Sunday, February 17, 2008
The Fall of the Dollar Empire
"America's fate is at the mercy of foreign investors (China, India, Russia and many others with around 10 % annual GDP growth) which are getting stronger by the day and represent the economies of the future." Hamid Varzi, Economist and International banker
The crisis began in 2000 with Bush Jr.'s election that re-established the irresponsible “Supply Side” and “trickle-down” economic policies of the Reagan years. We are wrong to focus only on the subprime crisis, which has been conveniently blown out of all proportion in order to create the convenient and comforting impression that this is a manageable problem solvable through a simple reduction in interest rates and a 90-day government mandated delay on foreclosures (Hillary's recommendation). The subprime crisis presages far greater problems down the road. It is already spreading to other forms of commercial paper, and even if the damage can be contained the relief will be only temporary because a much larger danger is looming on the horizon: The US economy has grown largely on the back of speculative credit derivatives that have risen exponentially to $ 35 trillion, which is more than double the size of the entire US economy! This is an approaching iceberg, and all you've seen (in the sub-prime scandal) is the tip. To return to your question, the first chart below proves that speculative commercial lending received a major boost with Bush's election, and soared with his re-election.
The real root cause of the subprime crisis began with Ronald Reagan. Wall Street 'wisdom' hails Ronald Reagan as the last great saviour of US Capitalism. However, supporters of Ronald Reagan seem unable to explain the unprecedented exponential growth of stocks, during Clinton's presidency, on the back of equally unprecedented (= exploding) budget surpluses, a major decline in the Federal Debt and a major strengthening of the Dollar.
Bush raised fiscal irresponsibility to new highs. The charts below explain why the subprime crisis did NOT occur on Clinton's watch:
During Clinton's 8 years he turned a $ 135 billion Bush Sr. deficit into a $ 526 billion budget surplus, he significantly reduced the National Debt and simultaneously presided over a mind-boggling 240 % rise in the stock market. The perspective of strong fiscal discipline encouraged foreigners to invest in the US and the Dollar rose over 20 % as a result of a combination of the above 3 factors.
Yes, the world has indeed weathered the crisis, because the US sold only about 20 % of its economic toxic waste to the rest of the world. Most importantly, the nations which bought America's toxic waste have suffered financial losses only among their financial institutions, not among the general population which, in most industrialized countries, has to make a 30 % mortgage cash down-payment and provide solid evidence of regular financial income before being granted a mortgage. Not one home-owner in Germany or France or England faced foreclosure because of what happened in the US.
This actually demonstrates how quickly global economies are decoupling from the US economy. The US has a $ 9 trillion National Debt and a net $ 3 trillion foreign debt, so obviously any crisis is going to hit indebted countries far harder than nations flush with cash (Russia, China, India, Japan, the 'Tigers' and Western Europe). The US is in deep fundamental, historical trouble.
Investment bankers tend to be 'cowboys' and 'gamblers' salivating at the prospect of gigantic bonuses when they succeed, and many of whom simply move on to the next bank when they fail (Nick Leeson of Barings Bank was an exception, but only because he actually bankrupted the bank! But I don't believe M. Kerviel has even been charged; he was arrested and then released!).
As for the US mortgage lenders, their 'irresponsibility' bordered on 'fraud', because they lent money to people who obviously couldn't pay, simply in order to earn higher commissions/fees. If you place a knife in the hand of a 2-year old child and it cuts itself it is you, and not the child, who has been criminally negligent, particularly if you have benefited from the child's discomfort as did the mortgage lenders.
What is its impact on the world economy? Greater controls will be imposed by governments across the globe to discourage financial speculation, which is a 'good thing'. Banks will refocus on trade and export finance rather than on gambling. The world economy will cool off (which will reduce some of the speculative excesses such as the current oil and gold prices).
Those at the bottom of the economic ladder in Europe are about 10 rungs above their counterparts in the US, so the effect will be negligible compared with the economic hardships to be faced continually by those at the bottom of the US economic ladder. Even setting aside the subprime crisis for a moment, US households are more in debt, generally, than at any time since the 1930s Great Depression. The US Wealth Gap and the US Household Savings rate are both at Great Depression extremes despite an extended period of global economic growth.
The U.S dollar has gone into a spiral of decline mainly because it has to borrow $ 3 billions each and every day from foreigners to finance its massive current account deficit and its war machine. Foreign nations have become nervous at the annual 10 % deterioration in their Dollar holdings. Foreigners don't even need to reduce their Dollar reserves to precipitate a Dollar crisis; they can do so merely by refusing to increase their holdings, i.e., refrain from participating in further US Treasury auctions.
The US crisis is an opportunity for booming economies like India and China to assume a more important role in the world's market. The US is totally dependent on China's goodwill. If the US were to ban all imports from China tomorrow morning the US economy would suffer a heart attack as it would have to import those same goods more expensively from elsewhere. In retaliation, the Chinese would sell their surplus Dollar mountain and precipitate a global economic depression. The emerging economies would be better able to withstand such an Armageddon scenario because they are accustomed to hardship, while decadent US consumers are already bankrupt despite an environment of extended global economic growth. The US would probably suffer riots, internal conflict and starvation for the first time in 80 years. Emerging economies are used to economic hardship and even war. The US is much more fragile than its leaders and economic pundits admit. There is a huge fundamental and conceptual difference between a) going from recession to depression (the USA), and b) going from 10 % + economic growth to a more reasonable 3 % economic growth (Russia, India, China, ….).