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Are we Headed for the Next Great Depression?

A huge pyramid of debt was made possible by thirty years of relentless deregulation of financial markets.
 
 
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For more than a decade, we Americans have been living on an economic San Andreas fault -- a foundation of fracturing competitiveness covered by unsustainable consumer spending with money borrowed from foreigners. A financial earthquake was inevitable. We don't know how high on the recession Richter scale the current crisis will take us, but it increasingly looks like, as they say in San Francisco, "The Big One."

Since the last Big One, the Great Depression of the 1930s, we have had eleven small to medium recessions, lasting an average of ten months. The most severe -- two back-to-back downturns that began in 1979 -- drove price increases and the unemployment rate to double digits.

We're not at those levels yet. But the structural supports underneath our shop-till-we-drop economy are considerably weaker. For starters, we have a historic depression in the housing market. Americans' total mortgage debt now exceeds their home equity, for the first time since 1945. Housing prices have dropped 10 percent since last spring, followed by record foreclosures. Most economists expect them to drop at least another 10 percent, which could leave more than 14 million households -- at least 16 percent of the total -- better off if they just walked away from their homes. Prices could go even lower.

Until last year, housing prices in most places had risen rapidly since the 1990s. This enabled middle-class homeowners with stagnant wages and maxed-out credit cards to keep spending by refinancing their mortgages. The housing boom also spawned the now infamous subprime mortgage -- a scheme devised by Main Street realtors and Wall Street bankers to finance home buying with loans that let the borrower buy in with little money down but carried high interest rates. The expensive payments would be made later by refinancing the mortgage as prices continued to rise. These subprimes were sold to middle-class strivers upgrading to McMansions as well as to the working poor.

The increased demand pushed housing prices further into the stratosphere -- until, inevitably, they fell back to earth. When the subprime borrowers could no longer make their payments, foreclosure signs went up, lowering the value of other houses in the neighborhood. The refinancing spigot shut off, retail sales sputtered and by January the economy was shedding jobs.

But it is not the squeeze on homeowners that is giving our central bankers nightmares. It is the blowback of housing deflation on the country's massively overleveraged financial markets, which has seriously constricted the flow of credit -- the lifeblood of the world's largest debtor economy.

In a typical deal, subprime mortgages were sold to investment companies, where they were commingled with prime mortgages to back up new securities that could be touted as both safe and high-yielding. This new debt paper was then peddled to investors, who used it as collateral for "margin" loans to buy yet more stocks and bonds. At each change of hands, fees and underwriting charges added to the total claims on the original shaky mortgages. The result was a frenzied bidding up of prices for a bewildering maze of arcane securities that neither buyers nor sellers could accurately value.

Giant Ponzi scheme? Not to worry, responded the Wall Street geniuses. By spreading risks among more people, the miracle of "diversity" was actually turning bad loans into good ones. Anyway, banks were buying insurance policies against default, which in turn were transformed into a set of even murkier securities called "credit default swaps" and marketed to hedge funds, pension managers and in some cases back to the banks that were being insured in the first place. At the end of 2007 the market for these swaps was estimated at $45.5 trillion -- roughly twice as large as all US stock markets combined.

This huge pyramid of debt was made possible by thirty years of relentless deregulation of financial markets, culminating in the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prohibited banks from dealing in high-risk securities. In effect, Washington regulators became passive enablers to Wall Street's financial binge drinkers. When they crashed -- for example, in the savings-and-loan and junk-bond debacles of the 1980s, the Long-Term Capital Management collapse of 1998 and the Enron and dot-com crashes of the early 2000s -- the government cleaned up the mess with taxpayers' money and let them go back to the bar.

So here we go again. When subprime homeowners stopped paying, the prices of the mortgage-backed securities used as collateral fell. Banks demanded that their borrowers pay up or cover their margins. Panicked selling by borrowers further lowered the securities' prices, triggering more margin calls and more defaults. Massive losses piled up at places like Citigroup, Countrywide, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, and cascaded back into the insurance companies. At the end of February, the huge insurer American International Group reported the largest quarterly loss, $5 billion, since the company started in 1919.

After some delay, the Federal Reserve Board last summer started lowering interest rates on loans to the banks. But in a phrase from the bank crisis of the 1930s, it was like "pushing on a string." The bankers' problem was not that money was too expensive to lend out; it was that they were afraid they wouldn't get their money back. When they did lend, they jacked up the rates to compensate for the higher perceived risks -- even to solid customers. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey suddenly had to borrow money at 20 percent. The State of Pennsylvania couldn't finance its college student loan program. Fannie Mae, the fund created by the federal government to support perfectly sound middle-class housing, struggled to sell its bonds.

In mid-March, after anguished discussions between Federal Reserve officials and Wall Street moguls, the Fed agreed to provide $400 billion in new cash loans to banks and investment firms. Days later came the shock of eighty-five-year-old Bear Stearns going belly up. In an unprecedented deal, the Fed immediately lent JPMorgan Chase the money to buy Bear Stearns, taking suspect mortgage-backed paper as collateral. Bear's stockholders had already taken a hosing when the stock crashed. The big winners were the company's creditors and insurers, who were saved from the consequences of their bad business judgment.

We are now staring into the abyss. The Bear Stearns bailout has created a presumption of a safety net under any major stockbroker, in addition to any major bank. Rumors are that Lehman Brothers and Citigroup may be next. The Fed could handle a Lehman crash. But the collapse of Citigroup, the world's largest bank, would be catastrophic, bankrupting businesses, other banks and consumers and cutting off credit for state and local governments. And it could stretch the Fed to the limit of its resources.

There is a widespread assumption that there is no bottom to the pockets of the Federal Reserve. Not quite. The Fed has a finite amount of actual assets -- mostly Treasury obligations backed by the "full faith and credit" of the government, which is a commitment to raise taxes if necessary to pay the debt. These assets total about $800 billion, some $400 billion of which have been obligated to back up loans. If the loans default, the Fed has to sell the Treasury notes in order to settle. If there are enough of these failures, the Fed could exhaust its assets. It would then have to resort to really "printing money" -- issuing promissory notes not backed up by anything -- or get bailed out by the Treasury, putting taxpayers further in the hole. Long before the Fed is down to the last of its stash of Treasury notes, more skittish domestic and foreign investors will flee the dollar. Interest rates would balloon and prices of oil and other imports would skyrocket. Credit would freeze, investment would plummet and tens of millions of Americans would be out on the street, with neither a job nor a roof over their heads.

Unlikely? Yes, still. Unthinkable? Not anymore. Estimates of Wall Street's losses already run well up to $500 billion. A 20 percent drop in housing prices would translate into a $4 trillion drop in the value of housing assets. A large chunk of that loss would destroy the value that underlies the mortgage-backed securities the Fed has now agreed to guarantee.

But well short of such a worst-case scenario, the country seems headed for major economic damage that will severely test whatever we have left of safety nets. It took five years from the time the recovery began in 1983 for the unemployment rate to return to pre-recession levels. Once we reach the bottom of this trough, it could be a very long time before American consumers, whose spending accounts for some 70 percent of our economy, crawl out of the debt hole and back into the shopping mall. The Japanese have still not recovered from their similar housing/debt crash in the early 1990s.

Virtually everyone who has studied Japan in the 1990s and the United States in the 1930s concludes that in both cases the government acted too late with too little in order to stop the debt dominoes from tumbling through the entire economy.

But the American political system seems as seized up as the credit markets. As the Federal Reserve tries desperately to put an overdosed Wall Street on life support, President Bush remains dizzily detached, periodically repeating his moronic mantra against government intervention in the free market. At a press conference that is impossible to parody, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced the Administration "plan" to safeguard the nation against a future crisis. It boiled down to a hope that the finance industry would do a better job of policing itself and that individual states would see to any new laws that might be needed. In what the New York Times dryly reported were his "most extensive comments to date about the credit and market problems," Paulson, formerly co-chair of the investment firm Goldman Sachs, firmly told reporters that he was not interested in finding "scapegoats." No kidding.

In response to pressure from Democrats, the White House at the end of January did reluctantly agree to a fiscal stimulus. But Bush demanded that it be limited to the only economic policy he understands: tax cuts. Democrats caved, and the government started printing up $160 billion in a one-time rebate to consumers and businesses, which will be sent out in May. Too little, too late, and likely to be spent paying down debt and buying more Chinese imports.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid has proposed a second round of stimulus -- this time through public investment, putting people to work rebuilding bridges, schools and other infrastructure. But no one is talking about a level of fiscal injection needed to counterbalance the drop in consumer and business spending.

If we use the 1979-83 experience as a guide, we'd need some $600 billion to $700 billion in deficit spending. But in those days, the United States was still a creditor nation. Thanks to three decades of trade deficits, topped by the costs of the Iraq War, we now depend on foreign lenders, increasingly worried about the value of their US bonds. As Lee Price, chief economist of the House Appropriations Committee, put it, "We need as big a stimulus as our foreign lenders will allow us to get away with."

To give some relief to those at the bottom of this tottering financial edifice, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, chairs of, respectively, the House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees, are proposing updated versions of a Depression-era housing rescue program. The government would furnish $300-$400 billion to buy up existing home mortgages at prices marked down to reflect the current lower values. The plan could refinance 1-2 million homes. It may not be enough, but it probably represents the outer limit of what is possible in the twilight year of a White House whose economic competence is in the twilight zone.

Given the way Washington works, the Frank/Dodd proposal would need business support. Yet despite the fact that it would bring desperately needed trust back to the system, the capos of the Wall Street mob are unenthusiastic. Being forced to acknowledge losses on their books could toss a few more of them out of their jobs at a time when the supply of golden parachutes may be getting thin. Better to hunker down and whimper for more welfare from the Fed.

Some are already getting direct bailouts from big government. But it's not coming from the US government. Foreign-government-owned "sovereign wealth funds" are now buying sizable equity shares to shore up battered firms. Citigroup, where the Saudis are already the chief stockholder, sold roughly $20 billion of itself to Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Kuwait. The Chinese just bought 10 percent of Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch sold a 9 percent stake to Singapore. With oil above $100 a barrel, more of Wall Street is certain to wind up owned in the Middle East. Some members of Congress still warn that these countries are looking for political influence in America's financial heart, rather than optimizing their rate of return. They are probably right, but the nationalist fires that flared up against Dubai ownership of US ports in 2006 have largely been banked. Beggars can't be choosers.

Another hope is that the Europeans, the Chinese, whoever, will take over our role as the world's consumer of last resort. As the recession slows US imports, countries that have grown fat on exports to us will certainly have to shift more of their growth to their own domestic market. But to expect that the leaders of other nations would put their own economies at risk by running up trade deficits in order to save us Americans from the consequences of our own folly seems stunningly naïve.

So if this is not The Big One, it is likely to be A Big One -- and a long one.

We could still get lucky, of course. Republicans facing re-election might persuade Bush to support a big fiscal stimulus and housing rescue. Home prices may miraculously stabilize. Tomorrow, bankers may wake up like Scrooge on Christmas morning and just start lending. The Chinese may start importing American-made cars...

Otto von Bismarck once remarked, "There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America." Let's hope it's still true.

Jeff Faux is the founder and former president of the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the new book The Global Class War , a study of the impact of globalization abroad and on U.S. living standards and politics.

 
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