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3865
“Economics Undone”
by By Carl Teichrib - July 2008   
October 1st, 2008

During the past fourteen months, the threat of economic uncertainty has permeated the business and financial communities. From the American sub-prime crisis to the globally expanding costs of energy and food, it’s evident that a major shake-up is in the works, and this economic turbulence has resulted in some very interesting stories. Here are a few that cropped up toward the end of June.

- The Royal Bank of Scotland “has advised clients to brace for a full-fledged crash in global stock and credit markets over the next three months as inflation paralyses the major central banks.”

- Tim Bond, Barclays Capital’s chief equity strategist: “We’re in a nasty environment. There is an inflation shock underway. This is going to be very negative for financial assets. We are going into tortoise mode and are retreating into our shell. Investors will do well if they can preserve their wealth.... They [central banks] will have to slam on the brakes. There is going to be a deep global recession over the next three years as policy-makers try to get inflation back in the box.”

- Fortis Bank, a major European financial institution, recently recapitalized based on the belief that the United States economy is on the verge of a complete meltdown. Chairman Maurice Lippens, when discussing this recapitalization program, dropped the following bombshell: “We were saved at the last minute. Things in the U.S. are going far worse [than what] people think.”

To better understand the economic condition we find ourselves in, it’s important to provide some essential background. And this includes an often overlooked fact: Economics, politics, and religion are indelibly linked.

The reasoning that drives this thought may be construed as an overgeneralization; nevertheless, there is validity to the argument that cannot be ignored. At the personal and cultural level, morality is based on the impact of historical and contemporary religious convictions, or lack thereof. Furthermore, from a cultural perspective, our worldview and moral standards reflect the way our financial and economic affairs are conducted. This in turn influences the political spectrum, which passes laws and regulations in order to guide behavior in the realm of economics and financial obligations.

Coming full circle, this action reinforces the morality that provided the ethics behind economics. Religion, morality, and politics: all of this frames the national and global economic picture.

So what does this picture look like? For starters, it’s enormous: The interlocking moral, political, and economic landscape is so broad, so vast, so all encompassing, it’s hard to build a case using only one example. The scandals at Enron and WorldCom immediately come to mind. So does the mafia-run Wall Street “chop house” brokerages where organized crime ran illegal funds through the stock market in the 1990s.

And let’s not forget the amazing web of deceit and destruction woven by the BCCI . During the 1980s and early 1990’s, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International acted as the “central banker” for arms merchants, drug traffickers, money launderers, and a myriad of black operations – attracting to it some of the most powerful and nasty players within the international arena.

When the BCCI was finally shut down is was dubbed the “bank of crooks and criminals.” Adding to this is the fact that its depositors included “central banks, governmental organizations, government investment funds, and government officials, involving most of the countries in the world.” By the time the BCCI affair was exposed, a trail of bodies and bomb craters stretched from Latin America to the Middle East and elsewhere.

If anything, BCCI validated the words of the Bible: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

But other angles to our economic panorama have to be considered. Richard Ebeling, an economics professor, reminds us of the role that state intervention plays,

“Look around in any direction of our economic and social lives and try to find even one corner of our existence free from some form of direct or indirect government intrusion into our personal and interpersonal affairs. It is practically impossible to find such a corner. Our lives our not our own. They are the property of the state...

"Today, it is not free market forces but political directives that most often influence what goods and services are produced, where and how they are produced, and for what purposes they may be used. Pick up any product in any store anywhere in the United States and you will discover that hundreds of federal and state regulations have actually determined the methods by which it has been manufactured, its quality and content, its packaging and terms of sale, and the conditions under which it may be ‘safely’ used by the purchaser. Buy a tract of land or a building and you will be trapped in a spider’s web of restrictions on how you may use, improve, or sell it. Every facet of our lives is now subject to the whims of the state.

"In an environment in which ‘public policy’ determines individual lives and fortunes, in which social and economic life has become politicized, it is not surprising that many Americans have turned their attention to politics to improve their market position and relative income share. Legalized coercion has become the method by which they get ahead in life. And make no mistake about it: Every income transfer, every tariff or import quota, every business subsidy, every regulation or prohibition on who may compete or how a product may be produced and marketed, and every restraint on the use and transfer of property is an act of coercion.... Over time, interventionism blurs the distinction between what is moral and what is not.”7

All of these issues reflect a moral dilemma that goes beyond basic self-interests (meeting one’s needs): It’s called greed, and the power and ability to feed greed has resulted in the world’s largest growth industry - money.

Speaking of financial greed, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan made the following statement during a US Senate Banking Committee hearing in 2002.

“An infectious greed seemed to grip much of our business community. Our historical guardians of financial information were overwhelmed. Too many corporate executives sought ways to ‘harvest’ some of those stock market gains. As a result, the highly desirable spread of shareholding and options among business managers perversely created incentives to artificially inflate reported earnings in order to keep stock prices high and rising.... It is not that humans have become any more greedy than in generations past. It is that the avenues to express greed have grown so enormously.”

Greenspan was right; an “infectious greed” has gripped the business community. But in pointing a finger at the corporate sector, three were pointing back at him. For no other business on the planet has mastered the ability to feed greed better than the banking industry. After all, the ultimate power to create wealth or to withhold it isn’t found in the business world, it’s firmly planted in the realm of central banks and commercial lending institutions.

Sir Josiah Stamp understood this. As the former president of one of the world’s most powerful central banks – the Bank of England – and considered the second richest man in England during the 1920s, Mr. Stamp knew the banking world intimately.

The modern banking system manufactures money out of nothing. The process is perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight of hand that was ever invented. Banking was conceived in iniquity and was born in sin. The Bankers own the earth. Take it away from them, but leave them the power to create deposits, and with the flick of the pen they will create enough deposits to buy it back again.

"However, take it away from them, and all the great fortunes like mine will disappear and they ought to disappear, for this would be a happier and better world to live in. But, if you wish to remain the slaves of Bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, let them continue to create deposits.”

Some readers will be raising their eyebrows; “What does he mean, ‘continue to create deposits’...?”

That’s right: Banks create money. In fact, the vast majority of the money in use isn’t physical cash, but bank designed deposits. Accessing 2006 stats from the US Federal Reserve, author Ellen Brown reports that 3% of the US money supply is in the form of coins and paper-based dollars.

“The other 97 percent is created by commercial banks as loans but in the form of credit and debt-based bank deposits.”

This is sometimes called “checkbook money,” and it’s created through a process called “fractional reserve” banking – a system employed by practically every bank and credit institution. Larry Bates, a former banker and member of the Tennessee House Committee on Banking and Commerce, explains how this works,

“As a former banker, I have literally created millions of dollars out of thin air with the stroke of my pen. It works like this: One day I made a loan to a customer in the amount of $100,000, thereby increasing my assets in loans by $100,000. This customer was a good customer, and I deposited the $100,000 loan proceeds to my customer’s checking account, thereby increasing my liabilities on the liabilities side of my bank ledger by $100,000. At the end of the day when I totaled my statement of condition, by the stroke of my pen I had increased the size of my bank by $100,000.

"All I have to do legally is to keep 10 percent of the $100,000 I deposited to my customer’s checking account, or $10,000 in reserve. I subtract this $10,000 from the $100,000 deposit, and I now loan my next customer $90,000 of their money and repeat the process. The total amount that I can ultimately create is called a ‘multiplier.’ It is determined by a formula which is regulated by the reserve requirement set by the Federal Reserve.

"If you were to have a 10 percent reserve requirement, a simple way to determine the multiplier is to divide 100 by your reserve requirement. In the case of 100 divided by 10 percent reserve, it equals 10, so your multiplier factor is 10. In other words, with a 10 percent reserve requirement, I can take $1,000,000 in new deposits and under fractional reserve banking can parlay that into a maximum of $10,000,000 in newly created money supply.” [emphasis added]

Contrary to what many people think, the world’s currencies are no longer based on a gold standard (hasn’t been for decades), or on any other tangible commodity. It’s built on a massive bubble of debt (credit) and the “faith” of the user that the government will “back it up.” This form of money is known as fiat – currency by government decree, not intrinsic value. Hence, our entire monetary system is now a towering pyramid of irreversible debt built on the foundation of fractional reserve banking.

While this sinks in, we need to briefly explore another economic reality: Monetary inflation and deflation. Simply put, monetary inflation is the expansion of money. The more money created, the less “value” it has and the more prices increase to compensate for this loss in purchasing power. Other issues certainly impact price increases, such as supply and demand, and the spill over of supply/demand also comes into play. General inflation, however, is oriented to an increase in the general money supply.

This is significant, especially when considering the money creating power of banks and the present reality of credit-as-money. Walter Stewart, a Canadian author on banking and finances, recognized this seldom considered linkage.

“The implications are huge. First, there is no effective curb on the amount of money a bank can conjure up in the bowels of a computer, with a few keystrokes, and if that isn’t dangerous, I don’t know what is... Second, there is no longer any effective instrument, other than jacking up interest rates, that the government can use to control inflation.”

“Jacking up interest rates” brings us to another point: deflation. Deflation is the contraction of the general money supply. Now, with less money in circulation, the overall price of goods decreases to reflect the rising value of the more scarce dollars. Dropping prices sounds nice, until you realize that this is a result of less money in everyone’s pocket, including yours and mine.

In our modern system where money is only based on debt – inflationary in its very nature – the effect of raising interest rates is a deflationary step. Higher rates means less loans, less credit, less money. This is what’s known as “tightening up.”

Finding the fine balance between monetary expansion and contraction, especially in light of other market drivers such as supply/demand, trade balances and employment issues, is not an easy task. Yet, this is what a nation’s central bank is supposed to do. Therefore, when a central bank lowers interest rates, and keeps it artificially down to incite growth (spending) – which is what has happened during the last fifteen years – an inflationary imbalance occurs.

For more than a decade this cheap credit has been viewed as a good thing. It’s appealed to our personal greed: Can’t afford the new car? The new house? Buy now and pay for a lifetime. Can’t afford the leather furniture, the big screen TV, the computer? Buy now and pay later with approved financing. Can’t afford the trendy clothes, the meals out, the movies? Put it on plastic.

We’ve all done it; and now our culture is awash in debt and inflated, valueless, credit-based money. The following LendingTree commercial, which is trying to sell even more credit, provides a prime example. Set in an affluent, upper-middle class suburb, we’re introduced to a smiling Stanley Johnson who’s kind enough to show us his “American dream” lifestyle – including his gorgeous home complete with a fireplace and pool.

“'I’m Stanley Johnson. I’ve got a great family. I’ve got a four bedroom house in a great community. Like my car? It’s new! I even belong to the local golf club. How do I do it? I’m in debt up to my eyeballs. I can barely pay my finance charges.'”

"LendingTree cuts in, 'Need a smart way to handle your debt? At LendingTree.com, you can lower your monthly payments by using the equity in your home, with either a home equity loan or by refinancing your mortgage. Call 1-800...'

"Riding his lawn tractor in his suburban backyard, Stanley cuts in; 'Somebody help me.'

Sadly, this sums up personal finances throughout much of the Western world. Corporations and governments are in no better shape, as witnessed by America’s total national debt (including government, corporate, and personal) at $50 trillion plus.

But this wasn’t accidental. Every time a loan or financing program has been entered into, a conscious decision has been made to proceed – sometimes for the personal betterment of the individual, sometimes not. Collectively, we knew what we were doing. So did the corporations and governments.

Likewise for credit institutions. The banking industry, following the lead of central banks, handed out cheap credit (debt) like candy. Did they know what they were doing? Of course! Banks advertised low rates and pain-free payments like they were carnival side-show vendors, doing everything short of banging on doors to sell cheap credit.

And the public, no longer content with starting small and building up savings to purchase items, gobbled up all the credit-candy possible. In turn, this created an almost endless credit-inflation cycle that society seemingly has had no choice but to perpetuate.

The US housing market demonstrates this principle [NOTE: The following explanation has been simplified due to space limitations].

Everyone needs a place to live, but buying a home is a big undertaking, and few can afford to enter with cash. Therefore, a loan is required for the average buyer. When the loan is made, more credit-based money is injected into the market supply. Thus, over the years, prices collectively rose. In some places the housing market was hotter than others, but this was a reflection of localized supply and demand pressures. Generally speaking, prices climbed as interest rates came down, and the loans became larger with less collateral attached.

Then in the late 1990s, banks started giving out high-risk loans to already debt-burdened families and low wage earners. These loans had a low introductory rate, but were adjustable – enter the subprime model. As consumer debt steadily expanded across demographic lines, and as the purchasing power of the dollar correspondingly fell, the use of subprime loans rapidly gained momentum.

Expanding on this, lending institutions bundled these loans and sold them to other banks and speculators around the world – creating the investment side of the sub-prime market. This became a goldmine for investors willing to take a risk. Money flowed, and lenders made sure that virtually everyone who wanted a home “could afford one.”

No savings? No collateral? No problem. Cheap credit flowed like sweet soda, and the housing market inflated into an unimaginable bubble, pushing homeowners, banks, and subprime investors closer to the brink.

However, just as too much candy makes one sick, a debt-based inflationary economy eventually reaches a critical point. For scores of subprime homeowners, the critical point came when rates were adjusted up.

Is the housing problem over? Not even close. Instead, it may have acted as the cork in the dam. When the cork finally popped, it revealed a web of fast-growing cracks, right down to the foundation. Now it appears that the infrastructure could crumble.

If the economic weaknesses can’t be shored up, what can we expect? Two options present themselves: inflation or deflation. Let’s recap.

Inflation: In this scenario, the central bank lowers interest rates and injects more liquidity (credit money) into the system, providing a band-aid solution. This may hold off the inevitable for a time, but continue this practice too long and saturation takes effect. In this scenario, hyperinflation could be the outcome: money becomes worthless and prices skyrocket by the week, the day, and the hour. Monetary assets, such as gold, gains in value as national currencies are discarded by the market.

Deflation: In this scenario, the central bank raises interest rates, thereby slowing inflation by contracting the money supply. If this reaction happens too fast in a society operating chiefly on credit, then a deflationary depression ripples through the system. In this “tightening” scenario, lines of credit are no longer affordable, loans are difficult to come by, and those in debt cannot sustain the rate increases. Jobs are lost and prices plummet, including the value of stocks, as money is increasingly hard to come by.

A third option exists, but it’s so improbable that it hardly warrants mention: In the short-term, central banks walk the perfect inflation/deflation tightrope, and at the same time reform the financial base of society – placing restrictions on the money creation power of the banking industry (including themselves), and introducing some form of asset backed currency to bring stability and accountability. This would be a start: Good luck.

The fact that we are entering a period of crisis is certain. Two big questions crop up; will this crisis be deflationary or inflationary? And how soon before the dam breaks? Right now, many analysts are predicting a further inflationary run. Mary Anne and Pamela Aden, editors of The Aden Forecast, recently reported,

“Suddenly, there’s a lot of talk about inflation in official circles and that wasn’t the case before. But over the past couple of months, comments or inflation warnings were made by the Fed, the European Central Bank and the Bank of England. Government officials are speaking out, and so is the press. The International Monetary Fund was the most direct, warning that global inflation has reemerged as a major threat to the world economy.” [emphasis added]

No doubt inflation could be poised to jump higher. However, the reaction to an inflationary crisis – and we’ve been experiencing a slow boil inflation build-up for decades – could set us up for a reactionary, credit tightening movement. And while energy and food costs are currently rising (due in part to geopolitical pressures), other sectors such as housing in the US are falling. Other parts of the world are experiences downturns too, yet even at the global level this crisis doesn’t show uniformity.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, in the Telegraph, wrote, “The West is in the full grip of a debt deflation as years of credit abuse come back to haunt it. The East - loosely speaking - is in the blow-off phase of an inflationary boom.” [emphasis added]

On June 19th, Bob Janjuah, the Royal Bank of Scotland’s credit strategist, indicated a deflationary move was in the making.

“A very nasty period is soon to be upon us - be prepared...Cash is the key safe haven. This is about not losing your money, and not losing your job...The ugly spoiler is that we may need to see much lower global growth in order to get lower inflation.”

And George Soros was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that this is “the end of a 60-year period of continuing credit expansion based on the dollar as the reserve currency.” [emphasis added]

Inflation or deflation? Or a hybrid beast that hits the world from both ends? Until the storm is directly overhead, it’s extremely difficult to say. Nor can anyone guess the timing of when the storm will unleash its fury. But an observation can be made; the storm clouds have crested the horizon.

Isn’t it amazing what greed can do? In the words of Ambrose Evans-Pritchard,

“We are in uncharted waters. The easy tradeoff between growth and inflation that so flattered asset prices for a quarter century is over. The monetary lords can no longer shield us from the full consequences of our debts. Nor do they want to.”

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