US savings adjustment will be the third leg of deleveraging.

December 1, 2008

Deleveraging, like most economical events, is a gradual process. It roughly begins at front-line financial actors, such as hedge funds, banks and speculators, moves to the real economy and the corporate sector at the second stage, and finally reaches the consumer. We have entered the first two phases of deleveraging already, and now it’s the third stage where the consumer has to shrink his balance sheet.

 

The Economist stated, on Nov20th 2008:

 

“An important reason why the American economy has been so resilient and recessions so mild since 1982 is the energy of consumers. Their spending has been remarkably stable, not only because drops in employment and income have been less severe than of old, but also because they have been willing and able to borrow. The long rise in asset prices—first of stocks, then of houses—raised consumers’ net worth and made saving seem less necessary. And borrowing became easier, thanks to financial innovation and lenders’ relaxed underwriting, which was itself based on the supposedly reliable collateral of ever-more-valuable houses. On average, consumers from 1950 to 1985 saved 9% of their disposable income. That saving rate then steadily declined, to around zero earlier this year (see chart). At the same time, consumer and mortgage debts rose to 127% of disposable income, from 77% in 1990.

 

Bruce Kasman and Joseph Lupton of JPMorgan predict that the saving rate will jump to around 4.5% by the end of next year, the sharpest jump in so short a time in the post-war period. This compulsory return to thrift will be deeply painful; consumer spending and housing are almost three-quarters of GDP. Of the 1.2 million, or 0.9%, decline in jobs since December, about 700,000 are directly related to consumers: retail trade, transportation manufacturing and home-building. The rise in unemployment, from 4.4% in 2006 to 6.5% in October, is nearing that of 2001-03 and is not over. Consumer prices plunged a record 1% in October from September, and by 0.1% excluding fuel and food, the first such decline since 1982. The Fed’s vice-chairman, Donald Kohn, said outright deflation “is a risk out there but it’s still small.

 

Until 1982 recessions were often induced by the Fed to weaken demand and reduce inflation. Declines in GDP were dominated by business inventories and interest-sensitive spending such as cars and houses. Once the Fed eased money, spending sprang back.

Since then inventories have become less important to the business cycle and deregulation and financial innovation mean higher interest rates take longer to affect spending. Expansions are marked by sizeable growth in assets and debt. When the cycle turns, falling asset values and debt reduction weaken the kick of lower rates, producing anaemic recoveries with rising unemployment. The Fed has already lowered its interest-rate target to 1%, but it is fighting gale-force headwinds as lenders reduce their loan portfolios. Citigroup recently told many of its credit-card holders that it was raising their interest rates by up to three percentage points.

Lenders once routinely pooled credit-card, student and car loans into securities and sold them to capital-markets investors. Joseph Astorina of Barclays Capital says no one wants to buy such securities now for fear that some overextended investor will dump its own holdings a week later, driving their values down sharply. The issuance of credit-card-backed securities, which averaged $8 billion a month in 2007, was zero in October, he says.

Alan Greenspan, the former Fed Chairman, told The Economist this week that banks were satisfied with capital equal to 10% of their assets in the past. Now, to soothe depositors and investors, they will need a much higher ratio—perhaps around 15%. Until they get there, through a combination of raising new capital, reducing dividends and share buybacks, and shedding assets, lending will be constrained.”

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Comment: Most of the surge in the household debt ratio has occurred after 2000, roughly coinciding with the skyrocketing of US external deficit. Though well-known, it is still an important harbinger of the massive correction that US consumption will go through, because the rise had mostly been funded by Asian export money and petrodollars. With the collapse of global trade, this source of funding will dry out, leaving the US consumer’s excesses dependent on government handouts.

Nonetheless, the correction should be allowed to happen, as the opposite is impractical. US consumers have to learn to live like responsible individuals, and others in the world must learn to generate domestic demand to replace American profligacy.

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