The Geithner Bubble
Tuesday 14 April 2009
In some people’s eyes, a miraculous emergence from the crisis is brewing: Through the combined play of the Geithner plan, (which allows investment funds and banks to buy other banks’ toxic assets, borrowing most of what they need to do so from the Federal budget) and accounting changes (which allow banks to carry those assets at an inflated value), we see a derivatives market take hold in which some will sell these assets at a very high price to others in order to buy more of those assets at a still higher price: so that an asset value bubble will form, entirely financed by the taxpayer. The value of banks’ capital funds, up until now totally corrupted by the presence of these toxic assets, will be raised naturally by this operation, without the government having to spend any money apart from that which will have allowed the banks to buy these products and make their price rise. Then growth will be able to take off again, creating new financial fortunes in the midst of innumerable industrial bankruptcies.
This bubble is already underway: It can be measured by the difference between the stock market ( in full growth mode), in particular, stocks of at-risk sectors (especially the financial sector) and the (totally anemic) credit market, by the difference between the (negative) change in estimated profits and the (positive) change in stock prices, by the increase in company multiples, by the foreseeable nature of central bank actions, allowing the return of mechanisms for currency transfer, the so-called carry trade, on the dollar and the yen.
All by itself, this bubble could soon impart the feeling that the crisis is over: Banks will become solvent again, will reimburse the government the sums they’ve borrowed – recovering along the way their rights to distribute bonuses; the price increase in financial assets will relaunch investment, employment and growth. Thus will the unemployed and the taxpayers have reactivated the bonus pump that jobholders and lenders could no longer feed.
The optimistic discourse of the period before the crisis will resume; it is already resuming. People will even say that those who predicted the worst crisis since 1929 were attention hogs, that capitalism is full of resilience, and that the American economy has no need whatsoever for some planetary regulation to come along and slow down its dynamism.
We may hope that this scenario occurs: An immoral emergence from the crisis is better than a depression. However, unfortunately, nothing will have been settled: The risks will remain intact – surrounding company survival – surrounding the immensity of public debt – surrounding asset values – surrounding employment. Then people will wonder how a Democratic president could have put himself at the service of such a scandalous maneuver for some bankers to get wealthy again with the taxpayers’ money, without the taxpayers having the slightest power over the banks.
In the face of the persistence of risks, consumers will then start to live in a truly different way, that is, to save, to consume frugally, to flee ostentation, to change their lifestyle. Companies, like nations, will have to invent new equilibria. Then the G20 will no longer be able to avoid the reforms it carefully eluded in London.
In the meantime, Europe, if it resists the illusion of the Geithner bubble, will find a unique opportunity to get a little bit ahead of the United States in the mastery of its financial system, in the service of the common good. In order for that to happen, we must have the courage to preach reform, even when the world will want to believe that the crisis is over.
Professor, writer, honorary government adviser, special adviser to the president of the Republic from 1981 to 1991, founder and first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London from 1991 to 1993, Jacques Attali is now president of A&A, an international consulting firm specialized in new technologies, based in Paris, and president of PlaNet Finance, an international charitable organization that brings together the world’s microfinance institutions.
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.
~ by Eric Harrington on April 19, 2009.