By Mike Whitney
October 25, 2008 “Information Clearinghouse”
Things are getting worse. On Friday morning, futures trading was halted for the first time ever after futures plunged more than 5 percent. The sell-off came after another 500-plus down day on the Dow followed by steep declines in equities markets across Europe and Asia. Japan’s benchmark index, the Nikkei, slipped more than 9.5 percent after Toyota and Samsung reported disappointing earnings. The news was equally bad in Europe where shares were battered across the continent on fears of a global recession. Since September, $16 trillion has been erased from global stock market value. Losses in the US–where the financial turmoil originated–have been much smaller than other, more vulnerable markets. The Dow is down less than 40 percent from its peak of 14,000, whereas Hong Kong, Poland and China have all tumbled more than 60 percent. Its a bloodbath.
The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, “the Fear Index”, surged to 79.13 on Friday, the highest in its 18-year history, while the Dow clawed its way back from 500 points down to a 312 point loss on the day. The massive blow-off in stocks is mainly the result of ongoing deleveraging among the hedge funds which are dumping shares in at a record pace to cover the dwindling value of their asset base. According to the New York Times: “Hedge funds lost an estimated $180 billion during the last three months and some are near collapse. Investors are demanding their money back, and Wall Street is bracing for a shake-out in the $1.7 trillion industry.” If a large fund, like Citadel, goes down, it will create a black hole in the financial system, similar to the loss of Lehman Bros. and, once again, the US Treasury will have to come to the rescue by providing a multi-billion dollar taxpayer bailout.
The dislocations caused by the unwinding of the hedge funds creates the possibility that US markets will have to be closed while assets are dumped on the market. New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini summed it up like this:
“Policy makers may soon be forced to close financial markets as the panic selling accelerates.
Indeed, we have now reached a point where fundamentals and long term valuation considerations do not matter any more for financial markets. There is a free fall as most investors are rapidly deleveraging and we are on the verge of a a capitulation collapse. What matters now is only flows – rather than stocks and fundamentals – and flows are unidirectional as everyone is selling and no one is buying as trying to buy equities is like catching a falling knife. There are no buyers in these dysfunctional markets, only sellers and panic is the ugly state of this destabilizing game.
We have reached the scary point where the dysfunctional behavior of financial markets has destructive effects on the financial system and – much worse – on the real economies. So it is time to think about more radical policy actions and government interventions.” (Nouriel Roubini’s Global EconoMonitor)
The stock market rout has triggered gigantic swings in the currency markets, too. The dollar has surged 16 percent against the euro in a matter of weeks while every other currency in the world has steadily lost ground, excluding the yen. The sudden fall in commodities and the unwinding of dollar-based bets in foreign capitals has bolstered the dollar and made US Treasurys the preferred “flight to safety” investment.
The volatility is causing problems everywhere, particularly where foreign companies must pay back loans in dollars which have risen steeply in relation to their own currencies. Emerging “commodities based” markets are getting clobbered. The stronger dollar also threatens to make it harder on US exports which have been the one economic bright spot in recent months. If present trends continue, then foreign governments will have to allocate more of their reserves to prop up their own currencies which will make it even more difficult for the US to fund its current account deficit as well as the Treasury’s expanding balance sheet. In other words, these violent and unprecedented currency swings foreshadow a funding crisis looming just ahead as credit is drained from the financial system and capital becomes even scarcer. For now the dollar is flying high, but the future is looking grimmer by the day.
The financial crisis is wringing credit from the system and pushing prices downward across the board. No asset class has been spared, including gold which posted its biggest one week loss in 28 years and has plummeted from $1,040 in March to $734 at Friday’s market close.
Oil has also been hammered by speculative bets made by the hedge funds which are now forced to sell their positions to cover downgrades on their mortgage-backed assets. The erratic movement in oil prices makes it possible to see the real destructive power of the unregulated market, particularly the opaque buying and selling by the hedge funds. In just 14 months oil went from $70 to $145 and back to $67 again on Friday. Wall Street speculators drove up prices with money they borrowed from the investment banks and delivered a knockout blow to the US consumer. The Fed played a critical role in this “gaming the system” by providing the low interest credit that created burgeoning profits for the investment class and falling living standards for everyone else.
Now that the currency bubble has popped, its effects are being felt worldwide. Countries that benefited from the high commodities prices are now getting slammed everywhere from Russia to the Persian Gulf. Ethanol producers are facing bankruptcy if things do not turnaround in the next 12 months. As the Wall Street Journal notes:
“The tragedy of the second bubble is that it has left the economy in a weaker position to ride out the housing slump and credit panic. The American consumer has been whipsawed with $4 dollar gas and food inflation, while entire industries have been put on the edge of bankruptcy. Detroit’s auto makers have spent the last year taking down their truck and SUV assembly lines while gearing up to make hybrids and electric cars, even as their cash flow has been ravaged. Their new investments are based on the expectation that oil will stay high permanently, but will the market for hybrids exist if oil is $50 a barrel?
As Congress plumbs the causes of our current mess, the main one is hiding in plain sight: Reckless monetary policy that did so much to create the credit mania and then compounded the felony with a commodity bubble and run on the dollar whose damage is now becoming apparent.” (Wall Street Journal)
The effects of low interest rates and credit contagion are not limited to “bottom line” considerations. As Marketwatch’s Thomas Kostigen points out, monetary policy can be a death sentence for poor people across the planet who are invariably it biggest victims:
“The harsh reality of the economic fallout isn’t that Joe the plumber can’t buy his business or that people’s retirement funds are being lost or that unemployment is rising; the harsh reality is that people will die.
Already, since food prices began to rise 100 million more people have been pushed into poverty, according to the World Bank, with as many as two billion on the verge of disaster. Almost half the world’s population, let’s remember, live on less than $2.50 per day. Millions die annually of hunger and starvation, and more than a billion do not have access to fresh water.
These numbers are poised to rise dramatically with population growth, dwindling natural resources and higher consumer prices across all goods and services. So as the stock market tumbles and the world economy falters, it’s important to remember that it’s more than financial losses we are talking about, it’s the loss of life.
And increasingly it isn’t just people in far-off places around the world who are succumbing to such extreme hardships. Note this: Job losses in the state of Indiana have caused the child poverty rate there to spike 29% since 2000. The wealth gap in the United States and around the world is at record levels — and it has serious consequences.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported this week that the gap between the rich and the poor is getting bigger around the world, and that the U.S. is experiencing the biggest dichotomy.
We are experiencing the largest wealth gap in history. Further erosion of the economic floor will only send more people plunging into destitution.
This is why it’s so important to fix the economic crisis — now.
We’re all linked.” (MarketWatch)
The Bush administration has called for an economic summit to be held by the 20 largest economies sometime after the presidential elections. US and EU officials are hoping to stitch together another Bretton Woods wherein control of the global economic system was delivered to those same nations. It’s likely, however, that the outcome will turn out considerably different than anticipated. Already, under China’s leadership, 12 Asian nations have agreed to set up an 80-billion-dollar fund to protect their economies from currency-runs, capital flight or other financial disruptions. China has the world’s largest reserves at $1.9 trillion followed by Japan at more than $1 trillion. Clearly the two richest nations will set the agenda and play a central role in deciding how best to deal with the global recession.
The November summit in Washington could produce some unwelcome surprises which were hinted at by Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister, Olarn Chaipravat, who told Bloomberg News:
“The message of this initiative is for China to consider whether or not China would open up its banking system and allow the strongest currency in the world, which is the Chinese yuan, to be the rightful and anointed convertible currency of the world.”
Surely, the present financial malaise which has its roots in Wall Street and at the Federal Reserve, has demonstrated that the dollar must be replaced as the world’s “reserve currency” and that America must be deposed as the de facto steward of the global economic system. Leadership implies responsibility and the US must be held to account for its failings. It’s time for a change.
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