January 21, 2008
Knees knocked last week from sea to shining sea as the shape-shifting monster of economic reality cut a swathe of destruction through the markets and financial ranks. The exact nature of this giant beast still remained largely concealed in a fog of accounting gambits, policy blusters, and reporting dodges, but a few intrepid scouts who glimpsed the behemoth up close said it looked like Godzilla with Herbert Hoover's face.
George W. Bush, tried to appease the beast by offering each American adult the dollar equivalent of half a month's mortgage payment -- with the exhortation to drive forthwith to the nearest WalMart and blow it on salad shooters and plasma TV's -- but Hooverzilla just laughed at the offering and pounded the equity markets further into the dust of loss, while the "bank-like" guardians of wealth lay in the drainage ditches bleeding from their ears and eyes.
My favorite moment was seeing Treasury Secretary Paulson and one of his fellow shaved-head deputies at a press conference rostrum frantically trying to calm the news media rabble like a couple of extraplanetary high priests from a Star Trek episode -- the batteries having run down in their laser wands, and their incantations ("liquidity! liquidity!) veering into mystifying glossolalia.
I resort to such admitted extreme hyperbole because it may be the only language that an infotainment-drunk society can still process in the face of an epochal calamity that will transform the lush terms of everyday life as we've known it into something like a bleak surrealist landscape in the manner of Tanguy. That crashing sound out there is the armature of confidence needed to support an economy based on faith that borrowed money will be paid back. It's as simple as that. (Doesn't seem so exciting now, does it?)
The United States is so broke, its people at every level from the Federal Reserve on down don't know whether to shit or go blind. The homeowners cringing in the media rooms of their 5000-square-foot personal family resorts don't know how long they can stay put microwaving pepperoni hot pockets with the default clock ticking. The mortgage "servicers" don't know how they will persuade interested parties like, say, the Illinois State Cafeteria Workers' Pension Fund (holder of X-amount of mortgage-backed securities underwritten by, say, Merrill Lynch or Deutsche Bank) to foreclose on properties scattered everywhere from Key West to Bainbridge Island -- or if there is actually any legal mechanism known to man that would make it possible to "work out" the sliced-and-diced collateral. The millions of maxed-out credit card holders and the issuers of their plastic are stuck together paddling a leaky tub in a sea of troubles every bit as wide, deep, and polluted as the one the mortgage junkies and their enablers are sinking in. The developers of malls, office parks, and power centers are weeping into their filing cabinets as the harsh daylight of insolvency stops the orgy of "consumption" and the retail tenants pack up their unsellable goodies for the liquidators, and the rent checks stop arriving in the mail, and the notes on this mall and that mall enter the eerie realm of "non-performance." And, of course, there are the genius wonder boyz and Wall Street playerz whose algorithms and turpitudes underwrote the script of this horror show -- for all I know they'll end up laughing into sugary skull drinks on a beach in the Cayman Islands, or doing Chinese fire drills in federal prison (or simply ass-fucked on the granite countertops of their Tribecca aeries by mobs of angry, repossessed, swindled former American dreamers pouring into Manhattan from the tract house dormitories of New Jersey and Long Island).
There's a lot to be concerned about out there. I don't mean to be too cute about it. But, as the master once said, nothing is funnier than unhappiness.
A whole closet full of "other shoes" is now waiting to be dropped. Surely the biggest clodhoppers in the closet belong to the hedge funds, representing trillions and trillions of dollar-denominated "positions" which, however hallucinatory, had previously yielded enough real "money" year-by-year to keep all the realtors and Humvee dealers in the Hamptons goose-stepping to Goldman Sachs's drumbeat. These "positions" can't help now from moving into counterparty crisis territory, especially as the bond insurers such as MBIA and Ambac go up in a vapor, and if that happens the damage could be so colossal globally that Stephen Hawking might have to be brought in to run the Federal Reserve.
This is going to be a rough week. Fastening your seat belts may not be enough for this ride. Better superglue yourselves to the floorboards and pray for God's mercy.