Archive for the ‘Silver Tsunami’ Category

GWB: The Cash In The Cradle & The Silver Spoon - I’m Gonna Be Like Him

Friday, March 14th, 2008

I try to avoid making unequivocal assertions…but if my instincts are correct, I’m not taking much of a risk in predicting that the calamity that will define this Bush presidency will not be the Iraq war. As with his father’s presidency, it will be the economy. Yes, the Iraq war will be factored into the equation that facilitated one of the worst recessions in modern times, but numerous other missteps will receive far more attention.

With the Savings and Loan scandal of the late 80’s as my point of comparison, I expect the magnitude of this recession to be much deeper and far more complex. Frankly, the fact that we survived events like the S & L scandal and the tech bubble have only contributed to the lackadaisical policies that have fostered an air of invincibility. This false confidence has resulted in a deadly conflation of economic poisons that will place a strain on our financial fortitude that hasn’t been witnessed since the Great Depression.

For months, the Bush administration has sought to convince the American public that the economy is sound. Unfortunately, the hollowness of those assurances expands exponentially with each new report. Today’s news is awash with further warnings of economic uncertainty. The President’s remarks, in response to the growing storm clouds, simply highlight the mindset that has typified his inclination to ignore information that doesn’t comport with his rose colored rhetoric.

Unfortunately, I fear this president suffers the misconception that he can tackle this systemic economic malaise in the same manner he addressed the many miscalculations that have plagued the prosecution of the Iraq war. Sadly, brute force has little relevance when it comes to the economy. As with the troop surge, the attempts by the Federal Reserve to pump more money into the economy in order to prop up flailing financial institutions fails to address the dire dynamics that underly the debacle.

Let’s pause to review the observations of others.

From The Wall Street Journal:

It is a very logical progression. Peloton, Carlyle, Focus — hedge funds and other non-deposit-taking financial institutions (NDFIs) are now being hit by the credit crunch, which had so far been mainly confined to mortgage lenders and the banks.

The Federal Reserve has reacted. Its Term Securities Lending Facility aims to encourage investment banks and prime brokers to lend to NDFIs and so relieve those parts of the credit market it cannot reach with its rate cuts and loans to banks.

So far its liquidity injections have got no further than the banks. Now it hopes to reach higher. Unfortunately, it won’t work.

The Fed is like King Canute with a difference — it is trying to halt an ebbing tide rather than a rising one. Its liquidity injection seems huge at $200 billion (with perhaps more to follow), but it is still only equivalent to one-third of the expected losses in the NDFI sector.

Moreover, the Fed’s readiness to accept almost any asset at just below face value as collateral will prevent price discovery. That means the U.S. financial system will remain burdened with uncleansed balance sheets that penalize future lending and economic growth.

Creating a lot of liquidity does not resolve an issue of solvency, which is now the driver of credit contraction. All the Fed will achieve is a dollar that will be further debased and inflation that will be higher. It cannot stop the process of deleveraging and asset price decline.

The credit crisis is unfolding as we expected, but more slowly than anticipated, because of the actions taken by central banks (mainly the Fed) and the U.S. government to allay its effects. The wholesale socialization of credit has meant that government and central bank measures account for 70% of new credit since last summer.

But these policy measures will not prevent asset-price deflation or credit contraction, which are functions of risk appetite and general readiness to maintain current levels of gearing throughout the economy. The non-bank sector has the potential to inflict more damage on the system than banks, because it has a much smaller capital cushion for a much more volatile and risky balance sheet.

Credit contraction translates through the financial system into a reduction in available credit for the non-financial corporate sector, and thus into reduced investment and growth in the real economy. The size of that contraction can be estimated from the leverage ratios of the financial sector and their impact on real GDP growth.

We estimate that nonfinancial corporate debt ultimately will have to shrink by 11%-12%. This will generate a decline of five percentage points of real U.S. GDP growth and push the U.S. into recession. Europe’s real GDP growth will contract by two percentage points.

Essentially, the point being made by the author is that the Federal Reserve’s efforts to lower interest rates is inadequate to address the fundamental problem - the value of the assets that underly much of the existing debt is in a period of contraction…largely as a result of the collapsing housing industry.

As such, the ability of lenders to lend is limited. They lack the capital needed to make loans; let alone the capital required to support declining equity positions and the increasing default risks that are associated with these loans. Hence, the Fed’s efforts to infuse the economy with the capital needed to spur growth isn’t going to be sufficient. Even worse, should this contraction lead to lender insolvency, the likelihood of the need for a huge government bail out advances. If this happens, I believe it will be far larger than the one witnessed during the S & L scandal.

From The New York Times:

The Fed’s economic power rests on the fact that it’s the only institution with the right to add to the “monetary base”: pieces of green paper bearing portraits of dead presidents, plus deposits that private banks hold at the Fed and can convert into green paper at will.

When the Fed is worried about the state of the economy, it basically responds by printing more of that green paper, and using it to buy bonds from banks. The banks then use the green paper to make more loans, which causes businesses and households to spend more, and the economy expands.

This process can be almost magical in its effects: a committee in Washington gives some technical instructions to a trading desk in New York, and just like that, the economy creates millions of jobs.

But sometimes the magic doesn’t work. And this is one of those times.

Instead of following its usual practice of buying only safe U.S. government debt, the Fed announced this week that it would put $400 billion — almost half its available funds — into other stuff, including bonds backed by, yes, home mortgages. The hope is that this will stabilize markets and end the panic.

Officially, the Fed won’t be buying mortgage-backed securities outright: it’s only accepting them as collateral in return for loans. But it’s definitely taking on some mortgage risk. Is this, to some extent, a bailout for banks? Yes.

Still, that’s not what has me worried. I’m more concerned that despite the extraordinary scale of Mr. Bernanke’s action — to my knowledge, no advanced-country’s central bank has ever exposed itself to this much market risk — the Fed still won’t manage to get a grip on the economy. You see, $400 billion sounds like a lot, but it’s still small compared with the problem.

Krugman offers a look into the risks being taken by the Federal Reserve to avert the looming collapse of financial institutions. The fact that the government is taking unprecedented risk signals the seriousness of the situation. The fact that the government has committed half of its available funds to this risk intensive effort suggests that the ultimate solution will require the government to appropriate additional funds…hence the bailout begins. The price tag of the S & L scandal would likely pale in comparison.

The impact to the overall economy could be mind-boggling since it would be apt to affect consumer spending. Falling home values would strip millions of Americans of the bulk of their accumulated wealth which would no doubt restrict their ability and willingness to spend money. The direct correlation of this intertwined cause and effect spiral could have disastrous consequences.

We haven’t even factored in the disproportionate numbers of baby boomers moving towards retirement. A worst case scenario could place the financial stability of many of these individuals in jeopardy at a time when the safety net of Social Security is also approaching insolvency.

From CNBC:

The United States has entered a recession that could be “substantially more severe” than recent ones, former National Bureau of Economic Research President Martin Feldstein said Friday.

“The situation is very bad, the situation is getting worse, and the risks are that it could get very bad,” Feldstein said in a speech at the Futures Industry Association meeting in Boca Raton, Florida.

“There isn’t much traction in monetary policy these days, I’m afraid, because of a lack of liquidity in the credit markets,” he said.

The Fed’s new credit facility, announced on Tuesday, “can help in a rather small way … but the underlying risks will remain with the institutions that borrow from the Fed, and this does nothing to change their capital,” Feldstein noted.

I simply don’t see the mechanism by which this strained liquidity can be alleviated in the near term. Pumping more cash into the system could have short term benefits but the risk to the already tenuous value of the dollar would likely outweigh them. Relying upon the standard bearers…the consumer…to spend us out of this mess seems unlikely. Rarely have prior recessionary periods been accompanied by such significant declines in home values.

Were we to see the emergence of sustained inflation, the picture becomes even more disconcerting. Many of the measures designed to address the liquidity crunch have the potential to do just that. Toss in our trade imbalance, the amount of debt held by the Chinese, and an international shift away from the dollar as the preferred reserve currency and one begins to see the growing alignment of negatives.

The fact that the American image has been tarnished during the current administration makes it difficult to imagine the kind of international cooperation we might have otherwise received during such a slowdown. In fact, don’t be surprised if a number of nations stand idly by as the perceived bully endures its comeuppance.

Returning to the Bush legacy, I recall the deteriorating situation faced by his father prior to the 1992 election. When the senior Bush expressed his amazement with the scanning technology found in grocery stores, his appeal and his connection to the average American is thought to have suffered. When the Clinton campaign added, “It’s the economy, stupid”, the stain became permanent.

The fact that the current president expressed surprise when a member of the press mentioned the prospects of $4.00 per gallon gas seems eerily similar to the last days of his father’s presidency…and it may also assist in cementing the economy as his legacy’s leading albatross.

George W. Bush’s seeming shortage of empathy for the plight of the average American shone through in his mishandling of Katrina, his passage of tax cuts for the wealthiest, his inept energy policy, and his willingness to sink trillions of dollars into the execution of a virtual vendetta in Iraq. These events will forever be tethered to his tenure and his successors are apt to spend years trying to repair the damage done.

They say the writing of one’s legacy is rarely finished since the past undoubtedly shapes the future. In the case of George Bush, I suspect he’d be best to hope that his influence on the future be less indelible than his unabashed attempts to color the present.

Gertrude Stein stated that a “rose is a rose is a rose”. Ernest Hemmingway responded with “a rose is a rose is an onion”. In thinking of the Bush legacy, I’m inclined to argue that a silver spoon may beget rose colored rhetoric…but a silver spoon full of rose petals rarely helps us swallow the thorns. When the bow breaks, the Bush legacy will fall.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

The “Silver Tsunami” Begins

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

As the first official “baby Boomer” prepares to receive her first Social Security retirement check, government officials brace for what they call the “Silver Tsunami,” a gigantic wave of retirees knocking on the vault door in search of the retirement benefits they were promised throughout the working lives, and indeed paid for. Conservatives like to deride the social security program as an “entitlement” program, as if being entitled to receive something you paid for is some kind of crime. Funny how you don’t hear any of them crying about the tax cuts for the richest Americans as a bad thing, even though that was a gift that was neither paid for or promised to anyone.

We all know that Social Security has serious funding problems, thanks in large part to decades of malfeasance by the federal government as they raided this “dedicated fund” to pay for all sorts of non-retirement, non-disability kinds of things with that money.

And we all know that most politicians are not eager to “fix” the problem for a variety of reasons, chief among them is that they want an available slush fund handy. But they are also mostly unconcerned with the plight of average Americans since they have quite nice federal retirement packages apart from the Social Security system.

I’ve written extensively about how Social Security can be reformed and possibly saved for today’s and future generations. Rather than rehash all that here, I’ll offer links to the original posts.

Post 1- Defining Social Security

Post 2- Crafting A National Pension Plan

Post 3- The National Whole Life Pension Plan

Post 4- Salvaging Social Security’s Retirement Benefits

This series looks at the benefits of having a national retirement system, provides a plan for funding benefits for future generations and talks about how to salvage the most from the current system.

Read the posts, then we can discuss the issue…


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