The Credit Crisis Grows

A galaxy of credit instruments has downgraded to the tune of billions of dollars of paper losses.

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Yes, there are weapons of mass destruction. They are "financial weapons of mass destruction," to quote the famous investor Warren Buffett as he surveyed the morning-after wreckage of the subprime mortgage lending crisis. The continuing destruction can now be called a credit crisis—a significant escalation because credit has been the high-octane fuel powering the American economy for the past half dozen years.

A whole galaxy of credit instruments has now been downgraded to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars of paper losses. If those losses were incurred by individuals it would be bad enough. But leveraged lenders have a different problem. Many of them, such as commercial banks, have to maintain capital in reserve to protect against unexpected losses. If banks wish to maintain reserves equal to 10 percent of their assets, they either have to bring in new capital or shrink their balance sheets and reduce their lending accordingly. A dollar of real losses would mean scaling back lending by $10. Translate that to the whole financial sector, where the aggregate credit losses are estimated at $200 billion as of now. Ten times those losses could result in lending cutbacks of as much as $2 trillion. Such a huge hit to the credit supply will have a dramatic macroeconomic effect and could well produce a severe recession. Some major banks have literally shut their lending windows until they can repair their balance sheets.

Vicious cycle. The repair effort is further complicated because even the most sophisticated financial institutions do not know how to price many of the securities they hold and therefore cannot predict how much they will have to cut back on their loans, as the giant bank UBS said last week. This uncertainty compounds the credit crunch. So, too, does the decline in net worth of many borrowers due to a drop in house prices. In some markets, prices are down 20 percent from their mid-2006 highs. The average 10 percent drop in home values already incurred is tantamount to a $2.1 trillion loss in home equities. This threatens a vicious cycle with falling homeownership lowering house prices and forcing more defaults, causing ownership and prices to decline even more. Research suggests that for every dollar decline in home equity, spending will go down by about 9 cents, so this could lead to a $200 billion hit to consumer spending.

Another immediate effect has been a collapse in cash-out borrowing from home equity from about $700 billion in 2005 to $100 billion to date. At the same time, tighter lending and mortgage standards have contributed to a dramatic decline in residential construction from a high of over 2 million units to about 800,000 predicted for next year, with a concomitant decline in employment. A slowdown in consumer spending seems inescapable.

What is now seriously in question is the capacity of our financial system to provide enough credit to support the scale of investment that has maintained our long economic expansion. Coming at a time of soaring oil prices, we may have a simultaneous decline in consumer spending, residential investment, and business investment. The economy was strong in the third quarter but clearly dropping off by the end. We may be at the finish of not just the long-term borrowing bubble but the long-term spending bubble.

What should our economic policy be? The Federal Reserve must get ahead of the curve. Its priority must be to maintain the viability of the credit system and the flow of credit; our postmodern economy is dependent on an ongoing flow of credit.

A start—and it is no more than that—is the proposed federal effort to help the mortgage industry deal with subprime mortgages. It will help if the banks forgo their higher "reset" rates in the coming months. Banks would have to accept the lower income stream, but that of course is better than taking a write-off from the foreclosures with all the legal costs and the downward effects to the value of abandoned homes.

The problem for the Fed is that monetary policy may be no match for the deep structural contradictions that plague the financial system. We are dealing here with a whole new set of credit instruments that are little understood and therefore extremely difficult to price.