The Economy Has Caused Riots Before – In the Great Depression

Washington’s Blog reminds us that things got ugly during the last prolonged depression in the United States.  This interesting historical footage from the Great Depression shows what happens when large numbers of people are unemployed for years at a time, get desperate, and perceive that the game is rigged to the benefit of Wall Street.

This depression isn’t as deep or severe as the Great Depression – the bank bailouts and the 2009 Obama stimulus spending/tax cut bill (ARRA) made sure of that.  But as this week’s GDP numbers show, we simply aren’t growing enough to fully recover.  For workers, the nightmare is real.  With the #OccupyWallStreet movement (#OWS) growing stronger, spreading, and continuing now for well over 6 weeks, perhaps the Wall Street banks are having nightmares of their own about such scenarios as what happened in the video.  Could that be why JP Morgan Chase bank is making such large payoffs donations to the New York City Police department?  Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism fills us in:

Is JP Morgan Getting a Good Return on $4.6 Million “Gift” to NYC Police? (Like Special Protection from OccupyWallStreet?)

No matter how you look at this development, it does not smell right. From JP Morgan’s website, hat tip Lisa Epstein:

JPMorgan Chase recently donated an unprecedented $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation. The gift was the largest in the history of the foundation and will enable the New York City Police Department to strengthen security in the Big Apple. The money will pay for 1,000 new patrol car laptops, as well as security monitoring software in the NYPD’s main data center.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon a note expressing “profound gratitude” for the company’s donation.

“These officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe,” Dimon said. “We’re incredibly proud to help them build this program and let them know how much we value their hard work.”

But what, pray tell, is this about? The JPM money is going directly from the foundation to the NYPD proper, not to, say, cops injured in the course of duty or police widows and orphans…

And look at the magnitude of the JP Morgan “gift”. The Foundation has been in existence for 40 years. If you assume that the $100 million it has received over that time is likely to mean “not much over $100 million” this contribution could easily be 3-4% of the total the Foundation have ever received.

Now readers can point out that this gift is bupkis relative to the budget of the police department, which is close to $4 billion. But looking at it on a mathematical basis likely misses the incentives at work. Dimon is one of the most powerful and connected corporate leaders in Gotham City. If he thinks the police donation was worthwhile, he might encourage other bank and big company CEOs to make large donations.

And what sort of benefits might JPM get? It is unlikely that there would be anything as crass as an explicit quid pro quo. But it certainly is useful to be confident that the police are on your side, say if an executive or worse an entire desk is caught in a sex or drugs scandal. Recall that Charles Ferguson in Inside Job alleged that the use of hookers is pervasive on Wall Street (duh) and is invoiced to the banks.

Or the police might be extra protective of your interests. Today, [Oct 5] OccupyWallStreet decided to march across the Brooklyn Bridge (a proud New York tradition) to Chase Manhattan Plaza in Brooklyn. Reports in the media indicate that the police at first seemed to be encouraging the protestors not only to cross the bridge, but were walking in front of the crowd, seemingly escorting them across…

The wee problem is that the police are in the street, and part of the crowd is also on the street (others are on a pedestrian walkway that is above street level). That puts them in violation of NYC rules that against interfering with traffic. Note the protest were aware fo the rules; they were careful to stay on the sidewalk on the way to the bridge.

…some (many?) the protestors who used the walkway and got across the bridge were also corralled and not permitted to proceed to the Chase plaza. Greg Basta, deputy director of the New York Communities for Change, told me by phone, based on multiple reports from people who participated in the march, that as soon as protestors got to the Brooklyn side of the bridge, they were kettled. Greg was under the impression that there were construction barricades at the foot of the bridge which made it impossible for the marchers not to walk on the street. Because the focus has been on the what happened on the bridge, the coverage of what happened to the rest of crowd is sparse.

Some confirmation in passing comes from MsExPat at Corrente (apparently some of the very first off the bridge were permitted to proceed):

My friends and I made it to the Brooklyn side okay–we ended up with about 350 other marchers in Cadman Plaza, a lovely 19th century park. What I didn’t find out until later is that several hundred people behind me also got kettled and barred from going all the way to Brooklyn. So I was among the lucky marchers in the middle.

But notice even then that the procession to Chase Manhattan Plaza [correction, Cadman Plaza} was effectively barred. [Note JPM may have operations nearby, Bear Stearns had much of its back office there, and if the leases were cheap, JPM may have kept the space].

We simply don’t know whether the police would have behaved one iota differently in the absence of the JP Morgan donation. But it raises the troubling perspective that they might have. …

So far, the JP Morgan donation is an isolated example. But the high odds of continuing deep budget cuts at the state and local level open up the opportunity for corporate funding of preferred services, and with it, much greater private sector influence on the apparatus of government. This is a worrisome enough possibility to warrant a high degree of vigilance by all of us.

In Economics, the Zombies Walk Everyday, Not Just At Halloween

In economics the zombies are with with us year-around, not just at Halloween.

Zombie Economics

Zombie Ecnomics

Thanks to ACEMAXX-ANALYTICS for the graphic.   And thanks also to John Quiggin (who also writes at CrookedTimber) for authoring the book Zombie Economics, a must read for understanding how current “mainstream” economics got so far off track from reality.


Banks Want to Do To Student Loans What They Did to Mortgages

On the heels of yesterday’s post about student loans and their growth.  I want you to know that Wall Street is hot on the problem.  They’ve made a quiet proposal to the “supercommittee” that’s supposedly addressing government deficits to have the government subsidize the banks via fees without creating any more student loans or taking on any risk.  The essence of the whole proposal is to leave the government on the hook for student loans but to use accounting tricks to “take them off the books”.  It’s similar to the ways the big banks prior to the crisis would take debt and obligations they had and hide them in “special purpose entities” so they wouldn’t have to show them on their books.  There’s no benefit to investors, students, or the government from the proposal. Only the banks benefit.  But maybe that’s why they aren’t talking about the proposal in public but instead try to get it passed quietly through lobbyists.

Jason Delisle of New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch explains (bold emphases are mine):

The investment banking industry – and its friends in Congress – have cooked up a scheme they are pitching to the “supercommittee” that they say would reduce the federal debt and cut federal spending. Supposedly, the plan would take the government’s $555 billion direct student loan holdings off of its books. In reality, the plan, which would allow the bankers to earn fees on a $555 billion deal, plus $100 billion more every year, would not reduce the debt or cut spending. But that hasn’t stopped Wall Street from trying.

A proposal that could only have been be cooked up by investment bankers is circulating on Capitol Hill. It would refinance the $555 billion direct student loan portfolio with new debt backed 100 percent by the federal government. But this new debt would not be called U.S. Treasury debt, despite the 100 percent guarantee, and therefore not counted as part of the national debt. In other words, the new debt would be used to pay off the old debt (Treasury bonds) that the government issues to finance direct student loans. To be sure, the mechanics of the proposal are more complicated than that, but the effect of the proposal would be to move all outstanding and future student loans from bonds backed 100 percent by taxpayers to another set of bonds backed 100 percent by taxpayers but not counted as part of the national debt. …

The proposal would increase federal spending because the new securities the government would issue to finance direct loans would have higher interest costs than the Treasury bonds they would replace, effectively increasing the cost of every direct loan. Investors would view the new securities as slightly less desirable than Treasuries (even though they still carry a 100 percent guarantee from the federal government) because they will not be as liquid (easily bought and sold among investors). The new securities would also be subject to prepayment risk…Then there are the fees that the government would have to pay to investment banks (the “syndicate of underwriters”) to put the new securities on the market each year. Those fees could cost taxpayers tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Apparently the supporters of the proposal claim that it would “diversify funding sources”.  In other words, if someday, somehow, some investors wouldn’t want to buy U.S. Treasury bonds (something is emphatically NOT happening now since interest rates are at record lows), then maybe they might be interested in something that’s backed by the U.S. but isn’t called a Treasury bond.  In other words, there’s a slight chance that pigs might someday fly away from the farm so let’s have a bunch of hogs that well call “pink cows”.  Jason speaking again:

Some members of Congress – particularly Republicans – would simply feel better if the direct loan program were funded with “private capital” rather than U.S. Treasury bonds….[but] the securities would be sold in the same markets as Treasury bonds and the capital raised to finance direct student loans would be no more or less “private” than it was before.

If the Wall Street proposal to refinance direct student loans doesn’t actually reduce the debt, increases the federal budget deficit, and doesn’t make the program’s financing any more dependent on the private market than it already is, what does it do? It effectively addresses what some see as the direct loan program’s biggest shortcoming; it doesn’t allow Wall Street to make a ton of money off of it.

So Wall Street wants to do to student loans what it’s done to home mortgage finance.  Have somebody else, such as the federal government, guarantee that they cannot lose any money.  Then, they want to bundle them and re-sell them solely for the purposes of making more fees – just like they did with mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps and other derivatives.  If I recall correctly, that didn’t really work out too well now did it?  Well it worked out for the banks, but not for the rest of us.

Student Loans and the Building Crisis

Student loans are gradually becoming a crisis.  At the macro level, student loans are the only sector of consumer finance that is growing since the recession began 3 years ago.  Federal student loans outstanding now total more than $1 trillion.  That’s more than total credit card debt.  From

Student loan debt only segment of household debt expanding

The Federal Reserve tracks federally backed student loan debt and the figures are astounding.  The only sector of household debt that has expanded in manic fashion during this recession is with student loans:

debt growth by sectors

Every sector has taken a hit including:

-Home equity revolving debt

-Automobile loans

-Credit card debt

-Other debt

Yet there goes student loan debt saddling countless students with back breaking debt.  Make no mistake, much of the for-profits are growing simply because of the government:

“(USA Today) For profit-schools. The highest default rates are at for-profit schools that tend to serve lower-income students and offer courses online. The University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest, got 88% of its revenue from federal programs last year, most of it from student loans.”

This is absolutely nonsense and shows how the coupling of Wall Street and the government have simply turned education into another commodity to water down and gamble on.  Like the multiple card game tables in Las Vegas higher education is the hottest game in town.

But unlike credit card debt, student loan cannot be reset or forgiven in bankruptcy court.  It’s a permanent burden on the former student.

In theory, the loan shouldn’t be a burden because it was an investment in greater earning power of the former student and now potential worker.  But since this current era of lesser depression or workers depressionbegan, incomes for the college educated have actually declined.  CalculatedRiskBlog quotes from the New York Times recent analyses of U.S. household incomes: (bold emphases are mine)

From the NY Times: Recession Officially Over, U.S. Incomes Kept Falling. A few excerpts:…

And on education:

Median annual income declined most for households headed by someone with an associate’s degree, dropping 14 percent, to $53,195, in the four-year period that ended in June 2011, the report said.

For households headed by people who had not completed high school, median income declined by 7.9 percent, to $25,157. For those with a bachelor’s degree or more, income declined by 6.8 percent, to $82,846.

What’s more, the unemployment rate is also up for graduates (and all other categories). puts a graph to the income dynamics:

 Yet if we look at the earnings potential during the bubble years we see a very troubling picture:


Source:  BusinessWeek

Since 2000, in real terms college costs are now up by 23%

Since 2000, in real terms real pay for college graduates is down by 11%

This means potential disaster for graduates and other former students. From Leo Komfield at New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch:

The Department of Education recently announced that the national student loan default rate has risen to over 8 percent and we know that this measure provides only a limited view of the troubles that borrowers are having repaying their student loan debt. In the current economy, we can only expect things to get worse unless the Education Department tackles this problem head-on.

Among the defaulters are a large percentage of unemployed college students. It’s bad enough to be unemployed; however, when you add to this difficulty with being classified as a defaulter, you are really in trouble. Defaulting on federal student loans results in a lifetime of financial purgatory — it destroys your credit, making it impossible to obtain a credit card, car loan, and home loan, and it puts you at risk of having your wages garnished, and your tax refunds intercepted by the IRS.

The student loan market is back in the news as it makes its unrelenting march to the $1 trillion mark.  This crippling figure comes in the face of a decade of lost wages for middle class Americans.  Just like the housing bubble people were supplementing a disappearing middle class with more debt.  The allure of housing was that never in our history have we seen national home prices fall, until they did in dramatic fashion.  The same cultural nostalgia for education in every respect has created a zombie higher education system that is now expanding like the mortgage markets at the height of the housing bubble.  Why?  For-profit schools have largely lured in countless Americans into a system that has provided very little economic gains for students while enriching these Wall Street listed companies.  It should come as no surprise that the highest default rates stem from the for-profit system and most of these loans are federal loans.  In 2010 there were $100 billion in student loan originations, the highest ever in the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

But it also spells a crisis on a much larger scale.  Reports are showing that the OccupyWallStreet movement (#OWS) is partially made up of significant numbers of young people and recent graduates in particular.  These are not the “dirty hippies” and “degenerates” that many conservatives have labeled them.  Rather, they are the people who followed the “rules”. They studied. They went to college.  In large numbers they took responsbility for their future by taking on student loans and investing in their human capital – all things society has told them to do.  Now, almost 4 years since the recession began, there aren’t any jobs for them.  They’ve graduated and now face payments on those loans.  But the jobs simply don’t exist.  When young people are educated and then are denied opportunity, there’s danger for society.  That’s the recipe for revolutions as we’ve seen in Tunisia and Egypt already this year.


Some Other Interesting Perspectives on OccupyWallStreet

I’ve already mentioned my initial thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement (#OWS).  Here’s some snippets from a couple of others with some interesting insights.  First, historian William Hogeland writes at his blog Hysteriography.  He notes how the #OWS movement is a deeply American movement.  It has roots in the American revolutionary period as much as any Tea Party. He also reminds us that the Revolution wasn’t simply Americans vs. the tyrannical English. It was just as much about pure economic equality and fairness.   It was also about elitist rich Americans vs. populist American farmers and workers oppressed by taxes, foreclosures, and debts.

… I write about the deep, founding roots of rowdy, American populist protest and insurrection, often visionary and even utopian, yet informed and practical too, specifically over money, credit, and the purpose and nature of public and private finance. …most people still don’t connect the American founding period with a rugged drive on the part of ordinary people for equal access to the tools of economic development and against the hegemony of the high-finance, inside-government elites who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution and made us a nation.

Sometimes people even ascribe democratic ideas to the famous upscale American Revolutionaries, who to a man actually hated democracy and popular finance. Paine, the exception, was ultimately rebuked and scorned by all of the others. [UPDATE: Anyway, Paine wasn’t one of them; I threw him in defensively because consensus-history types like to “include him in” on the basis of “Common Sense,” while including his social/economic radicalism out.]

The difficulty in dealing with our founding battle for democratic economics arises in part because the movement was not against England but against the very American banking and trading elites who dominated the resistance to England. That complicates our founding myth, possibly unpleasantly. Also, it was a generally losing battle. With ratification of the Constitution, Hamiltonian finance triumphed, and people looking to Jefferson and Madison for finance and economic alternatives to Hamilton are barking up the wrong tree, since what those men knew, or even really cared, about finance could be written on a dime. (Anyway, in pushing for creating a  nation, Madison supported Hamiltonian finance down the line. Their differences came later.) When Occupy Wall Street protesters say “It’s We the People!”  they’re actually referring to a preamble, intending no hint of economic democracy, to a document that was framed specifically to push down democratic finance and concentrate American wealth for national purposes. Not very edifying, but there it is.

…Amid horrible depressions and foreclosure crises, from the 1750′s through the 1790′s, ordinary people closed debt courts, rescued debt prisoners, waylaid process servers, boycotted foreclosure actions, etc. (More on that here and here.) They were legally barred from voting and holding office, since they didn’t have enough property, so they used their power of intimidation to pressure their legislatures for debt relief and popular monetary policies. Their few leaders in legit politics included the visionary preacher Herman Husband, the weaver William Findley, and the farmer Robert Whitehill.

They had high hopes for American independence. In the 1770′s, their “out-of-doors” collaboration with the famous elites was critical to enabling the Declaration of Independence — even though none of their names appears there (well, Benjamin Rush’s does, but by then he’d become unradicalized). Their democratic, egalitarian hopes dashed, in the 1780′s, in western Massachusetts, they marched on the state’s armory in Springfield to reverse regressive finance policies that had again plunged ordinary people into debt peonage and foreclosure while bailing out rich creditors (elites called that populist action, reductively, Shays’s Rebellion). In the 1790′s, with the Constitution in force, and Hamilton’s economics the law of a powerful new nation (partly in direct reaction to the Shays action), populists took over the militia and debt-court system throughout western Pennsylvania and western counties of neighboring states, flew their own flag, and tried to secede from the United States and form an economically egalitarian country. Hamilton dubbed that action, again in a successful effort to reduce it, the Whiskey Rebellion, and he and President Washington responded, naturally enough, by occupying western Pennsylvania with federal troops.

It is my possibly vain hope that reading up on such historical matters might inspire efforts like Occupy Wall Street to greater cogency and a deeper, more solid foundation in longstanding (if embattled and problematic) American values than they now seem to possess. You don’t have to look as late as the 19th-century Populists and the 1930′s labor movement, for example, to find an American left deeply immersed in both economic issues and an ambitious vision of a better country. Those things were present at the creation.

Hogeland also recommends an “Occupy Wall Street” Reading List.

Next up is John Quiggin at Crooked Timber.  He first observes that much of the eventual outcome of the #OWS movement depends on the “19%” – the folks that are in the top quintile, the top 20%, but aren’t part of the top 1%.  As we know powerfully from a graph I posted a few days ago:

First, economix at the New York Times reported on the basic income distribution data recently:

The graph below shows how much income is earned by a household at any given percentile in the income distribution, based on these new numbers for 2011:

DESCRIPTIONTax Policy Center

Incomes grow much, much faster at the top end of the income distribution than in the middle or at the bottom end. That is, the disparity in income between one percentile and a consecutive percentile is bigger among the very rich.

The top quintile, the top 20% may be rich compared to the rest, but not very much.  It’s really the top 1% and the top 0.1% where the income scale is truly distorted and outrageous.  Quiggin makes the point that the 19% is politically influential and powerful.  Perhaps not as powerful as the 1%, but clearly politically influential.  To keep the redistribution of income to the top game going, the top 1% has to keep the 19% on their side.  Without them, there’s clearly no legitimacy.  [bold emphases mine]

The top quintile as a whole commands the great majority of US income, and virtually all financial wealth – few households outside this group own much beyond their homes and perhaps some money in a pension fund….

The 19 per cent also have a disproportionate political weight, since they are much more likely than Americans in general to register, vote and engage in political activity. So, it makes a big difference whether, as as implied by ‘We are the 99 per cent’ their interests are aligned with the mass of the population or with the top 1 per cent…

The top quintile as a whole has done very well over the past few decades, and (despite some silly claims to the contrary), high-income earners have mostly voted Republican, in line with their economic interests. Certainly there are plenty who don’t vote their interests, but that is also true of many people in the top 1 per cent, not to mention bona fide billionaires like Buffett and Soros. [but]… a closer look at income growth figures suggests that, while the 19 per cent have enjoyed rising incomes, they’ve only barely maintained their share of national income. The redistribution of the past three decades has gone from the bottom 80 per cent to the top 1 per cent.

That suggests the possibility of a policy response in which the main redistributive thrust would be to reverse this process.  This would almost certainly involve higher tax payments, but this would be offset by the restoration of public services, which are in economic terms a ‘superior good’, valued more as income rises. The top 1 per cent can buy their own services, and are largely unaffected by public sector cutbacks, but that’s not true of the 19 per cent.

Another important factor is the growth of economic insecurity. The myth of the US as a land of opportunity for upward mobility has been replaced by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling (another good source on this is High Wire by Peter Gosselin). Even if people in the top 19 per cent are doing well, they are less secure than at any time since the 1930s, and their children face even more uncertain prospects.

Finally, there is the alliance of the 1 per cent with the forces of rightwing cultural tribalism. The 1 per cent can only rule by persuading lots of people to vote against their interests, and that requires a reactionary and anti-intellectual agenda on social, cultural and scientific issues. As a result, educated voters have increasingly turned against the Republican Party.

I don’t want to make too much of this last point. As Allan Grayson said during his memorable takedown of PJ O’Rourke recently, the 1 per cent own the Republican Party outright, but they also own much of the Democratic Party, and can rule satisfactorily through either. Also, having a college degree isn’t the same as being educated – Tea Party supporters are more likely than the average American to have a degree, and college-graduate Republicans are even more prone to various delusional beliefs on issues such as climate change.

Nevertheless, taking account of all the factors listed above, even the most comfortably affluent members of the professional class, looking at the alliance of plutocrats and theocrats arrayed to defend Wall Street could reasonably conclude that it was in their own interests to support the 99 per cent and not the 1 per cent.

We are therefore (surprisingly to me) suddenly back in a situation where a progressive movement can reasonably claim to act in the interests of a group that is:..
(a) the overwhelming majority of the population
(b) responsible for nearly all the productive activity (as against the 1 per cent’s incomes drawn from a parasitic financial sector)
(c) economically desperate or at risk of becoming so.

Can all of this be sustained? I don’t know, any more than anyone else. But #OWS has already achieved things that most people would have regarded as impossible a month ago, and for the moment at least, the momentum is still growing.

The #OWS movement appears to be spreading and  growing in a way the Tea Party never did.  It’s clearly, as Hogeland points out, deep in the tradition of American politics.  And as Quiggin points out, the 19%, the top quintile folks  have had income gains in recent years but they’ve also had a dramatic increase in economic insecurity, diminished prospects for their children, and a reduction in the public services they value such as top-notch public universities and infrastructure.  It’s interesting times, especially since no presidential candidate from either party appears to align with the interests of the #OWS movement.

Oligopoly and the Costs of Higher Education – Journals Edition

There are many reasons why costs in higher education have been rising faster than inflation for many decades.  A fundamental reason is because education is so labor-intensive and (so far) has been resistant to improved productivity via capital investment or technology.  This is called Baumol’s Cost Disease.

But there are other reasons too.  One is that historically higher education has been a non-profit industry but it is like healthcare in that much, if not all, of the costs are paid for by a third-party such as government instead of the consuming customer themselves.  There’s another similarity to healthcare in that in both it’s the seller, the doctor or the professor/university, that tells the consumer, the patient or student, what specifically they need to consume.  The consuming customer, the student or patient, doesn’t have all the information to know what they need.  This 3-way or 4-way transaction arrangement isn’t the standard buyer-seller arrangement of micro-economic texts about markets.  When a 3-way arrangement exists where there’s a seller, a consumer and a separate payor, conditions are ripe for abuse.  Basically, the seller tells the consumer to buy more at higher prices.  The consumer doesn’t object because somebody else is paying.

Historically, the arrangements never got out of hand because doctors in healthcare and universities in higher education were non-profit “professionals”.  But when for-profit entities entered, the dynamics shifted.  Higher education still consists of a a strong majority of non-profit institutions.  But they are surrounded by a several supplier industries that are very definitely profit-maximizers such as book publishers.  Publishers have long pursued a process of competing on features and making textbooks more expensive because the person who selected the book, the professor, didn’t have to pay.  Students paid through their student loans and they didn’t have much choice.

Eliminating choice is the key to higher profits.  That’s why monopolies and oligopolies make economic profits while firms in pure price competition don’t.

Now courtesy of a lecture by Hal Abelson at the Educause 2011 conference, passed our way by George Siemens at, we see why prices of academic journals have risen so much that many libraries can’t afford them.  It’s the trend towards concentration and oligopoly.  The government could do something about it via antitrust enforcement, but for several decades antitrust enforcement has been weak except for blatant conspiratorial price-fixing.  This image below (from this article – .pdf) demonstrates:

Warning: More Bank Bailouts Possible

One area I haven’t commented on much is the ongoing European “debt crisis”.  The Greek debt crisis is a part of it, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  The roots are much deeper.  One reason I haven’t commented is because it’s fairly complex and requires a lot of background explanation which I haven’t had time to write.  Nonetheless, it’s something worth mentioning.  In particular because it’s likely to mean more big bank bailouts.

In short, the crisis involves the way the Euro currency zone is constructed.  Countries that use the Euro have surrendered their sovereignty on monetary policy – that’s now the purview of the European Central Bank (ECB).  This means that government debt levels do matter for countries in the Euro.  They can default because they don’t have control over their own currency.  The U.S., Japan, UK, Canada, Australia, and others can’t default because they control their own central bank and currency.  But Euro countries can.  In the case of Greece and Ireland this means a high likelihood of default.  When the global economy crashed three years ago, it sent the economies of most countries down.  This raised the debt-to-GDP level by reducing the denominator, the GDP number.  But a country in a recession needs to increase government spending and deficits to stimulate growth.  Instead, the construction of the Euro agreement and pressures from the ECB forced these countries to pursue an austerity-based policy of cutting government programs.  But the cutting of government spending has only worsened the recession and shrunk their GDP even more, reducing tax collections.  It’s made default more likely.

In the Greek case, default appears inevitable.  The question is how much of a loss do bondholders take and when.  Therein lies a problem.  The people who own the Greek debt are largely big French and German banks. These banks themselves aren’t exactly robust.   If Greece defaults at a level that will actually help Greece find it’s way out instead of simply delaying the crisis, then these banks will likely take very heavy losses.  The losses are large enough to jeopardize the solvency of the banks themselves.  So Greek default also means figuring out how to recapitalize these big banks.  These are so-called “too big to fail banks”.

Currently there are negotiations going on about how to structure a  Greek default, simultaneously prop up the Euro banks, and stop a possible contagion effect from spreading to Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Belgium.  But there have been negotiations over this crisis for nearly two years now with much successs.  The German and French leaders have promised a comprehensive solution later this week. It was supposed to be today, but it’s been delayed to mid-week.

What does that have to do with the U.S.?  Nobody really knows.  The devil is in the details.  At first pass, big U.S. banks aren’t supposed to have much exposure to Greek debt, so they shouldn’t be endangered by a large Greek default.  But, the big U.S. banks like Citi, JP Morgan Chase, BofA, and Goldman Sachs have large stakes in the big Euro banks.  A failed Euro bank could have repercussions.  Of greater concern are derivatives, particularly Credit Default Swaps. The U.S. banks, particularly Goldman are known to have been active in selling these derivatives.  Since the derivative markets and positions are largely secret and non-transparent (a failure of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform bill), we don’t know if a Greek default will trigger significant liabilities for these banks.

In separate news, Bank of America, is on a death-watch by some analysts.  Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism clues us in:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it. I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC. About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

That compares with JPMorgan’s deposit-taking entity, JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, which contained 99 percent of the New York-based firm’s $79 trillion of notional derivatives, the OCC data show.

Now you would expect this move to be driven by adverse selection, that it, that BofA would move its WORST derivatives, that is, the ones that were riskiest or otherwise had high collateral posting requirements, to the sub. Bill Black confirmed that even though the details were sketchy, this is precisely what took place.

Part of BofA’s problems, well, actually a very large part of it’s problems stem from the loose and possibly illegal banking practices at Countrywide Mortgage which it took over in 2008.  Yves updates us on this here.

Bottom-line on all this:  expect more big bank bailouts of some kind in coming months.  It might only be big Euro banks.  It might only involve Bank of America.  But there’s significant,if less than probable, chance that we’ll have to see another round of bank bailouts.