The Global Economic Crisis: a five-part study

November 9, 2008

By Dipankar Basu, Sanhati. This series will also appear parallely on Radicalnotes

Part 1

The global economic crisis currently underway is, by all accounts, the deepest economic crisis of world capitalism since the Great Depression. It is necessary for the international working class to understand various aspects of this crisis: how it developed, who were the players involved, what were the instruments used during the build-up and what are it’s consequences for the working people of the world. This understanding is necessary to formulate a socialist, i.e., working class, response to these earth shaking events. In a series of posts here on Radical Notes, I will share my understanding of the on-going crisis as part of the larger collective attempt to come to grips with the current conjuncture from a socialist perspective, to understand both the problems and the possibilities that it opens up.

The Big Story

The current crisis can possibly be fruitfully understood if measured against different time scales: the short-term, i.e., in terms of days and weeks; the medium-term, i.e., in terms of months and years; and the long-term, i.e., in terms of decades. This analytical compartmentalization into three different time periods is useful because it demonstrates how long-term trends silently but inexorably created the conditions for the medium-term problem to explode into the short-term problem that has buffeted the economy since mid-September, 2008.

In the short-term, the current financial meltdown is a severe credit crisis, a situation whereby financial institutions have become unwilling or unable to lend and borrow among themselves thereby freezing the flow of credit in the entire economic system; this credit freeze is largely fuelled by a serious loss of faith in financial institutions and in the financial system as such and came to the fore most forcefully in the middle of September, 2008. It is also possible that the credit freeze, and the underlying loss of faith, might explode into a full-blown banking crisis: banking panic leading to run on even healthy and solvent banks.

In the medium-term, the crisis is the unravelling of a stupendously leveraged speculative bubble on real estate that built itself up for about seven years from the beginning of this decade (and century); this speculative bubble was mediated by fancy financial instruments fashioned by Wall Street, running all the way from sub-prime mortgages, asset backed securities (ABS) and mortgage backed securities (MBS), collateralized debt obligations (CDO) to credit default swaps (CDS); this speculative bubble led up to and culminated, when it finally burst in the middle of 2007, in the credit crisis that the US, and gradually the global, economy finds itself in.

From a long-term perspective the present crisis is, of course, more than just about Wall Street and finance and banking; it is a full-blown crisis of the neoliberal turn in capitalism inaugurated the 1970s. Neoliberalism (or the neoliberal counterrevolution) was a response to the structural crisis of capitalism that emerged in the late 1960s. It was a response from the point of view of the upper fraction of the capitalist class, a fraction especially dominated by financial interests. The neoliberal counterrevolution ushered in a capitalism firmly under the sway of finance capital; the neoliberal policy turn was geared towards breaking the power of labour vis-a-vis capital that had gradually built up during the two decades after World War II. The result was stagnant real wages, slow but growing productivity, and hence growing profit incomes especially of the financial sector, increasing financialization and a deregulated economy for finance to operate in.

Stagnant wages created the demand for debt from a working class used to growing consumption spending; huge profit incomes and the shredding of all regulation on finance created the supply. The result was a growing role of debt in the lives of the working class which, over time, led to a huge debt overhang on the entire economy. As the ratio of outstanding debt to income rose, with stagnant incomes for the majority, the financial fragility of the entire system increased; and it is this systemically fragile financial architecture that finally cracked under the weight of the bursting housing bubble. Thus, the long-term build-up of debt in the US economy resulting from the neoliberal counterrevolution, which increased the financial fragility of the system, created the conditions in which the bursting of various asset price bubbles could lead to a severe credit crisis and loss of faith in the entire financial system.

Impact on the Real Economy

Real GDP figures released by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) on October 30 indicated that the US economy was in the midst of a slowdown even before the financial storm hit the world economy in the middle of September. Real GDP in the US contracted at an annual rate of 0.3 percent for the third quarter (i.e., for the months of July, August and September), led by a sharp fall in consumer spending. The financial storm, comprising a severe credit crisis and even a possible banking crisis, will only deepen the slowdown and might even push the US and the rest of the world into a prolonged and painful recession, possibly even a decade long L-shaped recession like the one that Japan witnessed during the lost decade of the 1990s. In such a scenario, fixing the financial mess, dealing with the credit freeze, averting a possible run on the commercial banking system and restoring confidence in the financial system will not be enough to prevent a plunge into a deep, prolonged and painful recession; addressing the credit crisis is necessary but not sufficient to deal with the grave crisis in the real sector. An aggressive fiscal intervention by the US government and other governments around the world, in terms of direct expenditure on goods and services, will be necessary to prevent the slide into a prolonged recession. It is in the interests of the working class to push for such intervention even as it works towards re-building it’s political, social and economic institutions.

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Part 2

Short-term: The Sequence of Events

Even though the credit crisis attained dangerous proportions only in mid-September, it had already announced itself in the early part of the year with the collapse of Bear Stearns, one of the five famed investment banks that defined Wall Street; today none of those five investment banks – Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehmann Brothers, Merril Lynch and Morgan Stanley – exist, an indication of the depth of the crisis. Faced with a fierce run on it’s dwindling reserves and it’s stock plummeting, Bears Stearns was forced to sell itself off to J P Morgan Chase (one of the largest commercial banks in the US) on March 16, 2008. The next three months could be best described in terms that the police often use in India: tense but under control. On July 01, the next piece of bad news emerged and shattered the uneasy calm: Country Wide Financials, the largest mortgage seller in the US, collapsed and was acquired by Bank of America (one of the largest commercial banks in the US). Following closely on the heels of this event, IndyMac bank failed – the second largest bank failure in US history – and was taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), one of the institutions responsible for monitoring the health of the banking system in the US. IndyMac was, unsurprisingly perhaps, part of the Country Wide financial family.

Things started speeding up in September. On September 08, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two government supported enterprises (GSE) operating in the mortgage market was nationalized, with assets of the two entities totalling to more than $ 5 trillion. On September 15 another of the five famed investment banks, Lehmann Brothers, filed for bankruptcy; Lehmann’s assets were a little over $ 600 billion and this made it’s bankruptcy filing the largest in US history. Next day, the Fed stepped in with a $ 85 billion loan to prevent American International Group (AIG), the largest insurance firm in the US from going under. These two events, Lehmann’s bankruptcy filing and AIG’s rescue, sent shock waves through the world financial system. The result was a rapid erosion of faith in the financial system leading to a veritable credit freeze: financial institutions stopped lending, to other financial institutions, to businesses and to consumers.

The next thirty six hours, from the morning of September 17 to the evening of September 18, accelerated the credit crisis to extremely dangerous proportions and convinced the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve that government intervention of unheard magnitudes (at least since the Great Depression) would be necessary to prevent total financial collapse. Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve (the US Central Bank), was famously reported as saying, at one point during this 36 hours, that if the government did not save the (financial) markets now there might not be any financial markets in the future. So, what happened during those crucial 36 hours?

The crucial 36 hours

The first indication of a severe stress in the financial system was a shooting up of credit default swap (CDS) rates, especially on Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs (two of the famed five Wall Street investment banks) debt, during the early hours of September 17. Credit default swaps are insurance contracts that can protect bondholders against the possibility of default. For example if an investor has bought bonds worth $ 1 million issued by firm A, then the investor can also buy CDS – typically issued by financial institutions like large commercial banks, investment banks or insurance companies – to protect herself against a possible loss resulting from firm A defaulting on it’s bonds; the premium that the investor pays for the CDS is called the “rate” or “spread” and it is typically around 2% of the amount insured (the “notional value”). So, in the case of this example, the investor would pay $ 20,000 to buy CDS and if firm A were to go under, then the “counterparty” to the CDS contract (i.e., the financial institution that issued the CDS to the investor) would step in to pay the investor $ 1 million and the interest on that amount.

CDS rates (i.e., the premiums that are paid on the insurance contracts) are, thus, an indication of the market’s belief about the possibility of default of some institutions; CDS rates on bonds issued by firms are typically low when the market thinks the probability of default of those firms are low and high when the market thinks the probability of default are high. Thus, on the morning of September 17, when CDS rates went through the roof, this provided evidence of severe loss of faith in the financial system.

When investors lose faith in the financial instruments issued by private parties, they turn back to those issued by the government and that is what happened when CDS rates multiplied by close to a factor of five. Investors let go of private financial instruments like hot bricks and rushed into US government securities, a phenomenon often described as “flight to safety”. The US government, i.e., the US Treasury department, issues three primary kinds of securities: T-bills, T-notes and T-bonds (where the “T” stands for Treasury), where bills mature in less than a year, notes mature between one and ten years and bonds are of longer maturities than a decade. When investors lost faith in the private financial system, they rushed in to US T-bills, the short-run heavily-traded ultra-safe US government securities. This huge rush into T-bills pushed up the price of T-bills and drove the yield (i.e., interest rate) on T-bills down. At one point in time, during this 36 hour period, the yield on T-bills was pushed down all the way to zero (the lowest it can ever go to) implying that investors were willing to hold T-bills even though the nominal return was zero and real returns were negative (because the inflation rate was positive).

As private investors were madly rushing into the safety of US T-bills, another important event was unfolding in the mutual funds market. Money market mutual funds (MMMF) are financial institutions that have become popular over the last three decades, especially in the US. They typically work as follows: investors put their money in MMMF’s by purchasing shares in the MMMF’s stock; thus the MMMF becomes a mechanism for pooling huge amounts of money and then using those large sums for investing in a very diversified portfolio of financial assets, thereby making the investments extremely safe. Thus MMMF’s were, till September 17, thought to be as safe as a deposit account in a commercial bank, and the added advantage was that the money invested in MMMF shares would give a positive rate of return as opposed to a deposit account which is usually non-interest bearing. On September 17, one of the oldest and largest MMMF’s, Reserve Primary Fund, “broke the buck”, i.e., it made losses on it’s investments such that it could not guarantee a positive return to it’s shareholders. Every dollar invested in Reserve Primary was now, by it’s own admission, worth less than a dollar. This was an unheard of event and as news of Reserve Primary Fund’s losses spread, investors started pulling money out of MMMFs.

This had a very negative consequence for the real economy because of the serious involvement of MMMFs in the commercial paper (CP) market. Businesses typically need to constantly borrow short-term funds to keep their operations going; these borrowed funds go towards funding payroll, paying suppliers, maintaining inventory, etc. Firms, at least the big ones, usually borrow short-term funds in the US by issuing commercial paper (which is essentially a bond with a short maturity of about a week or a month). Who buys commercial papers? The most active institutional investors in the CP market are the MMMFs; some of the largest chunks of commercial papers are bought by the MMMFs. So when the MMMFs faced an increasing spate of withdrawal, in the wake of Reserve Primary Fund’s breaking the buck, they stopped buying commercial paper. This, essentially, meant that the CP market ground to a halt. Thus businesses were no longer able to borrow the short-term funds that they need to keep operating. The economy, by all means, shut down.

Adding to and going hand-in-hand with these processes were the growing problems in the interbank (lending) market. Commercial banks typically lend and borrow banking system reserves (roughly the sum of currency in the banks’ vaults and the amount they hold in their account with the Central Bank) among themselves for very short periods, usually overnight periods. The interbank lending market that is most closely watched is the London interbank market and the rate at which loans are made in this market is the London Inter Bank Offered Rate (LIBOR). The most important characteristic of loans in the interbank market is that they are unsecured, i.e., they are not backed by collateral. Thus, a bank can get a loan in the interbank market only if other banks consider it financially sound; thus when the LIBOR jumps up suddenly it provides evidence that the largest and the best banks in the world have lost faith on each other. On September 17, the LIBOR shot up giving indication of increasing strain in the interbank market.

It was these sets of events – CDS rates shooting up, closing down of the CP market, increasing strain in the interbank market – that spooked the US administration and convinced them of the necessity of the most extensive government intervention in the financial markets since the Great Depression. These crucial sets of events were precipitated by the string of big financial failures that the US economy had witnessed over the first two weeks of September: the failure of Fannie and Freddie, the bankruptcy of Lehmann and the near-collapse of AIG. It was these failures that led to a rapid loss of faith in the financial system and heralded a full-blown credit crisis. And why did Fannie and Freddie and Lehmann and AIG fail? All these financial institutions failed because at crucial points in time they could no longer raise money from the market to finance their assets, i.e., they could not borrow money or roll over their short-term debt; financing, for these institutions, had dried up. And why did financing dry up for these big and reputed financial institutions? Because each of these, in their own ways, were exposed to the subprime mortgage market and took huge losses when the subprime mortgage market started unravelling. As news of these failures spread, investors, fearing losses, became increasingly unwilling to lend money to these institutions.

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Part 3

The Need for Aggressive Fiscal Intervention

Before we move on to looking at the global economic crisis from a medium term perspective, i.e., before we take a look at the phenomenon of the house price bubble and associated speculation that created the grounds for the current credit crisis, it might not be amiss to focus on what can be done in the short-run to deal with the real consequences of the economic crisis: the deep and prolonged recession that the US economy will undoubtedly be pushed into. Real GDP figures released by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) on October 30 indicated that the US economy was in the midst of a slowdown even before the financial storm hit the world economy in the middle of September. Real GDP in the US contracted at an annual rate of 0.3 percent for the third quarter (i.e., for the months of July, August and September), led by a sharp fall in consumer spending; businesses cut 240,000 jobs in October alone, the highest figure in 14 years. The financial storm, comprising a severe credit crisis and even a possible banking crisis, worsened the slowdown further. In such a scenario, fixing the financial mess, dealing with the credit freeze, averting a possible run on the commercial banking system and restoring confidence in the financial system will not be enough to prevent a plunge into a deep, prolonged and painful recession; addressing the credit crisis is necessary but not sufficient to deal with the grave crisis in the real sector. A direct and aggressive boost to aggregate demand is the only way to prevent the current recession from becoming a depression. Why is that so?

In any capitalist economy, such as the US economy, the level of aggregate economic activity and employment is determined, in the short run, by the level of aggregate demand, and fluctuations in employment and output are accordingly determined by fluctuations of aggregate demand. Aggregate demand is defined as the sum total of all expenditures on goods and services produced in the economy. Macroeconomists divide total expenditure that make up aggregate demand into four categories: consumption expenditure, investment expenditure, government expenditure and net export expenditure. Consumption expenditure is the total spending by households on durable and non-durable goods, and also services; investment expenditure is the total spending by firms on plant, equipment, machinery and inventories, and the residential investment expenditures by households; government expenditure includes the total spending by local, state and federal government agencies on goods and services (excluding transfer payments); and net export expenditure is the net amount that foreigners spend on buying goods and services produced in the domestic economy.

BEA figures released for the third quarter show that every component of aggregate demand emanating from the private sector of the US (or foreign) economy either declined or slowed down when compared to the second quarter. In real terms, consumption expenditure decreased by 3.1 percent, the steepest decline since 1980 when the US economy was in the grip of a severe recession; during the previous recession in 2001, consumption expenditures had not even declined. Investment expenditures, other than those devoted to maintaining inventories, have also declined. Real nonresidential fixed investment expenditures decreased 1.0 percent in the third quarter, in contrast to an increase of 2.5 percent in the second. Expenditures on nonresidential structures increased by 7.9 percent, compared with a much higher increase of 18.5 percent in the last quarter; expenditures on equipment and software decreased 5.5 percent. Real residential fixed investment decreased 19.1 percent, compared with a decrease of 13.3 percent in the second quarter. Demand emanating from the external sector has a similar story to tell: even though exports registered a positive growth, the growth had slowed down considerably falling from 12.3 to 5.9 percent.

This is hardly surprising. With credit drying up, home equity vanishing and layoffs increasing, working-class households cannot be expected to increase their expenditures on the purchase of goods and services; a continued decline in the stock markets, coupled with increasing volatility will make matters worse. A recent survey in the US showed that consumer confidence was at it’s lowest value in 40 years, and so it is almost certain that consumption expenditure will not rise in the foreseeable future. Neither will export expenditures rise to shore up aggregate demand because most of the economies in the world are either already into a recession or are rapidly slowing down. Nor can firms be expected to increase their expenditures on plant and machinery and equipment. And the problem here is more than a credit freeze: even if the credit markets were to ease due to government intervention, which it is adamantly refusing to do, firms might not be willing to expand their operations because they face sagging demand. Capitalist firms produce to make profits; if they expect markets to be down and demand to fall, they will cut back and not increase their expenditures even if the cost of financing goes down.

That leaves us with government expenditure as the only source for increasing aggregate demand. In the midst of possibly the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the US government needs to aggressively step up it’s expenditure on goods and services; since private expenditures, either of firms or of households, can be expected to increase aggressive fiscal intervention seems to be the only way the US government can prevent the US economy from sliding into a decade long L-shaped recession that was Japan’s fate in the 1990s. Moreover, such expenditures are warranted even from a long-term perspective of economic growth. Rebuilding the crumbling public infrastructure like roads and bridges, improving and widening the ambit of the public transport systems in US cities, jump-starting the movement towards green technologies, making health care available to all working-class Americans, increasing the unemployment benefit substantially, investing in the educational infrastructure makes both short-term and long-term sense. It will help boost aggregate demand in the short run and prevent a slide into a prolonged recession, and in the long run it will build the physical and human capital to help take the US economy into a higher growth trajectory.

Two alternatives to boost the economy, which are often brought up in this context, also seem to have lost their efficacy: tax breaks and monetary policy. Tax breaks have already been tried out and does not seem to have worked; reeling under mountains of debt, the tax break (or refund) cheque is often used by households not for making new purchases but for reducing the outstanding debt. The second alternative, monetary policy action, is also rapidly reaching the point where it will become totally ineffective. For it is almost certain now that the US economy is already stuck in what John Maynard Keynes long ago called a liquidity trap, a situation where the Central Bank can no longer boost aggregate demand by reducing interest rates. The Fed has already reduced the target federal funds rate to 1 percent and reducing it further to 0 percent, the lowest it can go, will possibly not help. Even if confidence in the financial system is restored and nominal interest rates lowered, this might not increase borrowing by firms because of their bleak forecast of falling demand for the goods they produce. Monetary policy has reached it’s limits; the only option to ward off a severe recession and increase the pain on the working class seems to be aggressive fiscal intervention in terms of direct expenditure on goods and services by the US government.

Part 4 – available here

Part 5 – available here

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