Onward to Depression: History Repeats Itself… “A 1930’s Dad-Perspective”

DAY OF RECKONING…but…Washington says it’s all for a good cause…but…it’s beyond the threshold of the absurd…The most aggressive buyer, investor and lender of all is Uncle Sam; the decline cannot truly end until he abandons his efforts to stop it.

…Our leaders themselves are sounding the alarm. Unless they act swiftly, they say, the world as we know it today will fall apart. Thus, to avert what they fear could be the ultimate disaster, the governments of the richest countries have embarked on the most expensive financial rescue operations of all time. The U.S. government alone has spent, lent, committed or guaranteed $7.8 trillion, fourteen times its biggest-ever federal deficit. European governments have jumped in with another $2 trillion; China, $586 billion.

They’re bailing out bankrupt banks, broken brokerage firms, insolvent insurers and any company they deem essential to the economy. They’re pumping resources into mortgage markets, consumer credit markets and stock markets. They’re prodding lenders to lend, consumers to consume and investors to invest. They’re doing everything in their power to prevent a Second Great Depression.
Martin and Irving Weiss

But will they succeed in this endeavor?

A not-so-long time ago, while Dad and I reviewed the historical charts and data, here’s the answer he gave me to a similar question.

“In the 1930s, I was tracking the numbers as they were being released — to figure out what might happen next. I was an analyst and that was my job. That’s why I remember them well.

“Years later, economists like Milton Friedman and my young friend Alan Greenspan looked back at those days to decipher what went wrong. They concluded that it was mostly the government’s fault, especially the Federal Reserve’s. They developed the theory that the next time we’re on the brink of a depression, the government has got to step in and nip it in the bud.

“Bah! Those guys weren’t there back then. When I first went to Wall Street, Friedman was in junior high and Greenspan was in diapers.

“I saw exactly what the Fed was doing in the 1930s: They did everything in their power to stop the panic. They coddled the banks. They pumped in billions of dollars. But it was no use. They eventually figured out they were just throwing good money after bad.

“The real roots of the 1930s bust were in the 1920s boom. That’s when the Fed gave cheap money to the banks like there was no tomorrow. That’s why the banks loaned the money to the brokers, the brokers loaned it to speculators, and the speculation created the stock market bubble. That was the true cause of the Crash and the Depression! Not the government’s ‘inaction’ in the 1930s!

“In 1929, our economy was a house of cards. It didn’t matter which cards we propped up or which ones we let fall. We obviously couldn’t save them all. So no matter what we did, it was going to come down anyway. The longer we denied that reality and tried to fight it, the worse it was for everyone. The sooner we accepted it, the sooner we could get started on a real recovery.”

Today, however, it seems the governments of the world have yet to learn the lesson Dad had learned from real experience. They’re still trying to bail out nearly every major institution and market on the planet. Again, the big question: Will they succeed?

The quick answer: Yes, for a while, perhaps. They can kick the can down the road. They can buy time and postpone the day of reckoning. They can stimulate stock market rallies and even flurries of economic recovery. But that’s not the same as assuming responsibility for our future. It doesn’t resolve the next crisis and the one after that. It does little for you and me; even less for our children or theirs.

The better answer is contained in the white paper Mike Larson and I submitted to the U.S. Congress on September 25: The government bailouts are too little, too late to end the debt crisis; too much, too soon for those who will have to foot the bill.

Even as the government sweeps piles of bad debts under the carpet, mountains of new debts go bad — another flood of mortgages that can’t be paid, a new raft of credit cards falling behind, a new line-up of big companies on the verge of bankruptcy.

Even as the government commits new billions to be spent on financial rescues, trillions in wealth are wiped out in sinking real estate, stocks, bonds and commodities.

Even as the government promises prosperity around the corner, we see more factories closing, more jobs lost.

The primary reason is simple and quite obvious: Our society is addicted to debt.

As long as government could keep the credit flowing — and as long as borrowers could get their regular debt fix — everyone continued to spend to their heart’s content. But now that credit has stopped flowing, the American economy is sinking rapidly into depression.

The Threshold of the Absurd

We saw the first telltale warning of America’s Second Great Depression when a credit crunch hit in full force in August 2007. Banks all over the world announced multibillion losses in subprime (high-risk) mortgages. Investors recoiled in horror. And it looked like the world’s financial markets were about to collapse.

They didn’t, but only because the U.S. Federal Reserve and European central banks intervened. They injected unprecedented amounts of cash into the world’s largest banks; the credit crunch subsided; and everyone breathed a great sigh of relief. But in early 2008, the crunch struck anew — this time in a more virulent and violent form, this time impacting a much wider range of players.

Now, the big question was no longer: Which big Wall Street firm will post the worst losses? It was: Which big firm will be the first to go bankrupt? The answer: Bear Stearns, one of the largest investment banks in the world.

Again, the folks at the Fed intervened. Not only did they finance a giant buyout for Bear Stearns, but for the first time in history, they also decided to lend hundreds of billions to any other major Wall Street firm that needed the money. Again, the crisis subsided temporarily. Again, Wall Street cheered and the authorities won their battle.

But the war continued. Despite all the Fed’s special lending operations, another Wall Street firm — almost three times larger than Bear Stearns — was going down. Its name: Lehman Brothers.

Over a single weekend in mid-September 2008, the Fed Chairman, the Treasury Secretary and other high officials huddled at the New York Fed’s offices in downtown Manhattan. They seriously considered bailing out Lehman, but they ran into two serious hurdles: First, Lehman’s assets were too sick — so diseased, in fact, even the federal government didn’t want to touch them with a ten-foot pole. Second, there was a new sentiment on Wall Street that was previously unheard of. A small, but vocal minority was getting sick and tired of bailouts. “Let them fail,” they said. “Teach those bastards a lesson!” was the new rallying cry.

For the Fed Chairman and Treasury Secretary, it was the long-dreaded day of reckoning. It was the fateful moment in history that demanded a life-or-death decision regarding one of the biggest financial institutions in the world — bigger than General Motors, Ford and Chrysler put together. Should they save it? Or should they let it fail? Their decision: To do something they had never done before. They let Lehman fail.

“Here’s what you’re going to do,” was the basic message from the federal authorities to Lehman’s highest officials. “Tomorrow morning, you’re going to take a trip down to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court at One Bowling Green. You’re going to file for Chapter 11. Then you’re going to fire your staff. And before the end of the day, you’re going to pack up your own boxes and clear out.”

It was the financial earthquake that changed the financial world.

Until that day, nearly everyone assumed that giant firms like Lehman were “too big to fail,” that the government would always step in to save them. That myth was shattered on the late summer weekend when the U.S. government decided to abandon its long tradition of largesse and let Lehman go under.

All over the world, bank lending froze. Borrowing costs went through the roof. Global stock markets collapsed. Corporate bonds tanked. The entire global banking system seemed like it was coming unglued.

“I guess we goofed!” were, in essence, the words of admission heard at the Fed and Treasury. “Now, instead of just a bailout for Lehman, what we’re really going to need is the Mother of All Bailouts — for the entire financial system.” The U.S. government immediately complied, delivering precisely what they asked for — a $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), rushed through Congress and signed into law by the president in record time.

In addition, the U.S. government has loaned, invested or committed $200 billion to nationalize the world’s two largest mortgage companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac … $25 billion for the Big Three auto manufacturers … $29 billion for Bear Stearns, $150 billion for AIG and $350 billion for Citigroup … $300 billion for the Federal Housing Administration Rescue Bill to refinance bad mortgages … $87 billion to pay back JPMorgan Chase for bad Lehman Brothers trades … $200 billion in loans to banks under the Fed’s Reserve Term Auction Facility (TAF) … $50 billion to support short-term corporate IOUs held by money market mutual funds … $500 billion to rescue various credit markets … $620 billion for industrial nations, including the Bank of Canada, Bank of England, Bank of Japan, National Bank of Denmark, European Central Bank, Bank of Norway, Reserve Bank of Australia, Bank of Sweden and the Swiss National Bank … $120 billion in aid for emerging markets, including the central banks of Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Singapore … trillions to guarantee the FDIC’s new, expanded bank deposit insurance coverage from $100,000 to $250,000 … plus trillions more for other sweeping guarantees.

Grand total: $7.8 trillion and counting, eleven times more than the hotly debated and widely opposed $700 billion bailout package passed just 66 days ago. And that excludes a new bailout for Detroit in the works, a new $500 billion stimulus package expected early next year, plus hundreds of billions for at least 19 states running out of money for unemployment benefits.

Washington says it’s all for a good cause — to save the world from depression. But it is obviously reaching a level that’s beyond the threshold of the absurd.

Here’s why it will fail …

#1 Too Much Debt
#2 Nobody Wants to Pick Up the Tab
#3 Sinking Confidence
#4 The Vicious Cycle of Debt and Deflation

… “One of the greatest blunders people made in the 1930s was to blindly assume that prices were already so low, they couldn’t possibly go any lower. In reality, the value of their real estate, stocks, commodities and virtually every other asset didn’t stop going down at some particular level that appeared to be ‘cheap.’ Nor did it stop falling just because it matched some historical price that was considered low. The end of the price declines came only when buyers, investors and lenders capitulated; when most of the bad debts were liquidated; and when the powerful vicious cycles were exhausted. Until then, huge losses were still possible and you needed to sell. Only AFTER we saw those climactic conditions was it time to buy or hold.”

In America’s Second Great Depression, the same will be true, with one key addition: The most aggressive buyer, investor and lender of all is Uncle Sam; the decline cannot truly end until he abandons his efforts to stop it.

2 Comments

  1. Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

    Allen Taylor

  2. […] Thus, to avert what they fear could be the ultimate disaster, the governments of the richest countries have embarked on the most expensive financial rescue operations of all time. The U.S. government alone has spent, lent, committed or …[Continue Reading] […]


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