Lately I’ve been hearing some musings about how the economic situation is improving. Yes, optimists are always necessary, though they can also be a bit annoying sometimes.
In any case it’s good to reflect for a while on where are we now. Have the fundamentals of the current crisis changed so much that we can say things are changing? Maybe is it that people are sensing that we have already touched the floor thus the situation is about to rebound? If it is the second one, let me tell you, we spent so many years skyrocketing ceiling after ceiling, why should the bear animal spirits be less powerful than the bulls?
Crisis, at least most crisis, aren’t the results of sudden disasters or fulminant downturns. Although everyone can recall tipping points, such as certain interventions or lack thereof, they are the consequences of deeply undergoing currents, things that have been happening for a long time.
And what has been happening for a long time? Things like the excess of liquidity, thus the excess of leverage. Piles and piles of debt. Unsound financial constructs acting like dark boxes trying to hide the risk inside, just like a giant Pandora’s jar (incorrectly translated from the ancient greek as a box instead of a jar).
Ephimetheus had been warned not to accept any gifts from Zeus, and Pandora had been warned not to ever open her box. But you know mankind, the former couldn’t resist marrying her, and the latter couldn’t resist her curiosity to know what was inside the box… Otherwise mankind would have lived tranquil and blissful (for another while).
So, has this man been able to close the jar (or box) that brings all the evils to mankind? I know it’s ugly to personalise but, has quantitative easing helped? It probably has, somehow, albeit many doubt so. I think it has bought us some more time, but we still haven’t taken care of that atonement I’ve written about a few times.
Because putting still more money into the system doesn’t address the fundamental problem we are facing. It’s more like trying to remedy a symptom than a disease. It’s true the pendulum has swung to the other side, and injecting liquidity, the swing won’t be that strong anyway, but that still doesn’t solve our problem.
Yes, banks are paralised. But that’s not because they have forgotten how to be banks, but because nobody really knows how much their assets are worth now. We are permitting them to alter their book to market ratio thanks to the backing of the ultimate lenders (yes, you know who they are, those forced lenders), and they are not lending because they are holding to those promises that permits them not to face reality.
Any reconstruction must begin by assessing the losses, instead of counting on a white (forced) knight that will save them all. This thought paralyses them, makes them look to the future with unrealistic expectations.
In the meantime, the forced lenders have to back and even buy bad assets. But they can’t sell them, as they don’t know how or whether they are worth anything. Just like another Pandora’s jar that trades hands without anybody actually looking what’s inside. And it won’t be a bad thing to look inside this jar, as at least we’ll know what we are able to recover. Bad assets are bad because they are worth much less than what’s in the books, it’s time to know how much.
So what then? Is this all? Even when we reach this point we will still have to face the biggest problem: the excess of debt. Right now we are still indebting us more and more as the quantitative easing still needs to be financed, as each and every infrastructure we may be trying to build, or every single measure taken to protect the weakest.
An interesting article from the New York Times wrote last month that the debt in the hands of the consumers had begun to recede from 98% of the Gross Domestic Product to 97%. Those were the good news. The bad news were that the debt in the hands of banks had not. And, according to the article, that debt stood at $17.2 trillion, or 121 percent of the size of the GDP of the United States, compared to 6% of the GDP half a century earlier. Yes, that’s a problem.
Still two final reflection in this already too long post: if households are saving more, that will have a long lasting impact on the economy as well, an impact that will last for sure much longer that the present recession. No more exuberant lending to households.
The other reflection is like this, what if we added to the debt held by households the debt that the governments are generating? They are the forced lenders after all. And if you look at the whole picture this way, the debt is still growing and growing… and the end is still further away.