The current economic problems have their roots in one major thing: the vast expansion of debt in the United States over the last three decades.
Americans have borrowed far more money than they can ever hope to repay. Much of this debt is tied to residential real estate, but there are also record amounts of credit-card, commercial real estate, and public (state and federal) debt.
Starting in 2006, when mortgage debts began to sour, asset prices began to fall – even though employment and wages remained strong. The only time that's ever happened before was in the early stages of the Great Depression. This marked the beginning of the great "unwinding" as the excess debt began to unravel. The result has been a sustained decline in the underlying asset prices upon which layer after layer of debt had been securitized.
Declining asset prices and the large amount of mortgage debt already outstanding make it virtually impossible for the private sector to create any additional credit.
And because Americans (in aggregate) have not saved a penny in almost a generation, there's no way to keep the economy going. Americans have become credit junkies. Without more credit, America's economy falls apart. But according to the Federal Reserve, outstanding U.S. consumer credit fell in November by $7.9 billion – the largest monthly decline ever. That's a 3.7% annualized decline in consumer credit. That's never happened before – not since 1943, when the records begin. Credit-card balances declined by $2.8 billion, and auto loans declined by $5.2 billion.
The declines in credit made a huge impact on consumer demand. Car sales fell by record amounts in December (32%), and retail sales fell across the board at Christmas. It was the worst holiday retail results in more than four decades. These declines to credit set the stage for what would normally be a long-lasting recession and a massive decline in asset prices. Imagine how far car prices would fall if it became impossible to get a car loan. Imagine how far home prices would fall if it became impossible to get a mortgage.
But the U.S. government has one weapon no other country has – the world's reserve currency. The government clearly plans to make up for the shortfall in consumer demand by increased spending. The U.S. budget deficit for 2009 is now projected to be $1.1 trillion – more than 8% of GDP. Only during World War I and World War II did the government ever have bigger annual deficits. None of these figures include any of the new stimulus packages Barack Obama has promised, which means the actual deficit next year might grow to $2 trillion – around 15% of GDP.
Given our total debt already exceeds $10 trillion, it seems improbable this level of deficit spending can continue without sparking a run on the dollar via foreign governments selling U.S. Treasury bonds. No one believes our creditors will ever sell the dollar. But they're wrong. Our creditors will not allow us to print money forever.
South Korea is one of the largest holders of U.S. Treasury bonds. On January 19, the head of investments for South Korea's government pension service, Kim Heeseok, told Bloomberg, "It's time to sell U.S. Treasuries" because the ongoing stimulus is going to cause inflation. We are squandering and destroying the greatest advantage of our country – control over the world's reserve currency.
In 2009, we will see government spending approach 30% of GDP. Our government is now bigger, as a percentage of our economy, than the socialist states of Europe, excluding their health care expenditures. And these figures don't reflect the Federal Reserve's actions. The Fed hastripled the size of its balance sheet, creating enormous amounts of new money by lending to hundreds of ailing banks and buying up more than $1 trillion worth of questionable asset-backed securities. This month, the Fed pledged to buy yet another $500 billion of Fannie- and Freddie-guaranteed mortgage securities, helping to force mortgage interest rates down.
This is how America ends – with the lie that we all can live at the expense of our neighbor and borrow endlessly. Rather than simply face a downturn in the economy, we plan to borrow trillions of dollars our children and grandchildren will be forced to repay. Rather than let all those people and institutions that took on too much debt (like GM) be liquidated and restructured, we plan to risk a hyperinflation. Rather than insist homeowners who can't afford their mortgages lose their homes, we would jeopardize the credit rating of the country.
It is all madness. None of the government's bailout plans will solve any of the problems. The government can only shift the burden of the failures. Instead of bondholders and shareholders being wiped out, taxpayers are put on the hook. These actions will temporarily resuscitate the economy – but cause a permanent decline in the value of the dollar.
Fortunately for us, we have several ways to protect ourselves from what will happen. First, make sure to own physical gold and silver. A dollar run will send precious metals much higher. Second, own the highest-quality stocks in the world. And third, sell any long-dated U.S. government bonds you own. As the dollar loses its value and inflation returns to the economy, much of the value of these government IOUs will be wiped out.
I'm not happy to be the one to tell you all this. I hope I'm dead wrong. But it's paramount you take at least some measure of the precautionary steps I've just described. Bigger government is coming... and in the long run, it's going to make things worse.