Enlightened Economics

Economics for an Enlightened Age

Posts Tagged ‘debt wall’

• Severe Debt Scarcity Coming to US

Posted by Ron Robins on December 30, 2010

By Ron Robins. First published December 26, 2010, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

If US consumers believe it difficult to borrow now, just wait! In the next few years credit conditions are likely to go back seventy years when private debt was difficult to obtain. Most Americans intuitively believe there is too much debt at every level of society. But the economic and political vested interests do not want them worried about that. They want to give them credit to infinity to keep this economic mess from imploding. The US Federal Reserve’s new round of quantitative easing (QE2) is clear evidence of that. However, Americans are right about their inordinate debt load, and future economic conditions are likely to create a severe debt scarcity.

The principal reasons for the coming debt scarcity are that ‘debt saturation’—where total income cannot support total debt—has arrived, say some analysts; also, the growing understanding that adding new debt may not increase GDP—it could decrease it; and that the banks and financial system are a train wreck in waiting, eventually being forced to mark their assets to market, thus creating for them massive asset write-downs and strangling their lending ability.

The realization that debt saturation has arrived will not surprise many people. But understanding that new debt can decrease economic activity might surprise them. And the numbers illustrate this possibility. In Nathan’s Economic Edge, Nathan states, “in the third quarter of 2009 each dollar of debt added produced NEGATIVE 15 cents of productivity, and at the end of 2009, each dollar of new debt now SUBTRACTS 45 cents from GDP!”

In fact Nathan also shows that for decades, each new dollar of debt produces less and less in return, from a return of close to $0.90 in the mid 1960s to about $0.20 by 2007. One explanation for this is that as societal debt increased it focused disproportionately on consumption rather than productive enterprise, whose return appears greater.

On the subject of consumption, the renowned economist David Rosenberg in The Globe & Mail on August 16 stated that “U.S. household debt-income ratio peaked in the first quarter of 2008 at 136 per cent. The ratio currently sits at 126 per cent, but the pre-2001 norm was 70 per cent. To get down to this normalized ratio again, debt would have to be reduced by about $6-trillion. So far, nearly $600-billion of bad household debt has been destroyed.” This data reaffirms Americans growing aversion to debt, that debt has become too onerous, and is suggestive of debt saturation.

Replacing declining consumer debt is the exponential growth of US government debt. For 2009 and 2010, the combined US government’s fiscal deficits required or require borrowing an extra $2.7 trillion or so. Yet with all that spending—combined with about $2 trillion of ‘money printing’ from the US Federal Reserve (the Fed)—it created only around $1 trillion in increased economic growth!

One may argue that the phenomenal US government borrowings will provide returns far into the future and that the present low economic returns are due to not funding areas with potentially better returns. Some economists say that spending on infrastructure and education provides the best returns. However, with economists such as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman and numerous others predicting huge continuing deficits for years ahead, and with a Japan-like slump in economic activity, the odds are likely that any new borrowed dollar will continue to provide only poor returns for years to come.

A further, major reason for the coming debt scarcity will be the tremendously impaired financial condition of the banks. The values assigned to many bank assets are fictional according to numerous experts. QE2 is about many things but one of them is aimed at delaying the potential for implosion of the banking system. In 2009, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) caved in to government and banking industry lobbyists to allow many bank assets to be ‘marked to fantasy’ and not ‘marked to market.’

This viewpoint is best expressed by highly respected Associate Professor William Black (and formerly a senior regulator who nailed the banks during the savings and loan debacle) and Professor L. Randall Wray, who wrote an article on October 22 in The Huffington Post, entitled, “Foreclose on the Foreclosure Fraudsters, Part 1: Put Bank of America in Receivership.” They wrote that, “FASB’s new rules allowed the banks (and the Fed, which has taken over a trillion dollars in toxic mortgages as wholly inadequate collateral) to refuse to recognize hundreds of billions of dollars of losses. This accounting scam produces enormous fictional ‘income’ and ‘capital’ at the banks.”

However, the Federal Reserve may be realizing that it might not have been such a good idea to buy some of these ‘toxic’ securities. Bloomberg reported on October 19 that, “citing alleged failures by Countrywide to service loans properly… Pacific Investment Management Co., BlackRock Inc. and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York are seeking to force Bank of America Corp. to repurchase soured mortgages packaged into $47 billion of bonds by its Countrywide Financial Corp. unit, people familiar with the matter said.”

Also, on November 2, CNBC reported that Citigroup could be liable for huge amounts of toxic security buy-backs as well. “If all four mortgage acquisition channels turn out to be equally as defective… Citi’s liability for repurchases could soar to about $100 billion dollars at a 60 per cent defect rate – and to around $133 billion dollars at an 80 per cent defect rate.”

Clearly, such numbers are staggering. These, as well as many other banks and financial entities, could collapse. Politically, in the present circumstances, it would be difficult for the US government to provide massive new funds to support the financial system. Therefore, it will be up to the Fed to decide what to do.

If the Fed prints ever increasing amounts of new money to try to moderate the financial collapse, hyperinflation could be the result. If it does not print massive amounts of new money, a deflationary depression could be born.

In high inflationary or hyperinflationary conditions, few will want to lend as they get paid back in dollars that are declining very rapidly in value. In a deflationary episode, lending is reduced due to huge loan losses. Therefore, during either, and/or after such events, debt scarcity will be in full force.

Data indicates that American consumers do not want to increase their debt. Debt saturation is occurring, and with it a declining return on each borrowed dollar—even for the US government. Most significantly, the banks and the financial system will probably soon experience a new round of massive real estate related losses and subsequent financial institutions’ bankruptcies. Thus, a new major financial crisis will likely soon engulf America, greatly impairing its lending facilities and creating a severe scarcity of debt.

Copyright alrroya.com

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• Debt/Bailout Bubbles May Burst. Brighter Future Beyond 2012!

Posted by Ron Robins on July 19, 2009

A stressed American consciousness focusing on material acquisition to the virtual exclusion of satisfying higher inner values has given rise to an unwieldy debt mountain. Now the U.S. government is borrowing and spending massively as it tries to pump-up the economy while backstopping much of the countries debt.

Consumers and companies have largely hit a ‘debt wall.’ And with a possible derivative meltdown and the recognition of enormous unfunded U.S. liabilities, we may see the U.S. government itself hit the debt wall in the not-so-distant future. The subsequent reaction would topple the debt mountain and pop the bailout bubble. But I believe a new higher consciousness will arise from these extraordinary events creating a truly enlightened economy mirroring our higher, inner human values.

Bailouts, guarantees, and write-offs galore
So far in this phase of the crisis the U.S. federal government and Federal Reserve have already guaranteed or spent around $13 trillion! And the current 2009 U.S. federal budget deficit will top $2 trillion, or about 14% of U.S. GDP. More stimulus packages are likely and massive deficits for years into the future are projected as it is unlikely that the economy will gain self-sustaining traction to stop unemployment from increasing. Economists such as 2008 Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman and others in the Obama administration are already discussing the possibility of another huge stimulus package.

Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on April 21, 2009, estimated global financial system write-offs to exceed $4,100 billion. The write-offs to-date are not anywhere close to that figure therefore, enormous additional financial system losses are yet to come.

A two-phased crisis
I see two phases to the U.S. financial crises. Each alone is capable of bursting the bailout bubble. Phase 1, which we are currently in, involves the write-offs of bad mortgages, loans, deleveraging, extraordinary U.S. government and Federal Reserve guarantees and financing, and a potential derivative implosion. Any sudden interest rate hikes and/or currency movements could trigger an implosion in the $450 trillion (ISDA April 22 press release) derivatives market and cause further financial chaos.

To enable U.S. government bond sales, it is probable that the U.S. federal government will, if it is not doing so already, pressure the banks with whom it has ‘invested in,’ to purchase considerable amounts of its bonds. The banks in turn will get substantial loans from the Federal Reserve for these purchases. In essence this is back-door ‘monetization’ (read ‘quantitative easing’) of U.S. government debt. Monetization simply means the printing of new money by central banks to purchase assets, in this case, U.S. government bonds.

Of course the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and other central banks have already engaged or have announced significant monetization efforts. The central banks claim that they will be able to drain this liquidity (excess money) out of the system as their economies recover. Unfortunately, historical examples do not give much reassurance that this can be done, especially in a global trading environment and where the major countries have amassed such extraordinary levels of debt.

Deeply indebted governments and societies have the choice of trying to reduce their debt levels—which can produce a potentially deflationary recession/depression—or they can encourage central bank monetization efforts that offer a ‘chance’ to get the economy rolling and create sufficient inflation, thus lessening the relative debt load. However, once started hefty monetization efforts often prove impossible to contain, leading to uncontrollable inflation—and even hyper-inflation. Subsequently, interest rates soar, the countries currency plunges in value, its debt mountain topples, and bailout bubbles burst.

Adding to the impetus for monetization will be when Phase 2 of this crisis kicks-in in 2010 as the U.S. begins to face its looming, huge, unfunded liabilities for medicare and social security. These are estimated by Shadowstats at $65.5 trillion. To properly fund this liability would require the U.S. government to put aside trillions of dollars yearly. Clearly, the U.S. government has no possibility or desire to put aside such funds. In addition, the current proposals for health care reform may add considerably to these numbers.

Taken together, these two phases of economic crisis make it unlikely that the U.S. can escape its fate of the bursting of its debt and bail-out bubbles.

Beyond 2012 a brighter future
I believe the underlying collective consciousness of U.S. society is moving toward higher values, and the more balanced approach to consumption and savings is evidence of this. However, in the course of these changes the likelihood of the debt mountain toppling, the bailout bubble bursting, and the onset of high or hyperinflation are real possibilities. By the end of this process, sometime around 2012, the American collective consciousness will have sufficiently evolved to begin the path of developing a truly sustainable economy mirroring the values of an economics based on our higher inner human values and consciousness—and that path is the realm of Enlightened Economics.

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© Ron Robins, 2009.

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• Short-Term Thinking Created Economic Pain

Posted by Ron Robins on December 12, 2008

Short-term unbalanced thinking has gotten us economic pain. The dangers of short-term thinking in economic matters became particularly evident to me in the late 1990s. At that time I said to colleagues that if the U.S. does not change its course, it is heading towards major economic difficulties. I made that statement after studying the trends of many economic statistics, particularly those of debt accumulation and savings rates.

Illustrating the short-term thinking at its worst is the current dire situation of Detroit’s Big Three auto makers.

In 2001, I quoted Maryann Keller, a top auto industry analyst in my still unfinished book, Investing for the Soul. She said in a Forbes article that year, “[That] Chrysler, GM and Ford spent billions of dollars to buy their stock in the open market since the mid-1990s… It was always obvious that product spending [developing new autos] was being sacrificed to provide trading liquidity [ease of selling stock] for big investors while boosting earnings per share. GM, Ford and the Chrysler Group today [remember this was 2001] find themselves with growing gaps in their product portfolios as they lose market share…”

Short-termism pervades current thinking in economics, finance and business. Examples of this are everywhere. In economics, the U.S. Federal Reserve is always trying to fine-tune interest rates to effect relatively short-term changes. In finance, managers of ‘long-term’ mutual funds turnover their portfolios more than 100% a year (refer to page 18) as they are primarily evaluated on their latest quarterly results. In business, many CEOs who want to embed in their companies’ long term beneficial environmental, social and governance (ESG) actions—are handicapped by investors looking for short-term gains.

Even today, the financial bailouts are ad hoc arising from the immediate financial market chaos. However, over the next year it will become apparent that this short-term oriented government borrowing and spending binge will not solve the basic long-term problem of excessive debt. In fact, it only adds to it. Every family knows that you cannot forever borrow more than you earn and spend your way out of debt.

Soon, the U.S.A. will have to face-up to the reality that, either willingly or coerced, it will have to save more and spend less. It would be best if this could happen gradually over say, seven to ten years. That might well have been possible in the 1990s. But today though, it is unlikely as many consumers have hit the ‘debt wall.’ Unable (or unwilling) to borrow, they are reducing their spending significantly.

I believe next to hit the debt wall will be numerous businesses in the first half of 2009 followed by the possibility of the U.S. government itself, perhaps in the final six months of that year. Then a new reality will dawn in the minds of Americans and people everywhere. Their thinking will have to change.

Very few economists and financial market participants attempt to understand the connection between our thought processes and economic behaviour. Yet it is so obvious! The only permanent way out of this mess is for people everywhere to gain an inner sense of balance and well-being while developing their creativity and intelligence to earn more.

Such balanced, developed individuals will not sacrifice their longer-term material and spiritual goals for short-term gains like a drug addict needing an immediate ‘fix.’ This is the central, unacknowledged task, for individuals everywhere amidst this economic turmoil. When accepted, it will usher in an age of Enlightened Economics and bring unprecedented global affluence.

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© Ron Robins, 2008.

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