My best and worst calls of 2008: a credit crisis retrospective

This is the time of year when everyone tends to look back and sum up the year in one way or another. I have been doing much of the same.

In keeping with that theme, I have taken a good look through my nearly 1400 posts to get a better sense of what I got right and what I got wrong and how knowing that can help me going forward. Call it an exercise in intellectual honesty. This exercise has given me a good understanding of where things went wrong in the past year and why.

It may also give me some thoughts as to where we need to go in 2009. Let me share a little of what I learned with you. This is a long but thoughtful post, so take a few minutes. It should be worth it.

On the whole my predictive powers were working pretty well this year. But, I made a few lousy calls and some controversial ones along the way. Below is my view of how the year went, on some of those calls and links to the relevant posts. At the end, I’ll wrap it up with a few thoughts about where that leaves my thinking for 2009.

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This is the time of year when everyone tends to look back and sum up the year in one way or another. I have been doing much of the same.

In keeping with that theme, I have taken a good look through my nearly 1400 posts to get a better sense of what I got right and what I got wrong and how knowing that can help me going forward. Call it an exercise in intellectual honesty. This exercise has given me a good understanding of where things went wrong in the past year and why.

It may also give me some thoughts as to where we need to go in 2009. Let me share a little of what I learned with you. This is a long but thoughtful post, so take a few minutes. It should be worth it.

On the whole my predictive powers were working pretty well this year. But, I made a few lousy calls and some controversial ones along the way. Below is my view of how the year went, on some of those calls and links to the relevant posts. At the end, I’ll wrap it up with a few thoughts about where that leaves my thinking for 2009.

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Recession in 2008

I started the year (actually it was March when I began) blogging about recession. It was my belief at the time that we were already in a recession that would prove much deeper than widely acknowledged. I tagged this recession as having begun in December 2007 or January 2008. This has turned out to be right on the money. Relevant posts:

Easy Money as the problem, not the solution

My thinking at the time was that a recession,while deep, did not have to lead to deflation and depression if policy makers made the right calls. That meant following an Austrian prescription of appropriately high interest rates in conjunction with liquidity at penalty rates if needed and liquidating excess capacity where appropriate.

Until Lehman’s collapse, I stuck with the basic Austrian school belief: easy money is the problem and not the solution. I felt the Federal Reserve was a bubble blowing, easy money central bank that created the housing bubble because they did not have the regulatory wherewithal to stop the madness. I lay much of the blame for this malaise at the feet of the Federal Reserve. Relevant posts:

The Fed creates a commodities bubble and inflation

As the Spring progressed my worry was easy money. My logic was that an easy Fed was stoking a commodities bubble which, by seeping through into consumer price inflation, was going to cause a much harder landing when the bubble popped. My view was that inflation needed to be kept in check because it would set off demand destruction and create a hard landing that all but guaranteed deflation.

Ultimately, I believe this to be the correct interpretation of events but it is controversial because many see the Fed as having made the right calls in gearing up for deflation from the word go. You decide. Relevant posts:

Credit writedowns will be much worse than expected

Meanwhile the financial services sector was imploding. I was very concerned that policy makers were underestimating the severity of the writedown and loan loss problem about to come ashore. No one was chronicling the writedown problem comprehensively.

So I started the Credit Crisis Timeline on April 15th as a modest post called Global Bank write-offs and failures. Later that same day it later morphed into a post called Articles: Bank Writedowns & Failures before becoming the Credit Crisis Timeline in May.

As April hit us, I saw the credit crisis fanning out far beyond the U.S. and big bank exposure to subprime. This was NOT a subprime crisis and it was a global in nature. The U.S., U.K., Ireland, Spain and Denmark all suffered popped housing bubbles that weakened their banking system. Global banks like UBS were writing off tens of billions in exposure to mortgage backed securities. The U.S. regional banks were starting to look weak. So I started to write a lot about anticipated European bank writedowns and regional bank exposure.

My best call here was in predicting that many more writedowns to come and that the financial sector and its credit writedowns would be at the center of this downturn. My favorite call was on HBOS and its exposure to loan losses. My worst call was on Santander, which I thought was going to take down a lot of writedowns. I got that 100% wrong.

All in all, this was the most sickening time throughout this crisis in my view. The problems were mounting and the Bush Administration, The UK Government, The Federal Reserve, all of them, they were asleep at the wheel. Relevant posts:

Oh no, debt deflation is the problem now

Then, in about June I made a controversial switch to a deflation-only perspective. Most everyone else was concerned about inflation at this point. Yes, I worried about the Fed’s easy money, but I figured the damage was done and now we were going to have to live with the consequences of easy money in the form of crushingly high food and oil prices. That meant a major, major recession. Meanwhile, it was very obvious that the banking sector was getting sicker by the minute Debt deflation became my main only concern starting about June. This was starting to look a lot like Japan.

This inflection period between having to worry about inflation to having to worry about deflation was perhaps the crucial moment for monetary authorities. You can see my angst in the post “What’s a central bank to do?” From where I sit, my seminal piece in all this was the post “The ECB is right and the Fed is wrong,” which I wrote on July 4th. Basically, I still felt that the inflation genie could be put back into the bottle before we suffered an extra-hard deflationary landing. The ECB was looking to do this, but the Federal Reserve was not. In my view, the Fed had been easy all along and it was this easy money that created the oil and food inflation monster.

In retrospect, it was probably too late by July. The extremely hard landing was baked in the cake. So, I was wrong here. I was still worrying about inflation as late as July 18th (post: Has the inflation damage already been done?). By July I should have realized deflation, or at least unwanted disinflation, had already begun. Relevant posts:

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Things fall apart

So that gets us to the IndyMac blowup. And we later get to the nationalization of Fannie Mae and Fredie Mac which I correctly predicted in April ( post: Question: How is Fannie Mae a AAA company?). Honestly, I didn’t see IndyMac coming. I knew that things had gone beyond subprime into Alt-A already but I was blindsided by IndyMac like most everyone else.

In retrospect, I see IndyMac as the unexpected event which changed psychology toward fear. No longer were Sovereign Wealth Funds ponying up billions into the financial services sinkhole. Investors started to flee the financials in droves and that spelt the end for Fannie and Freddie and later Lehman about whom chatter had already begun even befre IndyMac went bankrupt. Just my opinion.

Below are my warnings in April and May that buying financial services stocks was like catching a falling knife followed by investor revulsion in June and the blowups of IndyMac and the GSEs. I also said the true bloodletting would not begin until people stopped throwing money at the financials which were clearly headed down. One thing you might notice is that I was way too early on commercial real estate. Back in May, I was saying that Commercial Real Estate was the next leg down. It was not.

The missed opportunity for a comprehensive solution

In jumping forward to Fannie’s bankruptcy, I am skipping July and August. I do that in part because I think the GSE bankruptcies were pretty much guaranteed post-Indy Mac. This was a lull where policy makers should have been looking for a comprehensive solution. We saw what happened in Japan and Scandinavia in the early 1990s. Why not use these as test cases? Instead what we saw were policy makers asleep at the wheel yet again. Did they not see the severity of the problem?

Commodities tailspin means hard landing

Meanwhile, I predicted commodity prices would collapse and we would have a brutal downturn. I never envisaged $35 oil. I thought $70 was reasonable and gave $100 as a bogey, but $35 is frightening. It speaks to the depth of deflationary forces.

Below are my posts on predictions about commodities, which would lead to deflation and recession.

The Lehman debacle: completely mishandled

I have been very critical of US economic policy makers and their handling of many aspects of the present financial crisis. But, the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was the critical event in the whole daisy chain. It unleashed a tidal wave of panic and crushed the global financial system. Before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, there was considerable wiggle room for the global economy. Yes, there would have been a sharp downturn, but recession is a necessary part of the business cycle. After, Lehman, it was game over.

I wrote this the day after Lehman’s bankruptcy and i think it is the most relevant post I wrote all year:

Deflation is going to happen. Stimulus is needed

Before Lehman was allowed to go bankrupt, the right medicine would have been liquidating bankrupt institutions – financial and otherwise- before their zombie corpses pulled down good companies with them, whilst the central bank remained a ready lender of last resort in the event of market turbulence. That is the Austrian prescription.

But Lehman’s bankruptcy and the attendant market dislocations brought with them the absolute certainty of debt deflation, a downward deflationary spiral, and a deep recession. (For what it’s worse, I was blindsided by the depth f AIG’s fall, while I foresaw WaMu and Wachovia). After Lehman, Depression became more probable than not. This will be the worst economic event 95 of humans on the face of the earth will ever experience. Now suddenly, Keynes has become the man of the hour.

I have felt pretty conflicted by my about face. If you read any of my posts before Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, you’ll see that I take a hard Austrian line toward easy money and the solution to crisis. Granted, I have always had a soft spot for Galbraith, but I do not believe in fine tuning the economy, fiat money, or any of that.

In reading through my posts, I have tacked hard to the Keynesian side since about October. Why? In a word: Depression. Economic hardship of the magnitude we are about to face is the bedfellow to famine, war, disease, dictatorship, and economic nationalism. It is the breeding ground for fear and we have never experienced the type of hardship and fear that we are about to experience while in the possession of weapons of mass destruction. There are very bad scenarios to be avoided here. And there are no good choices. To ‘let them eat cake’ is not the way forward. I summed up my thoughts in four posts in mid-December.

The Outlook for 2009 and beyond

So where does that leave us going into 2009? In my view it leaves us in a semi-depressionary state. There are many ills to overcome: commercial real estate, Alt-A mortgages, the unwinds of the banking sectors in the UK and Ireland, and the Eastern European debt crisis, a potential dollar crisis. Most of these things have yet to fully materialize but they are coming. Below are my predictions as made in posts in October and November following the market panic.

Make no bones about it, we are in a very tough economic climate. It will get much worse before it get better.

The key, however, is the policy response. Are we going to stick our heads in he sand and act like these things will never happen or are we going to face the challenges head on? I say we forge ahead and take on the difficult decisions, work our way through this mess and make sure we reform the system so that it never happens again. It will be a long road to the kind of place we really want to be in – perhaps a decade – but we have done it many times before. All we need is the courage to do it again.

I am ever hopeful.

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