Commendatori's Blog

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The U.S. Financial System Is Effectively Insolvent

Posted by commendatori on March 5, 2009

There is a grave risk of a global L-shaped depression.

For those who argue that the rate of growth of economic activity is turning positive–that economies are contracting but at a slower rate than in the fourth quarter of 2008–the latest data don’t confirm this relative optimism. In 2008’s fourth quarter, gross domestic product fell by about 6% in the U.S., 6% in the euro zone, 8% in Germany, 12% in Japan, 16% in Singapore and 20% in South Korea. So things are even more awful in Europe and Asia than in the U.S.

There is, in fact, a rising risk of a global L-shaped depression that would be even worse than the current, painful U-shaped global recession. Here’s why:

First, note that most indicators suggest that the second derivative of economic activity is still sharply negative in Europe and Japan and close to negative in the U.S. and China. Some signals that the second derivative was turning positive for the U.S. and China turned out to be fake starts. For the U.S., the Empire State and Philly Fed indexes of manufacturing are still in free fall; initial claims for unemployment benefits are up to scary levels, suggesting accelerating job losses; and January’s sales increase is a fluke–more of a rebound from a very depressed December, after aggressive post-holiday sales, than a sustainable recovery.

For China, the growth of credit is only driven by firms borrowing cheap to invest in higher-returning deposits, not to invest, and steel prices in China have resumed their sharp fall. The more scary data are those for trade flows in Asia, with exports falling by about 40% to 50% in Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

Even correcting for the effect of the Chinese New Year, exports and imports are sharply down in China, with imports falling (-40%) more than exports. This is a scary signal, as Chinese imports are mostly raw materials and intermediate inputs. So while Chinese exports have fallen so far less than in the rest of Asia, they may fall much more sharply in the months ahead, as signaled by the free fall in imports.

With economic activity contracting in 2009’s first quarter at the same rate as in 2008’s fourth quarter, a nasty U-shaped recession could turn into a more severe L-shaped near-depression (or stag-deflation). The scale and speed of synchronized global economic contraction is really unprecedented (at least since the Great Depression), with a free fall of GDP, income, consumption, industrial production, employment, exports, imports, residential investment and, more ominously, capital expenditures around the world. And now many emerging-market economies are on the verge of a fully fledged financial crisis, starting with emerging Europe.

Fiscal and monetary stimulus is becoming more aggressive in the U.S. and China, and less so in the euro zone and Japan, where policymakers are frozen and behind the curve. But such stimulus is unlikely to lead to a sustained economic recovery. Monetary easing–even unorthodox–is like pushing on a string when (1) the problems of the economy are of insolvency/credit rather than just illiquidity; (2) there is a global glut of capacity (housing, autos and consumer durables and massive excess capacity, because of years of overinvestment by China, Asia and other emerging markets), while strapped firms and households don’t react to lower interest rates, as it takes years to work out this glut; (3) deflation keeps real policy rates high and rising while nominal policy rates are close to zero; and (4) high yield spreads are still 2,000 basis points relative to safe Treasuries in spite of zero policy rates.

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