Saturday, September 20, 2008

OF BUBBLES AND BAILOUTS

In the cacophony of a collapsing economy we're hearing from Republicans the perennial cry of the guilty: “This is not a time for finger pointing!”

Well, it is a time for finger pointing. The loud crash of the economy was preceded by another sound -- the “POW” of a bursting bubble which took years to form. The people who were entrusted with the care of the country during that time can't claim that they were suddenly overtaken by catastrophe in the manner of a meteor flashing into the atmosphere without warning and smashing to Earth six seconds later.

The bubble which portends a financial crisis like this one is very visibly blown bigger and bigger over months of wild speculation in something – Dutch tulip bulbs in the 1630s (the price of a single bulb reaching many times the annual income of a skilled artisan), the South Sea Bubble (worthless stock rocketing from 100 to 1000 pounds a share in a few months), the Florida land boom (and bust) of the 1920's, the U.S. stock market bubble leading to the crash of 1929, and the Internet “dot-com” stock market bubble of 1995-2000.



The pattern repeats now as then: Enthusiasm for a “get rich quick” investment spreads to people all walks of life. Stories of quick profits lure more and more people into the frenzy until even the most unlikely speculators, from shoe shine boys to drugstore clerks, are telling tales of incredible gains.

The media are only too happy to trumpet the sensational growth of wealth. The certainty that one can put a little money in and take a lot out encourages people to “invest” money they can't afford to lose – and to borrow gambling money from banks. Buy a house or tulip bulb today on borrowed money and sell it soon at a 50% profit from which you can pay back your bank loan. Guaranteed!

The South Sea Bubble

The banks love it. Banks make their living renting out money for a fee called “interest”. By the time a speculative bubble approaches the bursting point the banks are practically begging people to rent money – including people who ordinarily would be turned down as bad credit risks, as demonstrated in the most recent housing bubble.

What happens, of course, is that the inevitable limit is reached and for the first time sellers outnumber buyers. Prices falter, borrowers can't make their mortgage payments, and a chilly breeze of fear sweeps through the land as stories of foreclosures and losses replace the “New Golden Era” headlines. When it is recognized that the rainbow glistening bubble has disintegrated into insubstantial mist, there is widespread panic as borrowers default in hordes and the banking system is stuck with “toxic” loans which will never be repaid.

The Dot Com Bubble -- From 5000 to 1000 in a Gasp, But Plenty of Warning Before the Top

Meanwhile, for months before the “bust” there have been plenty of wise heads warning publicly that frenzy is leading to a predictable crash. Those warnings, citing the lessons of history, mean that even as low a form of intelligence as an American politician – not to mention political appointees like the Secretary of the Treasury, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and the heads of regulatory agencies -- had to know that the recent housing bubble was expanding to an unsustainable point long before it blew up in their faces. No wonder they are crying, “Now is not a time for finger pointing!”

Ah, but there is one happy bit to all this for one class of participants: The bankers have learned in modern times, and are being taught once more by the government's actions during the present week, that they are “too important” to be allowed to fail and go bankrupt. No matter how irresponsibly they behave in blowing up a bubble, they will be bailed out by the government taking what you and I have paid in income taxes to “buy” the worthless mortgages and IOU's from the bankers – readying them for another round of Blow up the Bubble after everybody catches his breath.

For the financial institutions, it's like going to Las Vegas with a guarantee that Uncle Sam will pay them back all the money they lose at the roulette table.

For the taxpayers it's like Robin Hood in reverse – the government robbing the poor to bail out the rich.

It's definitely time for finger pointing.

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NEWS BULLETIN: As I wrote the last sentence this morning, Saturday, September 20, 2008, a USAToday story arrived in my email:
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration is asking Congress to let the government buy $700 billion in bad mortgages as part of the largest financial bailout since the Great Depression.

6 comments:

ZOOLATRY said...

Very scary...

Fleming said...

Thanks, Zoolatry. And the estimates I'm reading of what it will cost us individual taxpayers per year are getting bigger every few hours. Even if "only" $3000 per year is taken from each of us to give to the bankers, the value of our dollars will also erode, so that what we do have left will buy half as much after a couple of years.

Zoey & Me said...

This guy Bush has failure written on everything he has ever done as a President. Can you think of one thing positive he has done for the nation?

Fleming said...

Zoey, I cannot. Could Bush be the only president who has done nothing but harm to his country?

Alan-a-Dale said...

Hi,
I am compiling a short documentary for the Museum of American Finance comparing the current financial crisis to the great depression and was wondering from where you acquired the photo of the advertisement regarding land sale prices included in this blog.
Thanks,
Angelica Jarvenpaa

Fleming said...

Alan-a-Dale, this was the source of the land sale poster image:
http://www.therealestatebloggers.com/%20/housing-general/the-real-florida-real-estate-collapse-1920s-style/

This subject interests me in particular because I'm from several generations of Floridians, and my father was actively involved in 1920s land boom here.

I'd be grateful if you would tell me if there's any way I could see the documentary you're preparing for the Museum.