Why it can’t work–Crikey follow up

In my column in Crikey yesterday (see below) I promised to provide some “back of the envelope” calculations on why the Paulson plan can’t work.

It’s not my usual standard or style of analysis–just a simple text-only flowchart mapping out of the possible consequences of a US$2 trillion bailout, financed by either bond issues or printing money–but a promise is a promise, so here it is. Since the images are quite difficult to read, I’ve attached the Powerpoint file as well.

Powerpoint Flowcharts

Images from the two relevant slides

PaulsonPlanIssueBonds.png

PaulsonPlanPrintMoney.png

Incidentally, one thing I noticed simply by chance when taking a humour break to read Doonesbury’s Daily Dose was the following statement on it’s “Say What?” link:

“It’s not based on any particular data point. We just wanted to choose a really large number.”–Treasury spokeswoman on the $700B bailout figure

What is not surprising is that fact. What is surprising is that someone admitted it in public. The so-called experts don’t have a clue–and of course don’t forget, their total inability to see this coming is in part why this crisis occurred in the first place.

I subsequently found that the source of this breathtaking piece of honesty was an article in Forbes Magazine.

Crikey Column–”Paulson’s Plan is like bailing the Titanic with a thimble”

The Paulson rescue plan looks massive at first glance — US$700 billion of government money will be spent buying the shonky bonds that Wall Street sold to Main Street (and foolishly also kept on its books, hence the effective extinction of US merchant banks in the last month). Surely that will bring the crisis to a halt?

If only. While $700 billion sounds like big bikkies, it’s chicken feed compared to the scale of outstanding private debt in the USA of $41 trillion. Some of that is legitimate debt-money borrowed to finance production rather than speculation, and lots of it has gone “up in smoke” in the subprime meltdown; but what is left still dwarfs the size of this rescue.

And there’s the rub. While the rescue might keep what’s left of Wall Street solvent, and could provide a boost to Main Street’s economy, it will be dwarfed as the Great De-leveraging begins, as American families and corporations, by choice or by bankruptcy, start reducing their debts rather than piling them forever higher.

That has already begun. In September of 2007, private debt was growing at a rate of $4.75 trillion a year; nine months later, that growth rate had dropped to $1.8 trillion. That represents almost a US$3 trillion reduction in demand, which is a large part of the reason that US asset markets have tanked, and the real economy is moving rapidly into recession.

Some “back of the envelope” calculations I’ve done imply that, even if the rescue package totalled $2 trillion, and even if it were financed entirely by printing money (rather than selling newly minted Treasuries), the best it could do would be to boost aggregate demand by 5%. But the collapse in private borrowing could cut aggregate demand by 30%.

The beneficial impact would be negligible if, as is almost 100% certain, the “rescue” were funded by selling Treasuries to the public-Michael West’s column on this in yesterday’s SMH was spot-on.

So this rescue won’t bail out the Ship of Fools, but it will make the American Ship of State even more insolvent than it already is (aggregate US government debt is now running at 53% of GDP). As Michael West concluded yesterday with profound understatement, “America is in trouble”.


Originally published on September 26, 2008 at Oz Debtwatch and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "Why it can’t work–Crikey follow up"

  1. devils advocate   October 2, 2008 at 11:33 am

    ha, ha, ha, ha……….I’m laughing so hard that I’m crying