John Hussman is one of my must reads, so I am not sure how we can give it any more importance, but we should this week. John touches on a number of subjects today, including why the European Stability Fund being levered up is a bad idea and the ECRI’s recession call. But the most important sections are on what is about to start as financial institutions in Europe and the US begin seeing stress levels intensify:
We are headed toward a new recession because our policy makers never addressed the underlying problem in the first place, which was, and remains, the need for debt restructuring. This is an issue that I suspect will re-emerge to the forefront of public debate in the next year. Hopefully, the response of our policymakers will be at different.
You can do the same calculations for nearly every major financial institution in the world. The amount of bondholders and equity coverage varies somewhat, but in virtually every case, bondholder and shareholder capital of these institutions are more than sufficient to absorb any losses without the need for public funds, provided that the objective of government policy is to protect the people and the long-term viability of the economy, rather than defending the existing owners, bondholders, and managements of these institutions. Make no mistake – that choice is what the oncoming crisis is going to be about (See An Imminent Downturn – Whom Will Our Leaders Defend? ).
But who are those bondholders? They include corporate investors, pension funds, endowments, mutual funds and ordinary investors. And all of them willingly take a risk in order to reach for return. As do stock market investors. And if the risk doesn’t work out, none of them should look to the government to fire teachers, lay off social workers, underfund the National Institutes of Health, cut Medicaid, and print money (because until the Fed sells its Treasury and GSE holdings, it has indeed printed money), just because they take their risk in a different type of security.
My impression is that the scare-mongering of self-serving financial “experts” on Wall Street is shortly about to become deafening. It would be catastrophe, utter catastrophe, no, Armageddon, to let the global financial system collapse – collapse! – because the world as we know it will indeed collapse, as day follows night, if bondholders, who knowingly and voluntarily take risk and invest at a spread, are actually allowed to lose anything! We cannot, in a thinking society, allow losses to befall risk-takers who make reckless loans and bad investments. We must, must at all costs, divert money away from health, education, and welfare, in order to save these companies from failure, because neither health, nor education, nor welfare are even possible unless we save the financial system from unthinkable meltdown. We have no choice. No choice at all. They are too big to fail, and we cannot hesitate – they must be saved, for the sake of our children, for our children’s children, for our freedom, for the flag, and to honor the legacy of our forefathers, so that these Champions of Disfigured Capitalism can continue to do their vital work with impunity, unbound by any of the incentives or consequences that actually allow capitalism to work in practice.
To reiterate the observations of Sheila Bair, the outgoing head of the FDIC, in her discussion of the 2008-2009 crisis (see Sheila Bair’s Exit Interview ): “‘We were rarely consulted. They would bring me in after they’d made their decision on what needed to be done, and without giving me any information they would say, ‘You have to do this or the system will go down.’ If I heard that once, I heard it a thousand times. ‘Citi is systemic, you have to do this.’ No analysis, no meaningful discussion. It was very frustrating.’ … As she thinks back on it, Bair views her disagreements with her fellow regulators as a kind of high-stakes philosophical debate about the role of bondholders. Her perspective is that bondholders should take losses when an institution fails. When the F.D.I.C. shuts down a failing bank, the unsecured bondholders always absorb some of the losses. That is the essence of market discipline: if shareholders and bondholders know they are on the hook, they are far more likely to keep a close watch on management’s risk-taking.”
I feel it is important to emphasize – as we move toward recession – that we shouldn’t blame what is happening here on capitalism or free markets. We really have only a caricature of those here. We have a system that is constantly eager to abandon the proper role of government in the markets – which is effective regulation of risk – and to substitute it with the worst role of government in the markets – which is absorbing losses for those whose losses should not be absorbed, and pursuing policies tilted toward the constant creation of speculative bubbles and the avoidance of required economic adjustments, rather than the productive allocation of capital.
Free markets work – provided that they operate within a framework of government policy that enforces property rights, provides reasonable regulation, coordinates objectives that cannot be achieved privately (e.g. certain infrastructure, insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions – which otherwise creates an adverse selection problem even for companies that would like to offer it), and maintains reasonable consumer protection (because there is a huge “information problem” in requiring each consumer to have all of the requisite facts to avoid abusive practices). To blame our economic problems on the free market is an insult to what has proved for centuries to be the most effective economic system for creating prosperity and raising living standards. We would be wise to stomp out the incessant policy of bailouts and monetary distortions if we hope for that to continue.
Of course, we suggest reading his letter in its entirety.