Monday, March 30, 2009

United States: Third-World nation?

From Sunday's Washington Post, an article by Desmond Lachman, former chief emerging markets strategist at Salomon Smith Barney, who also served as an official at the International Monetary Fund:
Back in the spring of 1998, when Boris Yeltsin was still at Russia's helm, I led a group of global investors to Moscow to find out firsthand where the Russian economy was headed. My long career with the International Monetary Fund and on Wall Street had taken me to "emerging markets" throughout Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, and I thought I'd seen it all. Yet I still recall the shock I felt at a meeting in Russia's dingy Ministry of Finance, where I finally realized how a handful of young oligarchs were bringing Russia's economy to ruin in the pursuit of their own selfish interests, despite the supposed brilliance of Anatoly Chubais, Russia's economic czar at the time.

At the time, I could not imagine that anything remotely similar could happen in the United States. Indeed, I shared the American conceit that most emerging-market nations had poorly developed institutions and would do well to emulate Washington and Wall Street. These days, though, I'm hardly so confident. Many economists and analysts are worrying that the United States might go the way of Japan, which suffered a "lost decade" after its own real estate market fell apart in the early 1990s. But I'm more concerned that the United States is coming to resemble Argentina, Russia and other so-called emerging markets, both in what led us to the crisis, and in how we're trying to fix it.

Over the past year, I've been getting Russia flashbacks as I witness the AIG debacle as well as the collapse of Bear Sterns and a host of other financial institutions. Much like the oligarchs did in Russia, a small group of traders and executives at onetime venerable institutions have brought the U.S. and global financial systems to their knees with their reckless risk-taking -- with other people's money -- for their personal gain.

Negotiating with Argentina's top officials during their multiple financial crises in the 1990s was always an ordeal, and sparring with Domingo Cavallo, the country's Harvard-trained finance minister at the time, was particularly trying. One always had the sense that, despite their supreme arrogance, the country's leaders never had a coherent economic strategy and that major decisions were always made on the run. I never thought that was how policy was made in the United States -- until, that is, I saw how totally at sea Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy F. Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke have appeared so many times during our country's ongoing economic and financial storm.
On Wall Street there is an old joke that the longest river in the emerging-market economies is "de Nile." Yet how often do U.S. leaders respond to growing signs of economic dysfunctionality by spouting nationalistic rhetoric that echoes the speeches of Latin American demagogues like Peru's Alan Garcia in the 1980s and Argentina's Carlos Menem in the 1990s? (Even Garcia, currently in his second go-around as Peru's president, seems to have grown up somewhat.) But instead of facing our problems we extol the resilience of the U.S. economy, praise the most productive workers in the world, and go on and on about America's inherent ability to extricate itself from any crisis. And we ignore our proclivity as a nation to spend, year in year out, more than we produce, to put off dealing with long-term problems, and to engage in grandiose long-term programs that as a nation we can ill afford.

A singular characteristic of an emerging market heading for deep trouble is a seemingly suicidal tendency to become overly indebted to foreign creditors. That tendency underlay the spectacular collapse of the Thai, Indonesian and Korean currencies in 1997. It also led Russia to default on its debt in 1998 and plunged Argentina into its economic depression in 2001. Yet we too seem to have little difficulty becoming increasingly indebted to the tune of a few hundred billion dollars a year. To make matters worse, we do so to countries like China, Russia and an assortment of Middle Eastern oil producers -- none of which is particularly well disposed to us.

Like Argentina in its worst moments, we never seem to question whether it is reasonable to expect foreigners to keep financing our extravagance, and we forget the bad things that happen to the Argentinas or Hungarys of the world when foreigners stop financing their excesses. So instead of laying out a realistic plan for increasing our national savings, we choose not to face up to the Social Security and Medicare crises that lie ahead, embarking instead on massive spending programs that -- whatever their long-run merits might be -- we simply cannot afford. [emphasis added] ...

Article here. Yup, that's the path we're on.

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