The End Game Of Bubble Finance: Political Revolt
During Friday’s bloodbath I heard a CNBC anchor lady assuring her (scant) remaining audience that Brexit wasn’t a big sweat. That’s because it is purportedly a political crisis, not a financial one.
Presumably in the rarified canyons of Wall Street, politics doesn’t matter much. After all, when things get desperate enough, Washington caves and does “whatever it takes” to get the stock averages moving upward again.
Here’s a news flash. That’s all about to change.
The era of Bubble Finance was enabled by a political abdication nearly 50 years ago. But as Donald Trump rightly observed in the wake of Brexit, the voters are about to take back their governments, meaning that the financial elites of the world are in for a rude awakening.
To be sure, the apparent lesson of the first TARP vote when the bailout was rejected by the House in September 2008 was that politics didn’t matter so much.
Wall Street’s 800 point hissy fit was all it took to prostrate the politicians. Indeed, the presumptive free market party then domiciled in the White House quickly shed its Adam Smith neckties and forced the congressional rubes from the red states to walk the plank a second time in order to reverse the decision.
There was a crucial predicate for this classic crony capitalist capture of the authority and purse of the state, however, that should not be overlooked. Namely, that in the mid-cycle period of the world’s 20-year experiment in central bank driven Bubble Finance the rubes had not yet come to fully appreciate that they were getting the short end of the stick.
Indeed, the earlier phases of the bubble era witnessed an enormous inflation of residential housing prices. For instance, between Greenspan’s arrival at the Fed in August 1987 and the housing bubble peak in 2007, the value of residential housing rose from $5.5 trillion to $22.5 trillion or by 4X.
The greatest extent of the housing bubble occurred in the bicoastal precincts, of course. But it did lift handsomely the value of 50 million owner occupied homes in the flyover zone, as well.
Accordingly, the latter did not yet see that the new regime was stacked in favor of the top 10% of the economic and wealth ladder, which owns 85% of the non-housing financial assets. And that the speculative casinos of Bubble Finance would be an especially verdant source of windfalls for the top 0.1%.
Indeed, the entire 13 percentage points of the wealth pie lost by the bottom 90% of households (105 million households) during the past 30 years has been captured by the 120,000 households at the tippy-top (0.1%).
Nor was it yet evident as to the degree to which massive money printing under conditions of Peak Debt almost exclusively stimulates Wall Street speculation, not main street production, jobs, incomes and spending.
In any event, by the eve of the great financial crisis, the GOP was actually controlled by the racketeers of the Beltway and the Wall Street gamblers, not the red state voters who had elected it.
In fact, Goldman’s Sach’s plenipotentiary to Washington, Hank Paulson, was in complete command of the elected side of government. At the same time, the Bush White House had populated the central banking branch of the state with proponents of monetary activism, who were more than ready to authorize “heroic” measures to reflate the bubble.
Needless to say, the leader of the pack, Ben Bernanke, had been groomed for the role of chief bailster by none other than Milton Freidman. The latter, in turn, had led Nixon astray at Camp David 37 year earlier when he persuaded Tricky Dick to default on the dollar’s link to gold, thereby opening the door to fiat money, massive credit expansion and the modern era of Bubble Finance.
There is a straight line of linkage from that great historical inflection point to Friday’s Brexit uprising. Namely, Nixon’s abandonment of the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard, as deficient as it had been, was also a profoundly political act.
It resulted in the abdication of economic and financial policy to an unelected elite and their eventual capture by Wall Street and the forces of speculation and financialization unleashed by unanchored central bank money and credit.
Nixon’s destruction of Bretton Woods was the enabling event. It turned central bankers and financial officialdom loose to operate a dictatorship of bailouts, bubbles and financialization of economic life. And to spread this baleful regime to Europe, Japan and the rest of the world, too.
To be sure, it took more than two decades to fully materialize. There were deeply embedded institutional cultures and ideologies among policy-makers that restrained opened-ended resort to the printing press and financial bailouts.
The Paul Volcker interlude in the US and the determined sound money regime of the Bundesbank are cases in point.
But eventually the old regime gave way. There emerged Greenspan’s dotcom and housing bubbles, the rise of the ECB and the financial rulers of Brussels, the massive bailouts triggered by the global crisis of 2008-2009, the hideous expansion of central bank balance sheets during the era of QE and ZIRP, the emergence of the destructive “whatever it takes” regime of Draghi and the current financial lunacy of subzero interest rates across much of the planet.
But here’s the thing. The rubes are on to the rig.
Twenty-years of Bubble Finance have made the City of London an oasis of splendor and prosperity, for example, but it has left the hinterlands of Britain hollowed-out industrially, resentful of the unearned prosperity of the elites and fearful of the open-ended flow if immigrants and imports enabled by the superstate in Brussels. As on observer put it, the geography of the vote said it all:
“If you’ve got money, you vote in,” she said, with a bracing certainty. “If you haven’t got money, you vote out.” We were in Collyhurst, the hard-pressed neighbourhood on the northern edge of Manchester city centre last Wednesday, and I had yet to find a remain voter.
Look at the map of those results, and that huge island of “in” voting in London and the south-east; or those jaw-dropping vote-shares for remain in the centre of the capital: 69% in Tory Kensington and Chelsea; 75% in Camden; 78% in Hackney, contrasted with comparable shares for leave in such places as Great Yarmouth (71%), Castle Point in Essex (73%), and Redcar and Cleveland (66%). Here is a country so imbalanced it has effectively fallen over.
The rise of Trumpism in the US reflects the same social and economic fracture. To wit, Bubble Finance has also drastically unbalanced the US as between the bicoastal zones of prosperity it has enabled and the fly-over zones its has effectively left behind.
It goes without saying that massive debt monetization and 90 months of zero interest rates has been a boon for the Imperial City. With almost no restraints on its ability to borrow and spend, the military/industry/security/surveillance complex has prospered like never before, as has the medical care cartel, the education syndicate and the lesser beltway rackets such as green energy and the farm subsidy/food stamp/ethanol alliance.
Likewise, asset gatherers, financial intermediaries, brokers, punters, financial engineers and corporate strip-miners have prospered enormously because the market has been rigged every since Black Monday in October 1987. That is, the cost of debt and carry trades have been falsified, downside hedging insurance in the casino has become dirt cheap and time after time the Fed’s put has bailed-out speculations gone bust.
Even what passes for entrepreneurial breakouts in the world of social media and new tech isn’t really. It’s just another variant of the dotcom bubble in which a few good innovations are being drastically over-valued (e.g., Uber) while a tsunami of worthless and pointless start-ups have become giant cash burning machines (e.g. Tesla).
Taken altogether, they are funding a ephemeral complex of pseudo businesses, pseudo jobs and pseudo start-up networks that are attracting tens of billions in venture capital. But that amounts to a simulacrum of prosperity today and the substance of tomorrow’s malinvestment waste and losses.
Meanwhile, the main street economy has atrophied. The first round of Bubble Finance buried the middle class in debt, while the post-crisis intensification has turned the C-suites of America into a giant stock trading room and financial engineering arena.
Contrary to the bubblevision patter, in fact, there has been no business deleveraging at all. On the eve of the crisis in Q4 2007, total non-financial business debt outstanding was $11 trillion, and it is now $13.5 trillion.
But on the margin, every dime of that massive swelling of the business debt burden represents real economic resources cycled out of the flyover zones and pumped back into the financial casinos and the bicoastal elites which fatten on them.
The recent studies of the Census Bureau data which show that just 20 counties have generated half of all start-ups since the financial crisis provides another take on the underlying fissure. What the study describes but doesn’t explicitly articulate is that the massive flow of venture capital to the 20 mainly bicoastal counties and outposts of the military/industrial/security/surveillance state is itself a product of Bubble Finance:
Americans in small towns and rural communities are dramatically less likely to start new businesses than they have been in the past, an unprecedented trend that jeopardizes the economic future of vast swaths of the country.
The recovery from the Great Recession has seen a nationwide slowdown in the creation of new businesses, or start-ups. What growth has occurred has been largely confined to a handful of large and innovative areas, including Silicon Valley in California, New York City and parts of Texas, according to a new analysisof Census Bureau data by the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization that was founded by the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker and small group of investors.
That concentration of start-up activity is unusual, economists say. In the early 1990s recovery, 125 counties combined to generate half the total new business establishments in the country. In this recovery, just 20 counties have generated half the growth.
The data suggest highly populated areas are not adding start-ups faster now than they did in the past; they appear simply to be treading water. But rural areas have seen their business formation fall off a cliff.
Economists say the divergence appears to reflect a combination of trends, all of which have harmed small businesses in rural America. Those include the rise of big-box retailers such as Walmart, the loss of millions of manufacturing and construction jobs across the country and a pullback in business lending that appears to have stung small-town and rural borrowers particularly hard.
The changes also reflect a fundamental shift over the past two decades in which workers and industries power the country’s economic growth. That shift advantages highly educated urbanites at the expense of everyone else. Polling suggests it is one of the driving forces in the political unrest among working-class Americans — particularly rural white men — who have flocked to Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign this year.
In short, Bubble Finance is a giant engine of reverse Robin Hood redistribution. It embodies a sweeping fiscal intervention in the natural flows of the free market that punishes savers, laborers, self-funded main street entrepreneurs and the retired populations in favor of speculators, the holders of existing financial assets and the dealers in money.
Bubble Finance is an affront to both democratic governance and true capitalist prosperity. The Trump voters, the Brexit voters, the masses rallying to the populist banners throughout Europe above all else represent a reactivation of the political machinery in a last ditch campaign to stop the financial elites and their regime of Bubble Finance.
Yes, this time is different, and this time there will be no reflation of the financial bubble like there was after Black Monday, the S&L bust, the dotcom crash and the great financial crisis of 2008–2009.
Needless to say, the Wall Street dip-buyers and perma-bulls who take their cues from the modern day financial ruling class are in for a shock. And today’s statement by Martin Schulz, the President of the EU parliament could not more aptly explain why.
The British have violated the rules. It is not the EU philosophy that the crowd can decide its fate.
We think Schulz is dead wrong.
David Stockman was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, serving from 1981 until August 1985. He was the youngest cabinet member in the 20th century.