“Politics is about what works,” someone once said. Perhaps it was Hillary Clinton. Someone said it…someone who is an imbecile.
Politics is not about what works, it’s about what you can get away with. And what you can get away with is often exactly what doesn’t work at all.
Our beat is money, here at Markets and Money. We specialize in fraud and folderol. We leave the homicide beat to someone else.
What the United States is getting away with, from a financial point of view, in addition to counterfeiting, is grand larceny on a Super-Madoff scale. It is borrowing trillions of dollars even though it has no way to honestly pay back the money.
Still, so eager are the lenders to part with their money that the yield on the 10-year T-note fell yesterday to 3.64%. The more the feds borrow, apparently, the more lenders are willing to lend.
We’re in the third and fatal stage of a great country – the political stage. In this stage, money and power migrate from the financial community to the political community. The politicians get away with taking trillions out of the productive economy and spending them on their pet projects and private corruptions.
Warren Buffett described the America of the bubble years as “Squanderville.” Private citizens were living beyond their means, he pointed out. But he hadn’t seen nothin’. Now, government does the squandering. The politicians are spending trillions they don’t have on projects nobody was willing to pay for even when they had some money in their pockets.
What the government can get away with now – under cover of a financial crisis – is a big grab for money and power. It ‘works’ in the sense the feds are able to get away with it. But it will prove fatal to the dollar…and to the US economy.
We will return to that subject below…
Back in the markets, the Dow fell modestly yesterday, down 16 points. Oil clung to the $69 level. Gold was up $3 to $924. And the dollar saw its biggest drop in weeks as speculators waited for word from the Fed on its next move.
The Fed is expected to talk about an “exit strategy.” It is intervening in markets as no Fed ever has. Its balance sheet – a measure of how much intervention it has done – has shot up in a way that is not only unprecedented, but also almost unbelievable. In an effort to provide liquidity, it has bought up the contents of every neglected refrigerator on Wall Street. The smelly, furry stuff – “toxic” derivatives…SIVs…MBAs…no one seems to know exactly what it is – enters the Fed’s books as an asset. Altogether, along with its not-so-
pungent holdings of US Treasury bonds, the Fed’s balance sheet shows more than $2.7 trillion worth of assets.
“It’s not sound economics – nor is it ethical – to trash the US dollar and bail out incompetent investors who poured billions into CMBS at the peak of the bubble,” says Strategic Short Report’s Dan Amoss. “There is no longer a ‘systemic risk’ argument for The Fed to be propping up the price of such securities.
“However, as the stock market falls and the economy weakens, we should expect the Fed to step on the accelerator again. I find it useful to think about the Fed’s role in such terms; as fear of inflation grows, the Fed will tap the brakes on its monetary debasement, and as fear of deflation grows, it will push the accelerator to the floor, if need be. The endgame under this tragic scenario is the eventual destruction of confidence in paper money, rapidly rising import prices for US consumers, and lower standards of living.”
What happens next?
We don’t know. But it is far too early to worry about it. The Fed is in no position to head for the exit. It will have to stay on this road for much, much longer.
Why? Because the “green shoots” are shriveling up. There is no real economic revival. And there can’t be one until the underlying problems are corrected.
One of the big problems is too much capacity. We mentioned it yesterday. During the Bubble Epoque the squanderers would buy anything. So, you could make an almost unlimited amount of money by providing them with things to buy. This meant building factories…buying trucks…and renting retail space. Now, however, the squanderers have come to their senses. They want to save their money. So, no need for so much retail space in the malls, so many trucks on the highways or so many factories in China.
America’s middle class has rediscovered thrift.
There are a number of sit-down restaurant chains that cater to the middle class – Applebee’s…Chili’s…Ruby Tuesday and a few others. They expanded greatly during the ’90s and ’00s in order to meet the desires of the big spending masses. But now that the masses aren’t so free and easy with their money, The New York Times reports that they are in desperate competition for remaining diners. This competition is manifesting itself as price deflation.
Applebee’s offers dinner for two for only $20. Chili’s advertises entrees for just $7. Ruby Tuesday’s is going for a 2-for-1 deal. Buy one meal, get one free. All of them are making heavy use of discount coupons.
Oversupply is producing deflation. Prices are falling as suppliers fight for demand by offering more for less. And over at the Red Roof…the roof has already caved in as the chain has defaulted on its mortgage debt.
This is what you’d expect at the end of a long period of credit expansion. EZ credit brought forth too much demand and too much supply. Now, the demand is disappearing…and the suppliers struggle to hold on.
Even now, we’re facing an economy in which 70% of our economic output depends on consumer buying. No buyers, no recovery.
This is natural, normal and perhaps necessary to a market economy. And it will take years to sort out. Roofs have to fall in on thousands of enterprises, speculators and households. Then, the rebuilding can begin.
But the Bernanke Fed is not about to let nature take her course. The Fed is on the road to ruin…and it’s not about to “exit” yet. Deflation is still enemy number one. Don’t expect any tightening from the Fed anytime soon, dear reader…it is far too soon for that.
Governments are essentially parasites on productive activity. So the best governments are the smallest – meaning, the least parasitic. “That government is best which governs least”, is how Jefferson put it.
But now we are in the third and fatal stage of a great country – the political stage. In this stage, the parasites take over. Government governs a lot. And governing a lot costs a lot of money. In England, the government budget is bumping up against half the total GDP of the nation. In America, health care is still largely a private matter, so the government spends a smaller percentage of GDP…but it is a percentage that is rising quickly.
Where will the money come from? Taxes. Gordon Brown has already put the income tax rate up to 50%. Michael Caine, an English actor who moved to California to escape the high taxes of the ’70s, says he will tolerate 50%…but not a penny more.
“If it goes to 51% I will be back in America,” he says.
Ahem…he might have to try somewhere else. Everybody’s gunning for the rich – in America as well as England. Obama has pledged to raise taxes on the rich. The states, notably California, are desperate for more revenue too. Add federal, state and local levies…and private health care costs…and you could easily be over the 50% bracket in America too.
But when you rob the productive Peters to pay the parasite Pauls two things happen. The Peters get their backs up. And you’ve soon cleaned them out anyway.
So, governments need to find other sources of financial support. Typically, they borrow money.
The history of European monarchies is largely a history of debt. Kings and queens squeezed what they could out of the turnips. Then they turned to the moneylenders. These lenders had to be careful. They were happy to extend monarchs credit, because in this way they gained a measure of control over them. But there were many dangers. Kings lost their heads…or went broke. Or, often, the monarchs could turn the tables on the moneylenders…and have their heads cut off. Reading the history of the loans to the French crown it is eye-opening. It is amazing anyone wanted to lend at all. The risks were great; the rewards were few. Rarely were the loans settled honorably.
What you come to see is that lending to the government – which always has the power to betray the loan and behead the lender – is merely another form of taxation. Government raises money. Sometimes it repays the loan with revenues from other taxes. Sometimes, it is the lender who pays the tax himself – either because the government defaults…or because inflation reduces the value of his money.
This week…indeed, this year…lenders are turning over massive amounts of money to the US government. There is so much demand for US paper that the yield on the 10-year note fell yesterday to 3.64% – despite the huge new supply of T-notes coming on the market. It is breathtaking to watch. But it is a story that will end badly. We predict that lenders will end up like the financiers who lent to Louis XIV and later regretted that they ever met the man.
“Every loan always diminishes the free revenue and necessitates, at the end of a certain time, either bankruptcy or the increase of taxes,” explained Turgot to a later Louis. “In times of peace it is permissible to borrow only in order to liquidate old debts, or in order to redeem other loans contracted on less adventurous terms.”
Any borrowing in excess of that puts you on the road to ruin, Turgot went on to explain.
More on Turgot – a man sadly neglected by historians – in upcoming reckonings.
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