The collapse of Stock markets around the world should come as no surprise. As readers of this blog will know, the years of easy credit were decisively ended last August when the financial community woke up to the reality of the securitised loans crisis, aided by the Central Banks at last in tighten mode after years of sloppy credit.
A credit crunch means there is little new credit available at a time when too many people and companies are desperate to sell assets to raise the cash they need. Investors with cash suddenly decide they want to hold more cash. Investors who have been investing on borrowed money have to rein back their activities and pay down debt. Banks that were able to lend people money and then package the loan up as security to sell to someone else suddenly find there are no buyers for these packages. As a result asset prices crash.
A credit crunch ends when two conditions are met. The Authorities have to signal they want easier credit by lowering interest rates, so high borrowings become affordable again. Banks have to sort their balance sheets out so they have the capacity to lend more. It is this latter condition which may take some time to get right this time round, because so many banks have been involved in syndicated credits and in trying to put their loans off balance sheet in structured vehicles. The sooner the banks sort out what all these investments are worth, write them down, and raise the new capital they are going to need to be able to carry on their business, the better.
The weakness of banks is not solely a US phenomenon, and the so called sub prime crisis is not just a US or a property related difficulty. This is a crisis in the global banking system, where there are worries about the Bank of China as well as about the European and US commercial banks. They have to contract their balance sheets as they value their loans more realistically, and then many of them will need new capital ??whether by cutting dividend payments and keeping more of their profits, or raising new money directly by selling new shares to shareholders. Doubtless the worlds regulators, led no doubt by the UK authorities, will make it even more difficult to by tightening the rules on capital adequacy at exactly the wrong point of the cycle.
The worlds economies are in different conditions to meet this sudden lurch from easy money to tight money. The Italian and Spanish economies are going to be made to suffer for their membership of the Euro, with interest rates and money growth dictated from Frankfort leading to painful adjustments in their domestic economies. The US economy is so far mainly suffering in the real estate and banking sectors, with some signs of a good export led recovery emerging in other sectors from the lower dollar. The UK economy is badly placed, thanks to the very high public deficit and poor productivity performance of the much bloated public sector. The bungled approach to money markets and banking which uniquely gave London the only run on a bank does not help either. If the Chancellor follows this up by taxing the rich out of London then we will have a major residential property price collapse to add to the current woes. The Indian and Chinese economies may find exporting to the US and the West more difficult, but they have the cushion of rapidly growing domestic demand and China has the huge foreign exchange reserves its successful exporting has built up in recent years.
We have seen a sharp contraction in real estate in the US, in Spain, and in commercial property in the UK. We are now seeing a sharp fall in share prices, as investors adjust to the new reality that banks and property companies will find it difficult to maintain earnings, and as the growth rate of the worlds main economies slows.
There remains plenty to worry about. Some are still worrying about the price rises that are coming through this winter as a result of the years of easy money. Others are worried looking forward, fearing a recession in the US and elsewhere. I still think a full blown US recession unlikely, and do not see an inflation problem looking out a year, but recognise that these fears will remain real to many unless and until my two conditions are met for a recovery.
There will be growing pressure on the US, UK and European authorities to lower interest rates, and lower rates will help. There also needs to be a concerted drive to clean up banksbalance sheets and establish some kind of a market in all of these securitised loans that characterised the years of easy money. Once we can know what is left on banks balance sheets, markets can get on with the necessary task of recapitalising the banks so more normal credit conditions can be recreated.
PS: The Fed’s move today to cut interest rates by 75 basis points, taking them down in one go from 4.25% to 3.5% is a good start.