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The financial world is twisted

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Rafael Ben-Ari/Newscom/File

(Read caption) Is the global financial system twisted beyond repair?

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In both Europe and America the financial sector has been on the edge of disaster for the last three years. Each time a crisis flares up, the fixers rush in with a remedy. Bailouts, TARPs, TALFs, ZIRPs, QEI, QEII and now the ‘twist’. In its latest effort, the Fed announced:

“The Committee intends to purchase, by the end of June 2012, $400 billion of Treasury securities with remaining maturities of 6 years to 30 years and to sell an equal amount of Treasury securities with remaining maturities of 3 years or less. This program should put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative.”

Already, short-term lending rates are so low it is as if money-in-hand had less than zero value. Adjusted for inflation, you pay the US government to store it for you. Even with interest, you get back less than you lent. And now, the Fed aims to perform the same dark magic on long-term funds, artificially lowering the cost of money so that people will borrow more of it.

All the fixes have the same effect. They add to the world’s debt and subtract from its ability to pay it. The first proposition is self-evident. The second requires some explanation. Prices — set by willing sellers and able buyers — are information. They tell us where to focus our resources. They tell us when we have too much of one thing and too little of another. When prices are low, generally, we redirect investment to where they are high. This brings forth more supply of the thing that was wanted and less of the thing that was not. Result: real growth.

No price is more important than the price of money. It tells us when and in what it pays to put our money. But bring in the fixers to suborn prices; they make them lie. That, of course, is the demented idea behind the twist program, to mislead investors as to the real price of long term credit. They’re supposed to believe that the world is so awash with money they’d be fools not to take it.

In America, households and businesses generally ignore the signal. Household debt is doing down, despite the fed’s blandishments. Families know the rates are fraudulent. But the least productive sectors — finance and the government itself — thrive on mendacity. They borrow with insouciance and spend with impunity. Resources, which might have been used to add wealth, are tricked away from the real economy. Value is not added to resources; it is subtracted. Wealth is not produced; it is consumed.

Europe has had its own fixers on the job. They put on a fix in one country; then, another in another country when that one springs a leak.

Last week, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy said they had reached an agreement on recapitalizing the banks — which could cost as much as $3 trillion. Then, this week, they gave themselves a deadline to do what they said they had already done; now, they will reach an agreement on Nov. 3rd.

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This week too, the Chinese fixers swung into action. They will recapitalize their own big banks. China “will support the healthy operations and development of key state-owned financial institutions…” said the official news agency.

What does it mean to “recapitalize?” It means to put in capital, again. Once more. But what happened to the capital that was there? And what is healthy about putting more capital into financial institutions that couldn’t manage to hold onto what they had? Don’t ask. To pose the question is to cast doubt on the whole, earnest fixing spirit.

The problem with the fixers’ fix is that it is exactly what got the fixees into such a fix in the first place. The fixers keep administering more of the thing that caused the breakdown — debt. Adding more of it does not make it go away. It would not seem necessary to say so, but it just makes the problem bigger.

But it hardly matters. The ailment and the cure are both fatal. If the debt is reckoned with now, many banks, businesses, households, investors and sovereign borrowers will be dead. If the fixes continue, they will be even deader.

How much deader? We can measure the direct fiscal spending programs. We can count the deficits. We can count the extra zeros on central bank balance sheets. There are also specific spending programs with specific costs. The US “food stamp” program now helps feed one in 7 Americans. The student loan program is up 300% since 2008. There was the bill for TARP and TALF…and now a new one. Last week, Mr. Obama called for $447 billion in new outlays to put people back to work.

Total public and household debt in the US in 2007 was $22.4 trillion. Now it is a $26.3 trillion problem. We can tell how much good this did by looking at gross output. Growth was spectral, up from $14.30 trillion to $14.58 — with every penny of ‘growth’, and more, attributable not to honest, real increases in output, but merely transfer payments from the government to its zombie clients.

In other words, the problem gets bigger. The solution — real, private sector prosperity — gets smaller.

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