Posts Tagged ‘global financial crisis’

Global Financial Crisis 2008 Versus 2011: Is History About to Repeat Itself?

June 3rd, 2011 Comments off

It was less than three years ago when the global financial system suffered a nearly fatal heart attack, and the world economy has been lying in the intensive care ward ever since. Despite the claims by pundits and policymakers that the unprecedented levels of public debt incurred ever since has “saved” the global economy, there are abundant signs that the symptoms of 2008 are returning with a vengeance.

Housing prices in the U.S., the leading edge of the crack-up of the CDO and monetized poisoned mortgages that unhinged everything in 2008, are again descending. Despite government programs aimed at transferring private debt to the public sector and amending age-old accounting standards so that worthless junk can be camouflaged as valuable assets on bank balance sheets, credit markets remain weak.  Though history does not exactly repeat itself, if often rhythms, and what is occurring today has a painful yet rhythmic quality to it.

Now, here are two key differences from 2008. Unemployment rates in all the major advanced economies  are far higher than was the case  in 2008.In addition, the level of public debt has been expanded by leaps and bounds. Taken together, this means that the global economy has much less latitude available for absorbing future economic and global shocks such as a major spike in oil prices,  systemic bank collapse or, as is increasingly likely, sovereign debt default. If, for example, Greece were to default on its debts in the near future, that would precipitate a panic within the global financial system that not even the craftiest central banker with the largest printing press could prevent from steamrolling over what is left of global economic stability.


European Bank Stress Tests Are Tragic-Comedic Farce

July 25th, 2010 Comments off

When  the Obama Administration assumed office in early January 2009, the President’s chosen Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, was already on record as estimating that the United States banking sector was in such dire straits resulting from the global financial and economic crisis triggered by the collapse of leading investment banks on Wall Street, it would require $2 trillion in government bailouts to repair the damage. However, once in power, President Obama and Secretary Geithner were reluctant to ask American taxpayers for another handout for Wall Street after the highly unpopular $700 billion TARP bailout. Their response was to rig a series of so-called banking stress tests,  which were completed in the spring of 2009. Only months after the near implosion of the global financial system, Geithner’s stress tests supposedly showed that the U.S. banks were in such excellent shape, only a handful required a measly $75 billion in recapitalization, a sum that could be easily raised through private investors. Never mind that Geithner’s stress tests  incorporated “worst case” unemployment rates that were already eclipsed by the summer of 2009 and other less-than-rigid assumptions. The market seemed to be charmed by Geithner’s charade, attested to by rising equity values of financial firms. Now the Europeans hope they can pull off the same performance.

With much fanfare, the Committee of European Banking Supervisors has announced the results of their own engineered bank stress tests, involving 91 banking institutions in 20 European countries. The architects of this banking Eurofest knew they could not show that all 91 had “passed” the stress tests, as this would simply not be credible even to the most gullible. For that reason, seven banks were selected as sacrificial lambs, and revealed as having failed the stress test, including five relatively minor Spanish banks, as well as the much larger state-owned German property and municipal funding specialist, Hypo Real Estate. This latter financial institution was so heavily weighted with toxic real estate assets, providing it with a passing grade would clearly have given the game away. However, despite the not unclever manipulation engaged in by the Committee of European Banking Supervisors, a growing number of observers and investors have begun to see through this farcical exercise.

Consider this; how valid can a stress test of European banks saturated with government bonds and other long-term public debt instruments really be if the supposed “worst case scenario” envisions no possibility of sovereign debt default in Europe? Only months after Greece was on the verge of public debt default without a massive Eurozone financial bailout, in turn funded by European countries that are themselves becoming increasingly mired in a profound sovereign debt crisis? Neither did the tests consider the possibility of a real estate or commodities crash, despite warnings that, among other dire possibilities, a global commercial real estate crash is increasingly likely.

The authors of this banking stress test would have one believe that not a single UK bank is in danger from worsening economic developments, despite a warning issued by analysts at the Royal Bank of Scotland to senior British policymakers in January 2009, entitled “Living on a Prayer,” which stated that almost the entire banking sector of the United Kingdom was “ technically insolvent.”

In February 2009, the European Union’s own executive branch, the European Commission, issued a confidential report, subsequently leaked to the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, which warned that European banks collectively held as much as 18.6 trillion euros in toxic assets. In the past 18 months we have witnessed a massive expansion of public debt  across Europe to fund economic stimulus programs, which has produced at best anaemic or stagnant growth figures, at the price of catastrophic levels of sovereign debt, prompting these same countries to now reverse fiscal policy and revert to budget trimming austerity measures. The likely outcome is clear; a double-dip recession in Europe, in conjunction with a lack of financial capacity by European taxpayers to again bail out their banking system to the same profligate degree that was undertaken after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

As with Timothy Geithner, the architects of the European banking stress tests hope that  investors and the general public will believe their farce, based on totally unrealistic and overly-optimistic scenarios. In the case of Europe, the fervent desire is that the banks which are rightfully worried about counterparty risk will jettison their well-founded anxieties, and resume interbank-lending and credit flows at pre-crisis levels. However, as the American experience reveals, a banking stress test based on public relations requirements rather than realistic financial and economic modeling may boost the stock price of major banks, justifying  massive bonus payments to banking executives. However, as a solution for the continuing credit crunch and economic turmoil, it is no more than a tragic-comedic farce designed by committee.

Belief that U.S. is in an Economic Depression is Growing: Paul Krugman and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Join the Chorus of Gloom and Doom

July 6th, 2010 Comments off

Just in the past week, economic media pundits as diverse as Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who writes for The New York Times, and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the international business editor for the British newspaper, the Telegraph, have warned that the United States is already in the initial phases of an economic depression. Their chilly characterization of the U.S. economy after more than a year of the Obama stimulus, preceded by TARP, is sterile is its uninhibited gloominess.

In the case of Paul Krugman, his focus is on the disastrous unemployment rate in America, and his conviction that fiscal crisis and deficits be damned, the U.S. must borrow and spend whatever it takes to drive down the unemployment rate, or face an even more grave economic emergency. As I have stated before, while I concur with Krugman’s description of the American economy, I don’t think his prescription is supportable, based on the mathematical realities and the fact that excessive private debt sparked the global financial and economic crisis.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s most recent column had the melancholy headline, “With the U.S. trapped in depression, this really is starting to feel like 1932.” He lays out the case for why the U.S. is in the throes of a depression; dismal home and retail sales, collapsing state budgets and the resulting fiscal cuts abetting even more bad economic indicators. In his eyes, the only hope are the central banks engaging in another round of quantitative easing (being dubbed by some as QE 2) and debt monetization, the inevitable inflation actually being preferable to a deflationary spiral.

What is clear from reading these two esteemed economic observers is that very intelligent economists are losing hope over the state of the U.S. economy (which also means the global economy) and in their despair are grasping at extraordinary policy measures that are likely to further exacerbate all the macro-economic indicators they are rightfully perturbed by. The concluding comments in Evans-Pritchard’s column sum up the dire gloom that permeates his appreciation of the situation:

“Perhaps naively, I still think central banks have the tools to head off disaster. The question is whether they will do so fast enough, or even whether they wish to resist the chorus of 1930s liquidation taking charge of the debate. Last week the Bank for International Settlements called for combined fiscal and monetary tightening, lending its great authority to the forces of debt-deflation and mass unemployment. If even the BIS has lost the plot, God help us.”

U.S. New Home Sales Collapse in May

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

The U.S. Census Bureau has released the new home sales figures for May, and to say they were dismal would be an extreme understatement. May is the first month reflecting new home sales since the expiration of the Obama administration’s tax credit for first time home buyers, so a decline was expected by economists. However, what was not expected was the collapse of the new home housing market in the United States, which is what the data just released indicated.

In May new home sales in the U.S.A. declined by 32.7 %, which reflects a seasonally adjusted rate of 300,000 home sale per year, a level not witnessed in America since the 1960s. Add in the also dismal used home sales in the U.S. and there you have Fed Chairman Bernanke’s  “green shoots” of economic recovery from the global economic and financial crisis.

Double dip recession, anybody?

Will British General Election Save UK Economy From Collapse?

April 7th, 2010 Comments off

The die is now cast; as expected, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has seen the Queen, following political tradition, and announced with Her Majesty’s blessing the dissolution of Parliament and the holding of a general election on May 6. Brown, the incumbent Labour Party leader of a nation that has been among the worst afflicted by the global financial and economic crisis, faces an uphill fight against the challenger and likely winner, Conservative Party leader David Cameron. What may be the wild card in the election is the possibility of a hung Parliament, with neither leading party able to garner a majority of seats, leaving the  Liberal Democrats of Nick Clegg as the improbable power brokers.

There is one overriding issue in the UK’s 2010 general election: the economy. It is a basket case, buried in public debt. Everyone in the British establishment, albeit political or financial, knows that the massive British government deficits, currently running at 13% of GDP (a higher figure than that currently afflicting Greece), are unsustainable. Despite the rhetoric from all sides of the UK political spectrum, however, no one really has a realistic solution.

The UK is in a fiscal paradox. If it raises taxes or cuts public spending to reduce the deficit, that will probably be the kiss of death for a weak and artificially induced economic recovery. Unfortunately, continuing the massive deficits are not an option; the bond market will see to that. Gordon Brown assures the British taxpayers that if they trust Labour once again after 13 years in power, his team will magically cut the deficit as a proportion of GDP by 50% within four years, while restoring economic growth and national prosperity. This is clearly an absurd campaign promise, but David Cameron’s ambiguous assurances that “improved efficiencies” can reduce spending without cutting public services are equally disingenuous.

The UK confronts a fiscal trap, as I point out in my book, “Global Economic Forecast 2010-2015: Recession Into Depression.”  The risk of a double dip recession, unsustainable public debt and deficits as a proportion to national GDP, and an aging demographic requiring increased levels of funding for pensions and benefits that the UK cannot afford, point to a fiscal collapse by 2012. The only question I believe the 2010 UK general election will really decide is on whose watch does the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland achieve national insolvency.

A Keynesian Leap Off the Financial Cliff

February 21st, 2010 Comments off

A highly tangible outcome of the global economic crisis and its first stage, the so-called Great Recession, has been the deleveraging underway by households and businesses throughout major advanced economies. In the United States and United Kingdom, consumers who boosted consumption on the basis of easy credit as opposed to higher disposable incomes are now tightening their belts and battening down the hatches. The predictable result has been a decline in aggregate demand. This is where the neo-Keynesians enter the fray, preaching the gospel of mega-deficit spending by governments.

The classical economic theory as developed by John Maynard Keynes holds that in times of severe economic contraction in the private economy, it is permissible for the sovereign to go into debt and increase spending to compensate for the falloff in consumer and other private sector expenditures. The rationale is that this short-term increase in the public debt will retard the rise in unemployment, limit the impact and duration of the economic recession and in the long run lead to overall better economic performance, with limited effect on the ratio of public debt to GDP. Though advocates and opponents can offer differing views on the historical validity of Keynes and his counter-cyclical concepts of sovereign  intervention in the economy, there is no doubt that his theory is intellectually cogent and based on a serious analysis of economic problems, particularly in regards to the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, is the current wave of unprecedented sovereign indebtedness equally cogent? If John Maynard Keynes were still alive, he would likely take issue with the massive tidal wave of red ink being unleashed by politicians as their antidote to the global economic crisis.

Though John Maynard Keynes is portrayed as a deficit-loving interventionist, in reality he was not. What is left out of the description of his theory in regards to counter-cyclical fiscal policy is that Keynes also believed that in times of relative prosperity sovereigns should create budget surpluses. He belief was that booms and busts were an integral characteristic of modern capitalism, and that  the accumulation of reserves during times of plenty would enable governments to engage in temporary deficit spending to combat a severe recession, without creating the long-term danger of exploding national debt to GDP ratios. This is an aspect of Keynes’s views on fiscal policy that has been conveniently forgotten by the modern interpreters of Keynesian economics.

Since World War II, the U.S. has seldom run balanced budgets. If generally accepted accounting principles were applied to official U.S. federal government budget reports, which require taking into account future liabilities for Social Security and Medicare, then during this period the United States has always run large fiscal deficits, even during times of relative economic prosperity. What this means in reality is that the conditions laid out by John Maynard Keynes for allowing a sovereign to engage in deficit spending during a recession, namely building budget surpluses during periods of economic expansion, have never been adhered to.

During the Great Depression,  the U.S. government did engage in substantial deficit spending within the framework of the New Deal, but with a ratio to GDP far lower than what is currently occurring on President Obama’s watch. This fiscal policy was engaged in with a cumulative national debt to GDP ratio nowhere near the current level, and with a large base of domestic savers prepared to buy U.S. government debt, in contrast with the present day reliance on foreign buyers of U.S. Treasury Bills.

If John Maynard Keynes were alive today, I suspect he would be horrified at the manner in which his economic theories have been distorted, and the likely outcome of such fiscal profligacy.

Ben Bernanke Wins; America Loses

January 29th, 2010 Comments off

Despite all the rhetorical flourishes and grandstanding engaged in by that once august body, the U.S. Senate, when it came time for the rubber to meet the road, they voted overwhelmingly to reappoint Ben Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Let us be clear as to what those 70 senators voted for, in deciding to support President Obama’s preference that Bernanke remain at the helm of the Fed. Failure on a monumental scale has been conspicuously rewarded.

While Bernanke’s predecessor has been rightly condemned for his loose monetary polices and dogmatic conviction that unregulated market fundamentalism is always correct, the current Fed chairman has demonstrated continuity with those now discredited policies, along with a numbing myopia in failing to see a train wreck coming, despite ample warning.

In October 2005 Ben Bernanke appeared before Congress, only days before being nominated to succeed  Alan Greenspan.  Growing concern had already emerged regarding the unsustainability of what was obviously a massive housing asset bubble,  in large part facilitated by  the Fed’s easy monetary policies, fully supported by Bernanke. When questioned on the perception that the residential housing market was a growing danger to the nation’s economic health, the supposedly brilliant and perceptive Ben Bernanke stated that the escalation in U.S. housing  prices did not constitute an asset bubble, and was in fact based on sound economic fundamentals.

Sound economic fundamentals?

In an earlier post, I described Bernanke’s statement to Congress in 2005 as the worst economic prediction in recorded history. Yet this same flawed individual has now been  anointed by the U.S. Senate to have another go at deconstructing the U.S. economy.  A proven failure  now has another four years as head of the world’s most powerful central bank, with executive powers that in may respects exceed those of the president’s, with virtually no meaningful legislative oversight.

The justification for reappointing Ben Bernanke rests on a flimsy pretext. He supposedly saved the world from a global financial meltdown after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008. This ignores his conspicuous role as a principle architect of the global financial and economic crisis. In effect, he is glorified for indebting  generations of Americans yet unborn for covering the costs of his colossal errors in judgement. Furthermore, the Senate has failed to take cognizance that the very debt load they salute Bernanke for creating  as part of his “heroic” rescue mission has laid the seeds for a far more dangerous  phase of the global economic crisis. The risk of a paralyzing sovereign debt crisis is growing, raising the threat of national insolvency. The current fiscal crisis in Greece, and the economic purgatory being experienced by the people of Iceland, are clear warning signs on the economic horizon of what lies in wait for the American people. Maintaining Bernanke as Fed chairman magnifies the risk that a sovereign debt explosion will occur, creating a whole new level of economic devastation across the United States.

The lopsided vote by the U.S. Senate in favour of reappointing Ben Bernanke was  a clear triumph for the disaster-prone Ben Bernanke. As for the American people, this result is nothing less than a total, unmitigated defeat.

Why I Predict a Global Economic Depression by 2012 in My New Book

November 11th, 2009 Comments off

Economics is a social science, not an exact science.  Theories on how a nation’s economy and financial system should function  proliferate the body politic, ranging from Reagonomics to Keynesian pump-priming. However, as the past year’s global economic crisis has demonstrated, dogmas and theories, such as market fundamentalism, are largely impotent in the face of brutal economic realities. It was not out of conformity with a particular economic dogma, but rather sheer panic, which drove  key policymakers in major advanced and developing economies throughout the world to plunge their nations into unprecedented levels of public debt, all in a frantic effort aimed at halting the free fall collapse of the global financial system that had erupted after the downfall of the investment bank Lehman Brothers.

One year later, throughout the world and especially in the United States, political decision makers are proclaiming to their constituents that the worst of the economic crisis is behind us, “green shoots,” in the words of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, are starting to emerge, and the stock market has regained much of its losses. Yet, as Wall Street awards record bonuses to many of its stakeholders, unemployment in the U.S. and other developed countries continues to rise, while the credit crunch constricts small and medium size businesses. Amid the contradictory images regarding the Great Recession, I have written “Global Economic Forecast 2010-2015:Recession Into Depression,” , in which I look at the likely economic trends over the next 5 years. As the title suggests, my projection is not an optimistic one.

While the trillions of dollars poured into the global financial system by the United States and other sovereigns did prevent a total financial collapse in late 2008, this achievement has not come without a high cost, and growing danger.  The level of public debt being accumulated by governments across the globe in response to the global economic crisis, and especially in the U.S., will reach a point of unsustainability, likely by 2012. This will occur simultaneously with continuing high rates of unemployment, which equates with weak consumer demand. The United States is dependent on the American consumer for at least 70% of GDP output. Overleveraged and underemployed consumers dampen growth prospects and  retard government tax revenues. While public finances remain weak, policymakers will likely maintain stimulus spending programs, which translates into structural mega-deficits. The Congressional Budget Office is currently projecting a $9 trillion deficit over the next decade; based on the CBO’s past record, this is likely a lowball estimate.

In my look at the probable economic trajectory for the U.S. and other major economies over the next five years, I had to confront the strong possibility that amid America’s growing fiscal imbalance, there exists a serious danger of future shocks to the global financial system, which may possibly rival the implosion of the investment banks which occurred in 2008. During the next two years, $2 trillion in commercial real estate loans will come due. These were loans initiated when commercial properties were at their peak valuation, and largely securitized, as was the case with subprime loans that triggered the financial crisis in 2008. Should a commercial real estate implosion replicate the carnage that the banking system experienced in 2008, how will sovereign governments, the United States in particular, find the money to finance another financial system bailout? My conclusion is that it will not be mathematically possible for the U.S. and other governments to sustain a future rescue of the banking system. In essence, sovereign  governments will become overwhelmed with public debt, reaching a point of fiscal collapse. The result will be sovereign insolvency, leading to a synchronized global depression.

In his farewell address to the nation in January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his countrymen about the long-term consequences of soaring public debt. Mortgaging the assets of future generations, Eisenhower believed, could transform today’s democracy into tomorrow’s “insolvent phantom.” In the midst of our current economic crisis, it would be wise to pay heed to the sage advice that President Eisenhower offered nearly half a century ago.


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Larry Summers in Winter

July 19th, 2009 Comments off

The speculation after the November presidential election was that Barack Obama originally wanted  Bill Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, to serve in the same capacity in his administration. When criticism arose within his own party due to Summers’ strong ties to Wall Street, Obama selected  Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary and appointed  Larry Summers to serve as Director of the National Economic Council. In essence, Summers is serving as the principal economic advisor to President Barack Obama. In that role, Summers was undoubtedly one of the principal architects of the Obama administration’s so-called Economic Recovery Act, the $787 billion deficit-driven stimulus package that was supposed to put the brakes on the free fall in employment numbers in the United States.

Increasingly, many critics, not all of them Republican, have raised serious doubts as to the efficacy of the Obama stimulus plan. However, the Obama team is not about  passivity and turning the other cheek in the  face of public doubts. They are pushing back, and taking the lead in connection with the stimulus plan has been Larry Summers.

Appearing before the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Larry Summers wanted to make the case that the Recovery Act was, in fact, working. One would expect a man with as brilliant an intellect as Mr. Summers is alleged to possess to offer convincing analysis based on solid macroeconomic data. However, if that was your expectation, you are out of luck. This is what President Obama’s lead economic advisor had to offer as irrefutable “proof” that the administration’s Recovery Act was functioning according to plan: the number of people conducting Google searches for the term “economic depression,” which had increased last fall in the wake of the demise of Lehman Brothers, was now “back to normal.”

Is Larry Summers serious? This is the strategic data point that the key actor within Obama’s team of economic advisors is fixated on? Google searches are now the leading indicator and most persuasive metric of what’s happening to the real economy? Well, Mr. Summers, last fall, when you noticed  a spike in Google searches related to an economic depression, I established a new website on the crisis, GlobalEconomicCrisis. Com.  During the first few weeks that the website existed, there was hardly any traffic. Now, months afterwards, the site receives hundreds of thousands of hits per month.  Is that indicative of economic trends? Of course not. But neither is Larry Summers’ “observation.”

A far more relevant indicator of what is occurring with the real economy is the unemployment rate. Contrary to the declarations of the Obama administration that passage of the Recovery Act would stem the tide of job layoffs and stabilize the official unemployment rate at 8%, this sobering statistic has now increased to 9.5%, excluding the long-term unemployed and underemployed unable to find full-time jobs. All indications are that this number will exceed double-digits by the end of the year.

The attempt by Larry Summers to utilize nonsensical data in defence of the core economic policy of the Obama administration in addressing the most severe economic contraction in American history since the Great Depression not only fails to reassure an increasingly uncertain public; it increases scepticism regarding the suitability of Larry Summers to serve as the White House point-person on the economy. Those who had pre-existing doubts regarding Summers due to his role in dismantling the  Glass- Steagall Act ( which eliminated the  longstanding separation between investment and retail banks, leading to the subprime implosion that sparked the current economic crisis) will see them reinforced by the bizarre rationalizations he is now  increasingly resorting to in defence of the Obama administration’s economic policies.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the convoluted logic Summers invokes in support of  his view of reality. After all, a major factor in his fall from the presidency of Harvard University was his “explanation” for why females were grossly under-represented in tenured academic positions in the sciences and engineering: “the different availability of aptitude at the high end,” according to Summers.

Starting with Alan Greenspan as long-serving Fed chairman, and continuing with the likes of Rubin, Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner and now Summers, the public has been subjected to propaganda from the political establishment that presents those who have been selected to design our economic architecture as being brilliant beyond all measure. If we have learned anything over the past year, it is that these supposed geniuses of macroeconomic policy are in fact highly fallible. If nothing else, Larry Summers’ perplexing descent into meaningless trivialities suggests that this key economic policymaker is as detached from reality as most of his recent predecessors. Rather than being reassured by his reference to Google searches that bright rays of sunshine are about to dissipate the dark economic clouds hovering over the nation, I see Larry Summers’ ascendancy  in the economic policymaking hierarchy of the Obama administration as the harbinger of a long recessionary winter which still lies ahead.


For More Information on “Global Economic Forecast 2010-2015” please go to the homepage of our website, 



Paul Krugman Angers Austria’s Bankers, Politicians By Stating The Obvious

April 18th, 2009 Comments off
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman stirred the ire and indignation of Austria’s political and financial establishment by merely stating the obvious. While speaking at the Foreign Press Club, Krugman responded to a query regarding Austria’s exposure to flimsy debt in over-leveraged Eastern Europe. The Princeton University economics professor and New York Times columnist had the audacity to provide a factual response. As Paul Krugman restated in his blog, ” I responded by saying what everyone knows: Austrian lending to Eastern Europe is off the charts compared with anyone else’s, and that means some serious risk given that emerging Europe is experiencing the mother of all currency crises.” Hell knows no fury than an economist stating the obvious.
Austria’s irate Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister, Josef Proell, denounced Krugman’s comments as “totally wrong.” To make sure everyone understood his point, he added, “absolutely absurd.” Adding to the amen chorus of aggrieved Austrian politicos was the International Monetary Fund. The head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, informed the Austrian media, “I do believe that the Austrian situation is fairly good, so I have no particular concern about the Austrian economy these days.”
No concern? The Austrian banking situation vis a vis East European loans is “fairly good?” What planet is Dominique Strauss-Kahn living on? It’s perhaps time for a little financial history, which the Austrian and European political establishment seems to have forgotten. Does anyone still remember the collapse of the Credit-Anstalt?
Created in 1855, with links to the Austro-Hungarian nobility and Rothschild banking family, Credit-Anstalt was the world’s first investment bank. It was the catalyst of many of the most important infrastructure projects in the last decades of existence of the Habsburg Empire. In the years after World War I, this Austrian bank engaged in major speculation throughout Europe, giving all the appearances of being a highly profitable financial institution. Even after the stock market crash on Wall Street in 1929, Credit-Anstalt sought to conduct business as usual, though the economic contraction that followed the 1929 crash transformed a growing proportion of its balance sheet into non-performing assets. When the bubble burst on May 11, 1931, it sent shock waves throughout the world’s financial system.
Contrary to public perception, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was not the major catastrophe of the Great Depression; it was merely the precipitating event. In fact it was the bankruptcy of Credit-Anstalt in 1931 that made the Depression truly global, and crippled banks throughout Europe and North America. The resulting run on banks throughout the world, with numerous banking failures, was the catalyst that accelerated the rise in global unemployment. When Franklin Roosevelt assumed the U.S. presidency in 1933, his first major task was to attend to the deplorable state of U.S. banking. That reality was at least in part attributable to a chain reaction of financial failures that stemmed from the insolvency of Credit-Anstalt.

Now we are in 2009, with the subprime mortgage securities debacle having been the underlying cause of the state of insolvency afflicting America’s largest banks. The U.S. government, including Congress, Treasury and the Fed, have injected or issued backstop guarantees to the tune of $13 trillion, in a frantic effort aimed at keeping these zombie financial institutions artificially alive. Yet, in this truly global economic and financial crisis, events in other parts of the world may render mute and futile all the trillions of dollars the U.S. is borrowing to save the American and global financial system. As in 1931, it may well be the Austrian banking sector that is the final nail in the coffin of the current globalized financial order.

With the fall of communism, former East Bloc European states were encouraged to borrow heavily by their Western brethren, with Austrian banks leading the way. Governments in Eastern Europe borrowed massively to finance the modernization of their industries, with the goal of providing lower-cost industrial goods and commodities to consumers throughout Western Europe. In addition, consumers in Eastern Europe were encouraged to borrow money in Euro currency at low interest rates for homes and consumer durables. When the Global Economic Crisis hit Europe, demand destruction afflicted the highly leveraged new industrial plants in Eastern Europe. In addition, the consumers who unwisely borrowed money from Western banks in Euros were devastated by the collapse of their home currencies. A new housing crisis has arisen in lands as diverse as Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.

The non-performing assets on the balance sheets of European banks are enormous, and have affected many countries throughout the Eurozone. However, in terms of percentage of toxic assets to GDP, no European state is in as precarious a state as Austria. More than $250 billion in bad assets are poisoning the balance sheets of Austrian banks, a sum equal to more than 62% of the nation’s GDP. By way of comparison, if the admittedly shaky U.S. banks held toxic assets in the same ratio to GDP, this would equal $8.7 trillion dollars in bad assets. If America’s banking disaster was on the same scale as Austria’s, it would require a dozen TARP programs to cover the holes on the balance sheets.

Is another Credit-Anstalt catastrophe in the works? The macroeconomic data emerging from Europe looks increasingly gloomy. In addition, the European Union is proving to be both disunited and uncoordinated in facing up to mounting evidence of a financial avalanche that may bury the Union and everything else with it, including the common currency. Policymakers throughout Europe are arguing over Eastern European stabilization funds, protectionism versus “free trade,” and other issues, both real and distractions, while the financial underpinning of the entire European economic system is ablaze.

Just as Iceland was the first nation to become nationally insolvent due to bank failures stemming from the Global Economic Crisis, Austria may be fated to endure a similar disastrous outcome. Should Austria’s banks fail as spectacularly as did the Credit-Anstalt back in 1931, the impact on the world’s financial and economic order will be at least as catastrophic and likely much worse. It is indeed timely for Paul Krugman to state the obvious regarding the looming Austrian banking crisis, irrespective of the indignation pouring out of Vienna.

Will 2009 prove to be 1931 redux? The indicators favor the pessimists far more than the optimists. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has issued a sober warning, which hopefully will not be drowned out by the hyperbole of reality-denying European politicians.


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