Sunday, July 6, 2014

Truth or fiction?

This article reads like fiction to me.

Perhaps its saving grace is that it's comparing the U.S. to other nations' economic circumstances, and, in comparison, the U.S. seems less afflicted.  However, I think the article's overall tenor dismisses the gravity of our current circumstances.

Some recent history:
  • Aided by tax reforms from the 1980s (which were partially negated by record defense spending), the U.S. economy in the 1990s was very strong.  Combined with new financial franken-products (i.e. derivatives) and regulatory encouragement of lessening credit criteria (Community Reinvestment Act, et al), the stock market - particularly the tech sector and financials - soared.
  • By Y2K - which, through thorough planning at most company, organization, and government levels was itself a non-event - the exuberant irrationality party was coming to an end.  Venture capitalists had gotten stung funding too many tech deals written on the backs of bar napkins or rolling papers, pie-in-the-sky ideas with no cogent business plan or deliverables, no incoming cash flows. As well, investors (and regulators) had begun to wake up to the Alice-in-Wonderland house of cards that was derivatives trading.  The 'tech bubble' bursting was the result.
  • On the heels of major retreats of the stock market indices, the 9/11 attacks further eroded consumer confidence and security.  Many Americans instinctively cut back on spending.  Others, having never been acquainted with financial prudence, made no changes at all.  
  • To stimulate a stalling economy, the government looked to real estate to fill the void of the hobbled tech/financial sector.  Easy ("stated income") purchase money loans and liberalized equity lending helped the income statements of home builders, construction materials and home furnishings companies, lenders, car companies, and the economy in general.
  • But we had simply traded one bubble for another. The real estate chicaneries came home to roost in 2007-2009.  But where to turn?
  • With no shining beacon to guide the way, government attempted to shore up the economy by plugging leaks in the dike, and institutionalizing denial of financial realities (automaker and bank bailouts, extension of unemployment benefits) at great expense.  Quantitative Easing (QE) aimed to keep the economy afloat by providing cheap debt to fuel consumer spending - but even as borrowing rates hit record lows, many Americans decided (or had bankrupted themselves) to stop digging the hole further.  On the flip side, older Americans saw their CD nest eggs earning sub 1% APY for shorter term maturities.
Returning to the article, which states that U.S. banks have started lending again.  Yes, American financial institutions are lending.  But [qualified] borrowers are scarce.  With razor-thin - or in some cases negative - 
margins, even with competitive rates, the financial industry is seeing widespread diminution of loan portfolios in the form of early paydowns/payoffs.  Simply put, responsible borrowers are trying to shed, not increase, their debt loads.  Credit standards, already about as lax as they can be, can't be lowered any more without resulting in the collapse of the financial system.

The article also points to the roaring stock market, which just enthusiastically (exuberantly?) broke through the 17,000 level.  I believe this due not to the fundamental health of the equities comprising the indices, but an inflationary spiral resulting from deposit dollars seeking a higher return than what can be obtained in CDs. As the last of the longer term 'high rate' CDs are now matured or maturing, and no additional liquidity added into the mix, irrationality becomes the only explanation for a stable or increasing stock market index.

It's a subject of considerable debate whether there's validity in this comparison.

Well, that's my 2¢ worth for the morning.  For the record, I do not own, nor have I short sold, any securities mentioned in this post (I didn't mention any).

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