Tag Archives: bankruptcy

The Broken States of the Union

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At the end of the day, a broken state is a broken you.

For the first time in US history a handful of US states is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Illinois is about to be downgraded to junk bond status, which will turn its financial problems catastrophic overnight. Illinois cannot possibly pay its accumulated debt, its unpaid medicaid expenses and its future retirement obligations, so bankruptcy almost certainly will be its only way out.

Main, Connecticut, Kentucky and California are also caught in chronic budget deadlocks that may lead to bankruptcy as a solution for dodging their entitlement obligations. Bear in mind they’re called “entitlements” because it’s money promised to you that you already put in the work to earn. It’s your retirement. Illinois, for example, has over $200 billion in pension obligations that will never be paid … or that can only be paid at a greatly diminished level worked out in some form of effective bankruptcy.

That’s a problem that is only solved by turning it into a worse problem for others. Illinois will end its problems by making certain that for the next quarter century, a good portion of the now retiring baby-boom population is dirt poor and must be carried by the younger population as dead wait (if not exterminated) because the retirement they planned in order to responsibly carry themselves through their final years isn’t there.

Instead of the state not being able to pay its bills, bankruptcy means that hundreds of thousands of retirees won’t be paying theirs, which means the people they owe money to will be going broke, and so the problem trickles down. State bankruptcy merely shifts the burden so that legislators don’t have to deal with it but you do. And it’s inevitable because the alternative is that you pay for it through much higher taxes. The state is you.

The Federal government won’t be solving the state budget problems either because it plans on dumping heavier medicaid expenses back on all states as it repeals Obamacare to help solve its own budget problems amid its own deadlock. Like the states, its own Social Security funds are going broke, so it faces its own massive entitlement problems. And, if it bails out one failing state, it will be expected to bail out all others that face such problems.

With Illinois effectively reaching bankruptcy and a likely catastrophic credit downgrade this summer, the problem finally starts coming to a head where everyone is forced to see how decades of government debt accumulation end, and that end looks something like this in real terms:

Illinois, as the bellwether example, has already stopped paying the contractors who fix roads and other infrastructure. That means the contractors will now stop fixing the roads and won’t be paying their employees, and broken roads don’t get corn and beef to market. Illinois has stopped paying doctors. That means the doctors will stop fixing people. Illinois has refused to pay its lottery winners (even though it took the money from all the suckered ticket buyers). That means there will no more lottery to raise state money because there will be no more ticket buyers. That means the state’s budget problems just got worse, so Illinois soon won’t be paying state employees or pensioners.

It sucks when your entire state goes broke. You see, you can keep kidding yourself — as our entire nation has for the decades that I’ve been complaining about this — that you’re going to take care of everyone on welfare with endless debt spending or that you’re going to maintain huge military power to control the world with debt spending; but eventually you pile up state or federal debts so high that you wind up not paying anyone, including the welfare recipients or the soldiers in your military.

Like the US government, the State of Illinois has been operating without a real budget for more than two years, operating dysfunctionally during that time by court-ordered stop-gap measures because the legislature is deadlocked as politicians refuse to accept reality; so, Illinois has now reached the same financial status as Puerto Rico.

Illinois is grappling with a full-fledged financial crisis and not even the lottery is safe – with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner warning the state is entering “banana republic” territory…. Reports have suggested the state could be the first to attempt to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy — but under the law, that’s impossible unless Congress gets involved….. “Illinois is the fiscal model of what not to do,” Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., told Fox News, while not commenting on the bankruptcy question. “This avoidance in behavior toward dealing with our challenges is what leads to the devastating impacts we are seeing today.” (Fox News)

And, for Illinois, the problem is that they cannot kick the can down the road any further because the next credit downgrade will make it impossible for them afford their current debt, which is really already impossible. Creditors will become much fewer and more expensive when Illinois becomes the first state of the union to hit junk-bond status and maybe the first to declare bankruptcy since the Great Depression, when Arkansas found itself “plain flat broke” and became the only state to ever default on its bonds (showing it can happen), effectively declaring its own bankruptcy, even if not sorted out through the federal courts. (Eventually, years later, Arkansas paid their bond holders.) Already, the Illinois ten-year bond yields are at 5.2%; but the world becomes exponentially worse when you hit junk-bond status and entire large institutions become outlawed from financing you.

“We have a very real deadline looming,” Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno told Fox News. “The alternative to not finding a compromise will be devastating to Illinois.”

With or without bankruptcy, the state is already badly defaulting on its obligations. Bankruptcy is just a more orderly way of deciding who is not going to get paid and by how much. But the not getting paid part? Already here, and nearly a dozen states are falling into this kind of severe condition. The issue with state bankruptcy is that bankruptcy court is federal, putting state budgetary sovereignty under state’s rights under federal determination; but it can be done:

David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania … wrote outright that, “The constitutionality of bankruptcy-for-states is beyond serious dispute.” The key, as he sees it, is that bankruptcy would be entirely voluntary, which should eliminate any concerns about Federal intrusion on state sovereignty. (Zero Hedge)

And it has been done … long ago … and is now here again.

Economic denial is about to square up to economic reality, and reality always wins! Eventually, economic reality forces your hand in a catastrophic solution because of your profligate ways. Eventually, you end up as a truly cashless society. This summer, we get to watch that play out in Illinois to get a sense of what it will look like elsewhere.

At the end of the day, a broken state is a broken you.

The motto of the State of Illinois, Land of Lincoln, who held this great national union together, is “”State Sovereignty, National Union.”

Illinois is all of us.

By David Haggith | The Great Recession

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National Bankruptcies Nearly Doubled in March

The number of bankruptcy filings nationally rose significantly in March, according to the March 2017 Bankruptcy Trends report by Epiq Systems

Filings in March were up 40 percent from February’s. In raw numbers, that’s a jump from a little more than 58,000 total filings to 81,590 filings. Compared directly to March of 2016, filings were also up last month. A year ago, there were 78,372 filings in March.

However, year-to-date cumulative totals remained absolutely flat. Year-to-date, there have been just shy of 193,000 filings, a flat 0 percent difference from this point a year ago, Epiq reported.

March’s totals reverse a five-year trend of total national filings for the month. Since 2011, when filings in March peaked at more than 146,000, each passing March since has seen the month’s total filings drop, until this year. However, the uptick does mirror February, which saw more filings than January after a sharp drop in filings in December.

According to Epiq’s AACER data, filings per capita, nationally, averaged 2.51 per 10,000 people in March. That’s up from 2.19 filings per 10,000 in February. Sixty-two percent of filings were 7 Ratio bankruptcies, which comprised 59 percent of filings in February.

As they have been for months, Alabama and Tennessee were again ranked first and second in the number of filings per 10,000. So far in 2017, Alabama has filed 6,966 bankruptcies, which is 5.9 filings per 10,000. That’s a 0.43 percent increase compared to last year. Tennessee filed 5.74 bankruptcies per 10,000, up just barely from the 5.23-per-capita totals from a year ago.

Though the total number of filings in Montana and Wyoming cumulative through March were comparatively few, 273 and 225, respectively, the percentage increases from February in each state were enormous. Montana saw a 168 percent rise in bankruptcy filings in March, while Wyoming saw a 157 percent spike. Maine, with 289 cumulative filings this year, saw a 112 percent rise in filings in March.

Those numbers are somewhat deceiving, however, as year-to-date filings compared to this point in 2016 for Montana and Maine were actually down, 23 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Wyoming’s filings to-date compared to last year are up 8 percent. Ironically, Maine’s drop was the largest of its kind compared to a year ago.

North Dakota again saw a percentage increase in filings compared to this time a year ago. The state reported 27 percent more filings in March than in February, which itself saw 85 percent more filings in January. Conversely, South Dakota saw a 19 percent drop over the same timeframe. Alaska saw the largest overall percentage increase compared to last year, with 51 percent.

Businesses filed 3,658 filings over 23 filing days in March. That compares to 2,797 filings in 19 filing days in February, and equates to 159 filings per day in March, compared to 150 per day in February. March’s business filings were also up from last year, when businesses filed 147 bankruptcies per day over 23 days in March.

Source: DS News

Illinois General Assembly Retirement System Only 13.52% Funded

Despite a massive rally in the stock market, Illinois public pension liabilities continue to grow.

GARS, the Illinois General Assembly Retirement System, is only 13.52% funded, down from 17% funded in 2013. How long can GARS last?

Meanwhile, Illinois has accrued a combined net pension liability of roughly $130 billion on which it assumes a 7% return.

Effectively, that is an interest liability of $9.1 billion a year even though that liability technically does not bear interest.

This is a guest post from Michael Lucci at the Illinois Policy Institute.

Interest on Illinois’ Pension Debt is $9.1 Billion Per Year

Illinois isn’t covering the interest payments on its pension debt. Those interest payments total $9.1 billion a year.

This is the reason Illinois’ pension debt continues to grow. As with personal credit card debt, until the interest is paid off none of the actual debt gets erased. Illinois’ pension debt is so large that it’s unlikely payments will cover the interest on the pension debt until 2028, according to a November 2016 special pension briefing from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

Illinois politicians have known for years about the state’s pension crisis, even if they have not taken serious steps to address the problem. Gov. Bruce Rauner recently spoke out on the cost of interest on the pension debt. Former Gov. George Ryan weighed in as well, saying:

“First off, the biggest problem we got with the budget right now is the interest they are paying on the debt. If I were the governor, … I’d say we are never going to be able to pay the full debt back, so let’s eliminate half the debt right now and write it off.

“If that’s not constitutional, it might be worth changing the constitution. That would dramatically reduce the amount of interest that they’re paying. The bond ratings would go up and the interest would go down.”

Ryan seemed to be referring to the annual “interest cost” on Illinois’ pension debt, which is about $9.1 billion per year, or $25 million per day. The portion of interest cost that isn’t covered each year is simply added to the debt.

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Why Illinois’ pension debt keeps growing

Illinois has about $78 billion in assets on hand to pay for pensions. But the present value of the state’s accrued liability is $208 billion. That leaves a difference of $130 billion, which is money the state owes – but doesn’t have.

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Illinois pension math assumes an annual investment return rate of just over 7 percent on $208 billion in pension assets. If pension assets end up returning less than 7 percent per year, then the actual pension liability will end up being much larger than is currently assumed.

However, $130 billion of that accrued pension liability doesn’t exist, which is considered the pension debt. This debt does not bear interest like a bond does – but it functions the same way in reality. Because $130 billion is missing, Illinois will automatically miss out on the 7 percent annual investment return on that nonexistent $130 billion. This “missed” investment return is about $9.1 billion per year, and is essentially the interest cost on the $130 billion pension debt.

Illinois’ type of payment plan, which fails to cover interest, is called “negative amortization.” The debt principal continues to grow because the pension payment does not cover the interest cost. The portion of the interest payment that isn’t covered is added to the debt.

As actuary Tia Goss Sawhney explained, a full pension payment is made up of three parts:

Full payment = Employer normal cost + interest cost + principal reduction payment

However, Illinois’ scheduled pension payments are too small to cover the normal cost and interest cost, causing the unfunded liability to go up. For example, in fiscal year 2018, Illinois will make an $8.9 billion pension payment, which will cover the $2.1 billion employer normal cost and $6.8 billion of annual interest cost. However, the annual interest cost is actually $9.1 billion, meaning that after the employer’s portion of the normal cost, Illinois will come up $2.3 billion short on the interest payment. The unpaid portion of the interest cost is added to the debt, just as if a person didn’t cover the full interest payment on a home loan or credit card. In Illinois’ case, that $2.3 billion shortfall will be added to the pension debt.

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The reason the principal reduction payment is negative is because the debt grows.

Illinois needs a constitutional amendment to allow for real pension reform

As Ryan pointed out, Illinois’ pension math might never add up without reducing the $130 billion pension debt, which the Illinois Constitution currently protects from being restructured. Even though Illinois is already overtaxed, and pension costs are driving up taxes more each year, the state still can’t cover the interest cost on the pension debt until 2028. On top of that, many local communities like Chicago have pension problems that are even more severe than the state’s problems. And the math gets even worse if Illinois doesn’t hit investment returns of 7 percent per year.

A golden rule of finance is this: Debt that can’t be paid won’t be paid. The state should develop a contingency plan to repeal the Illinois Constitution’s pension protection clause and restructure pension obligations to pull Illinois out of a potential death spiral should the need arise. Such a plan should preserve benefits for government workers with modest pensions while means-testing the richer pension benefits. This would almost certainly be challenged as a violation of the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court might ultimately decide the matter.

Illinois might be one serious recession away from a financial death spiral. A deep recession would reduce the value of pension assets while also causing tax revenues to decline. Illinois’ pension obligations would increase just as tax revenues dried up. After such a recession ended, out-migration would likely surge as Illinoisans increasingly realized the impossibility of financing their government’s spending promises. If financial assets fall and do not recover, Illinois’ pension math might be doomed.

The battered ship of Illinois’ finances is lurching toward a rocky shore. Lawmakers should develop a contingency plan for an emergency situation, and be prepared to enact it in order to salvage the state’s finance.

Michael Lucci

Start Mish Comments – Death Spiral

Lucci noted: Illinois might be one serious recession away from a financial death spiral.”

He is too optimistic. Illinois’ pension is in a financial death spiral whether a recession hits or not.

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Despite a massive rally, state of Illinois pension liabilities grew. It will not take a recession for a crisis to hit. Illinois is in a crisis now.

That crisis will be obvious to everyone when a big correction hits the stock market. Like it or not, a big correction is guaranteed at some point.

Blowing Bubbles

Thanks to the monetary policies of the Fed, ECB, Bank of China, Bank of Japan, and central banks in general, stock markets have now surpassed the 1929 high in bubbliness.

Only the dot-com bubble was bigger.

John Hussman has an excellent write-up of the bubble in When Speculators Prosper Through Ignorance.

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Pater Tenebrarum at the Acting Man blog continues the discussion with Speculative Blow-Offs in Stock Markets – Part 2

Destructive Bubbles

Central banks’ seriously misguided attempts to fight routine consumer price deflation, fueled very destructive asset bubbles that eventually collapse.

Worse yet, many pension plans did not even benefit from the speculative boom, but they sure will participate in the next collapse.

GMO 7-Year Forecast

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As of the end of 2016, GMO forecast real (inflation-adjusted) losses in both US stocks and bonds for the next seven years!

Things are so bubbly now, that GMO now foresees nominal losses in US equities. At this juncture, even gains of say 3.5% for the next seven years would sink the system.

Pension Reality

Public unions are already screaming for tax hikes to bail them out. Giving in to such an approach would do nothing but further drive businesses and wealthy Illinoisans out of the state, compounding the problem.

It’s time to admit reality: The Illinois pension system is insolvent, and not just at the state level. Illinois cities are also impacted.

Illinois Cure

  • At the municipal level, we need bankruptcy legislation so that cities and municipalities can shed liabilities in bankruptcy proceedings.
  • At the state level, we need pension reform. I propose taxing pension benefits above a certain level at a high enough rate to make the system solvent.

How likely is that?

For the answer, please recall my opening remarks: GARS, the Illinois General Assembly Retirement System, is only 13.52% funded, down from 17% funded in 2013.

Illinois is in a pension crisis. Forced admission of that fact will soon be thrust on Illinois politicians who will undoubtedly have an eye on your pocketbook. In fact, they already do: Mary Pat at Stump reports Illinois wants to tax ALL THE THINGS!

National Problem

Lest you think only Illinois is affected by this mess please consider:

  1. Dallas on Verge of Bankruptcy Due to Pensions; Just a Matter of Time (For Dallas, Houston, LA, Oakland, Chicago, etc)
  2. Criminal Witch Hunt in Dallas Pension Fiasco
  3. In Search of a Fix (When None is Possible): What Happens?

National Cure

Every state in the union will be affected as soon as the stock rally subsides. Even flat returns for seven years would bankrupt most state pension systems.

Corrupt states like Illinois will never address the problem properly.

We need national bankruptcy legislation to allow municipal bankruptcies in every state, national right-to-work legislation, and the end of prevailing wage laws to lower cost burdens on cash-strapped cities and states.

By Mike “Mish” Shedlock | Mish Talk

The Paul Ryan Puerto Rican Fiefdom Bill “Turns People Into Subjects”…

Yesterday House Speaker Paul Ryan pushed through a Puerto Rico Rescue bill called PROMESA.  The details of the bill are fundamentally challenging to understand in scope, however, the key aspect to remember is the underlying benefactor(s) – Wall Street.

While Ryan is severely adverse to PROMESA being called a bailout, that’s exactly what it is – only worse.  The plan structurally changes the dynamics of how State debt is repaid, and the considerations for bondholders under the 5th amendment (seizure of private property w/out compensation); which will lead to a guaranteed bondholder bailout.

However, beyond the ‘bailout’ aspect there is a framework to override state legislative authority and use un-elected “control board” appointed by congress to subvert citizen voices and make independent decisions.

Dave BratHouse Budget Chairman Paul Ryan

As you read this press release from David Brat consider the how such legislative usurpation could possibly be considered “conservative“.

DAVID BRAT:  Yesterday members of Congress voted in favor of PROMESA, a bill that imposes a control board on Puerto Rico. I opposed this bill, and in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, I explained why.

“The PROMESA Act creates an un-elected, unaccountable ‘control board’ imposed by Congress to manage Puerto Rico’s spending and tax policies for at least five years. Control boards and five-year plans, channeling Stalin: what could go wrong?

“PROMESA deprives the Puerto Rican people of their right to self-governance and establishes a seven-person board that can overrule the Commonwealth’s elected leaders on almost any law. Members of the control board will be personally chosen by President Obama to manage the territory’s spending and tax policies.

“….members of the House of Representatives [voted] to impose a system for ‘bankruptcy’ without a referendum asking the people of Puerto Rico whether they want this. Their right to democracy [was] not only infringed by this bill, it [was] entirely usurped.

“This makes the bill truly Orwellian — it remove[d] the consent of the Puerto Rican people and creates a fiefdom for un-elected officials chosen by President Obama.

“As economist Thomas Sowell said, ‘The fatal attraction of government is that it allows busybodies to impose decisions on others without paying any price themselves.’ Congress can’t even get its own fiscal house in order, but [passed] a bill to solve Puerto Rico’s problems.

“This bill should [have been] subject to ratification by the Puerto Rican legislature or a vote from the Puerto Rican people. As it stands, I [opposed] PROMESA because it turns free citizens into subjects.”  (link)

Hopefully, with sunlight, the American voter will wake up to the fundamental paradigm shift many voices continue to outline: this approach is not conservative, it’s deadly globalist authoritarianism.

After spending 18 years in Washington DC Paul Ryan is now showing everyone how he has abandoned the principles of “self-determination”, the cornerstone of historic “conservatism”, and now applies a big government ideology of un-elected, bureaucratic, and federally dictated control.

This seismic ideological shift in ‘conservative principle’ is indicative of the disconnect between the Republican Party, which has evolved into corporatist/globalist authoritarianism, and the America-first independent principle carried by Donald Trump.

Understand this dynamic and you understand the opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy.

The Ryan Coalition are “Rat Finks”…Rat Finks

Wall Street R.A.T Members: Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, Scott Ringel, Reid Wibble, and the list goes on….

There are trillions of dollars at stake.

Trillions.

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by Sundance | The Conservative Tree House

The Greater Depression: Comparing the 1930s and Today

Comparing the 1930s and Today

You’ve heard the axiom “History repeats itself.” It does, but never in exactly the same way. To apply the lessons of the past, we must understand the differences of the present.

During the American Revolution, the British came prepared to fight a successful war—but against a European army. Their formations, which gave them devastating firepower, and their red coats, which emphasized their numbers, proved the exact opposite of the tactics needed to fight a guerrilla war.

Before World War I, generals still saw the cavalry as the flower of their armies. Of course, the horse soldiers proved worse than useless in the trenches.

Before World War II, in anticipation of a German attack, the French built the “impenetrable” Maginot Line. History repeated itself and the attack came, but not in the way they expected. Their preparations were useless because the Germans didn’t attempt to penetrate it; they simply went around it, and France was defeated.

The generals don’t prepare for the last war out of perversity or stupidity, but rather because past experience is all they have to go by. Most of them simply don’t know how to interpret that experience. They are correct in preparing for another war but wrong in relying upon what worked in the last one.

Investors, unfortunately, seem to make the same mistakes in marshaling their resources as do the generals. If the last 30 years have been prosperous, they base their actions on more prosperity. Talk of a depression isn’t real to them because things are, in fact, so different from the 1930s. To most people, a depression means ’30s-style conditions, and since they don’t see that, they can’t imagine a depression. That’s because they know what the last depression was like, but they don’t know what one is. It’s hard to visualize something you don’t understand.

Some of them who are a bit more clever might see an end to prosperity and the start of a depression but—al­though they’re going to be a lot better off than most—they’re probably looking for this depression to be like the last one.

Although nobody can predict with absolute certainty what this depression will be like, you can be fairly well-assured it won’t be an instant replay of the last one. But just because things will be different doesn’t mean you have to be taken by surprise.

To define the likely differences between this depres­sion and the last one, it’s helpful to compare the situa­tion today to that in the early 1930s. The results aren’t very reassuring.

CORPORATE BANKRUPTCY

1930s

Banks, insurance companies, and big corporations went under on a major scale. Institutions suffered the consequences of past mistakes, and there was no financial safety net to catch them as they fell. Mistakes were liquidated and only the prepared and efficient survived.

Today

The world’s financial institutions are in even worse shape than the last time, but now business ethics have changed and everyone expects the government to “step in.” Laws are already in place that not only allow but require government inter­vention in many instances. This time, mistakes will be compounded, and the strong, productive, and ef­ficient will be forced to subsidize the weak, unproductive, and inefficient. It’s ironic that businesses were bankrupted in the last depression because the prices of their products fell too low; this time, it’ll be because they went too high.

UNEMPLOYMENT

1930s

If a man lost his job, he had to find another one as quickly as possible simply to keep from going hungry. A lot of other men in the same position competed desperately for what work was available, and an employer could hire those same men for much lower wages and expect them to work harder than what was the case before the depression. As a result, the men could get jobs and the employer could stay in business.

Today

The average man first has months of unemployment insurance; after that, he can go on welfare if he can’t find “suitable work.” Instead of taking whatever work is available, especially if it means that a white collar worker has to get his hands dirty, many will go on welfare. This will decrease the production of new wealth and delay the recovery. The worker no longer has to worry about some entrepreneur exploiting (i.e., employing) him at what he considers an unfair wage because the minimum wage laws, among others, precludes that possibility today. As a result, men stay unemployed and employers will go out of business.

WELFARE

1930s

If hard times really put a man down and out, he had little recourse but to rely on his family, friends, or local social and church group. There was quite a bit of opprobrium attached to that, and it was only a last resort. The breadlines set up by various government bodies were largely cosmetic measures to soothe the more terror-prone among the voting populace. People made do because they had to, and that meant radically reducing their standards of living and taking any job available at any wage. There were very, very few people on welfare during the last depression.

Today

It’s hard to say how those who are still working are going to support those who aren’t in this depression. Even in the U.S., 50% of the country is already on some form of welfare. But food stamps, aid to fami­lies with dependent children, Social Security, and local programs are already collapsing in prosperous times. And when the tidal wave hits, they’ll be totally overwhelmed. There aren’t going to be any breadlines because people who would be standing in them are going to be shopping in local supermarkets just like people who earned their money. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of it is that people in general have come to think that these programs can just magically make wealth appear, and they expect them to be there, while a whole class of people have grown up never learning to survive without them. It’s ironic, yet predictable, that the programs that were supposed to help those who “need” them will serve to devastate those very people.

REGULATIONS

1930s

Most economies have been fairly heavily regulated since the early 1900s, and those regulations caused distortions that added to the severity of the last depression. Rather than allow the economy to liquidate, in the case of the U.S., the Roosevelt regime added many, many more regulations—fixing prices, wages, and the manner of doing business in a static form. It was largely because of these regulations that the depression lingered on until the end of World War II, which “saved” the economy only through its massive reinflation of the currency. Had the government abolished most controls then in existence, instead of creating new ones, the depression would have been less severe and much shorter.

Today

The scores of new agencies set up since the last depression have created far more severe distortions in the ways people relate than those of 80 years ago; the potential adjustment needed is proportionately greater. Unless government restrictions and controls on wages, working conditions, energy consumption, safety, and such are removed, a dramatic economic turnaround during the Greater Depression will be impossible.

TAXES

1930s

The income tax was new to the U.S. in 1913, and by 1929, although it took a maximum 23.1% bite, that was only at the $1 million level. The average family’s income then was $2,335, and that put average families in the 1/10th of 1 percent bracket. And there was still no Social Security tax, no state income tax, no sales tax, and no estate tax. Furthermore, most people in the country didn’t even pay the income tax because they earned less than the legal minimum or they didn’t bother filing. The government, therefore, had immense untapped sources of revenue to draw upon to fund its schemes to “cure” the depression. Roosevelt was able to raise the average income tax from 1.35% to 16.56% during his tenure—an increase of 1,100%.

Today

Everyone now pays an income tax in addition to all the other taxes. In most Western countries, the total of direct and indirect taxes is over 50%. For that reason, it seems unlikely that direct taxes will go much higher. But inflation is constantly driving everyone into higher brackets and will have the same effect. A person has had to increase his or her income faster than inflation to compensate for taxes. Whatever taxes a man does pay will reduce his standard of living by just that much, and it’s reasonable to expect tax evasion and the underground economy to boom in response. That will cushion the severity of the depression somewhat while it serves to help change the philosophical orientation of society.

PRICES

1930s

Prices dropped radically because billions of dollars of inflationary currency were wiped out through the stock market crash, bond defaults, and bank failures. The government, however, somehow equated the high prices of the inflationary ’20s with prosperity and attempted to prevent a fall in prices by such things as slaughtering livestock, dumping milk in the gutter, and enacting price supports. Since the collapse wiped out money faster than it could be created, the government felt the destruction of real wealth was a more effective way to raise prices. In other words, if you can’t increase the supply of money, decrease the supply of goods.

Nonetheless, the 1930s depression was a deflationary collapse, a time when currency became worth more and prices dropped. This is probably the most confusing thing to most Americans since they assume—as a result of that experience—that “depression” means “deflation.” It’s also perhaps the biggest single difference between this depression and the last one.

Today

Prices could drop, as they did the last time, but the amount of power the government now has over the economy is far greater than what was the case 80 years ago. Instead of letting the economy cleanse itself by allowing the financial markets to collapse, governments will probably bail out insolvent banks, create mortgages wholesale to prop up real estate, and central banks will buy bonds to keep their prices from plummeting. All of these actions mean that the total money supply will grow enormously. Trillions will be created to avoid deflation. If you find men selling apples on street corners, it won’t be for 5 cents apiece, but $5 apiece. But there won’t be a lot of apple sellers because of welfare, nor will there be a lot of apples because of price controls.

Consumer prices will probably skyrocket as a result, and the country will have an inflationary depression. Unlike the 1930s, when people who held dollars were king, by the end of the Greater Depression, people with dollars will be wiped out.

THE SOCIETY

1930s

The world was largely rural or small-town. Communications were slow, but people tended to trust the media. The government exercised considerable moral suasion, and people tended to support it. The business of the country was business, as Calvin Coolidge said, and men who created wealth were esteemed. All told, if you were going to have a depression, it was a rather stable environment for it; despite that, however, there were still plenty of riots, marches, and general disorder.

Today

The country is now urban and suburban, and although communications are rapid, there’s little interpersonal contact. The media are suspect. The government is seen more as an adversary or an imperial ruler than an arbitrator accepted by a consensus of concerned citizens. Businessmen are viewed as unscrupulous predators who take advantage of anyone weak enough to be exploited.

A major financial smashup in today’s atmosphere could do a lot more than wipe out a few naives in the stock market and unemploy some workers, as occurred in the ’30s; some sectors of society are now time bombs. It’s hard to say, for instance, what third- and fourth-generation welfare recipients are going to do when the going gets really tough.

THE WAY PEOPLE WORK

1930s

Relatively slow transportation and communication localized economic conditions. The U.S. itself was somewhat insulated from the rest of the world, and parts of the U.S. were fairly self-contained. Workers were mostly involved in basic agriculture and industry, creating widgets and other tangible items. There wasn’t a great deal of specialization, and that made it easier for someone to move laterally from one occupation into the next, without extensive retraining, since people were more able to produce the basics of life on their own. Most women never joined the workforce, and the wife in a marriage acted as a “backup” system should the husband lose his job.

Today

The whole world is interdependent, and a war in the Middle East or a revolution in Africa can have a direct and immediate effect on a barber in Chicago or Krakow. Since the whole economy is centrally controlled from Washington, a mistake there can be a national disaster. People generally aren’t in a position to roll with the punches as more than half the people in the country belong to what is known as the “service economy.” That means, in most cases, they’re better equipped to shuffle papers than make widgets. Even “necessary” services are often terminated when times get hard. Specialization is part of what an advanced industrial economy is all about, but if the economic order changes radically, it can prove a liability.

THE FINANCIAL MARKETS

1930s

The last depression is identified with the collapse of the stock market, which lost over 90% of its value from 1929 to 1933. A secure bond was the best possible investment as interest rates dropped radically. Commodities plummeted, reducing millions of farmers to near subsistence levels. Since most real estate was owned outright and taxes were low, a drop in price didn’t make a lot of difference unless you had to sell. Land prices plummeted, but since people bought it to use, not unload to a greater fool, they didn’t usually have to sell.

Today

This time, stocks—and especially commodities—are likely to explode on the upside as people panic into them to get out of depreciating dollars in general and bonds in particular. Real estate will be—next to bonds—the most devastated single area of the economy because no one will lend money long term. And real estate is built on the mortgage market, which will vanish.

Everybody who invests in this depression thinking that it will turn out like the last one will be very unhappy with the results. Being aware of the differences between the last depression and this one makes it a lot easier to position yourself to minimize losses and maximize profits.

So much for the differences. The crucial, obvious, and most important similarity, however, is that most people’s standard of living will fall dramatically.

The Greater Depression has started. Most people don’t know it because they can neither confront the thought nor understand the differences between this one and the last.

As a climax approaches, many of the things that you’ve built your life around in the past are going to change and change radically. The ability to adjust to new conditions is the sign of a psychologically healthy person.

Look for the opportunity side of the crisis. The Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of two other symbols—one for danger and one for opportunity.

The dangers that society will face in the years ahead are regrettable, but there’s no point in allowing anxiety, frustration, or apathy to overcome you. Face the future with courage, curiosity, and optimism rather than fear. You can be a winner, and if you plan carefully, you will be. The great period of change will give you a chance to regain control of your destiny. And that in itself is the single most important thing in life. This depression can give you that opportunity; it’s one of the many ways the Greater Depression can be a very good thing for both you as an individual and society as a whole.