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The Financial Crisis and the Failure of the Modern Economy

The US government deficit shot up from 2.9% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2008 and 11.9% in 2009. At the summits of Washington, London and Pittsburg, the goat was made the gardener. Ineffective rules were resolved that hadly helped regulate the financial markets. The danger is great that the priest caste in mathematical economics will ignore fundamental connections.

By Max Otte

[This article published in: Das Parlament, December 2009 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet,  http://www.bundestag.de/dasparlament/2009/52/Beilage/002.html.]

If one followed the reporting in the summer of 2009, one could have had the impression the global economy shocks provoked by the financial crisis had ended. Positive business- and economic data dominated the news. Politics increasingly returned to daily business. The calls for an effective regulation of the financial markets became fainter. The self-criticism of economists - very noticeable in the fall of 2008 - quickly faded away.

But in the fall of 2009 the joy over the end of the massive economic collapse was spoiled by new drops of bitterness. In 2009 world trade collapsed twelve percent. [1] In the US the problematic subprime credits set a new record at 9.2 percent of all credits in default payments and compulsory executions. In the US and Great Britain, the budget deficits are more than ten percent of the respective gross domestic product (GDP) - numbers that normally are only reached in great wars.

In retrospect we will first know whether 2009 represented the end of the financial crisis and the subsequent global recession or not. [2] Economic predictions prominent in the daily reporting of the media and extensively discussed are always fraught with great uncertainty. The normal case is that economic development cannot be predicted quantitatively. Much evidence shows that the forecasts of economists and financial analysts run behind the reality of the economy. [3] Crises involve social phenomena influenced by the expectations and actions of the actors. Thus predictions can lead to their own nullity or invalidity. [4] Klaus Zimmermann referred to the dangerousness of forecasts and refused predictions in 2009 for the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). [5]


When I wrote at the turn of the year 2005/2006 that a financial tsunami was imminent with a subsequent global economic crisis triggered by American subprime mortgages, I stood rather alone with my prediction. [6] No warnings were heard from economists at universities, economic research institutes and associations on both sides of the Atlantic. [7] One exception was the Global Financial Stability Report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from April 2006 which openly discussed the many risks but drew no conclusions. [8] In retrospect some warned of the crisis but hardly anyone issued warnings. The financial crisis was caused by a system of organized irresponsibility in which the principles of solid financial- and legal conduct were suspended across the board at least in the US, the country of origin. At least nine groups of actors can be identified who played a role in the crisis.

CENTRAL BANKS. During the 18-year term of office of Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Bank spread the doctrine that economic growth is promoted by inflating the money supply and interest-rates kept artificially low. Such a policy punishes savers and invites borrowing for risky projects. Since the dynamism of the US economy slackened after 2001, much money was invested in unhealthy ways. The "greatest speculation bubble" of history was misused: housing property. [9] A house of cards of credits arose and was promoted by securitized products in which credits are resold - converted to securities - and not held in the books of the banks.

INVESTMENT BANKS. The business model of investment banks is structuring transactions or stock businesses in which they receive commissions, for example mergers and takeovers. Issues of stocks and loans, stock trade on one's own account and the issue of guaranteed debts and structured products. Since the issued products hardly remain on the balance sheets, investment banks do not assume any medium- or long-term responsibility for the consequences of their transactions. From 2002 to 2006, guaranteeing mortgage credits was the greatest single source of profit of investment banks. [10] Guaranteeing credits is a very useful financial product. A credit is deposited and then made marketable as a security on the exchange. "How" this occurs is important, not "whether." The German debenture bond is a guaranteed product of the highest seriousness that has functioned excellently for more than a hundred years.

POLITICS IN THE US. Both democrats and republicans have made promoting home ownership a central point of their policy. But banks were pressed to give risky credits in low income areas (slums) even if the danger of payment failure was higher since direct state subsidies were limited. US policy massively promoted awarding dubious credits. Neither democrats nor republicans jumped on board politically when the uncontrolled speculation fever spread. [11]

MORTGAGE BANKS IN THE US. In the US mortgage credits are awarded differently than in Germany. Many mortgage banks act quasi as marketing- and approval-institutes. They utilize customer data and wait until another bank buys credit before approving it. With this structure of the credit system, regional mortgage banks (mortgage mediators) have little incentive to look at the quality of the products. Thus the mortgage banks complied with this desire and "produced" credits with increasingly dubious methods and increasingly bad standards. [12]

HOMEBUYERS IN THE US. American homebuyers naturally did not have to join in the game and become speculators. The German legal system is clearly different. When American mortgage debtors become insolvent, they are only liable with their real estate, not with their whole income. Thus they can "hand over the key" and be free of their debts. Still there were (and are) subprime loans in which creditworthiness played no role.

RATING AGENCIES. Rating securities is currently dominated by three big Anglo-Saxon agencies: Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings. From 2002 to 2006, these agencies made a third of their profits by paying those rating them from the issues of guaranteed products. A striking conflict of interest occurs here. Many guaranteed products of very inferior quality received an AAA-rating.

AUDITING COMPANIES. In principle the indebtedness in companies is similar... Ultimately societies sanction the practices of banks, rating agencies and home-buying.

INTERNATIONAL POLITICS AND NON-AMERICAN BANKS. After 2004 international investors, particularly banks and insurance companies in Europe, helped prevent the bubble from bursting... Investors in Europe bought a significant share of the very risky products.

ECONOMISTS. Economists were silent, at least those at recognized universities and research institutes, although the excesses of the bubble in 2004 and 2005 were already described by the American press. Hardly anyone dared go near the "tricky business" of the real estate bubble. [13]


A collapse of trust on inflated and hypertrophic financial markets cannot remain without consequences. In the first quarter of 2009, the crisis that was firstly a financial- and credit-crisis broke upon the real economy in Germany. For 2009 the council of experts in examining total economic development forecast a decline in the gross domestic product of 5.0 percent, the greatest decline since the origin of the Federal Republic of Germany. [14]

GERMANY. Before the crisis, Germany had a nearly balanced budget. After the crisis, the state debts may amount to 80 percent of the GDP. This is a third higher than the debt limit of the Maastricht treaty but is not catastrophic.

EUROPE. The crisis comes with different rage and intensity in the rest of Europe. Its effects are kept within limits. Still the situation is very serious in some central- and eastern European states like Spain where there was a housing price bubble and in Great Britain which had a housing price bubble and depends in large part on the financial sector.

USA. In the USA, the situation is dramatic although veiled by the official numbers of the GDP that unlike Germany only fell 2.5 percent. Since many "toxic credits" are held on the books and banks hold back with forced sales, the true extent of the crisis is veiled. The crisis in the US mirrors Germany. Imports declined 15.3 percent and exports fell 11.6 percent. This is basically a development in the right direction for the import-frenzied nation that burdens other national economies. The development in the US intensifies global crises. No end of the depression is in sight. This can be best illustrated in the state deficit of the US. That deficit shot up from 2.9 percent in 2007 to 5.9 percent in 2008 and 11.9 percent in 2009. [15]

CHINA AND ASIA. The state indebtedness in Japan which since the beginning of the 1990s has been a kind of "creeping depression" could become a scenario for the entire world economy. Japan moved inexorably from 150 percent of the GDP to 200 percent. [16] China and the young national economies in Asia are bright spots on the horizon in the whole murky picture. For a long while China reacted responsibly to the crisis and earmarked 20 percent of its GDP for economic problems. This was feasible given its trifling state indebtedness. [This is considerably more than the 5.5 percent which the US earmarked in the first American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for 2009 and 2010. In Japan, economic programs were carried out in the amount of five percent of GDP. In Germany, the intervention amounts to around two percent. Through a stable consumer demand, Germany helps stabilize the world economy.) Thus the growth of the GDP of 7.8 percent is forecast for China and 5.2 percent for the Southeast Asian threshold countries. [17]

ECONOMIC PROSPECTS. In the fall of 2008, the states of the world reacted quickly and unconditionally and preserved the world economy from collapse. Therefore a second 1929 is unlikely. Through their bail out actions, the states face considerable follow-up problems. One is the already discussed increase of state indebtedness which changes into a massive excess liquidity which is stored in the bank balances. [18] In 2001/2002, there was a comparable excess liquidity since real interests were kept under zero through the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. We know the consequences: the housing bubble. There are too many financial assets in the world. We do not know whether these assets will be reduced in the scope of inflation as in the 1970s or through deflation and bankruptcies. [19]


In a much noted speech on October 15, 2010, the German minister of finance Peer Steinbruck said: "The fire on the world markets must be put out if it involves arson. The arsonists must be blocked from doing this again. The fire accelerators must be prohibited (... )." Stable and functioning financial markets are vital. They are a public asset. [20]

Financial markets should be regulated. These are the only markets in which actors can be simultaneously suppliers and customers. Extreme volumes can be traded in fractions of seconds. The American super-investor Warren Buffet spoke of an "electronic herd" that can break away at any time. Sony Kapoor, a former investment banker at Lehman Brothers (who alighted long before the current crisis and directs the think-tank "Re-Define") named the fundamental principles: competitiveness, diversity and fairness. [21]

Competitiveness. The demand for 25-percent capital profits shows that oligopolistic structures prevail in the areas where this is possible (investment banking, the US, Great Britain and Italy). This does not demonstrate that a banking system is especially competitive. The German banking system has often been criticized on account of inadequate capital profits. In a very interesting two-page article, Hannes Rehm, former chairperson of the NordLB bank and now head of the bank bailout fund (SoFFin), explains that the German banking system comes off well with all productivity numbers except for capital profitability and therefore can serve as a model more than the top-flight oligopolistic systems of Great Britain and Wall Street. [22]

Diversity. A banking system should have the most varied structures like a diversified eco-system. It is harmful when banks act like insurance companies, when insurance companies act like banks and all banks have eyes on investment banking. The German banking system with savings banks, farmers' cooperative banks, national banks and private banks was exemplary in this regard and one of the best international banking systems from 1870 to 1990. [23]

Fairness. An economic order should be fair. Environmental polluters should pay the costs of environmental pollution in the form of taxes. Financial actors who take great risks should have reserves to bear the consequences. [24] During the torrid phase of the crisis, German chancellor Angela Merkel said there must be a "complete airtight regulation of products, actors and regions." [25] Rules should be simple so they can be converted or carried out. In the fall of 2008, the call "for a return of the state" was loud. But such a return did not occur. [26] The international financial lobby is so powerful that the opposite happened. The financial market stabilization law in Germany was written by a law society that advised Hypo Real Estate a few weeks before. At the summits of Washington, London and Pittsburg, the goat was made the gardener. Ineffective rules were resolved that hardly helped regulate the financial markets.

Financial Market Oversight. In the Europe of the future, there will be a European Council for System Risks, related to the governors of the 27 central banks and the European system of financial oversight and associated with the three European monitoring authorities (for banks, insurances and the security business) and the national authorities that monitor the financial markets. In the complex system, long decision-making routes and rivalry between state actors ensures that oversight will lag behind the financial market actors more and more.

Size of Banks. In the US, commercial banks were limited in their business activity to one state according to the Glass-Steagall Act of 1934. In 2008 the big banks ran into problems (Kaupthing with a balance 600% of the Icelandic, UBS 350% of the Swiss and Fortis 300% of the Belgian domestic product). Size limitations are reasonable so no institutes arise that are too big and could extort advantages. The EU commission acted in isolated cases with the shattering of the Royal Bank of Scotland and the ING in the Netherlands. These "victims" ultimately prevent passing meaningful rules instead of isolated measures.

Capital-holding Rules. Slightly reinforced capital-holding rules were resolved in Pittsburg that lagged far behind the necessities. The complex system of capital-holding guidelines "Basel II" took effect in which capital-holding claims are weighted by a risk factor. First of all, this system led to the thinning of capital-holdings worldwide. Banks with capital shares of eight, ten or more percent can show only three percent capital holding. Through this thinning of the capital cover, the system's susceptibility to risk was massively increased. No change is in sight even after the financial crisis. The system operates in a pro-cyclical way and promotes light-mindedness in the upswing and panic in the crisis. In the upswing, businesses receive easy credits and can expand. In crisis, access to credits has a higher price. The capital-holding rules according to "Basel II" introduced on the urging of Americans in Europe favor the financial economy and damage the real economy. "Basel II" was not implemented in the US while causing high costs to the German and Austrian middle class. In a podium discussion, SoFFin-head Rehm described this as "regulatory asymmetry that is unacceptable in the long run." This could also be translated in a banal way as "brutal interest policy" and "economic war." [27]

Insolvent Banking System and Fair Value. Several dozen international banks with investment banking firms and American banks have such massive holes in their balance sheets that the capital-holding of the worldwide bank sector becomes negative. This system is technically insolvent. The German savings banks, the national banks and farmers' cooperative banks are solid in large part. In the course of the financial market crisis, the international auditing rules (IAS/IFRS) were loosened and not tightened so banks can hide and need not show their losses on the books. Ultimately politics pursues the goal of banks earning much money quickly so the negative capital holding account can be filled. The legal foundations of a complex market economy are threatened through the undermining of the balancing principles of balance-truth, clarity and completeness. Is the price too high? Is an arbitrary treatment of economic aspects given free rein? Wolfgang Bieg launched an initiative with the goal of re-introducing solid conservative regulations of balancing according to the German commercial law (HGB). [28]

Rating Agencies. The functioning of the rating agencies is also largely unencumbered. They should observe transparency rules but can still be paid from the issues of the products that they rate (only consultation services should be abolished). For a long while European policy has neglected to establish a state European rating agency as a counterweight to the Anglo-Saxon cartel that rules the market. [29]

Regulation of products, hedge funds, derivatives and certificates involves considerable risks. In 2003, Warren Buffet described financial derivatives as "financial weapons of mass destruction." Nevertheless these products are hardly regulated even after the financial crisis. In Europe there should be rules for managers of alternative investment funds (AIFM). Hardly any hard rules are earmarked here. The funds should merely be registered and some rules on risk- and liquidity management laid down. Funds under 100 million Euros do not come under the regulation. The capital holding rules can only be described as a bad joke. [30] This capital-holding cover is in no way intended as liability toward investors but ensures that the lawyers of fund management receive their bonuses even if the fund falls into arrears.

These five examples show that the gestures of politics were only saber-rattling while the system that le3d to the crisis continues. Thus it is only a question of time until the next bubble develops.


Since the tulip mania from 1635 to 1637, great financial crises have been a regular phenomenon of modern capitalism. However they are largely ignored by the modern economy. The term "crisis" does not even occur in the best-known economics textbook "Economics" by Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus that sold millions of copies over fifty years. [31]

The economy is always political. The conflicts of interest between states, social classes, groups and branches are central in the question who receives how much of the cake. The question is not whether "the market" or "the state" dominates. That the modern mathematical economy ignores this is reprehensible. The political economy is basically informed by three perspectives, the nation (or region), social class and individuals and groups. [32] In 1846 Friedrich List established the national perspective. [33] "Das Kapital" by Karl Marx contains one of the first crisis theories and treats the problem from the class perspective. [34] In the 1980s Maneur Olson wrote "The Logic of Collective Action" and showed how strong interest-groups in a weak liberal state but out the biggest pieces of the cake until a society is immobile. This is the theme of his other great work "The Rise and Fall of Nations." [35]

In 1947 the Mont Pelerin Society was founded in Switzerland to enhance the respect and effect of the basic ideas of a free and liberal society. Two camps faced one another at that time: those who "believed" absolutely in market rationality and those who advocated a strong state so markets could function. Regarding the first group, Alexander Rustow spoke of the "religion of the market economy." [36] Several Nobel Prize winners were representatives of the dogmatic and unrealistic ("quasi-religious") school (e.g. Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman). There was not a single winner from exponents of law-and-order liberalism (e.g. Alexander Rustow and Wilhelm Ropke). [37]

The organization of market forms and rules of liability is always important for a functioning and just market economy. If we form the rules to favor fast investment banking enterprises or "private equity" in a legal or accounting way over against classical banking transactions, we should not be surprised we have an economy where speculation flourishes. If we arrange the rules to favor borrowing over saving, managers will pocket the rewards of their speculation when it goes well and the general public will pay the costs when the speculation fails. Then we favor those who enrich themselves at the expense of safe banks, medium-size businesses and citizens. If we arrange the rules so that businesses that must be bailed out by the state are not nationalize3d, we assault the basic ideas of a liberal market economy. When a new partner joins an insolvent business, his own capital is wiped out. This new partner - the state - is part of the enterprise. Later the enterprise can be privatized again.

In 2009, 83 well-known economists - including Rudolf Hickel - turned to the public with an appeal to rescue the teaching of economic policy at the universities, Mathematical models were stressed so much that thinking about economic questions fell more and more to the background. [38] Their call threatens to remain without great consequences. The danger is great that the priest-caste of mathematical economists will ignore fundamental connections in the future and indulge in esoteric models - while the next bubble already forms outside in the world.

1 Vgl. Sachverständigenrat zur Begutachtung der gesamtwirtschaftlichen Entwicklung, Jahresgutachten 2009/2010: Die Zukunft nicht aufs Spiel setzen, online: www.sachverstaendigenrat-wirtschaft.de/gutacht/ga-c ontent.php?gaid=55, S. 27 (13.11. 2009).
2 Zum Zeitpunkt der Niederschrift konnte von einer "Weltwirtschaftskrise" im klassischen Sinne des Wortes - nämlich einer globalen Depression mit Massenarbeitslosigkeit - nicht gesprochen werden.
3 Vgl. James Montier, Behavioural Investing: A Practitioners Guide to Applying Behavioural Finance, London 2007, dt.: Die Psychologie der Börse. Der Praxisleitfaden Behavioural Finance, München 2009.
4 "Das Bewusstsein bestimmt das Sein", wusste schon Hegel zu konstatieren: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Die vollständigen Werke, Frankfurt/M. 1970.
5 Vgl. Klaus F. Zimmermann, Warum Prognosen die Krise verschärft haben, in: www.handelsblatt.com/pol itik/gastbeitraege/warum-prognosen-die-krise-versch aerft-haben;2208930 (20.3. 2009); Konjunktur: DIW traut sich keine langfristige Prognose zu, in: www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article3555024/DIW-traut-si ch-keine-langfristige -Prognose-zu.html (14.4. 2009).
6 Max Otte, Der Crash kommt, Berlin 2006.
7 Vgl. Robert Prechter, Besiege den Crash!, München 2002; Bill Bonner/Addisson Wiggin, Das Schuldenimperium, München 2005; John Rubino, How To Profit from the Coming Real Estate Bust, New York 2003.
8 Vgl. IMF, Global Financial Stability Report - Market Development and Issues, April 2006, in: www.imf.org/External/Pubs/FT/GFSR/2006/01 (23.11. 2009).
9 Dabei war eine ähnliche Blase in Japan erst 1990 geplatzt; vgl. M. Otte (Anm. 6), S. 168ff.
10 Vgl. Whitney Tilson/Glenn Tongue, More Mortgage Meltdown, New York 2009.
11 Vgl. z.B. Shawn Tully, Is the housing boom over?, in: Fortune vom 27.9. 2004; Frank Horning, Demütige Milliardäre, in: Der Spiegel vom 21.1. 2006.
12 Vgl. W. Tilson/G. Tongue (Anm. 10).
13 Vgl. Max Otte, Das Schweigen der Ökonomen, in: ders., Der Informationscrash, Berlin 2009, S. 130 - 132.
14 Vgl. Sachverständigenrat (Anm. 1), S. 61.
15 Vgl. ebd., S. 35.
16 Vgl. Hayman Advisors, Newsletter, 3/2009, online: www.docstoc.com/docs/12642446/Hayman-Advisors- Third-Quarter-2009 (23.11. 2009).
17 Vgl. Sachverständigenrat (Anm. 1), S. 38.
18 Vgl. Sebastian Becker. Kommt die nächste globale Liquiditätsschwemme? Deutsche Bank Research, Aktuelle Themen 457, Frankfurt/M., 17.8. 2009.
19 Vgl. Max Otte, Wir haben zuviel Geld auf der Welt, in: Börse Online vom 12./19.11. 2009, S. 18 - 21.
20 Zit. nach:  http://finanzmarktkrise.info/index.php? id=80&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=4&tx_ttnews[backPid]= 13&cHash=6367fd3c9b (23.11. 2009).
21 Vgl. Sony Kapoor, Changing a System of our own Creation, online: www.re-define.org/ (23.11. 2009).
22 Vgl. Hannes Rehm, Das deutsche Bankensystem - Befund - Probleme - Perspektiven, in: Kredit und Kapital, Teil I: 41 (2008) 1, S. 135 - 159; Teil II: 41 (2008) 2, S. 305 - 331.
23 Vgl. Max Otte, "Finanzplatz Deutschland" versus deutsches Bankensystem - Zwei politökonomische Perspektiven für die Zukunft, in: Frank Keuper/Dieter Puchta (Hrsg.), Deutschland 20 Jahre nach dem Mauerfall - Rückblick und Ausblick, Wiesbaden 2009, S. 179 - 204.
24 Vgl. ebd.
25 Zit. nach: www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/Artikel/2009/04/2009 - 04 - 01-g20-weltfinanzgipfel. html (23.11. 2009).
26 Vgl. Philipp Genschel/Frank Nullmeier, Ausweitung der Staatszone - Die Machtgebärden der Politik sind eine optische Täuschung. Wenn die Krise vorbei ist, regiert wieder das Kapital, in: Die Zeit vom 6.11. 2008.
27 Jahrestagung der IHK zu Schwerin am 9.1. 2009.
28 Vgl. www2.nwb.de/portal/content/ir/service/news/ news_980497.aspx (23.11. 2009).
29 Vgl. Margit Köppen, Finanzmarktregulierung: Bewertung der bisherigen Maßnahmen auf nationaler und EU-Ebene, unveröff. Ms.
30 Vgl. ebd.
31 Paul A. Samuelson/William D. Nordhaus, Volkswirtschaftslehre. Das internationale Standardwerk der Makro- und Mikroökonomie, München 2007.
32 Vgl. Robert Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations, Princeton 1987; ders., The Challenge of Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century, Princeton 2002.
33 Vgl. Friedrich List, Das Nationale System der Politischen Ökonomie, Baden Baden 2008.
34 Karl Marx, Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Bde. I - III, Berlin 200839.
35 Vgl. Mancur Olson, Die Logik des kollektiven Handelns: Kollektivgüter und die Theorie der Gruppen; ders., Aufstieg und Niedergang von Nationen, beide Tübingen 2004.
36 Alexander Rüstow, Die Religion der Marktwirtschaft, Münster 2004; vgl. auch Wilhelm Röpke, Jenseits von Angebot und Nachfrage, Bern 19795 und ders., Civitas Humana, Bern 19794.
37 Vgl. M. Otte (Anm. 13), S. 68f.
38 Vgl. Rettet die Wirtschaftspolitik an den Universitäten!, online: www.faz.net/s/RubB8DFB31915A44 3D98590B0D538FC0BEC/Doc~EA1E6687105BC44 399168BC77ADE64F8A~ ATpl ~Ecommon~Scontent. html (23.11. 2009).


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