November 16, 2008
Before the current economic crisis became apparent to all, the most popular fable used to describe America’s uncanny economic resiliency was the story of Goldilocks. It was argued that our economy was skipping down a sunny path of moderate growth, low inflation and rising asset prices. However, a much better parable for our economy over the last decade would have been the story of Humpty Dumpty: a bloated, fragile shell perched on the top of a dangerously high stone wall. This week, all the government’s horses and all of its men scrambled to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Here is a look at some of this week’s highlights:
The Mother of all Moral Hazards
No doubt prodded by the administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced a new attempt to stop the fall in home prices and foreclosures through a loan modification program that would cap mortgage payments so that a homeowner’s total housing expenses would not exceed 38% of household income for home owners who are 90 days delinquent.
In a classic case of unintended consequences, the plan will encourage a massive new round of delinquencies and household income reduction as homeowners will jump through hoops to qualify for the program and maximize their benefit. Those who could conceivably economize to meet their existing obligations will now have a strong reason to forego such sacrifices. Those who are not 90 days past due will intentionally become so. In many cases, dual income families may decide to eliminate one job altogether as reduced mortgage payments combined with lower child care and other work related expenses will likely exceed the after-tax value of the lost paycheck.
Unfortunately, the last thing our economy needs is falling household incomes and even more bad debt. But that is precisely what this plan will give us.
To Bail or Not to Bail
With the Big Three auto makers now in a plainly visible death spiral, the automotive bailout debate is kicking into overdrive. The disagreement hinges on whether a bailout is necessary to support an important industry or whether the unprofitable dinosaurs of the past should be allowed to fail as America focuses on an information-age, service sector, and alternative energy future.
As usual, both sides have it wrong. The government should let the Big Three fail not because we no longer need an auto industry, but because we desperately do. What we do not need is the bloated, inefficient auto industry that we have today. By allowing the Big Three to fail, their capacity will be turned over to new owners who will be able to acquire the means of production at fire sale prices and hire workers at globally competitive wages. The result will be a more efficient auto industry making cars that people around the world actually want to buy at prices they can afford. Such auto makers could conceivably be profitable and could become the cornerstone of a manufacturing renaissance in the United States. In contrast, Ford, Chrysler and GM are never ending money pits that threaten to swallow a good deal of our economy.
We Shopped and Dropped
This week, the bankruptcy filing by Circuit City and a profit warning from Best Buy, served as proof positive that America’s national shopping spree is over. As I have long said, the business model of importing cheap goods for Americans to buy with credit cards was unsustainable. We were told to “Shop till we dropped,” and we did.
Americans two primary sources of spending money, home equity extractions and unlimited credit card availability, have been shut down. With only dwindling paychecks to rely on, Americans are justifiably economizing. As a result, many more retailers will file for bankruptcy over the next few years, and those that remain solvent will only do so by drastically cutting their capacity.
In a desperate move to arrest this necessary process, Treasury Secretary Paulson announced his intention to use part of the $700 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Recovery Program) funds to re-liquefy consumer lending.
Paulson observed that “illiquidity is raising the cost and reducing the availability of car loans, student loans, and credit cards”, “creating a heavy burden on the American people” and reducing jobs. While all of this is true, this is precisely what needs to happen. Americans need to reduce their spending on all of these things, and market forces are in the process of bringing that change about. By encouraging even more borrowing, Paulson’s plan will aggravate the crisis.
Along those lines, our nation’s various bank regulators issued a joint press release this week that “encouraged” banks to make more loans and to reduce their lending standards if need be. Since lax lending standards are one of the primary reasons that those banks “needed” to be bailed out in the first place, it is lunacy to now encourage them throw good money after bad. More risky lending (and currently nearly all lending is risky) interferes with the market’s attempts to rebalance our economy along the lines that Paulson himself admits is necessary, and sows the seeds for even bigger bailouts in the future when this new crop of loans go bad.
Bait and Switch
Reminiscent of his Bazooka maneuver, quick draw Paulson reversed course quickly with his decision to not use any TARP funds to buy the assets that the plan was specifically funded to procure. Instead, he will simply dole out the loot to his buddies on Wall Street and use it for whatever seemingly worthy initiative strikes his fancy.
Although Congress loves to grandstand about oversight, it has thus far shown no courage to interfere, or even question, the change in strategy. Paulson claims that he is simply rolling with the punches. The truth however, is that the original plan was flawed from inception, as I clearly pointed out in a string of commentaries following his proposal. How could the Treasury Department, with all its funding and PhD’s, not make similar predictions? Paulson is either a liar or completely incompetent. My guess is he is both.
It is mindboggling to consider that all of these developments took place in just one week. As the remnants of America’s shattered economy continue to ooze out over the pavement, look for even more bizarre, draconian, unworkable, and downright dangerous policies to emerge from Washington.
Peter Schiff is the president of Euro Pacific Capital and the author of Crash Proof: How to Profit From the Coming Economic Collapse and The Little Book of Bull Moves in Bear Markets.