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How About Some Official Gloom & Doom?
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(July 15, 2008) Any time gold prices go up $100 in a month, it’s certain that big money is betting that things in this world aren’t exactly going hunky-dory. Let’s take it from Ben Bernanke himself:
"The economy continues to face numerous difficulties, including ongoing strains in financial markets, declining house prices, a softening labor market, and rising prices of oil, food, and some other commodities," the head of the Federal Reserve told the Senate Banking Committee this morning, adding that "many financial markets and institutions remain under considerable stress, in part because the outlook for the economy, and thus for credit quality, remains uncertain."

You can always count on getting a pretty dark outlook from Internet prognosticators and precious metals websites, but seldom do you find the head of the Fed in such a gloomy, doomy mood. But these are extraordinary times. Things really are bad out there.

Stocks are down some 20% since the Dow reached its a high of 13,930 in October of 2007, housing prices have been collapsing for nearly two years in a trend that seems to be accelerating, oil has gone from $11 a barrel to almost $150 a barrel in ten short years, the dollar has lost some 45% of its value against the euro since 2002, not to mention 70% of its value against gold in the past seven years. Gasoline now retails for over $4 a gallon, and consumer confidence in June was measured at its lowest level since 1980.

Unemployment is moving up, jobs are disappearing, and General Motors, whose stock is trading at a low not seen in over fifty years, was last week’s favorite bankruptcy rumor. But the most serious potentially belly-up institutions are the banks and other financial companies, having lost an average of half of their market value this year, mostly because nobody can derive any true sense of meaning from their mortgage- and derivative-laden asset positions.

Internationally, the Iraqis now threaten to ‘timetable’ us right out of their country, which, come to think of it, is probably the bright spot in today’s otherwise cheerless news front. In Afghanistan, the growth in both poppy horticulture and Taliban terrorism are at record levels, and last month more US troops lost their lives there than in Iraq. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Iran is making a show of shooting off long-range missiles, in a symbolic demonstration to the US and Israel that going to war against Persia, historically not a good idea, is today still a pretty dicey proposition.

And then we have, or had, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the terrible twins of private/public "government-sponsored entities" that between them own or originated some $5.5 trillion dollars in home mortgages. These privately-owned institutions were born of federal empire-making, conceived in good intentions, and dedicated to the proposition that widespread home ownership is a public good worth pursuing for all - particularly when bookkeeping profits can be tabulated yearly, which is a pretty good trick for a company whose entire business was 15-, 20-, and 30-year mortgages. Much like Enron, they managed to make long-term commitments, yet create yearly profits to make their shareholders and politically-connected executives, well, comfortable, to say the least.

On Sunday, July 13, The Treasury Department and Federal Reserve announced plans to make credit available to the two government-sponsored entities, with the possibility of our Treasury eventually buying equity in the firms – essentially beginning a nationalization process.

Initially, a loan of $2.25 billion is in order. After that, the plan is to get Congress on board for some real money. Some say it won’t take much more than $100 billion ($100,000,000,000) to bail them out, while other cite numbers much larger in addressing the $5.5 trillion obligations of Fannie and Freddie.

So in summary: your house is worth less, everything you buy costs more, you probably should worry about your bank, and if you are a taxpayer or dollar-holder, then you are at risk because the current accepted national solution to all our problems is: Print more money! But I’m not telling you anything you didn’t hear today from Ben Bernanke.

 

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