Friday, November 05, 2010

u.s. quantitative easing is fracturing the global economy

globalresearch | One-third of U.S. real estate is now reported to be in negative equity, as market prices have fallen behind mortgage debts. This is bad news not only for homeowners but also for their bankers, as the collateral for their mortgage loans does not cover the principal. Homeowners are walking away from their homes, and the real estate market is so thoroughly plagued with a decade of deception and outright criminal fraud that property titles themselves are losing security. And despite FBI findings that financial fraud is found in over three-quarters of the packaged mortgages they have examined, the Obama Justice Department has not sent a single bankster to jail.
Instead, the financial crooks have been placed in charge– and they are using their power over government to promote their own predatory gains, having disabled U.S. public regulatory agencies and the criminal justice system to create a new kind of centrally planned economy in the hands of banks. As Joseph Stiglitz recently observed:

In the years prior to the breaking of the bubble, the financial industry was engaged in predatory lending practices, deceptive practices. They were optimizing not in producing mortgages that were good for the American families but in maximizing fees and exploiting and predatory lending. Going and targeting the least educated, the Americans that were most easy to prey on.

We’ve had this well documented. And there was the tip of the iceberg that even in those years the FBI was identifying fraud. When they see fraud, it’s really fraud. But beneath that surface, there were practices that really should have been outlawed if they weren’t illegal.

… the banks used their political power to make sure they could get away with this [and] … that they could continue engaging in these kinds of predatory behaviors. … there's no principle. It’s money. It’s campaign contributions, lobbying, revolving door, all of those kinds of things.

… it’s like theft … A good example of that might be [former Countrywide CEO] Angelo Mozillo, who recently paid tens of millions of dollars in fines, a small fraction of what he actually earned, because he earned hundreds of millions.
The system is designed to actually encourage that kind of thing, even with the fines. … we fine them, and what is the big lesson? Behave badly, and the government might take 5% or 10% of what you got in your ill-gotten gains, but you’re still sitting home pretty with your several hundred million dollars that you have left over after paying fines that look very large by ordinary standards but look small compared to the amount that you've been able to cash in.

The fine is just a cost of doing business. It’s like a parking fine. Sometimes you make a decision to park knowing that you might get a fine because going around the corner to the parking lot takes you too much time.

I think we ought to go do what we did in the S&L [crisis] and actually put many of these guys in prison. Absolutely. These are not just white-collar crimes or little accidents. There were victims. That’s the point. There were victims all over the world. … the financial sector really brought down the global economy and if you include all of that collateral damage, it’s really already in the trillions of dollars.

This victimization of the international financial system is a consequence of the U.S. Government’s attempt to bail out the banks by re-inflating U.S. real estate, stock and bond markets at least to their former Bubble Economy levels. This is what U.S. economic policy and even its foreign policy is now all about, including de-criminalizing financial fraud. As Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner tried to defend this policy: “Americans were rightfully angry that the same firms that helped create the economic crisis got taxpayer support to keep their doors open. But the program was essential to averting a second Great Depression, stabilizing a collapsing financial system, protecting the savings of Americans [or more to the point, he means, their indebtedness] and restoring the flow of credit that is the oxygen of the economy.”

Other economists might find a more fitting analogy to be carbon dioxide and debt pollution. “Restoring the flow of credit” is simply a euphemism for keeping the existing, historically high debt levels in place rather than writing them down – and indeed, adding yet more debt (“credit”) to enable home buyers, stock market investors and others to use yet more debt leverage to bid asset prices back up to rescue the banking system from the negative equity into which it has fallen. That is what Mr. Geithner means by “stabilizing a collapsing financial system” – bailing banks out of their bad loans and making all the counterparties of AIG’s fatal financial gambles whole at 100 cents on the dollar.

The Fed theorizes that if it provides nearly free liquidity in unlimited amounts, banks will lend it out at a markup to “reflate” the economy. The “recovery” that is envisioned is one of new debt creation. This would rescue the biggest and most risk-taking banks from their negative equity, by pulling homeowners out of theirs. Housing prices could begin to soar again.

But the hoped-for new borrowing is not occurring. Instead of lending more – at least, lending at home – banks have been tightening their loan standards rather than lending more to U.S. homeowners, consumers and businesses since 2007. This has obliged debtors to start paying off the debts they earlier ran up. The U.S. saving rate has risen from zero three years ago to 3% today – mainly in the form of amortization to pay down credit-card debt, mortgage debt and other bank loans.

Instead of lending domestically, banks are sending the Fed’s tsunami of credit abroad, flooding world currency markets with cheap U.S. “keyboard credit.” The Fed’s plan is like that of the Bank of Japan after its bubble burst in 1990: The hope is that lending to speculators will enable banks to earn their way out of debt. So U.S. banks are engaging in interest-rate arbitrage (the carry trade), currency speculation, commodity speculation (driving up food and mineral prices sharply this year), and buying into companies in Asia and raw materials exporters.

By forcing up targeted currencies against the dollar, this U.S. outflow into foreign exchange speculation and asset buy-outs is financial aggression. And to add insult to injury, Mr. Geithner is accusing China of “competitive non-appreciation.” This is a euphemistic term of invective for economies seeking to maintain currency stability. It makes about as much sense as to say “aggressive self-defense.” China’s interest, of course, is to avoid taking a loss on its dollar holdings and export contracts denominated in dollars (as valued in its own domestic renminbi).

Countries on the receiving end of this U.S. financial conquest (“restoring stability” is how U.S. officials characterize it) understandably are seeking to protect themselves. Ultimately, the only serious way to do this is to erect a wall of capital controls to block foreign speculators from deranging currency and financial markets.

Changing the international financial system is by no means easy. How much of alternative do countries have, Martin Wolf recently asked. “To put it crudely,” he wrote:

the US wants to inflate the rest of the world, while the latter is trying to deflate the US. The US must win, since it has infinite ammunition: there is no limit to the dollars the Federal Reserve can create. What needs to be discussed is the terms of the world’s surrender: the needed changes in nominal exchange rates and domestic policies around the world.