Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism

"Bad Money" is about the insecurity of America's future given a debt-gorged financial sector, and vulnerability caused by expensive dependence on imported oil. The term refers not just to the depreciated dollar but also dangerous attitudes and flawed financial products.

Phillips points out that over the last 30 years, financial services have nearly doubled to a record 20% of GDP (and an even greater share of corporate profits - 54% in '04), while manufacturing's share has halved to 13% (10% of profits), greatly imperiling the economy. En route, Washington has provided government bailouts and/or liquidity when financial institutions or methodologies got themselves into trouble (eg. S&L crisis; Citibank forced into technical failure, but allowed to stay open; bailing out junk bond investors by lowering federal funds rate; etc.), encouraging bigger problems down the road.

The positive impact of borrowing has declined about 60-70% from the 1970s-80s when such monies would mostly be used for factory and highway construction, compared to today's increasingly likely use for increasing leverage for LBOs, M&A, and hedge funds. Meanwhile, the negative likelihood of families experiencing a 50% drop in income has increased dramatically from 1970 - resulting in a greater probability of default.

Cognizance of our problems has been somewhat covered up with revisions to the CPI (understating costs of home ownership) and unemployment measures (not counting those who gave up and quit looking). Thus, the 2-4%/year CPI increase 2005-2007 would have been 5-7%/year, and unemployment would have been 8%.

Early millennium results include the housing sector (including its "ATM effect") providing 40% of the nation's growth in GDP and employment (an unsustainable rate achieved through financial gamesmanship that set the stage for the current financial and construction crash), while imported petroleum outlays rose from $100 billion in '02 to $302 in '06.

Observing from a distance, OPEC has reduced its foreign-currency reserves held in dollars from 75% to 62.5%, and Iraq and Venezuela began selling oil in euros and yen (admittedly for political purposes, at least at first). Meanwhile, the U.S. has antagonized major oil producers (Iran, Russia, Venezuela), and effectively dismantled Iraq - raising the risk of nations being unwilling or unable to supply the U.S. as supplies grow tighter.

Declining oil supplies, rising demand, global warming, our recession, and global loss of confidence in American financial markets are all converging and demand strong political leadership. Phillips, however, is not optimistic that this will emerge based on strong financial sector support for the Democratic Party and political failures in other nations needing dramatic change.

Phillips makes numerous comparisons between the U.S. today and the Great Depression, as well as the declines of Rome, Holland, Spain, and Great Britain - regardless, no predictions are made about how long or deep our current downturn will be, and he gives little or no attention to the steady amassing of dollars in Asia and associated growing unemployment of Americans. Finally, readers must also keep in mind that throughout the book he refers to $70 oil - obviously outdated vs. today's nearly $120.

Interesting Side Issue: Phillips states that food represents about 14% of the U.S. CPI, vs. 33% and 46% for China and India, respectively. Doesn't auger well for biofuels continuing to take 28% of the U.S. corn crop.

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