Friday, December 7, 2007

Deleveraging the Economy – Is That What is Really Happening?

With low risk premiums for the last few years the economy borrowed a lot (levered up). Now with risk premiums increasing the economy will probably go through a period of deleveraging. The circumstances are very different, but this is in part what happened during the Great Depression. I am not suggesting that we are headed for a Great Depression, but conceptually we are going through the same process again. Text in bold is my emphasis. From the WSJ:

What's with all the gloom about the U.S. economy? The problem is that we have two problems. One is that the economy is slouching toward recession or, at best, slow growth. It's the consequence of falling house prices, higher energy prices, flagging consumers and shrinking profits.

The other is that the market for credit, the lifeblood of a modern economy, isn't functioning well. That problem is amplifying the pain caused by the first.

Just a few weeks ago, a lot of folks were arguing that the worst was behind us. Housing was still ailing. But after a big wallop, markets for credit seemed to be moving toward normalcy. The Federal Reserve ended its Oct. 31 meeting declaring that the "upside risks to inflation roughly balance the downside risks to growth." If Fed officials truly believed that then, they no longer do. They'll likely cut interest rates again on Tuesday. Only the most optimistic observers expect the U.S. economy to rebound quickly from its fourth-quarter slump. The argument now is between those forecasters who expect growth to be so slow in early 2008 that the unemployment rate climbs a little, and those who see a recession in which it climbs more.

In ordinary times, this would be unpleasant, but not so frightening. The Fed knows how to treat this condition: cut interest rates.

Sure, it's tough to get the timing right. And administering the remedy is more complicated with the dollar drooping and inflation returning to the Fed's agenda for the first time in years. Still, this is a familiar disease. Although the Fed has not and cannot abolish the business cycle, the U.S. has suffered from recession only 16 months in the past 25 years. (In the quarter-century before that, there were 64 months of recession.)

But these aren't ordinary times.

For years, banks and investors lent freely. They took big risks for surprisingly little reward (known as "low risk premiums" in the patois of the trade). Now, they're shunning risk. Big banks are reluctant to lend even to each other for more than a few days, and are hoarding cash. In a symptom that the financial fever hasn't broken, interest rates for one- and three-month loans among banks are up sharply. The Fed and the European Central Bank are now forced to consider the economic equivalent of alternative medicine.

"History," Alan Greenspan warned back in August 2005, "has not dealt kindly with the aftermath of prolonged periods of low risk premiums." He wasn't right about everything (and, yes, he may have contributed to today's problems by keeping rates so low for so long). But he was right about that.

Perhaps all this is a function of the calendar, a reflection of bankers' eagerness to dress up their books for the Dec. 31 snapshot. Possible, but not likely. "When the alarms go off, we note that we have heard them several times over the past few months, and there has never been a real fire," commentator John Mauldin writes in his latest newsletter. "However...we see a few fire trucks starting to gather and those sirens are telling us that more are on the way. There is smoke coming from the building. Attention must be paid."

The problem goes beyond mortgages. Rising delinquencies for credit cards and home-equity and auto loans are bound to make banks, credit-card issuers and other lenders wary. "Banks are having to eat into their capital base in order to reserve for growing losses," Mr. Mauldin says. "And that means they have less money to lend."

The Fed's weekly numbers show that bank lending is still increasing. But a lot of that is unwilling lending. Some banks are making loans under old promises to finance customers if they couldn't access financial markets. Others are taking on to their books loans made through complicated off-balance-sheet entities, and now have to set aside capital as a result. At a time when they'd rather reduce their portfolios of loans, that unwilling lending seems certain to lead them to pull back, if they haven't already, on lending to consumers and businesses.

Leverage is defined as the factor by which a lever multiplies a force. In economics and finance, leverage allows the bold to borrow to make bets that can pay off handsomely when times are good. But leverage magnifies losses when things go bad. So borrowing binges are followed by periods of deleveraging in which lenders and investors borrow less and take fewer risks. Economists dub the recent decades in which recessions were scarce and inflation calm the Great Moderation. That seems to be giving way to the Grand Deleveraging.

At best, the economy has a hangover, and will feel better in a couple of months. But this may be more like a case of mono, an ailment in which the patient doesn't return to normal vigor for a lot longer.

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