CIT is an example of the kind of problems still facing the economy. CIT has taken on legal counsel in order to determine whether or not it should go into bankruptcy. The problem, the company has $2.7 billion in debt coming due through year end and its credit-rating has been cut “deep into ‘junk’ territory.” (See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124744080839729811.html#mod=testMod.) It has been seeking liquidity help from the Federal Government but has not received approval yet.
Debt is the problem and it currently continues to haunt most businesses, governments, and individuals in the economy. It is a problem because this debt load has to work itself out. But, in working out the debt problem, the economy suffers and will continue to suffer.
The current debt crisis is so severe because of the credit inflation created by the U. S. Government over the last eight years of so. During expansions, credit inflations take place. This is what happens as the economy is stimulated and confidence in the private sector builds and things appear to be good and getting better. Credit inflations don’t have to directly result in general price inflation, although they can end up with this result.
In the 1990s as well as the 2000s we have had credit inflations where price increases have been relatively mild. In the 1990s we saw the stock market bubble and the credit inflation with respect to new ventures. However, during that decade we saw the federal government turn a deficit budget into a surplus budget by the end of the century. In the 2000s, we saw the housing bubble and the general credit inflation, but we also experienced a huge increase in government debt on top of everything else. Debt was good and most partook of it!
If the credit inflation during a period of economic expansion is not too excessive then the following correction that must take place can be relatively mild and reasonable and the government can come in and re-flate the economy so that the financial dislocation can be righted in a reasonable amount of time without too much “hurt” in the economy in general. Moral hazard is created, but what’s the problem with a little moral hazard? Right?
This is what happens in most minor recessions.
An exception occurred in the credit inflation of the 1970s. President Nixon was so paranoid about getting re-elected that he set about inflating the economy and connected this with taking the United States off the gold standard, floating the dollar, and freezing wages and prices. This philosophy was not abandoned by President Ford. Jimmy Carter just inflated, period. And, by the end of the decade, serious work had to be done to bring general inflation under control.
What happened in the decade of the 2000s was of a totally different nature. The debt structure that was created through this decade’s credit inflation could not be sustained. Debt was growing way more rapidly than the economy could support and the resulting imbalance was greater than at any time since the Second World War. Almost everyone was excessively over leveraged. The headlines focused first upon the subprime market and then upon Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs) and the Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). And, then it became apparent that this excessive leveraging had been going on everywhere in the economy. And, the federal government was right up there with everyone else.
There is too much debt out there! Yes, there is deficient aggregate demand, but that is not going to be corrected until the debt situation is corrected...no matter how much Paul Krugman and the Keynesian wing of the world cry out! People and businesses are going to have to get their balance sheets in order before private spending will really pick up. Unless, of course, the government is able to get a hyper inflation going again which is the classic solution for an economy with too much debt.
There are three ways for economic units to reduce debt. The first is to sell assets and pay off the debt. However, if people are uncertain about asset values this solution to the debt problem is not going to work. Second, economic units can save out of income and revenues and pay down their debt. This, of course, is the soundest way to de-leverage, but it is also the slowest way to reduce the debt on a balance sheet. The third way to reduce debt is to renounce the debt: that is, declare bankruptcy. This solution does have repercussions, however, on the value of the assets of other people and other businesses.
A firm with too much debt can face another problem. Debt matures and sometimes has to be refinanced. The problem here is that a company may not be able to refinance the debt that is coming due. In such cases, these firms will either be forced into the first way of reducing debt, selling assets and perhaps taking a loss on the sale of the assets, or it will have to renounce the debt by declaring bankruptcy.
One sees CIT examining its resources to decide what is its best option. The second option does not seem to be a viable option because CIT doesn’t have sufficient time to generate enough revenues so that it can pay down its debt. So, it is looking at a situation where it has a substantial amount of debt maturing in the next six months or so. Refinancing is an option, but with its bond ratings reduced to the ‘junk’ category, this could be quite expensive and could produce negative cash flows so that earnings could not provide revenues to pay down debt. Thus, CIT could reduce sell off assets to generate cash to pay off the maturing debt. But, how much does CIT stand to lose if it sells off assets?
If these are the scenarios, then it is good that CIT is getting advice on declaring bankruptcy. This still presents a problem. As people see this possibility facing the company, why should short term lenders continue to help finance the company and why should borrowers continue to borrow from CIT, a company that may not be there tomorrow. Also, on Monday morning investors dumped the company’s stock.
The fact of the matter is that there are many companies, governments, and individuals (and their families) that face this situation right now. And it is very, very scary.
The question is, given these problems, why should these economic units spend? They have a debt problem. And, with rising unemployment and more and more debt coming due in various sectors of the economy, like commercial real estate, why should we expect people to pick up their spending in the near term. There are other, more pressing issues to deal with. This is why the economy is not going to start to pick up much speed soon.
Almost every week there is a new “CIT” that we read about. These companies are too big to ignore. And, that is what is so worrisome. How many more of them are there?
Something else that is worrisome as well. When banks are closed by the FDIC, the general operating procedure is to place the deposits and good assets of the closed bank with a healthy bank. Word is that there are not that many healthy banks around. Thus, the deposits and good assets of banks that are closed are not being placed with healthy banks (See “FDIC’s Challenge with Busted Banks,” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124744606526030587.html#mod=todays_us_money_and_investing.) So, we now have more banks that have been focused on their own problems taking on the problem of integrating the deposits and good assets of closed banks which can’t help but divert their attention from their own problems. As of last Friday, 53 banks have been closed this year and the expected total of bank closings for the year is over 100. If we don’t have a lot of healthy banks around now to take care of the current crop of banks that are closing, what are we going to do for the rest of the year?