One of the things that was revealed in the 2008 mortgage crisis was the fragility of the global financial system. The system that was born of the Louvre Accords was supposed to be robust and resilient, unlike the previous arrangements. The masters of finance would be able to keep a steady hand on the tiller, guiding the world economy through each storm, rather than have a free-for-all ever time there was a little turmoil. Up until 2008, everyone knew something like the mortgage crisis was impossible.
A credit based financial system was supposed to get around the problem of currency devaluation to solve political problems. That’s been a problem since the advent of coinage. When the state gets in trouble, the easiest ways to solve it is to spend money on the public. Whether it was debasing the coinage or printing paper money, the solution to spending money that did not exist was the create it. That always created new and bigger problems for the society down the line.
One way of looking at the mortgage crisis is as a form of currency devaluation. The global financial system is based in credit. That’s the base unit of value. Government debt and to a slightly lesser degree, corporate debt, is the foundation of the global financial system. Government issues debt, which increases the supply of money in the system, as that debt is used as collateral in the system. Central banks can buy and sell debt to control the supply of money in the system.
What no one thought much about, it seems, is how players in the system could devalue credit, in the same way governments devalued currency. That’s exactly what the mortgage brokers were doing. By lowering credit standards for borrowing, they were debasing a fundamental unit of currency in the system. This went unnoticed for a long time until everyone started noticing at the same time. The panic to unload the debased currency – those bad mortgages – set off the mortgage crisis of 2008.
That’s something to keep in mind as the next crisis appears on the horizon. The Wall Street Journal ran a story on General Electric’s financial issues. It’s based on a report by independent watchdog Harry Markopolos, who got famous sounding the alarm over Bernie Madoff’s scheme. For those familiar with global corporate finance, it is an interesting read, as GE is the exemplar of corporate legerdemain. It is not unreasonable to say that GE exists to exploit gaps in the regulatory system.
General Electric is one of those companies that looks like one thing, but in reality is just a financial scheme masquerading as a legitimate business. For example, their stunning growth in the 1990’s was not due to great manufacturing innovation. It was the result of GE Capital, a banking arm of the company. This arm not only financed their clients, who bought GE products, it financed GE’s expansion through acquisition. Without GE Capital as its credit creation vehicle, there would be no General Electric.
When you dig through the report, there are the familiar signs from the 2008 crisis. The allegation is GE is exaggerating one side of the balance sheet and minimizing the other, in order to make its liquidity appear much higher than reality. The whole point of this is to maintain a credit rating that allows it to borrow at competitive rates. Those lenders are not all that interested in the facts behind those numbers, as they have no incentive to examine the credit worthiness of General Electric.
Now, GE is one firm and maybe this is both exaggerated and isolated. That’s not the way to bet though. One of the ignored aspects of global business is that even tech oligopolies rely on a financing arm to exist. Apple, for example, is really a hedge fund that makes phones. Braeburn Capital is a wholly owned asset management company based in Reno, Nevada. Other tech giants are far less transparent, but every bit as wedded to the credit system to maintain their positions.
In theory, having global corporations as nodes in the global credit system is not a bad thing, because it makes them easier to regulate. In reality, as we saw with the mortgage crisis and now with General Electric, it also encourages everyone to overstate their credit worthiness. It also encourages opacity. The more complex and opaque the financial statement, the more costly the audit. Again as we saw with the credit agencies in 2008, the simple answer it to take the statements at face value.
That was the other thing revealed in the mortgage crisis. The system was a black box, even to the people inside it. The decisions makers in the big banks were unaware of what was happening upstream to pollute their asset pools. Of course, they had no incentive to care, so they never looked. Those people upstream had no way of knowing what they were creating downstream, but they had no reason to care. Regulators, of course, had no skill to examine the system and they did not care either.
Global debt, which includes government, corporate and household, is now 50% higher than it was at the time of the 2008 financial crisis. Due to the massive expansion of government debt, the stated quality of the overall debt is higher than in 2008, but this assumes government never runs out of money. Given that government solvency is tied to corporate and household solvency, that’s not an indisputable assumption. All anyone can really know is the world is awash in debt at all levels.
One read of the 2008 crisis was that it was a proof of concept. Instead of the system collapsing the world into depression and war, it withstood a huge blow and slowly eased the world out of the crises. The other read is that it was a warning about the internal logic of the system. A credit based economy is a house of cards. If the wrong card falls, the whole system collapses. It could be that the warning over GE is like the warning over mortgage lending. A warning to the house of cards.
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