The war continues. The unstoppable forces of inflation continue to smash into the immoveable lines of deflation. Caught between the two is the U.S. consumer…the American voter…and the lumpeninvestoriat.
Yes, dear reader, we are getting shot to pieces from both directions. Prices are rising. And prices are falling. Mr. Market marks down prices for housing and stocks. Mr. Federal Reserve System pushes up prices for oil and food.
Yesterday brought more hits, more near misses, and more casualties from “friendly fire.” But the big story was that after so many weeks of reporting huge gains by inflation, deflation is back in the news with a major counteroffensive. It had begun to look as though inflation was the clear victor. Prices are rising everywhere; everyone came to believe inflation was unbeatable. Analysts had begun talking about oil at $170…even $200.
But Tuesday, while the Dow rose 152 points – a weak bounce after a long streak of losses – both oil and gold fell. Gold dropped back $5, to $923. Oil lost $5 too – slipping down to $135. Commodities, generally, may be in retreat.
More bad news comes from the housing sector too. Yesterday, it was reported that previously owned house sales fell 4.7% in May…more than expected. They’re down 14% from the year before.
Also in the housing news was a report that repossessions are up 100% over 2007, while mortgage payment delinquencies are at a record level. Foreclosure filings are running 48% ahead of last year.
With so much deflation in the housing sector, economists are just waiting for more of it to show up in the retail sales…and then spread to the rest of the economy. With no house price gains to spend, consumers will have to cut back. When they do, retail sales will fall…and so will the demand for goods and services all up and down the line. So far, we’ve seen a big drop in demand for automobiles – especially SUVs. GM shares are down 75%. We’ve seen a drop in driving too. And unemployment numbers are increasing. But, so far, no big drop in spending. Of course, part of the reason for that is simply that prices have risen so high, consumers need to keep spending every penny – even though they are getting less for their money. But soon, we should see a significant drop in sales, followed by a further drop in economic growth.
Last week, we saw a report telling us that vacancies in retail space were increasing. The United States has ten times more retail space per person than France. When people spend less, much of this space will cease to be commercially viable. Soon, abandoned shopping malls will follow abandoned houses.
“Suburban office space losing occupancy and value,” too, adds the Chicago Tribune.
What this represents to Wall Street is a big drop in the value of its collateral…and its clients’ ability to service their loans. First, the borrowers can’t make the payments. Then, the lenders realize that their collateral is worthless. We’ve seen big hits taken in the subprime mortgage market. But what about other parts of the mortgage market? And what about credit card lending? Student loans? Commercial loans?
In England, Bradford and Bingley, a big mortgage lender, got whacked yesterday. Its shares fell 18%, to less than $1. And a leading London stockbroker put out a target price for them of “zero.”
U.K. mortgage lending is down 44% from last year. “London house price forecast deepens gloom,” reports the Financial Times.
Back in America, the Fed says it will extend its PDCF program into next year. The program is simple to understand. It allows Wall Street to borrow from the Fed at 2.25% – or about half the level of consumer price inflation. It should be easy to make money. You just borrow at 2.25% and lend at…say, 5%. The borrower would be paying a real interest rate of only 1% or less. And the lender would be earning 2.75% on someone else’s money. What could go wrong?
What could go wrong is what is already going wrong. Lenders put out too much money to too many people who can’t pay it back. Now they’re reluctant to lend to anyone. And who’s eager to borrow? Who wants to build more retail space? Who’s building more houses? Who’s setting up a new auto plant in the U.S.A.? Who’s expanding production of any sort?
Markets and Money