That Speeding Freight Train You Hear

Recently by Gary North: The Safe Banking Fantasy


The mainstream financial media are running stories on the next financial crisis. This is unheard of two years into a so-called economic recovery. So weak is this recovery that the old pre-2008 confidence has not returned.

The first sign that “this time, it’s different,” was Treasury Secretary Geithner’s statement, which received widespread coverage, that there will be another crisis.

On May 18, The Daily Beast ran a story on Geithner’s unexpected appearance at the initial screening of an HBO movie, Too Big to Fail, which dramatizes the crisis of late 2008, during which time Geithner was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In an interview, Geithner said this. “It will come again. There will be another storm. But it’s not going to come for a while.”

That was surely forthright for a sitting Treasury Secretary. He was not specific, but to say that another crisis will come was unique. He added this: “It’s not going to be possible for people to capture risk with perfect foresight and knowledge.”

That was amazingly forthright. It points to the reality of the naive faith of regulators that they can devise formulas that will keep the system from being hit by some unexpected mini-crisis that will trigger a wider systemic breakdown. He acknowledged that risk analysis, based on statistics, cannot deal with uncertainty: events outside the law of large numbers that serves as the basis of statistics. Ludwig von Mises discussed this in 1949, and Frank H. Knight wrote a book on this in 1921: Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit. Nassim Taleb has called this a black swan event. Whatever we call it, such an event torpedoes the best-laid plans of government regulators as well as statisticians advising leveraged banks.

“Things were falling apart,” Geithner said. “We had no playbook and no tools. . . . Life’s about choices. We had no good choices. . . . We allowed this huge financial system to emerge without any meaningful constraints. . . . The size of the shock was larger than what precipitated the Great Depression.”

That is the official government line, which Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson used to persuade Congress to fork over $700 billion in TARP loans. It justified the Federal Reserve’s swaps at face value of liquid Treasury debt in its portfolio for unmarketable toxic assets held by large banks. It justified the 2009 stimulus package of another $830 billion.

The author of the article correctly noted: “In the end, the taxpayers saved the Wall Street investment banks, with Geithner & Co. injecting enough capital to cushion them from bad bets.” That is exactly what happened.


On June 6, Geithner spoke at a meeting of the American Bankers Association in Atlanta. Here, his analysis was completely different from what he had revealed in his appearance at the HBO screening. It turns out that the system was saved by investors, not by the government and the Federal Reserve.

Of the 15 largest financial institutions in the United States before the crisis, only nine remain as independent entities.

Those that survived did so because they were able to raise capital from private investors, significantly diluting existing shareholders. We used stress tests to give the private market the ability – through unprecedented disclosure requirements and clear targets for how much capital these institutions needed – to distinguish between those institutions that needed to strengthen their capital base and those that did not.

He did not mention that the reason why investors came to the rescue was that the winners had been bailed out by the taxpayers and the Federal Reserve.

Regulation has saved us, he insisted, and it will continue to save us.

We now have the authority to subject all major financial institutions operating in the United States to comprehensive, consolidated limitations on risk taking. That represents a dramatic change from before the crisis, when more than half of the financial activity in the nation that was involved in “banking” from the investment banks to large finance companies, AIG, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, operated outside those limits.

And the markets where firms came together – like the over-the-counter derivatives markets – will now be subject to oversight, once regulators finalize and implement new rules authorized by Dodd-Frank. We now have much stronger tools to limit the risk that one firm’s failure could cascade through markets to weaken the rest of the system.

Overall, and this is the most important test of crisis response, the U.S. financial system is now in a position to finance a growing economy and is no longer a source of risk to the recovery.

He ended with this inspiring promise. “So we will do what we need to do to make the United States financial system stronger. We will do so carefully. And as we do it, we will bring the world with us.”

This was cheerleading for government regulation. This is what we have come to expect. The problem is this: it is a full-scale retreat from his admission at the HBO screening.


Simon Johnson took him to task in the New York Times on June 9, in an article titled, “The Banking Emperor Has No Clothes.” Johnson was the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, and is a member F.D.I.C.’s newly established Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee. He said that Geithner is naive about the supposedly high degree of safety for the banking system. He complains that Geithner is way too optimistic.

First, he reminds us that the government bailed out the banks. He reminds us of Geithner’s admission of this in his HBO interview. Second, he reminds us that the international banking system is interconnected.

But big banks in almost all other major countries have run into serious trouble, including those in Britain and Switzerland – where policy makers are now open about the potential scope of further disasters. French and German banks made large amounts of reckless loans to peripheral Europe and have strongly resisted higher capital requirements, helping to create the current potential for contagion throughout the euro zone (and explaining why the Europeans are so keen to keep control of the International Monetary Fund).

Geithner claimed in Atlanta that U.S. banks are less concentrated than other nation’s’ banks. But how will that save our banks from a crisis that is triggered outside the U.S.? “Mr. Geithner’s most serious mistake is to believe that we can handle the failure of a global megabank within the Dodd-Frank framework.”

Mr. Geithner’s thinking on bank size is completely flawed. The lesson should be: big banks have gotten themselves into trouble almost everywhere; banks in the United States are very big and have an incentive to become even bigger; one or more of these banks will reach the brink of failure soon.

Johnson then gets to the famous bottom line. The bottom line is this:

There is no cross-border resolution mechanism or other framework that will handle the failure of a bank like Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase or Goldman Sachs in an orderly manner. The only techniques available are those used by Mr. Geithner and his colleagues in September 2008 – a mad scramble to find buyers for assets, backed by Federal Reserve and other government guarantees for creditors.

That this should appear in the New York Times is indicative of the extent to which the old confidence in the banking system is fading.


On June 8, the Wall Street Journal ran a column by Martin Feldstein, who served as Reagan’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He is a Harvard faculty member.

Feldstein is a Keynesian. He has a reputation as a conservative. He is on the board of contributors to the Journal. He is regarded as a conservative because he favors tax cuts. But he also favors Federal spending in times of crisis. Somehow, he also comes out for a lower deficit.

He said that Obama’s $830 billion stimulus package did not go far enough. “As for the ‘stimulus’ package, both its size and structure were inadequate to offset the enormous decline in aggregate demand.” The money should have gone to the Defense Department.

Experience shows that the most cost-effective form of temporary fiscal stimulus is direct government spending. The most obvious way to achieve that in 2009 was to repair and replace the military equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan that would otherwise have to be done in the future. But the Obama stimulus had nothing for the Defense Department. Instead, President Obama allowed the Democratic leadership in Congress to design a hodgepodge package of transfers to state and local governments, increased transfers to individuals, temporary tax cuts for lower-income taxpayers, etc. So we got a bigger deficit without economic growth.

This is pure Keynesianism. It is a call for massive spending in a recession. So, should there be another fiscal crisis, Feldstein’s recommendation is a bigger stimulus. The problem for his is this: with the economy slowing, it will be even more vulnerable to an unexpected black swan event.

Second, we are getting an economic slowdown, he says, because Obama will not make the Bush tax cuts permanent. This creates uncertainty in the minds of investors.

So, he sounds like a supply-side economist. But he isn’t. He is a traditional Keynesian.

Third, there is the deficit.

A third problem stems from the administration’s lack of an explicit plan to deal with future budget deficits and with the exploding national debt. This creates uncertainty about future tax increases and interest rates that impedes spending by households and investment by businesses.

Fourth, there is the official strong dollar policy that has led to the decline of the dollar. But he never mentions Federal Reserve policy: QE2.

What are our prospects? He is not optimistic.

The economy will continue to suffer until there is a coherent and favorable economic policy. That means bringing long-term deficits under control without raising marginal tax rates – by cutting government outlays and by limiting the tax expenditures that substitute for direct government spending. It means lower tax rates on businesses and individuals to spur entrepreneurship and investment. And it means reforming Social Security and Medicare to protect the living standards of future retirees while limiting the cost to future taxpayers.

All of these things are doable. But the Obama administration has not done them and shows no inclination to do them in the future.

So, here is a Harvard economist saying that we needed a larger stimulus in 2009, but we need reduced spending now. We also need to reform Social Security and Medicare, while protecting the future retirees and limiting costs. All this is doable.

All this is utter nonsense. The politics of Medicare and Social Security have not changed in 40 years because there is no politically acceptable way to limit their costs. Voters will vote against anyone who suggests such a reform. The voters were promised the Keynesian moon, and they will not tolerate the popping of that pipe dream. In short, none of what Feldstein suggests is doable, short of a monumental crisis that enables Congress to start goring specific electoral oxen. And when that crisis comes, Feldstein will no doubt recommend a large deficit, with the money going to the Defense Department.

This is Establishment Wall Street opinion.


Then there was an article in Forbes, a conventional outlet, written by Agora’s Addison Wiggin. He begins with this.

There is definitely going to be another financial crisis around the corner,” says hedge fund legend Mark Mobius, “because we haven’t solved any of the things that caused the previous crisis.”

Mobius is a legendary hedge fund manager. If he thinks there is going to be another crisis, we would be wise to listen.

Wiggin thinks the Greek debt crisis is a good candidate for a trigger event.

The Greek crisis is first and foremost about the German and French banks that were foolish enough to lend money to Greece in the first place. What sort of derivative contracts tied to Greek debt are they sitting on? What worldwide mayhem would ensue if Greece didn’t pay back 100 centimes on the euro?

That’s a rhetorical question, since the balance sheets of European banks are even more opaque than American ones. Whatever the actual answer, it’s scary enough that the European Central Bank has refused to entertain any talk about the holders of Greek sovereign debt taking a haircut, even in the form of Greece stretching out its payments.

The ECB is determined to protect the Too Big to Fail banks. It always says that it will not lend more money to the Greek government, but it always does. It calls for more bailouts by the German and French governments. The game must go on!

It will accomplish nothing. Going deeper into hock is never a good way to get out of debt. And at some point, this exercise in kicking the can has to stop. When it does, you get your next financial crisis.


We are being warned in advance by the financial media: expect another major crisis. The bailouts were not enough. The expansion of the monetary base was not enough. The new Dodd-Frank regulatory structure is not enough.

The international banking system is an interdependent, interconnected system. The system is not transparent. Even if it were, the level of debt – unsecured IOUs – is enormous. Wiggin comments.

Estimates on the amount of derivatives out there worldwide vary. An oft-heard estimate is $600 trillion. That squares with Mobius’ guess of 10 times the world’s annual GDP. “Are the derivatives regulated?” asks Mobius. “No. Are you still getting growth in derivatives? Yes.”

In other words, something along the lines of securitized mortgages is lurking out there, ready to trigger another crisis as in 2007-08.

There is no formula to deal with this. There is no organized government response that is waiting in the wings. There will be another crisis. And when it comes, the response will be the same: to preserve the solvency of the biggest banks, at taxpayer expense and at central bank expense. When it comes to bailouts and central bank inflation, it’s all “doable.” It will therefore be done.

June 11, 2011

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2011 Gary North