Rightly, the students of Austrian Economics have laid the blame for the current economic crisis squarely on the doorstep of the Keynesian policies of governments and central banks. However, in this case, there are other culprits involved, most notably the former titans of financial services. During this decade, major international money center banks from Wall Street to London and even to Zurich displayed unimaginable greed, reckless risk taking and gross negligence. Depositors, borrowers and shareholders should be questioning whether any major financial institution will ever again be worthy of their trust.
The original sin of our current downfall can be traced back to the mid-20th century when politicians broke the fundamental financial disciplines guaranteed by gold-linked currencies. More recently, politicians “encouraged” banks into “social lending” for low-income housing, which led to the sub-prime problem. Also it was politicians, like Bush-Greenspan, who injected vast amounts of liquidity into the world economy, creating the largest asset boom in history.
Last week’s gathering in London of the leaders of the 20 foremost economic countries in the world had been billed as the most important global financial meeting in more than 60 years. The stage had been set for hotly contested economic policies to be hashed out with the intensity of a Cold War arms negotiation. However, for most observers, the results of the G-20 failed to live up to the billing. Other than a masterful display of haute couture by the new American first lady, there are few results that anyone can really call significant.
But for those with a keen eye for the subtleties of diplomacy-speak and an understanding of the true dangers that face the global economy, the G-20 communiqué had much to say; none of it promising. For those hoping that the participants would move to restore sound money, allow the global financial system to undergo a badly needed deleveraging, and seek to restructure the American economy in a way that is sustainable, the communiqué was a complete disappointment.
Everyone has been guilty, at one time or another, of ignoring a cold. Though you knew you were sick, you may have kept working hard, playing hard, and staying out late. Not until you were bed-ridden did you start drinking orange juice and taking your health seriously. The U.S. economy appears to be following a similar trajectory. We have consistently ignored serious symptoms to the point where our economy is nearly a terminal case.After ignoring and downplaying the inflating credit bubble for much of his first two years in office, this week Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke emphasized, in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, that no economic recovery would occur unless the financial system was restored. He was quite correct in his belated diagnosis. His prescriptions, on the other hand, are much more dubious.
Last week, when Congress passed its $787 billion stimulus package, the size of the plan caused many observers to forget the water that has already passed under the bridge. Fewer still are wondering what havoc will erupt when all this liquidity eventually washes ashore.
The latest spending, signed into law yesterday by President Obama, came on top of $300 billion committed to Citigroup, $700 billion for TARP 1, $300 billion for the FHA, $200 billion for TAF and some $300 billion for Fannie and Freddy. Just over the last six months, which excludes the initial Bush stimulus and several massive, unfunded Federal guarantees, nearly $5 trillion has been committed by the government to the financial industry. Rational observers cannot be faulted for concluding, despite Administration claims to the contrary, that the government is merely throwing money at the problem.
This week, seven major corporations announced major layoffs, adding 72,000 to the unemployed. At the same time, lending by the big banks fell. With falling demand for loans, it is little wonder that President Obama described the national economic situation as “worsening day by day.” Clearly, we are heading into a deepening and severe recession that is spreading worldwide.
As all recovery hopes are now pinned on the efficacy of Washington’s next stimulus package, President Obama has opened the bidding at $825 billion. Most Republicans see this number as too big, and many Democrats see it as too small. If the question is one purely of impact, then under these circumstances, the Democrats are probably correct.
Most consider the New York market ‘spot’ price for an accurate indication of the true price. However, investors now buying buy physical or ‘fabricated’ gold, are paying a premium of between $20 and $30 per ounce. When these gaps existed in the past, major increases in the price of gold were imminent.
One of the few things more troubling for an economy than government intervention is government intervention driven by panic. Time and again, history has shown that when governments rush to engineer solutions to pressing problems, unintended difficulties arise.
In the current crisis, there is growing evidence that Washington is in a state of increasing panic. Despite its massive cash injections, market manipulations and ‘rescue’ plans, the recession is clearly deepening and spreading. With little to show thus far, politicians don’t know if they should redouble past efforts, break ground on new initiatives, or both. However all agree, unfortunately, that the consequences of doing too little far outweigh the consequences of doing too much.
The second half of 2008 will be remembered as the era in which justifiably panicked investors fled the global equity markets and flooded into the bond markets, particularly the U.S. Treasury market. As I write this, the migration largely continues.