Monday, November 29, 2004

More from Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley

Morgan Stanley

Roach is evidently the man of the hour. Fascinating factoids.
Global: The World's Biggest Excess
Stephen Roach (New York)

... Over the 1996 to 2004 period, annual growth in US personal consumption expenditures averaged 3.9% -- nearly double the 2.2% pace recorded elsewhere in the so-called advanced world ... the personal saving rate plunged from an already-depressed 4.6% level in 1995 to just 0.2% in September 2004....

... Moreover, there has been an important shift in the asset economy that took the US consumption dynamic to excess in recent years. The first wave came from the stock market, as household equity holdings surged from about 13% of total assets in 1991 to 35% at the peak in 2000. During the final stages of the equity bubble, individual stock portfolios supplanted real estate as the US household sector’s most important asset... the equity bubble immediately morphed into an even more powerful strain of asset appreciation -- a sustained burst of US house price appreciation that has continued to this very day...

This multi-bubble syndrome was largely an outgrowth of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive post-equity-bubble damage containment tactics -- some 550 bp of monetary easing from early 2001 through mid-2003. Housing markets benefited handsomely from the support of 45-year lows in interest rates. And consumers, who had first discovered the joys of asset-driven wealth effects during the stock market bubble of the late 1990s, quickly put their newfound skills to work in reaping the gains of the housing bubble. Not only did they benefit from the psychology of feeling wealthier, but US homeowners were aggressive in taking advantage of breakthroughs in the technology of home mortgage refinancing. It wasn’t just the reduction in interest expenses, but the so-called cash-outs from rapidly appreciating housing assets enabled consumers to uncover a new and important source of incremental purchasing power... households may have liquidated as much as 8% of their equity in real estate in order to fund current consumption. For an aging US society that needs to build saving in order to fund the not-so-distant retirement of some 77 million baby-boomers, even this partial liquidation of asset-based saving is disturbing, to say the least.

...Lacking in domestic saving, American has had to import foreign saving from abroad -- and run massive current account deficits to attract that capital.

This is where the global enablers enter the equation. First, it was private investors seeking to share in the returns of the world’s greatest productivity story. Then, when doubts surfaced on that front, foreign central banks rushed in to fill the void. Over the 12 months ending September 2004, the “official sector” accounted for 28% of total purchases of long-term US securities -- nearly double the 15% share over the prior 12 months and about four times the portion during the 2000-02 period.... that left dollar-based assets with approximately a 70% weight in official reserve portfolios -- more than double America’s 30% share in the world economy and, quite possibly, the biggest overweight in world financial markets today.

Nor is it difficult to discern the motive behind this foreign dollar-buying binge. It’s all about the lack of internal demand in Asia and Europe and the related need to draw support from export-oriented growth strategies. And, of course, central to such growth tactics are cheap currencies that underwrite export competitiveness. Asia has led the way in that regard -- with hard currency pegs in China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia and soft currency pegs in Japan, Korea, India, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia. ... in the absence of this foreign support campaign, yields on 10-year Treasuries would have been in the 5 to 5.5% zone -- implying a rate structure that would have been far more problematic in providing valuation support to US asset markets and concomitant wealth-driven support to America’s asset-dependent consumer.

... Asset-dependent Americans truly have an excess consumption problem. It is still astonishing to me that the bursting of the equity bubble didn’t spawn a culture of prudence that weaned US consumers from the perils of an all too fickle wealth effect. With US house price inflation now at a 25-year high of 8.8% and with 15 states now experiencing double-digit house price inflation, this voracious appetite for risk is all the more disturbing. Similarly, Asian and European financiers -- be they private investors or central banks -- need to accept responsibility for the important role they have played in keeping the music going for saving-short, over-extended US consumers. They have taken the easy way out -- putting off the heavy lifting of structural reforms needed to unlock domestic demand and choosing, instead, to recycle foreign exchange reserves into dollars and rely on currency manipulation as a means to sell everything they can to America. In my view, America, Asia, and Europe are all equally guilty of opting for an extraordinarily reckless way to run the world.

Financial markets have an uncanny knack in restoring a sense of order to a dysfunctional world. The dollar is now center stage in this global wake-up call -- as well it should be, in my view. But dollar depreciation is not the endgame of global rebalancing. It is the means toward the end -- a potential trigger for a long overdue realignment in the mix of global saving and consumption.. By failing to face up to the imperatives of rebalancing, the world has collectively created the ultimate moral hazard -- a US consumer that is now “too big to fail.” ...

Long ago, I learned that most of the time it doesn’t pay to bet against the American consumer. There are rare occasions, however, when that rule doesn’t apply. That was the case in the early 1970s in the aftermath of the first oil shock. Back then, as a young staffer at the Federal Reserve Board, I was chastised by Fed Chairman Arthur Burns for being too negative on the US consumer. He argued that I didn’t appreciate the unflinching cyclical resilience of the US consumer -- a resilience that, ironically, was about to give way to America’s first consumer-led recession. A lot has changed in the ensuing 30 years. But for very different reasons, I now believe that another exception is in the offing. The American consumer is an accident waiting to happen. The sooner the world comes to grips with this problem, the better the chances of a successful rebalancing.

1970s. 1970s. Nixon. Stagflation. Coming soon to a screen near you ...

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