“Admit it, mes amis, the rugged individualism and cutthroat capitalism that made America the land of unlimited opportunity has been shrink-wrapped by half a dozen short sellers in Greenwich, Conn., and FedExed to Washington, D.C., to be spoon-fed back to life by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. We’re now no different from any of those Western European semi-socialist welfare states that we love to deride.”
-- Bill Saporito, “How We Became the United States of France,” Time (September 21, 2008)
Last night, the Presidential candidates had their last debate before the election. They talked of the baleful state of the economy and the stock market; but omitted from the discussion was what actually caused the credit freeze, and whether the banks should be nationalized, as Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is now proceeding to do. The omission was probably excusable, since the financial landscape has been changing so fast that it is hard to keep up. A year ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke through 14,000 to make a new all-time high. Anyone predicting then that a year later the Dow would drop nearly by half and the Treasury would move to nationalize the banks would have been regarded with amused disbelief. But that is where we are today.1
Congress hastily voted to approve Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s $700 billion bank bailout plan on October 3, 2008, after a tumultuous week in which the Dow fell dangerously near the critical 10,000 level. The market, however, was not assuaged. The Dow proceeded to break through not only 10,000 but then 9,000 and 8,000, closing at 8,451 on Friday, October 10. The week was called the worst in U.S. stock market history.
On Monday, October 13, the market staged a comeback the likes of which had not been seen since 1933, rising a full 11% in one day. This happened after the government announced a plan to buy equity interests in key banks, partially nationalizing them; and the Federal Reserve led a push to flood the global financial system with dollars.
The reversal was dramatic but short-lived. On October 15, the day of the Presidential debate, the Dow dropped 733 points, crash landing at 8,578. The reversal is looking more like a massive pump and dump scheme – artificially inflating the market so insiders can get out – than a true economic rescue. The real problem is not in the much-discussed subprime market but is in the credit market, which has dried up. The banking scheme itself has failed. As was learned by painful experience during the Great Depression, the economy cannot be rescued by simply propping up failed banks. The banking system itself needs to be overhauled.
A Litany of Failed Rescue Plans
Credit has dried up because many banks cannot meet the 8% capital requirement that limits their ability to lend. A bank’s capital – the money it gets from the sale of stock or from profits – can be fanned into more than 10 times its value in loans; but this leverage also works the other way. While $80 in capital can produce $1,000 in loans, an $80 loss from default wipes out $80 in capital, reducing the sum that can be lent by $1,000. Since the banks have been experiencing widespread loan defaults, their capital base has shrunk proportionately.
The bank bailout plan announced on October 3 involved using taxpayer money to buy up mortgage-related securities from troubled banks. This was supposed to reduce the need for new capital by reducing the amount of risky assets on the banks’ books. But the banks’ risky assets include derivatives – speculative bets on market changes – and derivative exposure for U.S. banks is now estimated at a breathtaking $180 trillion. The sum represents an impossible-to-fill black hole that is three times the gross domestic product of all the countries in the world combined. As one critic said of Paulson’s roundabout bailout plan, “this seems designed to help Hank’s friends offload trash, more than to clear a market blockage.”3
By Thursday, October 9, Paulson himself evidently had doubts about his ability to sell the plan. He wasn’t abandoning his old cronies, but he soft-pedaled that plan in favor of another option buried in the voluminous rescue package – using a portion of the $700 billion to buy stock in the banks directly. Plan B represented a controversial move toward nationalization, but it was an improvement over Plan A, which would have reduced capital requirements only by the value of the bad debts shifted onto the government’s books. In Plan B, the money would be spent on bank stock, increasing the banks’ capital base, which could then be leveraged into ten times that sum in loans. The plan was an improvement but the market was evidently not convinced, since the Dow proceeded to drop another thousand points from Thursday’s opening to Friday’s close.
One problem with Plan B was that it did not really mean nationalization (public ownership and control of the participating banks). Rather, it came closer to what has been called “crony capitalism” or “corporate welfare.” The bank stock being bought would be non-voting preferred stock, meaning the government would have no say in how the bank was run. The Treasury would just be feeding the bank money to do with as it would. Management could continue to collect enormous salaries while investing in wildly speculative ventures with the taxpayers’ money. The banks could not be forced to use the money to make much-needed loans but could just use it to clean up their derivative-infested balance sheets. In the end, the banks were still liable to go bankrupt, wiping out the taxpayers’ investment altogether. Even if $700 billion were fanned into $7 trillion, the sum would not come close to removing the $180 trillion in derivative liabilities from the banks’ books. Shifting those liabilities onto the public purse would just empty the purse without filling the derivative black hole.
Plan C, the plan du jour, does impose some limits on management compensation. But the more significant feature of this week’s plan is the Fed’s new “Commercial Paper Funding Facility,” which is slated to be operational on October 27, 2008. The facility would open the Fed’s lending window for short-term commercial paper, the money corporations need to fund their day-to-day business operations. On October 14, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York justified this extraordinary expansion of its lending powers by stating:
“The CPFF is authorized under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, which permits the Board, in unusual and exigent circumstances, to authorize Reserve Banks to extend credit to individuals, partnerships, and corporations that are unable to obtain adequate credit accommodations. . . .
“The U.S. Treasury believes this facility is necessary to prevent substantial disruptions to the financial markets and the economy and will make a special deposit at the New York Fed in support of this facility.”4
That means the government and the Fed are now committing even more public money and taking on even more public risk. The taxpayers are already tapped out, so the Treasury’s “special deposit” will no doubt come from U.S. bonds, meaning more debt on which the taxpayers have to pay interest. The federal debt could wind up running so high that the government loses its own triple-A rating. The U.S. could be reduced to Third World status, with “austerity measures” being imposed as a condition for further loans, and hyperinflation running the dollar into oblivion. Rather than solving the problem, these “rescue” plans seem destined to make it worse.
The Collapse of a 300 Year Ponzi Scheme