Are we heading for another Great Depression?
Interview with Elaine Supkis by Mike Whitney
Question: I've been getting more and more email from people who are worried that the policies of the Bush administration will bring about a severe economic downturn or, perhaps, even another Great Depression. Do you believe that the problems in the real estate market, the falling dollar, the massive current account deficit, or the shaky hedge fund industry are likely to cause major meltdown?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: Great Depressions like the one that hit in 1929 are very rare. They usually happen only after two great empires exhaust their finances. WWI involved two of the biggest industrial powers in a massive death-struggle that didn't destroy their industries but wrecked their currencies and beggared their workers. Russia was a major empire but a minor industrial power so when the workers there revolted, the loss of this sector's industrial base had much less impact than the collapse of Germany's currency and its huge war debts.
This chart is from one of my most dog-eared books, one of the greatest works explaining relative power and why empires collapse, 'The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers' by Paul Kennedy. The chart shows how England, the leading nation in the world, supposedly the richest, spent the most money during that grinding, depressing stalemate of a war.
Germany spent $3.9 billion less than England. Inflation since 1913 has been ferocious. This probably would represent well over several trillion dollars in today's currency. Even today, no nation can take a financial hit that big and stay solvent. Europe's industrial production fell 30% and the US, fattened off of billions of dollars of loans to all parties in Europe, lived high and mighty during the 1920's. But with industrial production lagging, Europe spiralled downwards. The US cheerfully gave everyone more and more loans and the promise of being repaid was fantastic! Why, these were basically AAA subprime loans.
Then Germany couldn't pay and kept asking for better terms. This was OK with the US but not with bankrupt England or France. So they demanded full payments and Germany defaulted. This triggered the Great Depression. Even though the US was now the world's largest manufacturing power, our currency was mostly for home use so the British had to keep the pound strong. Trying to do this made things worse.
And so it is today: our empire won't retreat from its distant borders but these same borders are bankrupting us for we never recovered from the Vietnam War, we literally papered over the mess which remained and continues to poison our nation. The military/industrial complex is not making us rich, it is making us poorer. And the paper being laid over all this is the same paper the Germans used in 1924 to paper over their own bankruptcy: printed money.
When an empire does what we are doing today, society falls apart. And if this happens, there is no easy way out. Individuals can avoid the worst by avoiding debts but outside of that simple thing, there is no other answer. Of course, the true answer is a strong working class that believes in unity and not underselling each other. Alas, the USA has a long and tragic history of slavery. And the legacy of this culture divides the nation and half loves slavery and enables wretched working conditions and thinks the road to wealth is via cheap labor.
Germany has an advantage here: their recent attempt at slavery, the Nazi empire, was a total disaster and they don't want a repeat. I only wish the USA felt the same way. For no nation gets very rich for very long if the working class is poor and can't work their way into the middle class.
Question: Would you explain what is meant by “reserve currency” and how it serves the greater political interests of the United States? Do you think that preserving “dollar hegemony” was an important part of the decision to go to war with Iraq?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: It may sound trite but thinking about great banking matters as if it is one's own bank account no matter how small, works. Namely, it is dangerous for anyone to live life where everything is juggled and there isn't a penny to spare. Then something bad happens and boom. You go bankrupt. This is why savings accounts matter and why inflation is so deadly. No one in their right mind keeps a savings account because it can't grow, it shrinks!
The Federal Reserve was set up to maintain a reserve funds that supposedly wouldn't be touched by politicians. But alas, this is a fiction. Just like your own bank account, if one is married and sharing an account and one party keeps raiding it and spending it on guns and cars or fur coats or whatever, it runs out of funds and then something bad happens like a hurricane hits, and the cupboard is bare.
In the case of empires, a way to gage solvency is, how big is their own reserves compared to the size of these same currency reserves held by potentially hostile rivals? In the case of the USA, we send dollars out as fast as we can print them. If too many people getting this flood of money, around $800 billion a year now!!!!!! If they don't keep a big chunk in bank vaults, the value of the dollar drops. So they keep it in reserve, in case of a 'rainy day'. Like 9/11.
China has $1.3 trillion in its reserves and is therefore, King of the Mountain. Japan has $900 billion and is no longer holding new currency so all the red ink in trade is no longer staying away, it is floating back home to here, as inflation. Europe has about $600 billion and Russia, $330 billion. The USA has only $66 billion and the numbers released today by the Federal Reserve shows that number is DROPPING. Yikes.
Question: President Bush has said that he intends to make his tax cuts “permanent” even though they have produced enormous deficits. At the same time the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates below the real rate of inflation and increased the money supply to approximately 10% per annum. Are these policies designed to maintain a healthy economy with a potential for strong growth or are they the means for transferring wealth from working people to the “very rich”?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: How do they 'transfer' wealth? Through unfair taxes. Under Reagan, American workers, worried about the eventual baby boomer retirement event horizon, decided to double taxes on Social Security. This pile of money was instantly, less than a year later, leaped upon and devoured by our corrupt government. They insantly gave unfair tax cuts to the upper incomes and basically used SS excess funds to pay for the government.
This worked OK until Bush took over. He and the GOP have run up debts so high, they added half a trillion a year in red ink and over the last six years, this is nearly $3 trillion and our national debt stands at nearly $9 trillion. During the last major money crisis, the 1972 collapse of the Bretton Woods concord, we had a national debt of not even $1 trillion. We have not had 900% inflation so I would say, this debt that the GOP rang up consisted of taking taxes out of the hides of the working class and handing it on a golden platter to the rich who, incidentally, buy bonds.
But no more! Today, the chief buyer of bonds is the Treasury itself. Next is China!
Question: Will you explain how the inflationary policies of the Federal Reserve are causing the stock market to soar and what the potential dangers are for the global economic system?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: Oh, that is so simple! In 2003, interest rates were dropped to 1% despite inflation of +5%. Instantly, the value of all assets shot upwards as bankers moved money along as fast as possible since the Fed undercut their own interest rates! So mortgages were below the rate of inflation. But this didn't make enough money so banks and other entities offered loans to bad risks who had to pay a higher rate. As inflation rages, they need to give loans to worse and worse customers who pay over 11% interest!
Alas, the fly in this ointment is exactly that: risky customers can't pay back loans! They go bankrupt and everyone acts like a good little domino and over they fall, one after another. Right now,the crashing sound of dominoes falling is like the hissing of waves on a distant shore but it is rapidly approaching. We can certainly hear it coming.
Question: Last week, reports showed that US manufacturing unexpectedly rose in March. However, the Financial Times said that, “The rise in the ISM index is impossible to square with either the regional surveys released over the past few weeks or our medium-term yield-driven model. We think it is quite likely that in their next iterations the ISM will drop sharply.” Do you think the government is deliberately falsifying data on manufacturing to make the economy look stronger than it really is? Could they be doing this in areas as well, such as money supply, inflation, employment, and GDP?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: Do alligators bite? Of course, they lie all the time. Some things were sacred and they didn't lie about them. The M3 data that shows how much money the Fed prints as well as how much is in circulation, etc, just last year, they announced, 'No one is really interested in these numbers and they are too hard to compile.' Like a drunken, gambling spouse declaring there is no need to balance the check books or look into the bank accounts, so it is here. Many people yelled about the M3 numbers being suppressed but to no avail, of course.
Onwards! Since they are lying about basic bank accounting, they have to lie about everything else or people will figure out, something smells rotten in Denmark, DC.
They redrew the rules for figuring out inflation so it no longer tracks inflation. This is so they can cheat retirees and have fake interest rates and thus, steal from granny and gramps and starve school children while lining their own pockets.
Question: Do you believe that the extraordinary “police-state” measures enacted by the Bush administration (Patriot Act, Military Commissions Act, repeal of habeas corpus, NSA “surveillance” of American citizens without court order) are intended to address the threat of terrorism or the social disorder that may arise in response to an economic collapse?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: They planned this for a long, long time. Do note that the 'war on drugs' was launched as we lost the Vietnam War. Thanks to inflation and a collapsing currency as well as a sudden hike in oil prices due to the US hitting the Hubbert Oil Peak here in 1972, there was great unrest. I saw some of this right up close. Once, when the lights went out in NYC during a thunderstorm of all things, riots and looting spread like wildfire. My community was nearly burned to the ground and all the businesses destroyed.
This, the rulers fear a lot. But no number of police can stop it if it happens. I have seen up close when a whole city revolts. More than once, including in Europe in 1968. The new, right wing French President will learn this the hard way next year. There will be riots and insurrections there.
Question: Can you explain – in simple “layman's” terms – the effect of Japan's low interest “carry trade” on the U.S. stock market? Is this practice inflating the value of securities in foreign markets? What are the risks? How is it affecting the euro?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: Europe lends money for more than 5% interest. So does the USA now although the financiers are getting worried about this and are egging on the Fed to lower rates back down to 1%. This is pure insanity. Japan has near zero inflation because they have decided to utterly destroy the purchasing power of the people in Japan who are living worse and worse off if they are below the top 20%. Many are now homeless. It is pathetic.
The world's #2 economic power that holds the world's #2 FOREX reserves can't give pay raises to anyone earning below $10 an hour because this will 'cause inflation' and so they get to live on the street and starve. Great. Anyone can eliminate inflation by enslaving the workers. Then they get cut out of the profits entirely and can't buy things and thus, can't cause inflation!
This is the plan being readied for us! We get to live in shanties while the rich live in palaces. And we won't buy anything while they have a zillion servants earning practically nothing. Sort of like England, circa 1914.
Bush and his gangsters hosted the Queen of England who loves him because he is making her very rich via Carlyle. And the royals of England didn't care if they starved their subjects who lived like savages under the rule of the royals. We are sliding backwards, not moving forwards here.
Question: Consumer spending is 70% of US- GDP, and yet, workers wages have not kept pace with the real rate of inflation. This has led to increased borrowing on the part of the American consumer. Now that housing prices have flattened out; consumers can no longer draw on their home equity for their spending. This has resulted in a huge spike in credit card spending. For example, “first-quarter profits at MasterCard surged 70% to a record $214.9 million following a 19% jump in transactions.” (Peter Schiff) As the weary American consumer is forced to curtail his spending, GDP will shrink and foreign investment will dry up. Are we likely to see “capital flight” from American markets or are foreign investors still confident in America's resilience?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: In most places, housing prices are falling by 30%! All the people who responded to ads about getting cheap loans are now discovering they can't use their homes as ATM machines and simply re-finance over and over again. The house is supposed to be an asset: if you have to sell it to pay bills or move because of a job situation, if the debt is greater than the selling price, you go bankrupt. And this is happening all over the place now. And it will impact on buying.
Last year, Americans took out half a trillion in extra loans on the house! The surge in MasterCard (gads, Snidely Whiplash!) charges is because banks are no longer giving loans to people who are too deep in debt. The money that flowed there is flowing into the stock market just like it always does during the first half of an inflationary binge.
The second half is when the stocks collapse like they did in 1974. Then we see a 5 year bear market. Housing markets ALWAYS take 5+ years to recover from a bubble. But this last bubble launched by 1% Fed interest rates will take 20 years to recovery in most places.
Question: You have stated in your blog that the Federal Reserve is “buying back its own debt”. Would you explain how this works and whether it is intended to confuse the public about the real value of their currency?
(In your blog you say: “The US is the fulcrum for world trade. As the yen goes down (the yuan is so low, even as it gains, it is very minimal), the euro goes up. This is crushing the dollar because the US is printing money like mad to keep commerce flowing at home since it is bleeding red ink in trade and in government spending. Most of the bonds issued by our own government are bought by our own government. The only entity to buy much of that on the open market today is China. Japan is selling its hoard of US bonds.)
Elaine Meinel Supkis: Yes, aside from forcing Social Security to buy government bonds, the Treasury sells them to the Feds. This is Peter selling to Paul who then gives it back to Peter only it shrinks in value during this time. The Fed and Treasury can play this game to infinity. The only country to nearly reach that upper limit was Germany in 1924. They added more and more zeros to the money they printed every hour, day and night until they ran out of room on the bills. Literally! Then they simply cancelled the money! Bang. It was gone. Forever.
If no one stops us, we will do this just the same way.
Question: Wall Street reacts with wild enthusiasm every time two mega-corporations merge. These mergers always seems to generate boatloads of new credit from maximizing leverage and “creative financing”.. You say in your blog that this is “also a sign of impending collapse. For every pfennig of this is debt-loaded and is seeking a stable currency and high interest rates.” What do you think are the hidden dangers of these mergers?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: That happened in Germany, too. Everyone merged as money moved faster and faster and inflated more and more. Bubbles inflate because currency inflates. They are one and the same. And mergers are caused by money bubbles.
Question: What do you think the real rate of inflation is?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: Inflation is around 10% now. How do we know? The Federal Reserve just demanded banks hold 10% of their currency rather than rush it out the door. This reserve ratio is always a good indicator of inflation. In China, it was raised to 11% last week. Japan sets theirs at 0%, of course. They are insane.
Question: Is there a chance that the dollar could collapse?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: I hate to say this but I have a whole book of dead currencies my family has collected this last 180 years. From 1848 to today, in the USA, Germany, China, Japan, etc. Many 'pay the holder in gold' bonds. All worth something as historic documents but all ended up being worthless. Hope springs ever eternal and bad money is like winter: it always is around the corner.
Question: In 1966, Alan Greenspan wrote an article called “Gold and Economic Freedom” in which he described the events leading up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. In his essay he says:
“When business in the United States underwent a mild contraction in 1927, the Federal Reserve created more paper reserves in the hope of forestalling any possible bank reserve shortage. More disastrous, however, was the Federal Reserve's attempt to assist Great Britain who had been losing gold to us because the Bank of England refused to allow interest rates to rise when market forces dictated (it was politically unpalatable). The reasoning of the authorities involved was as follows: if the Federal Reserve pumped excessive paper reserves into American banks, interest rates in the United States would fall to a level comparable with those in Great Britain; this would act to stop Britain's gold loss and avoid the political embarrassment of having to raise interest rates.
The "Fed" succeeded; it stopped the gold loss, but it nearly destroyed the economies of the world, in the process. The excess credit which the Fed pumped into the economy spilled over into the stock market-triggering a fantastic speculative boom.
Belatedly, Federal Reserve officials attempted to sop up the excess reserves and finally succeeded in braking the boom. But it was too late: by 1929 the speculative imbalances had become so overwhelming that the attempt precipitated a sharp retrenching and a consequent demoralizing of business confidence. As a result, the American economy collapsed. Great Britain fared even worse, and rather than absorb the full consequences of her previous folly, she abandoned the gold standard completely in 1931, tearing asunder what remained of the fabric of confidence and inducing a world-wide series of bank failures. The world economies plunged into the Great Depression of the 1930's.”
Hasn't the Federal Reserve created similar “speculative imbalances” today through its increases in the money supply, its low interest rates, and the massive liquidity it pumped into the housing bubble? And, haven't the deregulatory policies of the Fed exacerbated our current account deficit – forcing US exports to compete with countries that artificially lower the prices of their manufactured goods by manipulating their currencies?
If the economic policies of the Federal Reserve and the Bush administration are deliberate, than how can we say that the destruction of the dollar and the subsequent crushing of the American middle class are accidental?
Greenspan's essay proves that he fully understood the implications of “excess credit” and “excessive paper reserves” and yet he persisted with the same destructive policies for 6 years. So – Is the housing bubble merely the “unintended consequence” of the Fed's policies or is it the clearly calculated goal?
Elaine Meinel Supkis: Hahaha. The preacher telling us how to avoid the evils of drug abuse and hanging out with prostitutes comes to mind, doesn't it? The very moralists warning us about our sins are usually the worst sinners.
I'll never forget Congress praising Greenspan and telling him they should stuff him and use him as a scarecrow for this would mean no one would ever question him about finances! Well, I say, hang him high. He is a criminal. He destroyed our economic might. Treason, it is! And all those people who betrayed us in order to make a mighty empire on our backs and bank accounts should be held accountable! There is no excuse for this mess! It was fixable. But alas, too many people are making too much money off of it the way it is now and they won't stop no matter what. Just like their latest imperial wars: endless.
I wish I could say something happy here but history is a bitch who laughs at us all. We should listen to her.