Tuesday, July 28, 2009

From the latest SAF Trend Tracker

From Robert Barr...

Has the economic storm passed? The trashing of the wind and rain has settled down significantly, and perhaps it’s time for consumers and business to come up out of their shelters, look around, start removing debris, and start the economic recovery.

That’s one way to think about the economic conditions today — but a more appropriate analogy is that the relative calm we’ve seen during the late spring and early summer is only the eye of a passing hurricane. We’ve gone through great economic tumult, especially since September 2008, but there’s still more economic adjustment yet to come.

Two areas of particular concern that haven’t yet grabbed the headlines in the same way that residential real estate has are commercial real estate, where refinancing maturing loans is becoming more and more difficult, and consumer credit cards, which will probably face huge write-offs in the coming few years.

And we’re still facing an adjustable-rate mortgage reset problem, as the popular five-year ARMs taken out in 2005-06 go through the same initial reset phase we saw in subprime mortgages (which generally reset after the first two or three years). One mitigating factor is that today’s lower interest rates mean that the new, reset rates won’t generate the same amount of payment shock seen with the subprime mortgages.

Meanwhile, consumers aren’t spending in the same way they had a few years ago, pushing the consumer savings rate from about zero a few years ago to almost 7% of GDP this spring. That’s prudent, of course, and good news for the long-term health of the economy. Consumers know that jobs are being cut and that the soaring government deficit will have to result in higher taxes down the road. Baby boomers, seeing the devastation in their 401(k) accounts just as their oldest members reach retirement, know they need to save more today to ensure a financially secure tomorrow. All of this is keeping consumers from reaching for their wallets, and it amounts to another difficult economic adjustment.

Meanwhile, in addition to grappling with the recession, businesses face a couple of critical unknowns in how they will be able to operate within the next few years. Whether or not you support national healthcare or the cap-and-trade energy legislation working its way through Congress, there’s great uncertainty about how this will play out in two to five years from now. Sound long-term investment decisions are difficult to make when the rules of the game are subject to such significant change – even apart from whether the changes actually support or harm the business climate. Even if the recovery does take hold, expect another “jobless” recovery as businesses bide their time to sort out the ramifications of what the federal government decides to impose.

Meanwhile, the rate of economic contraction in the global economy accelerated during the first half of 2009, and that of course will harm our exporting industries.

What to make of all this? Despite the media reports of the “green shoots” of economic recovery, we still have many difficult economic adjustments ahead of us that will keep any recovery subdued for some time. And that timetable is subject to whatever comes out of Washington, DC – not a good position for private businesses looking to rebuild after the destruction of the storm of the past couple of years.

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