Thursday, March 20, 2008

Crashing the System

Students in Global and Cultural Studies beware. The real world might be on your test. What do these things have in common?

Saner voices within the capitalist class, having listened carefully to the warnings of the likes of Paul Volcker that there is a high probability of a serious financial crisis in the next five years, may prevail. But this will mean rolling back some of the privileges and power that have over the last thirty years been accumulating in the upper echelons of the capitalist class. Previous phases of capitalist history-one thinks of 1873 or the 1920s-when a similarly stark choice arose, do not augur well. The upper classes, insisting on the sacrosanct nature of their property rights, preferred to crash the system rather than surrender any of their privileges and power. In so doing they were not oblivious of their own interest, for if they position themselves aright they can, like good bankruptcy lawyers, profit from a collapse while the rest of us are caught most horribly in the deluge. (Harvey, Introduction to Neoliberalism, 152-53)

There are two ways to read last night's sale of Bear Stearns to JPMorganChase for $2 a share:

  1. There were no other bidders. Bear Stearns only other option was to file for bankruptcy this morning. And Bear Stearns's executive were convinced that that was not an option--that not playing along meant that everybody everywhere would look with glee on the filing of every criminal fraud charge against them anyone could think of.
  2. Even with the Federal Reserve offering a put on the worst $30 billion of Bear Stearns assets, there is so much garbage in the closet that $2 a share is a fair price.

The market this morning believes in (2). I tend to believe in (1)--especially as JPMorgan is said to have set aside up to $6 billion to deal with litigation when Bear Stearns's shareholders and others claim they got a raw deal... (Brad Delong)

The nation’s fifth largest investment bank Bear Stearns nearly collapsed last week. It was saved only after the Federal Reserve took extraordinary measures to help JPMorgan purchase the eighty-five-year-old firm. The Fed has become the lender of last resort for other investment banks in a move that marks one of the broadest expansions of the Fed’s lending authority since the 1930s. We speak with Nomi Prins, an author and former investment banker at Bear Stearns, and Max Fraad Wolff, an economist and writer.

[Transcript of interview with Max Brad Wolff]
Well, I mean, I think it’s always tough to know exactly what’s going to happen. The way I like to do this in other lectures or my classes is to make the following point: there’s an epidemiology to this. And the discussion so far reminds me of the AIDS as “GAIDS” discussion, where we pathologize early victims as deviants who get some just punishment and pretend that it’s not a sort of pathogen entering a population where the sickest and most vulnerable fall first.

The sickest and most vulnerable people in the US money game are highly indebted, low-income consumers who tend to get subprime loans. In the journal—the mainstream journalist discussion, it sounds like there’s subprime people, like they’re born subprime in a special incubator with some kind of deformity. In fact, that’s a FICO credit score. And the poorest people get hit first and hardest by every economic disruption, because poverty means vulnerability in a market economy. So what we’ve seen in the beginning of a turndown of a long boom, a boom that really began in the early ’80s, is the weakest and most vulnerable with the most debt and the least income, the subprime crowd, hit—got slammed first, and then it sort of moves to the population, as “GAIDS” becomes AIDS becomes recognized.

And so, we’re—I think we’re in the early innings of this, maybe a third of the way through—half, if we’re lucky. Now, that doesn’t mean that the pain will continue to be so localized in finance. It’s already spilling out into the US macroeconomy. It is already an international phenomenon. And it’s heavily falling into retail. I expect severe difficulties in retail soon, and I expect greater difficulties in housing markets, because, actually, although it gets less press than I think it deserves, already 40-plus percent of delinquencies and default issue notices are moving out of the strict subprime market into what’s called Alt-A, Alt-B, and then prime—so, in other words, people between subprime and prime, and then cascading over into prime. We know this is a problem, because ten percent of all US homeowners are what we call “underwater”—they owe more than their house is worth. That’s a pretty serious amount.

And so, I see increasing bailouts with willy-nilly rewriting of federal legislation, which was done in those meetings. The JPMorgan-Federal Reserve meetings with Bear Stearns, in effect, redid American financial regulatory law, bumping an inactive Cox-led SEC out of the way, asserting Federal Reserve control in places and ways that had not been asserted before, and therefore front-running Congress and the presidency, which has been sitting on its hands, which is a little bit like the Glass-Steagall situation.

But now we have the Federal Reserve coming in to basically take out, not bail out, one firm to support all the other firms, immediately making available to them all kinds of access to cash and support they never got before, which, by the way, would have saved Bear Stearns, and in so doing—blasĂ©, private meeting, no transparency—rewriting American financial legislation, while the President tells crazy fictional stories about Iraq and the Congress does fundraising for its next election, and is a byproduct that will be told later, what legislation to pass. I mean, it’s kind of surreal at this point.(Democracy Now)