God knows what manner of deals went down this past weekend in the Hamptons’ wine cellars and below-decks among the Chesapeake Bay sailboat fleet. All these hidey-holes must have been dank and fetid with the sweat of mortal fear. Will the U.S. government declare itself a subsidiary of General Electric? Will Vlad Putin be roped in to save Goldman Sachs? Meanwhile, the whole noisome rat maze of international counter-party deals was taking on sewer water and rodents of every nationality were seen leaping for daylight all over the fusty old motherlands of Europe. A cascading collapse of international finance is underway. While many fixers may jump heroically into the tumbling wreckage hoping to rescue this-and-that, the outcome by Friday is liable to be an unrecognizable smoldering landscape of the G-7’s hopes and dreams.
Some big questions for the week: will the Euro survive as a currency? Will the rush into the U.S. dollar continue even as the U.S. financial system dematerializes in a Fibonacci fever of accelerating de-leveraged infinitude? Will the remaining Big Boyz, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan succumb to the counter-party hemorrhagic fever? Will great rows of lesser banking dominoes now start clacking onto their faces? Will all fifty states follow the leads of California and Massachusetts and line up at the U.S. Treasury’s hand-out window. Will the entity that calls itself the civilized world be left at week’s end with anything resembling money?
Your guess is as good as mine. We’ve entered the realm of phase change, where everything is slipping and nothing has settled. The final result, when the dust settles – and that may not be for weeks to come – will certainly be a poorer western world. Will it be so poor that it can no longer afford to import anything? Including oil from the land of the date palm? If so, we are really in for a rough ride, poised as we are at the edge of the heating season here in the temperate regions. Notice, by the way, that the $700 billion just approved by congress to bail out Wall Street is exactly the same sum of money that we send to the oil exporting nations this year.
Will millions stop receiving paychecks due to the turmoil in banking? It’s certainly possible, starting with the poor drones in Mr. Schwarzenegger’s motor vehicle bureau and eventually ranging to every payroll office in the land. Will Sarah Palin’s fellow Six-packers line up around the parking lagoons of the suburban banks trying desperately to withdraw the last seventy bucks in their checking accounts? (And will their thoughts in the event be: this economy is fundamentally sound….) Will the supermarket shelves of chipotle-flavored crunchy snacks and power drinks go empty as truckers refuse to deliver their loads without up-front payment? And how long does it take a hungry public to turn mean?
We could see a parallel problem in the motor fuel supply sector. So far, gasoline shortages have only appeared in parts of the Southeast USA, due to interruptions caused by two hurricanes. If the oil tankers quit offloading now for lack of credible payment, then the whole nation will get an interesting lesson in the shortcomings of the suburban development pattern.
The candidates’ debate Tuesday night should be interesting. I don’t expect too much give-and-take on the subject of East Ossetia this time around.
Even at this point, the current crack-up in world finance makes the 1929 crash and the events of the 1930s look in comparison like an orderly small town auction of somebody’s grandmother’s effects. Back in that sepia day, America had plenty of everything except ready cash. We had, especially, plenty of our own oil, and – you’re not going to believe this but it’s true – the stuff was selling for as little as ten cents a barrel, it was so abundant. And yet still, America in the 1930s plunged into a dark depression of inactivity, loss of confidence, and impoverishment.
This time around, things could get more disorderly. Personally, I think we may be beyond the reach even of fascist authoritarianism, because unlike the programmed industrial masses of the 1930s, we are unused to regimentation, to lining up at the factory gates and the movie theaters. Back then, society was so regimented that everybody wore uniforms in-and-out of the military. Look at movies from the 1930s. Every man-jack wore either a necktie and hat or overalls. The industrial masses behaved like termites. Once unemployment hit, they were waiting to be told what to do, to line up for something. It worked fabulously for Hitler, who took every advantage of this mentality. Luckily, the US went for Roosevelt (both FDR and Hitler entered office the same winter of 1933, by the way). FDR was more like everybody’s kindly Uncle Frank, and his reassuring persona enabled Americans to suck up their bad luck and altered circumstances. Many of them retreated to the family farm (which still existed then) and waited things out – and, anyway, the melodrama of the Great Depression soon resolved in the Second World War when Hitler’s love of regimentation led him into military misadventure. He shouldn’t have picked a fight with someone who had so much petroleum – end-of-story.
Okay, what happens here and now? To this point (9 AM Monday October 6, 2008) events have been proceeding under a veneer of still-just-barely- credible authority. We (as represented by Congress) have allowed Mr. Paulson to advance and activate his remedies. As things unspool further, he will be out of credibility, perhaps in a few days, and it’s unlikely that his successor will have any either. Mr. Bernanke has simply gone AWOL. Notice, he has vanished from the media landscape. We may soon be hearing the declaration of various “emergency” measures involving the allocation of food and the rationing of oil products. The Big Bailout of last week may be partially rescinded as it becomes obvious that it has had no effect – I believe about half the $700 billion has already been allocated, which is to say: lost.
I realize these things sound pretty extreme. But forces have been set in motion and momentum rules. One thing for sure: the American public is about to undergo a severe mood adjustment. There will be fewer American Idol fans and worshippers of Donald Trump by the close of business on Friday.
James Howard Kunstler
for Markets and Money