Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Confidence Game

Listen to enough economic news and you might be inclined to believe that the economy takes place entirely in our heads. As long as we feel good about the economy, it will be fine. It follows that the economic distress we're experiencing now is our own fault. It was brought on by a lack of faith.

If that sounds totally idiotic, that's only because it is totally idiotic. Nevertheless, the mullahs of Wall Street breathlessly await the publication of the "consumer confidence" index each month, and the Obama administration has based a good deal of recent policy on the idiotic axiom that the economy is as good as we think it is.

Well, maybe not -- or not exactly. If we believe the economy is doing better, and that our personal distress might be alleviated sometime soon, we are likely to believe that the Obama administration is doing a good job. Be confident, America! Your youngish, blackish, liberalish president is out there, taking care of you.

With that in mind, let's look at the stress test results.

The first thing that struck me was that the amount of capital we were told the top nineteen banks had to raise was roughly the same as the amount of still uncommitted TARP funds. It would be very nice if the private sector stepped up to the bat and provided that capital, but, if not, it is available in government funds without having to go back to Congress for more.

How convenient! No major bank is insolvent because the funds needed to bring it back to "health" already have been approved by Congress! Be confident, America!

Sadly, America cannot muster the patriotic spirit it needs to feel confident. It is difficult to feel confident when you think your job might disappear next week, or next month. Oh, wait! I forgot the good news -- that job losses in April were a bit less than losses in February or March.

That's not good news. It means that businesses are running out of the easy jobs to cut, and are getting into the hard ones -- that is, the people who will be harder to replace when things finally turn around and business picks up again. Under those circumstances, 539,000 is a hell of a lot of jobs. It's expensive to train a new worker to use specialized equipment or software, or to understand the specific needs of your particular customers. You hang onto those workers as long as you can, and only let them go if it's absolutely necessary.

The unemployment rate as of the end of April was 8.6%. The stress test criteria included a "worst case" unemployment rate of 10.2%. Hopefully, that's as high as unemployment will go, but it's really not the proper figure for a stress test -- it's more of a "reasonable expectation" than a "worst case."

Should my suspicions be justified, and it turns out that the stress tests were rigged to keep the big banks' additional capital requirements in line with the availability of TARP funds, more trouble is on the horizon. Unemployed workers have a distasteful propensity to default on their credit card debt. Businesses in bad enough shape to lay off workers they know they will need if they survive this recession are one step away from defaulting on their business loans.

Stress tests, my ass. Confidence? No, not much.

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