Rohatyn's Warning on America's Indebtedness

Three decades ago, New York City was facing bankruptcy. The Federal Government refused to bail out the city. This led to a famous headline in the New York Daily News: “Ford to New York: Drop Dead!”

The man who was called in to restructure the city’s debt was Felix Rohatyn. He was a bond expert. He earned his keep that time. He created bonds through something called the Municipal Assistance Corporation. The bonds were instantly dubbed “Big MACs.” The city did not officially have to declare bankruptcy.

Recently, he wrote an article for London’s Financial Times. The article is not on-line except to subscribers, but Bill Fleckenstein has provided some choice extracts. His comments are good, too.

Lastly, to punctuate my claims about the prospective train wreck I’ve been warning about, in Thursday’s Financial Times, Felix Rohatyn, the financier and former chairman of New York’s Municipal Assistance Corp., penned an article titled “America: Like New York in the 1970s but worse.” It reads, I should note, like many columns I have written:

Indebtedness spinning out of control, fueled by an unchecked increase in the deficit. An accounting system that indiscriminately mixes expenses with capital assets, ignores contingent liabilities, and makes Enron look conservative. A social structure sharply divided between “haves” and “have nots.” An administration locked into denial on the assumption that “the markets will always be there for us.” A political system paralyzed as public finances careen toward catastrophe. That was New York City in the early 1970s; it could be America tomorrow. America’s out-of-control federal budget deficit, rapidly growing domestic and foreign debt, and off-the-books Social Security and Medicare liabilities look eerily similar to the fiscal situation that faced New York nearly 30 years ago. . . .

Next, he set the stage for how we’ve been able to live so far beyond our means:

So far, the willingness of the central banks of China, southeast Asia, Japan, and Europe to finance U.S. deficits has allowed the administration of George W. Bush and the Federal Reserve to pursue a policy of cheap money, low taxes, large deficits, and reliance on a speculative stock market and property bubble to create economic growth. This may not last forever, and either the willingness of the foreign central banks to carry U.S. debt — or their capacity to do so — could be impaired.

Some time before that moment is reached, the markets would begin to react: The dollar could fall further precipitously, interest rates would shoot up, and we would have to deal with a national crisis, which could develop into a global crisis.

(He also notes that given the current political situation, we may not be able to count on foreigners in a moment of crisis.) Even though this path is quite possible, it doesn’t mean that we will indeed have a crisis. However, folks need to be aware of the risks.

Continuing on, he rebutted Alan Greenspan’s contentions that basically all is well, noting the rot I have vapored on about so often:

Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said recently that the huge rise in consumer debt in America posed no risk, as it had been matched by a rise in the value of property and stock portfolios. However, those are just the circumstances that brought about the speculative bubble of the late 1990s and the stock market collapse that followed. The U.S. at that time was in a much stronger financial condition than it is in today. America was running huge budget surpluses instead of the current deficits; its sovereign debt was declining instead of soaring; the currency was strengthening, not weakening.

Massive debt is what forces the FED’s hand every time there is even a hint of recession. The FED doesn’t want an avalanche of defaults. It creates money. So, the value of the dollar keeps declining. This leads to asset bubbles.

THE MARK OF A BUBBLE

When the increase in price of an asset takes place because credit is flowing into that class of assets, there is risk that the process will become a speculative bubble. It works like this. Lenders lend money based on the market price of an asset. As money flows into the class of assets, the price goes up. This persuades borrowers to borrow more money, based on a minimal down payment (“margin”). Lenders see that the price of the asset is up, so they are willing to lend more money. They are confident that there is plenty of demand for the asset, should the borrower default on the loan. Put another way:

The huge rise in consumer debt in America poses no risk, as it had been matched by a rise in the value of property and stock portfolios.

There is a tendency for manias to push up prices when a particular class of assets becomes popular. Borrowers think, “I can make a bundle by putting little money down, borrowing the rest, and selling later.” Lenders think, “This class of assets is rising in price, so my money is safe. The borrower will repay. If he doesn’t, I’ll take ownership of the asset.”

The tulip mania of the early seventeenth century is the classic account of such a bubble. Tulip bulbs rose to astronomical prices. Then they collapsed. The expected future return was no longer able to sustain the asset price. The emu/ostrich bubble in the 1990’s is another example. When the rise of an asset’s price is not based on the rise in expected net earnings, it’s a bubble market.

Real estate today is an asset bubble. Rents usually won’t cover mortgage/tax/insurance costs. But real estate can conceal the bubble longer than any other class of asset because it can be occupied by the borrower. He pays his mortgage on an asset that has lost 20% or more of its value. He doesn’t want to lose his credit rating. If it is residential real estate, he doesn’t want to lose his home in a foreclosure. Surely, his wife doesn’t. So, he pays more in mortgage, taxes, and insurance than it would cost him to rent a comparable property. He is in fact paying an ego premium. This allows him to pretend that he made an error by buying too late.

Recessions expose such self-deception. People lose their jobs. They can’t pay their mortgages. They are forced to move. This is when the true value of local real estate is exposed for all to see. The “For Sale” signs go up like dandelions in spring.

When real estate prices leap by over 20% a year in a region, you know you’re seeing a bubble. This is happening in Los Angeles and Boston. It is the time to sell and rent or sell and move. When the bubble ends, buyers get locked into their jobs because they must pay their mortgages. They lose mobility geographically, which reduces career mobility.

Buyers think “I must buy now.” They think the market will never stop rising. But prices always do stop rising. There is always a hard-pressed seller who has to walk away from ownership. You buy the other guy’s mistake. You shop for mistakes.

Of course, those who want “just the right home” shop for a narrow class of available assets. Here, liquidity is low, so there may be no immediate seller. Shoppers pay premium prices because of a lack of choices. But if you shop mistakes, there are always bargains available. Find a mistake that you can fix or live with, and offer the seller a rock-bottom price. Hard-pressed sellers will accept the offer.

WHEN NOT TO BUY

When you think it’s the last train out, buy a bus ticket. When you think you’ll never be able to buy one of these again, rent one. Wait. You’ll see one like it soon enough.

You may have read John Templeton’s prediction that 20% of home owners will lose them in the next downturn. He thinks the real estate bubble will not last. I agree.

Of course, if you don’t want to live in one of the homes sold by a member of that 20%, this lack of liquidity won’t do you any good. You will buy an illiquid asset for top dollar. This is why residential real estate tends to resist price reversals. High prices conceal the reality: if you ever have to sell, you may not be able to . . . at the price you expect.

If you rent for a year and spend time shopping, you will find someone with a need to sell. You will save as much or more money on the purchase that you spent in rent.

This is not true of a region where there is net in-migration. In this case, the price of real estate isn’t rising because people are taking on more debt in order to “skin the creditors.” Prices are rising because of increased demand from people with cash who are bidding up prices. This is especially true when the new bidders have pulled money out of homes sold in mania markets. In NW Arkansas, Californians are streaming in with lots of money. This market is not a bubble. It is a permanent lifestyle change that people with money are willing to pay for. It is credit-induced, but the credit is being injected into the real estate markets where the newcomers just sold their homes.

When oil or gold or some other resource is discovered in a region, local real estate prices go up. This is not mania-induced. It is expected income-induced. It is not driven by easy money. It is driven by expected future earnings. It reverses only if the supply of the resource runs out or its price falls.

If real estate is rising because a region is becoming more productive — Shanghai ten years ago comes to mind — then the rise is not a bubble. But if the value of a region’s output is based on easy money, then the bubble will pop. If I lived in Shanghai, and I had lots of money, I would move to some smaller city where the growth is just beginning. A recession in China will hurt Shanghai more than it hurts one of the “new cities.”

CONCLUSION

Felix Rohatyn went through New York City’s crisis and made his reputation. There will be other Rohatyns in days to come. But the best way to take advantage of a popped bubble is with cash. He who bought a condo in New York City in 1969 probably lost. If he bought it in 1975, he won.

When we hear that Rohatyn is worried, Templeton is worried, and Buffett is building cash, I think we should not get pulled into a mania. You will be able to buy cheaper later. Shop for owners’ mistakes, not assets’ features.

May 5, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts