17 March 2008

A world addicted to easy credit must go cold turkey

It's only mid-March, but this is one of Wall Street's sweatiest weekends. Traders' shirts are drenched in the perspiration of unpleasant possibilities. The collapse of once-mighty Bear Stearns is another reminder that the unwinding of the Great Debt Delusion still has a long way to go and many more victims to claim.
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Read more from Jeff Randall

When, several years from now, economic historians tot up the final casualty list, a trail of destruction will stretch from mobile homes in America's Budweiser belt to the council estates of fish-and-chip Britain. The credit crunch travels with alarming ease.

Alistair Darling's Budget-day boast that Britain is well placed to cope with this turmoil was irrefutable proof of his intellectual bankruptcy. He was either whistling in the dark or wilfully insulting voters' intelligence. Be under no illusion, Friday's dramatic events in New York were neither an aberration nor confined to the surreal world of investment banking. The pain will be lasting and felt by millions who had no idea they were playing with financial fireworks.

When dealers arrive at their desks tomorrow morning, the first question will be: Who's next? Is it just Bear Stearns that has run out of cash, or are other great institutions staring into empty coffers? Investors are already betting that Lehman Brothers, another premier league player, has its financials caught in a mangle.

The US locomotive, for so long the engine of global consumption, is not just grinding to a halt, it is falling apart. The New York Times reports this weekend: "Everything seems to be going wrong… People are buying less, but most things are costing more. Mortgage rates are rising, the dollar is falling and prices of key commodities are leaping from one record high to the next."

Where now are the financiers, regulators and politicians who peddled the inanity, "we mustn't talk ourselves into recession"? Of all the vacuous comments made by officialdom, this one, given the rapid spread of financial disruption, grates more than most. Nobody is talking anyone into anything - it's too late for that. Our jeopardy is very real. Recession, if it comes, will be the result not of idle chatter but a conspiracy of silence. It underpinned the fantasy.

For too long, those who warned that the borrowing bubble would burst with terrible consequences were dismissed as congenital gloomsters. Greedy lenders, their irresponsible customers and incompetent ministers formed an unholy alliance to perpetuate a myth: that consumers, companies and governments could keep spending more than they earned and suffer no penalty.

We heard new and intriguing justifications for excess. Banks seemed able to acquire rubbish and recycle it as triple-A securities. It was a sophisticated version of the second-hand shop that advertises: "We buy unwanted junk and sell valuable antiques." Instruments of financial leverage became so complicated that even those trading them did not fully understand how the system worked. All they cared about was the potency of magic that enabled welfare claimants to borrow five or six times the income they were not earning and still make the numbers add up.

So clever were the designers of this wizardry that, though it failed the common sense test, they were able to fool supervisors, credit committees, external auditors, shareholders and regulators - even themselves! Disbelief was suspended by all concerned.

An important pre-condition for a faith in easy money is a complete disregard for the lessons of history. The bulls at Bear Stearns, it seems, were too busy spending their jackpot bonuses to read how and why boom turned to bust at Barings. Picking through the wreckage of his family's bank, two years after it went under, Peter Baring told a Bank of England inquiry that while Nick Leeson was making extraordinary (and wholly illusory) profits, the company's directors concluded that "it was not actually terribly difficult to make money in the securities business".

For securities in the Nineties, read sub-prime in the Noughties. When it looks too good to be true, it usually is. Bear Stearns has suffered crippling losses on mortgage-linked investments. In the same way that Northern Rock lost the confidence of British savers, Bear Stearns eventually exhausted the trust of hedge funds and its other commercial lenders. For a bank that trades by borrowing 30 times its equity base, this was the kiss of death.

Three years ago, Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, warned that the US was "an economy on thin ice". In particular he was worried that Americans had become hooked on living imprudently by using their homes as cash machines. He wrote in The Washington Post: "Personal savings in the United States have practically disappeared… we are buying a lot of housing at rising prices, but home ownership has become a vehicle for borrowing as much as a source of financial security."

Does that sound familiar? I'm afraid so. Here in the United Kingdom we have been living a similar dream. Unable to fund all spending ambitions from income, too many Britons have cashed in part of their bricks and mortar for a blast of instant gratification. Worse still, so has the Government. Unwilling to live within its means, even with revenues of about £600 billion a year, Gordon Brown's Circus and its troupe of performing puppets must borrow more than £40 billion next year to make ends meet. Its budgetary indiscipline makes us all more vulnerable to a sharp downturn.

Credit markets have frozen because it is unclear how many more of the big banks, if any, are bluffing. Nobody wants to be caught out trading with a loser. So cash is being hoarded. At the start of last week, the boss of Bear Stearns told the market that his firm was safe. But when lenders called that bluff, the cupboard was bare.

Central banks are trying to calm jitters by pouring billions of dollars into money markets to increase liquidity. Last week another $200 billion was dropped into the system. That was quickly swallowed up amidst screams for yet more emergency injections. Debt junkies, like heroin addicts, demand ever bigger fixes.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. The rational response to financial pain is risk reduction. But if the pain is removed, or even suppressed, then so is fear. When individuals or institutions believe they will always be bailed out, they lose the incentive to reform. Delinquency is, in effect, encouraged.

In the end, the patient is so full of painkillers that they become part of the problem. The only way forward is for all palliatives to be washed out of the system. Sooner or later borrowers and lenders must address the real cause of discomfort. For many of Wall Street's finest, it will feel like cold turkey.

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