WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

October 12, 2008 – 4:30 am


“Readers have been pressing for a solution to the financial crisis. But first it is necessary to understand the problem. Here is the problem as I see it. If my diagnosis is correct, the solution below might be appropriate.” Former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Paul Craig Roberts explains.

Let’s begin with the fact that the financial crisis is more or less worldwide. The mechanism that spread the American-made financial crisis abroad was the massive US trade deficit. Every year the countries with which the US has trade deficits end up in the aggregate with hundreds of billions of dollars.

Countries don’t put these dollars in a mattress. They invest them. They buy up US companies, real estate, and toll roads. They also purchase US financial assets. They finance the US government budget deficit by purchasing Treasury bonds and bills. They help to finance the US mortgage market by purchasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds. They buy financial instruments, such as mortgage-backed securities and other derivatives, from US investment banks, and that is how the US financial crisis was spread abroad. If the US current account was close to balance, the contagion would have lacked a mechanism by which to spread.

One reason the US trade deficit is so large is the practice of US corporations offshoring their production of goods and services for US markets. When these products are brought into the US to be sold, they count as imports.

As the US savings rate is approximately zero, the only alternative to foreign borrowing is the printing of money.

Thus, economists were wrong to see the trade deficit as a non-problem and to regard offshoring as a plus for the US economy.

The fact that much of the financial world is polluted with US toxic financial instruments could affect the ability of the US Treasury to borrow the money to finance the bailout of the financial institutions. Foreign central banks might need their reserves to bail out their own financial systems. As the US savings rate is approximately zero, the only alternative to foreign borrowing is the printing of money.

Financial deregulation was an important factor in the development of the crisis. The most reckless deregulation occurred in 1999, 2000, and 2004.

Subprime mortgages became a potential systemic threat when issuers ceased to bear any risk by selling the mortgages, which were then amalgamated with other mortgages and became collateral for mortgage-backed securities.

Subprime mortgages became a potential systemic threat when issuers ceased to bear any risk by selling the mortgages, which were then amalgamated with other mortgages and became collateral for mortgage-backed securities.

Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s inexplicable low interest rate policy allowed the systemic threat to develop. Low interest rates push up housing prices by lowering monthly mortgage payments, thus increasing housing demand. Rising home prices created equity to justify 100 per cent mortgages. Buyers leveraged themselves to the hilt and lacked the ability to make payments when they lost their jobs or when adjustable rates and interest escalator clauses pushed up monthly payments.

Wall Street analysts pushed financial institutions to increase their earnings, which they did by leveraging their assets and by insuring debt instruments instead of maintaining appropriate reserves. This spread the crisis from banks to insurance companies.

Finance chiefs around the world are dealing with the crisis by bailing out banks and by lowering interest rates. This suggests that the authorities see the problem as a solvency problem for the financial institutions and as a liquidity problem. US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s solution, for example, leaves unattended the continuing mortgage defaults and foreclosures. The fall in the US stock market predicts a serious recession, which means rising unemployment and more defaults and foreclosures.

Low interest rates push up housing prices by lowering monthly mortgage payments, thus increasing housing demand. Rising home prices created equity to justify 100 per cent mortgages. Buyers leveraged themselves to the hilt and lacked the ability to make payments when they lost their jobs.

In place of a liquidity problem, I see an over-abundance of debt instruments relative to wealth. A fractional reserve banking system based on fiat money appears to be capable of creating debt instruments faster than an economy can create real wealth. Add in credit card debt, stocks purchased on margin, and leveraged derivatives, and debt is pyramided relative to real assets.

Add in the mark-to-market rule, which forces troubled assets to be under-valued, thus threatening the solvency of institutions, and short-selling, which drives down the shares of trouble institutions, thereby depriving them of credit lines, and you have an outline of the many causes of the current crisis.

If the diagnosis is correct, the solution is multifaceted.

Instead of wasting US$700 billion on a bailout of the guilty that does not address the problem, the money should be used to refinance the troubled mortgages, as was done during the Great Depression. If the mortgages were not defaulting, the income flows from the mortgage interest through to the holders of the mortgage-backed securities would be restored. Thus, the solvency problem faced by the holders of these securities would be at an end.

The financial markets must be carefully re-regulated, not over-regulated or wrongly regulated.

The US budget deficit can be eliminated by halting the Bush Regime’s gratuitous wars and by cutting the extravagant US military budget. The US spends more on military than the rest of the world combined. This is insane and unaffordable.

To shore up the credibility of the US Treasury’s own credit rating and the US dollar as world reserve currency, the US budget and trade deficits must be addressed. The US budget deficit can be eliminated by halting the Bush Regime’s gratuitous wars and by cutting the extravagant US military budget. The US spends more on military than the rest of the world combined. This is insane and unaffordable. A balanced budget is a signal to the world that the US government is serious and is taking measures to reduce its demand on the supply of world savings.

The trade deficit is more difficult to reduce as the US has stupidly permitted itself to become dependent not merely on imports of foreign energy, but also on imports of foreign manufactured goods including advanced technology products. Steps can be taken to bring home the offshored production of US goods for US markets. This would substantially reduce the trade deficit and, thus, restore credibility to the US dollar as world reserve currency. Follow-up measures would be required to insure that US imports do not greatly exceed exports.

The US will have to restore sound lending practices. If the US government itself wishes to subsidize at taxpayer expense home purchases by non-qualified buyers, that is a political decision subject to electoral ratification. But the US government must cease to force private lenders to breech the standards of prudence.

Given the stupidity of our leadership and the stupidity of so many of our economists, we may learn what happened to us this year in 2038, three decades from now.

The issuance of credit cards must be brought back to prudent standards, with checks on credit history, employment, and income. Balances that grow over time must be seen as a problem against which reserves must be provided, instead of a source of rising interest income to the credit card companies.

Fractional reserve banking must be reined in by higher reserve requirements, rising over time perhaps to 100 per cent. If banks were true financial intermediaries, they would not have money creating power, and the proliferation of debt relative to wealth would be reduced.

Does the US have the leadership to realize the problem and to deal with it? Not if Bush, Cheney, Paulson, Bernanke, McCain and Obama are the best leadership that America can produce. The Great Depression lasted a decade because the authorities were unable to comprehend that the Federal Reserve had allowed the supply of money to shrink. The shrunken money supply could not employ the same number of workers at the same wages, and it could not purchase the same amount of goods and service at the same prices. Thus, prices and employment fell.

The explanation of the Great Depression was not known until the 1960s when Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz published their Monetary History of the United States. Given the stupidity of our leadership and the stupidity of so many of our economists, we may learn what happened to us this year in 2038, three decades from now.

Note: Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review. He is coauthor of The Tyranny of Good Intentions. He can be reached at: [email protected]

  1. 2 Responses to “WHAT IS TO BE DONE?”

  2. Despite all the scary news and stats about layoffs, there are still millions of jobs posted on employment sites…

    http://www.linkedin.com (networking)
    http://www.indeed.com (aggregated listings)
    http://www.realmatch.com (matches you to jobs)

    Good luck to those looking for work.

    By Matthew on Oct 12, 2008

  3. Our enormous trade deficit is rightly of growing concern to Americans. Since leading the global drive toward trade liberalization by signing the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, America has been transformed from the weathiest nation on earth - its preeminent industrial power - into a skid row bum, literally begging the rest of the world for cash to keep us afloat. It’s a disgusting spectacle. Our cumulative trade deficit since 1976, financed by a sell-off of American assets, is now approaching $9 trillion. What will happen when those assets are depleted? Today’s recession may be just a preview of what’s to come.

    Why? The American work force is the most productive on earth. Our product quality, though it may have fallen short at one time, is now on a par with the Japanese. Our workers have labored tirelessly to improve our competitiveness. Yet our deficit continues to grow. Our median wages and net worth have declined for decades. Our debt has soared.

    Clearly, there is something amiss with “free trade.” The concept of free trade is rooted in Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage. In 1817 Ricardo hypothesized that every nation benefits when it trades what it makes best for products made best by other nations. On the surface, it seems to make sense. But is it possible that this theory is flawed in some way? Is there something that Ricardo didn’t consider?

    At this point, I should introduce myself. I am author of a book titled “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” My theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption begins to decline. This occurs because, as people are forced to crowd together and conserve space, it becomes ever more impractical to own many products. Falling per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

    This theory has huge ramifications for U.S. policy toward population management (especially immigration policy) and trade. The implications for population policy may be obvious, but why trade? It’s because these effects of an excessive population density - rising unemployment and poverty - are actually imported when we attempt to engage in free trade in manufactured goods with a nation that is much more densely populated. Our economies combine. The work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force. But, while the more densely populated nation gets free access to a healthy market, all we get in return is access to a market emaciated by over-crowding and low per capita consumption. The result is an automatic, irreversible trade deficit and loss of jobs, tantamount to economic suicide.

    One need look no further than the U.S.’s trade data for proof of this effect. Using 2006 data, an in-depth analysis reveals that, of our top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods (the trade deficit divided by the population of the country in question), eighteen are with nations much more densely populated than our own. Even more revealing, if the nations of the world are divided equally around the median population density, the U.S. had a trade surplus in manufactured goods of $17 billion with the half of nations below the median population density. With the half above the median, we had a $480 billion deficit!

    Our trade deficit with China is getting all of the attention these days. But, when expressed in per capita terms, our deficit with China in manufactured goods is rather unremarkable - nineteenth on the list. Our per capita deficit with other nations such as Japan, Germany, Mexico, Korea and others (all much more densely populated than the U.S.) is worse. In fact, our largest per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods is with Ireland, a nation twice as densely populated as the U.S. Our per capita deficit with Ireland is twenty-five times worse than China’s. My point is not that our deficit with China isn’t a problem, but rather that it’s exactly what we should have expected when we suddenly applied a trade policy that was a proven failure around the world to a country with one sixth of the world’s population.

    Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage is overly simplistic and flawed because it does not take into consideration this population density effect and what happens when two nations grossly disparate in population density attempt to trade freely in manufactured goods. While free trade in natural resources and free trade in manufactured goods between nations of roughly equal population density is indeed beneficial, just as Ricardo predicts, it’s a sure-fire loser when attempting to trade freely in manufactured goods with a nation with an excessive population density.

    If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit my web site at OpenWindowPublishingCo.com where you can read the preface for free, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like. (It’s also available at Amazon.com.)

    Please forgive me for the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph, but I don’t know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about trade without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

    By Pete Murphy on Oct 14, 2008

Post a Comment