Insights & Advice

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Why is this recovery different?

The stock markets are at record highs. Interest rates are at record lows. The unemployment rate is below 6% and yet, most Americans are unhappy. They are not feeling the recovery. Why?

The answer to that question is complicated. But let’s start with the financial crisis. Like the Crash of 1929, the events of 2008-2009 were also the result of a credit crisis. The country’s financial system was on the brink of a meltdown. In the Thirties a lot of banks went under.  That was averted this time by spending massive amounts of money to shore up our financial institutions. However, the damage was done.

We lost trust. For the first time in three generations, Americans had doubts as to the credit-worthiness of its most venerable institutions. The ensuing recession was unlike any that America has experienced since the Great Depression.  When one loses trust, both lender and borrower pull back. It takes a long, long time before that trust is rebuilt.  That process is still ongoing.

Readers may recall that it was only in 1939-1940, a full ten years after the “Crash,” before this country was able to climb out of its longest downturn in memory. Some say that if it had not been for World War II it would have been even longer. I don’t believe that it will take us quite that long to return to a normal economy but from a historical perspective, the present state of our economy is understandable.

Back in August, The New York Times crunched some numbers to determine what the economy would look like coming out of a normal recession, compared to what is happening today. They found that five economic sectors out of eleven were lagging badly in this recovery.  They were housing, state and local government spending, durable goods consumption, business equipment investment and federal spending. Let’s examine how credit impacts these sectors.

Housing is no surprise. After all, it was at the forefront of the subprime loans financial crisis. There is a shortfall of over $239 billion in missing output in this sector. We know the reasons for this shortfall—tighter lending standards and housing prices that are still underwater from their peak. That means less jobs, fewer wage increases, a less mobile workforce (since few are willing to sell their homes at a loss to relocate for a job. Bottom line: banks have a trust issue with borrowers; less borrowing, less housing, simple.

Less state and local government spending represents a $180 billion gap versus what they should be spending. The reason for the decline in spending is the absence of tax revenues and burgeoning debt burden most local governments incurred as a result of the recession. States have cut back drastically and for a good reason. They need to borrow just to make ends meet and who will be willing to lend if they are spending like a drunken sailor?

The $178 billion gap in durable goods consumption is all about big-ticket items, many of which you need to borrow in order to purchase. Things like automobiles, furniture, appliances, etc. If you are already underwater on your house, who can afford to borrow and who will lend to you?

Corporations also have a trust issue. They are spending $120 billion less on plant and equipment than they should be because they lack faith in the future demand for their goods. Most of them can borrow all they want but they don’t or if they do it is not for plant and equipment. It is for things they can control like stock buybacks or mergers and acquisitions.

That leaves the Federal government, which is spending $118 billion less than it would in a normal recovery. Because we were forced to spend so much in propping up our financial sectors, the nation’s debt skyrocketed to a level that created a crisis of confidence among our politicians.  The fear that the nation might not be able to service, let alone pay off these historical high levels of debt resulted in a compromise that in effect reduced spending for the next decade.

To make matters worse, none of the other six sectors that make up the major contributors to gross domestic product have been able to take up the slack. So where does that leave us? When one gets into financial difficulty, it takes a long time to repair a credit rating. It takes years, and that is exactly what has happed between borrowers and lenders over the last five years. There is no way to hurry the process. In the meantime, it is what it is.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics