Wednesday, 17 December 2008

John Bellamy Foster: The great financial crisis: causes and consequences

A public lecture given on November 3, 2008 by John Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review and co-author (with Fred Magdoff) of The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences, which is due to be published by Monthly Review Press in January 2009. See also ``Financial implosion and stagnation: Back to the real economy'' , by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff (the first part of which is reproduced after the video).

Financial Implosion and Stagnation
Back To The Real Economy
John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff
Monthly Review, December 2008
But, you may ask, won’t the powers that be step into the breach again and abort the crisis before it gets a chance to run its course? Yes, certainly. That, by now, is standard operating procedure, and it cannot be excluded that it will succeed in the same ambiguous sense that it did after the 1987 stock market crash. If so, we will have the whole process to go through again on a more elevated and more precarious level. But sooner or later, next time or further down the road, it will not succeed… We will then be in a new situation as unprecedented as the conditions from which it will have emerged.
—Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy (1988) 1

“The first rule of central banking,” economist James K. Galbraith wrote recently, is that “when the ship starts to sink, central bankers must bail like hell.”2 In response to a financial crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression, the Federal Reserve and other central banks, backed by their treasury departments, have been “bailing like hell” for more than a year. Beginning in July 2007 when the collapse of two Bear Stearns hedge funds that had speculated heavily in mortgage-backed securities signaled the onset of a major credit crunch, the Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Treasury Department have pulled out all the stops as finance has imploded. They have flooded the financial sector with hundreds of billions of dollars and have promised to pour in trillions more if necessary—operating on a scale and with an array of tools that is unprecedented.

In an act of high drama, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson appeared before Congress on the evening of September 18, 2008, during which the stunned lawmakers were told, in the words of Senator Christopher Dodd, “that we’re literally days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system, with all the implications here at home and globally.” This was immediately followed by Paulson’s presentation of an emergency plan for a $700 billion bailout of the financial structure, in which government funds would be used to buy up virtually worthless mortgage-backed securities (referred to as “toxic waste”) held by financial institutions. 3

The outburst of grassroots anger and dissent, following the Treasury secretary’s proposal, led to an unexpected revolt in the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted down the bailout plan. Nevertheless, within a few days Paulson’s original plan (with some additions intended to provide political cover for representatives changing their votes) made its way through Congress. However, once the bailout plan passed financial panic spread globally with stocks plummeting in every part of the world—as traders grasped the seriousness of the crisis. The Federal Reserve responded by literally deluging the economy with money, issuing a statement that it was ready to be the buyer of last resort for the entire commercial paper market (short-term debt issued by corporations), potentially to the tune of $1.3 trillion.

Yet, despite the attempt to pour money into the system to effect the resumption of the most basic operations of credit, the economy found itself in liquidity trap territory, resulting in a hoarding of cash and a cessation of inter-bank loans as too risky for the banks compared to just holding money. A liquidity trap threatens when nominal interest rates fall close to zero. The usual monetary tool of lowering interest rates loses its effectiveness because of the inability to push interest rates below zero. In this situation the economy is beset by a sharp increase in what Keynes called the “propensity to hoard” cash or cash-like assets such as Treasury securities.

Fear for the future given what was happening in the deepening crisis meant that banks and other market participants sought the safety of cash, so whatever the Fed pumped in failed to stimulate lending. The drive to liquidity, partly reflected in purchases of Treasuries, pushed the interest rate on Treasuries down to a fraction of 1 percent, i.e., deeper into liquidity trap territory. 4

Facing what Business Week called a “financial ice age,” as lending ceased, the financial authorities in the United States and Britain, followed by the G-7 powers as a whole, announced that they would buy ownership shares in the major banks, in order to inject capital directly, recapitalizing the banks—a kind of partial nationalization. Meanwhile, they expanded deposit insurance. In the United States the government offered to guarantee $1.5 trillion in new senior debt issued by banks. “All told,” as the New York Times stated on October 15, 2008, only a month after the Lehman Brothers collapse that set off the banking crisis, “the potential cost to the government of the latest bailout package comes to $2.25 trillion, triple the size of the original $700 billion rescue package, which centered on buying distressed assets from banks.”5 But only a few days later the same paper ratcheted up its estimates of the potential costs of the bailouts overall, declaring: “In theory, the funds committed for everything from the bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and those of Wall Street firm Bear Stearns and the insurer American International Group, to the financial rescue package approved by Congress, to providing guarantees to backstop selected financial markets [such as commercial paper] is a very big number indeed: an estimated $5.1 trillion.”6

Despite all of this, the financial implosion has continued to widen and deepen, while sharp contractions in the “real economy” are everywhere to be seen. The major U.S. automakers are experiencing serious economic shortfalls, even after Washington agreed in September 2008 to provide the industry with $25 billion in low interest loans. Single-family home construction has fallen to a twenty-six-year low. Consumption is expected to experience record declines. Jobs are rapidly vanishing. 7 Given the severity of the financial and economic shock, there are now widespread fears among those at the center of corporate power that the financial implosion, even if stabilized enough to permit the orderly unwinding and settlement of the multiple insolvencies, will lead to a deep and lasting stagnation, such as hit Japan in the 1990s, or even a new Great Depression. 8

The financial crisis, as the above suggests, was initially understood as a lack of money or liquidity (the degree to which assets can be traded quickly and readily converted into cash with relatively stable prices). The idea was that this liquidity problem could be solved by pouring more money into financial markets and by lowering interest rates. However, there are a lot of dollars out in the financial world—more now than before—the problem is that those who own the dollars are not willing to lend them to those who may not be able to pay them back, and that’s just about everyone who needs the dollars these days. This then is better seen as a solvency crisis in which the balance sheet capital of the U.S. and UK financial institutions—and many others in their sphere of influence—has been wiped out by the declining value of the loans (and securitized loans) they own, their assets.

As an accounting matter, most major U.S. banks by mid-October were insolvent, resulting in a rash of fire-sale mergers, including JPMorgan Chase’s purchase of Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns, Bank of America’s absorption of Countrywide and Merrill Lynch, and Wells Fargo’s acquiring of Wachovia. All of this is creating a more monopolistic banking sector with government support. 9 The direct injection of government capital into the banks in the form of the purchase of shares, together with bank consolidations, will at most buy the necessary time in which the vast mass of questionable loans can be liquidated in orderly fashion, restoring solvency but at a far lower rate of economic activity—that of a serious recession or depression.

In this worsening crisis, no sooner is one hole patched than a number of others appear. The full extent of the loss in value of securitized mortgage, consumer and corporate debts, and the various instruments that attempted to combine such debts with forms of insurance against their default (such as the “synthetic collateralized debt obligations,” which have credit-debt swaps “packaged in” with the CDOs), is still unknown. Key categories of such financial instruments have been revalued recently down to 10 to 20 percent in the course of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the take-over of Merrill Lynch. 10 As sharp cuts in the value of such assets are applied across the board, the equity base of financial institutions vanishes along with trust in their solvency. Hence, banks are now doing what John Maynard Keynes said they would in such circumstances: hoarding cash. 11 Underlying all of this is the deteriorating economic condition of households at the base of the economy, impaired by decades of frozen real wages and growing consumer debt.

Read the rest of this article (with graphs) here

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