Archive for the ‘deficit’ Tag

tory dunces

I am astonished at how badly the Tory party is playing the current crisis. In the UK, we need a competent opposition, but all their pronouncements on the economy are just plain wrong. This morning, on the Today programme, their shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Phil Hammond, no doubt fielded because George Osborne is already totally discredited, spouted more of the same rubbish. The Tory case is Yes to boost the economy, but only on a funded basis,  because we are over-borrowed.

But the case is overwhelming for more government borrowing now. Too bad that the Government has already borrowed too much; that’s in the past. It will make today’s essential borrowing more difficult, and more expensive, but it doesn’t make it any less essential. Tory policies will lead to a longer, more painful recession. The funded-expenditure argument is as ridiculous now as  was the 1920’s insistence on sticking to the Gold Standard.

More borrowing now, to be used for tax cuts and public works expenditure – specifically aimed at solving energy problems, e.g by insulating homes, building high-speed rail links and zero-carbon power stations, installing smart electricity meters nationwide – will tend to push up interest rates, which will encourage people who have money to save it, and those who don’t to borrow less. This is a good thing.

It will also create inflationary pressure. A little inflation is a good thing, particularly when asset prices are low. It encourages people to put their money into title-denominated assets like shares and property, and will therefore get the housing market and the stock market moving upwards in nominal terms. At least it gets them moving.

The economic case is almost identical on both sides of the Atlantic. The lame-duck presidency can’t do very much, but the new regime will have to embark on the same sort of programme against the same sort of economic background.  Expect a massive rise in the already-massive Federal deficit; the difference between the US and the UK being that the current US deficit is because of  the Cheney cabal’s larceny,  whereas the current UK deficit has been used to bring long-overdue improvements to the nation’s schools and hospitals which were so damaged by eighteen years of malign neglect under the previous Tory administration.

The fact that the world is all in the same mess does mitigate at least one risk factor associated with the huge borrowing the UK government is going to have to undertake: a run on the pound. Everyone else is going to have to do the same. There will be US inflation and there will be Eurozone inflation; and this inflation will help us all out of the debt mire.

My prescription is pure Keynesianism. I suspect that the Tory problem is that they believe that Keynesianism was wholly discredited by Friedmanite Thatcherism. They are wrong; it is a matter of horses for courses. The misapplication of Keynesian policies in the 1960s led to 1970s stagflation, which required a good dose of Friedmanite Thatcherism to correct. The problem we now face is much more like the problems of the 1920s than the 1970s, and it needs a Keynesian solution.

Lehman and the loss of trust

In yesterday’s post, I posited that the credit crunch which crushed Lehman has a lot to do with the adverse turnaround in US public finances as a result of the Iraq war, and I am sure that it is a factor, but it was not the thing that actually did for Lehman. The US fiscal account has been in substantial deficit before; the country only finished paying for the Vietnam war during the 1990s Clinton-era boom. Nevertheless, I think that we must always look at the fundamentals when trying to understand what is going on in an economy, and the combination of fiscal surplus/current account deficit produces surplus dollar capital and a boom in dollar-denominated asset prices, whereas twin deficits (as we have at the moment) will tend to depress dollar-denominated assets as the US Treasury absorbs the surplus dollar capital from the current account deficit. There is a substantial lag in this process, particularly around the downturn, because no one likes to sell an asset at a loss so notional asset values stay high until forced sales really make the fundamentals bite. I’m over-simplifying the process and there are other factors at play, including a change in international sentiment towards holding the dollar as a reserve currency, but asset prices are driven by capital flows. The burgeoning US current-account deficit helps explain how the proportion of US public debt in foreign hands is now at an all-time high.

But, macroeconomics 101 over, it’s time to talk about trust, which is what this blog is about, and if you read all the commentators, they are saying that the loss of trust between bankers is what really did for Lehman.

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Lehman went to the wall because its finances were shot to pieces. It lost the trust of fellow bankers (to whom it is massively indebted) because its underlying positions were no longer trustworthy. It had borrowed from them to buy dollar-denominated property assets, by underwriting mortgage backed securities and buying commercial property. If these assets had continued to rise in price, the borrowing would have been easily repaid, and Lehman would have made a substantial profit, as it had done before. This is the genius of leveraging; the problem is, when assets fall in price, the loss is leveraged as well.  Had it been smart, it would have seen the change in sentiment coming; but it didn’t – because the analysis of the fundamentals didn’t seem to match with experience on the ground in the early years of the decade when property prices were still booming. This usually means a bubble is building, but in the euphoria of a commission-driven sales culture, no one likes to admit that the bubble is about to burst. And the longer the bubble keeps growing, the more spectacular the burst. The fundamentals have been adverse for most of the decade, so the burst of the US property bubble has been spectacular.

What we now find is that no one actually knows whether Lehman is solvent or not. The realisable value of its commercial property and subprime mortgage books is not clear; if it’s more than the total that Lehman owes in bond and bank debt liabilities, Lehman could even emerge from chapter 11. This, however, is now highly unlikely. Like any major investment bank, Lehman is financed by a small amount of equity and large amount of bond and bank debt, which turns over as instruments mature and debt becomes repayable. Normally, it would just issue more debt to repay the maturing instruments; but since no one trusts it, that is no longer possible. So it has to realise its other assets, and their  disposal becomes even more of a fire-sale. This is what the administrators are doing, who are now struggling to raise the cash to pay the current month’s salaries.

So could greater transparency have helped Lehman? Again, the answer is moot. Almost certainly, it would have precipitated the current crisis much earlier: lenders would have seen the dire state of the bank’s finances, and stopped lending long ago.  But it might have been in time to stop Lehman racking up most of its excesses.