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Consumption Crisis Spreading


Long road to recovery for market.

This morning's Wall Street Journal included the following comment from BMW:

"The financial crisis has become more severe of late. This has resulted in a drop in pre-owned selling prices, particularly in North America, and consequently in a reduction of revenues that can be generated on vehicles at the end of lease contracts." And the article goes on to say that "BMW has been aggressive in pushing about 70% to 80% of its sales through attractive leasing or financing rates, leaving it with about 450,000 leased vehicles on its balance sheet in the U.S."

At the beginning of this year, I wrote a piece entitled "The Courage to Choose," in which I stated:

"I believe that in time, historians will define the last twenty years in America as the "Age of Aspiration" where, thanks to unprecedented levels of credit, Americans could become anything they wanted. Where, thanks to zero percent down debt and a seemingly robust economy, we could own bigger homes, fancier cars, and more lavish vacations – where our bounty was limited only by the boldness of our wants."

Unlike many, I have never thought that the U.S.' current crisis was a "subprime" crisis, or even a more-broad mortgage crisis. No, to me, this has been and will continue to be an evolving consumer consumption crisis which started with the largest and most leveraged consumer asset (housing) and the weakest population of consumers (subprime borrowers).

But I think it's important to recognize that with each passing day, as credit is tightened and unemployment grows, more and more asset classes and population groups will be affected. And you need only look at the news from BMW above or last week's earnings report from Harley-Davidson (HOG) and Starbucks (SBUX), to see that consumers can no longer afford their aspirations.

From personal experience, I would add that I'm also seeing the consumer consumption crisis roll across other purchases. As a trustee of a small private elementary school, I see it in a 20% reduction in projected 2008-2009 enrollment. Conversely, as a member of a public university board, I see it in record applications. Cost now matters.

But whether it's increased demand for public education, public healthcare, or public housing, I believe the market has completely underestimated the burden which will be placed on local, state and federal agencies to support consumers' voluntary (such as education or transportation) or involuntary (healthcare, food and housing) migration to cheaper public alternatives. And with property and income tax revenues almost certain to decline further, we're likely to see dramatic increases in government deficits.

Finally, as this morning's news out of Europe highlights, the consumer consumption crisis is not limited to the United States. Having exported the "credit drug" to European retail borrowers (through our securitization-driven banking business model), as well as more than a few subprime loans to Europe's largest banks, I believe that most of the developed world is now beginning to experience the effects of what I believe will be protracted and significant consumer purchasing slump.
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