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Crony Capitalism Strikes Again

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How the Federal Reserve is juicing speculators... again.

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That testimony was recorded just 15 months ago, but the financially seismic events it references have apparently already faded into the dustbin of history. Still, even if the dubious proposition that the banking system has fully healed were true, what did the Fed hope to accomplish besides goosing the S&P 500 via speculative rotation into the bank indices?

Well, there are no other plausible explanations. Certainly the stated theory -- namely, that by green lighting disgorgements of capital today the Fed's action will facilitate bank capital raising and new lending in the future -- merits a loud guffaw. The fast money has already priced in whatever dividend increases and share buybacks may occur before the next banking crisis, but the last thing these speculators expects is a new round of dilutive capital issuance by the banks. Stated differently, the bid for bank stocks unleashed by the Fed's relief action is predicated on speculators' pocketing any near-term "surplus" capital, not leaving it in harms way on bank balance sheets.

Moreover, even if the Fed's action had the effect of bolstering, not depleting, bank capital the larger issue is why does our already massively bloated banking system need more capital in any event? The reflexive answer is that this will help restart the flow of credit to Main Street, but it doesn't take much digging to see that this is a complete non-starter.

The household sector is still saddled with massive excess debt -- unless you believe that the credit bubble of recent years is the sustainable norm. The fact is, prior to the Fed's easy money induced national LBO, debt-to-income ratios at today's levels were unthinkable. In 1975, for example, total household debt -- including mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and bingo wagers -- was about $730 billion or 45% of GDPDuring the 1980's, however, this long-standing household leverage ratio began a parabolic climb, and never looked back. By the bubble peak in Q4 2007, total household debt had reached $13.8 trillion and was 96% of GDP. Yet after 36 months of the Great Recession wring-out, the dial has hardly moved: household debt outstanding in Q4 2010 was still $13.4 trillion, meaning that it has shrunk by the grand sum or 3% (entirely due to defaults) and still remains at 90% of GDP or double the leverage ratio that existed prior to the debt binge of the past three decades.

So the banking system does not need more capital in order to increase credit extensions to the household sector. In fact, the two principal categories of household debt -- mortgage loans and revolving credit, continue to decline as American families slowly shed unsupportable debt. The only reason total household debt appears to be stabilizing in recent quarters is that student loan volumes are soaring, but this growth is being funded entirely by the Bank of Uncle Sam now that private bank loan guarantees have been eliminated.

Indeed, the startling fact is that the approximate $1 trillion of student loans outstanding -- subprime credits by definition -- now exceed the $830 billion of total credit card debt by a wide margin. While this latest student loan bubble will end no better than the earlier credit bubbles, the larger fact remains that the household sector is only in the early stages of deleveraging. Not the least of the motivating forces here is that the leading edge of the household sector -- the 78 million strong baby boom generation -- appears to be figuring-out that it is not 1975 anymore, and that retirement and old age are approaching at a gallop.This obvious household deleveraging trend remains a mystery to the Fed and to the Wall Street stock peddlers who occasionally moonlight as economists. One recent air ball offered up by the latter is that the ratio of debt to disposable personal income (DPI) has dropped materially, and that this proves the household sector has been healed financially and is ready to borrow again. Specifically, the household debt-to-DPI ratio has fallen to 116% from a peak of 130% in late 2007.

Never mind that this measure of household finances stood at just 62% back during the healthier climes of 1975. It is evident that even the modest improvement in this ratio during the last three years is a statistical illusion. It turns out that the debt-to-DPI ratio is improving mainly because the denominator has gained about $885 billion or 8.3% since the end of 2007.

Yet this gain in DPI has nothing whatsoever to do with an improved debt carrying capacity in the household sector. Thanks to the more or less continuous riot of Keynesian stimulus in Washington since early 2008, we have had a tax holiday and a transfer payment bonanza. Specifically, in the three years since the Q4 2007 peak, personal taxes are down at a $312 billion annual rate (which adds to DPI, an after-tax measure) and transfer payments are up by a $572 billion annual rate.

Both of these are components of DPI, and taken together ($884 billion) they account, quite astoundingly, for 99.8% of the DPI gain since Q4 2007. Moreover, it does not take a lot of figuring to see that these trends won't last. The Federal tax take is now less than 15% of GDP -- the lowest level since 1950 -- and will be rising year-after-year in the decade ahead, as will personal tax burdens at the state and local level.At the same time, the 30% surge in transfer payments over the last three years is mostly done. Unemployment insurance payments -- which accounted for much of the rise -- will be flat or shrinking in the near future, and various one-time low income programs have already expired. Moreover, the bulk of the current $2.3 trillion in transfer payments goes to elderly and poverty level households which carry negligible portions of the $13.4 trillion in household debt, in any event.

By contrast, the ratio of household debt to private wage and salary income -- a far better measure of debt carrying capacity -- has not improved at all. Household debt amounted to 255% of private wage and salary income at the peak of the credit boom in late 2007, and was still 251% in Q4 2010. At the end of the day, the household debt-to-DPI ratio improved solely because Uncle Sam went on a borrowing spree and temporarily juiced DPI with tax abatements and transfer handouts.

In short, banks don't need more capital to support household credit because the latter is still shrinking, and will continue to do so for a long time to come. Moreover, it might as well be said in this same vein that the business sector don't need no more stinking debt, neither!

At the end of 2005 -- before the credit bubble reached its apogee -- the non-financial business sector (both corporate and non-corporate entities) had total credit market debt of $8.3 trillion, according to the Fed's flow of funds data. By the end of 2007, this total had soared by 25% to $10.4 trillion. But contrary to endless data fiddling by Wall Street economists, the business sector as a whole has not deleveraged one bit since the financial crisis. As of year-end 2010, business debt was up a further $500 billion to $10.9 trillion.

The whole propaganda campaign about the business sector becoming financially flush rests on an entirely spurious factoid with respect to balance sheet cash. Yes, that number is up a tad -- from $2.56 trillion in Q4 2007 to $2.86 trillion at the end of 2010. Still, this endlessly trumpeted gain in cash balances of $300 billion is more than off-set by the far larger gain in business sector debt -- meaning that, on balance, the alleged nest egg of cash held by American business is simply borrowed money!

At the end of the day, $10.9 trillion is a lot of debt in absolute terms, but based on the Fed's data on the market value of business sector assets, it is also crystal clear that the relative burden of business debt has been rising, not falling. At the bubble peak in late 2007, business sector assets were valued at $41.5 trillion but alas this figure had shrunk to $36.9 trillion by the end of last year. The grim reaper of real estate deflation has done its work in the business sector, too.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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