UnRisk 7

Botox Economics – Part 1

Botox is commonly used to improve a person’s appearance by removing facial lines and other signs of aging. The effect is temporary and can have significant side effects. The world is currently taking the “botox” cure. A flood of money from central banks and governments -- "financial botox" -- has temporarily covered up unresolved and deep-seated problems.The surface is glossy and smooth, the interior decayed and rotten

The 2009 ‘recovery’ was based on low or zero interest rate policies (“ZIRP”) of major central banks. Massive government intervention also helped arrest the rate of decline of late 2008/ early 2009. Without government support, it is highly probable that most economies would have been in serious recession. Just as China practised capitalism with Chinese characteristics, developed economies discovered socialism with Western characteristics.

Capital injections, central bank purchases of “toxic” assets and explicit government support for deposits and debt issues helped stabilise the financial system. Changes in accounting rules deferred write-downs of potentially bad assets. Despite these actions, the global financial system remains fragile.

Further losses are likely from consumer loans, including mortgages. In the U.S. mortgage market, one-in-ten householders are at least one payment behind up from one-in-14 a year ago. If foreclosures (now around 5%) are included, then one-in-seven mortgagors are in some form of housing distress.

Recent stability in U.S. house prices may be misleading reflecting the effect of government incentives (the $8,000 first time homebuyer tax credit) and low mortgage rates driven in part by the Fed’s MBS purchases. The value of 20-30 % of properties is less than the loan outstanding. Home sales remain modest with around 25-30% of sales of existing homes being foreclosures. Housing inventories also remain high in historic terms. With more adjustable rate mortgages resetting in 2010 and 2011, the risk of further losses on mortgages cannot be discounted unless economic conditions improve.

Rising vacancy rates, falling rentals and declining values of commercial real estate (“CRE”), primarily office and retail properties, are apparent globally. In London, Nomura, the Japanese investment bank, secured a 20-year lease of a new office development on the River Thames - the 12-storey Watermark Place – for £40 per square foot. This was over 40% lower than the rents of nearly £70 per square foot demanded prior to the GFC. Nomura will also not pay any rent until 2015. Mark Lethbridge, partner at Drivers Jonas who advised Nomura, told the Financial Times: “… I’m unlikely to see [the terms] again in my career.”

Banks are likely to remain capital constrained in the near future reducing availability of credit. Commercial and consumer loan volumes have declined reflecting a lack of supply but also a lack of demand as companies and individuals reduce leverage.

The real economy remains fragile. Government actions, such as fiscal stimulus and special industry support schemes (cash for clunkers; investment incentives, trade credit subsidies), have boosted demand and industrial activity in the short term. The problem remains as government incentives encourage current consumption and investment but ultimately “steal” from future demand.

Employment, a key indicator given the importance of consumption in developed economies, continues to decline albeit at a slower pace. In the U.S., unemployment reached 10%.

In many countries enforced reduction in working hours and taking paid or unpaid leave reduced the rise in unemployment levels significantly. Working hours and personal income have fallen.

Changes in the structure of the labour force also distort the real picture. If workers working part time involuntarily and looking for full time employment are included, the U.S. underemployment figure is in the 16-18% range. Long term and youth employment also remains high.

European economies, especially countries such as Spain, are also experiencing significant unemployment. In some economies, unemployment is a new “export” as guest workers are shipped back to their country of origin or remittances home fell sharply.

In developed countries where an increasing part of the population is nearing retirement age, wealth effects affect consumption behaviours. Low interest rates and reduced dividend levels limit income and expenditure.

In 2009, global trade stablised after precipitous earlier falls. According to the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, as of September 2009 world trade was 8.0% above the low of May 2009 but 14% below its peak of April 2008. Trade protectionism threatens recovery in global trade.

Major risks in the financial and real economy remain and may disrupt the hoped for resumption of business as usual.

© 2010 Satyajit Das All Rights reserved.

Satyajit Das is author of Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives – Revised Edition (2010, FT-Prentice Hall).