Soros says deep recession inevitable, depression possible

U.S. Economy Falling Off A Cliff!:

George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management, testified at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Thursday. Highlights:

November, 2008

* Said "a deep recession is now inevitable and the possibility of a depression cannot be ruled out."

* Said hedge funds were an integral part of the financial market bubble which now has burst.

* Said hedge funds will be "decimated" by the current financial crisis and forced to shrink their portfolios by 50-75 percent.

* Said Fed, Treasury Department and the SEC must accept responsibility to prevent market bubbles from growing too big in future.

* Said impossible to prevent market bubbles from forming, but they can be kept within "tolerable bounds."

* Said financial engineering should be regulated and new products approved by regulators, and that such regulation should be a high priority of the new Obama administration.

* Said a recent IMF credit facility not large enough to stabilize markets.


The Crisis & What to Do About It

By George Soros

1. The salient feature of the current financial crisis is that it was not caused by some external shock like OPEC raising the price of oil or a particular country or financial institution defaulting. The crisis was generated by the financial system itself. This fact—that the defect was inherent in the system —contradicts the prevailing theory, which holds that financial markets tend toward equilibrium and that deviations from the equilibrium either occur in a random manner or are caused by some sudden external event to which markets have difficulty adjusting. The severity and amplitude of the crisis provides convincing evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong with this prevailing theory and with the approach to market regulation that has gone with it. To understand what has happened, and what should be done to avoid such a catastrophic crisis in the future, will require a new way of thinking about how markets work. Consider how the crisis has unfolded over the past eighteen months. The proximate cause is to be found in the housing bubble or more exactly in the excesses of the subprime mortgage market. The longer a double-digit rise in house prices lasted, the more lax the lending practices became. In the end, people could borrow 100 percent of inflated house prices with no money down. Insiders referred to subprime loans as ninja loans—no income, no job, no questions asked.

The excesses became evident after house prices peaked in 2006 and subprime mortgage lenders began declaring bankruptcy around March 2007. The problems reached crisis proportions in August 2007. The Federal Reserve and other financial authorities had believed that the subprime crisis was an isolated phenomenon that might cause losses of around $100 billion. Instead, the crisis spread with amazing rapidity to other markets. Some highly leveraged hedge funds collapsed and some lightly regulated financial institutions, notably the largest mortgage originator in the US, Countrywide Financial, had to be acquired by other institutions in order to survive. Confidence in the creditworthiness of many financial institutions was shaken and interbank lending was disrupted. In quick succession, a variety of esoteric credit markets—ranging from collateralized debt obligations to auction-rated municipal bonds—broke down one after another. After periods of relative calm and partial recovery, crisis episodes recurred in January 2008, precipitated by a rogue trader at Société Générale; in March, associated with the demise of Bear Stearns; and then in July, when IndyMac Bank, the largest savings bank in the Los Angeles area, went into receivership, becoming the fourth-largest bank failure in US history. The deepest fall of all came in September, caused by the disorderly bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in which holders of commercial paper—for example, short-term, unsecured promissory notes—issued by Lehman lost their money.

Then the inconceivable occurred: the financial system actually melted down. A large money market fund that had invested in commercial paper issued by Lehman Brothers "broke the buck," i.e., its asset value fell below the dollar amount deposited, breaking an implicit promise that deposits in such funds are totally safe and liquid. This started a run on money market funds and the funds stopped buying commercial paper. Since they were the largest buyers, the commercial paper market ceased to function. The issuers of commercial paper were forced to draw down their credit lines, bringing interbank lending to a standstill. Credit spreads—i.e., the risk premium over and above the riskless rate of interest—widened to unprecedented levels and eventually the stock market was also overwhelmed by panic. All this happened in the space of a week. With the financial system in cardiac arrest, resuscitating it took precedence over considerations of moral hazard—i.e., the danger that coming to the rescue of a financial institution in difficulties would reward and encourage reckless behavior in the future—and the authorities injected ever larger quantities of money. The balance sheet of the Federal Reserve ballooned from $800 billion to $1,800 billion in a couple of weeks. When that was not enough, the American and European financial authorities committed themselves not to allow any other major financial institution to fail.

These unprecedented measures have begun to have an effect: interbank lending has resumed and the London Interbank Offered Rate has improved. The financial crisis has shown signs of abating. But guaranteeing that the banks at the center of the global financial system will not fail has precipitated a new crisis that caught the authorities unawares: countries at the periphery, whether in Eastern Europe, Asia, or Latin America, could not offer similarly credible guarantees, and financial capital started fleeing from the periphery to the center. All currencies fell against the dollar and the yen, some of them precipitously. Commodity prices dropped like a stone and interest rates in emerging markets soared. So did premiums on insurance against credit default. Hedge funds and other leveraged investors suffered enormous losses, precipitating margin calls and forced selling that have also spread to markets at the center. Unfortunately the authorities are always lagging behind events. The International Monetary Fund is establishing a new credit facility that allows financially sound periphery countries to borrow without any conditions up to five times their annual quota, but that is too little too late. A much larger pool of money is needed to reassure markets. And if the top tier of periphery countries is saved, what happens to the lower-tier countries? The race to save the international financial system is still ongoing. Even if it is successful, consumers, investors, and businesses are undergoing a traumatic experience whose full impact on global economic activity is yet to be felt. A deep recession is now inevitable and the possibility of a depression cannot be ruled out. When I predicted earlier this year that we were facing the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, I did not anticipate that conditions would deteriorate so badly.

2. This remarkable sequence of events can be understood only if we abandon the prevailing theory of market behavior. As a way of explaining financial markets, I propose an alternative paradigm that differs from the current one in two respects. First, financial markets do not reflect prevailing conditions accurately; they provide a picture that is always biased or distorted in one way or another. Second, the distorted views held by market participants and expressed in market prices can, under certain circumstances, affect the so-called fundamentals that market prices are supposed to reflect. This two-way circular connection between market prices and the underlying reality I call reflexivity. While the two-way connection is present at all times, it is only occasionally, and in special circumstances, that it gives rise to financial crises. Usually markets correct their own mistakes, but occasionally there is a misconception or misinterpretation that finds a way to reinforce a trend that is already present in reality and by doing so it also reinforces itself. Such self- reinforcing processes may carry markets into far-from-equilibrium territory. Unless something happens to abort the reflexive interaction sooner, it may persist until the misconception becomes so glaring that it has to be recognized as such. When that happens the trend becomes unsustainable and when it is reversed the self-reinforcing process starts working in the opposite direction, causing a sharp downward movement.

The typical sequence of boom and bust has an asymmetric shape. The boom develops slowly and accelerates gradually. The bust, when it occurs, tends to be short and sharp. The asymmetry is due to the role that credit plays. As prices rise, the same collateral can support a greater amount of credit. Rising prices also tend to generate optimism and encourage a greater use of leverage—borrowing for investment purposes. At the peak of the boom both the value of the collateral and the degree of leverage reach a peak. When the price trend is reversed participants are vulnerable to margin calls and, as we've seen in 2008, the forced liquidation of collateral leads to a catastrophic acceleration on the downside. Bubbles thus have two components: a trend that prevails in reality and a misconception relating to that trend. The simplest and most common example is to be found in real estate. The trend consists of an increased willingness to lend and a rise in prices. The misconception is that the value of the real estate is independent of the willingness to lend. That misconception encourages bankers to become more lax in their lending practices as prices rise and defaults on mortgage payments diminish. That is how real estate bubbles, including the recent housing bubble, are born. It is remarkable how the misconception continues to recur in various guises in spite of a long history of real estate bubbles bursting.

Bubbles are not the only manifestations of reflexivity in financial markets, but they are the most spectacular. Bubbles always involve the expansion and contraction of credit and they tend to have catastrophic consequences. Since financial markets are prone to produce bubbles and bubbles cause trouble, financial markets have become regulated by the financial authorities. In the United States they include the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and many other agencies. It is important to recognize that regulators base their decisions on a distorted view of reality just as much as market participants—perhaps even more so because regulators are not only human but also bureaucratic and subject to political influences. So the interplay between regulators and market participants is also reflexive in character. In contrast to bubbles, which occur only infrequently, the cat-and-mouse game between regulators and markets goes on continuously. As a consequence reflexivity is at work at all times and it is a mistake to ignore its influence. Yet that is exactly what the prevailing theory of financial markets has done and that mistake is ultimately responsible for the severity of the current crisis.

3. In my book The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, I argue that the current crisis differs from the various financial crises that preceded it. I base that assertion on the hypothesis that the explosion of the US housing bubble acted as the detonator for a much larger "super-bubble" that has been developing since the 1980s. The underlying trend in the super-bubble has been the ever-increasing use of credit and leverage. Credit—whether extended to consumers or speculators or banks—has been growing at a much faster rate than the GDP ever since the end of World War II. But the rate of growth accelerated and took on the characteristics of a bubble when it was reinforced by a misconception that became dominant in 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the United Kingdom.

The misconception is derived from the prevailing theory of financial markets, which, as mentioned earlier, holds that financial markets tend toward equilibrium and that deviations are random and can be attributed to external causes. This theory has been used to justify the belief that the pursuit of self-interest should be given free rein and markets should be deregulated. I call that belief market fundamentalism and claim that it employs false logic. Just because regulations and all other forms of governmental interventions have proven to be faulty, it does not follow that markets are perfect. Although market fundamentalism is based on false premises, it has served well the interests of the owners and managers of financial capital. The globalization of financial markets allowed financial capital to move around freely and made it difficult for individual states to tax it or regulate it. Deregulation of financial transactions also served the interests of the managers of financial capital; and the freedom to innovate enhanced the profitability of financial enterprises. The financial industry grew to a point where it represented 25 percent of the stock market capitalization in the United States and an even higher percentage in some other countries.

Since market fundamentalism is built on false assumptions, its adoption in the 1980s as the guiding principle of economic policy was bound to have negative consequences. Indeed, we have experienced a series of financial crises since then, but the adverse consequences were suffered principally by the countries that lie on the periphery of the global financial system, not by those at the center. The system is under the control of the developed countries, especially the United States, which enjoys veto rights in the International Monetary Fund. Whenever a crisis endangered the prosperity of the United States—as for example the savings and loan crisis in the late 1980s, or the collapse of the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management in 1998—the authorities intervened, finding ways for the failing institutions to merge with others and providing monetary and fiscal stimulus when the pace of economic activity was endangered.



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