Worse than the Great Depression
by Dr. Krassimir Petrov
Global Research, February 1, 2009
The mainstream media and Wall Street have reached the consensus that the current credit crisis is the worst since the post-war period. George Soros’ statement that ”the world faces the worst finance crisis since WWII” epitomizes the collective wisdom. The crisis is currently the ultimate scapegoat for all the economic evils that currently plague the global financial system and the global economy – from collapsing stock markets of the world to food shortages in third world counties. We are repeatedly assured that the ultimate fault lies with the Credit Crisis itself; if there were no Credit Crisis, all of these terrible things would never have happened in the economy and the financial markets.
The most extraordinary thing is that the mainstream media has never attempted to compare the current economic environment to the one preceding the Great Depression. In essence, it is assumed outright that the Great Depression can never possibly happen again, ever, thus obviating the need for such a comparison. I actually believe that the macroeconomic fundamentals today are much worse, so that we are in for a protracted period of economic depression – a depression much worse than the Great Depression, a depression that would likely be remembered in history as “The Second Great Depression” or The Greater Depression, as Doug Casey has called it so aptly. Here is why I believe that this is the case.
Duplicating Mistakes from the Great Depression
At its core, the environment of the 1990s, and the response of the Fed to the tech-telecom bust has created an economic environment that has encouraged the repetition of the very same mistakes that led to the Great Depression. Here is a concise summary of widely recognized mistakes of the 1920s, without going into the details, with obvious parallels in the current environment:
Asset Bubbles – first in the stock market during the 1990s, then in real estate during the 2000s, pretty much mirroring the stock and real estate market bubbles of the 1920s.
Securitization – although not in the very “ultra-modernistic” form and shape of the 2000s, with slicing and dicing of pools and tranches of seniority, it was widely recognized in the 1930s that securitization during the 20s drove the domino effect in the U.S. financial system during the Great Depression.
Excessive Leverage – just like in 2008 the topic du jour is “deleveraging”, so the unwinding of leverage during the 1930s was the driver of forced liquidations and financial pain. Of course, it was very clear back then that the root of the problem was not deleveraging per se, but the excessive leverage that took place prior to the deleveraging process. “Investment Pools” were then instrumental in both the securitization and excessive leverage, just like the Hedge Funds of today.
Corrupt Gatekeepers – we know well that the Enrons and Worldcoms were aided and abetted by the accounting firms – those same firms that were supposedly the Gatekeepers of the financial community, yet handsomely profited from the boom while neglecting their watchdog functions. In the current financial crisis, we also know that the rating agencies were also making hay during the boom. Very similar were the issues during the 1920s that led to the establishment of the SEC and other regulatory bodies to replace the malfunctioning “gatekeepers” at the time.
Financial Engineering – we are led to believe that financial engineering is a rather recent phenomenon that flourished during the New Age Finance Era of the last 15 years, yet financial engineering was prevalent in the 1920s with very clear goals: (1) to evade restrictive regulations, (2) to increase leverage, and (3) to remove liabilities from the books, all too familiar to all of us today.
Lagging Regulations – just like the regulatory environment lagged the events of the 1920s and regulations were introduced only after the Great Depression had obliterated the U.S. financial system, so we are yet to see new regulations addressing the causes of the current crisis. Understandably, regulations should have foreseen today’s financial problems and should have been introduced before the crisis.
Market Ideology – back in the 1920s, just like in the last two decades, the market ideology of “laissez faire”, which Soros quite appropriately described as “Market Fundamentalism”, has swept the financial markets. Of course, the free market knows the best, but the reality is that the money market is not really free – when the Fed determines the cost of money (interest rates), and can fix this cost for as long as it wants, then all sorts of financial imbalances can be sustained without the discipline imposed by the market. This can lead to all sorts of problems that we actually have to face today.
Non-Transparency – back in the 1930s, it was widely recognized that businesses and especially financial institutions lacked transparency, which allowed for the accumulation of significant imbalances and abuses. Today, financial markets and institutions have intentionally compromised transparency in a number of ingenious, or better disingenuous, accounting trickeries and financial gimmicks, like off-balance-sheet entities (SIVs), hard-to-understand derivatives, and opaque instruments with mind-boggling complexity. Today CEOs and Chief Risk Officers of major financial institutions cannot figure out their own risk exposures. Originally, lack of transparency was designed to fool the markets; ironically, modern-day financial executives have gotten to the point of fooling themselves.
Worse than the Great Depression
So, why Worse Than The Great Depression? What makes me believe that the current depression will be worse than the Great Depression? I present six of the most important fundamentals that are “baked in the cake” and that suggest of a Greater Depression.
Overvalued Real Estate. The real estate market has been driven by a number of innovations in real estate finance. Overvaluation in real estate implies overvaluation in real estate financial instruments; an implosion of real estate prices implies an implosion in those instruments. It is widely recognized by economists that the Case-Shiller Index is a good proxy for the prices of real estate. A widely-recognized chart from 1890 to 2007 tells the story. The chart makes it crystal clear that the current overvaluation of real estate in real terms grossly exceeds the one during the 1920s. The coming correction in real estate will be protracted and gut-wrenching, with an expected cumulative effect that is much worse than the Great Depression.
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Worse than the Great Depression.