Roach on the Zombie American Consumer and Debt Forgiveness
Stephen Roach has a piece up on Project Syndicate pointing to the astonishing benchmark GDP revisions, which make the weak trend in consumer spending look even weaker. Here is what Roach points to:
As part of the annual reworking of the US National Income and Product Accounts that was released in July 2011, Commerce Department statisticians slashed their earlier estimates of consumer spending. The 14-quarter growth trend from early 2008 to mid-2011 was cut from 0.5% to 0.2%; the bulk of the downward revision was concentrated in the first six quarters of this period – for which the estimate of the annualized consumption decline was doubled, from 1.1% to 2.2%.
I have been tracking these so-called benchmark revisions for about 40 years. This is, by far, one of the most significant I have ever seen. We all knew it was tough for the American consumer – but this revision portrays the crisis-induced cutbacks and subsequent anemic recovery in a much dimmer light…
The reasons behind this are not hard to fathom. By exploiting a record credit bubble to borrow against an unprecedented property bubble, American consumers spent well beyond their means for many years. When both bubbles burst, over-extended US households had no choice but to cut back and rebuild their damaged balance sheets by paying down outsize debt burdens and rebuilding depleted savings.
Yet, on both counts, balance-sheet repair has only just begun. While household-sector debt was pruned to 115% of disposable personal income in early 2011 from the peak of 130% hit in 2007, it remains well in excess of the 75% average of the 1970-2000 period.
If you recall, Roach pointed to this problem in June, saying:
Washington policymakers are doing everything they can to forestall rational economic adjustments. The Federal Reserve has conducted two rounds of quantitative easing in an effort to get consumers to start spending the wealth effects of a policy-induced rebound in equities. Congress and the White House have embraced home-foreclosure containment programmes and other forms of debt forgiveness.
The aim is to get zombie consumers to ignore their festering problems and start spending again – irrespective of the wrenching balance sheet damage they suffered in the “great recession”. The subtext is Washington condones a revival of reckless behaviour.
These efforts have been unsuccessful. And with government stimulus now being withdrawn, we are going to see just how weak consumer spending is. My thesis for the past two years has been that deficit fatigue would eventually cause a retrenchment in government largesse. And when it did the policy-induced economic rebound would wilt and consumer deleveraging would again gather steam. We are nearing that point in the economic cycle now.
Roach posits the following:
What can be done? While measures adapted in the depths of the crisis – massive fiscal and monetary stimuli – were effective in placing a bottom under the free-fall, they have been ineffective in sparking meaningful recovery. That should hardly be surprising in an era of balance-sheet repair.
Instead, the US needs a menu of policies tailored to the needs and pressures bearing down on American consumers. Some possibilities: debt forgiveness to speed up the deleveraging process; creative saving policies that restore financial security to crisis-battered Americans; and, of course, jobs and the income they generate.
I doubt we are going to see wide scale debt forgiveness until defaults and debt deflation have taken center stage. But this is something to consider as it was an approach used during the Great Depression.
Source: One Number Says it All – Stephen Roach, Project Syndicate