America’s State Wreck Gathers Steam

Now it begins. They bought the February 8th dip just like the previous 40 odd plungelets in the stock averages since the March 2009 bottom, expecting another ka-ching in the easy money lane of the casino.

But this time it didn’t work. The market had been retreating for days and then tumbled 724 Dow points yesterday allegedly on the Donald’s $50 billion tariff assault on the China trade. Not surprisingly, the overnight follow-through in Asia was downright bloody with Shanghai down 3.4%, the Nikkei lower by 4.5% and China’s NASDAQ equivalent off by more than 5%.

But this isn’t just a case of nerves in the trading pits about a potential trade war, nor is it one of those pauses that refresh from the Wall Street bromide cabinet. And it’s most definitely not the shaking out of “weak hands” that the talking heads of bubblevision trot out when all else fails to explain a swoon in the averages.

Instead, we’d say it marks the rise of the Trembling Hands. And notwithstanding another dead cat bounce or two, they will soon populate the remnant still in the casino.

That’s because there is a lot more bad stuff going on than the Donald’s reality show version of a trade war. In fact, the better word for the latter would be a “Trade Bazar” based on yesterday’s announcements of extensive interim exemptions from the steel tariffs.

After you set aside all of the Western hemisphere producers, the entire EU, South Korea, Australia and sundry others, you have exempted upwards of 28 million tons of the 36 million tons of US steel imports. Except that each and every one of these steel suppliers have been invited to hire the beltway’s best lobbyists, lawyers and influence peddlers to bargain with the Donald’s henchman for the next 60 days on trade concessions in lieu of the 25% tariff.

Oh, and then there will be extensions and extensions of the extensions whenever the bargainers appear to be making “progress”.

Needless to say, this emerging “art of the deal” version of protectionism will make the existing Swamp look tame by comparison.

That’s because steel is just for starters. There are apparently more than 1,000 products on the list to be hit by the $50 billion China tariff, and the importers of each item will be hiring-up their own beltway bargaining squads. And we are talking about big hitters like Wal-Mart and Apple with virtual armies of beltway bandits at their beck and call.

And the same goes for the US exporters who are about to get slammed by targeted foreign retaliation such as the wine, fruits, nuts and seamless steel pipe exporters already named by China—to say nothing of the aircraft parts/module suppliers and the soybean farmers, among numerous beefier others, next in the line of fire.

It would seem that at a minimum, Barnum & Bailey retired their 3-ring circus a tad too soon. But there is surely no doubt that the 15,000 or so Washington hands working the foreign representation circuit, whether registered as lobbyists or not, will soon be thinking they died and went to racketeers heaven. It will be a war fought in the trenches of K-street based on bullets bulging with green stuff.

We mention the emergence of the Donald’s Trade Bazaar because the usual suspects are already sounding the “all clear” down on Wall Street. It will be a “pleasant little war” of no special moment—so its time to buy the dips yet again.

Or as veteran Wall Street hand, Marc Chandler of Brown Brothers Harriman, noted:

“People are presenting this as it’s a trade war. I don’t think this is a trade war…..We have been to this dance before.”

“Countries will respond with some symbolic retaliation on a small number of goods that make a little more than a rounding error in bilateral trade, take some measures to ensure that the defection of the U.S. does not lead to an import surge, and appeal to the conflict resolution mechanism at the WTO.”

Next?

Well, yes, next is exactly our point. The Imperial City is becoming swamped in conflict, dysfunction, distraction, distemper and massive decision circuit overload.

We call it State-Wreck and its been heading this way for a long-time. But the Donald is the coup d’ grace in flesh and blood. He will soon have the Imperial City tied in knots, and that’s even if he doesn’t fire Robert Mueller, which most surely he should and might.

Either way, there is a massive partisan blood-letting coming and the ordinarily trans-partisan Deep State will be right in the middle of the brawl. That’s because partisan Democratic hacks—-led by the detestable former CIA director John Brennan—- got way beyond their skis, and baldly high-jacked the tools of the Deep State in a desperate effort to prevent the election and inauguration of Donald Trump.

But the unveiling of what lies in its vasty deep is now beyond recall. The very real attempt by the Obama/Clinton leadership of the CIA/FBI/NSC/NSA/DNI/State/Homeland Security complex to meddle in the 2016 election against the Donald will all come out—-even as the Dems and their legal trolls on Mueller’s witch-hunting squad become ever more shrill in their McCarthyite hysteria about the Russians.

Moreover, the coming quasi-civil war will potentially bring both indictments of Obama’s election meddlers and a counter-reaction from a Mueller based campaign to oust the Donald. Indeed, what portends in the months ahead is more incendiary than anything to rock the Imperial City during the last century, at least.

But here’s the thing. This is not happening in a splendid vacuum with no import for the other end of the Acela Corridor. In fact, the entire state-driven economic and financial fantasy that has been building for more than 30 years is now squarely in harm’s way.

The former always depended upon Washington based stimulus, subventions, bailouts and booty. But now having attained an asymptotic high, the Great Bubble is stranded with no Washington fixers to keep it going; instead, it is fixing to slide into a long night of deflation, disorder and decay.

That is to say, we printed  2870 on the S&P 500, $19.7 trillion of GDP and $97 trillion of household net worth, but those stats weren’t the embodiment of sustainable capitalist prosperity; they were the fruit of a $68 trillion national LBO, a central bank-driven financial asset bubble that has no historical antecedent and the rise of an Imperial Deep State in Washington that is a mortal threat to both democracy and national solvency.

We ruminate on these large matters because in the last day or two signs of a new phase of crisis have proliferated.

Not the least of these is last night’s unseemly passage of a $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations bill which encompassed 2,232 pages of fiscal largesse. While it funded every single agency of government at startlingly higher levels, not a single member of Congress had actually read it during the 24 hours between when it was printed and when it was enacted.

More on the measure’s mountains of domestic pork in next weeks postings—except to note that the Tea Party fiscal opposition has now been crushed once and for all. In fact, the action last night elevated the entire appropriated side of the Federal budget to a level that will add $4.2 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

Still, the heart of the bill—a $695 billion defense appropriation for the current fiscal year—is the real tell. That represents a staggering $80 billion annual increase over the previous DOD spending caps—meaning that the Warfare State has busted loose from any vestige of restraint and rationality.

And it comes at the very moment that Imperial Washington has descended into outright bellicosity on all points of the political spectrum. Trump has taken himself hostage to the neocon interventionist establishment he campaigned against, while the Dems and progressive left have descended so deep into anti-Russian hysteria that they have become nothing less than handmaidens of the Warfare State.

Indeed, whatever impulse the Donald may have had toward curtailment of the America’s imperial interventions was obliterated on Thursday when he announced that his war-hawk general at the national security advisor post, H.R. McMaster, would be replaced by a downright horror show.

We refer to former UN Ambassador John Bolton. You really can’t say anything bad enough about him except that he is one war-loving sicko, who has rarely meet an unfriendly country he didn’t want to bomb or a un-compliant regime he didn’t want to change. That includes North Korea, Iran, Syria and Russia for starters.

But it’s worse. Now that he has installed Mike Pompeo at the State Department, Bloody Gina Haspel at the CIA and Bolton next door to the Oval Office, the Donald has surrounded himself with the neocon war department. It would literally be impossible to find a worse trio of militaristic interventionists, nor is it possible to ignore the immediate implications of their appointments.

As we shall lay out in Part 2, the trio and the Donald will soon be ending the one constructive thing Obama did during his eight years—-the nuke agreement with Iran. And that foolish action, in turn, will bust the middle east and the wider world wide open. It may even lead to military confrontation with Russia.

It also means that the impending fiscal carnage is now beyond recall, and that the mother of all “yield shocks” in the bond pits will soon shake Wall Street to the rafters.

Stay tuned, but also consider the State Wreck introduction below. We posted this in the New York Times exactly 5-years ago at what turns out to be the half-way point to the calamity now at hand.

From the New York Times, March 30, 2013 by David Stockman

The Dow Jones and Standard & Poor’s 500 indexes reached record highs on Thursday, having completely erased the losses since the stock market’s last peak, in 2007. But instead of cheering, we should be very afraid.

Over the last 13 years, the stock market has twice crashed and touched off a recession: American households lost $5 trillion in the 2000 dot-com bust and more than $7 trillion in the 2007 housing crash. Sooner or later — within a few years, I predict — this latest Wall Street bubble, inflated by an egregious flood of phony money from the Federal Reserve rather than real economic gains, will explode, too.

So the Main Street economy is failing while Washington is piling a soaring debt burden on our descendants, unable to rein in either the warfare state or the welfare state or raise the taxes needed to pay the nation’s bills. By default, the Fed has resorted to a radical, uncharted spree of money printing. But the flood of liquidity, instead of spurring banks to lend and corporations to spend, has stayed trapped in the canyons of Wall Street, where it is inflating yet another unsustainable bubble.

When it bursts, there will be no new round of bailouts like the ones the banks got in 2008. Instead, America will descend into an era of zero-sum austerity and virulent political conflict, extinguishing even today’s feeble remnants of economic growth.

THIS dyspeptic prospect results from the fact that we are now state-wrecked. With only brief interruptions, we’ve had eight decades of increasingly frenetic fiscal and monetary policy activism intended to counter the cyclical bumps and grinds of the free market and its purported tendency to underproduce jobs and economic output. The toll has been heavy.

As the federal government and its central-bank sidekick, the Fed, have groped for one goal after another — smoothing out the business cycle, minimizing inflation and unemployment at the same time, rolling out a giant social insurance blanket, promoting homeownership, subsidizing medical care, propping up old industries (agriculture, automobiles) and fostering new ones (“clean” energy, biotechnology) and, above all, bailing out Wall Street — they have now succumbed to overload, overreach and outside capture by powerful interests. The modern Keynesian state is broke, paralyzed and mired in empty ritual incantations about stimulating “demand,” even as it fosters a mutant crony capitalism that periodically lavishes the top 1 percent with speculative windfalls.

The culprits are bipartisan, though you’d never guess that from the blather that passes for political discourse these days. The state-wreck originated in 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt opted for fiat money (currency not fundamentally backed by gold), economic nationalism and capitalist cartels in agriculture and industry.

Under the exigencies of World War II (which did far more to end the Depression than the New Deal did), the state got hugely bloated, but remarkably, the bloat was put into brief remission during a midcentury golden era of sound money and fiscal rectitude with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House and William McChesney Martin Jr. at the Fed.

Then came Lyndon B. Johnson’s “guns and butter” excesses, which were intensified over one perfidious weekend at Camp David, Md., in 1971, when Richard M. Nixon essentially defaulted on the nation’s debt obligations by finally ending the convertibility of gold to the dollar. That one act — arguably a sin graver than Watergate — meant the end of national financial discipline and the start of a four-decade spree during which we have lived high on the hog, running a cumulative $8 trillion current-account deficit. In effect, America underwent an internal leveraged buyout, raising our ratio of total debt (public and private) to economic output to about 3.6 from its historic level of about 1.6. Hence the $30 trillion in excess debt (more than half the total debt, $56 trillion) that hangs over the American economy today.

This explosion of borrowing was the stepchild of the floating-money contraption deposited in the Nixon White House by Milton Friedman, the supposed hero of free-market economics who in fact sowed the seed for a never-ending expansion of the money supply. The Fed, which celebrates its centenary this year, fueled a roaring inflation in goods and commodities during the 1970s that was brought under control only by the iron resolve of Paul A. Volcker, its chairman from 1979 to 1987.

Under his successor, the lapsed hero Alan Greenspan, the Fed dropped Friedman’s penurious rules for monetary expansion, keeping interest rates too low for too long and flooding Wall Street with freshly minted cash. What became known as the “Greenspan put” — the implicit assumption that the Fed would step in if asset prices dropped, as they did after the 1987 stock-market crash — was reinforced by the Fed’s unforgivable 1998 bailout of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management.

That Mr. Greenspan’s loose monetary policies didn’t set off inflation was only because domestic prices for goods and labor were crushed by the huge flow of imports from the factories of Asia. By offshoring America’s tradable-goods sector, the Fed kept the Consumer Price Index contained, but also permitted the excess liquidity to foster a roaring inflation in financial assets. Mr. Greenspan’s pandering incited the greatest equity boom in history, with the stock market rising fivefold between the 1987 crash and the 2000 dot-com bust.

Soon Americans stopped saving and consumed everything they earned and all they could borrow. The Asians, burned by their own 1997 financial crisis, were happy to oblige us. They — China and Japan above all — accumulated huge dollar reserves, transforming their central banks into a string of monetary roach motels where sovereign debt goes in but never comes out. We’ve been living on borrowed time — and spending Asians’ borrowed dimes.

This dynamic reinforced the Reaganite shibboleth that “deficits don’t matter” and the fact that nearly $5 trillion of the nation’s $12 trillion in “publicly held” debt is actually sequestered in the vaults of central banks. The destruction of fiscal rectitude under Ronald Reagan — one reason I resigned as his budget chief in 1985 — was the greatest of his many dramatic acts. It created a template for the Republicans’ utter abandonment of the balanced-budget policies of Calvin Coolidge and allowed George W. Bush to dive into the deep end, bankrupting the nation through two misbegotten and unfinanced wars, a giant expansion of Medicare and a tax-cutting spree for the wealthy that turned K Street lobbyists into the de facto office of national tax policy. In effect, the G.O.P. embraced Keynesianism — for the wealthy.

The explosion of the housing market, abetted by phony credit ratings, securitization shenanigans and willful malpractice by mortgage lenders, originators and brokers, has been well documented. Less known is the balance-sheet explosion among the top 10 Wall Street banks during the eight years ending in 2008. Though their tiny sliver of equity capital hardly grew, their dependence on unstable “hot money” soared as the regulatory harness the Glass-Steagall Act had wisely imposed during the Depression was totally dismantled.

Within weeks of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008, Washington, with Wall Street’s gun to its head, propped up the remnants of this financial mess in a panic-stricken melee of bailouts and money-printing that is the single most shameful chapter in American financial history.

There was never a remote threat of a Great Depression 2.0 or of a financial nuclear winter, contrary to the dire warnings of Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman since 2006. The Great Fear — manifested by the stock market plunge when the House voted down the TARP bailout before caving and passing it — was purely another Wall Street concoction. Had President Bush and his Goldman Sachs adviser (a k a Treasury Secretary) Henry M. Paulson Jr. stood firm, the crisis would have burned out on its own and meted out to speculators the losses they so richly deserved. The Main Street banking system was never in serious jeopardy, ATMs were not going dark and the money market industry was not imploding.

Instead, the White House, Congress and the Fed, under Mr. Bush and then President Obama, made a series of desperate, reckless maneuvers that were not only unnecessary but ruinous. The auto bailouts, for example, simply shifted jobs around — particularly to the aging, electorally vital Rust Belt — rather than saving them. The “green energy” component of Mr. Obama’s stimulus was mainly a nearly $1 billion giveaway to crony capitalists, like the venture capitalist John Doerr and the self-proclaimed outer-space visionary Elon Musk, to make new toys for the affluent.

Less than 5 percent of the $800 billion Obama stimulus went to the truly needy for food stamps, earned-income tax credits and other forms of poverty relief. The preponderant share ended up in money dumps to state and local governments, pork-barrel infrastructure projects, business tax loopholes and indiscriminate middle-class tax cuts. The Democratic Keynesians, as intellectually bankrupt as their Republican counterparts (though less hypocritical), had no solution beyond handing out borrowed money to consumers, hoping they would buy a lawn mower, a flat-screen TV or, at least, dinner at Red Lobster.

But even Mr. Obama’s hopelessly glib policies could not match the audacity of the Fed, which dropped interest rates to zero and then digitally printed new money at the astounding rate of $600 million per hour. Fast-money speculators have been “purchasing” giant piles of Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities, almost entirely by using short-term overnight money borrowed at essentially zero cost, thanks to the Fed. Uncle Ben has lined their pockets.

If and when the Fed — which now promises to get unemployment below 6.5 percent as long as inflation doesn’t exceed 2.5 percent — even hints at shrinking its balance sheet, it will elicit a tidal wave of sell orders, because even a modest drop in bond prices would destroy the arbitrageurs’ profits. Notwithstanding Mr. Bernanke’s assurances about eventually, gradually making a smooth exit, the Fed is domiciled in a monetary prison of its own making.

While the Fed fiddles, Congress burns. Self-titled fiscal hawks like Paul D. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, are terrified of telling the truth: that the 10-year deficit is actually $15 trillion to $20 trillion, far larger than the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of $7 trillion. Its latest forecast, which imagines 16.4 million new jobs in the next decade, compared with only 2.5 million in the last 10 years, is only one of the more extreme examples of Washington’s delusions.

Even a supposedly “bold” measure — linking the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security payments to a different kind of inflation index — would save just $200 billion over a decade, amounting to hardly 1 percent of the problem. Mr. Ryan’s latest budget shamelessly gives Social Security and Medicare a 10-year pass, notwithstanding that a fair portion of their nearly $19 trillion cost over that decade would go to the affluent elderly. At the same time, his proposal for draconian 30 percent cuts over a decade on the $7 trillion safety net — Medicaid, food stamps and the earned-income tax credit — is another front in the G.O.P.’s war against the 99 percent.

Without any changes, over the next decade or so, the gross federal debt, now nearly $17 trillion, will hurtle toward $30 trillion and soar to 150 percent of gross domestic product from around 105 percent today. Since our constitutional stasis rules out any prospect of a “grand bargain,” the nation’s fiscal collapse will play out incrementally, like a Greek/Cypriot tragedy, in carefully choreographed crises over debt ceilings, continuing resolutions and temporary budgetary patches.

The future is bleak. The greatest construction boom in recorded history — China’s money dump on infrastructure over the last 15 years — is slowing. Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, South Africa and all the other growing middle-income nations cannot make up for the shortfall in demand. The American machinery of monetary and fiscal stimulus has reached its limits. Japan is sinking into old-age bankruptcy and Europe into welfare-state senescence. The new rulers enthroned in Beijing last year know that after two decades of wild lending, speculation and building, even they will face a day of reckoning, too.

THE state-wreck ahead is a far cry from the “Great Moderation” proclaimed in 2004 by Mr. Bernanke, who predicted that prosperity would be everlasting because the Fed had tamed the business cycle and, as late as March 2007, testified that the impact of the subprime meltdown “seems likely to be contained.” Instead of moderation, what’s at hand is a Great Deformation, arising from a rogue central bank that has abetted the Wall Street casino, crucified savers on a cross of zero interest rates and fueled a global commodity bubble that erodes Main Street living standards through rising food and energy prices — a form of inflation that the Fed fecklessly disregards in calculating inflation.

These policies have brought America to an end-stage metastasis. The way out would be so radical it can’t happen. It would necessitate a sweeping divorce of the state and the market economy. It would require a renunciation of crony capitalism and its first cousin: Keynesian economics in all its forms. The state would need to get out of the business of imperial hubris, economic uplift and social insurance and shift its focus to managing and financing an effective, affordable, means-tested safety net.

All this would require drastic deflation of the realm of politics and the abolition of incumbency itself, because the machinery of the state and the machinery of re-election have become conterminous. Prying them apart would entail sweeping constitutional surgery: amendments to give the president and members of Congress a single six-year term, with no re-election; providing 100 percent public financing for candidates; strictly limiting the duration of campaigns (say, to eight weeks); and prohibiting, for life, lobbying by anyone who has been on a legislative or executive payroll. It would also require overturning Citizens United and mandating that Congress pass a balanced budget, or face an automatic sequester of spending.

It would also require purging the corrosive financialization that has turned the economy into a giant casino since the 1970s. This would mean putting the great Wall Street banks out in the cold to compete as at-risk free enterprises, without access to cheap Fed loans or deposit insurance. Banks would be able to take deposits and make commercial loans, but be banned from trading, underwriting and money management in all its forms.

It would require, finally, benching the Fed’s central planners, and restoring the central bank’s original mission: to provide liquidity in times of crisis but never to buy government debt or try to micromanage the economy. Getting the Fed out of the financial markets is the only way to put free markets and genuine wealth creation back into capitalism.

That, of course, will never happen because there are trillions of dollars of assets, from Shanghai skyscrapers to Fortune 1000 stocks to the latest housing market “recovery,” artificially propped up by the Fed’s interest-rate repression. The United States is broke — fiscally, morally, intellectually — and the Fed has incited a global currency war (Japan just signed up, the Brazilians and Chinese are angry, and the German-dominated euro zone is crumbling) that will soon overwhelm it. When the latest bubble pops, there will be nothing to stop the collapse. If this sounds like advice to get out of the markets and hide out in cash, it is.

CONTINUE READING –>

 

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