by Michael Hudson
Tuesday's announcement of the Obama-Geithner recovery plan is basically an extension of the Bush-Paulson plan – yet more giveaways to financial insiders, with a view to concentrating the U.S. banking system into a cartel of just a few large banks. This is not altogether bad news for the still relatively healthy part of the banking system (healthy in the sense of still avoiding negative equity). Smaller, less troubled banks will be bought out by the large "troubled" ones, to the personal financial benefit of their stockholders. This cannot solve today's financial problem: the fact that the debt overhead far exceeds the economy's ability to pay. In fact, it will spread the distortions that the large banks have introduced, until the entire system presumably looks like Citibank, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
But this clearly is only Stage One of a two-stage plan that has not yet been announced, although the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page has provided enough hints trickling out for the past three months to tip the hand of Wall Street's "dream recovery plan."
It is not exactly what most people are hoping for. In fact, it threatens to be a nightmare scenario for the economy at large. Watch for the magic phrase: "equity kicker," first heard in the S&L mortgage crisis of the 1980s.
The first question to ask about the Recovery Program is, "recovery for whom?" The answer is, for the people who design the Recovery
For the financial elites, the problem is that it is not possible to inflate another bubble from today's debt levels, widespread negative equity, and still-high level of real estate, stock and bond prices. No amount of new credit or capital for the banking system will induce banks to provide credit to real estate that already is over-mortgaged, or to individuals and corporations already over-indebted. All professional observers have forecast property prices to keep on plunging for at least the next year, which is as far as the eye can see in unstable conditions such as we are experiencing today.
While the Obama administration's financial planners wring their hands in public and say "We feel your pain" to debtors at large, they also recognize that the past ten years have been a golden age for the banking system and Wall Street. The wealthiest 1 per cent of the population has raised its share of the returns to wealth – dividends, interest, rent and capital gains – from 37 per cent of the total ten years ago to 57 per cent five years ago, and an estimated 70 per cent today. Over two-thirds of the returns to wealth now go to the wealthiest 1 per cent of the population. This is the highest on record. We are approaching Russian kleptocratic levels.
Yet the financial Hard Right of the political spectrum – the lobbyists now in control of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the Justice Departments for starters – repeats the new Big Lie: that it is the poor who have brought the system down, "exploiting" the rich by trying to ape their betters and live beyond their means. Subprime families have taken out subprime loans, the lying poor have signed documents to obtain "liars' loans," as Alt-A, no-documentation loans are called in the financial junk-paper trade.
I learned the reality a few years ago in London, talking to a commercial bank strategist there. "We've had an intellectual breakthrough," he said. "It's changed our credit philosophy."
"What is it?" I asked, imagining that he was about to come out with yet a new junk mathematics formula?
"The poor are honest," he said, accompanying his words with his jaw dropping open as if to say, "Who could have guessed?"
The meaning was clear enough. The poor pay their debts as a matter of honor, even at great personal expense. Unlike Donald Trump, the poor are less likely to walk away from their homes when market prices sink below the mortgage level. In today's neoliberal Chicago School language, the poor behave "uneconomically." That is, they make choices that do not make economic sense, but rather reflect a group morality. This sociological gullibility is what made them rich pickings for predatory lenders such as Countrywide, Wachovia and Citibank.
As I said above, it was a golden age. The financial and real estate bubble is the world that America's financial power elite would love to recover. The problem for them is how to start a new bubble and make yet another fortune. The alternative would be to keep what they have taken and run – not so bad, but a scenario that perhaps they can improve on.
Discussions about emergency bailouts have focused on putting in place enough new lending capacity by the banking system to start inflating prices on credit once again. But a new bubble can't be started from today's asset-price levels. This week's $2 trillion or so in new bailout money for the banks ("capital," and specifically finance capital, not to be confused with industrial capital) will only be lent out once prices fall by another 30 to 50 percent. So this can represent only Stage 1.
The question for Stage 2 is, how can the $10 to $20 trillion capital-gain run-up of the Greenspan years been repeated in an economy that is "all loaned up"?
One thing Wall Street knows is that to make money, you not only need asset prices to rise, they have to go down again – and up again, and down again. Without going down, after all, how can they rise up? The more frenetic the price fibulation, the easier it is for computerized buy-and-sell programs to make money on options and derivatives. What is being planned today looks like a similar up-and-down movement in real estate.
The first trick is to preserve the wealth of the creditor class – Wall Street, the banks and the other financial vehicles that enrich the wealthiest 1 per cent and indeed, the richest 10 per cent of the population. Stage One involves buying out their bad loans at a price that saves them from taking a loss. This is done by shifting the loss onto the "taxpayers" – labor, onto whose shoulders the tax burden has been shifted steadily, step by step since 1980, with the Greenspan Commission imposing an onerous Social Security tax on the middle class and using the proceeds to slash taxes on the higher brackets. Next comes an "aggregator" bank (sounds like "alligator," from the swamps of toxic waste) to buy the bad debts and put them in a public agency. The government calls this the "bad" bank. But it does good for Wall Street – by buying loans that have gone bad – or perhaps nearer the truth, loans that never were good in the first place.
The harder part is to revive opportunities for creditors to make a new killing. (And it's the economy that's being killed.) Here's how I imagine the plan might work.
Suppose a recent buyer has purchased a home for $500,000, with a $500,000 adjustable-rate mortgage scheduled to reset at 8 per cent. Suppose too that the current market price has fallen to $250,000 – a loss of 50 per cent by the end of 2009. After all, there needs to be enough time for prices to decline. Otherwise, there would be no economy to "rescue." Mr. Geithner and Summers need to "feel your pain" to come out with the package that I'm describing. The government will swap "cash for trash," printing new Treasury bonds (interest to be paid by "the taxpayer) in exchange for the $500,000 mortgage that is going bad, heading toward only a $250,000 market price.
The "Bad" bank that the Obama plan decided was not quite ready to be created this week will take the form of a public/private partnership (PPP), of the sort that Tony Blair made so notorious in Britain. It will be financed with private funds – in fact, with the funds now being given to re-capitalize America's banks (headed by the Wall St. banks that have done so poorly). Banks will use the money they receive from the Treasury for selling their junk mortgages at par – along with other bailout funding – to buy shares in a new $5 trillion institution. Something like Fanny Mae or Freddie Mac will be created and its bonds guaranteed (that's the "public" part – "socializing" the risk). The PPP institution will start with, say, $3 trillion in funds, and will have the power to buy and renegotiate the mortgages that have passed into the hands of the government and other holders. This "Middle Class Homeowner Recovery Trust" will use its private funding for the "socially responsible" purpose of "saving the taxpayer" and homeowners by renegotiating the mortgage down from its original $500,000 to the new $250,000 price.
Here's the patter talk you can expect, with the usual Orwellian euphemisms. The "rescue the homeowners" PPP, a veritable Savior Bank, will go to a family strapped by its home mortgage debt and feeling more and more desperate as the price of its major asset plummets deep into Negative Equity territory. An offer will be made: "We've got a deal to save you. We'll renegotiate your mortgage down to $250,000, the current market price, and we'll also lower your interest rate to just 5.50 per cent. This will cut your monthly debt charges by nearly two thirds. You will escape from negative equity, and you can afford to stay in your home."
The family probably will say, "Great."
But they will have to make a concession. That's where the new public/private partnership makes its killing. Its Savior Bank, funded with private money that is to take the "risk" (and also the rewards) will say to the family that agrees to renegotiate its mortgage: "Now that the government has taken a loss while we've let you stay in your home, we need to recover the money that's been lost. So when the time comes for you to sell, or to renegotiate your mortgage, our Savior Bank will receive the capital gain up to the original amount written off. If we've made you whole, we want to be made whole too."
In other words, if the homeowner sells the property for $400,000, the Savior Bank will get $150,000 of the capital gain. If the property sells for $500,000, the bank will get $250,000. And if it sells for more, thanks to some new clone of Alan Greenspan acting as bubblemeister, the capital gain will be split in some way. If the split is 50/50, then if the home sells for $600,000, the owner at that time will split the $100,000 further capital gain with the Savior Bank. The Savior Bank will thus make much more through its share of capital gains than it extracts in interest!
This plan will be even better for Wall Street than the Greenspan bubble was! Last time around, it was the middle class that got the gains. To be sure, it really was the bank that got the gains, because mortgage interest charges absorbed the entire rental value. But at least homeowners had a chance at the free ride, if they didn't squander their money in refinancing their mortgages. And many did use their homes "like a piggy bank" to support their living standards.
But this time around, Wall Street is not obliged to make its money by making middle class homeowners rich. Debt-strapped homeowners are willing to settle merely for a plan that leaves them in their homes! It can get for itself the capital gains that have been the driving force of U.S. "wealth creation," Alan Greenspan bubble-style.
The irony is that the only kind of policies that are politically correct these days are those that make the situation worse: yet more government money in the hope that banks will create yet more credit/debt to raise house prices and make them even more unaffordable; to inflate a new bubble; to give what really should be called the "bad banks" – the Big Four or Five where the junk mortgages, junk CDOs and junk derivatives resulting from junk mathematics are concentrated – yet more money to buy out smaller banks that have not yet been infected with reckless financial opportunism.
And by the same token, lobbyists for these bad banks are screaming at the top of their voices that all solutions to the problem are politically incorrect: debt writedowns to bring the debt burden within the ability to pay. That is what the market is supposed to do – by bankruptcy in an anarchic collapse, if not by reasoned government policy. The bad banks, after demanding "free markets" all these years, have stopped the free market when it comes anywhere near them and their bonuses. For them, markets are free of regulation against predatory lending; free of taxing the wealthy so as to shift the burden onto labor; free for the financial sector to wrap itself around the "real" economy like a parasitic vine around a tree and extract the entire surplus in the form of financial engineering.
This is a travesty of freedom. But worst of all is the "freedom" of today's economic discussion from the wisdom of classical political economy and from the experience of economic history regarding how societies have coped with the debt overhead through the ages.
An alternative policy to save the economy from being "rescued" by Wall Street
There is an alternative to ward all this off. A debt writedown, followed by a land tax so that the "free lunch" (what John Stuart Mill called the "unearned increment" of rising land prices, a gain that landlords made "in their sleep") would serve as the tax base rather than labor and industry being burdened with an income tax.
One move would be to prevent banks from lending against the land's value. They could lend against buildings, but not land. This would cut the maximum permissible loan to 50 to 60 per cent of the total property price – unless the government did what classical economists advocated and tax the land's market price (its rental value) as the tax base, shifting the tax back off of labor. This would achieve the kind of free markets that Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Alfred Marshall described, and which the Progressive Era aimed to achieve with America's first income tax in 1913.
A land tax would prevent housing prices from rising again. This would save homeowners from taking on so much debt in order to obtain housing. And it would save the economy from seeing "wealth creation" take the form of the "unearned increment" being capitalized into higher bank loans with their associated carrying charges (interest and amortization). The key to real estate bubbles is to inflate site valuations.