Government Bonds, Deficits, Debt, Interest and Inflation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 16th, 2012

Economics 101

Unlike Corporate Borrowing, Government Borrowing does not Translate into Consumer Goods and Services

When corporations need large sums of money to finance their businesses they issue stocks and bonds.  Investors respond by buying their stocks and bonds.  By loaning the business their money they are investing into these businesses.  Giving them capital to create more things to sell.  Thus stimulating the economy.  Because this investment translates into more consumer goods and services.  That consumers will ultimately buy.

When they offer these goods and services at prices consumers will pay the business does well.  As do the consumers.  Who are able to use their money to buy stuff they want.  So consumers do well.  Corporations do well.  And the investors do well.  For a corporation doing well maintains the value of their investments.  Everyone wins.  Unlike when the government enters the bond market.  For when they do there are some winners and, unfortunately, some losers.

Governments issue bonds when they spend more money than they collect in taxes.  They borrow instead of raising taxes because they know raising taxes reduces economic activity.  Which they want to avoid.  Because less economic activity means less tax revenue.  Which would make the original problem worse.  So like a corporation they have a financing need.  Unlike a corporation, though, the money they borrow will not translate into more consumer goods and services.  They will spend it inefficiently.  Reward political friends.  But mostly they will just pay for past spending.  In mature countries deficits and debt have grown so large that some governments are even borrowing to pay the interest on their debt.

Investors like Government Bonds because Government has the Power to Tax

When the government sells bonds it raises the borrowing costs for businesses.  Because their corporate bonds have to compete with these government bonds.  Corporations, then, pay a higher interest rate on their bonds to attract investors away from the government bonds.  Interest is a cost of business.  Which they add to the sales price of their goods and services.  Meaning the consumer ultimately pays these higher interest costs.  Worse, if a corporation can’t get financing at a reasonable interest rate they may not borrow.  Which means they won’t grow their business.  Or create new jobs.

As government debt grows they sell more and more bonds.  Normally not a problem for investors.  Because investors like government bonds.  (What we call sovereign debt.  Because it is the debt of sovereign states.)  Because government has the power to tax.  So investors feel confident that they will get their interest payments.  And that they will get back their principal.  Because the government can always raise taxes to service this debt.  And raise further funds to redeem their bonds.

But there is a downside for investors.  Too much government debt makes them nervous.  Because there is something governments can do that businesses can’t.  Governments can print money.  And there is the fear that if a government’s debt is so great and they have to pay higher and higher interest rates on their sovereign debt to attract investors that they may just start printing money.  Inflate the money supply.  By printing money to pay investors.  Sounds good if you don’t understand the consequences of printing money.  But ‘inflating the money supply’ is another way of saying inflation.  Where you have more dollars chasing the same amount of goods and services.

When Corporations Fail and go Bankrupt they don’t Increase Consumer Prices or Cause Inflation

Think of it this way.  The existing value of all available goods and services equals the amount of money in circulation.  When you increase the money supply it doesn’t change the amount of goods and services in the economy.  But it still must equal the amount of money in circulation.  So the dollar must now be worth less.  Because more of them still add up to the same value of goods and services.  That is, by printing more money they depreciate the dollar.  Make it worth less.  And if the dollar is worth less it will take more of them to buy the same things.  Causing consumer prices to rise.

Worse, inflation reduces the value of bonds.  When they depreciate the dollar the money locked into these long-term investments shrink in value.  And when people get their money back they can’t buy as much with it as they could before they bought these long-term investments.  Meaning they lost purchasing power while the government had their money.  Which gives investors a negative return on their investment.  And if a person invested their retirement into these bonds they will have less purchasing power in their retirement.  Because a depreciated dollar shrinks their savings.  And increases consumer prices.  So retirees are especially hard hit by inflation.

So excessive government borrowing raises consumer prices.  By making corporations compete for investment capital.  And by causing inflation.  Whereas excessive corporate borrowing does not.  They either provide goods and services at prices consumers willingly pay.  Or they fail and go bankrupt.  Hurting no one but their private investors.  And their employees who lose their jobs.  Sad, but at least their failure does not increase consumer prices.  Or cause inflation.

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Stocks and Bonds

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 9th, 2012

Economics 101

When Companies grow their Capital Requirements grow beyond a Bank’s Lending Ability

We note a civilization as being modern when it has vigorous economic activity.  Advanced economies around the world all have the same things.  Grocery stores.  Clothing stores.  Electronic stores.  Appliance stores.  Coffee shops and restaurants.  Factories and manufacturing plants.  And lots and lots of jobs.  Where people are trading their human capital for a paycheck.  So they can take their earnings and engage in economic activity at these stores, coffee shops and restaurants.

To buy things off of shelves in these stores things have to be on those shelves first.  Which means selling things requires spending money before you earn money.  Businesses use trade credit.  Such as accounts payable.  Where a supplier will give them supplies and send them an invoice typically payable in 30-90 days.  They will establish a credit line at their bank.  Where they will borrow from when they need cash.  And will repay as they collect cash (such as when their customers pay their accounts payable).  And take out loans to finance specific things such as a delivery van or restaurant equipment.

Businesses depend on their bank for most of their credit needs.  But when companies grow so do their capital requirements.  Where capital is large amounts of money pooled together to purchase property, buildings, machinery, etc.  Amounts so great that it exceeds a bank’s ability to loan.  So these businesses have to turn to other types of financing.  To the equity and debt markets.

Investors Invest in Corporations by Buying their Stocks and Bonds

Equity and debt markets mean stocks and bonds.  Where we use stocks for equity financing.  And bonds for debt financing.  Stocks and bonds allow a corporation to spread their large financing needs over numerous people.  Investors.  Who invest in corporations by buying their stocks and bonds.

When a business ‘goes public’ they are selling stock in their company for the first time.  We call this the initial public offering (IPO).  If the company has a very promising future this will bring in a windfall of capital.  As investors are anxious to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing.  To be a part of the next Microsoft.  Or Apple.  This is when a lot of entrepreneurs get rich.  When they are in fact the next big thing.  And if they are, then people who bought stock in their IPO can sell it on the secondary market.  Where investors trade stocks with other investors.  By buying low and selling high.  Hopefully.  If they do they get rich.  Because the greater a company’s profits the greater its value and the higher its stock price.  And when a company takes off they can sell their stock at a much higher price than they paid for it in the IPO.

When a corporation needs to borrow more than their bank can loan and doesn’t want to issue new stock they can sell bonds.  Which breaks up a very large amount into smaller amounts that investors can buy.  Typically each individual corporate bond has a face value of $1000.  (So a ten million dollar ‘loan’ would consist of selling ten thousand $1,000 bonds).  Like a loan a corporation pays interest on their bonds.  But not to a bank.  They pay interest to the investors who purchased their bonds.  Who can hold the bonds to maturity and collect interest.  Or they can trade them like stock shares.  (Changes in the interest rates and/or corporate financial strength can change the market value of these bonds.)  When a bond reaches maturity (say in 20 years) the company redeems their bonds from the current bondholders.  Hopefully with the new profits the bond issue helped to bring into the corporation.  Or they just issue new bonds to raise the money to redeem the older bonds.

A Company Usually has a Mix of Equity and Debt Financing that Balances all the Pros and Cons of Each

There are pros and cons to both equity and debt financing.  Selling stock transfers ownership of the company.  Sell enough so that someone can own more than 50% and that someone can replace the board of directors.  Who in turn can replace the CEO and the other corporate officers.  Even the business founder.  This is the big drawback of going public.  Founders can lose control of their company.

Stocks don’t pay interest.  So they are less threatening during bad economic times.  As business owners, stock shareholders are there for the long haul.  During the good times they may expect to collect dividends (like an interest payment).  During bad times they will wait it out while the company suspends dividend payments.  Or, if they lose confidence, they’ll try and sell their stock.  Even at a loss.  To prevent a future greater loss.  Especially if the corporation goes bankrupt.  Because stockholders are last in line during any bankruptcy proceedings.  And usually by the time they pay off creditors there is nothing left for the shareholders.  This is the price for the chance to earn big profits.  The possibility to lose everything they’ve invested.

Bonds are different.  First of all, there is no transfer of ownership.  But there is a contractual obligation to make scheduled interest payments.  And if they fail to make these payments the bondholders can force the company into bankruptcy proceedings.  Where a corporation’s assets can be liquidated to pay their creditors.  Including their bondholders.  Which, of course, often means the end of the corporation.  Or a major restructuring that few in management enjoy.

Stockholders don’t like seeing their share value diluted from issuing too many shares.  Bondholders don’t like to see excessive debt that threatens the corporation’s ability to service their debt.  So a company usually has a mix of equity and debt financing that balances the pros and cons of each.  A financing strategy that has been working for centuries.  That allows the advanced civilized world we take all too much for granted today.  From jetliners.  To smartphones.  To that new car smell.  For none of these would be possible without the capital that only the equity and debt markets can raise.

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The Eurozone Contagion Spawned in Spain, Greece and Italy has Infected French Banks

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 11th, 2011

Week in Review

Here is how a contagion spreads (see Moody’s downgrades top three French banks posted 12/9/2011 on UPI).

Credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service lowered credit scores for three of the largest banks in France Friday…

The rating service said it was concerned the conditions in Spain, Greece and Italy could deteriorate further, which would mean the French banks would suffer deeper losses on the government bonds they hold.

The whole point of the Eurozone is to replicate the massive free trade economy of the United States.  And it’s been somewhat successful.  The economy of the united states of Europe has matched and even exceeded the economic output of the United States.  But some of the member states cheated to get into the common currency.  The Euro.  By lying about their true debt levels.  And their deficits.  These states are now in trouble.  The costs of their welfare states grow.  Which requires more government borrowing.  And these continuous and growing deficits add to that massive debt.

There comes a point when people doubt whether these states will be able to repay their debt.  And that’s what private investors are now thinking.  So they’re not buying anymore of their debt.  Unless they make it worth their while.  With very high interest rates.  Which increases the cost to service the debt.  In fact their borrowing costs have grown so great that they have to borrow money to pay the interest on the money they borrow.

Of course, this makes it even more doubtful that these countries will be able to repay this debt.  Which scares away more private investors.  Despite those high interest rates.  And threatens the solvency of these countries.  And the common currency itself.  The Euro.  And if the Euro goes so does the Eurozone.  Including the economic powerhouse of the united states of Europe with it.

So other countries of the Eurozone step in and buy these worthless bonds.  To try and save the Euro.  And their own economies.  Now the financial problems of Greece, Spain and Italy are now everyone’s financial problems.  Because of those worthless bonds sitting on the balance sheets of healthier banks.  Which are not quite so healthy anymore.  Because of their exposure to this contagion.

It’s a dangerous game they play.  To save the Eurozone they have to infect themselves with the contagion.  And hope that they are financially immune enough to live through this sickness.  But they are teetering on the brink with their own massive debt.  Their own massive welfare states growing their deficits.  Which will be a problem.  For they refuse to take the same medicine Greece, Spain and Italy are refusing to take.  Austerity.  So the chances are pretty good that they will fall to the contagion, too.  As it continues to spread and infect everyone in the Eurozone.  Until there will be no Eurozone.  Or a united states of Europe.

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Our Keynesian Mess isn’t as Bad as Europe’s Keynesian mess

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 26th, 2011

Week in Review

As the Keynesian policies fail the Keynesians circle the wagons (see Treasury potatoes posted 11/22/2011 on The Economist).

TREASURY bond yields fell today as the supercommittee failed to agree on a deficit reduction plan. Paul Krugman says this means the market can’t be worried about long-term deficits. More likely, they are worried about near-term austerity (since the supercommittee’s failure makes an extension of the payroll tax cut less likely). Ezra Klein makes a similar point here about the stock market’s drop.

I don’t really know why bond yields fell today, though I’d guess it has more to do with what’s going on in Europe than America. Still, I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that fears of deficits and default lead to lower, not higher, bond yields. In a liquidity trap, government bonds behave increasingly like money and will reflect not just the usual drivers of expected inflation and deficits, but the demand for liquidity and safety…

The Keynesian economists are wrong.  As usual.  So why do investors keep buying American bonds even after S&P downgrades their credit rating?  And when the supercommittee punts?  Much like the full House did?  The Keynesians say it’s not the debt or the deficit that scares them.  It’s that government may stop spending recklessly.  That’s what a Keynesian thinks an investor fears most.  The goofballs that they are.

Here’s a thought.  Could Keynesian economics have failed so grandly in the Eurozone that by comparison our Keynesian failures here look less risky?

If we keep spending like we are we will end up like Greece.  Italy.  And all of the other Eurozone countries that are desperately trying to avoid bankruptcy.  Note the key is ‘will end up like’.  Meaning that we haven’t.  Yet.  Which is why American bonds are more attractive than these others.  Because our Keynesian mess isn’t as bad as their Keynesian messes.  Yet.

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Big Trouble for the Euro as Massive Greek Debt may be too much for the German People to Endure

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 11th, 2011

Loans aren’t Gifts, you have to Pay them Back

Tax. Borrow. Print. And spend. The social democracies of Europe have been doing it for years. Thanks to central banking. And fiat money. And a little of John Maynard Keynes. You can keep interest rates artificially low. Deficit spend at will. Sell bonds forever and ever. And even print money. That’s Keynesian economics. Liberal Democrats in America were so enamored with the Europeans that they followed their example. And with government having the power to monetize debt, what could go wrong?

Apparently, a lot. Standard and Poor’s just downgraded U.S. sovereign debt. Citing high debt. And growing deficits. Leading them to believe that the U.S. may have trouble paying back what they’ve borrowed. Saying the U.S. government was living beyond their means. Just because they were spending more money than they had.

You mean we can’t do whatever we want? That’s right. You can’t. Because debt has consequences. You can’t keep borrowing more every year. Because people loan money (i.e., buy bonds) expecting you to pay back that loan. Yeah, I know. Crazy talk. But true nevertheless. Loans aren’t gifts. You have to pay them back.

The Root Problem within the Eurozone is Excessive Government Spending, Deficits and Debt

The U.S. has some financial problems. Record deficits. And record debt. Used to finance ever growing government spending. Yes, things may be bad in America, but they pale in comparison to the problems they have in the Eurozone (see German Dissent Magnifies Uncertainty in Europe by Liz Alderman posted 9/11/2011 on The New York Times).

Despite repeated pledges by Chancellor Angela Merkel to keep Europe together, the cacophony of dissent within her country is becoming almost deafening. That is casting fresh doubt — whether justified or not — over the nation’s commitment to the euro.

“The German electorate is not in the mind-set to undertake actions it sees as subsidizing less worthy nations,” said Carl Weinberg, the chief economist of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y. “As a result, the government is moving in a very isolationist way to try to establish a fortress Germany that’s economically secure despite the risks in its European Union partners.”

This weekend, Der Spiegel reported that the German government was starting to prepare for a Greek insolvency and was devising various responses to handle a potential default, including allowing Greece to abandon the euro and return to the drachma. The government in Berlin would not comment, but such reports only add to the doubts bedeviling the euro monetary union.

The root problem within the Eurozone is excessive government spending, deficits and debt. Especially in Greece. Where they’ve borrowed heavily to pay for a very generous public sector. And state benefits.

There were strict requirements to join the monetary union. To change their currency to the Euro. The Euro Convergence Criteria required an annual government deficit of 3% of GDP. Or less. And total debt of 60% of GDP. Or less. Deficit and debt above these limits endangered a nation’s financial stability. And the common currency. The Euro. Which would spread one country’s irresponsible ways to the other countries in the Eurozone.

And that’s exactly what happened. Greece ‘fudged’ their numbers. So while they passed themselves off as fiscally responsible they were anything but. Their deficit and debt far exceeded the Euro Convergence Criteria. And when the global financial crisis of 2008 hit, it hit Greece hard. A couple of years later, with their economy depressed, S&P downgraded their sovereign debt. Increasing their borrowing costs. Which they couldn’t afford. So they had to turn to the international community for help. And it came. With a price. Austerity. Which the Greek people didn’t like.

Because of the common currency, Greece’s problems were now Germany’s problems. Because they were the strongest economy in the union. And the German people are growing tired of picking up the tab for Greece. And they’re not alone.

Finland, the Netherlands and Austria have all spoken with dissonant voices on the Greek bailout, revealing deep divisions among Europe’s strongest countries about how far they should go to save their weaker neighbors.

Continued fears over the state of European banks, and French ones in particular, have also roiled financial markets, especially after Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned that European banks needed substantial additional capital.

Meanwhile, fears over Greece are only likely to intensify this week, after Mrs. Merkel’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, warned that Germany, for one, would not approve new financial assistance to help Athens continue to pay its bills through Christmas unless the Greek government fulfilled the conditions of its first bailout.

Can you blame them? Would you want to loan more money to a family member that continues to spend beyond their means? People want to help others. But they don’t want to finance the irresponsible ways that caused their problems in the first place. Austerity isn’t fun. But others are doing it. As they try to adjust their budgets to live within their means.

Outside of Greece, some things have improved, if only haltingly. Italy’s lower house of Parliament is expected to approve a tough new fiscal package in coming days.

France, Portugal and Spain are adopting measures to make it easier to balance budgets, moves intended to reassure investors about their commitments to fiscal prudence.

Which is not helping Mrs. Merkel. For if she continues to try and save the Euro her party may lose power.

Still, Mrs. Merkel must contend with a stark divide between her support for European unity and a German public that sees no reason, in the majority’s view, to pour good money after bad into the indebted countries of southern Europe. Her Christian Democrat Party has now lost five local elections this year. Yet even as many Germans complain bitterly about their southern neighbors, few in business and politics are ready to let the euro zone fall apart.

After all, if the weakest countries were to revert to their original currencies, a German-dominated euro would soar as investors flocked to it as a haven, devastating the business of exporters who have relied on its stability and relatively affordable level against other major currencies.

Then again, if she doesn’t save the Euro, her export economy may tank. A weak Greece is helping to keep the Euro undervalued. And you know what an undervalued currency does. It makes your exports cheap.

Any American who vacationed in Canada understands this well. Back when the U.S. dollar was strong, it was nice crossing into Canada. When you exchanged your strong American dollars for Canadian dollars, you got a lot more Canadian dollars back. In other words, the American dollar bought more in Canada than in the U.S. So people took their vacations in Canada. Which made the Canadian tourism industry boom.

This is the value of a weak currency. When your currency is weak, goods and services in your country, or goods exported out of your country, are cheaper. And the weaker nations in the Eurozone are keeping the Euro undervalued. And German exports strong. But it comes with a price. The taxpayers are basically subsidizing the export industry. By subsidizing the Greece bailout.

In other words, the Germans are damned if they do. And damned if they don’t.

The More the Debt the More the Crisis, the Less the Debt the Less the Crisis

Governments embrace Keynesian economics because it gives them power. It facilities their deficit spending. Legitimizes it. They and their Keynesian economists will dismiss growing debts. Because they’re no big deal. You see, their policy of continuous inflation shrinks that debt in real terms. In other words, as you devalue the currency, old debts are worth less. And easier to repay years later.

But there’s a catch. You need a growing GDP for this to work. When the economy stagnates, tax revenues fall. And if those debts are too big you just may not be able to service those debts. And you know what can happen? Greece. So too much debt can be a bad thing.

And it’s a dangerous game to play. Because as that debt grows so must taxes to service that debt. So they increase tax rates. But higher tax rates work against growing GDP. Flat or falling GDP means less tax dollars. Which leads to more borrowing. So the solution to the problem is more of what caused the problem. Which makes the original problem bigger. It’s a vicious cycle. Until the cycle ends in a credit downgrade. And financial crisis.

Keynesians can say what they want. But one thing they can’t deny is this. If these countries had no debt then they would have no financial crisis. Some countries have less debt and are not in crisis. While the countries in crisis have excessive debt. See the pattern? The more the debt the more the crisis. The less the debt the less the crisis.

Even Keynesians can’t deny this. Then again, Keynesians could. For they do live in denial.

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Obama Threatens Seniors and Veterans if he doesn’t get his Way in the Budget Debate to Raise the Debt Limit

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 13th, 2011

Hypocrisy is a Two Way Street

Arguing over debt limits is nothing new.  Neither is the hypocrisy.  It’s not about doing the right thing.  It’s about politics.  Always has been (see Debt Crisis Déjà Vu by Howard Kurtz posted 7/12/2011 on The Daily Beast). 

Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad is losing patience with arguments for raising the debt ceiling.

“The question is: Are we staying on this course to keep running up the debt, debt on top of debt, increasingly financed by foreigners, or are we going to change course?” he asked.

But Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley says there is no alternative, with lawmakers facing “a choice between breaking the law by exceeding the statutory debt limit or, on the other hand, breaking faith with the public by defaulting on our debt…”

“To pay our bills,” said John Kerry, who had just lost his presidential bid, “America now goes cup in hand to nations like China, Korea, Taiwan, and Caribbean banking centers. Those issues didn’t go away on Nov. 3, no matter what the results.”

And always will be.  Parties typically stand by their president.  As the Republicans stood with George W. Bush in 2006.  Who then made the same arguments that the Democrats are making now.  And the Democrats are making the same arguments now that the Republicans made then.  Nothing ever changes.  Just their principles change to suit the politics.

In fact, every Senate Democrat—including Barack Obama and Joe Biden—voted against boosting the debt ceiling, while all but two Senate Republicans voted in favor. It was Bush’s fourth debt-ceiling hike in five years, for a total of $3 trillion.

Eric Cantor and John Boehner voted then to raise the ceiling, and on other occasions during the Bush administration; now they’re leading the opposition. Obama, who warned Tuesday in a CBS interview that he can’t guarantee Social Security checks will go out after the August 2 deadline, has said his 2006 vote was a mistake.

Obama and Biden were against raising the debt limit then because it was fiscally irresponsible.  They’re for it now.  Even though the debt is higher.  And more fiscally irresponsible.

Obama said his 2006 vote was wrong?  I guess we can forgive him being that he was young and inexperienced coming into the U.S. Senate.  Of course, he was even more young and inexperienced as far presidents are concerned.  So perhaps his policy is wrong, too, like that 2006 vote.  The stimulus.  The auto bailout.  The Wall Street bailout.  All that Keynesian tax and spend.  Perhaps when he grows up and learns from experience he will be saying he was ‘wrong’ a lot more often.

Monetary Policy fails to Eliminate the Business Cycle

And speaking of all that Keynesian policy, how has it worked?  (see Bernanke: Fed May Launch New Round of Stimulus by Jeff Cox posted 7/13/2011 on CNBC). 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress Wednesday that a new stimulus program is in the works that will entail additional asset purchases, the clearest indication yet that the central bank is contemplating another round of monetary easing…

Markets reacted immediately to the remarks, sending stocks up sharply in a matter of minutes. Gold prices continued to surge past record levels, while Treasury yields moved higher as well.

It hasn’t been working.  But never say die.  Just because QE1 and QE2 failed it doesn’t necessarily mean QE3 will fail.  But it will.  And it will further depreciate the U.S. dollar.  Which is why gold prices and Treasury yields are up.  They’re priced in dollars.  So when you make the dollar smaller, you need more of them to buy things priced in dollars.

The Fed recently completed the second leg of its quantitative easing program, buying $600 billion worth of Treasurys in an effort to boost liquidity and get investors to purchase riskier assets…

“The possibility remains that the recent economic weakness may prove more persistent than expected and that deflationary risks might reemerge, implying a need for additional policy support,” Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee on the first of two days of Capitol Hill testimony.

Bernanke also said it was possible that inflationary pressures spurred by higher energy and food prices may end up being more persistent than the Fed anticipates.

So the Fed is looking at policy to fight both inflation and deflation.  Interesting.  Because you use monetary policy to fight one with the other.

This is the Business Cycle that Keynesian economics purportedly did away with.  As inflation starts rising you contract the money supply via higher interest rates.  As deflation reduces asset value you lower interest rates to stimulate borrowing and asset buying.  There’s only one problem to this Keynesian economics theory.  It doesn’t work.

Playing with interest rates to stimulate borrowing does stimulate borrowing.  People take advantage of low rates, take out loans and buy assets.  Like houses.  In fact, there is such a boon in the housing market from all this stimulated borrowing that house prices are bid up.  Into a bubble.  That eventually pops.  And a period of deflation sets in to correct the artificially high housing prices resulting from artificially low interest rates.

The Dollar Loses against the Embattled Euro

So how bad is the depreciation of the dollar (see Bernanke says more support possible if economy weakens posted 7/13/2011 on the BBC)? 

The dollar extended earlier losses against the euro following Mr Bernanke’s comments, with the euro rising more than a cent to $1.4088.

The Eurozone is teetering on collapse with the Greek crisis.  Especially if their problems spread to the larger economies of Italy and Spain.  Further pressuring the Euro.  The Euro had been falling against the dollar.  It’s not anymore.  Not because the Euro is getting stronger.  But because the dollar is getting weaker.

Tax, Borrow, Print and Spend Keynesians love to Spend Money

And the safe haven from a falling dollar?  Gold (see Gold hits record high on Bernanke, euro worries by Frank Tang posted 7/13/2011 on Reuters).

Gold surged to a record above $1,580 an ounce on Wednesday as the possibility of more Federal Reserve stimulus coupled with Europe’s deepening debt crisis gave bullion its longest winning streak in five years…

Gold benefits from additional U.S. monetary easing because such a move would likely weaken the dollar and stir inflation down the road.

“The worst thing for gold would be to have the economy doing well enough that the Federal Reserve starts to normalize monetary policy, or conditions in the European Community begin to settle down,” said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott, a broker/dealer with $54 billion in assets.

That’s right.  Gold loves bad monetary policy.  And it loves Keynesian economics.  Because the weaker the dollar gets the more expensive gold gets in U.S. dollars.  Gold says, “Print on, Chairman Bernanke.  Keep printing those dollars.  I’ve never felt so alive and powerful.”

Gold is a tangible asset.  Dollars are just pieces of paper.  Gold gets more valuable during periods of inflation because you can’t print gold.  That’s why Keynesian governments refuse to reinstitute the gold standard.  Because having the power to print dollars lets them spend more money than they have.  And tax, borrow, print and spend Keynesians love to spend money.

Democrats Screwing Seniors and Veterans to get their Way

One government advantage of printing money is reducing the value of dollar-priced assets.  Such as government debt.  Economists call it monetizing the debt.  By making the treasuries and bonds people invest their retirement in worth less, it costs less to redeem them.  This is bad for retirees who have to live their retirement on less.  But screwing retirees helps the government to spend more.

Despite this the debt is at a record level.  They still need to borrow more.  Screwing retirees just isn’t paying the bills anymore.  So President Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans have been bitterly arguing about raising the debt limit.  But making little progress (see Obama walks out of tense debt meeting: aide by Andy Sullivan, Reuters, posted 7/13/2011 on the Chicago Tribune).

President Barack Obama abruptly ended a tense budget meeting on Wednesday with Republican leaders by walking out of the room, a Republican aide familiar with the talks said.

The aide said the session, the fourth in a row, was the most tense of the week as House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, dismissed spending cuts offered by the White House as “gimmicks and accounting tricks.”

Gimmicks and accounting tricks are all the Democrats want to offer.  Because they just don’t want to cut back on spending.  It’s not who they are.  Big Government tax, borrow, print and spend Keynesians who love to spend money (see Eric Cantor: Obama abruptly walked out of debt meeting by Jonathan Allen posted 7/13/2011 on Politico).

President Barack Obama abruptly walked out of a debt-limit meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday, throwing into serious doubt the already shaky debt limit negotiations, according to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and a second GOP source.

Cantor said the president became “agitated” and warned the Virginia Republican not to “call my bluff” when Cantor said he would consider a short-term debt-limit hike. The meeting “ended with the president abruptly walking out of the meeting,” Cantor told reporters in the Capitol.

That bluff would be, off course, not printing Social Security checks or paying the military.  The Education Department will probably get paid.  But seniors will get screwed.  As those serving in the military.  And veterans.  Because when all else fails, take hostages.  Threaten their wellbeing unless you get what you want.

The Democrats believe it’s all their Money

Why is there such a divide between the Republicans and the Democrats?  It’s because of their underlying philosophies.  Republicans believe that this is a nation of ‘we the people’.  Whereas Democrats believe it’s a nation of ‘we the government’ (see We have a taxing problem, not just a spending problem by Ezra Klein posted 7/12/2011 on The Washington Post). 

The Bush tax cuts were not supposed to last forever. Alan Greenspan, whose oracular endorsement was perhaps the single most decisive event in their passage, made it very clear that they were a temporary solution to a temporary surplus. “Recent data significantly raise the probability that sufficient resources will be available to undertake both debt reduction and surplus-lowering policy initiatives,” Greenspan said in 2001.

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t so clear. But everyone knew what he meant. And, broadly speaking, they agreed. We had a big surplus. It was time to do something with it. Brad DeLong, a former Clinton administration official and an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, didn’t want to see the surplus spent on tax cuts. He wanted to see it spent on public investments. “Nevertheless,” he wrote in 2001, “it is hard to disagree with Greenspan’s position that — if our future economic growth is as bright as appears likely— it will be time by the middle of this decade to do something to drastically cut the government’s surpluses.”

The Democrats believe it’s all their money.  Any money they let us keep is ‘government spending’ in their world.  That’s why they call all ‘tax cuts’ government spending.  And not simply returning money to its rightful owners.

But the Republican Party refuses to let any of them expire. And forget admitting that tax cuts meant for surpluses don’t make sense during deficits; they refuse to admit that tax cuts have anything to do with deficits at all.

It’s this belief that stands in the way of a debt deal. “We have a spending problem, not a taxing problem,” Republicans say. If the federal government defaults on Aug. 2, that sentence will be to blame. What a shame, then, that the sentence is entirely, obviously, wrong.

Obviously?  What is obvious is that this person ignores the economic prosperity caused by JFK‘s tax cuts.  Ronald Reagan‘s tax cuts.  And George W. Bush’s tax cuts.  Tax cuts stimulate economic activity.  More economic activity means more tax dollars flowing into Washington.  As history has proven.  And yet the economically naive hang on to Keynesian theories despite their history of failure.  Because they think they are oh so smart.  When in reality they’re not.  Just lemmings unquestioningly following the party line.

The Democrats favor unlimited Taxing, Borrowing and Printing

The budget debate over raising the debt ceiling is not a financial debate.  It’s a political debate.  Currently, the politics have the Republicans opposing the increase.  And the Democrats favoring it.  This is actually more in line with their underlying philosophies.  Democrats believe it’s all their money and they want to keep more.  The Republicans believe the money belongs to the people who earned it and are trying to let them keep more of it.  So you would expect the Democrats to be in favor of unlimited taxing, borrowing and printing.  And Republicans in favor of less taxing, borrowing and printing.  Which is the case in the current budget debate.

The question now is who will blink first?  The Republicans fearing another 1995 government shutdown?  Or the Democrats who are doing the preponderance of bluffing?  (There’s almost $200 billion in cash coming into Washington each month.  If they don’t pay seniors and veterans, people will want to know who they felt was important enough to pay.)

The stakes have never been higher.  What happens in the current debate could very well determine the outcome of the 2012 election.  Oh, and the future of America.

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Continued Bad Economic Data sends Investors to Safe Harbors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 10th, 2011

Times are Good when the Junk Market is Good

Junk bonds were big in the Eighties.  During the great economic boom courtesy of Ronal Reagan.  Lower tax rates.  Fewer regulations.  It was a time for entrepreneurs to take chances.  And they did.  Some took some really big chances.  They were thinking way outside the box.  In new technologies.  So there weren’t a lot of people lining up to finance their risky ideas.  Because they were too risky for most.  That’s where junk comes in.  A junk bond is a high yield bond.  It pays a high interest rate.  Because there is a very good chance the bond issuer may fail.  Making those bonds worthless.  So to attract capital to fund these risky ideas required a larger return on investment.  And the junk bond market was the place to go.

A lot of things happened that wouldn’t have had it not been for junk.  MCI Communications is a junk bond success story.  The Chrysler bailout in the Eighties was another.  Even Ted Turner owes the success of Turner Broadcasting to junk.  Yes, there were a lot of failures.  But that’s what makes junk so enticing.  You get a high return for that high risk.  A lot of entrepreneurs became millionaires.  And a lot of rich investors got richer.  So when the junk market is doing well, people are taking chances.  Taking risks.  Creating things.  New technologies.  And jobs.  Growing the economy.  But when the junk market isn’t doing well, few are taking risks.  Few are creating jobs.  And the economy isn’t growing.  Or won’t be growing.  For if the economic outlook is bleak, investors look for safe harbors for their cash.  Until a more favorable business/investing climate returns (see Junk bonds hit a speed bump by Ben Rooney posted 6/10/2011 on CNNMoney).

Investors had been flocking to corporate “junk” bonds since the early months of 2009 amid a broad flight to risky assets because of the high yields that come along with that risk. But demand for those bonds has tapered off in the last few weeks following a spate of lousy economic news.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in market,” said Jody Lurie, corporate credit analyst at Janney Capital Markets. “We’ve had a lot of bad news in the last few weeks and that’s making people hesitant.”

Business owners as well as investors hate uncertainty.  And there’s a lot of that these days.  Suffice it to say the Obama administration is not the most business-friendly administration.  Unless you’re a crony of the administration.  But few small business owners and entrepreneurs can afford what it takes to be a crony capitalist.  Because special favors don’t come cheap.  And there’s that ugly recession that just won’t end.  Few want to invest and create jobs when so many are unemployed and are unable to buy things.

“This market is extremely expensive,” [William Larkin, a bond portfolio manager at Cabot Money Management] said. “I’m afraid that we could get some hot inflation data on top of the prices,” he added. And that could leave bondholders with a negative return.

Inflation is another reason why the junk bond market is losing its appeal.  The value of a bond lies in the difference between your bond interest rate and the prevailing interest rate on the street.  Inflation increases interest rates.  So as inflation increases, that premium you had over the interest rates of ‘safe’ investments decreases.  Making the return on your junk more similar to ‘safe’ investments.  Only you still carry that high risk of your bonds becoming worthless.  If inflation pushes interest rates over your bond interest rate, you lose money.  Because your high-risk bonds pay less than safer investments like government treasury bonds.  So a bad economic outlook and/or inflation worries will make people run away from junk bonds to something safer.

A Six Week Losing Streak

In fact, when bad economic news comes out that says we’ll have more recession before we have any economic recovery, junk bond holders aren’t the only ones looking for safer investments.  Investors also flee the stock market.  Especially when the stock market is setting near-record losing streaks (see At noon: Dow surrenders 12,000 by David Berman posted 6/10/2011 The Globe and Mail).

The Dow was recently spotted at 11,980.78, down about 144 points or 1.2 per cent, marking its lowest level since March amid ongoing concerns about the health of the U.S. economy…

With Friday’s decline, U.S. indexes are well on their way to posting their sixth consecutive losing week – a losing streak noted by Bloomberg as the worst string of down weeks since 2002…

Meanwhile, investors have been diving into the safety of bonds. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond recently dipped below 3 per cent as bond prices (which move in the opposite direction to yields) have risen to their highest levels since early December.

And this despite the possibility of a U.S. default after reaching their legal debt limit.  Everyone in the administration is predicting doom and gloom about a U.S. default.  Apparently the investors are more frightened by the horrible economy, high unemployment numbers and a recession that never ends.

Time to call the Recession a Depression?

Of course, this recession will end.  There hasn’t been one that hasn’t yet.  They’re usually over anywhere from 6 months to a year or so.  That’s usually sufficient for the market to correct.  But it may take a little longer this time (see U.S. Will Trail Global Growth for Decade: Fink by Sree Vidya Bhaktavatsalam and Charles Stein posted 6/10/2011 on Bloomberg).

BlackRock Inc. (BLK)’s Laurence D. Fink, chief executive officer of the world’s biggest asset manager, said the U.S. will trail the global economy for much of the next decade.

The U.S. economy will grow 2 percent to 3 percent for the next five to 10 years, lagging behind global growth of 3 percent to 5 percent, Fink said today in a Bloomberg Television interview with Erik Schatzker from the Morningstar conference in Chicago. ..

A series of reports suggests the world’s largest economy is decelerating. Manufacturing grew at its slowest pace in more than a year in May, consumer spending rose less than forecast in April, and the unemployment rate unexpectedly climbed to 9.1 percent in May.

You know, after 10 years I don’t think you call it a recession anymore.  I think you start calling it a depression.

Where’s a Good World War when you Need One?

The last time we had a depression as bad as this there was a Big Government president in the White House.  He spent money like there was no tomorrow.  And none of it helped.  Every New Deal program was a failure.  They didn’t put people back to work in the private sector.  You know what did?  World War II.  It wasn’t FDR that ended the Great Depression.  It was Adolf Hitler.  Because someone had to build all that war material to defeat him.  And that someone was us. 

Things are different today, though.  There is no villain to come to Obama’s rescue.  It will be up to him alone to make his policies more business friendly.  Or his successor in 2012.

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No FDR Economic Recovery for Obama, Just Continued Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 3rd, 2011

Double-Dip Recession or just one Long Recession?

The Great Recession ended in July of 2009.  According to the economists.  And the Obama administration.  The U.S. unemployment rate at that time was 9.4%.  After the recession ended, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.1%.  And stayed at about 10% for the rest of the year.  A year later, it tumbled all the way down to 9.4%.  And kept falling.  All the way down to 9%.  Until last month (see U.S. unemployment rate up in May by CBC News posted 6/3/2011 on CBC News).

Employment rose by only 54,000 jobs in May, raising the unemployment rate to 9.1 per cent, the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics reported Friday.

The April rate was nine per cent.

The May report said 13.9 million Americans are officially unemployed, and another 8.5 million (sometimes called involuntary part-time workers) are working fewer hours than they want. Those people are working part-time because their hours had been cut back or because they couldn’t find a full-time job.

That’s right, it went back up.  There’s talk about a double-dip recession.  But with these unemployment rates holding so high for so many years?  From before the recession ended, to when the recession ended and to almost 2 years after it ended, I got to tell you.  I don’t think it ever ended.  These are record unemployment rates.  The kind of rates that typically only happen during the worst of recessions.

But it’s worse than this number shows.  There are another 8.5 million underemployed because they can’t find a full time job.  Add them in and the rate jumps to 15.8%.  This is a more accurate number.  It tells us the percentage of people who can’t find a full time job.  It’s bad out there.  Real bad. 

Small Business not Hiring but Cutting Workers

And it gets worse.  The job engine of America, small business, isn’t hiring either.  Worse, they’re planning to let people go (see NFIB: Small Business Hiring Stalls in May by Reuters posted 6/3/2011 on FOX Small Business).

Hiring by small businesses stalled in May and there was a small increase in the number of employers planning to cut their workforces, a survey showed in Thursday, another signal the labor market has lost steam.

The National Federation of Independent Business said its survey of 733 small businesses found that the average number of net new jobs slipped to 0.01 per firm from 0.04 in April…

“There were fewer increases and more reports of shrinkage in workforces, with 10% increasing employment an average of 3.2 employees per firm and 13% reducing employment an average of 3.1 employees, seasonally adjusted,” the NFIB said.

Of course small business isn’t hiring because they’re small business.  With small budgets.  And small margins.  Inflation hits them hard.  As well as their customers.  Prices go up everywhere.  Customers buy less.  And businesses pay more in costs.  Putting incredible pressures on their margins.  And those lucky enough to have business don’t dare hire anyone.  Because they have no idea what new law or regulation will come out of Washington next. 

The Obamacare legislation is about a thousand pages long.  And confusing as hell.  Business owners do know that it will be costly (evidenced by the request for waivers).  And that’s only for what they already know is in it.  They’re terrified for what they don’t know is in it.  Or what other surprises Washington will drop on them next.  This is not a good time for anyone operating under small margins.  Or a good time to hire people.

Stocks Tumble, Investors Retreat to Bond Market despite Fears about Technical Default

The numbers are so bad that investors are running from the stock market back into the safe haven of bonds (see Stocks fall after weak jobs report by Daniel Wagner, Associated Press, posted 6/3/2011 on USA Today).

Stocks around the globe dropped Friday after a weak report on U.S. employment worsened concerns that the economic recovery is losing steam…

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 3.00% from 3.03% late Thursday as investors rushed into the safety of government bonds. Yields fall as bond prices rise…

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, a benchmark for many kinds of business and consumer borrowing, dipped below the psychologically important level of 3% during Wednesday’s broad stock sell-off.

It would appear these investors aren’t all that worried about a technical default if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling.  They have more pressing concerns on their mind.  Such as the horrible unemployment numbers.  And an economy in recession.  For all the doom and gloom about what will happen in a technical default pales next to what is happening in the economy. 

With no Adolf Hitler there will be no FDR Economic Recovery

For those of you too young to know what it was like during the Great Depression, and I’m guessing that’s all of you, here’s your chance to relive some history.  Now, contrary to popular belief, FDR did not end the Great Depression.  All that Keynesian spending did nothing.  All those government make-work New Deal programs did nothing.  No.  One man ended the Great Depression.  And it wasn’t FDR.  It was Adolf Hitler.

Hitler plunged the world into war.  Caught most people with their pants down.  While he built a modern war machine few other nations did.  Other than the Japanese.  So the world had to play catch up.  Build ships, planes, rifles, artillery, ammunition, trucks, jeeps, etc.  And the nations that really needed these things were under attack.  Which left only one economy that was untouched by war.  Which also happened to be the world’s largest economy.  The United States.

The FDR administration told American industry they could do what they do best.  And they would get out of the way.  They let them make a profit.  Whatever they wanted.  As long as they delivered the impossible.  Which they did.  We called it the Arsenal of Democracy.  The war production was incredible.  Factories worked around the clock.  And built so much war material that the Nazis and Japanese didn’t have a chance.  The Allies could easily replace their material losses.  They couldn’t.  And the factories kept humming after the war.  For another decade or so.  Until the war-devastated economies rebuilt themselves.

So Obama and FDR have a lot in common.  Failed economic policies.  And ongoing war.  The only difference is that today’s war is unconventional.  There isn’t an enemy out there with a massive army conquering our friends and allies.  It’s more guerilla war.  Hit and run.  And terrorist attacks.  Which the U.S. is leading the fight against.  And the funding for.  So Obama can’t enjoy an FDR recovery.  Our friends and allies aren’t picking up this war tab.  Which means the economy will continue to limp along.  As it has been.  Since 2008.   A lot like FDR’s Great Depression.  Only without the economic recovery.  Which Hitler gifted FDR.  By giving us World War II.

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LESSONS LEARNED #24: “You cannot lobby a politician unless he or she is for sale.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 29th, 2010

BUILDING A RAILROAD ain’t cheap.  It needs dump trucks of money.  Especially if it’s transcontinental.  And that’s what the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were building.  Starting during the Civil War in 1863 (the year Vicksburg fell and Lee retreated from Gettysburg).  The Union Pacific was building west from Iowa.  And the Central pacific was building east from California. 

For the most part, Protestant, English-speaking Americans settled Texas.  Mexico had encouraged the American colonists to settle this region.  Because few Mexicans were moving north to do so.   The deal was that the colonists conduct official business in Spanish and convert to Catholicism.  They didn’t.  These and other issues soured relations between Mexico and the American Texans.  The Republic of Texas proclaimed their independence from Mexico.  America annexed Texas.  Mexico tried to get it back.  The Mexican-American War followed.  America won.  Texas became a state in 1845.  And that other Spanish/Mexican territory that America was especially interested in, California, became a state in 1850.  Hence the desire for a transcontinental railroad.

The U.S. government was very eager to connect the new state of California to the rest of America.  So they acted aggressively.  They would provide the dump trucks of money.  As America expanded, the U.S. government became the owner of more and more public land.  The sale of new lands provided a large amount of revenue for the federal government.  (Other forms of taxation (income taxes, excise taxes, etc.) grew as the amount of public lands to sell decreased.)  Land is valuable.  So they would grant the railroad companies some 44 million acres of land (i.e., land grants) for their use.  The railroad companies, then, would sell the land to raise the capital to build their railroads.  The government also provided some $60 million in federal loans.

But it didn’t end there.  The federal government came up with incentives to speed things up.  They based the amount of loans upon the miles of track laid.  The more difficult the ground, the more cash.  So, what you got from these incentives was the wrong incentive.  To lay as much track as possible on the most difficult ground they could find.  And then there were mineral rights.  The railroad would own the property they built on.  And any minerals located underneath.  So the tracks wandered and meandered to maximize these benefits.  And speed was key.  Not longevity.  Wherever possible they used wood instead of masonry.  The used the cheapest iron for track.  They even laid track on ice.   (They had to rebuild large chunks of the line before any trains would roll.)  And when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met, they kept building, parallel to each other.  To lay more miles of track.  And get more cash from the government.

PAR FOR THE COURSE.  When government gets involved they can really mess things up.  But it gets worse.  Not only was government throwing dump trucks of American money down the toilet, they were also profiting from this hemorrhaging of public money.  As shareholders in Crédit Mobilier.

Thomas Durant of Union Pacific concocted the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  As part of the government requirements to build the transcontinental railroad, Union Pacific had to sell stock at $100 per share.  Problem was, few believed the railroad could be built.  So there were few takers to buy the stock at $100 per share.  So he created Crédit Mobilier to buy that stock.  Once they did, they then resold the stock on the open market at prevailing market prices.  Which were well below $100 per share.  Union Pacific met the government requirements thanks to the willingness of Crédit Mobilier to buy their stock.  The only thing was, both companies had the same stockholders.  Crédit Mobilier was a sham company.  Union Pacific WAS Crédit Mobilier.  And it gets worse.

Union Pacific chose Crédit Mobilier to build their railroad.  Crédit Mobilier submitted highly inflated bills to Union Pacific who promptly paid them.  They then submitted the bills to the federal government (plus a small administration fee) for reimbursement.  Which the federal government promptly paid.  Crédit Mobilier proved to be highly profitable.  This pleased their shareholders.  Which included members of Congress who approved the overbillings as wells as additional funding for cost overruns.  No doubt Union Pacific/Crédit Mobilier had very good friends in Washington.  Including members of the Grant administration.  Until the party ended.  The press exposed the scandal during the 1872 presidential campaign.  Outraged, the federal government conducted an investigation.  But when you investigate yourself for wrongdoing you can guess the outcome.  Oh, there were some slaps on the wrists, but government came out relatively unscathed.  But the public money was gone.  As is usually the case with political graft.  Politicians get rich while the public pays the bill.

(Incidentally, the investigation did not implicate Ulysses Grant.  However, because members of his administration were implicated, this scandal tarnished his presidency.  Grant, though, was not corrupt.  He was a great general.  But not a shrewd politician.  Where there was a code of honor in the military, he found no such code in politics.  Friends used his political naivety for personal profit.  If you read Grant’s personal memoirs you can get a sense of Grant’s character.  Many consider his memoirs among the finest ever written.  He was honest and humble.  A man of integrity.  An expert horseman, he was reduced to riding in a horse and buggy in his later years.  Once, while president, he was stopped for speeding through the streets of Washington.  When the young policeman saw who he had pulled over, he apologized profusely to the president and let him go.  Grant told the young man to write him the ticket.  Because it was his job.  And the right thing to do.  For no man, even the president, was above the law.)

THE FINANCIAL WORLD fell apart in 2007.  And this happened because someone changed the definition of the American Dream from individual liberty to owning a house.  Even if you couldn’t afford to buy one.  Even if you couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  Even, if you should get a mortgage, you had no chance in hell of making your payments.

Home ownership would be the key to American prosperity.  Per the American government.  Build homes and grow the economy.   That was the official mantra.  So Washington designed American policy accordingly.  Lenders came up with clever financing schemes to put ever more people into new homes.  And they were clever.  But left out were the poorest of the poor.  Even a small down payment on the most modest of homes was out of their range.  Proponents of these poor said this was discriminatory.  Many of the inner city poor in the biggest of cities were minority.  People cried racism in mortgage lending.  Government heard.  They pressured lenders to lend to these poor people.  Or else.  Lenders were reluctant.  With no money for down payments and questionable employment to service these mortgages, they saw great financial risk.  So the government said not to worry.  We’ll take that risk.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would guarantee certain ‘risky’ loans as long as they met minimum criteria.  And they would also buy risky mortgages and get them off their books.  Well, with no risk, the lenders would lend to anyone.  They made NINJA loans (loans to people with No Income, No Job, and no Assets).  And why not?  If any loan was likely to default it was a NINJA loan.  But if Freddie or Fannie bought before the default, what did a lender care?  And even they defaulted before, Fannie and Freddie guaranteed the loan.  How could a lender lose?

Once upon a time, there was no safer loan than a home mortgage.  Why?  Because it would take someone’s lifesavings to pay for the down payment (20% of the home price in the common conventional mortgage).  And people lived in these houses.  In other words, these new home owners had a vested interested to service those mortgages.  Someone who doesn’t put up that 20% down payment with their own money, though, has less incentive to service that mortgage.  They can walk away with little financial loss.

ARE YOU GETTING the picture?  With this easy lending there was a housing boom.  Then a bubble.  With such easy money, housing demand went up.  As did prices.  So housing values soared.  Some poor people were buying these homes with creative financing (used to make the unqualified qualify for a mortgage).  We call these subprime mortgages.  They include Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  These have adjustable interest rates.  This removes the risk of inflation.  So they have lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages.  If there is inflation (and interest rates go up), they adjust the interest rate on the mortgage up.  Other clever financing included interest only mortgages.  These include a balloon payment at the end of a set term of the full principal.  These and other clever instruments put people into houses who could only afford the smallest of monthly payments.  The idea was that they would refinance after an ‘introductory’ period.  And it would work as long as interest rates did not go up.  But they went up.  And house prices fell.  The bubble burst.  Mortgages went underwater (people owed more than the houses were worth).  Some people struggled to make their payments and simply couldn’t.  Others with little of their own money invested simply walked away.  The subprime industry imploded.  So what happened, then, to all those subprime mortgages?

Fannie and Freddie bought these risky mortgages.  And securitized them.  They chopped and diced them and created investment devices called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).  These are fancy bonds backed by those ‘safe’ home mortgages.  Especially safe with those Fannie and Freddie guarantees.  They were as safe as government bonds but more profitable.  As long as people kept making their mortgage payments.

But risk is a funny thing.  You can manage it.  But you can’t get rid of it.  Interest rates went up.  The ARMs reset their interest rates.  People defaulted.  The value of the subprime mortgages that backed those CDOs collapsed, making the value of the CDOs collapse.  And everyone who bought those CDOs took a hit.  Investors around the globe shared those losses. 

Those subprime loans were very risky.  Lenders would not make the loans unless someone else took that risk.  The government took that risk in the guise of Fannie and Freddie.  Who passed on that risk to the investors buying what they thought were safe investments.  Who saw large chunks of their investment portfolios go ‘puff’ into thin air.

SO WHAT ARE Freddie and Fannie exactly?  They are government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).  They key word here is government.  Once again, you put huge piles of money and government together and the results are predictable.  In an effort to extend the ‘American Dream’ to as many Americans as possible, the federal oversight body for Freddie and Fannie lowered the minimum criteria for making those risky loans.  Even excluding an applicant’s credit worthiness from the application process (so called ‘no-doc’ loans were loans made without any documentation to prove the credit worthiness of the applicant.)  To encourage further reckless lending.  Ultimately causing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

And, of course, members of Congress did well during the good times of the subprime boom.  They got large campaign contributions.  Some sweetheart mortgagee deals.  A grateful voting bloc.  And other largess from the profitable subprime industry.  Government did well.  Just as they did during the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  And the American taxpayer gets to pay the bill.  Some things never change.  Government created both of these scandals.  As government is wont to do whenever around huge piles of money.  For when it comes to stealing from the government, someone in the government has to let it happen.  For it takes a nod and a wink from someone in power to let such massive fraud to take place. 

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