Two Questions Central to the Emerging Economic Debate

You can see them gaining currency in thank tanks, op-ed pages and tv shows.  2 questions whose answers will drive our policies and dictate the terms of our recovery - is our financial system insolvent? and Will high-levels of consumer debt force American consumers to save rather then spend, and take them out of the game over the next few years?

We've been asking the Spend? Save? question here for a few weeks nowDavid Leonhardt attacked it last week in the Times, and Paul Krugman visits the question today in his column

Last week the Federal Reserve released the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report on the assets and liabilities of American households. The bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001.

At one level this should come as no surprise. For most of the last decade America was a nation of borrowers and spenders, not savers. The personal savings rate dropped from 9 percent in the 1980s to 5 percent in the 1990s, to just 0.6 percent from 2005 to 2007, and household debt grew much faster than personal income. Why should we have expected our net worth to go up?

Yet until very recently Americans believed they were getting richer, because they received statements saying that their houses and stock portfolios were appreciating in value faster than their debts were increasing. And if the belief of many Americans that they could count on capital gains forever sounds naïve, it's worth remembering just how many influential voices - notably in right-leaning publications like The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and National Review - promoted that belief, and ridiculed those who worried about low savings and high levels of debt.

Then reality struck, and it turned out that the worriers had been right all along. The surge in asset values had been an illusion - but the surge in debt had been all too real.

So now we're in trouble - deeper trouble, I think, than most people realize even now. And I'm not just talking about the dwindling band of forecasters who still insist that the economy will snap back any day now.

For this is a broad-based mess. Everyone talks about the problems of the banks, which are indeed in even worse shape than the rest of the system. But the banks aren't the only players with too much debt and too few assets; the same description applies to the private sector as a whole.

The other question, to the solvency of our financial system, was discussed a great deal on the Sunday talk shows yesterday.   Last week Martin Wolf of the FT wrote

Yet hoping for the best is what one sees in the stimulus programme and - so far as I can judge from Tuesday's sketchy announcement by Tim Geithner, Treasury secretary - also in the new plans for fixing the banking system. I commented on the former last week. I would merely add that it is extraordinary that a popular new president, confronting a once-in-80-years' economic crisis, has let Congress shape the outcome.

The banking programme seems to be yet another child of the failed interventions of the past one and a half years: optimistic and indecisive. If this "progeny of the troubled asset relief programme" fails, Mr Obama's credibility will be ruined. Now is the time for action that seems close to certain to resolve the problem; this, however, does not seem to be it.

All along two contrasting views have been held on what ails the financial system. The first is that this is essentially a panic. The second is that this is a problem of insolvency.

Under the first view, the prices of a defined set of "toxic assets" have been driven below their long-run value and in some cases have become impossible to sell. The solution, many suggest, is for governments to make a market, buy assets or insure banks against losses. This was the rationale for the original Tarp and the "super-SIV (special investment vehicle)" proposed by Henry (Hank) Paulson, the previous Treasury secretary, in 2007.

Under the second view, a sizeable proportion of financial institutions are insolvent: their assets are, under plausible assumptions, worth less than their liabilities. The International Monetary Fund argues that potential losses on US-originated credit assets alone are now $2,200bn (€1,700bn, £1,500bn), up from $1,400bn just last October. This is almost identical to the latest estimates from Goldman Sachs. In recent comments to the Financial Times, Nouriel Roubini of RGE Monitor and the Stern School of New York University estimates peak losses on US-generated assets at $3,600bn. Fortunately for the US, half of these losses will fall abroad. But, the rest of the world will strike back: as the world economy implodes, huge losses abroad - on sovereign, housing and corporate debt - will surely fall on US institutions, with dire effects.

Personally, I have little doubt that the second view is correct and, as the world economy deteriorates, will become ever more so. But this is not the heart of the matter. That is whether, in the presence of such uncertainty, it can be right to base policy on hoping for the best. The answer is clear: rational policymakers must assume the worst. If this proved pessimistic, they would end up with an over-capitalised financial system. If the optimistic choice turned out to be wrong, they would have zombie banks and a discredited government. This choice is surely a "no brainer".

The new plan seems to make sense if and only if the principal problem is illiquidity. Offering guarantees and buying some portion of the toxic assets, while limiting new capital injections to less than the $350bn left in the Tarp, cannot deal with the insolvency problem identified by informed observers. Indeed, any toxic asset purchase or guarantee programme must be an ineffective, inefficient and inequitable way to rescue inadequately capitalised financial institutions: ineffective, because the government must buy vast amounts of doubtful assets at excessive prices or provide over-generous guarantees, to render insolvent banks solvent; inefficient, because big capital injections or conversion of debt into equity are better ways to recapitalise banks; and inequitable, because big subsidies would go to failed institutions and private buyers of bad assets.

Why then is the administration making what appears to be a blunder? It may be that it is hoping for the best. But it also seems it has set itself the wrong question. It has not asked what needs to be done to be sure of a solution. It has asked itself, instead, what is the best it can do given three arbitrary, self-imposed constraints: no nationalisation; no losses for bondholders; and no more money from Congress. Yet why does a new administration, confronting a huge crisis, not try to change the terms of debate? This timidity is depressing. Trying to make up for this mistake by imposing pettifogging conditions on assisted institutions is more likely to compound the error than to reduce it.

And the aforementioned Professor Roubini wrote yesterday in the Washington Post:

The U.S. banking system is close to being insolvent, and unless we want to become like Japan in the 1990s -- or the United States in the 1930s -- the only way to save it is to nationalize it.

As free-market economists teaching at a business school in the heart of the world's financial capital, we feel downright blasphemous proposing an all-out government takeover of the banking system. But the U.S. financial system has reached such a dangerous tipping point that little choice remains. And while Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's recent plan to save it has many of the right elements, it's basically too late.

The subprime mortgage mess alone does not force our hand; the $1.2 trillion it involves is just the beginning of the problem. Another $7 trillion -- including commercial real estate loans, consumer credit-card debt and high-yield bonds and leveraged loans -- is at risk of losing much of its value. Then there are trillions more in high-grade corporate bonds and loans and jumbo prime mortgages, whose worth will also drop precipitously as the recession deepens and more firms and households default on their loans and mortgages.

Last year we predicted that losses by U.S. financial institutions would hit $1 trillion and possibly go as high as $2 trillion. We were accused of exaggerating. But since then, write-downs by U.S. banks have passed the $1 trillion mark, and now institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and Goldman Sachs predict losses of more than $2 trillion.

But if you think that $2 trillion is high, consider our latest estimates at the financial Web site RGE Monitor: They suggest that total losses on loans made by U.S. banks and the fall in the market value of the assets they are holding will reach about $3.6 trillion. The U.S. banking sector is exposed to half that figure, or $1.8 trillion. Even with the original federal bailout funds from last fall, the capital backing the banks' assets was only $1.4 trillion, leaving the U.S. banking system about $400 billion in the hole.

Two important parts of Geithner's plan are "stress testing" banks by poring over their books to separate viable institutions from bankrupt ones and establishing an investment fund with private and public money to purchase bad assets. These are necessary steps toward a healthy financial sector.

But unfortunately, the plan won't solve our financial woes, because it assumes that the system is solvent. If implemented fairly for current taxpayers (i.e., no more freebies in the form of underpriced equity, preferred shares, loan guarantees or insurance on assets), it will just confirm how bad things really are.

Nationalization is the only option that would permit us to solve the problem of toxic assets in an orderly fashion and finally allow lending to resume. Of course, the economy would still stink, but the death spiral we are in would end.

Both of these essays echo an essay Rob Shapiro wrote within days of the announcement of the original TARP, Back to Basics: Why The Treasury Plan Won't Work.  

I read these articles.  I listen to the commentators.  I and many others in positions of responsibility continue to wake each day to an even greater understanding of the enormity of the problems our nation now faces, of the hole dug by the mismanagement and ignorance of the previous administration.  Clearly, now, we have to conclude these are no ordinary times.   

So my friends watch the debate over the next few weeks and come to your own conclusion - should American consumers spend, or save? And are the banks insolvent?  How we answer these questions in the short term will dictate very much how we approach the next stage of the management of our economic crisis. 


Thanks Youu by melanqolis (not verified)