You can’t bail out the banks, leave the debts in place, and rescue the economy. It’s a zero-sum game. Somebody has to lose. That’s what happened in 2009 when President Obama came in. He invited the bankers to the White House and he said, “I’m the only guy standing between you and the mob with pitchforks,” by which he meant the voters that he was bamboozling. He reassured the bankers. He said, “Look, my loyalty is to my campaign donors not to the voters. Don’t worry; my loyalty is with you.”
I’m Bonnie Faulkner. Today on Guns and Butter, Dr. Michael Hudson. Today’s show: Rescuing the Banks Instead of the Economy. Dr. Hudson is a financial economist and historian. He is president of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trend, a Wall Street financial analyst and Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. His 1972 book Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire is a critique of how the United States exploited foreign economies through the IMF and World Bank. His latest books are Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy and J Is for Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception. Today we discuss how the bank bailouts, not the crash, are killing the economy. Also, the concept of debt deflation, the magic of compound interest, the growth of the financial extraction FIRE sector, quantitative easing, tariffs, economic sanctions and isolationism.
BONNIE FAULKNER: Dr. Michael Hudson, welcome.
MICHAEL HUDSON: It’s good to be back after a few years.
BONNIE FAULKNER: Boy I’ll say. I’ve just read your article “The Lehman 10th Anniversary Spin as a Teachable Moment.” Obviously, 2018 is the tenth anniversary of the 2008 stock market crash. You immediately point out that today’s financial malaise is a result of the bank bailout not the crash. I think people might find this statement surprising since the claim is that the bailout saved the economy.
MICHAEL HUDSON: I think what the newspapers said was that the bailout saved the banks. To bankers, their banks are the economy. The problem is, you can’t save the banks and the economy. If you save the banks, you’re saving all the debt that people owe to the banks. And if you save all the debt that the people owe to the banks – and you foreclose on the millions of families that forfeited their homes in the mortgage crisis – if you leave the debts growing at compound interest, raise the debt equity ratios and the debt-to-income ratios, then the economy is going to shrink and shrink, and we’re in a slow crash. So in a sense the celebration over “Yes, we saved the banks” was correct last week, but people don’t realize that the economy cannot be saved unless there’s a bank crash.
That’s what Sheila Bair wrote in her memoir about her experience as the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. She pointed out that Citibank was insolvent from losing all its net worth on bad gambles. She said it was the worst managed bank in America – as distinct from the just plain crooked banks and criminal banks like Countrywide, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. She said that there was plenty of theft by Citibank, but that all the insured depositors could have been reimbursed. No insured depositor would have lost money. But the stockholders and the bondholders that ran this gambling institution would have been wiped out. She said that Obama and Geithner really represented Citibank. Geithner was a protégé of Robert Rubin, the Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton. She wrote that she found out, she was told, “It’s all about the bondholders.”
The problem is that Republican free-enterprise bankers discussing what happened ten years ago are saying, “Nothing to see here folks. Everything’s fixed now. We don’t have to do any regulation. Let the banks be free again.” Or, you have Democrats like Paul Krugman who cannot bring themselves to criticize what Obama did. A week ago, on September 14, Krugman showed himself to be a flack for the banks and for the Democrats’ donor class by writing that the Washington Beltway was crazy to believe that America had a debt problem. As I wrote in my article, he said that all you need is Keynesian policy to run a large enough budget deficit to spend enough money into the economy so that wage earners will have enough to pay the banks what they owe. I think this is the Democratic Party’s position: The role of wage earners is to make enough money so that all of their income over and above survival needs has to be paid for the banks. More and more income is needed to pay carrying charges as their debts keep rising.
Let me quote what Krugman wrote in The New York Times: “The purely financial aspect of the crisis was basically over by the summer of 2009.” But we’re still living in the rest of the financial crisis! The debt crisis is a financial crisis. He criticized the common-sense observation that I’m sure most of your listeners can realize right away: He referred to the “bizarre Beltway consensus that despite high unemployment and record low interest rates, debt, not jobs, is the real problem.” He says there’s no debt problem; it’s all just jobs, and if you pay people more, then they can pay the banks.
There’s no feeling at all within the Democratic Party that somehow the banks should have been subordinate to saving the economy. I think that is a major reason why Hillary lost the 2016 election. She kept saying, “Aren’t you better off today than you were eight years ago when Mr. Obama was elected?” Well, most people, especially in the Midwest, said, “No, we’re not better off. Are you kidding? We’ve lost our homes, employment’s down, our wages are lower, our pension funds are being seized. Of course we’re not better.” So more and more voters stayed home. Just today I was reading a survey that 55% to 85% of Americans say if there was a rerun of the 2016 election between Trump and Hillary they just wouldn’t vote, because both candidates were so bad.
So what you really have seen in this anniversary is not the discussion that you need to have: How are we going to deal with the next crisis to avoid bailing out the banks all over again? If we don’t bail out the banks, what’s the policy? How are we going to take over the insolvent banks – that means, take them public. Sheila Bair pointed out that if Citibank would have been taken over by FDIC it wouldn’t have made crooked loans, it wouldn’t have made junk mortgages. It wouldn’t have made corporate takeover loans, it wouldn’t have made loans to payday lenders, it wouldn’t have made derivative gambles. That’s not what public banks do.
That discussion somehow isn’t occurring. It’s not occurring because people don’t realize that in any economy – not only in America; you’re having the same thing in Europe – the volume of debt expands exponentially, by compound interest. All the debt that people owe keeps mounting up more and more arrears. And if you miss a payment on your credit card, or even if you miss a payment to the electric utility or any other monthly bills, your credit card’s interest rate goes up from 11 or 12% to 29%. All this accumulates up and up and up. And the result is that personal debt service relative to income is going up. Corporate debt service relative to income is going way up, and the share of government budgets that must be paid to bondholders is going up. That means that people don’t have enough money to go and buy the goods and services they produce.