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Posts Tagged ‘credit expansion

Here’s the Setup for the Con of the Decade

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by Charles Hugh Smith
Posted April 15, 2011

The Con of the Decade, which I described last July, is being set up nicely.

I described The Con of the Decade last July (2010). The Con makes me a heretic in the cult religion of Hyperinflation. I consider myself an agnostic about the destruction of the U.S. dollar and hyperinflation (basically the same thing), but my idea that hyperinflation is fundamentally a political process makes me a heretic. I skimmed a few of the dozens of comments posted on Rick’s Picks and Zero Hedge after they posted one of my expositions on this dynamic, and didn’t see even one comment in favor of this perspective.

The Con is being set up right now, and the outlines are clearly visible. The Con works like this:

1. The Financial Elites/Oligarchy raked in billions in private profit from the orgy of leverage, credit expansion, fraud, embezzlement and misrepresentation of risk that resulted in the Housing Bubble.

2. The losses were transferred to the public (Federal government, i.e. The Central State) or its proxy, the Federal Reserve (i.e. the central bank), via bailouts, backstops, guarantees, the Fed’s purchase of taxic assets, and an open window for the financiers to borrow billions at zero interest (ZIRP) for further speculations.

3. The Treasury now borrows $1.6 trillion every year, fully 11% of the nation’s GDP, as the Central State has replaced private demand and credit expansion with its own borrowing and spending.

4. Non-U.S. central banks have largely ceased to support this unprecedented scale of borrowing, so the Federal Reserve now buys most of the Treasury’s issuance of debt via QE2 (quantitative easing, the direct purchase of $600 billion in Treasury bonds).

5. Unlike Japan, the U.S. cannot self-fund its own government borrowing: while U.S. investors, banks and insurance companies do own a significant chunk of Treasuries, the U.S. savings rate (capital accumulation) is still abysmally low, around 4%, which is half the historical average savings rate.

This is the result of the Keynesian Cult’s One Big Idea, which is to pull demand forward and encourage borrowing and spending now by any means necessary, and thus sacrifice capital formation/saving.

So the basic outline of the Con is that private losses from the financialization of the U.S. economy were shifted to the public. Now to keep the Status Quo and Financial Plutocracy from imploding, the public is on the hook for $1.6 trillion in additional borrowing every year until Doomsday (around 2021 or so).

Having secured the backing of the Central Bank and Central State, the Plutocracy’s only problem now is that it needs a risk-free source of high-yield income. Yes, it has a trillion dollars or so sitting in bank reserves, collecting interest from the Federal Reserve; this is certainly risk-free, but the Fed’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) keeps the rate of return absurdly low.

Here’s where we see the Con taking shape. The ideal setup for risk-free returns is to own Treasurys that pay a high yield. The way to get higher interest rates is to first make the Treasury market supremely dependent on a central bank or single buyer: Done. That buyer is the Federal Reserve.

Next, have that buyer stop buying. Suddenly, interest rates start moving up. If you don’t believe this is possible, or part of a larger project, then please explain why PIMCO sold all its Treasuries. Duh – because interest rates are set to rise, and not by a little bit or for a brief span, but by a lot and for years.

That means holders of long-term Treasuries (and other debt) will be cremated as rates rise. (Holders of TIPS will do OK, unless the government fraudulently sets the rate of inflation well below reality. Hmm, isn’t that exactly what’s it’s already doing?)

Once long-term rates have leaped up, then start accumulating the high-yield bonds. Why would rates jump? Supply and demand: as the demand for low-yield Treasuries dries up, the supply keeps rising: every month, the Treasury has to auction tens of billions of dollars of bonds, or even hundreds of billions of dollars. There is no Plan B, the bonds must be sold, and if there are no buyers, then the yield has to rise.

Once rates have been engineered much higher, the Financial Oligarchy accumulates the high yielding bonds.

Here’s where “austerity” comes in. Once rates are so high that they’re choking the real economy, then voices arise demanding the Federal government stop borrowing and spending so much. Austerity (forced or otherwise) soon reduces the supply of bonds hitting the market and so rates decline, boosting the value of the high-yield debt.

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Travesty of a Mockery of a Sham, Phase II

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by Charles Hugh Smith
Originally posted in Of Two Minds
February 10, 2011


The U.S. economy has become increasingly dependent on asset bubbles, financial legerdemain, credit expansion, Federal borrowing and the manipulation of risk trades to maintain the illusion of “growth.” Compared to an economy based on organic demand and productive growth, the current U.S. economy is a travesty of a mockery of a sham, and has been since 2001.

There are a number of factors at work, but let’s start with two: the ratchet effect, and the Keynesian Project.

In the ratchet effect, increases are easy and resistance-free: it’s incredibly easy to hire more employees in bureaucracies, for example. But once the ratchet has advanced, it is nearly impossible to return to the previous tooth in the gear.

So for a city government to expand payroll from 10,000 to 20,000 employees was effortless, to reduce a 20,000 person payroll back to 10,000 is exceedingly painful.

The ratchet effect is a key feature of addiction. When one beer no longer creates a “buzz,” then the consumer drinks two, and so on, until a six-pack is the new baseline. Below that level of consumption, the addict gets panicky, for the entire necessity of creating a buzz is at risk of catastrophic failure.

The U.S. economy is now addicted via the ratchet effect to unprecedented levels of Federal borrowing and Federal Reserve credit creation and manipulation. Let’s set aside the fact that America’s Central State has by some calculations guaranteed some $13 trillion in private financial assets via TARP, AIG’s backstop, the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, etc. – roughly the size of the entire GDP of the nation.

Let’s focus instead on the fact that the Federal government must borrow and spend 11% of GDP ($1.5+ trillion) every year, and the Fed must buy $1 trillion in impaired private assets or new Treasury debt annually (another 7% of GDP) just to create an illusory GDP growth of 2.5% a year. So we’re spending/injecting 18% of the GDP to conjure a “growth” of 2.5%.

That means we’re spending/injecting $7 to create $1 of “growth” in GDP. And thanks to the ratchet effect, there’s no going back now without systemic disruption. Does anyone seriously believe spending $7 to birth $1 of “growth” is sustainable? If so, then let’s eliminate that $1.5 trillion deficit spending and the Fed’s $1 trillion-a-year purchases of impaired debt and Treasury bonds, and see if GDP “grows” via organic demand and production.

Everybody knows what would happen: the wheels would fall off the illusory “recovery.” The “recovery” is precisely analogous to an alcoholic who claims to be sobering up but who is actually drinking seven beers a day to get a buzz when a few years ago he only quaffed two or three a day.

Here is the Keynesian Project in a nutshell. Unfettered Capitalism works in straightforward cycles: the organic business cycle of expansion, overcapacity and overleverege inevitably leads to a credit bust in which those whose borrowing exceeds their ability to service their debt go broke, and the dominoes of overcapacity and credit expansion topple as losses mount and consumption based on increasing debt falls.

Bad debt gets wiped out, along with “pyramid-scheme” type assets (mortgaged assets are leveraged to buy more mortgaged assets) and excess capacity. As production declines, workers are laid off and consumption declines, further pressuring impaired financial assets.

As Marx had foreseen, these cycles increase in depth and severity. Though Marx invoked dialectical theory and history rather than the ratchet effect, the basic idea is the same: Capitalism becomes increasingly dependent on financial capital, and the resultant crises eventually become severe enough to take down Capitalism as a sustainable productive system.

Keynes’ proposed to counter these worsening business cycle implosions with massive injections of Central State borrowing and spending. The atmosphere of fear as assets, credit and consumption all contracted would be replaced by a revival of “animal spirits” (the magical elixir of Capitalism), consumption would be stimulated by direct government spending on capital projects and welfare (fiscal stimulus), and banking credit would be restored via stimulative Central Bank credit expansion (monetary stimulus).

But Keynes failed to grasp what Marx had intuited: the ratchet effect. Once the Central State ramped up deficit spending and expansive credit, then the organic economy became dependent on that new level of Central State spending and credit expansion.

As I described in the Survival+ analysis, in effect the central State rescued Monopoly Capital by partnering with it. This results in a financial/State Plutocracy which “saves” the organic economy by taking control of its income streams, credit creation and financial assets.

That is the U.S. economy in a nutshell: a travesty of a mockery of a sham. The consumer became dependent on easy, cheap credit and home equity extraction to maintain his/her consumption. The student became dependent on easy, cheap credit to fund his/her increasingly costly college education. Monopoly capital became dependent on financial slight-of-hand, the debauchery of credit, fraudulent mispricing/masking of risk, stupendously leveraged bets on risk assets, etc. for its swollen profits. Politicans became dependent on unlimited borrowing and spending to keep the illusions of competence, sustainability and “growth” alive.

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