Thursday, August 23, 2007

David Malpas On The Current Financial & Economic Outlook

A little over two weeks ago, which now seems like a year ago in these markets, David Malpass, chief economist of Bear Stearns, wrote a wonderful editorial in the Wall Street Journal concerning the distinction between credit markets and the 'real' economy.

Now, many economists and other pundits are declaring that we are on the edge of a recession, and that recent credit market problems have crippled, or are crippling, the 'real' economy.

To the contrary, Malpass wrote,

"Equity markets have recently lost over $2 trillion in the U.S. and even more globally -- many times the likely amount of mortgage and corporate debt losses in the foreseeable future. This is in part a correction from the sharp global equity run-up through mid-July. Current prices still signal growth ahead.

Another aspect of the market disruption is a dramatic stand-off between bond buyers and sellers: Buyers in both housing and debt markets are using the market discontinuity to claw prices and terms back to Earth. The slowdown talk weighing on equities also reflects the Wall Street view that debt, mortgage and takeover businesses have replaced General Motors as the economy's bellwether. According to the bears: As goes the credit market, so goes the economy.

Fortunately, Main Street is not that fickle. Housing and debt markets are not that big a part of the U.S. economy, or of job creation. It's more likely the economy is sturdy and will grow solidly in coming months, and perhaps years.

U.S. growth has endured other waves of equally loud pessimism -- over high gasoline prices, low (pre-revision) estimates of job growth, a supposedly negative personal savings rate (revised to positive on July 27 by the Commerce Department) and even the 2003 tax cut on labor and capital. Remember the argument that tax cuts would put the economy on a path toward fiscal collapse and recession? Now, the U.S. deficit is set to fall below $150 billion by Washington's September fiscal year-end, thanks to strong tax receipts."

Thus, Malpass calls our attention to some pretty badly mistaken prior economic calls by some of these so-called 'experts.' On the subject of using housing as a piggy-bank, Malpass wrote,

"The bearish view is that Americans live, breathe and spend their houses and mortgages. Yet the July 31 consumer confidence survey by the Conference Board jumped to 112, the highest in the six-year expansion. Data and theory show clearly that houses are not the be-all and end-all of the economy. Jobs matter more. For many, the value of future employment is much greater than their home equity. The low jobless claims and unemployment rate -- clear signs of a strong labor environment -- raise confidence and likely future wages. This outweighs changes in wealth, whether from declines in house prices or the stock market, especially for lower-income workers.

Neither the economy nor job growth has been dependent on housing. Residential construction declined to 4% of GDP in the second quarter -- right on the 1990s average -- having boomed excessively in 2004 and 2005 and subtracted heavily from GDP in 2006. But strength in commercial construction more than offset the weakness in residential construction, allowing overall construction to add to GDP for the first time in a year.

Concerns about high inventories of unsold homes are exaggerated. At 537,000 per the Commerce Department, the June inventory equals 7.4 months of 2007's average sales. This is only a bit above the 6.7 months average inventory from 1980-1995. The leaner inventories in the 1996-2005 "sellers' market" resulted in part from the super-low interest and mortgage rates earlier this decade, and the 1997 cut in the capital-gains tax on houses.

Those overstating housing's impact on jobs often use dates spanning the 2001 recession, as in the widely quoted calculation that 37% of the net new jobs were in housing. That was true only between March 2001 and September 2005, because housing jobs grew in the recession while other jobs shrank. A fairer picture of the role of housing in the expansion is to start counting from any month after the recession. From the end of 2003 through present, jobs from residential construction plus real estate and mortgage brokers created only 3.6% of the net new jobs, 5.3% if all credit intermediation jobs are also included.

Nor has consumer spending been dependent on "cashing in" on the housing boom. The increase in mortgage equity withdrawals in 2004 and 2005 funded big net additions to household financial assets, while consumption growth remained steady. Mortgage equity withdrawals slumped throughout 2006, yet consumption growth was particularly fast in the fourth quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007."

Thus, Malpass dispels the common notion among many in the business media that all Americans have done for the past decade is borrow against their rising home values to spend, spend, spend! Rather, Malpass notes they have invested, invested, invested! A housing value decline might cause some loss of demand for financial assets and, thus, some price declines, but not wholesale loss of consumer spending as a driver of the overall US economy.

On that theme, what about the egregious rises in sub-prime mortgage payments coming soon? Won't those rises in monthly mortgage payments be the final death blow to the US economy? Not so, wrote Malpass,

"In the long list of worries about consumption, the threat of mortgage-rate resets is providing the latest fixation. It shouldn't. Payments on some $500 billion of adjustable rate mortgages are scheduled to go up in 2007. If the mortgage rate is adjusted upward by an average two percentage points, that's $10 billion in added payments. To put this in perspective, wages for nonsupervisory workers increased by $296 billion over the last 12 months. The July 27 revision alone added $130 billion to the last year's total U.S. personal income, raising it to $11.5 trillion, reflecting the hard-to-track dynamism of the U.S. economy.

The constant warnings of a housing-related collapse in domestic consumption overstates the importance of housing in the economy, while understating the importance of jobs and economic growth, both of which have been solid. Of course, sellers of both houses and bonds would like more froth in their markets. But buyers, and likely the economy as a whole, will probably benefit over time from the wrenching return to more normal market conditions."

It is truly a pleasure to read a balanced, reasoned, informed opinion in a major news medium which contradicts the current hand-wringing that, thanks to a few sub-prime mortgages that were made, securitized, and sold as investments, our entire economy is about to be brought to its knees.

It's not. The sliver of the housing market that is sub-prime is but a piece of an otherwise dynamic and resilient US economy, still the envy of the world's other economies.

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