Monday, August 24, 2009

The Deleveraging Continues

There are three major factors that will contribute to the timing and the strength of the economic recovery. First, there is the ability and speed at which individuals and businesses are able to get their balance sheets in order by reducing the amount of debt they have on them. Second, there are supply side questions about the restructuring of the economy. This has to do with the large number of people that have left the labor force and may not return in the near term and the secular decline in the capacity utilization of industry. (See my post of June 22, 2009, “Structural Shift in the U. S. Economy is Really in Supply”: Third, there is the tremendous amount of debt the federal government is issuing and the fear that this re-leveraging will create a credit inflation that may go right into prices rather than output and employment.

In this post, I am primarily focusing on the first of these factors. I will discuss the progress of the second two issues in future posts. There is more immediate information on the first and it is vitally important that this deleveraging takes place in an orderly fashion or the near term concern over the latter two will be misplaced.

Perhaps the two most highly publicized methods of deleveraging continue to speed along at a rapid pace. The American Bankruptcy Institute has reported that the total number of bankruptcies in the United States filed during the first six months of 2009 increased by 36 percent over the same period of time in 2008. The only time bankruptcies have been so large is right before the bankruptcy law change earlier in this decade. Business filings during the first six months were up 64 percent over the first six months in 2008 and individual or household filings were up 35 percent.

Bank closings reached 81 for the year with four new banks added to the list on Friday, one of them being the 10th largest bank failure in United States history. Talk now is that there will be 300 or more bank closures in the near future. The FDIC is scrambling to find ways to increase its financial resources to handle the upcoming deluge of failures and is also easing restrictions on those that can bring private equity into the mix to carry some of the financial burden in taking over these failed institutions.

Getting less publicity is the effort that individuals and businesses are making to bring their own financial situation under control. Cutting expenses is, of course, one of the immediate ways that people can work toward their own best interest. Another way of saying this is that people and businesses are increasing their savings. Every week, more and more articles are appearing informing people how this saving might be accomplished and presenting stories of how households and companies are successfully meeting this challenge.

Furthermore, there are a growing number of stories of people and businesses getting in touch with those they owe money to and working with the lenders to set up terms and conditions that will increase the probability that debt will be repaid in a timely manner. My experience in banking supports the contention that financial institutions and other lenders really would prefer to work something out with those they have lent money to, but depend on those borrowers that perceive that they are going to face some difficulties in the future to get with them and initiate discussions about how things might be worked out. Postponing discussions only puts more pressure on both parties and tends to make things harder to resolve.

Refinancing is another problem looming on the horizon. There seems to be dark clouds hovering over the commercial real estate industry and less credit worthy corporate debt issuers. A lot of debt is going to come due over the next 18 months or so. The big concern is whether or not this debt will be able to be re-financed since very little of it will be able to be re-paid. The bits and pieces of news coming out of this area is that discussions are being held and although there may be failures coming out of these situations that the problems are recognized and will be absorbed in a relatively smooth fashion as time passes.

The areas of the bond market that contain firms with higher credit ratings are performing remarkably well. Volumes of new issues are up and the financial markets have absorbed these rather smoothly. If anything, corporations have turned to the bond market for funding since the commercial banking system is actually shrinking its base of commercial and industrial loans. This is an interesting thing happening to substitute bond credit for the credit extended by the banking sector at this point, but, as they say, whatever works.

Another method for de-leveraging that seems to be picking up steam is that corporations are buying back their own debt off the open market. In some cases it is reported that these companies can buy back their existing debt at 50 cents on the dollar which is a pretty good exchange for the company going forward. Look to see this pick up this fall.

Finally, the Federal Reserve does not look like it is going to pull the rug out from the banking system and the financial markets going forward. Yes, there is a lot of concern about all the reserves the Fed has put into the banking system and whether or not it is going to be able to “exit” the banking system in an orderly fashion. However, the Fed does not want a replay of the 1937-38 experience when it caused a collapse in the banking system by trying to withdraw excess reserves from the banks by raising reserve requirements. (See my post of August 21, “Federal Reserve: Exit Watch”: The best guess here is that the Fed will continue to keep the banking system very liquid in order to help underwrite the de-leveraging now underway.

The important thing to remember at this time is that “quiet is good”! The de-leveraging is taking place. However, the de-leveraging will take time. We just can’t become too impatient for we must let the system do its work and restructure its balance sheets. We just don’t want any more shocks! There still is a long way to go toward a full economic recovery and the other two issues I mentioned in the first paragraph are of great concern. But, we move forward by just putting one foot in front of the other.

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