“Today, we’re pointed in the right direction… While we’ve rescued our economy from catastrophe, we’ve also begun to build a new foundation for growth,” said President Obama recently.
Unfortunately, the president’s declarations and all the talk about the green shoots by his acolytes in the media are merely wishful thinking. Far from rescuing it, the Bush/Obama stimulus has dealt a damaging blow to the economy, and one which will exert its harmful effects for years to come. We only need to take a quick look at the big picture to see why.
Last year the American economic system experienced major trauma as more and more banks, companies and individuals were brought to the verge of bankruptcy. In most cases their plight was caused by their inability to service their liabilities. Buoyed by the easy availability of cheap credit and loose monetary policy of preceding years, government, commercial entities as well as private persons had taken on unprecedented levels of debt. Paul Craig Roberts, formerly Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, correctly points out that we lived in “a debt economy.” Writing in Journal Sentinel, John Torinus, a banker with experience in leveraged buyouts, described the astonishingly lax mindset that had come to dominate the whole sphere of borrowing:
The investment banks that crashed and burned were leveraged as high as 35 to 1. Their 3% equity base disappeared in a sinkhole of excessive debt… The excessive leverage went far beyond the investment banks. Homebuyers could get insured or federally backed mortgages with 5% down or sometimes less. They were leveraged 20 to 1 or more. Credit checks were loose.
The cheap credit – which was made possible by artificially low interest rates – brought on the borrowing frenzy to a feverish pitch. Paul Craig Roberts observes:
The debt economy caused Americans to leverage their assets. They refinanced their homes and spent the equity. They maxed out numerous credit cards. They worked as many jobs as they could find. Debt expansion and multiple family incomes kept the economy going.
Toward the end of 2008 the overall debt level – public, commercial and personal – in the American economy was well over $50 trillion. This was three and a half times the size of the country’s total economic output (around $14 trillion) and more than double the debt level of 2000. At over 350 percent, this made ours the most over leveraged economy in history. To put it bluntly, all of us – individuals, businesses and especially government – lived beyond our means. The American economy was over-leveraged through and through.
The racket held while the economy boomed. But once it seized, the over-indebtedness became unsustainable and things began falling apart. Describing this process, Nouriel Roubinini, one of America‘s leading financial commentators, wrote in Forbes:
Americans lived in a “Made-off” and Ponzi bubble economy for a decade or even longer. Madoff is the mirror of the American economy and of its over-leveraged agents: a house of cards of leverage over leverage by households, financial firms and corporations that has now collapsed in a heap.
Painful as the impending bankruptcies tsunami would have been, it would have ultimately delivered a remedy. In order for an economic system to remain viable, excessive indebtedness must be corrected and those responsible chastised for their misjudgment. It is for this purpose that the market evolved the institution of bankruptcy. Had it been left to unfold unimpeded, the process would have reduced the overall leverage and the economy would have eventually found itself on a sound footing once again.
The government, however, resolved not to allow the market do its work. In a misguided attempt to avert the necessary pain, it began propping up failing enterprises and individuals with more easy credit and direct cash injections. And even though it was initially advertised as a relatively short-term and targeted effort, the operation has been ongoing for nearly nine months while continually expanding in scope.
This approach is fundamentally flawed on a number of levels. To begin with, the government’s actions interfere with the market’s corrective forces. But the most obvious problem is that the government simply does not have the money to do this. It is ironic that even before it embarked on its “rescue” effort, the government itself was already more deeply indebted than the companies it sought to save. With some $65 trillion in total obligations, the federal government was, in fact, the most over-leveraged institution in America.
The rescue has unsurprisingly turned out to be a singularly expensive undertaking. So much so that the government’s deficit at the end of this fiscal year will exceed the previous record by nearly a factor of four. At some 11 percent of GDP, this is also the highest peacetime deficit in American history when measured as a portion of the overall economy.
If the government’s strategy – bailing out debt-ridden companies and individuals by enlarging its own astronomical debt – seems misguided, it is. There is an old truism that says you cannot get out of debt by running deeper into debt. And yet this is precisely what the government has been trying to do. This is why its approach will ultimately fail.
The authors of the latest Comstock Partners special report put their finger on the crux of the matter. Countering the conventional wisdom of the spend-and-stimulate Keynesians, they write:
We, however, don’t believe that the U.S. massive stimulus programs and money printing can solve a problem of excess debt generation… If this were the answer Argentina would be one of the most prosperous countries in the world. This excess debt actually resulted from the same money printing and easy money that we are now using to alleviate the pain.
The bailouts reward bad management and irresponsible businesses practices and forestall the remedy the market is trying to administer. Contrary to what we have been told, all those injections of credit and capital do not contain a cure. Instead they are filled with the noxious serum of public debt whose toxic effects are slowly poisoning the whole system. The festering sores of the economic crisis have been only temporarily masked with government made bailout band aids, but those are no thicker than a dollar bill. The sickness will eventually break out again, but next time it will hit with greater intensity.
Our over-leveraged government can give out those lavish bailouts only because it can still borrow at low interest. But bond investors have been growing increasingly vocal in expressing their doubts about the government’s ability to make good on its debts. It is only a matter of time before they start demanding higher bond yields. When that happens, borrowing will become prohibitively expensive. Saddled with an enormous debt and with no one to advance easy cash, the government will find itself in the same position as the companies it is trying to save today. When that moment finally arrives, there will be no one to finance the ultimate bail out. If you thought that letting a couple of big banks fail would have been bad, wait what happens when the federal government itself goes under.
Make no mistake: The worst is still yet to come.