They’re comparing this week’s financial events in the United States with those that led to the start of the Great Depression. But make no mistake, the United States’ economy has been headed for disaster for years now. The loss of decent-paying jobs, the record number of home foreclosures and the depressed real estate market are all symptoms of a far greater problem. The near-collapse of the American banking system may be linked to the mortgage crisis, but look for a root cause elsewhere.
The looming failures of financial giants including Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, and insurance companies such as AIG, have created shock waves felt from Wall Street to Main Street. For the first time in memory, people were concerned that the money in their bank accounts, money market accounts and retirement plans was at risk. A 1929-style run on the banks appeared to be imminent. Indeed, people started pulling their money out of money market accounts at an unprecedented rate. Even investment professionals are running scared. Putnam Investments was so rattled by recent events, that they suddenly decided to close and liquidate their $12.3 billion institutional Putnam Prime Money Market Fund, which had experienced a run of redemptions last Wednesday. (Read about money market funds “breaking the buck” in this cnn.com article, or in this blogger’s posting.) In the seven days ending this past Thursday, Americans collectively pulled a quarter of a trillion dollars out of their money market accounts, an indication that people are frightened. This has led to the government announcing that money market mutual funds will now be insured in much the same way that FDIC insurance protects bank deposits, although the insurance coverage is currently planned for only the next year (we think you can bet your bottom dollar (pun intended) that this insurance will become permanent).
Within the space of just a few days, the government’s $75 billion bailout of AIG grew into a proposed $700 billion bailout of the entire mortgage mess. (Didn’t something like that happen in the movie “The Blob That Ate Pittsburgh”?) The government certainly has the ability to print as much money as it needs to put out these brushfires, but it’s foolish to believe that the federal government throwing money at the problem will make it go away for any length of time.
The economists here at Routing By Rumor point to two very basic problems that the country’s economic woes can be directly attributed to. The first problem is that America is sending about half of it’s cash to the Middle East to buy oil. The second problem is that the rest of America’s cash is being sent to the Far East, mainly to China, to pay for just about everything else we consume. Unless this situation changes, the U.S. economy will never recover, and the current round of federal bailouts are just the beginning.
America has made little progress towards energy independence, despite 35 years having elapsed since the oil crisis of the early 1970’s gripped the nation. A second oil crisis in the late 70’s, as well as dramatic increases in the price of oil in the recent past have done nothing to break our dependence on foreign oil.
America has become dependent on China for almost all consumer goods. This is not only foolish from an economic perspective, it also presents a grave risk to America’s national security. We manufacture almost nothing domestically any more. We’ve said this before, and we’ll repeat it again… God help America if we ever go to war with China, because if that should ever happen, you might as well just go ahead and hang a picture of Chairman Mao in your living room. Now take a look at Walmart, the largest retailer in the United States. According to wakeupwalmart.com, more than 70% of the goods on Walmart’s shelves are made in China. To be fair, that’s probably no different than any other American retailer, but in our mind, Walmart is little more than a sales agent for China, Inc.
Just how bad have things gotten ? According to this CNN article, the United States Department of Agriculture says that 50 percent of the apple juice imported into the United States comes from China (an estimated 161,000 tons of apple juice compared to the 110,000 tons produced in the United States). If we’re reading those numbers correctly, that means the United States only produces 25% of all the apple juice it consumes.
Apple juice !!! What the hell is happening to our country ?
People, there’s something very, very wrong with the U.S. economy, if we can’t even grow our own apples in this country anymore. We’re in deep, deep trouble if we’ve even become dependent on China for apple juice.
They better come up with a new saying, because “As American as apple pie” doesn’t hold true any more.
When the presidential candidates show up for their next press conference or debate, in addition to the standard questions about abortion, the death penalty, Iraq and tax reform, perhaps someone can ask them to take off their shoes and tell us where they were made, and whether they see that as a problem. Or, ask them to remove all of their clothing that was NOT made in the U.S.A. That should be quite revealing.
Then there’s the U.S. banking industry, which to us, resembles nothing so much as legalized loan sharking. Banks are, on the one hand, paying minuscule interest rates to depositors, with regular savings accounts and interest-bearing checking accounts paying perhaps 1% or so, and in many cases, just a fraction of one percent APR or APY (the switch from quoting interest rates paid as APY, instead of APR is a scam onto itself, but we’re digressing). On the other hand, banks are charging 15% or 20% interest on credit card balances, and in some cases, as much as 35% or 40% APR for their less credit worthy customers. Did you know that federal law places no limit on the interest rate a bank can charge ? And while some states do so, there are states which do not cap interest rates. That’s why it’s likely that when you mail your monthly credit card payment, the address on the envelope is usually in South Dakota or Delaware, where, as far as credit card interest rates are concerned, the sky’s the limit.
Take a look at the off-the-wall late fees and other penalty charges that banks are getting away with, since a 1996 Supreme Court ruling removed limits on such fees. Today, typical credit card late fees are as high as $40, and continuing to go up. In fact, if there’s one thing that amazes us, it’s the way that banks continually come up with new ways of putting the squeeze on credit card holders. That’s why you continually get notices from card issuers, announcing changes in your account terms. It’s surprising to us that none of those notices have yet advised us that a late payment will result in a guy named Guido paying us a visit around midnight, to negotiate a repayment schedule using his Louisville Slugger.
We think most American’s have lost any trust they might have had in that cesspool called Wall Street, where, it seems to us, the average investor doesn’t stand a chance. Maybe Eliot Spitzer was on the right track after all, with his aggressive investigations. The well publicized scandals, insider trading and other illegal activities involving Wall Street firms and the companies that trade their stock there have eroded investor confidence. And while we don’t think it’s fair to single out any one individual, just take a look at the Dick Grasso case. How do you think the average American who is struggling to pay their mortgage or feed their family, feels about a situation like that one ? And yet, despite the current financial crisis in the United States, don’t expect CEO compensation to decrease much, even at companies that have to be bailed out with federal money.
So while the billions of dollars that Washington is throwing at the financial crisis will probably stabilize things in the short term, don’t start singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” just yet. They are not.
If you want to hear what it will sound like if happy days ever do get here again, check this out.
– Routing By Rumor