Monday, December 08, 2008

Get set

The panic in global financial markets has sparked an unprecedented rush into safe US Treasury securities, driving yields on short-term government notes down to almost zero.(...) The low yields reflect a surge in demand for these instruments, seen as the safest in the world during times of turmoil.(...) Analysts say the fear factor has pushed up demand for Treasuries, since investors are virtually certain the US government will not default.(...) Bob Eisenbeis, analyst at Cumberland Advisors, said the unprecedented low yields are a sign of "dysfunction" in markets. Eisenbeis said US municipal bonds are paying upwards of 6.0 percent tax-free and corporate bonds even more, but that fears of default and a lack of knowledge about underlying bond quality have led investors to shun these alternatives. One reason for the surge in demand for Treasuries, said Eisenbeis, is the Federal Reserve's decision to flood financial markets with liquidity including through other central banks. Many central banks and commercial banks are reluctant to use this cash for traditional lending, and are buying Treasuries to ride out the storm, Eisenbeis added. A big question for the market is whether the Treasury market has become a bubble that will burst. Although the low rates allow Washington to borrow money cheaply, Eisenbeis said such a scenario could be perilous for the economy and the dollar.(...) "There are lots of reasons to believe this Treasury rally is unsustainable, and that a day of reckoning is fast approaching," he said. "When you have this huge flood of liquidity into the marketplace, that can't last forever," he said. A bursting of this bubble could mean a rush out of Treasuries, forcing the government to pay higher rates on an unprecedented amount of debt. (...) Mike Larson, an analyst at Weiss Research, says the long-term bond market could be "the biggest bubble of all," worse than the dot-com and real estate bubbles.(...)"Treasury bonds almost never move this far, this fast. And interest rates, which move in the opposite direction of bond prices, almost never fall this far, this fast," Larson said. (emphasis mine) AFP
David Seaton's News Links
One of the most interesting things about the decline of the American empire is that not only are the broad outlines familiar to most of the world's educated inhabitants, but even many of the details are too: details that in any other culture would be private "family" stories. That way we can use the English language and the American situation as a universal parable or mythology when broadly discussing the human condition.

Some readers of mine ask me for Spanish stories and, when I can, I am happy to oblige. The problem with doing this in an English language blog is having to provide masses of context about situations that most readers are not too familiar with.

However today there is a Spanish story that most Americans can appreciate.

As some of you may already know Spain's real estate bubble is one of the few that can rival America's and it is also deflating spectacularly.

Here is an item from an English language review of the Spanish press about Spain's second largest real estate developer, Martinsa-Fadesa:
El País notes today that the Martinsa real estate company overvalued the worth of its land by up to 19,000%. The paper claims that the company ended 2007 with profits because of these accounting irregularities, and gives as an example some land in Las Palmas worth a million € in their accounts, but valued at 179 million. A plot in A Coruña sold for 1.5 million appeared in the accounts with a value of 84 million.
That, in a nutshell is what this universal crisis in all about: cooked books, hidden debt, assets whose true value is unknown and perhaps unknowable. This has been going on at every level until value itself has become impossible to determine and wealth is frantically looking for someplace safe to hide.

We are now living through a gigantic spasm, perhaps another birth pang, perhaps the final death throes, of what Naomi Klein calls "Disaster Capitalism": the legacy of Milton Friedman.

What was once the proud ship of Marget Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the SS Milton Friedman, for decades a powerful intellectual movement, is now sinking in a tragic farce of unregulated larceny. Viewed from outer space it must be a barrel of laughs.

When we look at economic news though, it is important to put them immediately into a human perspective. Here is some interesting context:
As jobless numbers reach levels not seen in 25 years, another crisis is unfolding for millions of people who lost their health insurance along with their jobs, joining the ranks of the uninsured. (...) Starla D. Darling, 27, was pregnant when she learned that her insurance coverage was about to end. She rushed to the hospital, took a medication to induce labor and then had an emergency Caesarean section, in the hope that her Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan would pay for the delivery. Wendy R. Carter, 41, who recently lost her job and her health benefits, is struggling to pay $12,942 in bills for a partial hysterectomy at a local hospital. Her daughter, Betsy A. Carter, 19, has pain in her lower right jaw, where a wisdom tooth is growing in. But she has not seen a dentist because she has no health insurance.(...) About 10.3 million Americans were unemployed in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of unemployed has increased by 2.8 million, or 36 percent, since January of this year, and by 4.3 million, or 71 percent, since January 2001. Most people are covered through the workplace, so when they lose their jobs, they lose their health benefits. On average, for each jobless worker who has lost insurance, at least one child or spouse covered under the same policy has also lost protection, public health experts said.(...) Nearly 4.4 million people are receiving unemployment insurance benefits, an increase of 60 percent in the past year. But more than half of unemployed workers are not receiving help because they do not qualify or have exhausted their benefits. About 1.7 million families receive cash under the main federal-state welfare program, little changed from a year earlier. Welfare serves about 4 of 10 eligible families and fewer than one in four poor children. New York Times

An increasing number of people who retired in recent years, confident they had set aside enough to live on comfortably, are finding themselves strapped. The stock market plunge and the housing downturn have affected many Americans, of course. But retirees have been particularly pinched because their homes and investments are the primary assets they depend on for income. As a result, many of the country's elderly are finding themselves in Nelson's situation, low on money and looking for work. "Suddenly the rug has been pulled out from under them," says Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Business Week

Workers who got three days' notice their factory was shutting its doors voted to occupy the building and said Saturday they won't go home without assurances they'll get severance and vacation pay they say they are owed. (...)In the second day of a sit-in on the factory floor that began Friday, about 200 union workers occupied the building in shifts while union leaders outside criticized a Wall Street bailout they say is leaving laborers behind.(...) Organizers of the action said the company can't pay employees because its creditor, Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, won't let them.(...) Bank of America received $25 billion from the government's financial bailout package. "Across cultures, religions, union and nonunion, we all say this bailout was a shame," said Richard Berg, president of Teamsters Local 743. "If this bailout should go to anything, it should go to the workers of this country." Outside the plant, protesters wore stickers and carried signs that said, "You got bailed out, we got sold out." CBS2-Chicago
So, in the snippet from AFP that opens this post we see that US treasury bonds may constitute a bubble greater than the real estate or the Internet bubbles. We may surmise that a collapse of their value would have consequences far greater than those bubbles bursting have. Among those consequences might be hyperinflation and the subsequent pauperization of all Americans except the very, very rich.

The hardships portrayed in the snippets from the Times and from Business Week would multiply exponentially and the frequency of the actions that CBS2 Chicago writes about would multiply with them in lockstep. What are now isolated incidents could become an ungovernable cauldron in a very short time if the great mass of Americans were instantly pauperized as happened recently in Argentina.

Larissa MacFarquhar has written a "must read" profile of Naomi Klein in the current New Yorker. The following snippet may give an idea where the USA is headed right now:
The only time (Naomi Klein) has ever felt a whiff of utopia was in Buenos Aires, in 2002, when the political system had virtually disintegrated—during the time that she and Lewis were filming “The Take.” “That moment in Argentina was an incredible time because a vacuum opened up,” she says. “They had thrown out four Presidents in two weeks, and they had no idea what to do. Every institution was in crisis. The politicians were hiding in their homes. When they came out, housewives attacked them with brooms. And, walking around Buenos Aires at night, there were meetings on every other street corner. Every plaza where there was a streetlight, people were meeting under it and talking about what to do about the external debt, I swear to God. Groups of one hundred or five hundred people. And organizing buying groceries together because they could get cheaper prices, setting up barters because the currency was worthless. It was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen.”
If the 20th century has any lessons to teach us, it is that sort of scenario we see laid out clearly before us leads to massive social unrest and upheaval: if not properly managed it can be the classic yeast culture that every apprentice fascist dreams of.

Probably the left's greatest task in the coming months and years is steering this convulsion toward peace and solidarity and away from the temptations of war and mob violence. DS


Anonymous said...

Milton Friedman had no use for corruption; the markets cannot work without integrity.

Mike Doyle said...

Previous comment - "the markets cannot work without integrity".

I just read a long article - "Obamanomics" by David Leonhardt in the NYTimes Magazine from Aug 28. He discusses Obama's thoughts on the roles of 'the market' vs. Government regulation recognizing that the market doesn't always work. I was struck by how theoretical and detached it all was. Surely the most obvious point is how totally corrupt the economy is.

Detroit has been castigated for not developing fuel efficient cars etc. But Michigan Congressman Dingell has been their guy in DC to block any attempt to push Detroit in the 'right' direction for the common good; and his wife is GM's chief lobbyist.

Same with healthcare; it's not that policy makers don't know the facts, it's that they are blocked by corruption and bankrupt ideology.

forensic economist said...

David - I'd like your comments on the latest Blagovich scandle - you once opined that Obama was part of the Chicago machine which seems to be unraveling.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

What can I say, that I haven't been saying for months?