Keynesian Economics gave us the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, but the Government blames S&P

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 20th, 2011

We call it the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, not the Mortgage-Backed Securities Crisis 

When responsible for a problem you can accept blame.  Or you can blame the messenger.  Or better yet, you can attack the messenger (see Criticism of Standard & Poor’s over U.S. credit rating compounds its troubles in Washington by Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times, posted 8/18/2011 on WGNtv).

The backlash against Standard & Poor’s for downgrading the U.S. credit rating adds to the company’s problems in the nation’s capital, where it faces investigations for its role in fueling the financial crisis with faulty assessments of mortgage-backed securities.

S&P and the other credit-rating firms are widely believed to have enabled the near market meltdown by giving AAA ratings to many securities backed by risky subprime mortgages.

So the credit-rating firms enabled the subprime mortgage crisis.  Interesting.  Because the bad subprime mortgages already existed by the time those mortgage-backed securities came to them for review.  And it was those preexisting mortgages that people defaulted on and caused the near market meltdown.  So I don’t think you can blame this all on S&P.  And remember, we call it the subprime mortgage crisis.  Not the mortgage-backed securities crisis.  Ergo, the cause was the subprime mortgages.  And S&P didn’t write those mortgages.

Subprime Mortgages:  Creative Financing to Qualify the Unqualified

Once upon a time you saved up 20% for the down payment on a new house.  Then you went to a savings and loan to get a mortgage.  Or a bank.  In those days, people saved their money.  They deposited it into their savings accounts and earned 3% interest.  The banks and savings and loans then loaned it at 6%.  And the bankers were on the golf course by 3 PM.  Hence the joke about the 3-6-3 industry.  It wasn’t very sexy.  But it was reliable.  Few defaulted.  Because a new home owner had a lot to lose from day 1 thanks to that 20% down payment.

But there was a problem with this.  Home ownership was restricted to only those people who could afford to buy houses.  Those who could put down a 20% down payment.  And who had a job with sufficient income to qualify for a mortgage.  Well, you can see the problem with this.  What about the poor people who couldn’t come up with the 20% down payment nor had a job with sufficient income to qualify for a mortgage?

After World War II home ownership became a national goal.  Home ownership equaled economic growth.  It became the American dream (no longer was it the liberty that the Founding Fathers gave us).  As the years went by some saw that the poor were being left out.  Included in that long list of those who could not qualify for a mortgage were a lot of blacks.  Activists claimed that banks were redlining.  Disapproving a larger percentage of black applicants than white.  There were protests.  Investigations.  Banks had to figure out a way to qualify the unqualified and fast.  To prove that they weren’t being racist.

And the subprime mortgage was born.   Adjustable Interest Rate (ARM).  No documentation.  Zero down.  Interest only.  All kinds of creative financing to qualify the unqualified for mortgages.  And it was a hit.  Poor people liked them.  But banks were still reluctant to issue many of them.  Because they were far more risky than a conventional mortgage.  And it was dangerous to have too many of them on their books.  But then federal government solved that problem.

Fannie and Freddie enabled the Mortgage Lenders to Approve Risky Mortgages

Enter Fannie Mae and Freddie MacGovernment Sponsored Enterprises.  They would buy (or guarantee) those risky mortgages from the banks.  The banks breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Then started selling the crap out of subprime mortgages.  Because they were exposed to no risk thanks to Fannie and Freddie.  And the housing market took off.  The government urged Fannie and Freddie to lower their standards and buy even more risky mortgages.  To keep the housing boom alive.  And they did.  Not only were home owners snatching them up.  But speculators, too.  And the term ‘house flipping‘ entered the American lexicon.

Fannie and Freddie then repackaged the subprime mortgages they bought and resold them.  Into so-called ‘safe’ investments.  Thanks to being tied to a mortgage, historically one of the safest investments in America.  Well, they were when people were putting 20% down, at least.  So these mortgage back securities were created.  Reviewed by the credit-rating agencies.  And sold to investors, mutual funds, pension funds, 401(k)s, etc.  Who bought them with abandon.  Because they were rated AAA.  Long after those risky mortgages were written.

They were time bombs just waiting to go off.  Not because of the credit rating agencies.  But because of Fannie and Freddie.  Who enabled the mortgage lenders to approve risky mortgages with no risk to themselves.  And a long standing government policy to put as many people as possible into homes.  Because economic growth all came from home ownership.  And then it happened.  There was a housing bubble thanks to easy monetary policy.  The economy was heating up.  Worried about inflation, the Fed tapped the brakes.  Raised interest rates.  And all of those ARMs reset at higher rates.  People couldn’t afford the new higher monthly payments.  The higher interest rates left the speculators with lots of houses.  That they bought with no money down.  That no one was buying.  And, well, the rest you know.

The Greatest Threat to American Fiscal Solvency is the Government’s growing Health Care Tab 

So S&P didn’t cause the subprime mortgage crisis.  Whether they gave those securities AAA ratings or not those subprime mortgage holders were going to default anyway.  The origins of the subprime mortgage crisis reach a lot further back than S&P.  But their credibility did take a hit.  So they’re trying to be a little more cautious these days.  And if anyone paid attention during the debt ceiling debates, they know the country’s long-term finances are in some serious trouble.

Jeffrey Miron wrote a paper about the health of the U.S. states.  He starts in the introduction by going over the state of affairs in the federal government (see The Fiscal Health of U.S. States by Jeffrey Miron posted 8/15/2011 on Mercatus Center).

As the worldwide financial crisis has eased, economic policy debates have shifted from the short-term issue of stabilization to the log-term issue of fiscal imbalance.  Current projections suggests that the U.S. federal government faces an exploding ratio of debt to GDP, driven in large part by spending on health insurance1.  If this trend continues, the United States will soon find itself unable to roll over its debt and be force to default, generating a fiscal crisis.

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1  U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “CBO’s 2011 Long-Term Budget Outlook” (Washington, DC: CBO, June 2011)

Perhaps this is why S&P downgraded U.S. debt.  Because that debt ceiling deal did nothing to address the greatest threat to American fiscal solvency.  The government’s growing health care tab.  The nation indeed may be seeing some difficult times.  As will the states.

This paper offers five conclusions. First, state government finances are not on a stable path; if spending patterns continue to follow those of recent decades, the ratio of state debt to output will increase without bound. Second, the key driver of increasing state and local expenditures is health-care costs, especially Medicaid and subsidies for health-insurance exchanges under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009. Third, states have large implicit debts for unfunded pension liabilities, making their net debt positions substantially worse than official debt statistics indicate. Fourth, if spending trends continue and tax revenues remain near their historical levels relative to output, most states will reach dangerous ratios of debt to GDP within 20 to 30 years. Fifth, states differ in their degrees of fiscal imbalance, but the overriding fact is that all states face fiscal meltdown in the foreseeable future.

Not a pretty picture.  This whole European Socialism model is pushing both the states and the country to default.  Like it is currently pushing European nations toward default in the Eurozone.  Whose financial crisis is worst than America’s.  So far.

Keynesian Economics stimulated the Housing Market into the Granddaddy of all Housing Bubbles 

Social engineering.  Tax and spend liberalism.  Keynesian economics.   These are what gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  Putting people into houses who couldn’t afford them.  And keeping interest rates artificially low to stimulate the housing market into the granddaddy of all housing bubbles.  The subprime mortgage crisis.  And more of the same will only push us further down the Eurozone road.  Sadly, a road often taken throughout history.  As once great nations fell, littering this road.  The Road to Serfdom.

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The Liberal Battle Cry: Damn the S&P Downgrade, full Tax and Spend Ahead

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 7th, 2011

The Democrats are already making Strategy to Encourage a Second Credit Downgrade

S&P downgraded U.S. debt because Congress failed to make significant, and real, spending cuts.  Now either that’s important.  Or it’s not.  During the debt ceiling debate they warned us of impending doom should the U.S. lose its coveted AAA rating.  Now that we lost it, well, it’s not that big of a deal.  In fact, the Democrats are already making strategy to encourage a second credit downgrade (see U.S. Debt Drama Is Far From Over by Albert Hunt, Bloomberg News, posted 8/7/2011 on The New York Times).

Specifically, they hope the president will insist that every dollar of spending cuts the supercommittee demands be accompanied by a dollar of higher revenues, and to say that changes in entitlements and taxes are joined at hip.

Mr. Obama, they say, also should play the national security card, forcing Republican to choose between higher taxes or about $600 billion in defense cuts.

“He can force Republicans to make a fundamental choice: Do they care more about protecting tax breaks or national security?” says the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

This is truly Orwellian.  We’re going to cut spending by not cutting spending.  For every dollar we cut we’re going to add another dollar of spending.  So, if you do the math, the net change in the deficit will be zero (-$1 + $1 = $0 of deficit reduction).  Granted these members may not possess higher degrees in mathematics.  But I’m sure somewhere in their education they learned the three Rs.  One of which was ‘rithmetic.  That math discipline that teaches kids how to add and subtract numbers.

Perhaps they skipped their arithmetic lessons to attend ‘hating your country’ lessons instead.  “If you don’t increase taxes we’ll cut defense spending. And when we’re attacked and people are killed it will be your fault for not increasing taxes.  How do you like them apples?  Huh?  You like that?  Don’t think we’ll do it?  Try me.”

A Redistribution of Economic Activity doesn’t add Economic Activity

Spending.  That’s all they want to do.  Spend.  Spend.  Spend.  Because it takes care of people.  And it stimulates the economy (see 20 areas on the brink of economic recovery by Venessa Wong posted 8/7/2011 on Bloomberg Business Week).

A key sector that is no longer expected to boost the recovery is government. “The metropolitan areas that suffered least since the beginning of the recession typically had increases in the number of government jobs,” the Brookings report states. Many state and local governments are shedding employees to cope with budget shortfalls.

Oh dear.  Reduced government spending?  Why, that will throw the economy into recession.  For any school kid knows that the government drives all economic activity.  At least that’s what they think. 

The city of Detroit fought for years to get casinos.  For they were sure it was the panacea for all that ailed their city.  They pointed across the Detroit River at Caesars Windsor.  And all the money it was bringing into the city of Windsor.  “See?!?  Casinos are just big piles of money with buildings over them.”  And, so, they eventually got their casinos.  Didn’t help the city a damn bit.

The problem with the casinos is that they didn’t bring new money into the economy.  They just siphoned off money from other businesses in the local economy.  People gambled with money they would have spent at the movies.  On dinners.  At ballgames, concerts, museums.  Etc.  So it was only a redistribution of economic activity.  The same money was spent.  It was just spent at different locations in the same local economy.  Ergo, it didn’t do a damn thing to help the city.

It’s the same with government spending.  The money government spends is taken from people who would have spent it themselves in their local economy.  So government employees are spending money that others would have spent.  If it wasn’t taken away from the people who earned the money.  So it’s only a redistribution of economic activity.  The net add to economic activity is zero. 

Most People would say that Obama Campaigned as a Centrist but Governed as a Liberal

Of course there is a very large school of thought that disagrees with this.  Keynesian economics.  The school of thought that says government spending stimulates when the private sector will not.  The Obama administration is full of Keynesians.  Who hold one simple philosophy.  Spend.  And spend they did. 

The 2008 deficit was $455 billion.  Which included TARP.  The bailout program for the subprime mortgage crisis.  The 2011 projected deficit is $1.6 trillion.  That’s over a trillion dollars of additional deficit spending.  Which is pretty darn leftist in most books.  But there are some who call this being a moderate (see Stuck in the Muddle by Paul Krugman posted 8/7/2011 on The New York Times).

The one thing I might say is that we shouldn’t really wonder what happened to Obama — he is who he always was. If you paid attention to what he actually said during the primary and the election, he was always a very conventional centrist. Progressives who flocked to his campaign basically deluded themselves, mistaking style for substance. I got huge flack for saying that at the time, but it was true, and events have borne it out.

Funny.  Most people would say that he campaigned as a centrist.  But governed as a liberal.

Barack Obama has the distinction of having the most liberal voting record in the Senate.  As president, when he had majorities in both the House and the Senate, he pushed through Obamacare.  National health care.  The holy grail on the Left.  And he calls this centrist?  One shudders to think what a Krugman progressive would do.

Liberals just want to Tax & Spend, Redistribute Wealth and Play God

No one seems to get it.  Except for Standard and Poor’s.  The Tea Party.  Some Republicans.  A few others.  And Daniel Hannan.  Who once told Gordon Brown, “You cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt.”  And he’s from the UK.  Home of John Maynard Keynes.  So why can’t the Left get it?

Because all they want to do is spend.  Tax and spend.  To redistribute wealth.  And play God.  Which should be abundantly clear by now.  Based on their words and actions.

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We’d do better Emulating Bourbon Country than China

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 25th, 2011

A Generous Government robs the Private Sector

The economy.  It’s bad today.  It’ll be bad tomorrow.  And probably will still be bad when many are thinking about retiring.  I say thinking.  Because that’s all they may be able to do about retirement.  Think about it.  As they keep working well into retirement age (see Retirement As We Know it Is “Dead”: EuroPacific’s Pento by Peter Gorenstein posted 6/22/2011 on Yahoo! Finance).

“Americans are have negligible savings, the real estate market is still in secular decline, stock prices are in a decade’s long morass, real incomes are falling, public pension plans are insolvent and our entitlement programs are bankrupt.”

Pento believes these issues could be resolved if the government takes the right steps. What might those be? He recommends lowering taxes, reducing inflation and balancing the budget as a means to increase the value of the dollar. If the dollar had more purchasing power and interest rates were higher, retirees would be able to live off their fixed income, he says.

Please note the common theme in the resolution.  Less government.  Less government spending.  Les government taxing.  Less government quantitative easing (i.e., stop depreciating the dollar).  Because it is all of this government intervention into the private sector that has killed so many private sector jobs.  Reduced our real incomes.  Bankrupted our entitlement programs.  And destroyed our pensions (because fat pension funds are just too tempting to ‘borrow’ from to pay for more spending.  And by borrow I mean steal).

A generous government is a government that robs the private sector to pay the beneficiaries of the public sector.  But they have taken so much that they have given the private sector the worst recession since the Great Depression.  Which, in turn, has starved government coffers.  Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

There’s no Recession in Bourbon Country

Despite being in the worst recession since the Great Depression thanks to all that government intervention into the private sector, there is some positive economic activity out there.  One area in particular that is near and dear to my heart.  Bourbon (see Bourbon’s popularity feeds growth of Kentucky distilleries by Bruce Schreiner, Associated Press, posted 6/25/2011 on USA Today).

The producers are aiming to quench a thirst for bourbon — especially premium brands — that is steady in the U.S. and rapidly expanding overseas, thanks in part to the comeback of cocktails appealing to younger adults, lower tariffs, robust marketing and a larger middle class in emerging markets.

A tariff is a tax on an import.  To protect the domestic competition.  Or so goes the theory.  Protective tariffs destroyed a lot of American industry that had no incentive to improve (textile, steel, automotive, etc.).  But that’s another story.  Thankfully, bourbon is an American spirit.  All proper bourbon hails from Kentucky.  Thanks to those freshwater streams through the limestone bedrock of those rolling hills.  So there are no foreign bourbon markets to protect.  Keeping tariffs lower than they may be otherwise.  Thus providing a healthy export market. 

Industry observer F. Paul Pacult, editor of the quarterly newsletter Spirit Journal, said bourbon makers are showing an adventurous side with premium offerings that reflect an “intramural competition.”

“There’s more innovation happening in Kentucky right now than any other place in the world,” Pacult said.

Now Kentucky is bourbon country.  There are a lot of distillers competing against each other.  And yet the bourbon market as a whole is growing.  There’s no recession in bourbon country.  Which just goes to prove the old maxim.  Competition makes everything better.

The industry’s biggest boost, though, has come from exports.

Producers of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey reaped $768.2 million in export sales in 2010, up from $303.8 million in 2000, according to the spirits council, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The biggest overseas customers include Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany, but the industry is looking at two seemingly bottomless markets — China and India — along with other emerging markets in Asia and Africa.

China and India.  Those two countries driving up the price of oil.  Because of exploding demand in their emerging middle classes.  Countries that gave up much of their communist/socialist ways.  Who turned their disdain for capitalism to ‘dain’ (which I think means the opposite of disdain).  And they have smoking hot economic growth.  Hard to believe that a communist country, China, is schooling the United States in free market capitalism.

Crony Capitalism and Corruption in China

Or are they?  Oh, they are getting more Western.  But not like the UK or the USA during the Industrial Revolution or the booming times that followed.  But after the growth of Big Government in those counties (see The long arm of the state posted 6/23/2011 on The Economist).

Chinese students used to aspire to a job with a foreign company. Now they are more likely to want one with an SOE [state-owned enterprises].

This may seem an odd choice, since the dynamism in China’s economy is mostly generated by non-state firms… In 1999 government-controlled firms owned 67% of industrial capital; a decade later their share had fallen to 41%. But in the industries that pay the highest salaries, state firms dominate.

A new shorthand has entered common parlance: guojin mintui, meaning the state [sector] advances and the private retreats. ..It has been tightening its grip on some industries it considers “strategic”, from oil and coal to telecommunications and transport equipment. It has been devising market-access rules that favour state firms. And to the chagrin of private businesses, it has allowed state companies to remain active in a surprising range of palpably non-strategic sectors, from textiles and papermaking to catering. In recent years property development has become a lucrative sideline for government businesses. “The tentacles of state-owned enterprises extend into every nook where profit can be made,” writes Zheng Yongnian of the National University of Singapore.

Already the young people are choosing the public sector over the private sector when it comes to their career.  Because the bloated public sector pays more.  With this higher pay they must be attracting the best and brightest to these SOEs.  So these SOEs must be kicking the non-state firms’ asses.

Some Chinese economists worry that the government’s response to the global financial crisis will bolster state enterprises and their bad habits at a time when they urgently need reforming. As the confederation’s researchers put it, much stimulus spending has involved “swapping from the left hand to the right hand”: the state lending to the state…

Unirule noted that the profits of state-owned industrial companies had increased nearly fourfold between 2001 and 2009. But their average return on equity was less than 8.2%, whereas that of larger non-state industrial enterprises was 12.9%. Factor in the low cost of borrowing enjoyed by SOEs and their access to land at below-market prices, the report said, and their real return on equity between 2001 and 2009 was minus 1.47%. They are, in effect, destroying capital.

Apparently not.  They actually have a negative return on investment.  So the SOEs are just deadwood propped up by government spending and special privilege.  Reminds me of another Asian country awhile back.  Where there was private sector/public sector partnering.  Where capital was shuttled from the left hand to the right hand.  Anyone like to guess the country I’m thinking about?  Anyone?  No?  Here’s a hint.  China and this other country hate each other.  Bitterly.  Which makes it rather ironic that they’re now following their example.  That Asian country is Japan.  During the Eighties.  A decade of spectacular growth.  That was more bubble than growth.  And we all know what happened in Japan in the decade that followed.  Not a whole hell of a lot.  Because the bubble popped.  And they suffered a devastating deflationary spiral similar to the Great Depression.  It was so bad that they called the Nineties the Lost Decade.

Some foreign businesspeople complain that market-opening measures initiated in the 1990s and early 2000s have run out of steam.  Many saw China’s accession to the WTO ten years ago as a great impetus for reform. But when the country reached the end of its transition period in 2006, its will faltered. Many foreign companies still report doing good business. But especially since the global financial crisis, the government has been widely accused of twisting rules in favour of its state-owned or, sometimes, private-sector favourites…

Local governments sometimes play a decisive role in determining which firms succeed and which fail. Take Himin, a manufacturer of solar water heaters based in the city of Dezhou in the northern province of Shandong. Himin is a private company, but it is the local government’s champion. Together Himin and the government have devised a branding strategy for Dezhou as China’s “solar city”. The government has helped Himin to grow by requiring apartment buildings to be equipped with solar water heaters and by subsidising solar-heated bathhouses in villages.

This is not capitalism.  This is crony capitalism.  Not much different from mercantilism.  And not a sustainable economic model.  Unlike entrepreneurism.  Like they’re doing in Kentucky.  While the nation is suffering the worst recession since the Great Depression, distillers are investing and innovating, competing against each other as they book record exports.  Without any partnering with their government.  While Himin is in bed with government.  A government that giveths.  And can just as easily taketh away.  And with business dependent only on their relationship to government, you can bet that there isn’t a lot of investing and innovating going on at Himin.  Because they don’t have to.  So why would they?

This scheme to encourage what the government calls “indigenous innovation” focuses on seven “strategic” industries, from alternative energy and low-carbon-emitting vehicles to information technology. First Financial Daily, a Chinese newspaper, reported that investments by these industries could amount to as much as $1.5 trillion over five years, of which the state is likely to contribute 5-15%. Mr McGregor says the scheme involves creating new Chinese technologies on the back of foreign ones supplied by companies eager for a share in the government’s massive spending. Some Chinese scientists have complained about the likely waste involved in state-directed R&D, but the party loves big projects too much to listen.

Good innovation doesn’t need government money.  Investors are more than willing to finance a good thing.  What investors don’t like to invest in are bad investments.  Which is typically what the government invests in.  Because a good investment can attract private capital.  So that leaves the bad investments for government to fund.

People flocking to the government for financing are just like ants at a picnic.  They just want to get in while the getting is good.  But they have little of value to offer.  They’ll just pull a lot of money out of the private sector that could have been put to better use.  By producing real economic growth.  With a positive return on investment.

Worse is the state directing private investment.  People risking capital know what good R&D is.  People risking other people’s money don’t.  And they’re far more tempted to consider political reasons than good science.

China’s state-sector reforms in the 1990s went for the low-hanging fruit. A decade ago angry workers were easily cowed into submission by police or bought off with handouts. But any further reform would affect the interests of people in the top echelons of the party as well as their families, who have extensive connections with state-owned firms.

Zhu Rongji, the former prime minister whose reforms obliterated many of China’s state-owned firms in the late 1990s, has also gone on the attack. In April he made a rare public appearance at his alma mater, Tsinghua University. He handed over copies of a four-volume collection of his speeches, due to be published later this year, and pointedly invited readers to “make comparisons with the situation today”. To his supporters, the present looks grim.

Top echelons of the ruling communists, as well as their families, are well connected with state-owned firms?  No wonder they have negative returns on equity.  They’re stealing money from these SOEs.  This is everything the communists said the capitalists did.  And here the wealthy communist elite are doing it themselves.  Exploiting the poor working class.  How ironic.

Maybe the Chinese are just drunk with power.  Or on that fine Kentucky bourbon.

You’re going to Work until you’re Dead

The Chinese economy is a house of cards.  Much like it was in Japan in the Eighties.  And it will crash.  One day.  Just as the Japanese economy fell.  And no doubt a round of deflation will follow.  Like in Japan.  The Chinese are already raising interest rates to stamp out inflation.  To try and stop a bubble in their economy.  Much like the rest of world is.  Well, pretty much everyone but Ben Bernanke in the U.S.  Who may still try another round of quantitative easing.  Silly Americans.  Adding inflation to high unemployment only gets you the misery of the Seventies.  Carter‘s stagflation.

Although some of that economic activity may be somewhat artificial, it is producing surpluses.  Enough for the Chinese to buy U.S. debt.  So the Americans can continue to pay for their entitlement programs.  Such as Social Security.  And Medicare.  Which everyone and their brother knows will go bankrupt in the not so distant future.  Just as the Baby Boomers start retiring en masse to stress these programs like they’ve never been stressed before.  Now imagine the Chinese economy crashing.  And their surpluses turn to deficits.  And they can’t buy U.S. debt anymore.  That’d be one painful scenario.  Unable to borrow money, the U.S. would have no choice but to cut spending.  In a big way.  As in all those entitlement programs.  Which account for almost half of all federal spending.  Ouch.

Retirement as we know it dead?  You better believe it.  You’re going to work until you’re dead.  Even if you saved for your own retirement.  Because a broke government is a desperate government.  And if they can’t raise enough money taxing income, and the Chinese aren’t buying our debt, they’ll start taxing your wealth.  Your savings.  Your assets.  Your retirement.  Some nations already do.  So it’s not unprecedented.  Which would make a Chinese crash rather depressing. 

Gee, I’d hate to be in our shoes.

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Debt Crises are Far Greater than Many choose to Believe

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 17th, 2011

Was it the Plan to Bankrupt the Nation?

The IMF is worried about a technical default on U.S. debt.  But it’s the budget deficits that really concerns the IMF.  In the U.S.  And in Europe.  For the entitlement spending of these welfare states has proven to be beyond unsustainable.  They’re downright dangerous.  And if unchecked, it will destroy these nations (see IMF cuts U.S. growth forecast, warns of crisis by Luciana Lopez posted 6/17/2011 on Reuters).

The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for U.S. economic growth on Friday and warned Washington and debt-ridden European countries that they are “playing with fire” unless they take immediate steps to reduce their budget deficits.

They’re not saying that the U.S. had better raise their debt limit.  They’re saying that they better reduce their deficit.  Either by raising taxes.  Or cutting spending.  And with the IMF cutting their forecast for U.S. economic growth, that pretty much means they’re leaning towards cutting spending.  Because higher taxes don’t stimulate economic growth.  And the U.S., and all countries with huge budget deficits, needs as much economic growth as possible.  For ‘economic growth’ means ‘tax revenue’ growth.  And that’s what they need.  Tax revenue.  Add to that spending cuts and you start making headway in reducing those deficits. 

Meanwhile, Greece has edged closer to default as euro zone officials disagree on a possible second aid package for the indebted country. With strikes and protests around the country, political turmoil has added to uncertainty, stoking fears that the government will not be able to tighten its belt enough to reduce crippling deficits.

“If you make a list of the countries in the world that have the biggest homework in restoring their public finances to a reasonable situation in terms of debt levels, you find four countries: Greece, Ireland, Japan and the United States,” Vinals said.

With strikes and protests over austerity measures to reduce their deficit, it doesn’t look good in Greece.  They’re getting closer and closer to a default on their debt.  And not a technical default as in being late on an interest payment.  But an all out default as in making their bonds worthless.  What’s worse is that the U.S. made it to the short list of nations with the absolute worst public finances.  And that’s before Obamacare adds another trillion dollars or so of federal spending.

You know this didn’t happen overnight.  We knew about the crushing weight of U.S. entitlement spending for decades.  Even Ronald Reagan raised taxes to save these programs.  So it wasn’t a secret.  And for the Obama administration to spend to the tune of a $1.4 trillion deficit was ill advised to say the least.  Unless the plan was to bankrupt the nation.  If that was the plan then kudos to them.  They may actually have something work as planned yet.

Overheating Economies are a Bitch on the Downside

Greece may be beyond saving.  Worse, when she goes under she may drag others with her (see IMF warns of increased risks to the world economy posted 6/17/2011 on the BBC).

Many analysts believe Greece will not be able to pay back all the money it has borrowed.

“I don’t think there is a question over whether Greece is going to default, it is just a question of whether it is an orderly or disorderly one,” says George Magnus, senior economic adviser at UBS.

The IMF warned that if Greece was unable to pay its debts, other countries such as Spain or Portugal may also be affected.

A cascading electrical blackout is a lot like bank failures.  The North American electrical grid is interconnected.  Power plants attach locally but their power can be sent almost anywhere on the grid depending on demand.  Back in the Northeast Blackout of 2003, downed high voltage power lines triggered a sequence of events.  With some power disconnected from the grid, more power flowed from other sources to make up for the loss.  Higher currents caused these lines to sag and eventually they, too, failed.  Other lines then surged with higher currents to make up for the loss supply and then they failed.  As lines failed power plants disconnected from the grid.  Those still attached tried to make up for the lost supply.  Until they exceeded their safe limits and then disconnected from the grid to protect themselves.  And this continued until a large part of Northeast North America lost all electrical power.

Now think of governments as power stations.  Government spending as high currents in power lines.  The economy as the electric grid.  And Greece as the first failure.  Right now the European Union and the European Central Bank are trying to minimize the cascading damage.  Before financial trouble spreads further and stresses other governments.  Causing additional stresses on the European banking system.  But it doesn’t look good.  All that spending has only overheated those ‘power lines’.  But the problem is still attached to the grid.  Greek spending.  Unable to stop their spending (i.e., commit to their austerity plans), that ‘power station’ will fail.  And then the cascading will begin.

Outside Europe, the fund said it expected economic growth in developing countries to remain strong.

This, in turn, presents a risk of overheating – where economies grow too fast leading to a rapid contraction later.

Like in Japan in the 1980s (Japan Inc).  The U.S. in the 1990s (the dot-com bubble).  And the U.S. again in 2007 (the housing bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis).  Overheating economies can be a whole lot of fun on the upside.  But they’re a bitch on the downside.  Not to mention the economic impact on the rest of the world economy.  And it’s the rest of this world economy that’s scaring the IMF.  For it’s these growing economies that are buying what little manufacturing there is in the older established economies.

It’s going to Suck Worse before it gets Better

There’s no relief for the American consumer.  But the stock market is doing well.  In a normal economic recovery this would benefit the consumer.  But this isn’t a normal economic recovery (see U.S. Confidence Out of Sync With Stock Gains by Bob Willis and Alex Tanzi posted 6/17/2011 on Bloomberg).

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index has stalled near its recession average as the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen 83 percent from a 12-year low in March 2009. A tight correlation between the index and Dow that lasted more than two decades has broken down as joblessness above 9 percent, stagnant wages and near $4-a-gallon gasoline outweigh the benefits of higher share prices, even after a 6.6 percent retreat in the Dow since the end of April.

“Consumers are fairly depressed, yet the stock market continues to improve,” Guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC in Philadelphia, said in an interview. “It’s foreign demand that is really pushing corporate profitability. Consumer confidence is pretty constrained by the labor market.”

U.S. manufacturers in particular have profited from faster growth in emerging economies, including Colombia and Indonesia, where expanding middle classes are demanding more roads and utilities, as well as higher-protein foods and more consumer goods. Deere & Co. (DE), the world’s largest farm-equipment maker, raised its fiscal 2011 earnings forecast on May 18 to $2.65 billion from $2.5 billion, citing increased demand for farm and construction machinery outside the U.S, along with growth in America.

If it wasn’t for these emerging economies there would probably be no corporate profitability.  High unemployment, stagnant wages and $4-a-gallon gasoline is leaving the American consumer little disposable cash to stimulate anything.  That’s why they’re depressed.  Because it sucks out there.

U.S. corporations have gotten “a pickup in sales growth, but they’re not responding with a big pickup in wages and labor growth,” said Rob Carnell, chief international economist at ING Bank in London. “This is helping them to keep their margins intact in the backdrop of rising commodity prices…”

The 18-month recession shaved 4.1 percentage points off gross domestic product before ending in June 2009, making it the deepest downturn since the 1930s. Growth has averaged about 2.8 percent since then, enough to restore only 1.8 million of the 8.8 million jobs lost as a result of the slump.

And now inflation is raising commodity prices.  That means corporations, small businesses and consumers all have less disposable cash.  Which means there will be no job creation.  Because there is no new demand they need to hire people to meet.  Which means it’s going to suck worse out there before it gets better.  Which makes it hard to believe that the recession ended in June of 2009.  High unemployment.  Low economic growth.  Stagnant wages.  If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, we’re probably still in a recession.  The worst one since the Great Depression.  And if things continue as they are we may have to call the Great Depression the worst economic downturn before the Great Recession that started in 2007.

Making the easy Difficult

Things are looking bleak for Greece.  And the other three nations that have spending problems as bad as theirs.  Ireland, Japan and the United States.  Boy.  I’d sure hate to be in our shoes.

We know what caused their problems.  Excessive government spending.  So you’d think it’d be easy to fix their problems.  Just stop spending so much.  But when you get people used to that government spending.  And politicians get used to the votes that spending buys, it makes the easy difficult.  So they continue to spend.  Ask for bailouts.  And plead to Congress to raise the debt ceiling so they can spend some more.

The politicians either don’t believe in the magnitude of the problem.  Or they are counting on being dead before they have to pay the piper.  But someone will eventually pay the piper.  And it’s going to hurt.  And the longer we wait to pay the more it’s going to hurt.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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Government as Usual, Making a Bad Financial Situation Worse

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 8th, 2011

The Federal Debt is Bad; what we’re Adding is Worse than can be Imagined

If you thought the debt was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet (see U.S. funding for future promises lags by trillions by Dennis Cauchon posted 6/7/2011 on USA Today).

The government added $5.3 trillion in new financial obligations in 2010, largely for retirement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. That brings to a record $61.6 trillion the total of financial promises not paid for.

This gap between spending commitments and revenue last year equals more than one-third of the nation’s gross domestic product.

The current outstanding U.S. debt is $14 trillion and change.  So, in addition to that debt, the U.S. has to borrow an additional $61.6 trillion sometime in the future.  Meanwhile they debate deficit reduction in Washington.  And the Obama administration is desperately trying to get the Republican-controlled House to raise the legal debt ceiling.  By a whopping $2.4 trillion.  You don’t have to be a whiz kid to see that something bad financially is coming this way.

Medicare alone took on $1.8 trillion in new liabilities, more than the record deficit prompting heated debate between Congress and the White House over lifting the debt ceiling.

Social Security added $1.4 trillion in obligations, partly reflecting longer life expectancies. Federal and military retirement programs added more to the financial hole, too.

It’s those social democracy things.  The same things that are bankrupting countries in the European Union.  Free health care.  And free pensions (with everyone living longer people are collecting far, far more than they ever paid into these programs).  Which just goes to show that free things are very expensive.

The $61.6 trillion in unfunded obligations amounts to $527,000 per household. That’s more than five times what Americans have borrowed for everything else — mortgages, car loans and other debt. It reflects the challenge as the number of retirees soars over the next 20 years and seniors try to collect on those spending promises.

Imagine yourself living as you are.  Working hard to pay your bills (mortgages, car loans and other debt).  And then adding another mortgage to the mix for a magnificent half-million dollar home.  Only without the home.  Just the mortgage payments.  If you’re not good at imagining that’s okay.  Because you’ll be living it within 20 years.  Can it get worse?

The government has promised pension and health benefits worth more than $700,000 per retired civil servant. The pension fund’s key asset: federal IOUs.

Why, yes.  It can.  While you struggle to pay these enormous bills you can think about this.  Your civil servants.  The people that work for you.  They will be making about $173,000 more in retirement than you.  Their boss.  That ought to put a smile on your face.  And a skip in your step.

Here Comes National Health Care

And it’s going to get worse.  Because national health care is coming (see Study Sees Cuts to Health Plans by Janet Adamy posted 6/8/2011 on The Wall Street Journal).

A report by McKinsey & Co. has found that 30% of employers are likely to stop offering workers health insurance after the bulk of the Obama administration’s health overhaul takes effect in 2014.

The findings come as a growing number of employers are seeking waivers from an early provision in the overhaul that requires them to enrich their benefits this year. At the end of April, the administration had granted 1,372 employers, unions and insurance companies one-year exemptions from the law’s requirement that they not cap annual benefit payouts below $750,000 per person a year.

But the law doesn’t allow for such waivers starting in 2014, leaving all those entities—and other employers whose plans don’t meet a slate of new requirements—to change their offerings or drop coverage.

Bill Clinton lost the 1994 midterm election because he campaigned as a moderate and governed as a liberal.  With Hillarycare being the poster child of his liberal agenda.  Barack Obama lost the 2010 midterm election because he campaigned as a moderate and governed as a liberal.  With Obamacare being the poster child of his liberal agenda.  The people spoke.  Then.  And now.  They don’t want national health care.  That’s why Hillarycare failed.  And why they watered Obamacare down to be something short of national health care.  But Obamacare will serve its purpose.  It will kill the private health insurance market.  Setting the stage once and for all for national health care in the United States.

In surveying 1,300 employers earlier this year, McKinsey found that 30% said they would “definitely or probably” stop offering employer coverage in the years after 2014. That figure increased to more than 50% among employers with a high awareness of the overhaul law.

The Obamacare legislation was something like a thousand pages long.  Guaranteed to confuse.  In fact, it was so confusing that Democrats voted for it without reading it.  Republicans read as much of it as they could.  And because they saw what was in it they voted against it.  Those who take the time to read it don’t like it.  Including the 50% of employers surveyed.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, in a March 2010 report, found that by 2019, about six million to seven million people who otherwise would have had access to coverage through their job won’t have it owing to the new law. That estimate represents about 4% of the roughly 160 million people projected to have employment-based coverage in 2019.

So let’s crunch some numbers.  Private insurers can’t cap benefits below $750,000 per person per year.  Some 6-7 million people will lose their insurance because of Obamacare.  So if the government has to pick up the costs for half of the lower amount (3 million) of these people consuming $750,000 each that comes to…$2.25 trillion.  That’s a lot.  Now let’s say the 160 million who have employment-based coverage lose it.  And that half of them need $750,000 in benefits.  That comes to…$60 trillion.  How about that?  That’s about the same as the amount of the government’s unfunded financial liabilities. 

So, in addition to the $14 trillion or so in debt, there may be another $120 trillion that we’ll have to borrow.  And that’s a little more than the $2.4 trillion the Obama administration is desperately trying to get the House to approve.  And warn about dire consequences if the Republicans refuse to do so.  This reminds me of that scene in Jaws where Chief Brody was throwing out that chum to attract the shark.  It worked.  The shark appeared.  Only it was a lot bigger than Brody thought it’d be.  He told Captain Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  Because fighting a $120 trillion debt with a $2.4 trillion dingy is going to lose the battle.  And by ‘lose the battle’ I mean the United States will end up like Greece.  Only without anyone big enough to bail her out.

OPEC not increasing Oil Production, no Help for Depressed Economies

That’s some pretty doleful news.  Maybe there’s a white knight rushing to the rescue.  Perhaps the economy will rebound and go gang busters.  Maybe the United States will grow itself out of this debt sinkhole (see OPEC Keeps Lid on Oil Production Targets by The Associated Press posted 6/8/2011 posted on The New York Times).

OPEC decided on Wednesday to maintain its crude oil output levels and meet again within three months to discuss a possible production increase.

The decision was unexpected and reflected unusual tensions in an organization that usually works by consensus.

Saudi Arabia and other influential oil-producing nations had pushed to increase production ceilings to calm markets and ease concerns that crude was overpriced for consumer nations struggling with their economies.

To quote a line from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, they have a better chance of playing pickup sticks with their butt cheeks.  The moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico put pressure on supply.  Then the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa added more.  The recession had kept oil down for the last year or so.  But with supply being squeezed that wasn’t going to last.  It’s back up.  With an assist from Ben Bernanke.  Whose quantitative easing devalued the dollar and sparked some inflation.  For we buy and sell the world’s oil in U.S. dollars.  So consumer prices are up.  While high unemployment and flat wages continue to make life hard for the American consumer.

Those opposed were led by Iran, the second-strongest producer within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries…

Iran and Venezuela came to the meeting opposing any move to increase output, which would have probably lowered prices for benchmark crude from the present levels of around $100 a barrel.

But OPEC powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which favors prices of around $80 a barrel, wanted higher production levels — and served notice that it was prepared to raise production unilaterally, to close to 10 million barrels a day from its present daily production of about 8.7 million barrels.

How about that?  Our enemies want to keep the price of oil up.  While our friends want to bring it back down to $80 per barrel.  Yet the Obama administration demanded that Mubarak step down from power in Egypt (a move the Saudis did not like as Egypt was anti-Iran and kept a lid on radical Islam like the Muslim Brotherhood) while doing nothing to help the democracy movement in Iran.  And Obama himself has a close and personal relationship with the Venezuelan dictator.  Hugo Chavez.

Policies like these will do little to bring the price of oil down.  Or make the economy rebound and go gang busters.  So there’s little hope of the U.S. growing its way out of their unfunded financial obligations. 

Monetary Policy doing more Harm than Good

And it doesn’t help to have Big Government Keynesians trying to fix things (see Sizing up the Fed’s few options by Cyrus Sanati posted 6/8/2011 on CNNMoney).

At the time the Fed began its second round of quantitative easing, inflation was low, so Bernanke felt comfortable instituting a program that would see $600 billion injected into the economy. After all, how much inflation can $600 billion cause when the country has a national debt load of $14 trillion and a personal debt load of $30 trillion?

Inflation has jumped in the last three months at a much faster pace than historical averages. The consumer price index rose by 6.1% annually during the April quarter, and core CPI, which excludes food and energy, rose by 2%. Such an accelerated move in inflation would be explainable if there was strong economic growth, but that’s not the case.

Higher prices without economic growth.  We saw this in the Seventies.  Under Jimmy Carter.  His treasury secretary, Paul Volcker, raised rates to reduce inflation.  Interest rates soared.  But he tamed inflation.  And he didn’t do it with quantitative easing.  He did it by doing the exact opposite.  Bernanke could learn a lesson from Volcker.

“If you’re Bernanke and you are seeing this rapid acceleration in core inflation and a high unemployment rate, you got to be thinking to yourself, ‘Gee, my models aren’t working right,'” says Drew Matus, senior U.S. economist at UBS Investment Research. “This should cause more caution in the part of the Fed and it is this caution that will keep them from doing QE3.”

Yes.  The models don’t work.  They’ve never worked.  And never will.  Because monetary policy is not the be all and end all of economic activity.  Think of it this way.  Say there is a restaurant not doing well.  The Keynesian would help that restaurant with monetary policy.  It would lower prices on the menu.  To make the menu items cheaper (like making money cheaper to borrow from a bank).  The only problem is that this restaurant has problems.  People aren’t going there.  The food is bad, the service is poor and it’s dirty.  Lowering the menu prices isn’t going to fix those problems.  So lowering prices is not going to bring the people back.  Just as making money cheap to borrow won’t bring the consumers back to the market.

People need Disposable Income and Responsible Government

Unemployment is high.  A lot of people have no jobs.  Or disposable income.  Meanwhile, prices are going up.  Leaving even less disposable income.  Businesses aren’t going to borrow cheap money to hire people to expand production.  Because current production levels are already in excess of current demand.

People need disposable income.  Inflation is taking that money away from the people.  And two things are driving inflation.  High oil prices (demand greater than supply).  And bad monetary policy (a devalued dollar increases the price of oil and everything else).  We need to fix these things.  We need to drill.  We need to increase American production of oil.  And we need to stop printing money.  We need to do these two things ASAP.

Then we need to address the insanity of spending money we don’t have.  And stop it.  Sooner or later, we have to address entitlements.  Actually, later may no longer be an option.  With $60 trillion in unfunded liabilities in the pipeline.  And with Obamacare potentially adding another $60 trillion.  That’s just too much.  Trying to pay this will kill economic activity.  It will require more taxes, more borrowing and more printing.  Everyone of which will increase the cost of doing business or investing.  Which will ultimately kill jobs.  Giving people even less disposable income.

Benjamin Franklin warned, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”  That’s why they designed the republic to have disinterested, responsible people between the treasury and the people.  But that was then.  When disinterested, responsible people were in government.  Perhaps not everyone, but enough to keep the republic solvent.  Today most serve themselves.  The treasury is just a tool to buy votes.  And to hell with the consequences because most of them will be dead by the time the republic ends.

So don’t expect them to do the right thing anytime soon.  Because doing the right thing will not make their lives better.  Only ours.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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