economy

December 20, 2008 § 1 Comment

good summary of the current situation.

How could any sophisticated society function if all debts were cancelled twice a century – much less, as Deuteronomy seems to suggest, every seven years? Yet we know that such general cancellations of debt really did happen in the ancient world. In 1788 BC, for example, about 500 years before the time of Moses, King Rim-Sin of Ur issued a royal edict declaring all loans null and void, wiping out some of history’s earliest known moneylenders.

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With average household debt rising from about 75 per cent of annual disposable income in 1990 to very nearly 130 per cent on the eve of the crisis, a large proportion of American families are submerging under the weight of their accumulated borrowings. British households are in even worse shape.

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Looking back, we now see just how big a proportion of US growth since 2001 was financed by mortgage equity withdrawals. Without that as a means of financing consumption, the economy would barely have grown at 1 per cent a year under President George W. Bush

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The financial sector’s debts grew even faster as banks sought to bolster their returns on equity by “levering up”. According to one recent estimate, the total leverage ratios (on- and off-book assets and exposure divided by tangible equity) for the two biggest US banks were 88:1 for Citibank and 134:1 for Bank of America. The bursting of the property bubble caused such ratios, which were already too high on the eve of the crisis, to explode as off-balance-sheet commitments and pre-arranged credit lines came home to roost. Only by borrowing from the Federal Reserve on an unprecedented scale have the banks been able to stay in business.

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With estimates of total losses on risky assets now ranging from $2,800bn (£1,850bn, €1,960bn) to $6,000bn, a chain reaction is under way that will leave no sector of the world economy untouched. The American economy is contracting at an annualised rate of 5 per cent. Commercial property is following the residential market into freefall. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index is down 43 per cent since its peak in October last year

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The result has been an explosion of the Fed’s balance sheet and of the monetary base. With assets approaching $2,263bn and capital of less than $40bn, the Fed increasingly resembles a public hedge fund, leveraged at more than 50:1.

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Yet the effect of these policies is essentially to add a new layer of public debt to the existing debt mountain. Added together, the loans, investments and guarantees made by the Fed and the Treasury in the past year total about $7,800bn, compared with a pre-crisis federal debt of about $10,000bn. The Treasury may have to issue as much as $2,200bn in new debt in the coming year.

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But it is not without significance that the cost of insuring against a US government default has risen 25-fold in little over a year.

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When economists talk about “deleveraging” they usually have in mind a rather slow process whereby companies and households increase their savings in order to pay off debt. But the paradox of thrift means that a concerted effort along these lines will drive an economy such as that of the US deeper into recession, raising debt-to-income ratios.

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That leaves conversion, whereby, for example, all existing mortgage debts could be wholly or partly converted into long-term, low and fixed-interest loans, as recently suggested by Harvard’s Martin Feldstein. (In his scheme, the government would offer any homeowner with a mortgage the option to replace 20 per cent of the mortgage with a low-interest loan from the government, subject to a maximum of $80,000. The annual interest rate could be as low as 2 per cent and the loan would be amortised over 30 years.

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