With the stock market looking toppy and the unemployment rate still on the rise, the “green shoots” are starting to look rather brown (or more like a mirage) and some are calling for a second stimulus. For now, leave the ridiculous fact that only a tiny percentage of first stimulus has been spent so far and let’s look at the facts. The economic crisis was caused by excess leverage, first by consumers, then by companies, now by the government. Is a second stimulus with more leverage what we really need? If it is, will the Obama administration make a case for it that doesn’t use phony statistics like “jobs saved or created?”
To borrow from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, Its the Leverage, Stupid! Consumers borrowed huge amounts of money to live lavish lifestyles or to just keep up with the monthly bills. The consumer savings rate peaked in the 1970s around 15%, but declined consistantly during the 80s and 90s. It even went negative in 2007, right before the financial crisis. This meant that consumers were, on average, spending more than they made. Consumers resorted to using their homes as ATMs, borrowing vast amounts of money to keep the party going. Clearly it was not sustainable.
Banks and non-bank banks stoked the flames and let the party rage on. Banks offered mortgages to people who shouldn’t have had them, manufactured huge bets on CDOs and made billions moving money around. After the government removed many of the leverage regulations, banks continued to go wild. Other companies and hedge funds joined the fray, borrowing billions of dollars for leveraged buyouts that left balance sheets riddled with debt.
When the economy started to slow down and the stock market fell out of bed, companies and consumers who were strapped with debt and little savings faced the brunt of the downturn. Companies began to deleverage, cuting costs and jobs to be able to stay in business. US consumers, scared by huge declines in net worth stemming from the stock market collapse and the real estate downturn, started to save, bringing the savings rate up to around 7%.
The US government, which had started to run larger deficits during the Bush years, stepped in to fill the void. The Bush administration pushed the first bailouts through and the Obama administration passed even more bailouts and a huge stimulus package. The $740bn+ stimulus package pushed much of the spending two to three years down the road, funding tons of pork-laden projects that are probably unnecessary and have nothing to do with stimulus. These programs saddle the government with even more debt at a time when the rest of the world is concerned about the value of the dollar. The government should have advocated for $200-300b of immediate spending, or better yet, returned money to the people so that they could pay down their own debts. Instead, we have record amounts of debt and even more leverage, not even taking into consideration the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security that will require even more leverage.
Now, as the stock market and the economy as a whole are showing signs of getting worse, there are calls for a second stimulus. I fear that Congress will pass another massive bill, but most of the money won’t be spent fast enough and there will be even more waste. I’m worried that many of the projects will be useless and ineffective at turning the economy around.
The only way to fix the problem and get through the bear market is to deleverage. We need to squeeze the leverage out of the system, stop the insanity and go back to more rational debt levels. With another round of mortgage resets set to take place late this summer, we are likely to have many more foreclosures in the next year. Instead of spending money on projects in the future, the government should have made it easy for mortgage holders to renegotiate their mortgages in exchange for the bank having the rights to some of the upside of the house when the market turns. This type of solution removes debt (leverage) from the consumers and bad debt (leverage) from the financial institution and saves consumers money right away, with a lower mortgage payment. The government will have to spend a little more money, but it would be rational, compared to the huge stimulus package and bail outs that we have seen so far.
The government should be helping (forcing) companies to convert debt to equity in institutions that have bad balance sheets. Instead of bailing out investors and companies who made bad decisions, the government should be converting debt to equity to shore up balance sheets and make the companies deleverage.
I think we are on the verge of another downturn in the stock market and rising unemployment. The press seems to think (or hope) that the worst is behind us. Most people are turing bullish and many Americans have come back into the market. I fear that we face a repeat of the stock market’s performance during the Great Depression, where there was a prolonged bear market rally and then a second crash that wiped out more market value than the initial crash.
China and the rest of the world are already starting to pick at the reserve status of the dollar. If the US keeps leveraging and then decides to inflate away the problem, the US dollar may lose its reserve status. The government must make sure they do not make the crisis worse than it is. Its not a Republican or Democrat issue. Its an American issue. I am not confident that the government will make the right decisions. With GoldmanSachs alums holding many key government jobs, I fear that they will do what they know best: continue to leverage and try to pick up the pieces later. If you want to go farther, read Matt Taibi’s blog and latest piece in Rolling Stone.
I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see the US coming out of this without lots more pain. What do you think?