The first commentary below is from The World Socialist Web Site. The second is from BIG PICTURE WORLD BLOG. The third is from INFORMATION CLEARING HOUSE.
The Wall Street crisis and the failure of American capitalism
By Barry Grey
16 September 2008
The end of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, two of the largest Wall Street investment banks, one week after the government takeover of the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, marks a new stage in the convulsive crisis of American capitalism.
On Monday, global markets fell sharply in a sign of mounting panic and doubt over the stability of the entire US banking system. Throughout Europe stock markets plunged by as much as 4 percent.
The fall on Wall Street was even steeper, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing 504 points, or 4.42 percent. There is every indication that the sell-off will intensify, with the full implications of the collapse of the two Wall Street banks as yet far from clear.
The immediate concern is the fate of American International Group (AIG), the world’s largest insurance company, and Washington Mutual, the largest savings and loan bank in the US, both of which are teetering on bankruptcy.
The sudden demise of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch has removed a huge amount of liquidity from the economy, as paper values built up over decades of speculation come crashing down. This is capital that is needed to finance business operations, and its elimination will inevitably depress economic activity, fueling unemployment and recession, further undermining home prices and consumer spending, and further weakening the balance sheets of already financially shaken banks.
A sea change is unfolding in the US and world economy that portends a catastrophe of dimensions not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The fall of icons of American capitalism such as 158-year-old Lehman Brothers and 94-year-old Merrill Lynch can only lead to the further discrediting of the “free market” ideology of the US ruling elite, as well as its political and economic system. The spectacle of giants of capitalism drowning in debt piled up over decades of reckless speculation must inevitably discredit the social class—the American capitalist class—which is responsible for the debacle.
The bromides that have been uttered by the official spokesmen for the government, the media, Wall Street and the political parties over the past year of mounting financial crisis have lost all credibility. The assurances that the latest government bailout will stabilize the situation, that the US banking system is “fundamentally sound,” that the housing and credit markets are about to “turn the corner,” etc., reassure no one.
On Monday, President Bush mouthed such phrases in a brief White House appearance. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson at a White House press conference evaded questions about who was responsible for the financial disaster and instead declared that he was “focused on the future.”
The presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, made perfunctory statements that were remarkable only for their brevity and vacuity. What is widely acknowledged, even in ruling class circles, as the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression is unfolding in the midst of a presidential election. But it barely rates a mention by either the Republican or Democratic candidate.
Both parties and their candidates tip toe around a financial scandal of world historic proportions because they are equally implicated. They are both bound hand and foot to Wall Street and single-mindedly dedicated to the defense of American capitalism.
McCain issued a statement demanding “reform” in Washington and on Wall Street and pledging to bring “accountability” to Wall Street. This from a multi-millionaire whose campaign is being run by a bevy of lobbyists for Wall Street and other sections of big business.
His Democratic counterpart, Barack Obama, issued a predictably mealy-mouthed statement complaining that “too many folks in Washington and on Wall Street weren’t minding the store.” While attempting to pin the blame for the crisis entirely on the Bush administration—ignoring the “free market,” deregulatory policies of Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—he offered a mutual amnesty between himself and McCain, saying, “I certainly don’t fault Senator McCain for these problems...”
These events are signposts in the historic failure of American and world capitalism. For the working class, they mean a rapid growth of unemployment, poverty, homelessness and social misery. The government, Wall Street and both political parties will seek to place the burden for the consequences of their own greed and incompetence squarely on the backs of working people.
The collapse is devastating ever wider layers of the population, including those who have worked on Wall Street and received some of the financial benefits of the speculative boom. Some 26,000 Lehman employees are not only out of a job, with few prospects of finding similar employment elsewhere, but as owners of 25 percent of the company’s stock they have lost a combined $10 billion, wiping out their savings and retirement funds.
Tens of thousands of employees at Merrill Lynch and Bank of America will lose their jobs in the merger of the two firms, adding to the 110,000 jobs slashed in the US financial services industry over the past year.
The broader implications of the mounting financial crisis were signaled by Hewlett-Packard’s announcement Monday that it was cutting 25,000 jobs.
Many of those who precipitated this economic disaster, on the other hand, will profit handsomely from the debris they have left behind. Hedge funds and other short-sellers, who bet on the collapse of corporations, are even now speculating furiously on the demise of the remaining Wall Street firms, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, as well as big commercial banks such as Bank of America.
William Gross of the nation’s largest bond fund, Pimco, took in $1.7 billion last week by betting on—and publicly agitating for—a government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The emergency talks over the weekend, involving the heads of the major commercial and investment banks and led by Treasury Secretary Paulson and top Federal Reserve officials, centered on rescuing Merrill Lynch and orchestrating an orderly liquidation of Lehman. Under pressure from Paulson and the Fed, Merrill agreed to sell itself to Bank of America, the largest consumer commercial bank in the US.
At the same time, there were frantic negotiations over the fate of AIG, which faces bankruptcy unless it can raise tens of billions of dollars in capital. When US markets opened Monday, AIG was asking for emergency loans from the Fed to stave off collapse.
A failure of AIG threatens to bring down the entire credit system both in the US and internationally, because the company holds a large stake in the multi-trillion-dollar, unregulated market in so-called “credit default swaps.” AIG has sold CDS contracts to banks, hedge funds and big investors all over the world, under which it guarantees the mortgage-backed debt of a wide range of companies in the event that they default. If AIG should go under, the value of the debt which it insures would fall to an unknown level, destabilizing the credit markets and threatening a chain reaction of defaults and bankruptcies.
The events of the past two weeks demonstrate that the American financial aristocracy is plunging the entire country into bankruptcy. These events are themselves climatic moments in a protracted process.
For three decades, the “free market” has been elevated to the status of a secular religion in the US, with the capitalist market as its god and socialism as its devil. This period, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has seen the wholesale dismantling of the productive base of the US economy, at the cost of millions of jobs and the living standards of the American working class.
In the name of the supposed infallibility of the market, the operations of big business have been deregulated, removing all legal restraints on corporate profit-making and fueling the accumulation of ever more obscene levels of wealth in the hands of a financial oligarchy. A vast process of social plunder has occurred, in which the wealth of the country has been redistributed from the bottom to the very top.
The scrapping of huge sections of industry and the immense growth of social inequality are the hallmarks of the historic decline of American capitalism. At the heart of this decay is the separation of the process of personal enrichment of the ruling elite from the material process of production.
The United States has become the world leader not in manufacturing technology or industrial power, but in financial speculation and parasitism. As Floyd Norris, the economics columnist of the New York Times, put it on Friday, “During recent years, Lehman—along with many competitors—went on a borrowing binge to buy assets with as little money down as possible.”
By its very nature, the parasitism of American capitalism has generated corruption and criminality on an unprecedented scale. Wall Street CEOs have awarded themselves tens of millions and even billions in compensation, in an utterly irrational and socially destructive squandering of social resources for the benefit of private greed.
At the end of 2007, for example, the Lehman board awarded CEO Richard S. Fuld a compensation package worth more than $40 million. According to Reda Associates, he can expect to collect $63.3 million if he is terminated. In 2004, he paid $13.75 million for an ocean-front home in Jupiter Island, Florida, adding to his other properties, including a home in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Joe Gregory, a former president of Lehman, used to travel to work in a helicopter. He recently put his 9,500-square-foot ocean-front home in Bridgehampton, New York on the market for $32.5 million.
The Financial Times recently reported that compensation for major executives of the seven largest US banks totaled $95 billion over the past three years, even as the banks recorded $500 billion in losses.
The question of precisely who and what is to blame for the greatest economic disaster in more than three quarters of a century is something that will not and cannot be raised by any section of the political or media establishment.
Since the eruption of the current crisis, there have no been serious congressional hearings, no public investigations, no attempt to hold anyone accountable. Massive government interventions into the supposedly sacrosanct precincts of the “free market,” for the purpose of bailing out giant Wall Street firms, including the biggest government takeover of corporate entities in US history, have been carried out without any public debate or significant opposition from either political party. This, while millions of Americans are losing their homes and their jobs as a result of predatory corporate practices!
Certain conclusions must be drawn from the crisis of the American economic and political system. There is no solution within the framework of the profit system. What is needed is a socialist program that places the needs of the people before the profits and personal fortunes of the ruling elite.
The entire financial system must be taken out of private hands and nationalized in the form of a public utility under the democratic control of the working class, with provisions taken to safeguard the holdings of small depositors and share-holders. It must be subordinated to the social needs of the people and dedicated to developing and expanding the productive forces in order to eliminate poverty and unemployment and vastly improve the living standards and cultural level of the entire population.
Those who are responsible for the economic catastrophe must be called to account. Criminal investigations should be undertaken with appropriate sanctions for those who have plundered the social wealth. A full public accounting should be made of the hundreds of billions that have been diverted to private bank accounts through fraud and criminality. Such gains should be seized and used for the public good.
The only social force that can carry this out is the working class. It requires a clean break with the Democratic Party and the two-party system and the mobilization of the immense social power of the working class in its own party, on the basis of a revolutionary socialist program.
This is the program fought for by the Socialist Equality Party.
Barry Grey is a regular contributor to the World Socialist Web Site. Outside of that, I don't know who he is.
The U.S. Financial System in Serious Trouble
by Rodrigue Tremblay
“… a bailout of GSE (Fannie and Freddie) bondholders would be perhaps the greatest taxpayer rip-off in American history. It is bad economics and you can be sure it is terrible politics.”
Matt Kibbe, President of Freedom Works
"The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists."
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), (September 1932)
[After the Bear Stearns bailout] "As more firms lost access to funding, the vicious circle of forced selling, increased volatility, ... and margin calls that was already well advanced at the time would likely have intensified. The broader economy could hardly have remained immune from such severe financial disruptions."
Ben Bernanke, Fed Chairman (March 2008)
In August 2007, at the very beginning of the subprime financial crisis in the U.S., and referring to the alchemy-like practice of creating artificial financial instruments, such as mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), here is what I wrote:
“Like all 'Ponzi schemes', such pyramidings of debts with no liquid assets behind them are bound to implode sooner or later.” I also wrote about the Fed's intervention in such cases, that “it alleviates the 'liquidity crisis', for sure, but this does nothing to cure the underlying 'solvency crisis' of institutions holding large chunks of non-performing mortgage-based assets. Sooner or later, such low-valued derivatives will have to be written off, and this will necessarily lead to an erosion of these institutions' capital base. Bankruptcies of the most leveraged and imprudent institutions are to be expected.”
In fact, such bankruptcies of over-leveraged financial institutions become unavoidable. For a while, forced mergers between banks, initiated by the Fed or the Treasury, can soften the blow. But after a while, outright bankruptcies cannot be avoided and balance sheets have to be balanced.
What is the cause of this financial mess?
Last month, I provided a short answer:
“At the center of current financial problems is the failure to adapt standard financial regulation to new financial institutions, such as broker-investment banks, off-shore based hedge funds and large derivatives markets that remain, for the most part, outside of the traditional authority of regulators. However, when things go wrong, as they did with Bear Stearns last March, their demise threatens to destabilize the entire financial system and handy government bailouts are quickly called in.”
Today I say that this major crisis has to be placed at the very feet of the Washington establishment. This is a politico-financial establishment that has pushed to the limits its ideology of deregulation of financial markets and stretched the working of unregulated corporate market capitalism to the breaking point. Now, the system is imploding under our very eyes and financial institutions are falling like dominos. As I wrote last August, and repeated in April of this year, the U.S. financial problem is not one of liquidity, (there is plenty of liquidity provided by the Fed when banks and brokers can borrow at will newly printed dollars from the Fed’s discount window) but one of solvency, weak balance sheets, risky assets and debt liquidation. That's a horse of a different color.
Over the last twenty-five years, beginning with the Reagan administration and culminating with the current Bush-Cheney administration, the Washington establishment dismantled piece by piece the system of protection that had been built since the 1930's economic depression and removed nearly all government regulations that could stand in the way of greed and gouging on the part of unscrupulous market operators.
And that's where the rubber hits the road. Short of bankruptcies is the nationalization of the over-leveraged banks by the government. And the Bush-Cheney administration took a big step in that direction when it came to the rescue of the two largest mortgage financing institutions, Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association: FNM) and Freddie Mac, (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation: FRE) which were close to being insolvent. This step was initiated after foreign central banks (in China, Japan, Europe, the Middle East and Russia) threatened to stop buying U.S. bonds and debentures issued by the two shaky financial institutions.
But the Bush-Cheney administration, while providing public money to keep the two lenders in operation, stopped short of nationalizing them. Indeed, the U.S. government committed to invest as much as $200 billion in preferred stock and extend credit through 2009, to keep the two mortgage lenders solvent and operating.
But instead of taking them over by placing them into administrative receivership, in order to change their business model, as they should have done since the government is now guaranteeing their outstanding debts, (more than $5 trillion US) the U.S. government chose rather to keep the appearance that these were still two privately run banks and only appointed a legal conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Even when they bail out what can be called two Government sponsored enterprises (GSEs), their market ideology prevents them from doing the right thing.
After years of irresponsible public deregulation and private mismanagement and irresponsible, pyramiding risk taking, the American financial system is now in serious trouble, and it may draw the U.S. economy further down with it in the months and years to come.
In the coming weeks, however, as other American financial institutions teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, the U.S. government will have to consider creating a Bank Resolution Trust under the model of the 1989 Resolution Trust Corp. which took over the savings and loans banks that were then in financial difficulties. For example, as recently as February 16 of this year, the British government did not hesitate to nationalize the Northern Rock bank and rescued this large British bank with about £55 billion ($107 billion) in public loans and guarantees. Sooner or later, the American government will have to do the same, in order to stabilize the financial system, because the financial problems in the U.S. are systemic and much more serious than elsewhere.
By the same token, maybe the U.S. government should correct an anomaly of the 20th Century, that is the semi-private status of its central bank. Indeed, the American Federal Reserve, is a semi-public and semi-private central bank organization that is as much responsible to large private banks as it is to the U.S. government and the population. This creates an unhealthy conflict of interests that is not fair to the American public. Indeed, the American practice of privatizing profits and socializing losses would be considered unacceptable in most other democracies.
What we are witnessing these days in the U.S. is a massive wealth transfer from taxpayers, savers and retirees to banks, their creditors and their managers. On the one hand, the Fed has pushed real interest rates deep into negative territory to help troubled banks, and, on the other hand, the American taxpayers have foot the bill for bailing out very large financial institutions.
I wonder what the two presidential camps, the Obama and the McCain camps, have to say about that! They both want to increase the federal deficit and add significantly to the already high national debt.
RODRIGUE TREMBLAY is a prominent Canadian-born economist with a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He is a former Woodrow Wilson fellow and a Ford International Fellow. He is now professor emeritus at the University of Montreal, after having occupied the positions of full professor of economics at the University of Montreal, president of the North American Economics and Finance Association, president of the Canadian Economics Society, and advisor to numerous organizations. From 1976 to 1979, he was minister of Industry and Commerce in the Quebec government. He is presently vice-president of the International Association of French-speaking Economists.
Professor Tremblay has written 25 books dealing with economics and finance, some also tackling moral and political issues. Dr. Tremblay has traveled extensively in Europe, in the Middle-East, in North Africa and in sub-Sahara Africa.
The Crash of Western Capitalist Civilization?
15/09/08 "ICH" -- - “Train-wreck” doesn't even begin to describe what is starting to happen to the U.S. today with the financial crisis, an onrushing depression, and the failure of George W. Bush's war policy as he is faced down by Iran and the Russian bear.
But in an even broader sense, the West, as a civilization, after a century of world war and the utter failure of global finance capitalism, may have reached its limits.
Those with a vested interest in the status quo dismiss any suggestion that something is wrong. This includes Donald Luskin, author of an article in the Washington Post on Sunday, September 14, titled: “A Nation of Exaggerators: Quit Doling Out That Bad Economy Line.”
Luskin writes, “The relentless drumbeat of pessimism in the media and on the campaign trail” is “a virus.”
He continues: “Sure, there are trouble spots in the economy, as the government takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and jitters about Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, amply demonstrate. And unemployment figures are up a bit, too. None of this, however, is cause for depression -- or exaggerated Depression comparisons.”
Continue reading, and you find out who Luskin is: a campaign adviser to John McCain.
We know that “where you stand depends on where you sit”—and who pays you for advice. So is a catastrophic meltdown coming?
If so, probably a majority of the people in the world are thinking: “Serves them right.” For the last 500 years, the West has been striding across the globe, armed to the teeth with firearms, warships, bombers, and—more recently—depleted uranium, enforcing the “white man's burden” by enslaving nations and peoples and confiscating everything of value—ranging from art objects to gold to oil—that can be carried away.
The financiers behind it all have also used the diabolically clever practice of creating money “out of thin air” to put the natives everywhere into debt, and, when that has proven insufficient, of doing the same to their own populations.
All this is rationalized by various brands of racism, cultural superiority, social Darwinism, historical determinism, “dominion of the Elect,” “God's chosen people,” etc. Or, simply, “might makes right.”
Some call it “The New World Order.”
So today, we Americans, denizens of the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” victors in two world wars, bearers of “democracy” to Afghanistan and Iraq, allies of the brave Israelis who hold high the banner of Judeo-Christian values among the ungrateful Palestinians—well, we Americans owe our own bankers almost $70 trillion at most recent count. With the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, we owe holders of bad housing loans, including the governments of China, Korea, and Japan, another few trillion.
The bluster of Kissinger, Brzezinski, the Kristols, the Christian fundamentalists, and their paid-off politicians and media millionaires notwithstanding, America—indeed, the entire West—has been found out, perhaps even checkmated on the world stage.
The Bush/Cheney wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have blackened America's name forever. Iran has called our bluff. In Israel the gap between rich and poor is increasing as much as in the U.S. According to an article by Ian S. Lustick, the Palestinians have stood up to the Israelis to the point where more Jews are emigrating from that country than are moving in, and where those who remain are increasingly huddling around Tel Aviv as a safe haven. (Ian S. Lustick, “Abandoning the Iron Wall: ‘Israel and the Middle Eastern Muck',” Middle East Policy , Vo. XV, No. 3, Fall 2008.)
In the 1990s, the European bankers used U.S. and NATO forces to dismember Yugoslavia so George Soros and the Rothschilds could gobble up Balkan resources. But that strategy is failing in the Caucasus, where the Russians fought back against the genocidal attack by Dick Cheney's poodle, Mikheil Saakashvili, the New York-trained attorney the CIA got elected as the president of Georgia.
And now the people of Ukraine, the “Little Russians,” realizing what the West has in store for them, are rushing back into the Slavic fold and may be only a year or so away from reuniting with their “Great Russian” cousins across the border.
What is telling is to watch the Western financier press, chiefly the Washington Post and the New York Times , fume about Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and his “authoritarian” manner. An example is the article by Times correspondent Ellen Barry on Putin's September 11 press conference in Moscow. She wrote, “In three-and-a-half hours, in tones that were alternatively pugilistic and needy, Vladimir V. Putin tried to explain himself.”
I'm sorry, Ms. Barry. You and your editors may think your writing is cute, but Vladimir Putin is the foremost figure on the world stage today. He will remain so after George W. Bush leaves the White House disgraced.
Putin is heir to an epochal movement of patriots who began in the 1970s to take back Russia from within. It started with a base of operations within the KGB and the Orthodox Church, led to Gorbachev's glasnost in the 1980s, and culminated in the Second Russian Revolution of 1991. At that point, the Western financiers gleefully rushed in to support an assault from the Russian “oligarchs” who were looting Russia of everything it owned.
The oligarchs were the shock troops of a financier assault that had already begun to overlap in the West with the Russian Mafia. Cheered on by the Washington Post and aided by academic advisors from places like Harvard, this international syndicate nearly destroyed Russia during the 1990s. But when Putin was appointed interim president by Boris Yelstin in 1999, and after winning the presidential election of 2000 in his own right, he began to fight back.
From the mid-1970s to today, thousands of Russian gangsters, along with many hard-line Bolsheviks/Stalinists, were allowed to emigrate. Many settled in the U.S. and are here today, and many more settled in Israel. In fact, one reason the price of condos in New York, Miami, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere has inflated so much reportedly is the flood of cash from racketeering.
The crooks have allied themselves with the Colombian drug cartels and have heavily infiltrated the world's financial systems, even setting up their own banks for laundering money and speculating in the commodities markets.
Today, Putin is cleaning out the remaining gangster class. His efforts reached a milestone in January with the arrest in Moscow of Semion Mogilevich, called “the world's most dangerous man.”
Putin has declared that the world will not be governed in a “unipolar” manner; i.e. by the U.S. military as the police force for the global financiers. This does not mean Russia has to be our enemy. In fact the world would be much better off, and much safer, if we joined with Russia as allies in keeping the peace.
But to do that our system would have to change, because finance capitalism is far too unstable to coexist with other nations as equals. It must either grow or die, because it always needs new victims to pay the interest on its usury practices and to finance its speculative balloons. As a last resort, it needs the kind of financial institution bailouts being engineered by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, where the only remaining stopgap is borrowing from public funds and adding to the national debt.
Once economic growth stops, as has now happened, and all the bubbles to restart it have blown up, as has also happened, the end really is nigh. Especially if the host—the U.S.—is bankrupt.
What is coming at us today isn't just another downturn. If people like McCain adviser Donald Luskin doubt it, maybe, instead of writing campaign propaganda, they should ask the fired CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the stockholders of Lehman Brothers, whose shares have dropped ninety percent in less than a year, and the millions who are losing their homes.
Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are calling for “change.” Well, if I were standing on a beach with a 100-foot tsunami roaring in my direction, I would call for change too. Except I would not be standing around arguing about the meaning of the words “lipstick on a pig.”
Copyright 2008 by Richard C. Cook
Richard C. Cook is a former U.S. federal government analyst, whose career included service with the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Carter White House, NASA, and the U.S. Treasury Department. His articles on economics, politics, and space policy have appeared on numerous websites. His book on monetary reform entitled We Hold These Truths: The Hope of Monetary Reform will be published soon by Tendril Press. He is also the author of Challenger Revealed: An Insider's Account of How the Reagan Administration Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age , called by one reviewer, “the most important spaceflight book of the last twenty years . ” His Challenger website is at www.richardccook.com . A new economics website at www.RealSustainableLiving.com is upcoming with partner/author Susan Boskey. To get on his mailing list, for questions and comments, or to pre-purchase copies of his new book, please write EconomicSanity@gmail.com .