Summary of Argument

The world financial system is undergoing a kind of seizure, with assets crashing more wildly than they have done since the Great Depression. At the core of the crisis is the mayhem in the credit markets, where interest rates are going up sharply. The popping of the housing bubble has brought to dramatic pitch the unsustainable levels of US debt across wide sectors (not just housing). The extreme leverage on dodgy assets characteristic of US and European financial institutions has made many of them insolvent if their assets are judged on a “mark-to-market” basis. Various signs point to a deep recession, at a minimum, possibly much worse.

The financial crisis will have extraordinary implications for just about everything. It marks the birth of a new era quite as much as 9/11 did. We need to reflect about the lessons, nearly all of which are rather grim, and start asking in earnest about the political and economic consequences.

I give US authorities very low marks in their response to the financial crisis. Paulson and Bernanke have mistakenly characterized the crisis as a liquidity rather than solvency issue. They have also failed to introduce any coherent limit on the government’s acquisition of toxic private debt. The Paulson Plan is especially wrong-headed, as being neither equitable to the taxpayer nor efficacious in its stated aim (getting banks to lend again). The commitment of public funds to insolvent institutions must have shareholder wipeouts and debt-to equity conversions as a basic feature. The real bill of the US government’s strategy has been minimized in a kind of shell game, but the opportunity costs will likely prove tremendous. There is much cause for depression in both the terrifying implications of an economic collapse and in the response of US authorities to the crisis.