Roubini: How Are We Screwed? Let Us Count The Ways

Nouriel Roubini weighs in with another treatise of doom, this time focused on consumer spending. He lists 20 reasons consumer spending is headed to hell in a handbasket, taking the economy down with it. We’re short on Prozac, so we’ll summarize only a handful here, and we’ll let Nouriel take it away:

Today’s news about October retail sales (-2.8% relative to the previous month and now down in real terms for five months in a row) confirm what this forum has been arguing for a while, i.e. that the U.S. has entered its most severe consumer-led recession in decades. At this rate of free fall in consumption real GDP growth could be a whopping 5% negative or even worse in Q4 of 2008. And this is not a temporary phenomenon as almost all of the fundamentals driving consumption are heading south on a persistent and structural basis

  • Debt burden: The US consumer is debt burdened with the debt to disposable income having increased from 70% in the early 1990s to 100% in 2000 and to 140% in 2008. Not only debt ratios are high and rising but debt servicing ratios are also high and rising having gone from 11% in 2000 to almost 15% now as the interest rate on mortgages and consumer debt is resetting at higher levels.
  • Wealth effect (or lack thereof): The value of housing wealth is now sharply falling by over $6 trillion as home price depreciation will soon be 30% and reach a cumulative fall of over 40% by 2010. Recent estimates of this wealth effect suggest that the effect may be closer to 12-14% rather than the historical 5-7%. And with home prices falling over 30% about 40% of all households with a mortgage (or 21 million out of 50 who have a mortgage) will be under water (negative equity in their homes) with a huge incentive to walk away from their homes… The value of the equity wealth of US households has fallen by almost 50%, another ugly wealth effect on consumption
  • No more home ATMs: Mortgage equity withdrawal (MEW) is collapsing from $700 billion annualized in 2005 to less than $20 in Q2 of this year…
  • Credit continues to tighten. The credit crunch is becoming more severe as the recent Q2 flow of funds data and the Fed Loan Officers’ Survey suggests: it is spreading from sub-prime to near prime to prime mortgages and home equity loans; and from mortgages to credit cards, auto loans and student loans. Both the price and the quantity of credit are sharply tightening.
  • Job cuts are just getting started.  Employment has been falling for 10 months in a row and the rate of job losses is now accelerating. In the last recession in 2001 that was short and shallow (8 months from March to November 2001 with a cumulative fall in GDP of only 0.4%) job losses continued all the way until August 2003 with a job loss recovery and a total cumulative loss of jobs of over 5 million from the peak
  • Consumers will now need to start saving again. To bring back the household savings rate to the level of a decade ago (about 6% of GDP) consumption will have to fall – relative to current GDP levels – by almost a trillion dollars. If all of this adjustment were to occur in 12 months GDP would contract directly by 7% and indirectly (including the further collapse of residential and corporate capex spending in a severe recession) by 10%, an exemplification of the Keynesian “paradox of thrift”. If such an adjustment were to occur over 24 months rather than 12 months you would still have negative GDP growth of 5% for two years in a row with a cumulative fall in GDP from its peak of 10% (note that in the worst US recession since WWII such cumulative fall in GDP was only 3.7% in 1957-58). One can thus only hope that this adjustment of consumption and savings rates occurs only slowly over time – four years rather than two. Even in that scenario the cumulative fall of GDP could be of the order of 4-5%, i.e. the worst US recession since WWII. 

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