What's Behind the Financial Market Crisis?

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The financial crisis is not over. Neither tax rebates nor low interest rates nor higher or lower exchange rates can do the job of reviving an economy that is burdened by debt loads that are too high. On the contrary: the policy measures that the US authorities have been applying will prolong the agony. Be prepared for the challenges of extended financial turmoil and economic stagnation.

Early this year, the US central bank decided to manage the debt crisis in the light-hearted belief that a few aggressive rate cuts would "unfreeze" the banking system. Yet as of the end of the third quarter of 2008, the arteries of the financial system are still cluttered, and the financial system has moved even closer to total collapse.

Those banks and brokerages that haven’t yet failed have been kept alive by emergency monetary transfusions from the US central bank. The Fed has cast away all restraints of economic rationality and is acting in a purely political way. The Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve System is pursuing the goal of getting the financial system through the mess – at least until the end of the year, no matter how high the costs will be thereafter.

The American central bank has adopted the financial equivalent of the military strategy of scorched earth. The economic philosophy of the current chairman of the US Federal Reserve System can be summarized in the slogan, "No depression under my rule!" He resembles a military leader who stubbornly declares, "No defeat under my rule!" the more the chance of victory is slipping away, and defeat can be denied no longer.

The current economic disaster is the result of the combination of negligence, hubris, and wrong economic theory. For decades, an economic and monetary policy has been practiced based on the illusion of, "It doesn’t matter." At first it was, "Deficits don’t matter." From that, the policy of "it doesn’t matter" got extended to money creation, the credit expansion, the stock-market bubble, and the housing boom. Now, we’re being told that buying financial junk by the central bank to beef up banks and brokerages also doesn’t matter.

As a byproduct of this mindless economic and monetary policy, financial market operators, too, have lost their heads. Trusting the official cheerleaders, investors hold on in the trenches until they will have lost their last shirt. Economic weakness is spreading around the globe. There is no new spurt of economic growth in sight. Yet many investors stay put because they have been conditioned to believe that government will bail them out.

The current financial crisis is not of a cyclical nature. The financial turmoil is the symptom of the structural imbalances in the real economy. Over decades, expansive monetary policy has gone hand in hand with implicit and explicit bailout guarantees, and this has distorted the process of capital allocation. Under such perverted conditions, those investors will win most who cast away the restraints of prudence. It is a game that can go on for a long time – up to the point when the irrationality has become systemic.

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September 19, 2008

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