Monday, October 13, 2008

Bubbles and the current financial crisis

Bubbles! Bubbles!... My bubbles!
... a cartoon character from Finding Nemo

Is there an end to the current financial bloodbath that is plaguing the world markets? Like a recursive nightmare, you wake up from one nightmare to find yourself in the middle of another. I am still in the middle of my productive career, and I don't find it amusing that my life savings go down 5% everyday. I just can't imagine what it must be for those who are staring retirement in the face or who have already retired. The only light I see at the end of the tunnel is the proverbial headlight of an approaching express train.

Folding banks, closing auto dealerships, collapsing companies, massive layoffs, government defaults; the looming specter is stunning. Many pundits are saying that this will be a mild recession and we should be back on track in a couple of years. In particular let me quote the following:

'Standard & Poor's chief economist David Wyss expects a mild recession that ends next spring. "Gradually we will regain confidence in the market. Lower oil prices and a falling trade deficit will help," he says. "This is a financial panic, not an economic one." '

I don't know what weeds these people are smoking. A lot more bad news awaits us. What we are seeing today is a result of 60 years of unbridled growth and reckless spending. The dominoes are falling and there is no telling when or where they will stop. They blame it on many factors: corporate greed, extreme leverage, wall street excesses, mortgage crisis and so on.

I remember reading this article by S Gurumurthy of RSS. Though the article itself has been ridiculed by the economists and intellectuals in various forums, and there are some factual errors in the numbers quoted, I felt there was an element of truth in it. This article was written in 2002 or thereabouts. Common sense tells me that I can not continue to spend more than I have. A day will come when the bill collectors come calling. This is true for individuals and also true for institutions. But there is a white elephant in the room everyone seems intent on ignoring.

I laughed out loud when President Bush doled out money to people as a stimulus package. The trouble with the economy was not that people were not spending enough; it was that people have spent way too much and they can no longer finance their profligate ways. During the last several years rate of personal savings by Americans has turned negative. The so-called stimulus package only inflated various bubbles a little more. Besides it encouraged people to be even more reckless with their money.

Since the 1940s, America has managed to build a huge economy based on consumer spending. It starts with how money is created (primarily through bank lending, see here). Every time someone borrows money (say to pay for a new car), the system creates a little bubble and new money is injected into the system. This money is supposed to be taken out at a later stage when the loan is paid off, but people keep spending money all the time so the money is never really destroyed except during serious economic contractions. This is not specific to the US economy, most of the modern economies have grown in this way.

This bubble creates other bubbles. Consider this: when there is more economic activity, the governments have more tax revenue and therefore bigger budgets. The current political wisdom tells us that the money should be spent immediately on populist and not-so populist schemes such as the earmarks. After all, one must get elected again in a few years. Once a particular expense head has been created by a government, it seldom goes away. Many economists argue that deficit financing is good for the economy. Wars and natural disasters have contributed by further expanding the budgets. Among certain quarters, there is almost a macabre glee whenever natural disaster such as an earthquake or a hurricane hits.

Without intervention this unstable system will seek some stability through cyclical economic downturns and many of the bubbles will gradually deflate. There have been downturns in the American economy, such as the recession of 80s and 90s, hyper inflation of 70s, stock market crash of 1987 and dotcom crash of 2000. Every time the government intervention has been short sighted with no attention paid to long term consequences of these actions. None of these events convinced the political leaders, financial leaders and individuals that they must spend less than they have or else...

If you remember the dotcom bubble of the 1990s, many people believed that the stock market will never go down. Ditto with housing markets of early 2000s. Similarly for too long, investors all over the world have nursed a belief that dollar is a safe haven and Americans will never default. This has caused them to send money to America in unrealistically large amounts of money through real estate investments, government bonds and lately purchases of assets of large financial institutions. This has significantly contributed to the financial bubble.

To keep this bubble inflated, governments and institutions have to spend more money and foreigners have to keep pouring their savings into American economy. To encourage these events, the lowest pillar that is bearing the weight of all these bubbles, our friend Joe, must keep spending. The trouble is that Joe can't spend any more money because his account is overdrawn. Nobody is willing to lend him either.

The credit crisis is a sign that people have understood the true nature of our economy. Money in my pocket is better than money in yours. Nobody trusts the bogus credit ratings of individuals and institutions anymore. At some level one can blame the banks for lending to one and all, but the blame must be shared by everyone; legislators for not providing enough oversight; bankers for not ensuring the borrowers have capacity to repay; borrowers for being greedy.

Americans have a total debt of about 120% of the GDP. The companies collectively have a debt of 160% of the GDP. Total American debt reached 53 Trillion dollars. That's about $176,000 of debt for each resident of the country. People and institutions have leveraged way beyond their means to pay back. To paraphrase Nouriel Roubini, now “the housing bubble, the mortgage bubble, the equity bubble, the bond bubble, the credit bubble, the commodity bubble, the private equity bubble, the hedge funds bubble are all now bursting at once in the biggest real sector and financial sector deleveraging since the Great Depression”.

The casino culture has taken over the American financial markets. Short selling of stocks is the most obvious and glaring example of the gambling that savvy stock market players indulge in. There is also the futures market for commodities. For example the much maligned speculators who have presumably driven up the price of oil and other commodities. In the 1990s new instruments of financial trade called derivatives were created. These are the CDOs, the CDSs and many others from the alphabet soup, which Warren Buffet famously called financial instruments of mass destruction. That bubble is now worth 55 Trillion dollars. To put it in perspective, it is more than the annual gross product of the entire world. This is nothing but suicidal gambling by large financial institutions hedge funds, and wealthy individuals with no added benefit to the society at large. This is another bubble that is waiting to burst and who knows what happens then.

If my hypothesis about the economy is correct, then there are three ways this crisis will resolve itself. Firstly the obvious one, in which there will be a catastrophic crash of markets and institutions all over the world. This will be too chaotic for anyone to predict the sequence of events accurately. The consequences are too horrific even to contemplate, but humanity will survive. It may take a decade or two to recover to some semblance of normalcy.

Second way is that the current patchwork of interventions will work and somehow the world markets will be stabilize. However, I think this only be temporary and we will come back to the same situation sooner or later, perhaps with a bigger bubble, because we not really addressing the underlying causes.

Third way is when our leaders act responsibly, the markets respond in a sane manner and people correct their ways. Government will stop wasteful spending, wall street will stop being greedy and people will start saving more responsibly for their retirement and their children's education. If by some miracle this sequence of events comes to pass, then it will still take a couple of decades for us to come back to stability. The reasons are obvious, the the bubbles are simply too large and they can't be deflated in a short time. However the likelihood of this happening are extremely remote. Consider:

- Law makers are short sighted and often ignorant
- Government likes to keep borrowing to spend even more money and has zero credibility with
the main street having spent all of its political capital waging pointless wars
- Washington is full of wested interests, but none protecting Joe's interests
- Wall street has short memory and within a few years it will retrace the history
- Regulators have no credibility as they are either corrupt or ideological but almost never right

This problem is not unique to America. I am only using American example because I have lived here for the last 8 years or so and seen what is happening first hand. I am sure similar things are happening in many other countries as well.

The situation is rather bleak, but people change only when there are catastrophic events that overtake them, or a JFKesque leader guides them. Is Obama the JFK of our generation? I sincerely hope so, but I am very skeptical.

What are the lessons for India in this crisis? Unfortunately I don't believe India will escape it unscathed. The only silver lining is that India is not yet that highly leveraged that it will suffer as deeply as the US. However, India is following the path that US took in the '50s and '60s. We can yet avoid it by ensuring that the truly important issues are addressed and never compromised in the name of capitalism. These issues are, savings for retirement, ensuring universal health care and providing good education to all those who want it. Most importantly we should not build our future on bubbles.

1 comment:

FactsAbout said...

Related Info - Some Output (Very Grim) from C-SPAN Experts Panel (October 8, 2008) on current financial crisis
1)      2007 estimate (before current crisis) was that US have 15 years to total collapse (when Government will have ZERO $$ to spend) due to rising costs of the following 4 components ( National Debt Interest, Tax expenditures, Medicare and Social Security). Short name to that is “Line Crossing Problem”.
2)      Current crisis have changed this estimate to just 12 years (3 President Terms)!!!
3)      Root cause is US “consumption led growth strategy”, which started in 1950s. This strategy results in “inability of US to finance itself” (since 1985).
4)      The solution is transformation of US from “consumption (borrowing) society to saving society” [in 12 years!!!].
5)      Phases:
-          Mark-to-Market phase of credit contraction – current phase (2008)
-          Non-transparent phase (when impact of high cost of energy and food would be revealed in full) – 2009 – 2010
-          Effect of Line Crossing Problem on Society. US as a whole (institutions and citizens) will have to make priority adjustments to society goals and agree on sacrifices. – 2010-2012
-          From 1012 – Painful transformation of US from “consumption (borrowing) society to saving society” should be on a way.
6)      Panelists (including former Treasure undersecretary in G.W.Bush administration) agree that tax increase would be needed as a part of that transformation.
7)      Housing crisis (which triggered current credit and financial crisis) is not a root cause – it just happened to be a weakest link.
Also current recession would be global and will extend to 2009 (and may be 2010).
My take on that is this.
Whoever would “win” White House (poor guy!!!) will be forced to make very unpopular decisions and drive society to VERY painful and fast transformation to saving society. As a result he will be very unpopular but history probably would restore his reputation.
... And we have to tighten our belts.