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Monetary anarchy

What will the coming correction hold for the US economy? It depends on where interest rates sit...

"...The encouragement of mere consumption is no benefit to commerce because the difficulty lies in supplying the means, not in stimulating the desire for consumption; and production alone furnishes those means. Thus, it is the aim of good government to stimulate production, of bad government to encourage consumption..."
- Jean-Baptiste Say, A Treatise on Political Economy, 1803

From discussing politics back to discussing economics. Just as before, it remains a dialogue among the deaf. The great majority of economists has its eyes stubbornly focused on apparently positive features for the US economy, like the sharp fall in the oil price, abundantly available liquidity, tame inflation, low and falling interest rates and strong profits.

A minority of economists, in contrast, keeps just as stubbornly stressing that the economy’s famous gross imbalances and structural distortions and the associated debt explosion are inexorably undermining economic growth. In this view, the ongoing housing downturn will finally abort US growth and drive the economy into recession, with major adverse spillover effects on consumer borrowing and spending.

Generally, however, optimism distinctly prevails about the US economy. It is not the old buoyant optimism. Yet it is optimism in the sense that some true malaise, like a crash in the asset markets and a recession, let alone a deep and prolonged recession, are absolutely out of the question. Thanks to its superior dynamism and flexibility, the US economy has time and again bounced back smartly from periodic downshifts, and so it will again.

Let us start with the hard facts. For six, seven and more months, US economic data are overwhelmingly surprising on the downside, and moreover, the surprises have been going from bad to worse. Real GDP has successively fallen from 5.6% in the first quarter of 2006 to 2.5% in the second and 1.6% in the third.

That’s bad enough, but what rescued the latter quarter from total disaster was a rather quixotic statistical event. While auto firms slashed their output, it soared in the real GDP account, owing to sharp price cuts on gas guzzlers. In this way, falling vehicle output contributed fully 0.72 percentage points to third-quarter real GDP growth, after subtracting 0.31 percentage points. The price index for gross domestic purchases increased 2% in the third quarter, compared with an increase of 4% in the prior quarter.

It is an old wisdom that the scale of the boom excesses essentially determines the severity of the following process of economic and financial readjustment. It has been comfortingly argued that the US housing boom of the last few years has been less fierce than prior booms, which all ended without steep price declines.

Certainly, there are different possibilities of measurement. For us, the most important, and also easiest, measure of excess is the associated credit expansion. The use of credit in the wake of this housing bubble has been simply bizarre, outpacing all past experiences by far. Over decades until 2000, outstanding total mortgages accumulated to $4.8 trillion. In the second quarter of 2006, they amounted to $9.3 trillion. Mortgage growth over the last five years was almost equivalent to its growth over the prior five decades.

The second highly important point to see is that this housing boom was the first one in the United States to impact the economy at a vastly broader scale than just the building activity. As private households, using the rising house prices as collateral for mortgage equity withdrawals, stampeded as never before into debt to finance additionally other kinds of spending, the whole economy developed into an outright bubble economy.
New single-family homes and multifamily homes rose in 2005 from a trough of fewer than 1.5 million units in recession year 2001 to a postwar high of 2.2 million units. Over the same period, the constant quality price index for new homes rose 30%, and the purchase-only price index of existing homes published by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) rose by 50%.

Boosting the net worth and the borrowing facilities of private households, this drove consumer spending to persistent considerable excess over income growth. In correlation, personal saving plummeted into negative territory, unprecedented for an industrialized economy.

It was a boom that plainly went to extraordinary excess in various ways. As a rule, this suggests a very severe aftermath of painful corrections. The first effects of the housing bust have definitely been bigger and more abrupt than most experts had expected. Yet hopes are riding high for a benign adjustment. To quote Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Donald L. Kohn from a recent speech: “The economy will grow at a moderate pace for a while, somewhat below the rate of increase of its potential, and then growth will begin to strengthen.”

Among his comforting arguments were first, the overbuilding in 2004 and 2005 was small enough to be worked off over coming quarters; second, this situation stands in sharp contrast to some past downturns in the housing markets that followed actions by the Federal Reserve to tighten credit conditions; third, as the inventory overhang in residential building and automobiles are worked off, economic growth should pick up again.

Mr Kohn does not even mention that through the cash-out refinancing boom, this housing bubble had unprecedented spillover effects on the economy as a whole. In 2005, private households raised $1,080 billion through mortgages. Of this amount, they only spent $95.1 billion on higher residential building. Spending on goods and services rose altogether by $539.9 billion, against an increase in disposable income by $354.5 billion. In other words, about one-third of the increase in consumer spending depended on mortgage borrowing.

Actually, it strikes us how promptly the change in the housing market has impacted mortgage borrowing. It peaked in the third quarter of 2005 at $1,225.9 billion at annual rate. Falling steadily, it was down to $819.6 billion in the second quarter of 2006. This sharp decline was, however, to a small part offset by higher consumer credit.

Mr. Kohn stresses that monetary conditions remain quite supportive of borrowing and spending. Clearly, interest rates are so low that they exert zero restraint on borrowing. But more importantly, falling house prices no longer remain supportive for such borrowing. Remarkably, the sharp decline in new mortgage borrowing since the third quarter of last year has occurred even though house prices were still rising, albeit at sharply slowing rates. As the price climate is sure to deteriorate for some time to come, it seems a reasonable assumption that this initial sharp slowdown in mortgage borrowing has some way to go yet.

While this suggests further sharp falls in house prices, this may well take some time to materialize, because the housing market is notoriously sluggish in its reactions. In contrast to financial markets, its initial response to a change in the market situation is not in price, but on how long unsold homes stay on the market until the prices are lowered to realize desired sales. Sellers tend to resist downward price adjustments as long as they can. Instead, the market becomes illiquid. For sure, lenders will notice and adjust their lending conditions.

Mr. Kohn also takes comfort from the fact that the present housing downturn, in sharp contrast to past ones, is not caused by credit tightening. As he rightly stresses, “The Federal Reserve has returned short-term interest rates only to more normal levels and long-term rates are unusually low relative to those short-term rates.” We think, though, that he is drawing a totally false conclusion.

All downturns caused by tight money were followed by vigorous recoveries. A downturn happening despite low interest rates and loose money seems to us the most worrying kind.

"Sometimes I think that the job of central bankers is to prove Kurt Richebächer wrong," says Paul Volcker, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve. So far, however, central bankers have failed to do so.

Chief economist at Deutsche Bank in the 1980s, Dr. Richebächer was a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and many other respected journals. His analysis of the global economy and financial markets was published each month in the much admired Richebächer Letter.

Kurt Richebächer died at his home in Cannes, France, in Sept. 2007.

See full archive of Kurt Richebächer articles

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