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Five Things You Need to Know: What Next?


We must realize that even now, just when it appears it is over, it is really only beginning.

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As the ongoing debt crisis continues, we have transitioned from Stage 1, the initial Wall Street impact of debt deleveraging, to Stage 2, the Main Street impact, and on Sunday kicked off Stage 3, the coordinated Fiscal and Monetary response to the debt crisis. Before we get to the What Next? question, let's revisit the basics of what is happening and what it means.

1. What is a "Credit Crunch"?

The simple answer is that a "credit crunch" is a general decline in the the supply of, and demand for, credit.

Under certain circumstances, the market (and sometimes the Federal Reserve) can induce a decline in the supply of credit (or at least a decline in the growth rate of the supply of credit) by raising interest rates. This makes money more expensive for borrowers, and as a result slows the growth and demand for available credit. This is what a central bank attempts to do when the growth of inflation exceeds their "comfort level."

But a credit crunch occurs when banks become more risk averse - less willing to lend - even though interest rates may remain the same, and in extreme cases, even though interest rates may go lower.

This risk aversion on the part of lenders makes it more difficult for even the most credit-worthy borrowers to obtain money at reasonable terms. In effect, interest rates - the cost of money - can become infinitely high for many borrowers. As a result, it becomes difficult to fund projects and investments, which can slow economic growth, which in turn can make lenders even more unwilling to lend; a vicious cycle of economic pain.

2. Why does credit growth matter in the first place?

Because in our fiat-based monetary system, economic growth is dependent upon credit expansion.

What does that mean? And why is it a problem?

First, a "fiat-based monetary system" is simply the name economists give to an economic system where money is created through fractional reserve banking techniques. Fractional reserve banking is the practice of issuing more money than a bank holds in cash reserves. So, in a fiat-based monetary system, if risk appetites are supportive - that is, if borrowers are willing to take on debt - then credit expansion can feed into normal risk-seeking behavior, and if excessive can foster unsustainable booms; dot.coms, housing.

As long as credit expansion and demand for credit continues at an accelerating pace, the appearance of prosperity continues as asset prices increase.

The "accelerating pace" aspect is critical. It is the key to maintaining the boom. Access to capital and credit is essential to growth in our current economy, and if that access is restrained the cycle reinforces itself.

But there are two sides to the credit coin. Access to capital is one side, but demand for capital is the other side. That is the side the central bank cannot control. A central bank can make credit available, but there must be a demand for it or it's like throwing a party no one comes to.

As this debt crisis has now entered the second stage, where the impact on Main Street begins to intensify, there will be a kickback to Wall Street in the form of sluggish consumer spending, lower economic activity and a deceleration in credit demand and risk appetites. As the New York Times reported this morning, the Federal Reserve yesterday said consumer borrowing grew at an annual rate of just 2.1 percent in July, the slowest pace since last December. The category worst hit was auto loans, where credit demand fell to its lowest level in 16 years.

3. What do we mean by "credit expansion," anyway?

First, credit is not in and of itself necessarily a bad thing. Capitalism thrives on the productive use of credit. But what has transpired over the past decade is that credit has increasingly been used as a substitute for, or to mask, weak economic growth.

Since the early 1990s, new money was created by the banking system and offered at artificially low interest rates and, later, to borrowers with increasingly low credit quality. By offering willing borrowers money at artificially low rates, this encouraged increased time preferences among economic actors, which is to say that investment horizons were lengthened and risk tolerances were widened.

This is how debt was pyramided to such an extent that one small setback, in subprime borrowing for example, resulted in such a widespread problem, problems which quickly spread to other, supposedly safe credit risks.

By offering willing borrowers money at artificially low rates, this encouraged increased time preferences among economic actors, which is to say that investment horizons were lengthened and risk tolerances were widened. This money was then overinvested and misallocated by investors in ventures and houses.

In hindsight, once the herd has dispersed, it always seems as if these investors were simply dumb. After all, who could now believe that an "undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is" could be a reasonable investment? Probably, no one. However at the time, during the South Sea Bubble of 1720, quite a few investors figured just such a company made really good economic sense. Seriously.

4. How, then, did we transition from credit expansion to a credit crunch?

Because credit expansion distorts capital investments and spending by creating the "illusion" of prosperity, when the time comes to pay back what is borrowed investors and lenders discover that they have misallocated their capital. This leads to losses because the only way to turn a misallocation of capital into a gain is to sell it at a higher price to someone who still believes it will go up in the future.

This loss of capital creates risk aversion; lenders suddenly find they are not being repaid, say, by subprime borrowers who are defaulting on their mortgages. These lenders in turn - remember this is a fractional banking system - find that because they used the repayment of these loans as collateral for loans they took out to "malinvest," suddenly discover they are unable to repay some of their debts. The lender's lender is in the same boat, as is the lender's lender's lender. So, what do these lenders do? They "de-lever." In other words, they sell whatever they can - whatever is still liquid (say, U.S. stocks, for example) in order to raise capital to repay loans. This pressures asset prices.

We then have a situation where the fear of not having money (U.S. dollars) to pay down debt spreads. This deepens further risk aversion. Time preferences shrink. Lenders in many cases cannot, or are no longer willing to, extend credit beyond the very short term, for they fear not being repaid.

5. What Next?

So what happens next?

The Fed can (and is) making even more credit available; a monetary response. This response is designed to relieve tight credit conditions among financial institutions, but so far, despite an array of special lending programs created over the past year, the creation of weird acronyms and the opening of access to the Fed's discount window to broker-dealers, the response has been weak, largely because of the size of the housing market, the speed of the housing deflation and the leverage involved.

When monetary policy is insufficient to stop the credit crunch, government can step in and create any number of mechanisms to essentially bailout lenders and borrowers; a direct fiscal response. We are seeing this happen now with Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE).

But by targeting asset prices and attempting to "manage the economy" the Fed and the government ironically create the conditions for a market that is too large for it to control. As a result, crashes, unwindings of speculative bubbles, become more devastating, and affect far more people in the real economy.

The next step for the Federal Reserve in terms of monetary policy will probably be to follow up the FNM, FRE bailout with a series of short-term interest rate cuts, perhaps beginning as soon as the September 16 meeting. As a series of rate cuts will likely not (at first) appear to be sufficient to kickstart credit demand (with the psychology of deflation now beginning to firmly take hold), the Fed will have little choice but to adopt the quantitative easing policy the Bank of Japan used when the typical path of monetary expansion - reductions in target short-term interest rates - failed to increase the money supply.

On the fiscal side, one consequence of the debt crisis will be new, sweeping regulations for financial institutions, as well as increases in the balance sheet of the government. The regulatory changes, some of which are already being kicked around in Washington, will further impinge the earnings ability for banks and financials.

Presently, the market is most focused on which banks will survive the crisis. As monetary and fiscal policy combines to maintain at least the appearance of no large bank failures (local and smaller regionals will be left on their own), the shift will move by early next year from fear of failure to questions about how these banks will be able to make money under a strict regulatory environment.

Meanwhile, other fiscal policy will focus on increases in public works projects targeting infrastructure, as well as increases in military spending and other government programs to help Americans deal with the transition from boom to bust and back again.

This will play out over a long period of time, almost in slow motion. There will be many meaningless policy announcements and adjustments and the captains of financials, real estate and industry will make many, many more declarations that The Bottom is in until eventually no one listens anymore. But we must realize that even now, just when it appears it is over, it is really only beginning.

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