Michael Lewis, author of “The Big Short,” “Moneyball” and “Liar’s Poker,” is now tackling the global economic crisis in his new book “”Boomerang,”” He comments on how culture plays a role in our nations’ financial uncertainty.
Below is the video, his one hour interview with Charlie Rose and a recent article which he wrote on the topic in Vanity Fair.
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The smart money says the U.S. economy will splinter, with some states thriving, some states not, and all eyes are on California as the nightmare scenario. After a hair-raising visit with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who explains why the Golden State has cratered, Michael Lewis goes where the buck literally stops — the local level, where the likes of San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and Vallejo ?re chief Paige Meyer are trying to avert even worse catastrophes and rethink what it means to be a society.
On August 5, 2011, moments after the U.S. government watched a rating agency lower its credit rating for the first time in American history, the market for U.S. Treasury bonds soared. Four days later, the interest rates paid by the U.S. government on its new 10-year bonds were plummeting on their way to record lows. The price of gold rose right alongside the price of U.S. Treasury bonds, but the prices of virtually all stocks and other bonds in rich Western countries went into a free fall. The net effect of a major U.S. rating agency’s saying that the U.S. government was less likely than before to repay its debts was to lower the cost of borrowing for the U.S. government and to raise it for everyone else. This told you a lot of what you needed to know about the ability of the U.S. government to live beyond its means: it had, for the moment, a blank check. The shakier the United States government appeared, up to some faraway point, the more cheaply it would be able to borrow. It wasn’t exposed yet to the same vicious cycle that threatened the financial life of European countries: a moment of doubt leads to higher borrowing costs, which leads to greater doubt and even higher borrowing costs, and so on until you become Greece. The fear that the United States might actually not pay back the money it had borrowed was still unreal.
On December 14, 2010, the television news program 60 Minutes aired a 14-minute piece about U.S. state and local finances. Correspondent Steve Kroft interviewed a private Wall Street analyst named Meredith Whitney, who, back in 2007, had gone from being obscure to famous when she correctly suggested that Citigroup’s losses in U.S. subprime bonds were far bigger than anyone imagined, and predicted the bank would be forced to cut its dividend. The 60 Minutes segment noted that U.S. state and local governments faced a collective annual deficit of roughly half a trillion dollars, adding that another trillion-dollar gap existed between what the governments owed retired workers and the money they had on hand to pay them. Whitney pointed out that even these numbers were unreliable, and probably optimistic, as the states did a poor job of providing information about their finances to the public. New Jersey governor Chris Christie concurred with her and added, “At this point, if it’s worse, what’s the difference?” The bill owed by American states to retired American workers was so large that it couldn’t be paid, whatever the amount. At the end of the piece, Kroft asked Whitney what she thought about the ability and willingness of the American states to repay their debts. She didn’t see a real risk that the states would default, because the states had the ability to push their problems down to counties and cities. But at these lower levels of government, where American life was lived, she thought there would be serious problems. “You could see 50 to a hundred sizable defaults, [maybe] more,” she said. A minute later Kroft returned to her to ask when people should start worrying about a crisis in local finances. “It’ll be something to worry about within the next 12 months,” she said.
That prophecy turned out to be self-fulfilling: people started worrying about U.S. municipal finance the minute the words were out of her mouth. The next day the municipal-bond market tanked. It kept falling right through the next month. It fell so far, and her prediction received so much attention, that money managers who had put clients into municipal bonds felt compelled to hire more people to analyze states and cities, to prove her wrong. (One of them called it “the Meredith Whitney Municipal Bond Analyst Full Employment Act.”) Inside the financial world a new literature was born, devoted to persuading readers that Meredith Whitney didn’t know what she was talking about. She was vulnerable to the charge: up until the moment she appeared on 60 Minutes she had, so far as anyone knew, no experience at all of U.S. municipal finance. Many of the articles attacking her accused her of making a very specific forecast—as many as a hundred defaults within a year!—that failed to materialize. (Sample Bloomberg News headline: meredith whitney loses credibility as muni defaults fall 60%.) The whirlwind thrown up by the brief market panic sucked in everyone who was anywhere near municipal finance. The nonpartisan, dispassionate, sober-minded Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in Washington, D.C., even released a statement saying that there was a “mistaken impression that drastic and immediate measures are needed to avoid an imminent fiscal meltdown.” This was treated in news accounts as a response to Meredith Whitney, as she was the only one in sight who could be accused of having made such a prediction.
But that’s not at all what she had said: her words were being misrepresented so that her message might be more easily attacked. “She was referring to the complacency of the ratings agencies and investment advisers who say there is nothing to worry about,” said a person at 60 Minutes who reviewed the transcripts of the interview for me, to make sure I had heard what I thought I had heard. “She says there is something to worry about, and it will be apparent to everyone in the next 12 months.”
Whatever else she had done, Meredith Whitney had found the pressure point in American finance: the fear that American cities would not pay back the money they had borrowed. The market for municipal bonds, unlike the market for U.S. government bonds, spooked easily. American cities and states were susceptible to the same cycle of doom that had forced Greece to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. All it took to create doubt and raise borrowing costs for states and cities was for a woman with no standing in the municipal-bond market to utter a few sentences on television. That was the amazing thing: she had offered nothing to back up her statement. She’d written a massive, detailed report on state and local finances, but no one except a handful of her clients had any idea what was in it. “If I was a real nasty hedge-fund guy,” one hedge-fund manager put it to me, “I’d sit back and say, ‘This is a herd of cattle that can be stampeded.’?”
What Meredith Whitney was trying to say was more interesting than what she was accused of saying. She didn’t actually care all that much about the municipal-bond market, or how many cities were likely to go bankrupt. The municipal-bond market was a dreary backwater. As she put it, “Who cares about the stinking muni-bond market?” The only reason she had stumbled into that market was that she had come to view the U.S. national economy as a collection of regional economies. To understand the regional economies, she had to understand how state and local governments were likely to behave, and to understand this she needed to understand their finances. Thus she had spent two unlikely years researching state and local finance. “I didn’t have a plan to do this,” she said. “Not one of my clients asked for it. I only looked at this because I needed to understand it myself. How it started was with a question: How can G.D.P. [gross domestic product] estimates be so high when the states that outperformed the U.S. economy during the boom were now underperforming the U.S. economy—and they were 22 percent of that economy?” It was a good question.
From 2002 to 2008, the states had piled up debts right alongside their citizens’: their level of indebtedness, as a group, had almost doubled, and state spending had grown by two-thirds. In that time they had also systematically underfunded their pension plans and other future liabilities by a total of nearly $1.5 trillion. In response, perhaps, the pension money that they had set aside was invested in ever riskier assets. In 1980 only 23 percent of state pension money had been invested in the stock market; by 2008 the number had risen to 60 percent. To top it off, these pension funds were pretty much all assuming they could earn 8 percent on the money they had to invest, at a time when the Federal Reserve was promising to keep interest rates at zero. Toss in underfunded health-care plans, a reduction in federal dollars available to the states, and the depression in tax revenues caused by a soft economy, and you were looking at multi-trillion-dollar holes that could be dealt with in only one of two ways: massive cutbacks in public services or a default—or both. Whitney thought default unlikely, at least at the state level, because the state could bleed the cities of money to pay off its bonds. The cities were where the pain would be felt most intensely. “The scary thing about state treasurers,” she said, “is that they don’t know the financial situation in their own municipalities.”
Link to the entire article: