Sub-Prime Economy

On the one hand, there have been only two recessions of any real lasting power over the past twenty years. The first was in the early days of the Reagan Administration, when aggressive budget cutting and revenue loss occasioned by the David Stockman “supply side” economic strategy took an enormous bite out of government spending power, forced massive public borrowing, and triggered a recession. The economy soon grew itself out of recession, either through growth or excessive government deficit spending, depending on one’s point of view.

In 1990, another recession ensued, partly as a belated result of the 1987 Stock Market crash. This downturn lasted about two or three years, and the economy expanded once again. After a lengthy period of prosperity, the Clinton Administration declared the business cycle dead, and boasted that the combination of fiscal and monetary policy had permanently rendered it obsolete.

The bursting of the dot-com bubble allegedly triggered a recession in 2001, but it was short-lived enough to be barely noticeable (except, of course, to those who had their entire net worth tied up in it), and was soon replaced by a real estate bubble. By the time the powers that be admitted that there had been a recession, they declared it over, in the same breath. Not even the horror of 9/11 was able to take the speculators off track. In the meantime, hedge funds (truly a misnomer for what, in essence, are private equity funds) were able to generate unprecedented liquidity by “monetizing” all sorts of collateralized obligations…from so-called “sub-prime” mortgages to more conventional asset based lending obligations. This, in truth, was nothing more or less than a replay of the leveraged buyout craze of the 1980’s, in which speculators and corporate raiders took out the value of companies today in the hope that tomorrow’s earnings would be sufficient to replace the withdrawal. And if not, well, that would be someone else’s problem.

The major difference this time around, of course, is that the vast pools of liquidity generated by this mechanism have (after, of course, making some people incredibly wealthy), been largely plowed back into businesses as extremely low cost loans, mezzanine financing and equity. Too much money chasing too few deals has led some of these funds (and, indeed, more traditional lenders, who have to put their shareholders’ investments to work), to put money into marginal businesses, or to finance questionable collateral. Thus far, it has paid off, with the seemingly endless sources of easy money available, and the economy’s enjoying a very long “sweet spot,” of profitability and resource to capital.

The problem will come in one of two ways: either the economy will heat up noticeably, raising the cost of funds to businesses in the form of higher interest rates or reluctance to fund marginal profits, or perhaps losses, or the economy will weaken noticeably, which, though resulting in lower cost of borrowing, will ironically result in tighter lending standards, and increased business failures. You see, profits are infinitely easier to generate if the cost of money is essentially taken out of the equation. In more traditional business environments, debt service is an important component of the profit and loss analysis.

This phenomenon is already beginning to manifest itself in the highly publicized “sub-prime” mortgage crisis. Secondary and tertiary lenders (and in some cases banks and funds lending under the radar screen through the vehicles of these lenders), have been extending mortgages to homeowners whose creditworthiness is suspect, betting on an endlessly rising real estate market, and continued historically low rates. This system worked just fine for a long time, as the position of these lenders was protected by their enhanced collateralization and the ability of borrowers to carry their overleveraged positions through availability of easy money. Now, with the national decline in home values, and upcoming ratcheting up of adjustable rate mortgages, many of these loans will go into default.

What makes this situation particularly dangerous is that the original lenders, for the most part, no longer hold the paper. These mortgages have been “monetized” and place in pools of securities, managed in bulk by faceless, nameless trustees. When the mortgages default, these trustees will be forced to foreclose and will, for the most part, have no discretion to “work out” the loans. This is a potential disaster waiting to happen, especially for the middle class.

The cheerleaders for the economy and the stock market, who contend that the “sub-prime” and home value problems are likely to be contained and not spill over into the economy at large are, I believe, missing a salient point. A full two thirds of the U.S. economy is driven by the only weapon left in our arsenal: our seemingly endless appetite for consumer goods. After all, we scarcely manufacture anything in this country anymore. Ours is almost entirely a service and consumer driven economy. Large numbers of homeowner foreclosures, caused by overleveraging (in many cases, by homeowners seeking to retire high rate credit card debt) cannot fail to have an effect on consumer spending.

In addition, our very weak dollar threatens to make us a secondary power even in consumption. For example, China’s consumption is growing exponentially, with a rapidly growing economy and the largest savings rate in the World (not to mention a billion potential consumers). Chinese holders of stock brokerage accounts have more than tripled in the last two years. And what will we have to export to these folks? Cars? We can’t even sell them here. Technology? Well, many of the intellectual property originates here, but the products are much more cheaply manufactured abroad, as is the service component. Have you called Microsoft tech service recently? Did you get connected to the Silicon Valley or Bombay/Mumbai?

The competition around the World for our historical economic pre-eminence is fierce. If our lead in manufacturing goes (and for the most part, it already has) and our position as the great bastion of international consumerism diminishes, we are threatened with becoming a second rate economic power. And all the easy money in the World will not save us from that.

The business cycle may, indeed, be a thing of the past, but not in the way it has been advertised. This time, we may not recover so easily from the downturn. That downturn may yet be a long time coming, what with the almost conspiratorial partnership of business, financial institutions, the markets and the government to inject oceans of liquidity into a system which depends upon all of our acquiring stuff and spending well beyond our means. But underlying all of that cash, we must have a solid profitable business base. Therein (and only therein) lies our only hope for future economic dominance.