Free Markets, Free People

The Economy

Scary Employment Chart of the Day

When it comes to employment, we have dug ourselves a tremendous hole. I will be surprised if unemployment is back to where it was four years from now. This chart gives us all an idea why:

Of particular interest is the path of the last two recessions which had anemic job growth despite relatively shallow initial dips. The recovery period for each far exceeded previous recessions. If we see a repeat this time the V shaped recovery in employment we keep hearing about is not going to happen. So why the difference?

The earlier recessions exhibited a similar pattern of sharp drops in employment followed by sharp recoveries as the economy snapped back. The change that we began to see in the 1990 recession is partly structural. The layoffs associated with the much larger manufacturing sector in recessions of the past were associated with a rundown in inventories which then snapped back once the inventories were depleted.

Something else is going on here as well in my own opinion. As the eighties gave way to the nineties the US was in the early stages of an experiment in monetary and economic policy. Monetary policy was explicitly geared to reduce economic volatility. This led to attempts to reduce the severity of recessions, and also led to a reduction in upside volatility as well. This was (at least for a while) somewhat successful, resulting in what became known as “The Great Moderation.” The recession of 1990 was the first crack in that system. Attempts to limit volatility not only reduced the violence of the recession, but the explosive growth typical after recessions previously. It also was a recession which was a result of a financial crisis (the S&L’s) and the real estate boom of the late eighties. The deleveraging of the finance and debt recession (what we are going through now, only in miniature) was sluggish. It took a good while for the adjustment to occur.

We followed a familiar script of lowering interest rates and encouraging credit expansion. Constant expansions of credit whenever things slowed kept the engine running until a bigger crisis hit with the bursting of the tech and telecom bubble. Once again we applied even more credit easing to soften the blow, and the attempt to avoid wringing the excesses of credit from the system led to another sluggish recovery with anemic job growth. Profits however were large and the return for the steadily growing financial sector was immense. If the economy was going to be stabilized by constant applications of credit expansion, then the financial sector was the main beneficiary. Finally we have the latest crisis, one where the financial system itself was the most important bubble.

What we can now see is that the types of recessions we have been experiencing are successive deleveraging cycles, each “solved” by releveraging the economy and leading to a bigger crisis down the road. Sadly deleveraging processes, especially if drawn out by keeping them from running their course, result in tepid job growth. We are now in a massive deleveraging cycle which we are once again trying to solve by adding massive debt to the system. Once again job growth and recovery is slower. Unless we break this cycle (which would be very painful) we should expect nothing different in the outcome, except that the problem is bigger and will last longer.

Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff

Musings, Rants and Links over the 18th Fairway: February Housing Edition

On the heels of last weeks delightfully mixed bag of employment data (job creation looks like it may be out of reverse and into neutral) we get some new housing data. There the signals are more disquieting, if expected (at least by me.) The housing market may now be heading back down.

The interesting aspect of this is that so many people see this as unlikely. So let us list some reasons why this is a real risk, if probably not as rapid a fall as we saw previously.

  • Prices are still above a long term stable level. This could be taken care of by stagnating prices and inflation, but there is little inflation right now.
  • The price to rent ratio is out of whack, and rents are still falling, in fact, accelerating. Little wonder, since there is an 11% vacancy rate.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • There are 231,000 newly built housing units sitting vacant.
  • There are 3.29 million vacant homes for sale.
  • Then there is the shadow inventory of homes that are off the market for various reasons (such as foreclosed homes banks are unwilling to sell yet to avoid realizing losses.)
  • Defaults are accelerating, with the largest source of pain now prime loans. As I have maintained for a long time this is not, and never has been, a subprime problem. Subprime was just what collapsed first being the weakest link in the housing market.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • That acceleration is unlikely to slow any time soon as not only are workers still losing jobs and few new potential owners getting jobs, but the length of unemployment is unprecedented in the post war era. The longer a worker is unemployed, the more likely they are to default.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • Lending is still tight for many mortgage seekers.
  • We are forming households at a reduced rate, thus lessening demand for new homes.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • More than 20% of homeowners are currently underwater. Nothing correlates more closely with default rates than negative equity.
  • Worst of all, we need to revisit an old topic of mine that is no longer a longer term risk, but right around the corner. The likely huge wave of defaults represented by Alt-A and Option Arm Loans about to reset. Defaults have followed with a lag each wave of resets, and the largest wave, from the era with the worst underwriting is about to hit. Notice, subprime is receding. With the system as fragile as it is now, what will this wave bring on?

I always am nervous about calling anything a prediction, but further housing deterioration is a very grave possibility.

Needless to say, this has led to further problems at Fannie, Freddie with more to come. Not that you should be concerned about that, the mission has changed. On their way to probably 400 billion in losses (I remember when I was an alarmist claiming that the losses would be far more than the 20-30 million the government was claiming, probably 200 billion. It turns out I was a cockeyed optimist) the government has officially eliminated any limit on their exposure. Why? It seems to be so that they can take losses!

Freddie’s federal overseers nevertheless have instructed Mr. Haldeman to focus on something that isn’t likely to make the bleak balance sheet look any better: carrying out the Obama administration plan to allow defaulted borrowers to hang onto their homes.

On a recent afternoon, employees at Freddie’s headquarters here peppered Mr. Haldeman with concerns about the company’s future. He responded that they were “fortunate” to have such a clear mission—the government’s foreclosure-prevention drive. “We’re doing what’s best for the country,” he told them.

Then there is the poor FHA:

FT Alphaville is certainly in the skeptical camp referred to by Ms Burns, and we were not reassured when the housing agency released its December monthly report on Tuesday.

According to the report, the default rate in the FHA’s single-family portfolio hit 9.12 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with 6.82 per cent in the same period a year prior.

In absolute terms, that means the number single-family mortgages insured by the FHA and in default reached 531,671 in the fourth quarter of 2009. That’s a 66 per cent increase versus the same period in 2008.

The agency is being hit hardest by the 2007 and 2008 mortgage vintages; the performance of these loans is so dismal the FHA expects to have to pay claims on at least one out of every four loans made in those years.

Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff

Musings, Rants and Links over the 18th Fairway:02/09/2010

We finally got a mixed bag on the employment front this month, a welcome change from the purely awful. However, with everyone focused on “creating” jobs I think this quick synopsis attacking the unrealistic expectations of when and where jobs will come from is well worth reading. This chart gives you an idea of how bad it really has been (click image for larger version)

PercentJobLossesJan2010

Yves Smith looks at the problem of how to handle the prospect of the financially weaker members of the European Union possibly defaulting. neither the PIIGS nor their colleague states want to take the steps they may need to take. Markets however are sending a clear message, “Do Something!” The risk goes beyond the direct damage from the potential losses from holding these countries debts. European banks are already shaky, with shaky assets and still a lot more leverage than is safe. I believe Europe’s bear market is likely back on.

European banks are shaky? How provincial of me not to mention our own banks. The coming wave of defaults in the Alt-A and Prime mortgage space are not getting enough attention, Yves helps out there as well. Not only are the losses coming (pretending loans are good only works until they actually default) but the banks are in for some serious lawsuits from all kinds of parties that bought the toxic loans. First in line are Freddie and Fannie. They will still lose at least 400 billion, but they’ll take a good chunk out of the banks hide on the way down.

the phrase “credit specialists at Citi” is not exactly the kind of thing which instills enormous confidence in analysts and investors these days

I think that is an understatement. They want to sell another fancy derivative designed to remove all risk if there is a systemic crisis when, of course, those supposed to pay up will certainly have the money to do so….Right?

Please imagine me banging my head against the keyboard. And no, the response of the Citi Spokesman doesn’t make me feel any different, in fact, it makes me feel worse.

The term liquidity is the pixie dust the financial commentariat uses to obscure what is really going on. I maintain, and have throughout the last few years, that our difficulties have not been a liquidity crisis (though many who had no business exposing themselves individually to liquidity drying up for them certain had a liquidity crisis) but a solvency crisis. David Merkel points out that liquidity always exists, it just goes where the marginal credit buyer has gone. Where insolvency risk seems to be increasing, the marginal buyer can become very scarce and will provide it to areas seemingly exposed to less risk. At the end of the day it is solvency that is our problem, and until we solve that liquidity will go to those perceived to be least at risk. Right now that is the government and those they are backing. Hence a credit crunch for much of the economy.

Speaking of credit, consumer credit has now declined for 11 straight months. A record, and by a long shot. (Click image for a larger version.)

ConsumerCreditDec2009

In the “no big surprise department,” and paralleling the argument I made at the time, it has now been shown that the ban on short selling during the crisis did not help support prices and damaged stock market liquidity. In the no surprise at all department the biggest complainers turned out to have fundamental problems that short sellers were pointing out accurately (much better than our regulators.) The loudest complainer of all, Overstock.com and their bizarre CEO, Patrick Byrne. The upshot, they have been cooking their books for years, just like the short sellers were claiming.

Cross posted at The View from the Bluff