Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Future of perpetually rising asset prices didn't turn out as promised

We've just ended a bubble in housing, in housing-related credit, and in all other types of credit. Low interest rates, competition for market share, the continual pooh-poohing of inflation, and the widespread use of securitization spurred banks and mortgage companies to lend with abandon. Any risk associated with lending could be ironed out by slicing and dicing debt and selling it to investors, who could in turn hedge their exposure to the debt through derivatives. Any remaining risk would be wiped out by growth, perpetually rising asset prices, and a willingness of other lenders to refinance existing debt on favorable terms. And so credit was available on easy terms to people in all walks of life: home buyers and real estate developers, car buyers and college students, consumers and private equity firms.

Today, however, the assumptions holding up the latticework of credit are coming apart, one by one. Even as the economy continues to expand, more and more borrowers are having difficulty remaining current on their debt. Which isn't surprising, given that median household income hasn't budged since 1999 (see Figure 1 on Page 4 of this Census report). What's more, in a natural reaction to reckless lending, mortgage companies and banks are now in money-hoarding mode and thus unable or unwilling to help Americans refinance existing debt.

Other types of consumer debt, which have nothing to do with housing and nothing to do with subprime, are going bad, too. The Wall Street Journal reported today that "about 4.5% of auto loans made in 2006 to top-rated borrowers were at least 30 days delinquent as of the end of September, up from 2.9% the previous month, according to a Lehman Brothers survey of companies servicing these loans." In October, Fortune's Peter Gumble warned that a similar plague may soon afflict credit-card companies. In October, credit-card giant Capital One Financial reported that the delinquency rate on credit cards for the third quarter of 2007 was 4.46 percent, up from 3.53 percent in the third quarter of 2006. "Given current loan growth and delinquency trends," Capital One reported, it "expects the U.S. Card charge-off rate to be around 5.25 percent in the fourth quarter."

Investors may have thought that Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson stuck their fingers in a hole in the dyke, thus forestalling disaster. But given the rising tide of bad debt across the economy, today's actions are more like throwing a sandbag into a rising Mississippi River.

Liberally taken from Slate
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