Last month closed with some far from comforting news about the state of the US housing market (sales and prices still falling), US financial institutions (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in need of rescue), Australian banks (NAB’s 90% write-down of its US CDO portfolio). Then ABS figures showed that retail sales had fallen “unexpectedly” by one percent in June. The recent rally in stock markets came to a sudden end, and after a brief period of renewed confidence, the question “how much worse can “It” get?” is once again doing the rounds.
My answer is: a lot worse.
The empirical grounds for this assessment are, 1) The ratio of asset prices to consumer prices–or the inflation-adjusted asset price index; 2)The ratio of private debt to GDP; and 3) Japan.
In short, global asset markets have a lot further to fall, and a serious recession–the worst we have experienced since the Great Depression–is inevitable. Let’s first look at what the recent drop in retail sales implies for the economy.
An “unexpected” fall in retail sales
Retail sales fell sharply in June, taking most economic commentators by surprise. Even perennial optimists, such as Shane Oliver, were forced to consider that the odds of a recession were “at least 40 percent”.
In reality, the fall in retail sales was inevitable. Spending in Australia has been driven by the biggest debt bubble in our history, and when that bubble peaked, spending had to fall. Since households had taken on a far larger share of debt than business during this bubble, the impact was bound to be seen first in retail sales, rather than investment spending, as I pointed out in November 2006:
“If households reduce their debt levels smoothly, they will have less disposable income to spend and retail sales will slump. If bankruptcies become widespread, the sales downturn will be overlaid with a financial crisis.” (Debtwatch, November 2006, p. 18)
The suddenness of the turnaround is also no surprise, when you look at the data from a financial point of view. Just as your personal spending each year is the sum of your net income plus the change in your debt, aggregate spending for the economy is the sum of GDP plus the change in debt. As debt rises, the contribution made to spending by any change in debt also rises. Private debt–and household debt in particular–has risen so much in Australia that, at its peak, the change in debt was responsible for almost 20 percent of aggregate demand.
As is obvious in Figure 1, debt’s contribution peaked at the end of 2007, and it has been falling ever since. The monthly figures make this even more obvious (Figure 1 records change in debt over a whole year). The monthly increase in total private debt peaked at $30 billion in mid-2007, and trended up to $27 billion by the end of 2007. It has since fallen to a mere $5 billion in the month of June (see Figure 2).
At some point debt will not continue to increase. It will turn negative, and change in debt will therefore subtract from aggregate demand rather than adding to it. Given that at its peak, debt financed almost 20 percent of demand, even stabilising debt at its current level–$1.85 trillion, compared to a GDP of $1.1 trillion–would result in a 20 percent fall in aggregate demand.
This hit will be felt by both asset and commodity markets: asset prices will fall, as will output and employment. The government’s attempts to counter this–by running a deficit rather than a surplus–will initially be swamped by the sheer scale of the turnaround in debt-financed spending. Even if the government runs a deficit of A$20 billion–the same scale as this year’s intended surplus–it will make up for less than a tenth of the fall in debt-financed spending.
The current “credit crunch” is, therefore, only the first act in a long-drawn out process of reducing debt levels. The second act will be “the recession we can’t avoid”. That recession–which will affect most of the OECD, since all major OECD nations bar France have suffered a similar blowout in private debt levels–will only add to the current decline in asset prices.
Dr. Steve Keen
for Markets and Money
P.S. The CPI-adjusted Nikkei fell 82% from its peak at the end of 1989 to its low in 2003. At the time, most commentators blamed Japan’s Bubble Economy and subsequent financial crisis on the opaque and anti-competitive nature of its financial system. We were assured that nothing so ridiculous could happen in the transparent, competitive and well-regulated US financial system. Yeah, right.