Friday, May 22, 2009

San Francisco Fed Concerned About Consumer Deleveraging

One of the core macroeconomic themes that Zero Hedge has been expounding on since inception, which mirrors some of the major concerns of David Rosenberg, has been the evaporation of consumer wealth, income and equity as a function of both declining stock and real asset values and persistently high consumer debt. In an economic paper, the San Francisco Federal Reserve confirms that these concerns are not unfounded, and could be the very core of the processes that undermine the administration's attempts to restore economic growth.

While the administration is doing all it can through various media conduits to imprint the idea that inflation is all but a guaranteed reality at this point, so that consumers begin borrowing at an expansive pace yet again, consumer leveraging is exactly the process that has commenced unwinding, and the obvious impact on the personal saving rate which has been growing at a dramatic pace, has been visible throughout the economy. And as the consumer deleverages additionally, deflation is a certainty, as the combined impact of asset value decline and associated leverage flow through the economy, further depressed prices of goods and services. The four charts below from the Fed's release strike at the heart of the administration's faulty attempt to relever the US consumer.

Unfortunately for Bernanke and Geithner, the deleveraging process has commenced, and regardless of how many treasuries are issued, and how much additional debt the U.S. incurs, the demand side for credit is just not there, sticking banks with basements full of shrinkwrapped packages of hundred dollar bills, that will sit dusty and unused for years. The only immediate impact is that at some point in the not too distant future, the U.S. will need to print bonds to satisfy just the interest payments on these very bonds, which is an unsustainable state and only has one outcome.

In a very amusing section from the release, the San Fran Fed is discussing the financial behaviour of the consumer, when in fact the very same words are 100% applicable to the U.S. Treasury itself:
More than 20 years ago, economist Hyman Minsky (1986) proposed a “financial instability hypothesis.” He argued that prosperous times can often induce borrowers to accumulate debt beyond their ability to repay out of current income, thus leading to financial crises and severe economic contractions.

Until recently, U.S. households were accumulating debt at a rapid pace, allowing consumption to grow faster than income. An environment of easy credit facilitated this process, fueled further by rising prices of stocks and housing, which provided collateral for even more borrowing.The value of that collateral has since dropped dramatically, leaving many households in a precarious financial position, particularly in light of economic uncertainty that threatens their jobs.

Going forward, it seems probable that many U.S. households will reduce their debt. If accomplished through increased saving, the deleveraging process could result in a substantial and prolonged slowdown in consumer spending relative to pre-recession growth rates. Alternatively, if accomplished through some form of default on existing debt, such as real estate short sales, foreclosures, or bankruptcy, deleveraging could involve significant costs for consumers, including tax liabilities on forgiven debt, legal fees, and lower credit scores. Moreover, this form of deleveraging would simply shift the problem onto banks that hold these loans as assets on their balance sheets. Either way, the process of household deleveraging will not be painless.
The last paragraph is probably the most lucid explanation of the conundrum the Federal Reserve and the Treasury are in currently. And all that Bernanke and Geithner are attempting to do is not just make sure these very banks can survive another day with trillions of worthless loans on their books, but do all they can to relend them once again into private (consumer and hedge fund) hands.

This approach is flawed and as time passes and the consumer savings rate increases, the bifurcation between the Fed's plans and reality will only become more evident, with the cost being increasing deflation, while the U.S. accumulates higher and higher sovereign debt. The combined impact of both processes could end up having a devastating geopolitical impact on the United States.

The full San Fran Fed analysis is below.

San Fran Fed Paper -

Hat tip Michele Riccardini Sphere: Related Content
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