Financial Failure

Bad Money, Kevin Phillips, 2008

This book, published in early 2008, effectively ends with the August 2007 time period as the housing bubble was just starting to burst and Wall Street to collapse. Still, it is an excellent treatment of the failures of reckless greedy financial institutions and the failures of politics to control out of control activities. For those drawing comparisons to the Great Depression, Phillips offers startling statistics: In 1933 at the height of the depression, credit debt as a percentage of GDP stood at an incredible 287%. In 2000 we passed that level and by 2006 credit has climbed to 335% and is still rising.

A second set of statistics is even more startling. In 1950 manufacturing represented 29.3% of GDP while financial services represented 10.9%. By 2005 manufacturing had fallen to just 12% of GDP while financial services had risen to 20.4%. In the 1950s banks earned less than 10% of their income from mortgages. By 2005 banks earned more than 60% of their income from mortgages. The financial sector holds almost 1/3 of all domestic debt for all sectors, up from just 7% in 1969. Domestic financial debt now exceeds the GDP for the first time in American history.

Serial Bubbler at Work

Greenspan, looking at the trend away from manufacturing toward finance, speculated that perhaps we don’t need to manufacture anything; just build an economy based on asset backed financing like a perpetual motion machine, driven by the ever increasing value of the underlying assets. Of course the assets don’t continue to increase forever so when the dot com bubble stock assets collapsed in 2000, the financial community simply moved their leveraged lending to home and commercial mortgages. Greenspan here is called the serial bubbler for keeping interest rates low and allowing the financial community to simply move on the the next asset class. It seems, after the book was published, the financial community moved on to commodities, particularly oil, as an asset whose value could be pushed up into the stratosphere. But the bursting housing bubble was too big to escape. And oil has collapsed as well. The current collapses, like a slow train wreck, is just unfolding before our eyes.

The Democrats come in for criticism front and center. It seems Wall Street and the other financial centers have a fondness for the Democratic party who receive at least 70% of their campaign contributions. Bob Rubin had a dramatic impact on Clinton financial policy and those policies set much of the stage for the current meltdown. Clinton received heavy backing from hedge funds and continues to have ties to funds where his daughter works. One of Obama’s big backers is a Chicago based hedge fund.

Phillips includes a chapter on oil and lends support to the view that oil production has already peaked. While talking about the decline of the seven sisters (Exxon, Shell, etc.) in favor of the national giants in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria, and giving some attention to climate change, he is strangely silent about the role of the financial giants in speculation and manipulation of the prices of crude oil. Yet Phillips is aware that financial giants like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sacks dwarf the seven sisters in the buying and selling of oil. 60 Minutes just did a superficial piece on Morgan Stanley and other Wall Street firms role in manipulating oil prices. The OPEC members are keenly aware of this manipulation.

Phillips suggests that America may be entering the 30-40 year transformation from world empire to just another country, much as the Dutch made its transformation in the 18th Century and the British in the 20th Century after two world wars. Phillips thinks these two examples didn’t do badly thereafter. Phillips says he is no scholar of Rome and can’t comment on the decline of Rome.

Phillips provides an excellent summation:

Something went wrong after “the fall of communism”; somebody forgot to explain the New World Order to the Russians and Chinese. Instead, Anglo-Saxon speculative capitalism – in a grand misreading that may yet turn out to match the cupidity of the French Bourbons in 1789 – decided to celebrate “the end of history” and the perceived vacuum of serious economy rivalry by staging the largest ever orgy of debit and credit. If history had ended, thereby assuring the triumphal invulnerability of asset-back securities and structure investment vehicles, well then, let ‘em roll. Of course, we now know that history had not ended; the muse had merely started learning Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic, rereading Karl Polanyi and Hyman Minsky, and pondering what might befall a leading world economic power that so worshiped its markets as to entrust then to hedge funds, bad quantitative mathematics, and banks like Citigroup.

On banking bailouts:

To [Martin] Wolf (Financial Times), “What we have [in banking] is a risk-loving industry guaranteed as a public utility.” If banks are to be rescued because they are too big to fail, they must also become, in the manner of a regulated public utility, too suitably behaved and too responsible to fail.

So far the bailouts have no strings whatever. We will wait and see.

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