U.S. Economic Problems • 26 March 2008 • The SnowBlog

U.S. Economic Problems

           Dear Brainy People in Television, I would like you to make a program which explains the following: 1) The Glass-Steagall Act and its gutting in recent years 2) The operation of the Shadow Banking sector 3) US Deficit Spending and the expansion of consumer credit 4) US/Chinese balance of trade and reciprocal investment.

Pretty dry stuff I'm sure all that sounds. But one of the weird types of investment that's had the markets in a flap lately are CDSs (Credit Default Swaps). As best as I can understand, they're bets that someone will go bust. You can use them as insurance or you can just speculate with them. There are around $43 Trillion worth of CDSs out there. (Yes, that's Trillion with a 'T'.) That's far too much debt for any government to step in and take care of and the next company who finds themselves in a similar predicament to Bear Stearns could end up triggering waves of defaults in that market.

The Shadow Banking sector is also of interest because the last time there was a giant banking meltdown in the States, following the stock market crash of 1929, the Glass & Steagall Acts were put in place to make sure banks couldn't overextend themselves so dangerously. Glass-Steagall endured until the Nineties when rules were reinterpreted and banks were indirectly permitted to create quasi-autonomous offshoot companies that did lots of things that banks do, but didn't fall under normal banking regulations. I believe that's how such vast sums of money came to be lent to sub-prime borrowers without regulators having a say. 

And I've talked in the past about how China does so much manufacturing for the U.S. that the only way they can keep their exchange rates favourable is to invest a sizable chunk of their revenues back into the States at generously low interest rates, thus inadvertently helping to inflate various investment bubbles. 

I admit it all sounds rather arcane, but I wouldn't mind knowing a bit more about how the finance markets came to be hanging by their fingertips from a cliff-top with various pension funds, mortgages and share portfolios dangling by a thread beneath them. Unless we're very lucky, we might all end up knowing a lot more about CDSs, CDOs and the moral hazard of bank bailouts, courtesy of the evening news.

Also, something I find a bit weird about this meltdown: when I check Google News for the U.S., there's rarely any mention about the economy tanking. When I checked yesterday, the only economic story was under Business (it didn't make it to the top 40 biggest general stories) and it was trumpeting the news that mortgage re-financing was up, as though that was the indicator that deserved the focus. Isn't it strange that the UK newspapers are hyperventilating about the U.S. economy, but from what I can tell, the U.S. media aren't making much of the fact yet? (Or perhaps Google News is just broken.)


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