility to businesses, especially small businesses. By raising taxes on "rich people" and businesses during a massive deflationary spiral, the administration will cause the destruction of marginal businesses that might otherwise have survived, with the result of a loss of more jobs.
The Administration seems to understand this concept when it comes to the Detroit auto companies, to which they're providing massive bailouts. The argument for doing so is that by allowing them to collapse, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost -- jobs provided by the auto makers themselves, but also jobs provided throughout the supply chain.
The Administration is bailing out the automobile companies for purely ideological reasons -- to support the labor unions -- and they're raising taxes on other businesses for ideological reasons -- because most of them are not unionized.
Futhermore, the Administration is providing stimulus money to state and local governments, once again to support labor unions.
This is what passes for "pragmatism" in President Obama's Washington. From everything I've read and heard, there is nothing that the Obama administration or the Democratic-led Congress has proposed that has anything but the most venal ideological and political motivations.
There's absolutely no reason why this should be a surprise to anyone. These are people from the same greedy, nihilistic generations as the "financial engineers" that created hundreds of billions of dollars of structured finance securities and sold them to investors, until they turned out to be worthless. Why should the brilliant people in the Obama administration have any different ethics than the brilliant "financial engineers"?
At some level, investors understand this. The Dow Industrials index has fallen over 2000 points since Obama was elected, 1000 points just since the inauguration.
I realize that there's barely a snowflake's chance in hell that anyone in a position to do anything about it will read this proposal, but I'm going to make it anyway.
I'm aware from the web site logs that there are some tens of thousands of regular readers of this web site. I have no idea who they are, but I know that they include readers from colleges and all branches of government. This web site is anathema to anyone in government, since no government official, Republican or Democrat, would ever dare to allow himself to be associated with any of the analyses posted in this web site. (I like to joke that this is like a porn site: There are a lot of people reading it, but few want to admit it.) So I'm making this proposal in the hope of the extremely unlikely event that someone "important" might read it and do something about it.
The proposal is that stimulus spending be broken up into two distinct phases.
The first phase, the Preservation Phase, lasts about 5 years. During this time, the deflationary spiral is at its worst, with millions of foreclosures and bankruptcies. There is no way to prevent or avoid this, but it may be possible to contain the damage.
There's no point in creating a million make-work jobs if it means that five million other jobs will be lost.
Therefore, during the Preservation Phase of stimulus spending, the spending should be focused on preserving as many homes, businesses, and jobs as possible. This means that bailouts and tax reductions should target preserving as many businesses and homes as possible. The highest priority is to preserving existing jobs, rather than creating make-work jobs.
As the Preservation Phase progresses, the marginal businesses that can't survive anyway will go bankrupt. Eventually, the number of bankruptcies and foreclosures tapers off, and then a transition can be made into the Recovery Phase.
This is the time when the kind of stimulus spending advocated by Koo should be employed. At this point, the deflationary spiral will be mostly spent, as it was when FDR took office, and make-work job creation can be very effective.
The early versions of the stimulus bill received international criticism because it called for "Buy American" for all supplies. For example, if you build a bridge with fiscal stimulus money, then you have to purchase steel from American steel mills, to protect American jobs. This seems like a good idea, since it prevents the kind of "leakage" that I described above, but it's terrible for international trade.
This kind of protectionist phrase is considered to be dirty language. Everyone recalls the history of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff act of June, 1930, that was devastating to world trade. Everyone agrees that it made the Great Depression much worse, and I've previously referred to it as the first hostile act of World War II, because of its devastating effect on the Japanese.
Another way of looking at this issue is to apply the Fallacy of Composition. We hear a lot about the Fallacy of Composition when it comes to families saving money. If a family saves money and avoids debt, that's good; but if every family does that, then it's bad for the country.
One description goes as follows: "The Fallacy of Composition is reasoning that says: because one person in the crowd can do it, everyone in the crowd can do it. For example, one person can get out of the theater through the doors in one minute -- but if everybody in the theater tries to do that at once, people get killed. Just because one person from the group can do it doesn't mean that the whole group can do it. In this simple model, it is the same with increasing saving. Society as a whole can save no more than it invests. One person can increase her saving, because other people's saving drops in compensation. If everybody is trying to increase saving at once, that doesn't work, and income drops instead."
The Fallacy of Composition is important when in the current crisis because everyone is saving -- either putting money in the bank or paying down debt -- which is good, but since everyone is doing it, stores are going bankrupt.
But the interesting thing is that you can also apply the Fallacy of Composition to countries. If a country in financial crisis becomes protectionist, it's good for that country. But if every country does the same thing, then all international trade becomes frozen.
That's what happened in the 1930s, and it's widely feared that the same thing will happen this time.
If there's any solution to this conundrum at all, it's to reach an international agreement to permit some protectionism, but to control the amount of "leakage" between countries.
I've written many times about the rapid collapse of the world economy, occurring much faster than anyone ever dreamed or imagined.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who is pretty much the only mainstream media person who is really reporting on what's going on in the world, compares today's world economy to 1931:
My favourite China guru, Michael Pettis from Beijing University, is in despair – as you can see on his blog (http://mpettis.com). The property bubble is bursting. Developers have built more offices in Beijing since 2006 than the entire stock in Manhattan. There is a 14-year supply glut. We have seen this movie before.
Factory output is collapsing at the fastest pace everywhere. The figures for the most recent month available are, year-on-year: Taiwan (-43pc), Ukraine (-34pc), Japan (-30pc), Singapore (-29pc), Hungary (-23pc), Sweden (-20pc), Korea (-19pc), Turkey (-18pc), Russia (-16pc), Spain (-15pc), Poland (-15pc), Brazil (-15pc), Italy (-14pc), Germany (-12pc), France (-11pc), US (-10pc) and Britain (-9pc). Norway sails blissfully on (+4pc). What do they drink up there?
This terrifying fall has been concentrated in the last five months. The job slaughter has barely begun. Social mayhem comes with a 12-month lag. By comparison, industrial output in core-Europe fell 2.8pc in 1930, 5.1pc in 1931 and 3.9pc in 1932, according to RBS.
Stephen Lewis, from Monument Securities, says we have been lulled into a false sense of security by the lack of "soup kitchens". The visual cues from Steinbeck's America are missing. "The temptation for investors is to see this as just another recession, over by the end of the year. But this is not a normal cycle. It is a cataclysmic structural breakdown," he said.
Fiscal stimulus is reaching its global limits. The lowest interest rates in history are failing to gain traction. The Fed seems paralyzed. It first talked of buying US Treasuries three months ago, but cannot seem to bring itself to hit the nuclear button.
As the Fed dithers, a flood of bond issues from the US Treasury is swamping the debt market. The yield on 10-year Treasuries has climbed from 2pc to 3.04pc in eight weeks. The real cost of money is rising as deflation gathers pace.
US house prices have fallen 27pc (Case-Shiller index). The pace of descent is accelerating. The 2.2pc fall in December was the worst month ever. January looks just as bad. Delinquenc-ies on prime mortgages were 1.72pc in September, 1.89pc in October, 2.13pc on November and 2.42pc in December. This is the trajectory eating away at the banking system.
Graham Turner, from GFC Economics, fears the Dow could crash to 4,000 by summer unless there is a "quantum reduction" in mortgage rates. The Fed should swoop in to the market – armed with Ben Bernanke's "printing press" – and mop up enough Treasuries to force 10-year yields down to 1pc and mortgage rates to 2.5pc. Monetary shock and awe.
This remedy is fraught with risk, but all options are ghastly at this point. That is the legacy we have been left by the Greenspan doctrine. We are at the moment of extreme danger in Irving Fisher's "Debt Deflation Theory" (1933) where the ship fails to right itself by natural buoyancy, and capsizes instead."
Even if the $3.6 trillion budget, combined with the $800 billion fiscal stimulus plan, combined with the $700 bill bank bailout had a chance of working in the US (which they don't), it would be all for nought, since the world economy is collapsing, and the US can't escape being part of the world.
As I wrote last month, something that's constantly freaking me out these days is all the talk of greedy bankers. The reason it's freaking me out is because the rhetoric is identical to what I used to hear when I was growing up in the 1950s.
My parents and my teachers often talked about the Great Depression. They talked about how greedy people were in the 1920s. They said that people were so greedy that even if they were rich, they'd borrow more and more money so that they could make even more money.
My teachers often referred to the greatest evil of them all: margin. A greedy investor could buy stocks and pay only 10% of the purchase price. The 10% was called "margin," and the other 90% was borrowed. My teachers emphasized how evil this was, that some greedy rich person would pay only 10% of the price of a share of stock in order to make more money.
I can almost still hear one of my teachers saying: "Thank God! They've made it illegal to buy stocks on that margin like that! Those greedy investors will have to pay for the stocks they buy, so we'll never have a Great Depression again!" My teachers must be turning in their graves to see what's been happening in recent years.
Here's an excerpt from the 1939 book: Since Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen:
The investigation showed how pool operators in Wall Street had manipulated the prices of stocks on the Exchange, with the assistance of men inside the companies with whose securities they toyed. It showed how they had made huge profits (which represented the exercise of no socially useful function) at the expense of the little speculators and of investors generally, and had fostered a speculative mania which had racked the whole economic system of the country--and this not only in 1928 and 1929, but as recently as the spring of 1933, when Roosevelt was in the White House and Wall Street had supposedly been wearing the sackcloth and ashes of repentance. The investigation showed, too, how powerful bankers had unloaded stocks and bonds upon the unwary through high-pressure salesmanship and had made millions trading in the securities of their own banks, at the expense of stockholders whose interests they claimed to be serving. It showed how the issuing of new securities had been so organized as to yield rich fruits to those on the inside, and how opportunities to taste these fruits had been offered to gentlemen of political influence. It showed how that modern engine of financial power, the holding company, had been misused by promoters: how some of these promoters had piled company upon company till their structures of corporate influence were seven or eight stories high; how these structures had become so complex that they were readily looted by unscrupulous men, and so unstable that many of them came crashing down during the Depression. It showed how grave could be the results when the holding-company technic was applied to banking. It showed how men of wealth had used devices like the personal holding company and tricks like the sale of stock (at a loss) to members of their families to dodge the tax collector--at the very moment when men of humbler station had been paying the taxes which supported the government. Again and again it showed how men occupying fiduciary positions in the financial world had been false to their trust.
Naturally the composite picture blocked out by these revelations was not fair to the financiers generally. The worst scandals got the biggest headlines. Yet the amount of black in the picture was shocking even to the most judicial observer, and the way in which the severity of the Depression had been intensified by greedy and shortsighted financial practices seemed blindingly plain. So high did the public anger mount that the New Deal was sure of strong support as it drove on to new measures of reform."
When you read the above excerpt, you realize how similar today is to what happened in the early 1930s.
Don't miss Allen's description of "structures of corporate influence," and "how the issuing of new securities had been so organized as to yield rich fruits to those on the inside."
It's incredible but, reading this, you realize that the same kinds of "financial engineers" that created worthless securities in the early 2000s were just like the ones that worked around the time of the 1929 crash.
Now, what's new in the last couple of months is the stepped up rhetoric against bankers, and it's hearing this again for the first time since the 1950s is what's so startling to me.
My recollection is that the talk about greedy bankers began to disappear in the 1960s. I recall reading some article about humor, saying that comedians were now making fun of Madison Avenue instead of Wall Street. Madison Avenue, of course, was considered the center of the advertising business, just as Wall Street was the center of finance. They don't make fun of advertising executives any more either, since all the politicians in Washington are advertising executives.
But anger directed at bankers is back with a vengeance. What's old is new again.
A couple of weeks ago I transcribed an interview with Charles Minter, Director & Co-Portfolio Manager, Comstock Partners. Here's an excerpt:
The housing market is so large right now - it was $21 trillion. It's now around $17 trillion. We really can't see how it's possible to stop a $17 trillion market from reaching its fair value by intervening for $75 billion or $150 billion."
Minter points out a $21 trillion housing market is not going to be affected much by a bailout of several hundred billion dollars, and that's certainly true.
This is why I always tell people to focus on the top-level securitization, not the details at the bottom. All the Washington officials, even including Ben Bernanke, talk about solving some particular point problem -- such as saving a bank or building a bridge.
When you look at the entire problem from the top down -- one quadrillion dollars in credit derivatives (according to the Bank of International Settlements) -- you realize how hopeless the problem is. We've already seen many structured securities fall in value by 70-80% from their notional value as the credit bubble leaks. If the $1 quadrillion in credit derivatives fall by only 5%, then that's $50 trillion in losses. There's no bailout or stimulus that can even make a dent in $50 trillion in losses.
People always ask me how I can be so absolutely certain that the bottom hasn't been reached, or that there's much worse to come, and when you look at the top-level aggregates, it's perfectly clear.
That's the point that Minter is making about the housing market. Instead of focusing on various plans to stop foreclosures or lower mortgage interest rates or provide mortgage money to banks or whatever, just look at the size of the market -- $21 trillion -- and you know immediately that nothing can possibly work.
It's fine to look at the details, but if you want to understand why a financial crisis must occur, then you have to focus on the size of the securitization.
If we now look at the five previous international financial crises, we'll see that they all have securitization of credit in common:
Securitization is the common theme in all generational panics and crashes, and it's the main feature of the current one. Once you understand how securitization is used, and how little the people in Washington understand it, then you know how much trouble the country is in.
An assumption that President Obama and his administration are making is that the economy will assume rapid bubble growth in a year or so. They expect this growth to produce tax revenues that will offset their planned massive spending.
But regular readers of this web site already know how wrong this assumption is. They're already well aware that the country is in the midst of an enormous deflationary spiral leading to continually plunging markets and a new Great Depression that will continue to worsen for many years to come.
Another assumption that President Obama and his administration are making is that he can "restore confidence" through his speeches.
President Obama is one of the most gifted orators in presidential history, but we're now talking about generational theory, and the massive changes in attitudes and behaviors of the Gen-X and Boomer generations cannot be reversed by oratory.
There's a certain irony to all this. President Obama thinks that everything that Boomers say and do is full of crap, but Obama has been seduced into accepting the most insidious Boomer belief of all -- that substance doesn't matter, only oratory and "confidence."
I first criticized Ben Bernanke about this in a 2004 article, "Federal Reserve congratulates itself on jawboning policy." I referred to a study by then Fed Governor Bernanke in which he claimed that merely by making statements that interest rates would be kept low for a "considerable period," the Fed changed public expectations so much that the values of stocks increased from 2003 to 2004. The conclusion is that the Fed can continue to use verbal statements to affect the economy positively.
This is a totally absurd conclusion, as I said at the time. What I didn't realize at the time is how widespread this belief is among Boomers.
Well, President Obama has bought into this piece of nonsense completely. And why not? He rolled over every other candidate in the election by promising "change you can believe in," without ever realistically promising what that change would be.
From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, we've identified at least three assumptions that the Administration is making that are completely untrue. They are assuming that the economy will rebound strongly in 2010; they are assuming that the massive recent change generational change in behavior and attitudes of investors can be reversed by "restoring confidence"; and they assume that fundamentals don't matter - only oratory. This is insanity.
From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, we know that there will be change, and we know that the change will involve a major worldwide financial crisis greater than any in history.
(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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