Bankruptcies Are Good News

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Bankruptcies Are Good News They’re the Clean-Up From the Fed’s Destructive Boom

by Doug French by Doug French

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There is an epidemic of bankruptcies: Circuit City, Sharper Image, Goody’s, Gottschalk’s, Comp USA, Levitz Furniture, Chrysler, GM. Not to mention all the local businesses that don’t make the news when they close up shop. And the rash of corporate bustouts is far from over according to consulting firm Bain & Company, who predicts nearly 100 large ($100 million or more in assets) corporate bankruptcies by next year.

We’re in a period of severe losses — a cluster of errors, as Murray Rothbard described it — with thirty-seven banks having failed already this year, and many more to come.

But as gruesome as the economic news sounds, Rothbard explained that this is the recovery.

The liquidation of unsound businesses, the "idle capacity" of the malinvested plant, and the "frictional" unemployment of original factors that must suddenly and en masse shift to lower stages of production — these are the chief hallmarks of the depression stage.

Many would like the boom to continue "where the inflationary gains are visible and the losses hidden and obscure," Rothbard wrote. "This boom euphoria is heightened by the capital consumption that inflation promotes through illusory accounting profits."

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But the boom is where the trouble happens — when resources are directed into malinvestments and distortions occur — and trouble we’ve had this past decade with a Capital T. The M-2 money supply increased 53% since year 2001, while at the same time total bank loans doubled and bank real-estate loans increased over 150%. The mistakes of bad entrepreneurs have been hidden, employment was directed to wasteful and unneeded occupations, unsound projects were built and business risk was ignored.

"The boom produces impoverishment," wrote Ludwig von Mises in Human Action.

But still more disastrous are the moral ravages. It makes people despondent and dispirited. The more optimistic they were under the illusory prosperity of the boom, the greater is their despair and their feeling of frustration. The individual is always ready to ascribe his good luck to his own efficiency and to take it as a well-deserved reward for his talent, application and probity. But reverses of fortune he always charges to other people, and most of all to the absurdity of social and political institutions. He does not blame the authorities for having fostered the boom. He reviles them for the inevitable collapse.

Many bankers continue to contend that their banks are sound, protesting that they didn’t make any subprime loans like those big Wall Street banks. But the cluster of errors doesn’t contain itself to one asset. Houses don’t suddenly appear. First, land is purchased. Then that land must be entitled — permission from local government must be obtained to build what the owner wants on the property. This is a lengthy process than can in the best case take months and in the worst cases take decades. Infrastructure improvements are then made and finally houses can be constructed.

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So, low interest rates spur consumers and investors to buy houses — in some cases creating housing shortages and exploding prices, which, in turn, cause developers to buy land and begin the lengthy development process just described. After money supply increases by way of credit expansion, businesses malinvest by "overinvesting in higher-stage and durable production processes," Rothbard explained in Man, Economy and State.

Real-estate developers by and large use debt financing every step of the way from when they buy the land to when they start construction. In the past, banks traditionally shied away from making land loans. But as the market overheated, more and more banks got in the land-loan business. Land lending is inherently risky because land doesn’t produce income and gaining government approvals in a timely manner is often problematic: land is many months from being converted to a use that is salable to the typical consumer. Lending for the construction is the least risky, but still the homes must be sold to pay off the loan.

Guaranty Bank of Austin recently demolished 16 new and partially built homes in Victorville, California. The cost of finishing the development exceeded what they could sell the homes for despite four of the homes already being complete. In early 2008, these homes were selling for $280,000 to $350,000 in the bedroom community 50 miles from LA.

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Doug French [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and associate editor for Liberty Watch Magazine. He is the author of Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply. He received the Murray N. Rothbard Award from the Center for Libertarian Studies. See his tribute to Murray Rothbard.

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