The Two Causes of the Coming Great Depression

But the status quo has much to unlearn, and it seems the only pathway to a new understanding is a Great Depression.

There are two approaches to analyzing a situation:

1. Choose the desired outcome–generally the one that doesn’t require any major changes, sacrifices or downward mobility
2. Identify the initial conditions and systemic dynamics and then follow these to a conclusion back-tested by comparisons with historical outcomes.

Our default setting as humans is 1: select the outcome we want and then find whatever bits and pieces supports that conclusion. Cherry-pick data, draw false analogies–the field is wide open.

This is why we get so upset when our “analysis” is challenged: we’re forced to ask what happens to us if our desired outcome doesn’t transpire, and since the answer might be something less than optimal, we violently reject any data or analogies that conflict with our carefully curated “analysis.”

A great deal of what passes for analysis today is cherry-picked bits and pieces that support a happy story of endlessly expanding prosperity–AI, fusion, etc.–with no mention of limits, constraints, costs or worst-case outcomes rather than best-case outcomes.

Let’s start with an historical analogy most reject: the Great Depression of 1929 to 1942. The conventional account claims that the Depression was the result of a “Federal Reserve policy error”: the Fed tightened credit when it should have loosened it.

This is nonsense. What actually happened was credit expanded rapidly in the Roaring 1920s, which is why they were Roaring. Farmers could borrow money to buy prairie land to put under the plow, speculators could borrow $9 on margin to play the stock market with $1 in cash, and so on.

In other words, what happened was a gigantic credit bubble inflated that pushed stocks and other assets to unsustainable heights of over-valuation, valuations based on the Roaring 20s expansion of credit and consumption continuing forever.

But all bubbles pop, and so the weather changed for the worse and newly plowed prairie turned into a Dust Bowl, wiping out heavily leveraged farmers. Since there was no federal bank deposit guarantee (no FDIC), the bankruptcies of overleveraged borrowers wiped out thousands of small banks, wiping out the savings of prudent depositors.

So even prudent savers got wiped out in the crash of the credit bubble.

Stock speculators gambling on margin (i.e. borrowed money) were quickly wiped out, and the selling became self-reinforcing, accelerating the cascading crash.

The real policy error was protecting the wealthy who owned the debt from a debt-clearing write-down. The wealthy own debt, the non-wealthy owe debt. When the debt is defaulted on, the lender / owner of the debt has to absorb the loss. The debtor is freed of the burden. In a debt-clearing event driven by defaults, insolvencies and bankruptcies, the wealthy are the losers and the debtors are freed of the burden of debt.

Various programs were implemented to stave off the consequences of default, as if pushing losses into the future would somehow enable the credit bubble to reinflate. That’s not how it works: the financial system is like a forest, and if the dead wood of bad debt piles up and isn’t allowed to burn, then the forest cannot foster new growth.

Economies that refuse to accept the wealth destruction that results from credit bubbles popping stagnate. This is the story of Japan from 1990 to the present: the status quo in Japan refused to accept the losses, hiding bad debt (i.e. non-performing loans) behind artifices such as new loans that covered the interest due, listing the non-performing loans in “zombie” categories, i.e. as assets that were still on the books at full value even though they were essentially worthless, and so on.

The net result was 33 years of stagnation and social decay as young people gave up on owning homes and having families.

Now the US has inflated another “debt super-cycle” credit bubble that has pushed assets into over-valuation. Once again the goal is to avoid handing the wealthy owners of all this debt the enormous losses that must be accepted to clear the dead wood of bad debt, money lent to borrowers and projects that were not creditworthy except in a bubble.

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