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Monday, August 01, 2011

Overprepared

If I sounded a little less than fluid in the interview with CTV yesterday, the reason is, ironically enough, that the two Canadian producers prepared me extraordinarily well for it. I was very impressed with their thoroughness and the quality of their questions; I've been on a number of national news shows before and I've never seen anything like it. After a 30-minute pre-interview going over the debt ceiling debate and how it related to some of the concepts in RGD with one of the producers the day before, I produced two charts that we both thought would be useful as well as nicely visual, after which I was sent me the six questions I was to anticipate.

However, there was just a bit of a curve ball in the interview itself. Not only did they use a different picture than the one I provided, (understandably, since they must have wanted color), and they didn't make use of the charts I made, (which was fine, I used them in today's column), but some of the questions asked by the anchor were somewhat different than the ones I'd been provided. Her questions weren't bad ones, by any means, but they were just far enough afield so I didn't have the statistics on things like "historical tax revenue as a percentage of GDP" immediately to hand.

Note that I'm not complaining here, merely observing how the process was very different than my experience with American TV and radio.

Anyhow, I found that I was thinking "wait, what?" the entire time I was trying to answer the anchor's questions. "Did I mishear that? Am I even answering the right question?" Anyhow, since I thought the producer's questions were pretty good ones and I prepared for them, I thought I might as well post my notes for the interview here.

You recently wrote in an article that the issue is not so much the debt ceiling, but the debt itself. Can you explain exactly why?

The U.S. federal government has spent three years keeping the economy artificially propped up by substituting $4.1 trillion in new government debt for $3.6 trillion in household and financial sector debt-deleveraging.  Washington cannot keep playing ostrich without raising the debt ceiling.  The reason you've seen the number $2.4 trillion bandied about is because that buys them another six quarters at the current rate of $365 billion in new debt per quarter, enough to get them past the 2012 elections. But all this accomplishes is to delay the day of reckoning and increase the eventual cost.  Since the housing market and employment numbers have actually gotten worse during this period of extend-and-pretend, it should be clear that raising the debt ceiling isn't even a potential fix for the problem.
 
In your book you look at the patterns that led to the Great Depression, and the Heisei boom In Japan that led to it’s famous ‘lost decade”- and you believe it will happen again, only this time it will be worse. What leads you to believe this?

First, the debt-to-GDP ratio is worse than it was in the Great Depression or Japan in 1999.  It was 2.6 in 1933, it peaked at 3.7 in 2008 and it is 3.5 now.  Second, in the 1930s, it was only the USA that attempted to fight the post-1929 economic contraction with Keynesian stimulus policies and only the USA suffered a Great Depression.  In England, the contraction stopped in 1932, France never saw double-digit unemployment, and the Japanese economy was actually enjoying significant growth.(1)  This time, Europe, China, and Japan all followed the US lead and applied their own stimulus plans in 2009, which we are already seeing is now in the process of backfiring on everyone.
 
In a chapter of your book entitled “No one knows anything” you explain that many of the governments calculations for GDP are misleading that they contain wide margins for error and cannot be trusted- why is that?
 
Because they're verifiably wrong.  Look at the recent first quarter.  All three reports, from Advance to Final, had U.S. GDP growth at 1.8 to 1.9%.  Then, in the second quarter report, there is an inexplicable revision from 1.9% to 0.4%.  That's a $225 billion mistake, which is almost five times more than the $60 billion growth now being reported.  These revisions are so out of control that if you bother to look back at the 2001 numbers, you'll see that the 2001 recession has been revised out of existence.  It's complete fiction.  On the employment side, the game is to not count people who don't have jobs as unemployed.  That's why they claim the unemployment rate is only 9.2% when it's really closer to 20%.

You say that a boom fuelled by easy credit must be followed by a bust of equal size and duration. Instead, it has been FED policy to re-inflate bubbles and they collapse, which only creates bigger bubbles- You say we are currently in the biggest bubble yet- what could pop it?
 
What will pop it is a reduction in the rate of growth of government spending, an increase in interest rates, or a major sovereign investor's refusal to continue buying Treasury bonds.  Any of the three will suffice to put the USA into a debt-deleveraging spiral.  The problem with depending upon debt-based economic growth is that eventually, you run out of people who are willing and able to borrow money. And that's when the contraction starts.

There is a large backlog of home foreclosures in the United States- what would happen if that backlog were to suddenly be cleared? Are there other potential triggers out there?
 
Clearing the backlog would put the economy into the equivalent of heart failure because it would instantly kill a lot of banks.  The $600 billion decline in household sector debt is deceptively small because over 7.5% of all mortgages have been delinquent for more than 90 days.  The banks aren't writing those bad loans off yet because to do so would bankrupt them.  Based on the FDIC statistics, I estimate that about $3 trillion of the $7.5 trillion in assets presently claimed by the big four, Bank of America, Citi, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase, are worthless.
 
What are the options for the global economy- what are the best and worst case scenarios?
 
Pay a high price now, or pay a higher price later.  Deflation, default, and economic contraction aren't fun, but they are perfectly survivable.  The best case scenario is we go through the global equivalent of the Great Depression, what I've called Great Depression 2.0.  It will be very difficult for a lot of people, but the basic governmental structures will survive and there won't be cannibalism in the streets or anything like that.  The worst case is that the politicians keep kicking the can down the road until the entire global financial system finally collapses overnight.  In that case, we're probably going to see wars, civil wars, and fundamental change of the sort most of us find impossible to imagine.


(1)thanks to the invasion of Manchuria, of course, but the GDP statistics are what they are.

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