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Humbled By Our Ignorance

By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, December 29, 2008

It's the end of an era. We know that 2008, much like 1932 or 1980, marks a dividing line for the American economy and society. But what lies on the other side is hazy at best. The great lesson of the past year is how little we understand and can control the economy. This ignorance has bred today's insecurity, which in turn is now a governing reality of the crisis.

Go back to the onset of the crisis in mid-2007. Who then thought that the federal government would rescue Citigroup or the insurance giant AIG; or that the Federal Reserve, striving to prevent a financial collapse, would pump out more than $1 trillion in new credit; or that Congress would allocate $700 billion to the Treasury for the same purpose; or that General Motors would flirt with bankruptcy?

In 2008, much conventional wisdom crashed.

It was once believed that the crisis of "subprime" mortgages -- loans to weaker borrowers -- would be limited, because these loans represent only 12 percent of all home mortgages. Even better, they were widely held, diluting losses to individual banks and investors.

Wrong. Subprime mortgage losses (20 percent are delinquent) triggered a full-blown financial crisis. Confidence evaporated, because subprime loans were embedded in complex securities whose values and ownership were hard to determine. Similar doubts afflicted other bonds. Demand for all these securities shriveled. Lenders hoarded cash and favored safe U.S. Treasuries. Because investment banks and others relied on short-term debt (a.k.a. "leverage"), a loss of confidence and credit threatened failure. Lehman Brothers failed. The financial system had overborrowed and underestimated risk.

It was once believed that American consumers could borrow and spend more, because higher home values and stock prices substituted for annual savings. Consider: From 1985 to 2005, the personal savings rate dropped from 9 percent of disposable income to almost zero. But over the same years, households' net worth (assets minus liabilities) quadrupled, from $14 trillion to $57 trillion.

Wrong. In recent years, consumers increasingly overborrowed, especially against inflated home values. With the housing "bubble" now collapsed, net worth is falling. Homeowners' equity in their homes -- the share not borrowed -- is at a record low of 45 percent, down from 59 percent in 2005. Consumers have responded by retrenching big-time. Retail sales have dropped for five straight months; vehicle sales are a third below 2006 levels.

It was once believed that the rest of the world would "decouple" from the United States. As Europe, Asia and Latin America expanded, their buying would cushion our recession. A better-balanced world would emerge, with smaller U.S. trade deficits and lower surpluses elsewhere.

Wrong. The crisis has gone global; economic growth in 2009 will be the lowest since at least 1980. Even China has slowed; steel output was down 12 percent in November from a year earlier. The crisis has spread through two channels: reduced money flows and reduced trade. Global financial markets are interconnected. Customer redemptions forced U.S. mutual funds and hedge funds to sell in emerging markets (such as Brazil or Korea), whose stocks have dropped about 60 percent from their peak. Credit has tightened, as money flowing into developing countries is expected to shrink 50 percent in 2009 from 2007 levels, estimates the World Bank. The bank expects trade, up 7.5 percent in 2007, to fall in 2009 for the first time since 1982.

So much that has happened was unexpected that the boom and bust's origins are obscured. These lie in the side effects of declining inflation that started in the 1980s and, in the process of reducing interest rates, boosted stock prices and housing values. Recall that in 1981, when inflation was 9 percent, 30-year mortgages averaged 15 percent. As rates fell (mortgages were 10 percent by 1990, 7 percent by 2001), home prices rose. People could afford more. With lower interest rates, stocks became more valuable.

All the bad habits of recent years -- excessive borrowing by consumers and money managers, careless and reckless lending -- grew in a climate when gains seemed ordained. Even after the "tech bubble" burst in 2000, stock prices at year-end 2002 were seven times their year-end 1981 level. Home prices increased steadily; in the 1990s, they rose 45 percent.

Prosperity, apparently forgiving of mistakes, bred the complacency that undid prosperity. On bad mortgages, losses could be recovered by selling the homes at higher values. Thus rationalized, bad loans were made. Some stocks might decline, but over time, most would rise. Risk seemed to recede, so investors and money managers undertook riskier strategies.

What will emerge from these shattered illusions? Will the crash stir social unrest, abroad if not here? Will Americans become so thrifty that they hamper recovery? Will economic nationalism surge? How will capitalism be reshaped? Much depends on whether the frantic policies to combat the recession succeed. Probably they will, but there are no guarantees. Our ignorance is humbling.

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