Putting it in Reverse
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
*** Staring out the window, wondering what to do...years away from an ordinary housing market...
*** The demise of manna-like credit card purchases...The light bulbs are going on in Debt Nation...
*** No thanks for the good advice...increased spending of fictional wealth...and more!
Today’s another big day. The 12 members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee will get together in
Instead, they will do what we do; they will look out the window. Outside the Fed’s meeting room, the war between inflation and deflation continues. As expected, inflation’s gains are so far narrowly focused – on gold and certain global commodities, such as oil . Gold fell back $2 yesterday...but it is at record prices...and beginning to attract wider attention. Even The Wall Street Journal , for example, talks of a “gold rush,” in its headline – quickly warning readers away from it!
Deflation, meanwhile, is advancing on a broad front.
Comes word this morning that the “loss at Countrywide is worse than feared...as sinking house market caused more borrowers to fall behind on payments.” Reuters reports that the mortgage lender posted a loss for the fourth quarter of $421 million.
House prices are still falling in
The CEO of the Ryland Group says it’s the “worst housing market in 30 years.” His competitor over at Lennar reported its biggest quarterly loss in its history, losing $201 million in the fourth quarter of last year.
And the Financial Times says
Ben Bernanke allowed himself a little understatement this week, saying that housing “may be a drag on growth for a good part of this year.” We would say that it will definitely be a drag on growth, and not merely for this year, but for the rest of this decade, if not longer. You can correct the stock market...or the soybeans market...in a couple days. But housing takes time . Houses that were being planned and financed before the housing bubble blew up are still coming on the market today. They are added to already swollen inventories of unsold and foreclosed houses. It will take years to work this inventory down...and years to bring prices down to levels where ordinary buyers can afford ordinary houses.
On that point, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich writes, “
“The typical American now works two weeks more each year than 30 years ago,” says Reich. “Compared with any other advanced nation we are veritable workaholics, putting in 350 more hours a year than the average European, more even than the notoriously industrious Japanese.” And when Americans ran out of time and out of money, they began to borrow with the same vigor that they worked.
“We began to borrow, big time,” says Reich. “With housing prices rising briskly through the 1990s and even faster between 2002 and 2006, we turned our homes into piggy banks through home equity loans. Americans got nearly $250bn worth of home equity every quarter in second mortgages and refinancings. That is nearly 10 per cent of disposable income. With credit cards raining down like manna, we bought plasma television sets, new appliances, vacations.
“With dollars artificially high because foreigners continued to hold them even as the nation sank deeper into debt, we summoned inexpensive goods and services from the rest of the world.”
That final ‘coping mechanism’ has now played itself out. Houses are going down in price. Lenders are wary of credit risks. And foreigners are becoming chary of the dollar too.
So what next? It seems obvious us that the
Not that people will want to do it at first. But they will have no choice. They need to save for rainy days and retirement. And
What this means is a decline in spending...and a decline in Americans’ standards of living. It means a recession too – probably a deep, long recession which the feds will fight every step of the way.
But it is not a battle the feds can win. They cannot really make the situation better with more of their phony cash and credit. That is what caused the problem in the first place. They need to reverse course too...and encourage savings.
Who wants to save when the going rate of return on savings is no higher than the inflation rate? Who wants to buy a
So here we offer some free advice to the Fed’s Open Market Committee: Don’t cut rates today, raise them. Let the stock market crash. Let the economy retreat. Let the banks go belly-up. Liquidate Wall Street. Liquidate the housing sector. Liquidate bad debts everywhere. Get it over with, so the
We don’t expect any thanks for that advice.
*** Wait a minute, said David Fuller at lunch on Monday, responding to our suggestion of higher interest rates: “When a man is having a heart attack, you don’t lecture him about his bad diet. You can do that later. First, you have to get him back on his feet.”
*** Let’s return to Robert Shiller. His research shows that house prices in
What this tells us is that housing prices are not likely to remain up so high for too long. Historically, they kept up with inflation, nothing more.
Most likely, the gains of the last 10 years will be given back. But the process is long, slow and hard.
We’re talking about “trillions of dollars, so much bigger than the losses we’ve seen from subprime so far,” says Shiller. He is not talking about the losses in implied wealth by the write-down of
Is it over already? Not likely.
The Daily Reckoning