A guide for the perplexed to the economic mess

The problem with the economy is clear, but it’s been obfuscated out of most people’s minds. So, to put it simply: Financial institutions loaned out a huge amount of money against assets that are now worth far less and whose value is still falling. Somehow, someway, the difference between these two numbers has to reconciled. Simply put, money loaned (X) – current value of assets (Y) = amount of debt to be accounted for (Z). Solve the equation and you know exactly how solvent our economy is.

This week we have found out that Y equals even less of X than previously thought – and the previously thought numbers were already pretty bad. That is because banks screwed up the paperwork so badly they are having major problems proving they do indeed have a legal right to the homes they gave mortgages on. Short form: The banks effectively gave that money away. So the debit side of their ledgers just got a whole lot redder and Z just got a whole lot larger.

Bank_Failure_700_Billion Now Z was bad before this latest fiasco was discovered. How bad? Bad enough the banks and the government have gone out of their way to make to figure out what Z is worth. My theory is they believe – perhaps reasonably – disclosing Z will cause the world’s economy to go into freefall. Unfortunately Z is not going away. So because these groups cannot change the value of X and the value of Y keeps getting smaller, they have resorted to fiddling with the – and the =.

First, the government tried to purchase mortgage debt(X) from the banks. The problem with this is that selling X would mean declaring its value, i.e. providing a real number for Y. This would mean admitting what everyone knows – that a number of banks have debts well in excess of their assets.

Because this didn’t work, the government tried to alter the equation’s minus sign by giving banks enough funds to be able to withstand solving for Y. Under this plan we get X + $100s of billion – Y = Z. Given how hesitant banks were to take toxic asset relief payments (or whatever they’re calling it now) it is reasonable to conclude that Y = way more than hundreds of billions.

But wait, you say! Many of these financial institutions have already repaid the bailout money! Yes, that is true. However keep in mind, they repaid it with money borrowed from the government. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul as imagined by M.C. Escher. Those staircases are never going to meet up but it allows both the banks and the government to say that they do while hoping that no one reads the fine print.

So being unable to either 1) increase X enough to do any good or 2) stop the actual value of Y from declining, the government tried letting financial institutions play lets pretend with the book value of Y. Recent changes in accounting rules let institutions can the value of a property at what they think it would go for in an “orderly” sale, as opposed to a forced or distressed one. Or, to quote the head of the central bank of Wonderland: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

What all those measures did was to allow the economy to continue to operate because we all pretended the problem would somehow go away. This is an attempt to put off the day of reconciliation until some time in the far distant future when someone will have figured out a solution that won’t hurt. However, this is impossible. The solution will hurt, and it will hurt a lot.

All talk of growing our way out of the recession is absurd. It is based on the belief that we can continue to increase the size of the economy as was done earlier in this decade. Let’s make one thing clear: The last decade’s worth of growth was funded by loans against assets that were never worth those loans in the first place. Trying to go back to that means continuing to believe in the fiction that it was ever sustainable in the first place.

The healthy economy of our future won’t resemble this in anyway. We will have to accept far more modest growth and lower our expectations about always having the newest stuff. We may have to pay our farm workers enough that those jobs, and others like them, because financially appealing to American citizens. That will mean paying a lot more for food and other things.The US has to become home to manufacturing again. This will mean enacting things – like tariffs – that a lot of powerful corporations don’t want. NAFTA and other free trade agreements are going to have to change drastically.

Of course, we don’t have to do these things. Regardless of what we do, though, the economic equation will be resolved and that debt will somehow be accounted for.

But hey, the Dow’s over 11K so no worries, right?

One thought on “A guide for the perplexed to the economic mess

  1. Pingback: Increase in foreclosure rate could mean banks knew they were seizing properties they didn’t actually own « Collateral Damage

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