Tuesday, November 20, 2007

17 reasons America needs a recession

Think positive, this 'slow motion train wreck' is good for the U.S.

By Paul B. Farrell, MarketWatch
Last Update: 6:53 PM ET Nov 19, 2007

ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. (MarketWatch) -- Yes, America needs a recession. Bernanke and Paulson won't admit it. And investors hate them. We're all trapped in outdated 1990s wishful thinking about a "new economy" and "perpetual growth."

But the truth is, not only is a recession coming, America needs a recession. So think positive: Let's focus on 17 benefits from this recession.

To begin with, recession may be an understatement. Jeremy Grantham's GMO firm manages $150 billion. In his midyear report before the credit crisis hit he predicted: "In 5 years I expect that at least one major 'bank' (broadly defined) will have failed and that up to half the hedge funds and a substantial percentage of the private-equity firms in existence today will have simply ceased to exist."

He was "watching a very slow motion train wreck." By October, it was accelerating: "Train hits end of track at full speed."

Also back in August, The Economist took a hard look at the then emerging subprime/credit crisis: "The policy dilemma facing the Fed may not be a choice of recession or no recession. It may be between a mild recession now, and a nastier one later."

However, the publication did admit that "even if a recession were in America's long-term economic interest, it would be political suicide" for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to suggest it.

Then The Economist posed the big question: Yes, "central banks must stop recessions from turning into deep depressions. But it may be wrong to prevent them altogether."

Wrong to prevent a recession? Why? Because recessions are a natural and necessary part of the business cycle. Remember legendary economist Joseph Schumpeter, champion of innovation and entrepreneurship?

Economists love Schumpeter's "creative destruction:" Obsolete firms get destroyed and capital released, making way for new technologies, new businesses, like Google. And yet, nobody's willing to apply Schumpeter's theory to the entire economy ... and admit recessions are a natural part of the business cycle.

Instead, everyone persists in the childlike fairy tale that "all growth is good" and "all recessions are bad," a bad hangover of the '90s "new economy" ideology. So for the folks at the Fed, Treasury and Wall Street, "eternal growth" is still America's mantra.

Unfortunately, the American investors' brain has also developed this blind obsession with "growth-at-all-costs," coupled with a deadly fear of all recessions, as if recessions are a lethal super-bug more powerful than Iran with a bomb.

Our values are distorted: It's OK to be greedy and overshoot the market on the upside -- grab too many assets, take on too much debt, make consumer spending a religion, live beyond our means, ignite hyperinflation along the way. Growth is good, even in excess.

And yet, recessions are a no-no that drives politicians, economists and investors ballistic.

Well, folks, you can block all this from your mind, you can argue that recessions are not a part of Schumpeter's thinking, that they are inconsistent with your political ideology. But the fact is, we let the housing/credit boom become a massive bubble, it popped and a recession is coming. So think positive, consider some of the benefits of a recession:

1. Purge the excesses of the housing boom

No, it's not heartless. Not like wartime calculations of "acceptable collateral damage." Yes, The Economist admits "the economic and social costs of recession are painful: unemployment, lower wages and profits, and bankruptcy." But we can't reverse Greenspan's excessive rate cuts that created the housing/credit crisis.

It'll be painful for everyone, especially millions of unlucky, mislead homeowners who must bear the brunt of Wall Street's greed and Washington's policy failures.

2. U.S. dollar wake-up call

Reverse the dollar's free fall and revive our global credibility. Warnings from China, France, Iran, Venezuela and supermodel Gisele haven't fazed Washington. Recession will.

3. Write-offs

Expose Wall Street's shadow-banking system. They're playing with $300 trillion in derivatives and still hiding over $100 billion of toxic off-balance sheet asset-backed securities, plus another $300 billion hidden worldwide. A lack of transparency is killing our international credibility. Write it all off, now!

4. Budgeting

Force fiscal restraint back into government. America has been living way beyond its means for years: A recession will cut back revenues at all levels of government and cutbacks will encourage balanced budgeting.

5. Overconfidence

A recession will wake up short-term investors playing the market. In bull markets traders ride the rising tide, gaining false confidence that they're financial geniuses. Downturns bruise egos but encourage rational long-term strategies.

6. Ratings

Rating agencies have massive conflicts of interest; they aren't doing their job. They're supposed to represent the investors, but favor Corporate America, which pays for the reports. Shake them up.

7. China

Trigger an internal recession in China. Make it realize America's not going into debt forever to finance China's domestic growth and military war machine. A recession will also slow recycling their reserves through sovereign funds to our equities.

8. Oil

Force the energy and auto industries to get serious about emission standards and reducing oil dependency.

9. Inflation

Expose the "core inflation" farce Washington uses to sugarcoat reality.

10. Moral hazard

Slow the Fed from cutting interest rates to bail out speculators.

11. War costs

Force Washington to get honest about how it's going to pay for our wars, other than supplemental bills that are worse than Enron-style debt financing.

12. CEO pay

Further expose CEO compensation that's now about five hundred times the salaries of workers, compared with about 40 times a generation ago.

13. Privatization

Stop the privatization of our federal government to no-bid contractors and high-priced mercenary armies fighting our wars.

14. Entitlements

Force Congress to get serious about the coming Social Security/Medicare disaster.

With boomers now retiring, this problem can only get worse: A recession now could avoid a depression later.

15. Consumers

Yes, we're all living way beyond our means, piling up excessive credit-card debt, encouraged by government leaders who tell us "deficits don't matter." Recessions will pressure individuals to reduce spending and increase savings.

16. Regulation

Lobbyists have replaced regulation. Extreme theories of unrestrained free trade plus zero regulation just don't work; proven by our credit crisis, hedge funds' nondisclosures, private-equity taxation, rating agencies failures, junk home mortgages, and more. Get real, folks.

17. Sacrifice

"We have not seen a nationwide decline in housing like this since the Great Depression, says Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. As individuals and as a nation Americans have always performed best in crises, like the Depression or WWII, times when we're all asked to make sacrifices. Pampering us with interest-rate cuts and tax cuts during the Iraq and Afghan wars may have stimulated the economy temporarily, but they delayed the real damage of the '90s stock bubble while setting the stage for this new subprime/credit crisis.

Wake up, the train wrecked. Time to think positive, find solutions, demand sacrifices.

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