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The Recession Is Over but the Depression Has Just Begun

This is an updated version of a post I wrote about two-and-a-half months ago over at Credit Writedowns. When I wrote it, I had been looking for bullish data points as counterfactuals to my bearish long-term outlook. I found some, but not nearly enough.

Early this year, I wrote a post u201CWe are in depression,u201D which called the ongoing downturn a depression with a small u201Cd.u201D I was optimistic that policymakers could engineer a fake recovery predicated on stimulus and asset price reflation – and this was bullish for financial shares if not the broader stock market. But, we are witnessing temporary salves for a deeper structural problem.

So my goal was to find data which disproved my original thesis. But, I came away more convinced that we are in a tenuous cyclical upturn. This post will discuss why we are in a depression, not a recession and what this means about likely future economic and investing paths. I pull together a number of threads from previous posts, so it is pretty long. I have shortened it in order to pull all of the ideas into one post. So, please read the linked posts for background as I left out a lot of the detail in order to create this narrative.

Let's start here then with the crux of the issue: debt.

Deep recession rooted in structural issues

Back in my first post at Credit Writedowns in March 2008, I said that the U.S. was already in a recession, the only question being how deep and how long. The issue was and still is overconsumption i.e. levels of consumption supported only by increase in debt levels and not by future earnings. This is the core of our problem – debt.

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I see the debt problem as an outgrowth of pro-growth, anti-recession macroeconomic policy which developed as a reaction to the 1970s lost decade trauma in the U.S. and the U.K.. The 70s was a low growth, high inflation ride that generated poor market returns. The U.K. became the sick man of Europe and labor strife brought the economy to its knees. For the U.S., we saw the resignation of an American President and the humiliation of the Iran Hostage Crisis.

In essence, after the inflationary outcome that many saw as an outgrowth of the Samuelson-Keynesianism of the 1960s and 1970s, the Reagan-Thatcher era of the 1990s ushered in a more u2018free-market' orientation in macroeconomic policy. The key issue was government intervention. Policy makers following Samuelson (more so than Keynes himself) have stressed the positive effect of government intervention, pointing to the Great Depression as animus, and the New Deal, and World War II as proof. Other economists (notably Milton Friedman, and later Robert Lucas) have stressed the primacy of markets, pointing to the end of Bretton Woods, the Nixon Shock and stagflation as counterfactuals. They point to the Great Moderation and secular bull market of 1982-2000 as proof. This is a divisive and extremely political issue, in which the two sides have been labeled Freshwater and Saltwater economists (see my post u201CFreshwater versus saltwater circa 1988u201D).

However, just as the policy of the 1950s to the 1970s was not really Keynesian (see what Richard Posner says about Keynes' General Theory and you will see why), the 1980s-2000 was not really an era of u201Cfree markets.u201D I call it deregulation as crony capitalism. What this has meant in practice is that the well-connected, particularly in the financial services industry, have won out over the middle classes (a view I take up in u201CA populist interpretation of the latest boom-bust cycleu201D). In fact, hourly earnings peaked over 35 years ago in the United States when adjusting for inflation.

The 1970s was a difficult period in which the U.K. and the U.S. saw jobs vanish in key industrial sectors. To stop the rot and effectively mask the lack of income growth by average workers, a new engine of growth had to be found. Enter the financial sector. The financialization of the American and British economies began in the 1980s, greatly increasing the size and impact of the financial sector (see Kevin Phillips' book u201CBad Moneyu201D). The result was an enormous increase in debt, especially in the financial sector.

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This debt problem was made manifest repeatedly during financial crises of the era. Not all of these crises were American – most were abroad and merely facilitated by an increase in credit, liquidity, and international capital movement. In March 2008, I wrote in my third post on the US economy in 2008:

From the very beginning, the excess liquidity created by the U.S. Federal Reserve created an excess supply of money, which repeatedly found its way through hot money flows to a mis-allocation of investment capital and an asset bubble somewhere in the global economy. In my opinion, the global economy continued to grow above trend through to the new millennium because these hot money flows created bubbles only in less central parts of the global economy (Mexico in 1994-95, Thailand and southeast Asia in 1997, Russia and Brazil in 1998, and Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in 2001-03). But, this growth was unsustainable as the global imbalances mounted.

Eventually, the debt burdens became too large and resulted in the housing meltdown and the concomitant collapse of the financial sector, a problem that our policymakers should have foreseen and the reason my blog is named Credit Writedowns. Make no mistake, the housing and writedown problems are only symptoms; the real problem is the debt – specifically an overly indebted private sector (note the phrase u2018private sector' as I will return to this topic).

This is a depression, not a recession

When debt is the real issue underlying an economic downturn, the result is either Great Depression-like collapse or a period of stagnation and short business cycles as we have seen in Japan over the last two decades. This is what a modern-day depression looks like – a series of W's where uneven economic growth is punctuated by fits of recession.

A garden-variety recession is merely a period of recalibration after businesses get ahead of themselves by overestimating consumption demand and are then forced to cut back by making staff redundant, paring back inventories and cutting capacity. Recessions can be overcome with the help of automatic stabilizers like unemployment insurance to cushion the blow.

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Depression is another event entirely. Back in February, I highlighted a blurb from David Rosenberg which summed up the differences between recession and depression pretty well.

Recessions are typically characterized by inventory cycles – 80% of the decline in GDP is typically due to the de-stocking in the manufacturing sector. Traditional policy stimulus almost always works to absorb the excess by stimulating domestic demand. Depressions often are marked by balance sheet compression and deleveraging: debt elimination, asset liquidation and rising savings rates. When the credit expansion reaches bubble proportions, the distance to the mean is longer and deeper. Unfortunately, as our former investment strategist Bob Farrell's Rule #3 points out, excesses in one direction lead to excesses in the opposite direction.

The day after I highlighted Ray Dalio's version of this story which added some more color. Notice the part about printing money and devaluing the currency if the debt is in your own currency.

… economies go through a long-term debt cycle – a dynamic that is self-reinforcing, in which people finance their spending by borrowing and debts rise relative to incomes and, more accurately, debt-service payments rise relative to incomes. At cycle peaks, assets are bought on leverage at high-enough prices that the cash flows they produce aren't adequate to service the debt. The incomes aren't adequate to service the debt. Then begins the reversal process, and that becomes self-reinforcing, too. In the simplest sense, the country reaches the point when it needs a debt restructuring…

This has happened in Latin America regularly. Emerging countries default, and then restructure. It is an essential process to get them economically healthy.

We will go through a giant debt-restructuring, because we either have to bring debt-service payments down so they are low relative to incomes – the cash flows that are being produced to service them – or we are going to have to raise incomes by printing a lot of money.

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It isn't complicated. It is the same as all bankruptcies, but when it happens pervasively to a country, and the country has a lot of foreign debt denominated in its own currency, it is preferable to print money and devalue…

The Federal Reserve went out and bought or lent against a lot of the debt. That has had the effect of reducing the risk of that debt defaulting, so that is good in a sense. And because the risk of default has gone down, it has forced the interest rate on the debt to go down, and that is good, too.

However, the reason it hasn't actually produced increased credit activity is because the debtors are still too indebted and not able to properly service the debt. Only when those debts are actually written down will we get to the point where we will have credit growth. There is a mortgage debt piece that will need to be restructured. There is a giant financial-sector piece – banks and investment banks and whatever is left of the financial sector – that will need to be restructured. There is a corporate piece that will need to be restructured, and then there is a commercial-real-estate piece that will need to be restructured.

The Fake Recovery

So where are we, then? We are in a fake recovery that could last as long as three or four years or could peter out very quickly in a double dip recession. You may have seen my April post on the fake recovery. Read it. I won't cover that ground here. However, I will highlight how I came to believe in the fake recovery and how asset prices have played into this period (the S&L crisis played out nearly the same way). I see writedowns as core to the transmission mechanism of debt and credit problems to the real economy via reduced supply and demand for credit. Again, this is why my site is called Credit Writedowns.

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December 22, 2009