Conversation — June 5, 2017, 12:01 pm

Slow Crash

Economist Michael Hudson on the future of the stock market

Two years before the 2008 Wall Street crash that toppled the global economy into deep recession, Harper’s Magazine published a dark prophecy of what was to come. In “The New Road to Serfdom,” economist Michael Hudson laid out how millions of Americans had taken on huge debts to buy houses on the presumption that they could later sell them at a profit. “Most everyone involved in the real estate bubble so far has made at least a few dollars,” he wrote. “But that is about to change. The bubble will burst, and when it does the people who thought they would be living the easy life of a landlord will soon find out that what they really signed up for is the hard servitude of debt serfdom.” As the twenty million people who lost their homes discovered, Hudson got it entirely right.

Today, unemployment is at record lows, and the stock market is at record highs. Allegedly, we have recovered from the disaster. I talked to Hudson, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the author, most recently, of J is For Junk Economics, A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception, about his pre-crash prediction, and what he now sees in our future.

Let’s start with your 2006 Harper’s article. What did you see happening at that point?

It was very clear that more and more of everybody’s income had to go to buying a house. Housing prices were soaring, and the reason wasn’t because of population growth. And it wasn’t because people were getting richer. It’s because a house is worth whatever a bank is going to lend against it, and banks were lending more and more money against houses and pushing people further and further into debt so that basically they had to spend almost their entire working life to pay off the price of getting a home. People thought they were getting richer as house prices were going up, but while the sellers were getting richer, the people who had to buy the house had to pay a larger and larger proportion of their income. 

When I first went to work on Wall Street in the 1960s, the rule of thumb in banks was you’d lend people enough money so that they could afford to pay the mortgage fully out of only one quarter of their income. In other words, banks wouldn’t lend if the cost of carrying a mortgage was over 25 percent of what they earned. The balance had to be written off in 30 years, so at the end of their working life 30 years later people would own the home free and clear.

All of that had changed by the mid 2000s. Banks were lending almost 100 percent of the mortgage. You didn’t have to put down 20 percent of the purchase price as you had to in the 1960s. You didn’t have to save up any money to buy a house. Banks would lend you money regardless of whether you could pay it or not. They would lend money up to 40 percent of your income or even 50 percent of your income.

You could just see that mortgage debt was going up so much that, instead of making the economy richer by people living in homes that were building up their net worth in terms of assets, it was making them more and more indebted. More and more money was being paid by wage earners and the middle class to the banks, and the economy was polarizing. You could see that this was not only going to break, but once there was a break it was going to leave a whole residue of debt that was going to shrink the economy. Indeed, that’s what I forecast was going to happen in 2008. 

As you predicted and as happened, people just couldn’t pay anymore and the thing collapsed. You could’ve made a lot of money out of this. Did you?

No, I couldn’t. I could only make money if someone would’ve lent me a billion dollars, like they lent to Mr. Paulson [the Wall Street operator who made billions out of the housing crash] to bet against it. I’m a professor and a book writer. They’ll only lend you money if they can grab the assets, and I’m somebody that doesn’t have many assets, except a big collection of economics books. 

Have you ever heard of someone sitting on Wall Street who read Harper’s in May 2008 and acted appropriately?

I don’t think they needed me. If they’re on Wall Street, they didn’t need me to tell them that the economy is going to collapse. They all knew it was going to collapse. That was in the language of “liar’s loans” and “NINJAs.” It was pretty obvious what was going on. It’s just the media didn’t talk about it because the media was giving handouts from Alan Greenspan saying that it’s not possible for there to be a real estate collapse, it’s only local. The media are cheerleaders for the stock market. Whenever it goes up they celebrate, even if it goes up because there’s a short squeeze on speculators. The media have not done a good job in educating the American public.

Has that improved in the time since the crash? Did they learn anything?

No. If anything, it’s gone down, because the media have all been in a financial squeeze, and they’re getting pretty inexperienced editors, reporters.

At least you have the satisfaction, if that’s the word, of events proving you correct. But we’ve supposedly now recovered from that disaster. Have we?

No, we haven’t at all recovered. That’s why Hillary lost the election. She said, “Look at how much better you are since 2008. Obama has saved you.” Trump said, “Wait a minute. Look at how bad you are. You’re not saved.” Everybody thought, “Who are you going to believe, your eyes or Hillary?” We haven’t recovered at all. Obama saved the banks and Wall Street, not the economy. From 2008 until today, the economy has grown by 2 percent, but the top 5 percent of the economy have got all of that growth. The economy isn’t recovering. 

That’s why when the Department of Labor statistics gave the most recent employment figures, everybody commented, “It’s very interesting. Employment is up, but wages are continuing to fall.” It’s all minimum wage work. The debt ratio for most families is rising, not falling, especially for student debt, for mortgage debt, for automobile debt. The default rate is continuing to rise. 

Last time around it was housing debt or housing loans that blew everything up. Have the loans you just mentioned been turned into speculative packages similar to the infamous collateralized debt obligations [securities based on housing loans] of yesteryear?

The difference between today’s packaged student and auto loans compared to those toxic junk mortgage loans is that the buyers recognize the risks involved. No ratings agencies are going to stick AAA labels on consumer debt where arrears and defaults are soaring. They are unlikely even to package student debt from for-profit “universities” or technical schools with bona fide institutions. Every investor knows that students are NINJAs – No income, No jobs, and no assets.

[But] you could say that the whole stock market is a kind of a ponzi scheme, because $4.3 trillion has been provided to the banks by the Federal Reserve in quantitative easing to keep the interest rates down. So if you’re a good bank customer, you can borrow from the bank at 2 percent, you can borrow to take over a company or to buy stocks or to buy risky bonds that are yielding more, and you can make an arbitrage. That is, you can make in dividends or interest more than you have to pay.

So are we heading for another explosion comparable to 2008?

I’m not sure it’ll be an explosion. It’s more like a slow crash. It’s more like people are getting desperate. They’re having to live off their credit cards, not to buy luxuries but just simply to break even. They’re falling further and further behind, and as they fall behind the interest rate rises, the penalties rise, so people are getting more and more squeezed. 

That’s why where I live in New York City, on all the big shopping streets there are more and more storefronts for rent. The stores are going out of business, especially the stores that are either mom and pops, or  small well-known stores like art supply stores that have been there for a generation. Only the big chains are surviving, and even the chains are closing down, Sears and others. Entire shopping malls are going into default. 

But we keep being told that this is because people are shifting to online shopping. Is that not the case?

Certainly many people are shopping online, but that’s not the real cause. The real cause is that overall retail sales are going down, because the average wage earner is only able to spend between a quarter and a third of their income on goods and services, after what’s left over from housing and taxes. The Federal Housing Authority now guarantees government mortgages up to 42 percent of your income. In New York City it’s normal to pay 40 percent of your income for rent. 

Assume that 40 percent of your income goes for housing. Maybe 15 percent of your income is taken right off the paycheck by the FICA [Federal Insurance Contributions Act] for Social Security and essentially pre-saving for Social Security medical care (which provides the government with enough money to cut taxes on the higher brackets.) There’s another 10 percent to 15 percent in income taxes, local income taxes, and sales taxes. In addition to paying the mortgage debt, people have to pay bank debt, auto debt, and credit card debt. That’s about 10 percent. When you add all of these up, there’s only about maybe 30 percent of the income that they can spend on goods and services. 

Economic textbooks talk about a circular flow, where the workers will get paid wages and they buy what they produce. That’s why Henry Ford paid his workers $5.00 a day, so that they could afford to buy cars. Now they only have a little bit to buy what they produce, and the rest of their money goes to the banks and to the government to give tax cuts for the top 10 percent. You’re having a slow squeeze on the middle class and the working class in this country, and it’s stifling the domestic market. 

How do you explain what are billed as record low unemployment figures?

People are desperate to go to work. But if you look at where the jobs are, these are minimum wage jobs. Most of the jobs are in retail, trade, or in other low-paying jobs. Yes, employment is going up, but at very low wages that don’t enable families to save. You can see this particularly every two years when the Federal Reserve publishes a survey of consumer finances. You can see for instance that blacks and Hispanics have almost no savings at all, and 50 percent of the American population as a whole doesn’t have any savings because if you’re earning a low salary, then almost all of what you do earn has to go to pay for rent and for bank credit and for taxes.

You say the most likely prospect for the future is a “slow crash” but when your Road to Serfdom piece ran in Harper’s, the Case-Schiller national home price index stood at 184.38.  As of February this year it stood at 185.56. Why shouldn’t there be a similar blow-up?

Nowadays nearly all residential mortgages are guaranteed by the government’s Federal Housing Agency (and have been since 2008), so banks are not threatened. The government is on the hook to guarantee American mortgage loans as well as student loans.

A large portion of the millions of homes that were foreclosed have been bought by hedge funds, often for all cash – because they can make more money renting them out than they can make in the financial markets. So this real estate is not debt leveraged.

Wall Street’s investment banks and bondholders were rescued, not the economy. The debts were left in place, and continue to grow not only by compound interest but by arrears and penalties compounding. The proportion of national income paid as interest, insurance fees and economic rent is rising faster than the economy is growing.

Banks lend mainly to other financial institutions. They don’t lend to factories that are creating jobs. They don’t lend out for goods and services. They lend to other financial institutions. The whole economy has turned into trying to make money on speculation and arbitrage, not on producing goods and services, not on hiring people to actually do work. The economy therefore is very fragile.

The whole economy at the end of the road is going to look like Greece or Spain or Portugal or Italy. All of these economies are shrinking by what’s called debt deflation. In other words, people have to pay either so much debt or they have to have forced saving, like pension fund saving, that the economy is shrunk for financial reasons, for putting more and more of its money out of the real economy of goods and services into the financial sector.

Is that your prediction for our future here in the United States? Greece?

Yes, a slow crash as more and more money is drained from the economy to pay the FIRE sector—finance, insurance, and real estate—not the goods and service producing sector. 

It all sounds like a ghastly inevitability. Is there anything to be done  to save us from this?

Sure. There are a number of things. One of the things that Trump had suggested in the campaign was to remove the tax deductibility of interest. The tax system subsidizes the financial sector and subsidizes going into debt. It would be best not to give the favoritism to the financial sector. For example the real estate sector since World War II has hardly paid any income tax at all, because it has fictitious deductions. Even though real estate goes up and up and up, the real estate owner can pretend that the building’s losing value, as if it’s depreciating instead of going up in value. It can take this depreciating as if it’s an actual cost, even though there’s no cash at all. They don’t have to pay any income tax, because when you take depreciation, interest, and the high salaries they pay themselves, it appears as if they’re not earning any money at all. 

The oil industry, the minerals industry, all of the rent extracting industries, the rentier industries, don’t have to pay tax. Only the industrial sector and the workers and the middle class have to pay taxes. That’s a backward tax system. This is the opposite of where economic theory was going for over one hundred years.

Could we quickly define for those who might not know, “rent” and “rentier?”

Rent is unearned income. Rent is what landlords get, “what they make in their sleep” as John Stuart Mill said. The landlord gets rent simply for inheriting or somehow being able to buy property and then gouging the renter for whatever will bear. Or rent is what is from natural resources. If you’re given a forest or an oil well or a mine, the rent is what you make over the actual cost of production and over the actual profit that’s made. 

A rentier is someone who used to be called a coupon clipper. The original meaning of rent was to own a government bond in French. Rent is somebody who earns income every month or every quarter without doing any work at all, just by ownership privilege, just by inheriting wealth or somehow acquiring wealth and getting money without any work or any real value being produced

You suggested that Trump might’ve had the right idea with his suggestion to abolish the deduction for interest. Do you see any sign of that happening?

Not a chance.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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