The view from debtor’s prison.

Debt.  Credit.  Lenders and losers.  Somehow, the world economy has morphed from saving to buy to borrowing to buy.  Lending has been so lucrative that banks have made credit a normal way of doing business.  It wasn’t that long ago that state and local governments only borrowed money by selling bonds, companies sold stock to raise money, and individuals only borrowed from friends.  The one exception was the mortgage used to buy a home.

Partly as a result of banks desire to be able to loan out their money faster, we have seen the world economy severely damaged by excess credit.  Banks which wrote mortgages used to hold those loans themselves, having to wait until they were paid off before the money could be loaned out again.  Then, someone had the brilliant idea of having the banks sell the mortgages to another investor, so that the bank could then turn around and lend the money out again.

Back in the 1960’s, many consumers had used up their savings, and they began to stop spending on unnecessary things.  In order to keep consumption up, a new financial instrument was created:  the credit card.  At first only available to those with the ability to pay off the balance each month, credit cards gradually found their way into the wallets of nearly every American.  Paying off the balance each month was no longer necessary, and often discouraged, as the lenders made more money on revolving balances.

Corporations climbed on board the credit train when they found selling stock inadequate to provide short term liquidity, such as making payroll.  They even began lending money to each other for short periods of time, creating what is known as commercial paper.  State governments saw this, and decided that borrowing to cover expenses while waiting for tax receipts to come in was a sound practice.

In less than 50 years, borrowing had changed from a dirty word to the accepted way of life.  Credit was widely available, to almost anyone, for a fee.  Saving became old fashioned, and consumption was getting higher all the time.  Bankers even encouraged people to borrow against the equity that they had built up in their home, so that the bankers could make even more money.  Its citizens too broke to lend it money, the federal government turned to other nations to borrow the money used to pay for weapons, wars, and welfare.

Now, we are waiting for consumer spending to resume to dig the economy out of the hole we are in.  The government is borrowing nearly as much money as the country makes each year, trying to keep the wheels turning.  Home owners are walking away from mortgages which are for much more than the homes are worth.  Bankruptcies and bank failures are happening faster and faster.  But everyone wants to believe that things will get back to the way that they were.

No where do you hear respected economists and academics calling for the tightening of credit, or for learning to live without it.  Credit has become so fundamental to our economy that people can’t imagine a world without it.  We had better start, because credit is not going to be easy to get for a long time.  How can a bank loan out money when it doesn’t know how much it has?  Many banks are carrying packages of mortgages which, if put on the market today, are worth about 25 cents on the dollar.  Writing off the value of those collateralized debt obligations, as they are known, would wipe out the bank, so they are holding on to them.  In the mean time, the solvency of the bank is questionable.

As the tidal wave of foreclosures engulfs us, those packages of mortgages are going to lose even more value, making credit even tighter.  The federal government has to borrow money to pay the holders of Treasury bills and notes when those instruments come due, which means that it is insolvent, surviving on the good will of China.  Many of the states are facing running out of money, and not being able to borrow more.

Welcome to Debtor’s Prison.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: