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One of the underappreciated properties of managerialism is how the managerial elite begin to look like the elite of a bureaucracy. The people at the top of the various pillars of power begin to think like the people in charge of the Post Office in that they care primarily for the power and privilege’s of their power center. We are getting a glimpse of this with the evolving financial crisis that was set in motion by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank last week.
The bank started to run into trouble when the Federal Reserve started raising rates in order to combat inflation. Rates have been near zero for so long that it became the new normal, leading to activity that otherwise would never get financed. When money is cheap, the appetite for risk-taking is high. When money has been cheap for a generation, risk-taking is no longer seen as risk-taking. It is simply how things are done, until money stops being cheap, which is what is happening now.
Despite the bizarre devotion to the cult of diversity by the people running SVB, the bank itself does not appear to have been poorly managed. To date no violations of the law have been suggested. Instead, the bank was the victim of changing conditions that suddenly made their model unworkable. In the world of banking, when your model becomes unworkable it means you are running out of money. A bank without money is an abandoned building.
SVB’s clients were mostly startups, tech companies and their corresponding venture capital firms. The bank helped facilitate funding for new companies and existing companies that are growing. Private investors kept their money at the bank and the firms they were bankrolling also kept their money at the bank. Because borrowing rates were near zero, the bank could lend to the customers of their preferred customers, the private investors, at attractive rates.
When the Federal Reserve started raising interest rates to combat inflation, everything based on cheap money was thrown into crisis. Those private investors suddenly had more attractive options than startups. Those startups suddenly found it hard to borrow money at tolerable rates. The startups then started to draw down on their cash reserves and the private investors began to move their money to more profitable places, thus creating a cash crisis for the bank.
That is the second problem, the very serious problem, that has broad implications for the entire system. To raise cash, Silicon Valley Bank first elected to sell assets like treasuries and mortgage backed securities. In the near zero interest rate world, these were as good as cash. In the time of rising rates, these very low yield instruments are not in demand, so they had to be heavily discounted. SVB had to take a two billion dollar write down when they sold these assets.
Since every bank in America, possibly the Western world, holds treasuries and long dated mortgage backed securities, it means every bank has the same problem as this bank in that they have assets with a book value above market value. Some estimates suggest there is a trillion dollar gap in the system due to this problem. In 2008 when the system came close to collapse, the problem was about a trillion and half, so you can see why the bankers are in a panic.
This is where we see the bureaucratic nature of the system. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.
That is what we see with the bankers. The people running the system care only about the system, not the alleged goals of the system. No one ever asked if near zero interest rates was good for the economy. They do not care. What mattered is what is good for the financial system and the people running it. When inflation promised to become dangerous to their position in the system they raised rates, but now that raising rates is threatening the system, they will stop raising rates.
We are about to have another banking crisis because no one in the system bothers questioning what happens in the system, outside of those things that threaten the position of those atop the system. Cheap money underwriting you-go-girl capitalism makes them feel good, so they do it. If the polices warp the overall economy and puts the middle-class at risk, they do not care. All that matters is the internal dynamics of the system and how it impacts the people in it.
Replicate this silo mentality across the empire and you can easily see why the ruling class appears to be out of touch with reality. The reason is their reality is not our reality, but the artificial reality of the system. Right now, banking regulators are telling each other they are heroes for working the weekend to stem a bank run, while the rest of us see another trillion getting printed up and handed to the greed-heads who have been looting the economy for generations.
Of course, none of these silos of power are independent. The political silo will get in on the act when Joe Biden mumbles something about it this morning. Expect to hear lots of statements beginning with “we did…” from various political operatives, claiming that they are the real heroes of this crisis. The media will adopt their usual bunker mentality, defending the people who control their scripts. Here is an early example of what we will see this week from the content creators.
What all this means for the rest of us is the grocery bill will rocket up this year as the bankers are bathed in free money to save the system. We will get new narratives from the Cloud People about how the food bill is a conspiracy theory or maybe it is the work of the Chinese, who are the new bogeyman. The people at the top will sleep well knowing they have once against defended the system from the barbarians of reality who threatened to crash through the gates.
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