Sunday, March 16, 2008

A History of The Great Economic Collapse of 2008

Looking back several decades at the economic downturn in the United States that began in the third quarter of 2007 and lasted for the better part of a decade, the causes seem predictable and inevitable. The United States had been consuming more than it produced for many years, running massive trade deficits. At the same time consumers were borrowing from international sources of capital to finance consumption, the United States Government was also running budget deficits, financing its expenditures largely from foreign investors and the retirement funds of the baby boom population – some 75 million Americans. Some of this over-consumption was funded through asset sales, especially after the initial decline in the dollar, as foreign investors thought they were getting bargains purchasing US assets.

The cracks in the system began showing up in earnest in 2007 with the great Subprime Mortgage Meltdown. This crisis in the subprime real estate market ultimately spread to the rest of the market and triggered an exodus of capital from the financial system as investors realized they had been taking on too much risk for the promised returns. Notwithstanding valiant attempts by the Federal Reserve to provide liquidity to the banking system, the risk re-pricing forced historic write-downs of assets on the books of the major banks, both commercial and investment, resulting in capital shortfalls at the major institutions. The first bank to experience a run was the 83-year old investment bank Bear Stearns, which was temporarily kept afloat through emergency loans from the Federal Reserve. This marked the first time such a loan was made since the Great Depression of the prior century. The resulting lack of financing into the economy drove investment to levels not seen in decades and unemployment soared. At the same time as the employment picture soured, many in the baby boom generation were retiring. Unfortunately the insolvency of the Federal Government resulting from tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and deficit spending required massive cuts in health care and social security as well as large tax increases, further depressing the economy. A massive portion of the population retired into poverty.

In an attempt to fight both the re-pricing of assets and the lack of financing in the economy the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates dramatically, from 5.25% to 1%, at the same time inflation was running up. The interest rate targeted by the Federal Reserve at the time, the Federal Funds Rate, was negative in real terms for the second time in a decade. Unfortunately, these lower rates did not pass through to borrowers because the banks’ lack of capital prevented them from making loans regardless of how low their cost of funds was, and the fear of insolvency prevented banks from lending to one another which was how the system worked at the time. In fact, the monetary easing resulted in a further flight of capital as investors sold dollars to invest elsewhere where returns were better. The resulting fall of the dollar was also historic in nature as it hit all time lows against a basket of currencies week after week. This would have been a bright spot due to its impact on net exports, except that the decline in the US economy spread to the rest of the developed and developing nations reducing demand for exports.

Ultimately the Federal Government had to step in and bail out the financial system that had profited so handsomely for many years prior to the meltdown. The size of the bailout dwarfed the S&L bailout that was still visible in the rear view mirror, enraging much of the population. At the same time, those who had amassed fortunes during the boom years were able to acquire vast holdings of productive assets thereby widening the already large gap between the wealthy and the poor. Despite passing law after law and amending regulation after regulation in favor of the banking lobby for two decades, Congress professed shock at the actions taken by some of the major financial institutions during the ensuing hearings. The conflicts of interest of the rating agencies, the off-balance sheet accounting, the lax capital requirements, and several other issues resurfaced in the public view. Once the population at large learned that all of these issues had been brought to the attention of Congress years before, but ignored at the behest of the finance industry, there was a near revolt in the streets. This resulted in what we now refer to as the Great Political Restructuring.

Between the devaluation of the dollar and the massive infusion of funds to rescue the financial system inflation raged out of control for some time until the collapse progressed, after which deflation took hold as the world economy followed suit and demand for everything fell off globally. The lessons of this era remained strong and bank regulation was revised and strengthened. However, due to advances in technology and other systemic changes, the banking industry is now lobbying Parliament for additional powers such as combining their commercial and investment banking operations and allowing them to export interest rates from their home state to other states. They are also seeking reform to the bankruptcy laws and a declaration of Federal Preemption for protection from state regulators. Some argue that we should honor the lessons of the past and deny these powers to the banks, especially since the banks are ultimately backed by the taxpayers as lender of last resort. The neo-neo-conservatives, however, argue that the free markets will provide better competitive results for all consumers and the bankers, notwithstanding their incentives to take excessive risk, will adequately manage any potential risks to a systemic crisis. Paul Krugman, the sage economist now in his 98th year, declared such proposals outrageous and claimed they will lead the economy on a path to great divergence of wealth and the rebirth of the poverty population. Larry Kudlow, the underground talk show pundit whose age none can ascertain, pronounced this to be a great day for America, the likes of which he has not seen since the Great Political Restructuring. Time will tell which of these elder statesmen is still connected to the political economy and which is simply disconnected.

[Of course, I hope none of this is true and we see a rebound in the second half of 2008 as many predict. I just could not help having a bit of fun with this. I may do a serious analysis if time permits.]

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2 comments:

Dante said...

I've always said what this country needs is a Political Restructuring, preferably one where congressmen are expelled form Washington with brimstone and fire, so this might not be all bad.

Palermo's Blog said...

I'm with you dante - I like our basic system and the ideas behind it but it seems to have gotten way out of control. At times it looks like industry is regulating congress, not the other way around.