Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps, Part II: Thank God for Economic Destitution

A few months ago I pointed out that while more mainstream evangelicals may know better how to couch their statements so as not to be so vulgar, there is really little difference between their widespread beliefs and those of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (“Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?, 31 July 2012). Adding to this litany, Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, had the following to say shortly after the reelection of President Obama (Beamon, Todd and Kathleen Walter, “Franklin Graham to Newsmax: ‘We Have Turned Our Backs on God’“, Newsmax, 15 November 2012):

Maybe God will have to bring our nation down to our knees — to where you just have a complete economic collapse. And maybe at that point, maybe people will again begin to call upon the name of almighty God.

In Christian apocalyptic fantasies, ten percent unemployment, diminished lifetime earnings, lost homes, trillion dollar deficits and worse aren’t economic happenstance or the work of the greedy and short-sighted on Wall Street. They are the just deserts that a jealous god reigns down on those who would create a pluralistic society. One can almost see the Reverend Graham with one of those brightly colored signs outside the house of a poor family being evicted: “Thank God for Foreclosures.”

The Continuance of the Savings Glut

With President Obama in China and the issue of the dollar-renminbi exchange rate presumably on the agenda, there has been a great deal of commentary about the threatening peril of the Chinese savings glut1. Here was Paul Krugman late in October on how the savings glut — the condition and a leading cause of the 2007-2008 financial crisis — remains unabated, continuing to propagate its distortions throughout the world economy2:

Until around 2001, you could argue that [the target value of the yuan was reasonable]: China’s overall trade position wasn’t too far out of balance. From then onward, however, the policy of keeping the yuan-dollar rate fixed came to look increasingly bizarre. First of all, the dollar slid in value, especially against the euro, so that by keeping the yuan / dollar rate fixed, Chinese officials were, in effect, devaluing their currency against everyone else’s. Meanwhile, productivity in China’s export industries soared; combined with the de facto devaluation, this made Chinese goods extremely cheap on world markets.

The result was a huge Chinese trade surplus. If supply and demand had been allowed to prevail, the value of China’s currency would have risen sharply. But Chinese authorities didn’t let it rise. They kept it down by selling vast quantities of the currency, acquiring in return an enormous hoard of foreign assets, mostly in dollars, currently worth about $2.1 trillion.

Many economists, myself included, believe that China’s asset-buying spree helped inflate the housing bubble, setting the stage for the global financial crisis. But China’s insistence on keeping the yuan / dollar rate fixed, even when the dollar declines, may be doing even more harm now.

Although there has been a lot of doomsaying about the falling dollar, that decline is actually both natural and desirable. America needs a weaker dollar to help reduce its trade deficit, and it’s getting that weaker dollar as nervous investors, who flocked into the presumed safety of U.S. debt at the peak of the crisis, have started putting their money to work elsewhere.

But China has been keeping its currency pegged to the dollar — which means that a country with a huge trade surplus and a rapidly recovering economy, a country whose currency should be rising in value, is in effect engineering a large devaluation instead.

And that’s a particularly bad thing to do at a time when the world economy remains deeply depressed due to inadequate overall demand. By pursuing a weak-currency policy, China is siphoning some of that inadequate demand away from other nations, which is hurting growth almost everywhere.

For thirty years now the prevailing grand social bargain in the United States has been that outsourcing and offshoring will be the means whereby capital will capture an increased portion of national income and the resultant consumer goods price deflation will substitute for the also resultant wage stagnation. In shorthand, this might be called the Reagan Revolution, though Reagan only brokered the deal. The conditions that gave rise to parties militating against the preceding post-war social bargain lay much deeper in the structure of the post-war international order. This social bargain is the basis of the financial problems of the U.S. as well as of the China problem.

The savings glut is not merely a problem with China, but in its Chinese component it is driven by two factors, neither of which is likely to be resolved by U.S. action. First, owing to population growth and the massive migration from rural farms to urban wage labor, China needs to create around 25 million new jobs per year. The memory of Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 remains potent in the mind of Chinese Communist Party officials. It is widely believed among Chinese officials that preventing a repeat of the unrest of 1989 and hence the survival of the Party depends on the ability of the Chinese economy to provide jobs for these millions, preventing them from becoming a mass of disaffected urban unemployed. Second, the savings glut exists as a part of China’s long-term grand strategy of pursing peaceful development first and regional political realignment only once they have attained sufficient economic and military weight. For the U.S., the G-8, the IMF or whoever to ask China to abandon its policy of undervaluing the renminbi is to ask the Chinese government to commit suicide and to accept their second-tier world-political status; it is to ask them to run the highest order of political risk as an act of charity to the rest of the world. We cannot rely on China doing the U.S. any macroeconomic favors here. The only way to eliminate the macroeconomic conditions of the next financial crisis is to get our own house in order.

On the right and amidst the Lou Dobbs crowd you here these constant sidelong remarks about China holding the strings of America’s economic future. But this is not the result of some insidious plot on the part of China to acquire a financial WMD stuffed full of T-bills for deployment against the U.S. at some opportune occasion (like a WMD, to actually use it would result in mutually assured destruction). This is result of the Wal-Mart low-wage, low prices, long supply chain model of doing business (surprise: the day-to-day purchasing decisions of millions of people reach up to the commanding heights of world finance). We can try to brow-beat China to forego the opportunities of the system that we have created, but the origin of that system reaches down into what is now, under the midwifery of the right, claimed as the American way of life. And perhaps we have decided that getting off on a bad foot with the world’s next superpower is preferable to confronting our own economic culture.

Notes

  1. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Director of the IMF, made a speech on the subject in Beijing, The International Monetary System: Reforms to Enhance Stability and Governance, International Finance Forum, Beijing, 16 November 2009; Krugman, Paul, “World Out of Balance,” The New York Times, 16 November 2009, p. A25; Wolf, Martin, “Grim Truths Obama Should Have Told Hu,” Financial Times, 17 November 2009.

  2. Krugman, Paul, “The Chinese Disconnect,” The New York Times, 23 October 2009, p. A35

The First Sovereign to Fall?

It would appear that Iceland will be the first sovereign imperiled by this spreading financial crisis (McVeigh, Tracy, “The Party’s Over for Iceland, the Island that Tried to Buy the World, The Observer, 5 October 2008):

Iceland is on the brink of collapse. Inflation and interest rates are raging upwards. The krona, Iceland’s currency, is in freefall and is rated just above those of Zimbabwe and Turkmenistan. One of the country’s three independent banks has been nationalised, another is asking customers for money, and the discredited government and officials from the central bank have been huddled behind closed doors for three days with still no sign of a plan. International banks won’t send any more money and supplies of foreign currency are running out.

People talk about whether a new emergency unity government is needed and if the EU would fast-track the country to membership. On Friday the queues at the banks were huge, as people moved savings into the most secure accounts. Yesterday people were buying up supplies of olive oil and pasta after a supermarket spokesman announced on Friday night that they had no means of paying the foreign currency advances needed to import more foodstuffs.

Iceland is outside the Euro zone so they are facing a currency crisis as well. Take a look at ECB exchange rate data. The Icelandic krona has fallen 181 percent against the euro, from €86.25 one year ago to €156.13 on Friday.

I wonder if there’s any substance to the idea of fast-track E.U. membership. Just like this crisis has precipitated a wave of bank consolidation, maybe it will allow the E.U. to snap up a few holdouts as well. I notice that that hole in the E.U., Switzerland, is also overrepresented as the homecountry to a number of troubled banks.

Update, 6 October 2008: Iceland had to bailout its third largest bank, Glitnir. The problem is that Iceland’s top three banks have assets nine times the GDP of Iceland (Magnusson, Niklas and Helga Kristin Einarsdottir, “Iceland Savers Fear ‘House of Cards’ May Collapse After Glitnir,” Bloomberg, 3 October 2008). One of Portfolio.com’s bloggers points out the obvious (Salmon, Felix, “Iceland: When Too Big To Fail Becomes Too Big To Rescue,” 3 October 2008):

Received opinion has it that if Iceland backstops the Icelandic banks, then the other Nordic countries, or someone, will backstop Iceland.

This was my point in emphasizing the idea of fast-track E.U. membership, E.U. membership being more dignified than IMF intervention.

A Co-President?

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President George W. Bush

At the constitutional convention in summer of 1789 the founding fathers struggled to find an amenable compromise between those desiring a vigorous executive and those concerned about despotic overreach. One proposal to limit the executive was that instead of concentrating power in a single person, create a miniature division of powers by having a triumvirate of co-presidents.

Events of the past few weeks have been instructive. It would appear that the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 delivered us a co-presidency in a sub-constitutional manner. It would appear that they each have their own portfolio: one is commander and diplomat in chief and the other is the captain of the macro-economy. With his 20 year term, substantial independence, control over interest rates, lending capability, 800 billion in capital and a regulatory mandate over the banking system, the Federal Reserve Chairman has a vast array of powers, while not on par with the official executive, impressive nonetheless.

It’s also worth noting that, like the official President, the Federal Reserve Chairman accrues perhaps the better part of his powers through reputation, as a focal point of attention and the judicious use of his own particular bully pulpit.

This has some potentially troubling implications, depending on where you fall on the democratic spectrum. In this regard, Will Wilkinson has some interesting ruminations on what he calls “the structure of the de facto American constitution” (“What’s an Incrementalist Market Liberal to Think?,” 19 September 2008; the previous post, “The Benign Rule of Ben Bernanke and the Ideal of Democratic Equality, 18 September 2008, along the same lines is also good too).

It’s also worth noting — something that has become apparent throughout the Bush years — that many of the constraints on the presidency are not official, but adhered to only out of tradition. When the situation warrants — or ambition allows — the executive is capable of blowing through its traditional restraint, erupting into a ferocious activism. When this happens in the realm of foreign policy everyone loves it. Nothing gets people excited like a little kicking of foreigner ass. When it happens in the domestic or economic realm, people aren’t so enthusiastic, as Congressional telephone lines, recently clogged with populist anti-high finance carping, will attest.

Federal Reserve Balance Sheet

Amid news that the Federal Reserve is establishing this multi-billion dollar line of credit, extended that many billion in overnight repurchase agreements, contributed $30 billion to the J.P. Morgan buyout of Bear Stearns and spending $83 billion for the purchase of A.I.G., the question lingering in the back of my mind is how is the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve looking right about now. The Federal Reserve doesn’t have unlimited resources at it’s disposal. It has about $800 billion in assets which only buys it a limited amount of credibility. It’s not all that much relative to the scale of modern financial flows.

Anyway, wonder and The Wall Street Journal will deliver (Blackstone, Brian, “U.S. Moves to Bolster Fed Balance Sheet,” 18 September 2008, p. A3 [subscription required]):

Federal Reserve assets, The Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2008

The Treasury, responding to worries that the Federal Reserve could be running out of financial ammunition to deal with the credit crisis, moved to reload the Fed’s gun with $100 billion worth of bullets.

The central bank’s bailouts of Bear Stearns and American International Group Inc., as well as lending programs created in the past year, are putting the Fed’s once-mighty balance sheet at risk. Financial markets have begun to fear that if nothing is done, the Fed might have trouble putting out fires in the future.

The Fed held close to $800 billion in Treasury securities a year ago. By last week, that had dwindled to just under $480 billion. The amount drops to less than $200 billion if the $200 billion pledged to the Term Securities Lending Facility — a Fed lending program created in March for investment banks — and the full $85 billion line to AIG are accounted for, Fed watchers say.

“The tally is so low that it is becoming imperative for the Fed to take actions to enlarge its balance sheet,” said Tony Crescenzi, a strategist at Miller Tabak in New York.

When the Fed lends money to a financial institution, it usually sells an asset such as Treasurys separately in the market and absorbs the cash created by the loan. The goal is to keep a proper level of money flowing through the financial system. If the Fed were to run too low on Treasurys to conduct these operations, it could lose its ability to drain money from the banking system and control inflation.

On Wednesday, the Treasury announced a temporary program to bolster the Fed’s balance sheet and sold $40 billion in 35-day Treasury bills. It announced later in the day that it would hold two additional auctions of Treasury bills on Thursday totaling $60 billion. In effect, Treasury is auctioning off more securities than are needed to fund the federal government, and carrying out the draining function in place of the Fed. The cash from the Treasury’s sales is parked at the Fed.

Of course the government has infinite money, but it comes at a cost. As long as the Fed coffers are topped off, Chairman Bernanke is his own man. But already Federal Reserve assets are approaching levels where he will increasingly be at the behest of Treasury Secretary Paulson and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank.

Et Tu, T-Bills?

The yield on Treasury bonds went negative yesterday for the first time in history. Investors are so desperate to avoid risk that they would rather a known small loss than lend to an unknown. Reuters has considerably more information on the state of public sector debt risks and they make it sound much worse than the passing reference in the Financial Times (Siew, Walden, “S&P Says Pressure Building on U.S. ‘AAA’ Rating,” 17 September 2008):

Pressure is building on the pristine triple-A rating of the United States following a federal bailout of American International Group Inc., the chairman of Standard & Poor’s sovereign ratings committee said Wednesday.

The cost of insuring 10-year U.S. Treasury debt against default rose Wednesday to a record high, a day after the government rescued insurer AIG with an $85-million loan. …

Ten-year credit default swaps, or CDS, on Treasury debt widened three basis points to 26 basis points, according to data from CMA DataVision. This means it costs $26,000 per year to insure $10-million of U.S. Treasury debt against default.

Five-year credit default swaps on Treasury debt were steady at 21.5 basis points. That compares to 9.8 basis points on German five-year CDS and 13.2 basis points on German 10-year CDS, CMA said.

A graph of various CDS rates would be a visual of the rise and fall of the great powers.

Capitalist Systematics and Individual Freedom

In his economic speech on Monday Senator McCain had the following to say about the present financial crisis:

The top of our economy is broken. We have seen self-interest, greed, irresponsibility and corruption undermine the hard work of the American people.

Then on Tuesday morning he said to Joe Scarborough:

Wall Street has betrayed us. They’ve broken the social contract between capitalism and the average citizen and the worker. … This is a result of excess and greed and corruption. And that’s exactly what is plaguing Americans today.

I imagine that a lot of people would call me a leftist and a socialist, but from these two comments it seems to me that John McCain must have a pretty contorted idea of what exactly capitalism is underneath the rhetorical hood.

What’s happening on Wall Street isn’t a corruption of capitalism. It’s not that people are angles and in capitalism we’ve finally found an economic system equal to ourselves. The genius of capitalism is that people are greedy, self-interested wretches and capitalism is a system that channels their greed into social good. What’s wrong with what’s going on with the financial system in recent weeks is not that financiers are greedy, or even excessively greedy, but that the system is rigged wrong.

When Democrats call for a new regulatory regime, this is what they are calling for: a different arrangement of the system. Different prohibitions, different incentives, different inducements. It’s the Nudge approach. Align the incentives right and then laissez faire.

The alternative to systematic change is the reengineering of the human heart. And proposals to change the hearts of men are not very conservative. This is why capitalism and liberalism are so closely conjoined. Capitalism is indifferent to the characteristics of the corpuscles that comprise the system. It is the economic system most compatible with self-determination because it doesn’t require people of any particular character to function. It’s even sufficiently robust as to be compatible with extremes of behavior. Other systems less fault-tolerant and rely for their sustainability on the virtue of their participants. As such other systems maintain an interest in the condition of the souls of their members. Some see this as a virtue of these alternate systems.

Recent weeks don’t argue my case very well. It would seem that capitalism is in fact not very robust and in need of quite a bit of extra-systematic shoring up. But that’s owing to fifteen years of willful neglect. Professed admiration for capitalism on the right is not so compatible with the sustainability of capitalism. If you get the system right, you don’t have to worry about the character of the people.

But this is one of the things that’s distinct about Senator McCain. He isn’t that into leaving people alone. He’s a proponent of a particular type of civic virtue and is interested in cajoling people, even cajoling them rather convulsively, into demonstrating his brand thereof. And on the right more generally opposition to business regulation is so inflexible that social engineering is the acceptable alternative.

Not So Fast on the Moral Hazard

Last week American International Group requested assistance in the amount of $40 billion from the Federal Reserve. This was rejected only to have A.I.G. come back with a second request, this time for $75 billion. Over the weekend the Federal Reserve and the Treasury decided to let Lehman Brothers fail. On Monday and today the editorial pages were full of adulation about the reinstantiation of the rule of moral hazard. “If Lehman is able to liquidate without a panic … the benefits would include the reassertion of ‘moral hazard’ on Wall Street.” (“Wall Street Reckoning,” The Wall Street Journal, 15 September 2008, p. A22) “It was a brave decision. By abandoning Lehman Brothers, a 158-year-old piece of Wall Street furniture, and refusing to remove their hands from their pockets when Merrill Lynch came calling, Hank Paulson, US Treasury secretary, and Tim Geithner, governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, had one of the busiest weekends of dispassion on record.” (Persaud, Avinash, “Lehman Had to Fall to Save the Financial System,” Financial Times, 16 September 2008, p. 13).

But then on midday Monday, New York state started waiving insurance regulations to allow A.I.G. to make a complex set of financial transfers to try to gather up enough collateral to cover it’s debts at a downgraded credit rating. At midday today when it started to look like a private bailout package being negotiated between J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs was faltering, the Federal Reserve stepped in to assist in the negotiations. Then it appeared that the Federal Reserve would be playing a key role in the package, but Fed spokesman was declining comment. Now, late this evening the Federal Reserve is announcing that it’s not going to be facilitating a private loan to, but outright buying a controlling interest in A.I.G. (de la Merced, Michael J. and Eric Dash, “Fed Readies A.I.G. Loan of $85 Billion for an 80% Stake,” The New York Times, 16 September 2008):

In an extraordinary turn, the Federal Reserve was close to a deal Tuesday night to take a nearly 80 percent stake in the troubled giant insurance company, the American International Group, in exchange for an $85 billion loan, according to people briefed on the negotiations.

In return, the Fed will receive warrants, which give it an ownership stake. All of A.I.G.’s assets will be pledged to secure the loan, these people said.

The Fed’s action was disclosed after Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson and Ben S. Bernanke, president of the Federal Reserve, went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening to meet with House and Senate leaders. Mr. Paulson called the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, about 5 p.m. and asked for a meeting in the Senate leader’s office, which began about 6:30 p.m.

The Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase had been trying to arrange a $75 billion loan for A.I.G. to stave off the financial crisis caused by complex debt securities and credit default swaps. The Federal Reserve stepped in after it became clear Tuesday afternoon that the banking consortium would not be able to complete the deal.

Extraordinary indeed! It would seem that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury aren’t so bullish on moral hazard after all.

The Other D-Word: Default

How bad is the current spate of financial upheavals (the federally backed buyout of Bear Stearns, the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the hasty buyout of Merrill Lynch, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the impending joint federal-private bailout of American International Group)? In trying to explain the seeming double standard in the actions taken by the federal government in response to Bear Stearns back in March and Lehman Brothers this past weekend, today’s Financial Times Comment & Analysis section includes the following tidbit as one of a number of explanations (Persaud, Avinash, “Lehman Had to Fall to Save the Financial System,” 16 September 2008):

Third, there was an alarming factor not present at the time of Bear Stearns’ collapse that argued strongly against new government guarantees. Since the August rescue of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, credit markets have begun to price in the possibility of a default by the US government. The implied probability remains a fraction of 1 per cent but it is an unprecedented development.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. It could be just an investors’ parlor game, like the market on Hollywood has-been career comebacks. Or it could just go to show that unhinged paranoiacs aren’t confined to remote cabins. Some work in the bowels of high finance as well. After the past few months it would hardly be the first sign of a less than steady hand on the till. But there it is. The possibility of a default by the U.S. government has gone from beyond the pale to remote.

Membership Has Its Limitations

I am vehemently opposed to any sort of loyalty cards that are now de rigueur at almost all stores where you make a purchase of any regularity or size. I think a lot of people see them as a harmless way to save a few bucks. And that’s what they are — for now. But they are obviously a foundation on which to build. But build what? Well, the FTC’s deceptive marketing practices lawsuit against CompuCredit is sure suggestive (Silver-Greenberg, Jessica, “Your Lifestyle May Hurt Your Credit,” BusinessWeek, 19 June 2008):

The allegations, in part, focus on CompuCredit’s Aspire Visa, a subprime credit card for risky borrowers. The FTC claims that CompuCredit didn’t properly disclose that it monitored spending and cut credit lines if consumers used their cards at certain places. Among them: tire and retreading shops, massage parlors, bars, billiard halls, and marriage counseling offices. “The company touted that cardholders could use their credit cards anywhere,” says J. Reilly Dolan, assistant director for financial practices at the FTC. “What they didn’t say was that you could be punished for specific kinds of purchases.”

And the more general point:

With competition increasing, databases improving, and technology advancing, companies can include more factors than ever in their models. And industry experts say financial firms increasingly are looking at consumer behavior, as CompuCredit did.

Of course the corporate idiocy here is mind-boggling. First they target a sub-prime demographic, but then cut them off for the very behaviors that made these people sub-prime in the first place. Really? CompuCredit was unaware that the underclass blew their money on scratch tickets and payday loans?

I don’t suspect that this is leading to some insidious world of PreCrime, where government thugs scoop you up, guilty on the basis of a statistical analysis. Rather, nudge style, it will just become the accepted background of people’s expectations. People will recognize an incentive and respond accordingly. “Oh, no, we can’t go out for happy hour. We’re trying to get our credit score up for a home loan.”