One Madness Engenders the Next
The dictionary defines reckoning as 'a time to account for or be punished for wrongs.' And according to Bonner and Wiggin, Americans have got it coming. We've been living gluttonously on debt ' personal, corporate, and government ' subsidized by the kindness of foreigners who take their truckloads of dollars and invest them in American assets. One cannot live forever on debt. Foreigners will not forever regard depreciating dollars as smart investments. Such debt bubbles will burst and then . . . what? If you're encouraged by the book's subtitle to paw through the pages looking for investment advice, you won't find much beyond 'Buy gold.' What they offer is an entertaining presentation of how money and markets work, and how people tend to react when the Fed's dollars show up in every tree and cereal box. The authors devote a lot of space to excursions ' taking us back and forth through history, hopping overseas to Japan, and introducing us to various gurus, such as John Law, France's infamous paper money swindler of 1720 who bankrupted the country, and most notably Alan Greenspan, our modern-day wizard behind the greenback's printing presses who's confident he can avoid a repeat of Law's disaster. Unlike many commentators who view the economy in mechanistic terms, the authors remind us that it's actually peopled by humans. 'Economists imagine that the economy functions as a sort of machine . . . with rational men popping up and down like valve lifters. No moral hazards present themselves, for a machine is as indifferent to larceny as it is to a short skirt. 'You can put a pack of cards or a fifth of whiskey in front of a machine, come back an hour later, and the machine still will not have touched them. Not so a human being. All he needs is an opportunity, and he is on his way to hell!' The cards'whiskey metaphor is a good one -- when governments or central banks provide enough spirits, people think the good times will last forever. In fact, one of the Fed's jobs is to stimulate a false euphoria. 'In the late 1990s, every silly idea that came along could belly up to the credit bar and imbibe almost as much as it wanted.' Shortly after 2000 arrived, a bear market began that ate up $7 trillion in stock market wealth by January 2003. 'But another remarkable thing happened at the same time ' nothing much.' There was no financial crisis during the stock market slump of 2000 ' 2002. Wealth losses in U.S. equity markets were unprecedented, equal to 90 percent of GDP, compared to 60 percent of GDP during the two years after the 1929 crash. But only a handful of banks failed, while many thousands failed during the 1930s. Unemployment lines today were long, but not too long. And instead of falling, consumer borrowing and spending actually rose. The authors take us to Japan, where the stock market bubble had burst a decade earlier. Beginning in January 1990 the Nikkei Dow dropped 38 percent of its value over the next 21 months. Yet real estate prices in Japan continued to rise until 1991. Beginning in January 2000 the S&P 500 lost 45 percent of its value over the next 33 months. But during the same period, U.S. home prices rose by 15 percent ' exactly the same increase as Japan experienced, the authors point out. The Bank of Japan kept lowering the discount rate, bringing it effectively to zero by April 1995. Japanese banks wrote off bad loans in the trillions of yen. The government even tried works projects, covering their country with concrete. The projects fattened their debt from 60 percent of GDP to 150 percent. A decade after the pain began, Japan was still seeing its wealth slip away. Seventeen years of stock market gains went out the window, and over a period of 11 years investors had lost 75 percent of their money. Japan was doing everything by the book ' the one Keynes wrote ' and it wasn't working. When consumer prices started falling in 1994, it became the first major economy since the Great Depression to experience deflation. In 2002, fear of deflation spooked the Fed. By fall they were into a PR campaign. 'Extremely small,' said Fed governor Ben Bernanke, referring to the possibility of deflation. 'Extraordinarily remote,' added Greenspan. 'Then Bernanke seemed to threaten the entire world monetary system, saying, 'We have a technology called a printing press.'' So did a guy named Law in 18th century France. Since Greenspan took over the Fed in 1987, the monetary base has tripled, while GDP has gone up only 50 percent. The new money has no resources behind it, but it looks like the real thing and is accepted as such. In other words, it's counterfeit, of value only to early users of the money who transfer wealth to their possession in exchange for nothing. 'Americans have very little in savings,' Bonner and Wiggin tell us. Foreigners have been funding our capital demands. If the dollar continues its downslide, they may change their minds. Financial Reckoning Day is a condemnation of the Fed and a critique of the 'something-for-nothing' attitude its policies inspire. Notwithstanding some malign remarks about Ayn Rand and her philosophy, which Greenspan once espoused, it is a worthwhile and enjoyable read.