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Meltdown and Bailout: Why Our Economic System Is on the Verge of Collapse

Bush wants to fleece us for hundreds of billions in the financial crisis, but that's just the first layer of a more fundamental economic problem.
 
 
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The immediate cause of our financial meltdown is unchecked, unbridled greed. Mainstream newspapers and the business press are doing a fairly good job of explaining how the lack of regulatory oversight led us into this nightmare.

But you have to dig down one layer to find the cause of that situation. Under cover of the ideological euphemism known as the "free market" and with enormous cash investments over the past four decades, business elites have captured the regulatory organs of powerful democratic states -- nowhere more so than the United States -- and promoted their own narrow economic agendas for short-term gain.

There's an enormous amount of discussion about that in the independent media. But to drill down a layer deeper, to the bedrock of the crisis, you have to go to some deep thinkers who don't get much play in our mainstream economic discourse.

As foreign policy analyst Mark Engler notes in his new book, How to Rule the World, declining returns on traditional investments in manufacturing and industry since the 1970s go a long way toward explaining today's highly speculative economy -- pushing capital into developing countries and into bubble after speculative bubble in search of a better profit margin.

It's important to understand what's going on at all three levels, because we may have come to a fork in the road, a point at which the decisions made now may determine the future of the global economy.

We may or may not also be on the verge of another Great Depression.

The Bush Bailout: Privatizing Gains and Socializing Risk

On Saturday, hoping to stave off that dark possibility, the Bush administration proposed an unprecedented bailout for investors, a scheme that would authorize the Treasury Department to spend as much as $700 billion in tax dollars over the next two years to buy up bad securities, with little Congressional oversight save for a semiannual report on the process.

The move came after the federal government had already sunk a total of $900 billion into America's financial institutions this year, potentially bringing the total value of the Fed's tinkering to $1.6 trillion over three years.

The White House, Congressional leaders and Treasury officials are haggling over the details. Things are moving quickly, with a mammoth intervention that was unspeakable in economic circles a month ago now looking more and more inevitable.

The structure of the proposed bailout may change during those negotiations -- Democrats in Congress are pushing to save more homeowners and tie the package to some sort of limits on CEO pay for institutions that get a lifesaver -- but the deal outlined in the brief document released on Sept. 20 epitomizes the principle of privatizing gains while socializing risk. In other words, we're splitting an oil well with the Big Boys on Wall Street: They get the oil, we get the shaft.

It is, in short, a draft of what could be one of the greatest rip-offs in history. Bush, on the way out of power, is trying to create a publicly financed honeypot for the private sector on a scale never before imagined.

Those who played fast and loose with newer, ever shakier investment instruments in order to squeeze a few more bucks out of the markets' "irrational exuberance" about the housing sector would get a payday that would save their bacon. According to the New York Times , this huge pile of taxpayers' cash may even be available to foreign investors.

Home prices would continue to tank, though, as banks shed their bad loans at discounted prices to the government. Those subsidized assets would then be liquidated -- on the cheap because they're so overvalued -- to resuscitate the financial system. Rick Sharga, a senior officer with RealtyTrac, which monitors the housing market, told Reuters, "We've seen fewer and fewer properties go through the auction process because there's either little equity in them or even negative equity. So there's no incentive for people to buy them at the auctions."

Sharga added that "bank repossessions continue to grow at a pretty rapid clip," but an analyst told me recently that he knew of banks that simply weren't taking possession of foreclosed properties because they didn't want them on their balance sheets.

As those assets are disposed of, the value of all Americans' homes will continue to fall, because sales of comparable properties determine their worth. That would, in turn, leave a greater number of Americans with mortgages worth more than the amount of equity in their homes, and the cycle would continue. Things are already bleak on that front; the rate of U.S. foreclosures increased 75 percent in 2007 and 55 percent in the year ending this June. The Associated Press reported, "More than four million American homeowners with a mortgage, a record nine per cent, were either behind on their payments or in foreclosure at the end of June."

Many more will lose their homes, and all of us will get the tab: higher taxes, swelling deficits, higher interest rates and a moribund economy.

The plan doesn't specify what, if anything, U.S. taxpayers will get in return for their largesse. The government isn't spending more than a trillion dollars to nationalize failed institutions in order to protect stakeholders and liquidate those overvalued assets in an orderly manner. That might make a lot of sense, and it would essentially make Joe and Jane taxpayer owners of something that might rebound in value down the road.

Instead, Bush's proposal would take bad paper off the books of institutions that are ailing but haven't yet gone belly-up, and we wouldn't necessarily get a stake in those institutions; they'd only become "financial agents of the government," according to the draft released Saturday.

As Paul Krugman notes, "historically, financial system rescues have involved seizing the troubled institutions and guaranteeing their debts; only after that did the government try to repackage and sell their assets."

The feds took over S&Ls first, protecting their depositors, then transferred their bad assets to the (Resolution Trust Corporation, founded in the wake of that crisis). The Swedes took over troubled banks, again protecting their depositors, before transferring their assets to their equivalent institutions.

The Treasury plan, by contrast, looks like an attempt to restore confidence in the financial system -- that is, convince creditors of troubled institutions that everything's OK -- simply by buying assets off these institutions.

Making matters even worse is the fact that it's almost impossible to put a fair market value on this massive pile of bad debt. As Peter Goodman of the New York Times notes, "no one really knows what this cosmically complex web of finance will be worth, making the final price tag for the taxpayer unknowable. One may just as well try to predict the weather three years from Tuesday."

There will be a fight in Washington, and much debate, about which ideological direction the bailout should lean, and the version offered up by the Bush administration is -- no surprise here -- tilted heavily in favor of those at the top of the economic pile.

What's clear is that there is going to be a massive transfer of public wealth to the private sector, and at least the lion's share of that cash, if not all of it, will end up in the hands of an investor class whose recklessness got us into this mess in the first place.

Meltdown

This bailout is a desperate attempt to save the modern economic system from falling under the weight of its deep structural imbalances. As such, it's unlikely to work over the medium and long terms, even if it has the desired immediate effect of propping up creaky markets and restoring their (largely unjustified) sense of security.

The proximate cause of the financial system's meltdown is not all that hard to grasp. The decades-long supremacy of the ideology euphemistically called "free trade" resulted in capital being unmoored from national economies and freed to move around the world with few limitations (under the imperative of government not "intervening" in markets). Unconstrained by borders and investment rules, those dollars, yen, euros and what have you roamed the planet seeking a better rate of return. Investors moved in packs, rushing lemming-like to whatever hot up-and-coming market the Economist was writing about in a given month, and a series of bubbles resulted.

Those bubbles made some people incredibly rich, and hurt others badly.

Of late, real estate was the can't-miss investment, and as enormously overvalued housing bubbles sprang up, notably in the United States, Wall Street's financial whizzes started offering newer and more "creative" investment vehicles, bundling mortgages and selling them off to investors from around the globe.

That was driven by an era of relentless deregulation, both at home and abroad. Here in the United States, the trend of deregulation culminated in 1999 with the death of the Glass-Steagall Act, the New Deal-era legislation that had forced financial institutions to choose between investment banking and commercial lending. Meanwhile, international bodies like the WTO and the IMF were pressuring the governments of all countries to drop their controls on the flow of cash and goods.

Without fear of a regulatory backlash, the banks pushed their new investments hard, and investors gobbled them up with glee. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review , Dean Starkman cited reports from the business press about loan agents at Ameriquest being ordered to watch "Boiler Room," the film about sleazy financial brokers pushing bad investments on gullible retirees (Ameriquest was a predatory subprime lender that went down last year). Starkman quoted an executive with Morgan Stanley's mortgage unit as saying, "It was unbelievable. We almost couldn't produce enough to keep the appetite of the investors happy. More people wanted bonds than we could actually produce."

In the end, investors were basically buying up paper that had only a distant relationship with anything concrete. The link that had long existed between homeowners and lenders was broken, and debt -- in this case debt tied to housing, but also commercial and consumer debt -- became a hot investment vehicle.

Convinced that the market would continue to grow indefinitely -- or maybe that they'd get bailed out if things headed south -- investors leveraged their assets further and further, in effect buying on margin just like the bad old days before the Crash.

The banks and investment houses worked hard to find new ways to make their own pounds or rubles, creating not only new types of debt-based securities, but also coming up with new forms of insurance to (supposedly) shield investors against the risk those loans represented.

That was all well and good for them, if not for the rest of us, until the housing market started to tank. Despite assurances from the government earlier this year that the disaster had been "contained" to the subprime market, it began to spread. As the Associated Press reported, the tanking real estate market "shifted from subprime loans made to borrowers with poor credit to homeowners who had solid credit but took out exotic loans with ballooning monthly payments." Bloomberg reported that 3 million American homeowners are holding prime (or, actually, semi-prime) "alt-A" loans (don't ask) worth about $1 trillion, or $150 billion more than the entire outstanding subprime market.

As those loans -- many of which were taken on investment properties by people expecting a nice, quick turnover -- started to go belly-up, a panic ensued. As the rot spread, banks started going down and investors essentially began a stampede on an already weakened financial sector. It was the modern-day equivalent of a bank run, but on a global scale.

That posed a risk to the mammoth and wholly unregulated market in insurance on bad loans that had grown up around these new kinds of investments. The market in what are known as "credit default swaps" is of unknown size, but it's estimated to be worth as much as $60 trillion , most of it essentially paper backed by too little in the way of hard assets.

The government knew that if that market tanked, it could take down the global economy. That threat was, in large part, the thinking behind the $85 billion dollar bailout of AIG less than a week ago -- AIG was a key player in this huge but hazy market, and it did business with banks around the world.

At that point, a feeling of panic was spreading, and lawmakers in Washington felt that they had to do something, anything, to stop the meltdown. The banking sector's crisis threatens the entire economy, as the capital needed for new investment and expansion has begun to dry up. Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute told the New York Times that "Wall Street isn't this island to itself" and warned that if the finance sector "gets worse, we're going to be stuck in the doldrums for a very long time, because that directly blocks healthy economic activity."

Global Capitalism's Crises of Poverty and Overproduction

The financial meltdown in the United States is huge, but it isn't unique. Think of the Asian financial crisis, Mexico's "peso crisis" or the dot com crash. All had one thing in common: an investor class that at one time valued thrift, limited risk and steady growth plunged trillions with almost suicidal abandon into one bubble after the next.

All of which begs the question of what it is about our modern economic system that creates this cycle of inflating and bursting bubbles.

The answer, in large part, comes down to a decline in profitability in investments in concrete things, which has sent investors scurrying for abstract financial instruments in search of a fat return.

That shift, in turn, results from a simple aberration: a small fraction of the planet's population is tied to an economic system in which productivity is effectively an end unto itself. It makes tons and tons of widgets, always seeking new widget markets (and sucking up most of the planet's raw materials). At the same time, the powerhouses of the global economy -- the United States, Europe, Japan and the "Asian Tigers" -- have given woefully low priority to economic development in the rest of the world. They've essentially relegated it to NGOs and an underfunded United Nations, and in their own development funding they've prioritized geopolitics -- their "national interests" -- over poverty relief.

That's left much of the rest of the world's population (and this includes people in the wealthiest countries as well as the poorest) with barely enough money to feed their families, much less buy all those widgets. According to the UN, 80 percent of the people on the planet live on $10 dollars a day or less, and they're not going to take many flights on Boeing's shiny new airplane, buy GE's dishwashers or use Nortel's broadband. Over just the past two years, the number of people living on the "edge of emergency" -- in imminent danger of starvation or death from disease epidemics -- has doubled, zooming from 110 million people to 220 million, according to CARE International.

In other words, at the heart of the current crisis, like those that preceded it in recent years, is a massive imbalance inherent in the modern system of capitalism. It is caused by twin crises inherent in the structure of our global economy: a crisis of overproduction in the "core" states with advanced economies, and soul-crushing poverty in much of the "periphery."

In the booming years after World War II, the wealthy countries, led by the United States, did very well manufacturing goods for the entire planet. But as Europe and Japan rose from the ashes, and later, as production in countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore increased, the industrial world simply started making more crap than there were consumers to purchase it.

Capitalism's tendency toward overproduction has been something with which thinkers dating back to Karl Marx have wrestled. If, as one definition holds, capitalism is all about maximizing efficiency, what happens when meaningful production becomes so efficient that the system ends up cranking out more goods than the population needs -- more than it can absorb?

The answer is simple. Since the middle of the last century, investors' returns on real production -- manufacturing -- has been in steady decline. Economist Robert Brenner described it as a "long downturn" in the world's most advanced economies. He noted that the seven leading industrial economies grew by a steady rate of 5 percent or more annually from the end of World War II through the 1960s, but in the 1970s that fell to 3.6 percent, and it has averaged around 3 percent since 1980.

The social critic Walden Bello has arguably been the clearest voice connecting the problem of overproduction to the rush of speculation that has led to today's financial crash. Bello noted that in the 1990s, the heyday of corporate globalization, the "U.S. computer industry's capacity was rising at 40 percent annually, far above projected increases in demand."

The world auto industry was selling just 74% of the 70.1 million cars it built each year. So much investment took place in global telecommunications infrastructure that traffic carried over fiber-optic networks was reported to be only 2.5 percent of capacity. Retailers suffered as well, with giants like K-Mart and Wal-Mart hit with a tremendous surfeit of floor capacity. There was, as economist Gary Shilling put it, an "oversupply of nearly everything."

A report in the Economist, cited by Bello, found that the world of Clinton's "New Economy" was "awash with excess capacity in computer chips, steel, cars, textiles and chemicals," and noted that "the gap between capacity and output was the largest since the Great Depression."

An inevitable result of that imbalance was a massive migration of capital from real, productive industry to the "speculative sector" run by financial giants like AIG and Lehman Brothers. As Bello noted:

So profitable was speculation that in addition to traditional activities like lending and dealing in equities and bonds, the '80s and '90s witnessed the development of ever more sophisticated financial instruments such as futures, swaps and options -- the so-called trade in derivatives, where profits came not from trading assets but from speculation on the expectations of the risk of underlying assets.

Exacerbated by a relentless assault on public interest regulation and economic nationalism under the guise of "free trade," the increasingly speculative tendencies of global investors created fertile ground for the growth of that pile of bad paper to which the Bush administration is reacting with its trademark brand of top-down reverse socialism.

In a nutshell, our modern economic system has become divorced from what an "economy" is supposed to do in human terms. It was anthropologist Karl Polanyi who argued that the term "economics" has both a formal meaning -- a system of exchange of goods and services designed to maximize efficiency -- and a "substantive" one: the survival strategy of humans in their natural environment. It's a concept that transcends conventional economic concepts of supply and demand, markets and states, and it's one that we've ignored for too long.

As the financial sector threatens to fall apart around us, it's important to understand the crisis on all of these levels, or we run the risk of losing sight of the forest for the trees. One has to keep in mind that this is all happening during the era of the $100-plus barrel of oil, with the global economy integrated more than ever before and during a period of deep environmental peril due to global climate change and related problems of drought and desertification.

With the Bush administration pumping more than a trillion dollars into the private sector, Jim Bunning, the junior senator from Kentucky, lamented that the "free market for all intents and purposes is dead in America." As more mainstream economists talk about the possibility of sliding into a full-blown depression, we may well be in the grip of a kind of economic "Grotian Moment." The term, named for the 17th century Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius, describes an event that has such a great impact that it results in fundamental changes to the prevailing system.

Slavoj Zizek wrote that "One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death." That's true; for a generation, we've been constrained from even discussing the fundamental structures of the prevailing system -- its excesses and shortfalls. This may be a moment in which we can do so, and should.

If we are at such a juncture, then we as a society have a serious question to answer: Will we bail out the speculator class so that it can regroup and move on to the next bubble, precipitating the next crisis of capitalism, or will we address the underlying problems of underdevelopment and overproduction in a way that's adequately sustainable in an era of serious environmental peril?

So far, Bush and the Congress appear to have the wrong answer.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.