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Andy Xie: Why One Bubble Burst Deserves Another

09-28 15:34 Caijing

The financial crisis taught crucial lessons about the dangers of bubbles, loose regulation and debt. It's a pity we didn't learn.

By Andy Xie, guest economist to Caijing and a board member of Rosetta Stone Advisors Ltd.

(Caijing Magazine) Lehman Brothers collapsed one year ago. The U.S. government refused a bailout and warned other financial institutions to be careful. The government felt other institutions had already severed their dealings with Lehman's investment network, and that a collapse could be walled in.

Little did the government realize that the whole financial system was one giant Lehman. The securities firm borrowed short-term money to punt in risky and illiquid assets. The debt market supported the financial sector, believing the government would bail out everyone in a crisis. But when Lehman was allowed to collapse, the market's faith was shaken.

The debt market refused to roll over financing for financial institutions. Of course, financial institutions couldn't unload assets to pay off debts. The whole financial system started teetering. Eventually, governments and central banks were forced to bail out everyone with direct lending or guarantees.

The Lehman collapse strategy backfired. Governments were forced to make implicit guarantees explicit. Ever since, no one has dared argue about letting a major financial institution go bankrupt. The debt market is supporting financial institutions again only because they are confident in government guarantees. The government lost in the Lehman saga, and Wall Street won.

So Lehman died in vain. Today, governments and central banks are celebrating their victorious stabilizing of the global financial system. To achieve the same, they could have saved Lehman with US$ 50 billion. Instead, they have spent trillions of dollars -- probably more than US$ 10 trillion when we get the final tally -- to reach the same objective. Meanwhile, a broader goal to reform the financial system has seen absolutely no progress.

First, let's look at the most basic objective of deleveraging the financial sector. Top executives on Wall Street talk about having cut leverage by half. That is actually due to an expanding equity capital base rather than shrinking assets. According to the Federal Reserve, total debt for the financial sector was US$ 16.5 trillion in the second quarter 2009 -- about the same as the US$ 16.6 trillion reported one year earlier. After the Lehman collapse, financial sector leverage increased due to Fed support. It has come down as the Fed pulled back some support, creating the perception of deleveraging. The basic conclusion is that financial sector debt is the same as it was a year ago, and the reduction in leverage is due to equity base expansion, partly due to government funding.

Second, financial institutions are operating as before. Institutions led in reporting profit gains in the first half 2009 during a period of global economic contraction. When corporate earnings expand in a shrinking economy, redistribution plays a role. Most of these strong earnings came from trading income, which is really all about getting in and out of financial markets at the right time. With assets backed up by US$ 16.5 trillion in debt, a 1 percent asset appreciation would lead to US$ 16.5 billion in profits. Considering how much financial markets rose in the first half, strong profits were easy to imagine.

Trading gains are a form of income redistribution. In the best scenario, smart traders buy assets ahead of others because they see a stronger economy ahead. Such redistribution comes from giving a bigger share of the future growth to those who are willing to take risk ahead of others. Past experience, however, demonstrates that most trading profits involve redistributions from many to a few in zero-sum bubbles. The trick is to get the credulous masses to join the bubble game at high prices. When the bubble bursts, even though asset prices may be the same as they were at the beginning, most people lose money to the few. What's occurring now is another bubble that is again redistributing income from the masses to the few.

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