23 November 2014

AUSTIN, Texas -- Ecuador recently moved to the dollar standard for its economy in an effort to bail itself out of one of those credit-flight crises that seems to afflict countries like a case of flu going around the globe. The dollarization of that economy has touched off a flurry of commentary among economists, who are on-the-one-handing with even more vigor than usual.

The alternative to the Ecuadorean move is something like what Singapore tried to do, a little late, during the collapse of most of the Asian economy two years ago. Basically, what Singapore did was to freeze foreign capital and say, "Sorry, buddy, but you can't take your money out of here for a while." This naturally upset all those geniuses at the International Monetary Fund, who are wedded to the "we had to destroy the village in order to save it" school of economic repair.

There's a wonderful word, "iatrogenic," describing an illness that you get from going to the hospital to have another illness treated. I always think of the IMF as a dispenser of iatrogenic ills.

So here's this nifty little economic debate: Should a country in trouble try the Ecuadorean solution or the Singaporean solution? I have another question: If a capital-flight crisis hits the United States, how do we dollarize our economy?

In a little-noticed move a few days before Christmas, Standard & Poor's put the U.S. financial system on its watch list of 20 countries that are vulnerable to a credit bust. We're on it, along with such powerhouses as Turkey. The excellent Bill Greider, now reporting for The Nation, says, "Aside from the stock market, the credit-rating agency observes the rapid rise in domestic debt and in non-performing loans at commercial banks." And on top of that, the United States is now a debtor nation to the tune of 18 percent of the gross domestic product -- which is, economically speaking, a hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

Greider notes that America got very lucky when the global financial crisis caused falling prices and sent foreign capital surging into U.S. financial markets. We naturally assumed that the resulting wave of prosperity was due to our own genius; that we had invented a "new economy" that would never have a down cycle again; that Alan Greenspan, the Washington Wizard of Oz, has us on a fail-safe course; and so forth.

Hubris? Who, us? We're the Alfred E. Neuman of economics. (Alfred E. is the red-haired, gap-toothed symbol of Mad magazine who is always saying, "What, me worry?")

Assume, just for a horrible moment, that the United States itself undergoes a sudden flight of foreign capital. Recall that this no-downside "new economy" was nearly brought to ruin by one overleveraged hedge fund. OK, capital pulls out in droves, and what have we got?

Under the Great Guru Greenspan, the volume of reserves required at commercial banks has been dramatically reduced -- Greider says from around $40 billion 12 years ago to less than $10 billion today. Banks are now also stockbrokers and insurance companies, which spread financial flu nicely across the entire structure. And, you may have noticed, our stock market bears a striking resemblance to a market infested with ... well, speculators.

You may recall from your history books that the Crash of '29 was caused by people buying stocks "on margin" -- in other words, putting in real little money. One of the things that the Great Greenspan has refused to do is raise the margin on investors' borrowing.

This is because Greenspan does not believe in government regulation. He thinks banks should be allowed to police themselves. (Anyone else remember the time that our genius banks put all that money into Latin America and then had to write off the loans?) Unless, of course, they're "too big to fail" -- which most of them already are. Then the Fed bails them out, along with delinquent hedge funds and other merrymakers.

The one form of "regulation" that Greenspan embraces is raising interest rates, which he is fixing to do in a few weeks. (We more or less know this because Greenspan, who does not speak English, so indicated in a Delphic utterance on Jan. 13.) There is, of course, no inflation anywhere on the horizon, and that's what interest rate increases are supposed to control, but Greenspan's idea of a shrewd move is to increase unemployment -- as Greider says, "to punish innocent wage earners for the excesses of Wall Street investors."

Meanwhile, none of this is part of the presidential campaign. We are getting zip, nada, on globalization and the risks of the current economy. (George W. did plead to "tear down terriers and bariffs" but I don't think that counts.) We are getting nothing from our candidates about whether this is actually a technology-driven boom or whether tech stocks are the latest equivalent of the 17th-century tulip mania.

>From 1994 to 1999, the S&P index increased in value by 192.7 percent, but company profits increased by only 64.9 percent. Consumer debt is at unprecedented levels. Greenspan's only prescription for how to slow this down is that you should lose your job.

And all our candidates are worried about the Confederate flag in South Carolina.


Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.