Friday, January 8, 2010

Something is Wrong!

A headline in the New York Times, “Walk Away From Your Mortgage!”

Why not?

The best remedy for the current economic malaise?

Since there is too much debt, let’s all just walk away from our debt.

And, if the New York Times is printing such material, then it must be OK! Right?

As we “recover” from the Great Recession we see pockets of problems all over the place. Things just don’t fit together the way they used to. And, what we are doing to combat these problems doesn’t seem to be relieving the suffering. The whole world seems to be dislocated.

There is too much debt outstanding. No one disagrees with that, but how do you get people and businesses and governments to start spending again when they are desperate to reduce their outstanding debt?

Other headlines this morning point to the problems in commercial real estate. In “Delinquency Rate Rises for Mortgages” we read that “More than 6% of commercial-mortgage borrowers in the U. S. have fallen behind in their payments, a sign of potential troubles ahead as nearly $40 billion of commercial-mortgage-backed bonds come due this year.” (See Also, “Further Slide Seen in N. Y. Commercial Real Estate” points to the fact that 180 buildings totaling $12.5 billion in value, are in trouble in Manhattan. (See

But, the problems don’t seem to be just in commercial real estate. The New York Times article cited above states that at least one quarter of all residential mortgages in the United States are underwater and that 10% of the mortgages outstanding are delinquent. Another round of foreclosures and bankruptcies seem to be on the way.

Which brings us to the banking system: here the difficulties bifurcate depending upon size. If you are really big you seem to be doing very, very well these days. In fact, it seems as if the “good ole daze” have returned for these bankers. Risk-taking and speculation in the carry trade abound. Simon Johnson, an economist at MIT issued a warning on CNBC yesterday morning that the next phase of the financial crisis could be just beginning and this gets back to the risk-taking of the six major banks in the US whose combined balance sheets exceed 60% of United States GDP.

If you are smaller, however, your problems are immense. The smaller banks are carrying the burden of the commercial real estate problems and consumer debt and mortgages still present these banks with problems because these loans represented “Main Street” and were not all packaged and sold to investors in Finland. Remember there are 552 banks, all small- and medium-sized banks that are on the FDICs list of problem banks and this is expected to grow this year before declining, generally do to actual failures.

There are more dislocations throughout the economy that point to persisting problems. For example, in manufacturing, since the 1960s the unused capacity of United States industry has continually declined from peak usage to peak usage of that capacity The latest peak utilization of capacity still saw that about 20% of the industrial capacity of the United States remained unused. Unused capacity for the past thirty years seems to average around 23% to 24%.

We see unused capacity in the labor force as well. Since the 1970s under-employment of labor has grown quite consistently. Attention is focused upon the unemployment rate, but this measure does not include those individuals that have left the labor force because they are discouraged and those that are only working part time but would like to work more. We have seen estimates that 17% to 20% of the employable people in the United States are under-employed. Another dislocation that is not comforting.

Then we hear about the problems in state and local governments. Reports indicate that there are more than 30 states that are currently experiencing fiscal difficulties. We hear most about California and New York, but there are many other states particularly in the west and southwest that are having real problems. One estimate is that the states will have a combined budget shortfall of at least $350 billion in the fiscal years of 2010 and 2011. And, this doesn’t even get to the difficulties that are being faced by local governmental bodies.

And, there are the dislocations being created by the federal government. Budget deficits for the next ten years have been placed in the range of $15 trillion. The United States is fighting in three wars throughout the world. The government is passing health care legislation that has been justified fiscally by postponing start dates of programs from three to five years. There is climate control efforts being considered along with regulations, like anti-pollution controls, that will just exacerbate the economic and fiscal problems of the country. Then there are other changes in the rules and regulations that apply to industry that will further change the playing field and create greater uncertainty about what management’s should do.

There is the problem of unemployment, the number one issue among the American voter. (And, you thought the number one issue was health care or pollution or terrorism or the war in Afghanistan.) But, there is a dislocation problem relating to federal government stimulus programs.

For fifty years or so, the federal government has attempted to stimulate the economy to put people back to work in the same jobs that they were released from. The government has sought to put unemployed people back to work in the steel industry, in the auto industry, and in other jobs that are the backbone of American industry (according to the labor unions and others). As a consequence, the steel industry lost competitiveness, the auto industry lost competitiveness, and so do many other industries.

This effort to stimulate the economy and put people back into the jobs that they had lost has contributed greatly to the increase in the unused industrial capacity and to the increase in the under-employed in this country. The effort to constantly maintain a low unemployment rate by putting people back into the jobs they have lost has resulted in a massive slide in the competitive position of the United States.

The point of this discussion is my concern with the huge dislocations that now exist within the country. Things are out-of-whack and it is going to take us quite a while for us to get things back together again. Yes, we can try and “force” the economy back into a position of higher employment and greater capacity utilization, of lower debt burdens and greater solvency. But, this would just postpone, once again, the need to realign the country to deal with the pressures of the 21st century.

Something has changed, however. The United States is now facing a more competitive and hostile world economy. The government may not be able to “force” the economy back into its old mold.

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