Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The De-Leveraging of America

Call it what you like, but what you are seeing occurring at this time is the de-leveraging of the American consumer, the mortgage industry, and the banking system. It took us a long time to get to this point of debt and it will take a long time for this to unwind. The question is how quickly (violently) this unwinding will be. If you stop and think about it that is most of what is being discussed in the financial press and on the internet, the de-leveraging of America.

Note that the various policies of cutting rates, putting a hold on foreclosures, or creating a stimulus package are not working. Those policies and that thinking were created to fight the last war, i.e. the Great Depression. That is why those policies are not working. We have a new war of excessive debt, causing credit losses, which ultimately is leading to insolvency in the banking system. How do you fight that war? From the WSJ:

The specter of deleveraging still haunts the financial markets. Rightly so, for the removal of credit from the global economy is a process that feeds on itself. That means that the credit crunch could easily turn into something much nastier.

Before the deleveraging came the leveraging. Take the U.S. The ratio of all sorts of debt to gross domestic product rose to 342% at the end of September 2007 from 160% in 1975. Through 2000, debt increased by 2.4 percentage points a year faster than GDP. But after the turn of the millennium, the rate accelerated almost to 3.7 percentage points a year.

While it was happening, only a few sourpusses complained. Increasing debt was seen as a natural trend. As economies get richer, they have more need for debt-financed investments and inventories. But lending grew much faster after 2000 than even the most gifted apologist could explain away. It was a bubble, which has now been popped.

In a credit bubble, one thing leads to another. You can bid more for a house because banks are willing to lend more. So house prices rise, giving the banks more confidence about lending yet more. So you build an addition or buy a new car.

Multiply that by a few hundred million borrowers and presto, asset prices go up and economic growth is high. Banks rejoiced. They set up off-balance-sheet vehicles that piled on debt. Leveraged-buyout groups borrowed to take companies private; hedge funds borrowed to invest in assets. And so on.

In deleveraging, too, one thing leads to another. Start with a bank that has lost a few billion dollars on subprime mortgages. The bosses are likely to decide that troubled times call for higher capital ratios. That means calling in lines of credit. Some borrowers are forced to sell assets, pulling down prices. The banks then look at the value of their collateral and think: "Oh my god, it's not worth what we thought." They then cut their credit again -- giving another turn of the deleveraging screw.

The housing market was just the start. A series of debt mountains -- credit cards, car loans, LBO loans -- risk being leveled. The credit contraction strikes down financial arrangements that once looked solid -- from structured investment vehicles to auction-rate securities.

If the original debt helped fuel consumption, deleveraging will feed into lower economic activity. If the original debt fueled asset purchases, the consequence will be lower asset prices. There could be a dual effect because lower asset prices can make people feel poorer and less willing to spend money. This is especially the case with people's homes.

How far can this go? Historical parallels aren't terribly comforting. In Japan, a boom in the 1980s was followed by a painful deleveraging. Despite massive government borrowing and five years of a near-zero interest rate on overnight borrowing, the prices of shares and real estate declined by 40% to 70%. The U.K. did better in its deleveraging after 1990 -- house prices dropped by 40%, after taking inflation into account, but share prices rose.

Politicians and central bankers are alarmed by the rapid shift to deleveraging. There are limits to what they can do. Sharp interest-rate cuts may not be enough to make banks abandon their newfound caution in lending, especially if loan losses are rising. Higher government deficits may not help either. In a deleveraging world, the government may borrow so much it crowds out private borrowers seeking funds.

The deleveraging snowball will eventually reach the bottom of the mountain. Banks will start to see opportunities, and borrowers will become more courageous. But it could be a long and painful wait.

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