on debt and a new world

On March 12, 2010, in The Public, by Joe Costello

The question I have for the folks at PIMCO is what sort of haircut would you find acceptable?

Bill Gross’ partner at PIMCO, Mohammed El-Erian has a piece in the FT which should be read. It provokes thought, and most important, this is the voice of the bond kingdom. They are united in one thing, the debt they hold is made good. After all, that is how the game works, but I’d suggest the bond kingdom has some responsibility for the ocean of garbage debt the world has been flooded with over the past couple decades, thus a responsibility beyond recommendations on how to insure they’re paid.

Mr. El-Erain states, and he’s right, the Panic of 2008 created a sea change, and no one really yet understands what this means. He suggests:

Today, we should all be paying attention to a new theme: the simultaneous and significant deterioration in the public finances of many advanced economies. At present this is being viewed primarily – and excessively – through the narrow prism of Greece. Down the road, it will be recognised for what it is: a significant regime shift in advanced economies with consequential and long-lasting effects.

He then adds:

The shock to public finances is undermining the analytical relevance of conventional classifications. Consider the old notion of a big divide between advanced and emerging economies. A growing number of the former now have significantly poorer economic and financial prospects, and greater vulnerabilities, than a growing number of the latter.

These ideas are important for several reasons. First, this isn’t a situation that developed in the last two years. It has taken several decades to get here. Second, what Mr. El-Erian is describing is the process of corporate globalization, specifically, its impact on older industrial economies. The win-win-win notion of corporate globalization has always been the most vile of propaganda. 6.5 billion people on this planet cannot live like 300 million uber-consumptive Americans. It is physically impossible.

Over the past decades, growth in the “developing” world has in many instances been at the cost of the “developed” world. This fact has been literally papered-over with debt. The United States is the best and shiniest example of the creation of historic levels of pubic and private debt to obscure the impact of corporate globalization. Of course, it’s important to understand this corporate model was built atop a five-centuries old model of European/American global domination. If you have any sense of fairness, that situation could not be defended. You cannot, except at the point of a gun, ask the vast majority of people in the world to be economically subservient to the few.

Mr El-Erian points out it’s ridiculous to look at the global economy and suggest one size fits all. The old industrial nations of Europe, the US, and Japan do not need the kind of growth of China, India, Africa, or Brazil. At the same time, the model of modernity of the United States and to a lesser extent Europe is simply not transferable to the other six billion people on this planet. We all need to rethink how and for what our economies function.

Mr. El-Erian writes the world is birthing a new era:

We should expect (rather than be surprised by) damaging recognition lags in both the public and private sectors. Playbooks are not readily available when it comes to new systemic themes. This leads many to revert to backward-looking analytical models, the thrust of which is essentially to assume away the relevance of the new systemic phenomena.

I couldn’t be in more agreement. The question is what are these new “systemic phenomena. Mr. El-Erain then writes:

Here, history suggests that it is not easy for companies and governments to overcome the tyranny of backward-looking internal commitments.

Compare this to what Keynes wrote in his Treatise on Money:

I think it is desirable that the obligations arising out of past borrowing, of which National Debts are the most important, should, as time goes on, gradually command less and less of human effort and of the results of human effort; that progress should loosen the grip of the dead hand; that the dead hand should not be allowed to grasp the fruits of improvement long after the live body which once directed it has passed away.

Compare both with Thomas Jefferson’s thinking on the matter in a letter to James Madison:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another…is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government…I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, “_that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living_;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.

The received opinion, (is) the public debts of one generation devolve on the next. …but between society and society, or generation and generation there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have perceived that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation to another.

But with respect to future debts; would it not be wise and just for that nation to declare in the constitution they are forming that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself can validly contract more debt, than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19 years? And that all future contracts shall be deemed void as to what shall remain unpaid at the end of 19 years from their date? This would put the lenders, and the borrowers also, on their guard. By reducing too the faculty of borrowing within its natural limits, it would bridle the spirit of war, to which too free a course has been procured by the inattention of money lenders to this law of nature, that succeeding generations are not responsible for the preceding.

It is quite incorrigible for one generation to bind the next with their debts. As Mr. El-Erian suggests, we are in a new era, it would be despicable via massive debt to chain it to the past. We need to destruct a great deal of this debt, and it must be done to free the future. The future must be allowed to find their own way. The dead hand of the past through gross negligence has lost moral, and, one can add, fiscal authority.

Finally, Voxeu has an argument(tx yves) for not just accepting the debt, but piling more on. The author writes:

In the UK between 1918 and 1932 debt increased from 121% of GNP to 191%. It was not until 1960 that debt returned to its 1918 level.

Proving once again, economists for the most part do not make good historians. Besides a few years in the 1920s, the British economy over most of that period was awful. You want to propose the first fifteen years

of post-WWII Britain as an economic model to aspire? No thanks! As far as how economies deal with debt, a much better model might be the Germans in the 1920s. Leaving aside the always popularly noted couple years of hyper-inflation, the debt crippled the economy for well over a decade and half, creating one of the greatest reactionary tragedies of human history. As Jefferson noted, national debt and war go hand in hand. We don’t need stagnation or war, we need to revitalize our economy, but it needs to be a vastly different model than the past fifty years.

So, what say you Mr. Gross and Mr. El-Erian? How about a little public service? Explain what sort of haircut you’d be willing to take to help right the ships of state on this sea of change we all are embarking.

Cross-posted from Archein: on debt and a new world

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As the debt world turns

On March 1, 2010, in The Public, by Joe Costello

The UK Telegraph has an interesting article(tx pat) on the thoughts of Mr. Dimon of JP Morgan:

Mr Dimon told investors at the Wall Street bank’s annual meeting that “there could be contagion” if a state the size of California, the biggest of the United States, had problems making debt repayments. “Greece itself would not be an issue for this company, nor would any other country,” said Mr Dimon. “We don’t really foresee the European Union coming apart.” The senior banker said that JP Morgan Chase and other US rivals are largely immune from the European debt crisis, as the risks have largely been hedged.

Oh California! The state and local governments are going to soon run out of things to sell, what then? Of course, the more interesting note is Mr. Dimon says their risk on Europe is hedged. We saw how that worked over the past two years, you dear tax payer are the final hedge. Now Goldman has taken a lot flack, but Morgan is more culpable. They are the derivatives factory that helped pump the debt bubble to its greatest girth. I did like how a couple weeks ago at the Financial Commission, Mr Dimon sat back and let Mr. Blankfein do all the talking, “You tell em LLoyd!” Smart.

Meanwhile, Bill Gross has his latest financial outlook up and he writes:

Twenty years of accelerated globalization incrementally undermined the real incomes of most developed countries’ workers/citizens, forcing governments to promote leverage and asset price appreciation in order to fill in what is known as an “aggregate demand” gap – making sure that consumers keep buying things. When the private sector assumed too much debt and asset prices bubbled (think subprimes and houses, or dotcoms/NASDAQ 5000), American-style capitalism with its leverage, deregulation, and religious belief in lower and lower taxes reached a dead end.

People like Bill Greider and others have been writing this for twenty years, while people the debt peddlers have been advocating the win, win, win situation of corporate globalization. Now the writing is on the wall and PIMCO and the rest of the debt aristocracy want all the debt they sit on and they no business peddling in the first place made good.

Mr Gross’ piece does a good job in laying out the parameters of the current debate on debt. Simply, one side says its time for the profligates to meet austerity and repent by spending the next twenty years working to pay their debt down, good for our financial aristocracy anyway. The other side says simply more debt will allow the economy to grow again and eventually make good on the debt. Neither side is very palatable.

Right now we are spiraling down to an ever more simplistic debate on this

that will in the end serve no one well. The debt reveals imbalances in the global economy that must be addressed. Mr. Gross is right that the American and global economy of the last several decades is unsustainable, it makes no sense to pile up more debt continuing the status quo. The pro-debt folks are also correct that it makes no sense to simply cut off the blood supply and lose a few limbs to save the body.

We need to split the difference. Call it the new centrism. We need to destruct a great deal of the debt created in the past ten years, we can start with all the derivatives sitting at JP Morgan and write down mortgages, lowering payments to keep people in their houses. Secondly we can create more debt, but it needs to go in transforming the economy down a sustainable path, for example not more money to buy cars, but to build public transportation. The debate right now is about cutting or spending to sustain an unsustainable status quo.
Cross-posted from Archein: as the debt world turns

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Political Economy and Debt

On February 12, 2010, in The Public, by Joe Costello

political economy and debt

The reason why we have not made more progress in social matters is that these problems have not been tackled by the practical man of high ability, like those who have worked on industrial inventions and enterprises. We need social inventions, each of many able men adding his work until the invention is perfected. — Louis Brandeis

With the rise of Greece to the front pages(that’s a bit of an anachronism these days isn’t it?) the question of debt, both national and private, has come to the front. Most importantly, it begs the question of how much debt is sustainable, and that is not an easy question. Many professed “Keynsians” have stated and they are not incorrect, that in a time of economic

recession, the government needs to step-in to mitigate the slow down and help get the economy moving. One thing most Keynesians leave out is Keynes, despite being quite radical thinker on many fronts, was also very much a classical economics thinker. He believed at some point the books needed to be balanced, and after all, accounting is really the only scientific aspect of economics, if you throw that out, there’s really no foundation for anything else to rest on.

For Keynes and many of his adherents, the magical elixir for balancing the short-run books over the long-run is growth, and this is where the world of 2010, particularly for the developed world, has tremendous problems. If we look at growth rates for the US economy in the 1950s they averaged 4.2%, the 1960s 4.4%. However in the 1970′s, it was down to 3.2%, the 1980s 3.1%, the 1990s 3.2%, and finally the 2000s 1.9%. Two of the reasons for this decline in growth are first oil, which spiked in the 1970s and then came roaring back in the mid-2000s. The second is the limits for growth in an established industrial economy. Of course this isn’t just an American problem, for example in the 2000s, the German economy expanded on average 1.2%, while the Japanese since their financial bubble burst have barely squeezed out 1%. Those three economies together comprise almost a third of global GDP.

The new twist that has been added to the American and Japanese picture is the astounding rise in debt over the past two decades, an attempt to keep the economy growing at what previously would have been considered slow rates of growth. The argument of how to deal with this question basically falls into two camps. The first states we need to increase debt. We eventually will grow out of it, despite the facts this simply no longer seems the case. The second is what is now being prescribed for the Greeks. They need to start cutting their living standards so they can pay-off the debt they have accrued. The important thing to understand is the two camps, the deficit-spenders and the deficit-cutters, look somewhat differently at who benefits. The deficit-spenders look more at wage earners and how to keep the economy working for the greatest number. The deficit cutters are predominately looking at the financial component and most concerned about keeping the value of established debt so they will get a return on their investment.

However, we need to start looking at things a new way. I’d suggest people start with reading Keynes excellent Economic Possibilities of our Grand Children. Here, Keynes deals with the question of industrial society reaching the limits of productive growth and asks where do things go from there. For older industrial nations are, while maybe not quite where Keynes thought we could be, nonetheless, close enough that it is essential to begin moving beyond the thinking and restrictions of industrial finance and production. The debt problem allows us the opportunity to do just that.

We must come to the conclusion that a significant portion of debt created in the past several decades is simply not going to be paid back. We need to write it down. Simply piling up more debt on top of this already bad debt is going to restrict the future–your children and grandchildren–in a way that really is unconscionable. Along with writing down the debt, we’re going to have to reshape how our political economy works. In his Treatise on Money, Keynes writes:

Entrepreneurs are induced to embark on the production of Fixed Capital or deterred from doing so on the profit to be made. Apart from the many minor reasons why these should fluctuate in a changing world, Professor Schumpter’s explanation of the major movements may be unreservedly accepted. He points to “the innovations made from time to time by the relatively small number of exceptionally energetic business men — their practical applications of scientific discoveries and mechanical inventions, their development of new forms of industrial and commercial organisation, their conquests of new markets, exploitation of new resources, shifting of trade routes and the like. Changes of this sort, when made on a large scale, alter the data on which the mass of routine business men have based their plans. But when a few highly-endowed individuals have achieved success, their example makes the way easier for a crowd of imitators. So, once started, a wave of innovation gains momentum.

It might come as a surprise to the segregated orders of our economic priesthood that Mr. Keynes could agree with Mr. Schumpter. Of course Keynes was speaking exclusively of industrial economy, and there is no doubt, we are in massive need of “creative destruction”, particularly in the energy sector and most specifically with oil. Today, The FT points out renewed economic growth would shortly send oil to a $100 a barrel. Make no mistake, whatever you think about debt, the American economy as presently structured, nor the corporate globalization of the past several decades can operate on a $100 a barrel oil.

We need “creative destruction” across our political economy. If we can no longer simply rely on growth? If automation loses as many jobs as off-shoring? If physical limits of a finite planet demand an end to unbridled consumption? If all these add-up to a necessary and vital rethinking of political economy, how do we begin? I would suggest by rethinking the citizen, that we redistribute the roles of decision making in society, loose it from the mega-corporate executive suites and the marble mausoleums of DC and bring it into the capable but now empty hands of the citizenry. Create new institutions and processes of democracy, that value the hard work of politics at the same level we value work now associated with the economy. We must go about the business of building a new political economy. If we continue on, chained to industrial thinking, both the deficit-spenders and the deficit-cutters will be proved wrong. Wage earners will continue their slide and the debt will not be paid. The more we pile on debt to save the status quo, the more we lose the future.

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Debt and the Politics of Stagnation

On January 25, 2010, in The Public, by Joe Costello
debt and the politics of stagnation

The way our financial system is construed, debt is both necessary and in certain matters healthy. For example, if a company wanted to expand its business building a new plant, it can go in debt in order to provide future growth. Or a city can sell bonds so that it can build a new sewer system or fund parks for the enjoyment of future generations. Debt can provide the ability to marshal present resources for future wealth and utility. However, there is also unhealthy debt,  simply defined as a means to preserving the present at the expense of the future. The easiest example of this is the old landed aristocracy of Britain. As Britain moved from an agrarian political economy to an industrial system, the political economy that empowered the landed gentry was hollowed it. Over time, much of the aristocracy went further in debt trying to hold onto lifestyles the underlying economic conditions could no longer uphold. Eventually, when they no longer could even pay the debt incurred on the estates themselves, the game was over.

This is the insidious game the United States has undertaken over the last several decades. The underlying 20th century industrial model has been changing, instead of fundamentally changing how the system operates, we have indebted ourselves to the status quo. Even more harmful, our financial aristocracy has grown and not loosened its grip on the political economy, but tightened it. They have not just placed themselves further in debt, but the entire political economy. It has been quite amazing in the last week, as the White House minutely turned up its rhetoric on our financial aristocracy, how overwhelming the push back was, even from some who deem themselves “reformers”. We are now told, we can’t do anything about Wall Street, we need them, and changing the financial system will wreak havoc. Each day we pile on more debt, entrenching the status quo, and seemingly as the saying goes, sealing our fate.

The financial system that evolved over the last several decades has placed a premium on entrenching established ways. It was even more destructive as the game was rigged so that a few could make more money by taking existing debt and piling more debt on top of that, call it “financial innovation.” A great deal of this debt is now bad, and all the moves of our financial lords in the past two years has been to pile up more debt, with the completely false notion that the new debt will make the old debt solid. Most despicable has been the movement of trillions of dollars of private debt onto the public books, the equivalent of mortgaging the American estate, which is left out of the equation when you hear the bond barons and other deficit hawks lamenting about the debt.

The last several decades, we sat and watched as a financial aristocracy gained further and further control of our government. We sat and watched our government become increasingly centralized, leading to one thing, a further entrenchment of an unsustainable status quo. Each day, we sit and watch as the American system, based on distributed and separate powers, and checks and balances, is in the name of security and stability centralized and made less accountable. Yesterday, as Yves Smith points out, we are now aware of the merging of our behemoth national security state procedures and the financial sector. We find the Fed placed its dealings with AIG under “special security procedures. The foundation of self-government is openness. Power cannot be held accountable without access. Yet every day we sit and watch our government become less and less accountable.


our caught in a nasty trap at this point, a cult of expertise. The modern world is much more complex than those that preceded it. While we our flooded with information, the average person is much less educated on the forces that impact their daily lives than the peasant of Medieval Europe. Instead of evolving new processes by which people are brought in to be educated, manipulators and editors of information, that is decision makers, we increasingly centralize more and more decision making and empower “experts”, people who have come to their position because they understand the status quo, and then become its protectors.

In such a centralized system, reform of relevance never comes from the top. The only way to do it is to break up power and redistribute it, allowing the freedom and creativity to reform, create and evolve. The first step in creating this freedom is going to have to be destroying a lot of the dead debt that sits on the books of our banks, corporations, government, and households. We need to begin redistributing power and wealth, and by that I don’t simply mean taxing the rich, but the wealth entrenched in our unsustainable ways of doing things and its institutions. Only by destroying debt will we be able to free ourselves from the status quo and begin to reform America for a vibrant future, giving the future the same opportunities bequeathed to us.

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How to Stop Foreclosures and Our Modern-Day Debt Shackles

On January 18, 2010, in The Public, by Danny Schechter

Aid Has Failed To Reach Those In Need Here as in Haiti — Is it Time for a Moratorium and Debt Relief ?

Danny Schechter is author of “The Crime of Our Time”.

Are we in a national emergency? If you think of the recent terror incident over Detroit, you would say yes. New rules were put in place overnight. The President took responsibility and ordered immediate changes. There was a sense of urgency.

Then, take a look inside Detroit with its growing unemployment, and massive wave of foreclosures and urban blight. There was no sense of an emergency except briefly when tens of thousands of people lined up recently outside Cobo Hall to fill out applications for a share of just $15 million in new federal assistance. There were momentary fears of a riot. You can bet if there was an Al Qaeda presence, there would be an outbreak of martial law.

Billions have already been allocated to buy new screening machines at airports because of a lone underwear bomber. In contrast, the response to our domestic economic disaster and debt crisis seems tepid.

In Africa, our government and others agreed to debt forgiveness programs because it was clear that colonial powers had illegally shackled the newly independent states with an unsustainable debt burden. Those debts were imposed, suffocating, unfair, and illegal. Recently, just before the earthquake, Haiti won a billion dollars in debt foregiveness and then promptly began to borrow money again.

Haiti’s problems may mirror our own in another way with Presidential proclamations of “help on the way” undermined by poor or non-existent delivery.

Here in our country, millions of people were talked into taking bogus Subprime loans that lenders knew were illegal. According to the FBI there was “an epidemic of mortgage fraud.” These loans were then securitized by Wall Street and sold worldwide with misrepresented values. Another fraud.

They were also insured by companies like AIG with shady insurance deals to protect against the foreclosures they knew would follow. This was not just business as usual but in part a criminal enterprise.

Today, default/delinquency/foreclosure rates continue to skyrocket and soon there will be more prime mortgages in arrears than subprime ones, More than 25% of all mortgages are now “under water.”

Do the victims of these scams not deserve relief even in a society that places the protection of property rights over human rights?

An online legal dictionary reminds us that the government has powers to act that it is not using. “ As a function of its Police Power, a state may suspend contractual rights when public welfare, health, or safety are threatened. During the World War I housing shortage, some New York landlords raised rents to exorbitant levels and evicted tenants who failed to pay…

Some states went further, imposing a debt moratorium. It happened in Minnesota during the depression when there was a sharp rise in foreclosures on farm property, “Fifty years later the Minnesota legislature responded again to public pressure to relieve farm debts by passing another Mortgage Moratorium Act (Minn. Stat. § 583.03 [Supp. 1983]).”

According to the writer Alex Abella, who contributes to the LA Times, “In its view, the state had a right under its police power to declare an economic emergency “to safeguard the public and promote the general welfare of the people” which necessitated the drafting and implementing of the moratorium.

“Needless to say, financial interests — banks, loan holders — sued, losing both at the state and the federal level. When the case finally arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Charles Evans, in the case of Blaisdell versus Home Building & Loan Association upheld the constitutionality of the Moratorium as a “reasonable means to safeguard the economic structures upon which the good of all depend.”

If you believe as I do that there is an emergency affecting the most vulnerable among us, as foreclosures grow and poverty deepens, isn’t it time to start thinking about debt relief, not just temporary adjustments such as questionable mortgage modifications?

For nearly two years, I have been calling to modify loans, not foreclose on homes. The government said they would do it but their programs don’t appear to be working because banks and real estate companies make more money foreclosing than making deals that keep homeowners under their roofs

The consequence: 14 million families—and we are talking millions of children too—forced into the streets or worse conditions.

The New York Times blamed the President’s Making Home Affordable program for increasing the agony of homeowners.

“Since President Obama announced the program in February, it has lowered mortgage payments on a trial basis for hundreds of thousands of people but has largely failed to provide permanent relief. Critics increasingly argue that the program, Making Home Affordable, has raised false hopes among people who simply cannot afford their homes.”

Wrote a critic on the Atlantic: “Obama’s Making Home Affordable program is actually increasing the agony of homeowners, who pour money down the rat hole of their mortgage rather than recognizing the loss and starting over. In the meantime, the modification programs disguise the true condition of bank balance sheets (because modified mortgages are not yet non-performing mortgages), and slow down the process of recovery.

The Washington Post found, “The government’s foreclosure relief program is sputtering, according to government data showing that the pace of help being offered to struggling homeowners slowed last month and many borrowers are at risk of losing the aid they have already received.”

The LA Times went further, “Only 31,382 of more than 700,000 mortgage modifications under the federal program had been made permanent by the end of November…The numbers reinforced the bleak picture that Treasury Department officials painted last week when they said the number of permanent reductions was low. They unveiled new measures, including the threat of fines, to push mortgage servicers to improve their performance.”

When airport security doesn’t work, they junk it. It is time to do the same with programs that are not helping homeowners. These half-measures that are being so half-heartedly implemented are a cruel disgrace.

But if we are to solve this problem, we are going to need to press the Administration and the banks to recognize they must go further. To achieve that, we need to get back in the streets to push for what we really need: debt relief, and a moratorium.

Some may consider this demand unrealistic but sometimes demanding the impossible is precisely what makes the possible more possible. Remember the esson Dr. Martin Luther King taught us:” we never get change without demanding it. We never have and we never will.”

Mediachannel News Dissector Danny Schechter discusses these issues in his new book “Crime of Our Time” and a companion film. See PlunderThecrimeofourtime.com. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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