[OPE] Krassimir Petrov, "Worse than the Great Depression"

From: <glevy@pratt.edu>
Date: Fri Mar 06 2009 - 13:26:53 EST

[graphs are attached, JL]
Worse than the Great Depression.

by Dr. Krassimir Petrov

The mainstream media and
Wall Street have reached the consensus that the current credit crisis is
the worst since the post-war period. George Soros' statement that
"the world faces the worst finance crisis since WWII" epitomizes
the collective wisdom. The crisis is currently the ultimate scapegoat for
all the economic evils that currently plague the global financial system
and the global economy - from collapsing stock markets of the world to
food shortages in third world counties. We are repeatedly assured that the
ultimate fault lies with the Credit Crisis itself; if there were no Credit
Crisis, all of these terrible things would never have happened in the
economy and the financial markets.

The most extraordinary
thing is that the mainstream media has never attempted to compare the
current economic environment to the one preceding the Great Depression. In
essence, it is assumed outright that the Great Depression can never
possibly happen again, ever, thus obviating the need for such a
comparison. I actually believe that the macroeconomic fundamentals today
are much worse, so that we are in for a protracted period of economic
depression - a depression much worse than the Great Depression, a
depression that would likely be remembered in history as "The Second
Great Depression" or The Greater Depression, as Doug Casey has called
it so aptly. Here is why I believe that this is the case.

Duplicating Mistakes from the Great Depression

At its core,
the environment of the 1990s, and the response of the Fed to the
tech-telecom bust has created an economic environment that has encouraged
the repetition of the very same mistakes that led to the Great Depression.
Here is a concise summary of widely recognized mistakes of the 1920s,
without going into the details, with obvious parallels in the current

a.. Asset Bubbles - first in the stock market
during the 1990s, then in real estate during the 2000s, pretty much
mirroring the stock and real estate market bubbles of the 1920s.
Securitization - although not in the very "ultra-modernistic"
form and shape of the 2000s, with slicing and dicing of pools and tranches
of seniority, it was widely recognized in the 1930s that securitization
during the 20s drove the domino effect in the U.S. financial system during
the Great Depression.
c.. Excessive Leverage - just like in 2008 the
topic du jour is "deleveraging", so the unwinding of leverage
during the 1930s was the driver of forced liquidations and financial pain.
Of course, it was very clear back then that the root of the problem was
not deleveraging per se, but the excessive leverage that took place prior
to the deleveraging process. "Investment Pools" were then
instrumental in both the securitization and excessive leverage, just like
the Hedge Funds of today.
d.. Corrupt Gatekeepers - we know well
that the Enrons and Worldcoms were aided and abetted by the accounting
firms - those same firms that were supposedly the Gatekeepers of the
financial community, yet handsomely profited from the boom while
neglecting their watchdog functions. In the current financial crisis, we
also know that the rating agencies were also making hay during the boom.
Very similar were the issues during the 1920s that led to the
establishment of the SEC and other regulatory bodies to replace the
malfunctioning "gatekeepers" at the time.
e.. Financial
Engineering - we are led to believe that financial engineering is a rather
recent phenomenon that flourished during the New Age Finance Era of the
last 15 years, yet financial engineering was prevalent in the 1920s with
very clear goals: (1) to evade restrictive regulations, (2) to increase
leverage, and (3) to remove liabilities from the books, all too familiar
to all of us today.
f.. Lagging Regulations - just like the
regulatory environment lagged the events of the 1920s and regulations were
introduced only after the Great Depression had obliterated the U.S.
financial system, so we are yet to see new regulations addressing the
causes of the current crisis. Understandably, regulations should have
foreseen today's financial problems and should have been introduced before
the crisis.
g.. Market Ideology - back in the 1920s, just like in
the last two decades, the market ideology of "laissez faire",
which Soros quite appropriately described as "Market
Fundamentalism", has swept the financial markets. Of course, the free
market knows the best, but the reality is that the money market is not
really free - when the Fed determines the cost of money (interest rates),
and can fix this cost for as long as it wants, then all sorts of financial
imbalances can be sustained without the discipline imposed by the market.
This can lead to all sorts of problems that we actually have to face
h.. Non-Transparency - back in the 1930s, it was widely
recognized that businesses and especially financial institutions lacked
transparency, which allowed for the accumulation of significant imbalances
and abuses. Today, financial markets and institutions have intentionally
compromised transparency in a number of ingenious, or better disingenuous,
accounting trickeries and financial gimmicks, like off-balance-sheet
entities (SIVs), hard-to-understand derivatives, and opaque instruments
with mind-boggling complexity. Today CEOs and Chief Risk Officers of major
financial institutions cannot figure out their own risk exposures.
Originally, lack of transparency was designed to fool the markets;
ironically, modern-day financial executives have gotten to the point of
fooling themselves.
Worse than the Great Depression

why Worse Than The Great Depression? What makes me believe that the
current depression will be worse than the Great Depression? I present six
of the most important fundamentals that are "baked in the cake"
and that suggest of a Greater Depression.

1.. Overvalued Real
Estate. The real estate market has been driven by a number of innovations
in real estate finance. Overvaluation in real estate implies overvaluation
in real estate financial instruments; an implosion of real estate prices
implies an implosion in those instruments. It is widely recognized by
economists that the Case-Shiller Index is a good proxy for the prices of
real estate. A widely-recognized chart from 1890 to 2007 tells the story.
The chart makes it crystal clear that the current overvaluation of real
estate in real terms grossly exceeds the one during the 1920s. The coming
correction in real estate will be protracted and gut-wrenching, with an
expected cumulative effect that is much worse than the Great Depression.

2.. Total U.S. Credit. Credit makes leverage: the more
credit in the financial system, the more leveraged it is. Today's total
U.S. credit relative to GDP has surpassed significantly the levels
preceding the Great Depression. Back then, the total amount of credit in
the financial system almost reached an astonishing 250% of GDP. Using the
same metric today, the debt level in the U.S. financial system surpassed
350% in 2008, while the level in 1982 was "only" 130%. As
Charles Dumas from Lombard Street Research put it quite aptly, "we've
had a 30-year leveraging up of America, ending in an unchecked orgy."

The chart below shows a dramatic buildup of debt (leverage) in
the 1920s and a deleveraging from 1930 to 1945 (or 1952). Then it shows a
consistent buildup of debt afterwards, with a dramatic rise since the
1990s, and surpassing in 2000 the previous peak in 1929. The chart shows
the level of 299% at the end of 2005, but the level has already reached
350% by 2008.

Of course, leveraging, as already
indicated above, must necessarily be followed by deleveraging.

The best way to think about leverage is to compare it with using drugs,
while deleveraging is like detox. The problem is not that the detox is
killing the patient who has abused drugs for years; what is really killing
the patient is the drug abuse itself. However, one thing is clear - the
patient must either go through a painful detox or die; the same applies
for the financial system - it must either deleverage or implode.
Explosion of Derivatives. Derivatives have been likened by Warren Buffet
to "financial weapons of mass destruction". The notional amount
of total derivatives, as well as "Value at Risk" (VaR), has
skyrocketed in recent years with the potential to destabilize the
financial system for decades. To put it more allegorically, derivatives
hang like a sword of Damocles over the financial system.

comparison with the 1920s is difficult to make. mostly Derivatives back
then were extensively used, although not widely understood. Given that I
am not aware of any statistics of derivatives for the period of the 1920s,
a meaningful comparison based on hard data is admittedly impossible.
Nevertheless, I would venture to make an intelligent guess that the size
of modern-day derivatives is hundreds or even thousands of times larger
relative to the size of the economy in comparison to the 1920s. Some of
the latest reports indicate that the total notional value of derivatives
outstanding surpasses one quadrillion dollars. To put this into
perspective, this amounts to almost 100 times the GDP of the U.S. economy.

The chart below shows the explosion of derivatives in the U.S.
banking system. You can see that in 1991 the notional value of the
derivatives was about the size of the U.S. GDP. By 2006 the size has grown
to about 10 times the GDP, vastly outgrowing the real economy.

The chart below shows an even more telling picture. It
shows world GDP and world's notional value of derivatives. Again, while
there is no direct comparison with the 1920s, it is clear that the overall
level of derivatives has skyrocketed during the last two decades and
presents risks that were simply not present at the onset of the Great
Depression. The unwinding of these derivatives could only be compared with
a nuclear explosion in the financial system.

Dow-Gold Ratio. The Dow-Gold ratio represents the most important ratio
between the relative prices of financial assets and real assets. The Dow
component represents the valuation of financial assets; the gold component
- of real assets. When leverage in the financial system increases
significantly, so does this ratio. A very high ratio is interpreted as an
imbalance between financial and real assets - financial assets are grossly
overvalued, while real assets are grossly undervalued. It also implies
that a correction eventually will be necessary - either through deflation,
which implies deleveraging and a collapsing stock market, or through
inflation, which implies stagnant stock market for many years and steadily
rising prices of real assets, commodities, and gold, usually associated
with stagnant economy and typically resulting in stagflation. The first
case-deflation-occurred during the 1930s, while the second
case-stagflation-occurred during the 1970s.

The graph below
illustrates the above concepts. The very high Dow-Gold Ratio in 1929 was
followed by the Great Depression, while the higher level in 1966 was
followed by the stagflationary 70s. It is evident from the chart the peak
in 2000 surpassed the previous two peaks in 1929 and 1966, so this
provides a reasonable expectation that the forthcoming return to
"normalcy" will be more painful than the Great Depression, at
least in terms of cumulative pain over the next 10-15 years.

5.. Global Bubbles. It is impossible to make direct comparison
with the 1920s, but today the global economy is rife with bubbles. Back
then in the 1920s, the U.S. had its stock and real estate bubbles, while
the European economies were struggling to rebuild from the devastations of
WW1 that ended in 1919. I am personally not aware of any other bubbles
during this period, although I welcome reader feedback on this topic.

Today the picture is very different. The U.S. economy had a stock
market and real estate bubble that has surpassed its own during the 1920s.
Colossal US current account deficits have fuelled extraordinary growth in
global monetary reserves. As a result, Europe has real estate bubbles
across the board, from the U.K. and Ireland, throughout the Mediterranean
(Spain, France, Italy and Greece), to the entire Baltic region (Latvia,
Lithuania, and Estonia) and the Balkans (Romaina and Bulgaria). Even
worse, many Asian countries (China, Korea, etc.) also have their own stock
and property bubbles, only with the exception of Japan, which is still in
the process of recovering from its own during the 1980s. Thus, during the
1920s only the U.S. suffered from gross financial imbalances, while today
the imbalances have engulfed the whole world - both developed and
developing. It stands to reason that the unwinding of those global
imbalances is likely to be more painful today than it was during the Great
Depression due to both size and scope.
6.. Collapsing Bretton Woods
II. The global monetary system was on a quasi-gold standard during the
1920s. Back then dollars and pounds were convertible to gold, while all
other currencies were convertible to dollars and pounds. An appropriate
way to think about it is that of a precursor to the Bretton Woods from
1945-1971. What is important to understand is that while the system was
fiat in nature, gold imposed significant limitations to credit expansion
and leveraging.

Somewhat similar was the role of Bretton Woods
that lasted from 1945 to 1971. The dollar was tied to gold, while all
other fiat currencies were tied to the dollar. Just like the interwar
period, gold imposed some limitations on credit and financial imbalances.

We now live in what has been termed Bretton Woods II.
Essentially, this is a pure fiat dollar standard, where all currencies are
convertible to dollars, either at fixed or floating exchange rates, while
the dollar itself is convertible to "nothing". Thus, the dollar
has no limitations imposed to it by gold, so without the discipline of
gold, the current global monetary system has accumulated significantly
more imbalances than ever before in modern capitalism. These imbalances
show up in the international monetary system as unsustainable trade
deficits (and surpluses), skyrocketing official dollar reserves in some
European and many Asian central banks, and the proliferation of Sovereign
Wealth Funds; more generally, these imbalances result in a myriad of
bubbles, overleveraging, and other maladjustments already discussed above.

Today Bretton Woods II is in the process of disintegration.
The world is slowly but steadily losing its confidence in the dollar as
the world reserve currency. A flight from the dollar is in progress and
the collapse of the global monetary system is imminent. As Bretton Woods
II disintegrates and a new system replaces it, the process of readjustment
will be necessarily more painful than the respective process during the
Great Depression.

A caution on terminology is necessary here.
While the literature over the last 10-20 years has widely recognized the
term "Bretton Woods II", in September-October of 2008 the term
was widely used by the media to describe a proposed international summit
with the goal of reconstructing a new international monetary system
designed from scratch, just like "Bretton Woods". Instantly
dubbed by the media "Bretton Woods II", this term could be
potentially very confusing as it could mean very different things to
different people. The interested reader should consult Wikipedia's Bretton
Woods II where both meanings are explained in detail.

Since August of 2007 we have witnessed the relentless escalation
of the credit crisis: a steady constriction of credit markets, starting
with subprime mortgage-backed securities, spreading to commercial paper,
then to interbank credit, and then to CDOs, CLOs, jumbo mortgages, home
equity lines of credit, LBOs and private equity markets, and then
generally to the bond and securities markets.

While the media
describes the problem as one of illiquidity and confidence, a more serious
analysis indicates that boom-time credit has been employed unproductively
and so losses must be incurred. In other words, scarce capital has been
misallocated, poorly invested, and effectively wasted. No amount of
monetary or fiscal policy can fix the errors of the past, just like no
modern treatment can quickly restore to health a drug addict debilitated
from a decade-long drug abuse.

Based on indicators like (1)
global real estate overvaluation, (2) indebtedness, (3) leverage, (4)
outstanding derivatives, (5) global bubbles, and (6) the precariousness of
the global monetary system, I would argue that the accumulated imbalances
in the current period surpass significantly those preceding the Great
Depression. I therefore conclude that the coming U.S. (and possibly)
global depression will be of greater magnitude than the Great Depression
of the 1930s. It likely suggests that we are entering a historic period
that will likely be known as The Greater Depression.

beware! Only gold can protect you from the ravages of another Depression!

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Received on Fri Mar 6 13:29:12 2009

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