Morning in Arizona

Morning in Arizona
Rainbows over Canyonlands - Dave Stoker

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Macro Trends Spell Doom for Banks and Their Profits

The rise and fall of debt is continuing without abatement. In the U.K., bankers refuse to write new mortgages. U.S. consumers are tapped out. Businesses are finding their cost of borrowing prohibitively expensive to continue certain lines of business, i.e. consumer auto leasing at Chrysler Financial, all the while asset-backed portfolio valuation is tenuous and overvalued, at best.

After 30 years, two generations of consumers and businesses relying on hyper-credit to generate an enviable lifestyle for the middle and working class, trumpeting painless capitalism – all winners, no losers, and endless increasing corporate profits, that bubble has burst.

This perspective should be viewed from two positions, first, historical and secondly, relative to global living standards. The U.S. is the largest economic engine in the world. Household debt has tripled in the last 25 years.

In 2008, the inability to service debt is akin to the credit depression of the 1830's. Europe in the 1820's became mesmerized with transcontinental travel by train and flooded America with credit. The term transcontinental attracted money then the way attracted funds in the 1990's. A land rush, sponsored by the government, coincided with this period. Between servicing the railroad bonds debt and the leveraged real estate debt, remaining disposable income left little domestic spending for growth. Expansion became contraction. The great depression of the 1930's was more a function of technological advances increasing output, relative to consumption, thereby collapsing demand.

Our savings rate is the lowest in the developed world. It has dropped below 1 percent. Yet, we also buy more things than anyone else using maximum credit. Credit cards, home equity loans, secured and unsecured personal loans, loans against retirement accounts; any loan that continues the buy now, pay later, merry-go-round, until recently, without question and interruption, was marketed and consumed. Ironically, brokerage firms' margin accounts, the villain of the stock market crash of 1929, is our most conservative usage of debt, today.

Currently, home equity, which rose on cheap capital and hid stagnate wages this decade, has reversed while its cost has risen. Homes that were once ATM machines only three years ago are being repossessed in the tens of thousands each month by banks. Equity in an individual's home once was his or her greatest investment. Servicing debt on growing negative equity is becoming harder to do, both financially and philosophically, for underwater consumers. Prosperity from the mirage of supply-side economics has vanished for the masses.

Looking back, in the 1980's, deregulation through supply-side economics redefined risk and value. In the 1990's, heretofore, imprudent levels of credit, a peace dividend from the end of the cold war in the 1990's, and the integration of cheap global labor, provided the west a temporary and significant head start re-imagining comfort and convenience for the working and middle class.

Looking forward, new banking regulations, regardless of the outcome of the November elections, will restrict the future of credit and leverage for commercial and investment banks. The defense industry peace dividend was consumed years ago by the endless war on terror. Wages in developing countries are rising, and so is the cost of limited natural resources. And, the true bill on previous runaway debt created and consumed in a lax atmosphere is past due.

We are heading into a global recession. The IMF projects at least $1 trillion in total write downs. Total U.S. residential single family home real estate value is expected to fall another 5 per cent to 20 per cent; easily another $1 trillion in value. Bankers are considering reducing outstanding credit lines in the next two years by at least $2 trillion dollars.

Yes, banks and their profits are in dire straits.

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