Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at intelligent and rational individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

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"Observe that the 'haves' are those who have freedom, and that it is freedom that the 'have-nots' have not." Ayn Rand

"The virtue involved in helping those one loves is not 'selflessness' or 'sacrifice', but integrity." Ayn Rand

21 April 2008

Depression Lunacy

There is a great deal of talk in the media, broadcast and print, that we are heading into a depression, or at least a significant recession. We had a one-month drop in manufacturing followed by a rise the next month and we had a brief leap in unemployment, which has since leveled out. Housing starts are certainly down and energy and food costs are certainly up. Despite all of this, the economy has not been knocked to the ground. It seems determined to chug on. Many companies just announced first quarter earnings which beat expectations. Consequently, stocks went up last week. But, the Gloom and Doomers have great staying power, especially with a Presidential election coming up. So, let's see what economist Alan Reynolds has to say about the state of the economy.

On 11 April, before most companies announced their first quarter earnings, Reynolds had an article appear in the New York Post. He notes that the gloomy economic news is of a credit crisis or a financial crisis. He points out that since WWII, no U.S. financial crisis has become an economic disaster. The S&L crisis of 1986-1995 was the worst financial crisis since WWII, but the economy grew by an average 2.9% a year in that time. There was a recession in that time lasting 8 months and beginning with the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq when oil prices jumped 113%. By then, the S&L problems were healing.

So, what is going on now? The LA Times asked on 20 March if another Great Depression was just over the horizon. On 6 April, the NY Times claimed that the "focal point for the stock market's difficulties" is that "banks have been reluctant to lend money to one another, or to anyone else." Reynolds points out that this is nonsense since the six-month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) would not have fallen from 5.3% to 2.6% in the last year if this were so. Bank loans to "anyone else" have increased by 8% according to Federal Reserve Board data since last August. As a further anecdotal measure, numerous companies are calling me daily eager to loan my laboratory money to buy equipment!

So, where is the difficulty? Reynolds says, "It is in selling or valuing exotic securities." The IMF, the Washington Post reports, says the crisis will cost nearly $1 trillion. Well, that estimate was for the entire world, not the U.S. This is the accounting loss of 4.1% on all sorts of loans and securities. The IMF estimates losses of $115 billion on mortgages alone. But, these accounting losses are in many cases only temporary. In many cases the future cash flow produced by the mortgages will be much higher than implied by the accounting loss declared. Standard and Poors says these write-down losses may be as much as $285 million. Well, in comparison, the S&L losses were 3% of GDP, which would be $450 billion now! Reynolds notes that many of these potential losses will be to foreign banks now, rather than U.S. banks or S&Ls as they were in the S&L crisis.

The villain socialist Paul Krugman (remember the guy of a few posts ago who did not like BB&T giving money to universities to teach Ayn Rand's philosophy) told Fortune that we should expect $6 or 7 trillion in capital losses in housing. Reynolds notes that the Federal Reserve estimated the value of household real estate was $22.5 trillion in the 4th quarter of 2007. A 30% fall in house prices would generate a $6.8 trillion loss! A 30% decrease in value across the nation is unlikely. Furthermore, Reynolds points out that this household real estate is not just single family homes, but it is actually all commercial, farm, and rental property as well owned by households and nonprofit institutions!

Further, the often quoted S&P Case-Shiller index of house prices only covers single-family homes in 20 metropolitan areas. The extra-expensive LA, San Francisco, and San Diego areas are weighted heavily at more than 25% of the total loss of 10.7% for home values in this index. Data for the whole country show that single-family homes lost 3% in the year ending in January. Between the 4th quarters of 2006 and 2007, home values rose an average of 3.8% in 29 states not appearing in the S&P Case-Shiller index. Two states not included in the S&P index actually did see home values decrease, but it is clear that the home value losses are largely localized to metropolitan areas heavily overweighted in the S&P index.

Others have claimed similarities to the 2000-2002 tech-stock collapse. But, Reynolds notes that in 1999 to 2000, oil prices also nearly tripled and in late 2000, the Fed increased the fed-funds rate to 6.5% with industrial production falling. Then came 9/11. So, there were more shocks to the economy than just the tech-stock collapse.

Actually, the S&L and tech-stock crises were quite mild recessions. They were brought on by worse economic conditions than we have now, so it is insane to be drawing analogies to the Great Depression. It is a common practice for socialists and some contrarians to tend to exaggerate the problems of the U.S. market. The socialists do it to create an excuse to have more government controls put in place and to hit higher income taxpayers with higher taxes. The contrarians often do it because they underestimate the resilience and resourcefulness of American producers and investors. Others do it because a frightened public will pay more money for investment advice. The media does it because frightened people watch and read the news more. As a result, you have to carefully seek out those who know what they are talking about, like Alan Reynolds.

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