Wednesday, 14 January 2009

From the fire into the frying pan

As I reflect on the course of action that governments around the world have taken in addressing the current financial crisis, I realise that there is something profoundly disturbing in these actions. If the underlying problem is an investment bubble financed by savings which have been invested into projects that are based on wildly unrealistic expectations, then shifting these inflated assets from the balance sheets of the private sector to the balance sheet of the public sector is not going to solve anything. It will buy time for a short period until investors realise that the underlying premises which supported the valuation of these assets are still as wildly unrealistic as they were before, only now a government guarantee has been slapped on. Governments, however, will still have to pay for the bill... and how will they do that? As little, if any cash will be forthcoming from these investments, my hypothesis is that they will either: (i) eventually raise taxes or (ii) print money which will lead to inflation (another form of tax). As a consequence, the losses will have been transferred from those who held the risk of these inflated assets to society at large.

Losses, like the previous 15 years of profit, should accrue to those that took the risk in investing in these assets. Share and debtholders in financial intermediaries should be wiped out where appropriate, shareholders in general should also suffer from the new revised valuations, and real estate should similarly adjust (these are, after all, risky assets). The necessary wealth destruction and consequent deleveraging should take place, fast. I suspect, further, that bearing these losses will not lead to serious social unrest as most of these investors have alternative sources of wealth. The only part of the financial system that, in my opinion, merits government intervention is the payments system and commercial bank accounts. Another possible alternative, if the level of uncertainty is such that a liquidity freeze sets in, could be for the government to set a floor at, say 25-30%, of peak prices in certain markets. It is highly unlikely that this level would ever be reached but it would provide support and comfort to an unstable market.

On the economic side, I concur with the idea that governments use their borrowing capacity to undertake investment projects which can have an effect on productivity; primarily infrastructure investments . These projects can act as a cushion on reductions in aggregate demand, temporarily alleviate unemployment and promote future competitiveness. Eventually, however, reality must kick in and economic players (capital and labour) will have to adjust to lower returns, or, better still, a new productivity model will have to be found. If the right incentives are provided, I have no doubt as to mankind’s ability to develop another groundbreaking development. Just think how much the world has changed (positively) in the last 100 years.

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