Grasping at Straws
On Friday morning, Senator Christopher Dodd, the head of the Senate Banking Committee, was interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Dodd revealed that just hours earlier at an emergency meeting convened by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, lawmakers were told that "We’re literally maybe days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system.” Dodd added somberly, that in his three decades of serving in public office, he had "never heard language like this.”
The system is at the breaking point, and despite Wall Street’s elation from the proposed $1 trillion dollar bailout to remove toxic mortgage-backed debt from banks balance sheets, the market is still correcting in what has become a vicious downward cycle. This cycle will persist until the bad debts are accounted for and written off for or until the exhausted dollar-system collapses altogether. Either way, the volatility and violent dislocations will continue for the foreseeable future.
Most people don’t understand what happened on Thursday, but the build-up of bad news on the Lehman default and the $85 billion government takeover of AIG, triggered a run on the money markets and a freeze in interbank lending. The overnight LIBOR rate (London Interbank Offered Rate) more than doubled to 6.44 per cent. Bank of America reported overnight borrowing rates in excess of 6 per cent. Longer-term LIBOR rates also rose sharply. On Wednesday, jittery investors removed their money from money markets and flooded short-term US Treasurys for the assurance of a government guarantee on their savings even though interest rates had turned negative which means that their balance would actually shrink at the date of maturity. This is unprecedented, but it does help to illustrate how raw fear can drive the market.
The TED spread (the TED Spread measures market stress by revealing the reluctance of banks to lend to each other) widened and the credit markets froze in place. Borrowing three-month dollars on the interbank market and the U.S. Treasury’s three-month borrowing costs widened five full percentage points. That’s huge. The banking system shut down.
What does it mean? It means the Federal Reserve has lost control of the system. The market is driving interest rates now, and the market is terrified. End of story.
When the Fed announced its emergency program to dump $180 billion into the global banking system, short term Libor retreated slightly but long-term rates have remained stubbornly high. The noose continues to tighten. These rates are pinned to 6 million US mortgages which will be resetting in the next few years. That’s more bad news for the housing industry.
The entire system is deleveraging with the ferocity of a Force-5 gale touching down in the Gulf, and yet, Henry Paulson has decided that the prudent thing to do is build levees around the system with paper dollars. Naturally, many people who understand the power of market-corrections are skeptical. It won’t work. Libor is pushing rates upwards–that’s the "true" cost of money. The Fed Funds rate (2 per cent) is supported by infusions of paper dollars into the banking system to keep interest rates artificially low. Now the extreme pace of deleveraging has the Fed on the ropes. Trillions of dollars of credit is being sucked into a black hole which is raising the price of money. It’s out of Bernanke’s control. He needs to step out of the way and let prices fall or the dollar system will vanish in a deflationary vacuum.
The problems cannot be resolved by shifting the debts of the banks onto the taxpayer. That’s an illusion. By adding another $1 or $2 trillion dollars to the National Debt, Paulson is just ensuring that interest rates will go up, real estate will crash, unemployment will soar, and foreign central banks will abandon the dollar. In truth, there is no fix for a deleveraging market anymore than there is a fix for gravity. The belief that massive debts and insolvency can be erased by increasing liquidity just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of economics. That’s why Henry Paulson is the worst possible person to be orchestrating the so called rescue project. Paulson comes from a business culture which rewards deception, personal acquisitiveness, and extreme risk-taking. Paulson is to finance capitalism what Rumsfeld is to military strategy. His leadership, and the congress’ pathetic abdication of responsibility, assures disaster. Besides, why should the taxpayers be happy that the stocks of Morgan Stanley, Washington Mutual and Goldman Sachs surged on the news that there would be a government bailout yesterday? These banks are essentially bankrupt and their business models are broken. Keeping insolvent banks on life support is not a rescue plan; it’s insanity.
No one has any idea of the magnitude of the deleveraging ahead or the size of the debts that will have to be written down. That’s because 30 years of deregulation has allowed a parallel financial system to arise in which over $500 trillion dollars in derivatives are traded without any government supervision or accounting. These counterparty transactions are interwoven throughout the entire "regulated" system in a way that poses a clear and present danger to the broader economy. It’s a mess. For example, there are an estimated $62 trillion of Credit Default Swaps (CDS) alone, which are basically insurance policies for defaulting bonds. AIG was as heavily involved in CDS as they were in regulated insurance products. So why would AIG sell CDS rather than conventional insurance?
Because, just like the banks, AIG could maximize its profits by minimizing its capital cushion. In other words, it didn’t really have the capital to pay off claims when its CDS contracts began to blow up. If it had been properly regulated, then government regulators would have made sure that it was sufficiently capitalized with adequate reserves to pay off claims in a down-market. Now taxpayers will pay for the lawless system which men like "industry rep" Henry Paulson put in place. That’s deregulation in a nutshell; a system that allows Wall Street banksters to create credit out of thin air and then run weeping to Congress when their swindles backfire.
Inflating the currency, printing more money, and increasing the deficits won’t help. The bad debts have to be accounted for and liquidated. The Paulson strategy is to create another ocean of red ink while refusing to face the underlying problem head-on. This just further exacerbates the consumer-led recession which economists know is already setting in everywhere across the country. Demand is down and consumer spending is off due to falling home equity, job losses, and tighter lending standards at the banks. The broader economy does not need the added downward pressure from higher taxes, bigger deficits, or inflation. Paulson’s plan is a band-aid approach to a sucking chest wound. The debts are enormous and the pain will be substantial, but the problem cannot be resolved by crushing the middle class or destroying the currency.
The malfunctioning of the markets and the freeze-over in the banking system are the outcome of a massive credit unwind instigated by trillions of dollars of low interest credit from the Federal Reserve which was magnified many times over via complex derivatives contracts and extreme leveraging by speculative investment bankers. This has generated the biggest equity bubble in history. That bubble is now set for a "hard-landing" which is the predictable result of an unsupervised marketplace where individual players are allowed to create as much credit as they choose.
MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org