The interesting thing about economics is that it is rather like the weather in some ways. It's easy to read the signs and know that autumn is on the way, but it's very hard to predict the precise date of the season's first snowfall. (In Minnesota, Jack Frost never waits for winter, but shows up on Oct. 24, on average.) And the fact that you may be totally confident that it's going to snow this winter doesn't mean you know if it's going to be an 11-footer like 1995 to 1996 or a measly two-footer like 1958 to 1959.
Like the early leaves of autumn, the first financial institutions are beginning to fall. Globalization and financial innovation have not mitigated economic risk; they have merely allowed the wrinkled whores of Wall Street to conceal the extent of the crises and delay their inevitable day of reckoning. The idea that the various bank failures and last-ditch bailouts taking place everywhere from New York to London and Zurich are the result of unforeseen circumstances is as ludicrous as the idea of taking out an adjustable rate mortgage when mortgage rates are at historic lows. The irresponsible happy talk of the financial media notwithstanding – that are starting to get that same deer-in-the-headlights look they had back in late 2002 – most economically astute individuals have long known that the Greenspan economic regime was not sustainable, despite the present Fed chairman's belief in the efficacy of magic helicopter money. Consider the prophetic statement by Robert Prechter from my 2004 interview with him:
- I think we are about to enter a deflation of historic magnitude which equates to a contraction in the overall supply of dollar-denominated credit.
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While the plunging dollar and rising gas prices show that the predicted deflation hasn't kicked in yet, the Bear Stearns bailout, the decline in the number of mortgage applications and the increase in the TED Spread to levels that haven't been seen since 1987s Black Monday crash indicate that the contraction in the supply of dollar-denominated credit is already upon us. Simply printing more money is not an option because a Federal Reserve Note is not, technically, a dollar in the sense that it was originally defined – a silver coin of the United States containing 371.25 grains of silver – but merely a promissory note from the Federal Reserve to the U.S. government. When debt is currency, a collapse in debt creation will tend to presage a collapse in currency.
It is, perhaps, worth noting that even if one ignores the collector's value, a single 19th century dollar is now worth $17.54. The idea that the Federal Reserve exists to fight inflation, preserve a strong currency and smooth out the business cycle has everything wildly backwards, as the only things that the Federal Reserve actually does is to create inflation, reduce the value of its own debt currency and exacerbate the business cycle in precisely the manner we are witnessing today.
Although the mainstream economists have finally begun to acknowledge that the U.S. economy is already in the recession that was long proclaimed to be unlikely, the problem is that there are more than a few signs that a true depression is in the works. Murray Rothbard's excellent 1963 book, "America's Great Depression," shows that in direct contrast to the official mythology, the Great Depression was caused by excessively lax monetary policies by the Fed, which responded to the crash in precisely the same manner that the Japanese central bank responded to the 1989 Nikkei crash and the way that the Fed has desperately been attempting to fend off the unavoidable since 1999. The Fed's decision to cut rates tomorrow – and don't be surprised if Bernanke elects to "shock" the markets with a full-point rate cut in excess of the 75 basis-point "surprise" cut everyone is expecting – is rather like giving a dying man a stiff snort of cocaine. It may have a positive effect on the markets for a week or two, but the feeling of invincibility will rapidly dissipate, and within two months we'll be right back where we were, albeit with a few less bullets in Bernanke's gun and less investor confidence than ever. The short-term high may be your last chance to exit on an up note for a while, though, so if you're still in stocks, this will probably be a good time to cut your losses.
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All that two decades of frantic bailing out and bubble blowing has accomplished is to enrich a few fortunate investors and delay the inevitable while significantly jacking up the terrible price that Americans will ultimately pay. The business cycle can be influenced, but it cannot be eliminated. For every economic action, there will be an equal and opposite reaction, and since the financial house of cards has been built ever higher and ever more vulnerable during this decades-long period of delay, chances are very high that the collapse will be swifter and more brutal than even the economic pessimists can currently envision. This is far from a failure of the free markets; it is merely more evidence of the futility of central economic planning.
If we are fortunate, it is only a long and hard economic winter that is approaching. If we are unfortunate, it is the financial Fimbulwinter that will precede a political Ragnarok.