Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Michael Hudson calls for Debt Write Offs to End Debt Deflation

One would think that politicians would be willing to do the math and realize that debts that can’t be paid, won’t be. But the debts are being kept on the books, continuing to extract interest to pay the creditors that have made the bad loans. The resulting debt deflation threatens to keep the economy in depression until a radical shift in policy occurs – a shift to save the “real” economy, not just the financial sector and the wealthiest 10 per cent of American families.

There is no sign that Mr. Obama’s economic advisors, Treasury officials and heads of the relevant Congressional committees recognize the need for a write-down. After all, they have been placed in their positions precisely because they do not understand that debt leveraging is a form of economic overhead, not real “wealth creation.” But their tunnel vision is what makes them “reliable” to Wall Street, which doesn’t like surprises. And the entire character of today’s financial crisis continues to be labeled “surprising” and “unexpected” by the press as each new surprisingly pessimistic statistic hits the news. It’s safe to be surprised; suspicious to have expected bad news and being a “premature doomsayer.” One must have faith in the system above all. And the system was the Greenspan Bubble.

The Obama-Geithner plan to restart the Bubble Economy’s debt growth so as to inflate asset prices by enough to pay off the debt overhang out of new “capital gains” cannot possibly work. But that is the only trick these ponies know. We have entered an era of asset-price deflation, not inflation. Economic data charts throughout the world have hit a wall and every trend has been plunging vertically downward since last autumn. U.S. consumer prices experienced their fastest plunge since the Great Depression of the 1930s, along with consumer “confidence,” international shipping, real estate and stock market prices, oil and the exchange rate for British sterling. The global economy is falling into depression, and cannot recover until debts are written down.

Instead of doing this, the government is doing just the opposite. It is proposing to take bad debts onto the public-sector balance sheet, printing new Treasury bonds give the banks – bonds whose interest charges will have to be paid by taxing labor and industry.

As in Third World austerity programs, the effect of keeping the debts in place at the “real” economy’s expense will be to shrink the domestic U.S. market – while providing opportunities for hedge funds to pick up depreciated assets cheaply as the federal government, states and cities sell them off. This is called letting the banks “earn their way out of debt.” It’s strangling the “real” economy, because not a dollar of the government’s response has been devoted to reducing the overall debt volume.

Take the much-vaunted $50 billion program designed to renegotiate mortgages downward for “troubled homeowners.” Upon closer examination it turns out that the real beneficiaries are the giant leading banks such as Citibank and Bank of America that have made the bad loans. The Treasury will take on the bad debt that banks are stuck with, and will permit mortgagees to renegotiate their monthly payment down to 38 per cent of their income. But rather than the banks taking the loss as they should do for over-lending, the Treasury itself will make up the difference – and pay it to the banks so that they will be able to get what they hoped to get. The hapless mortgage-burdened family stuck in their negative-equity home turns out to be merely a passive vehicle for the Treasury to pass debt relief on to the commercial banks.

Few news stories have made this clear, but the Financial Times spelled the details buried in small print. It added that the Treasury has not yet decided whether to write down the debt principal for the estimated 15 million families with negative equity (and perhaps 30 million by this time next year as property prices continue to plunge). No doubt a similar deal will be made: For every $100,000 of write-down in debt owed by over-mortgaged homeowners, the bank will receive $100,000 from the Treasury. Government debt will rise by $100,000, and the process will continue until the Treasury has transferred $50,000,000 to the banks that made the reckless loans.

There is enough for just 500,000 of these renegotiations of $100,000 each. It may seem like a big amount, but it’s only about 1/30th of the properties underwater. Hardly enough to make much of a dent, but the principle has been put in place for many further bailouts. It will take almost an infinity of them, as long as the Treasury tries to support the fiction that “the miracle of compound interest” can be sustained for long. The economy may be dead by the time saner economic understanding penetrates the public consciousness.

In the mean time, bad private-sector debt will be shifted onto the government’s balance sheet. Interest and amortization currently owed to the banks will be replaced by obligations to the U.S. Treasury. Taxes will be levied to make up the bad debts with which the government is stuck. The “real” economy will pay Wall Street – and will be paying for decades!

Calling the $12 trillion giveaway to bankers a “subprime crisis” makes it appear that bleeding-heart liberals got Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into trouble by insisting that these public-private institutions make irresponsible loans to the poor. The party line is, “Blame the victim.” But we know this is false. The bulk of bad loans are concentrated in the largest banks. It was Countrywide and other banksters that led the irresponsible lending and brought heavy-handed pressure on Fannie Mae. Most of the nation’s smaller, local banks didn’t make such reckless loans. The big mortgage shops didn’t care about loan quality, because they were run by salesmen. The Treasury is paying off the gamblers and billionaires by supporting the value of bank loans, investments and derivative gambles, leaving the Treasury in debt.

Let’s first dispose of the “foundation myth” of the idea still guiding the United States and Europe. Free-market economists pretend that prices can be brought into line most efficiently with technologically necessary costs of production under capitalism, and indeed, under finance capitalism. The banks and stock market are supposed to allocate resources most efficiency. That at least is the dream of self-regulating markets. But today it looks like only a myth, public relations patter talk to get a generation of increasingly indebted voters not to act in their own self-interest.

Industrial capitalism always has been a hybrid, a symbiosis with its feudal legacy of absentee property ownership, oligarchic finance and public debts rather than the government acting as net creditor. The essence of feudalism was extractive, not productive.

Today it is easier to see that the Western economies cannot go on the way they have been. They have reached the point where the debts exceed the ability to pay. Instead of recognizing this fact and scaling debts back into line with the ability to pay, the Obama-Geithner plan is to bail out the big banks and hedge funds, keeping the volume of debt in place and indeed, growing once again through the “magic of compound interest.” The result can only be an increasingly extractive economy, until households, real estate and industrial companies, states and cities, and the national government itself is driven into debt peonage.

The alternative is a century and a half old, and emerged out of the ideals of the classical economic doctrines of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and the last great classical economist, Marx. Their common denominator was to view rent and interest are extractive, not productive. Classical political economy and its successor Progressive Era socialism sought to nationalize the land (or at least to fully tax its rent as the fiscal base). Governments were to create their own credit, not leave this function to wealthy elites via a bank monopoly on credit creation. So today’s neoliberalism paints a false picture of what the classical economists envisioned as free markets. They were markets free of economic rent and interest (and taxes to support an aristocracy or oligarchy). Socialism was to free economies from these overhead charges. Today’s Obama-Geithner rescue plan is just the reverse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It’s Not Our National Debt!

Join the Washington National Debt Revolt - Washington has bailed out the banks, Wall Street & their Washington special interests and much of the cost is added to the national debt to by paid by this and future generations while real estate and investments continue to fall.

The Campaign to Cancel the Washington National Debt By Constitutional Amendment is starting now in the U.S. See: