NEW YORK – My parents, who lived through the 1930’s Depression, taught me two rules: don’t buy anything until you can pay for it with your savings; and always save a sizeable portion of your income.
To me, debt is poison. A poison that has made our entire economic system gravely ill. Equally bad, Americans and many Europeans have become totally addicted to debt.
Consider: when Alan Greenspan took over as chairman of the US Federal Reserve central bank in 1987, according to research by respected political analyst Kevin Phillips, US public and private debt totaled $10.5 trillion.
By 2006, US debt had exploded to $43 trillion as a gigantic credit bubble created by Greenspan swelled.
Housing came to account for 40% of the growth of the US economy. Financial services soared from 10.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1950 to 20.4% of GDP – becoming America’s leading industry.
Total US debt soared from $2.4 trillion in 1974 to $44.7 trillion in 2006 – the year before the Great Recession began.
Manufacturing, once the bedrock of America’s fabulous wealth - 30% of the US economy in 1950 - had declined to only 12% by 2005.
The business of America’s business had become passing paper around, a process called “securitization.” Forty-four percent of US corporate profits came from the financial sector (lending money); only 10% from manufacturing.
The much-ballyhooed US economy became entirely dependent for growth on easy consumer credit and shaky mortgages. Borrowing money became the American way of life at all levels of society, business and government.
Americans became addicted to debt.
Billions of profits from money-lending allowed the finance industry to buy all the politicians it wanted, and keep the media docile. Financial regulation barely functioned and banks were allowed to lend $35-40 for every $1 deposit. Managers of the huge pools of unregulated capital called hedge funds had to pay only 15% tax while ordinary workers paid double, or more.
America’s Wild West finances came crashing down in 2007-2008. Yet the deep structural problems that caused the crash were not fully addressed. Washington’s answer was more debt to cure the problems caused by too much debt. Inevitably, another financial crisis hit this summer in the US and Europe.
Money should not be made on money, but by creating and selling things of value. Bankers once played a useful role in financing long-term capital projects like roads, dams, bridges. They still can do so through the type of Islamic “sukuk” bonds in which banks share risk in projects they are financing and receive equity interest.
But today, much of the West’s banking industry has become a parasitic scourge that is bleeding the economies of the US and Europe. The current financial crisis is due to runaway government borrowing, poor banking credit controls, and galloping greed. Politicians are just as guilty as financiers.
The United States will likely remain mired in Japanese-style economic stagnation and deflation until the power of Wall Street is broken. I say this as an economic conservative, private fund manager, and long-time investor.
America has to go back to making things others want.
This means government giving major tax advantages to manufacturers and savers. It means fairly taxing Wall Street, which has so far gotten away with murder. Too big to fail banks must be broken up, just like the Trustbusters did in the early 20th Century. Financial power must be de-concentrated and dispersed.
American industry remains very strong. I am currently buying stocks and bonds in great American companies like Automatic Data Processing, Exxon, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson. I trust their finances more than US Treasuries.
Now, instead of raising taxes, America needs to break the power of non-productive, big-money and let America’s companies get on with the job of creating jobs and national wealth.
American workers will have to bite the bullet and understand that to export, they will have to accept substantial wage cuts. CEO’s of US corporations must learn that firing workers is shameful, not productive. They can begin by slashing their obscene salaries and benefits.
As America goes, so goes much of the world. America needs a new revolution to restore its economic vitality and social peace.