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The Catastrophist View

What would it take to send the U.S. economy—and New York’s—into free fall? A doomsday primer.

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Peter Schiff is laughing at me. I’ve just asked him to entertain the following notion: that we dodged a bullet during August’s financial-market turmoil and, with the stock market bouncing right back from every dip, things might be okay. So why worry?

He stops laughing. “Why worry?” he asks. “Because we dodged a bullet but are about to step on a hand grenade.”

Sitting in a corner office of a nondescript building just off I-95 in Darien, Connecticut, Schiff, the president of brokerage Euro Pacific Capital, and author of Crash Proof: How to Profit From the Coming Economic Collapse, will spend the next hour spelling out a singularly pessimistic view of the American economy. And he will do so while exhibiting a curious juxtaposition unique to the bearish prognosticator: He speaks of disaster with a smile on his face. No, he’s not happy about our impending doom. But he is happy that people are finally taking him seriously.

Some people, anyway. The recessionary fears that were sparked by the global liquidity crisis in August have eased, largely because of a resilient stock market and a belief that the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate cut in September curtailed deeper losses. When Goldman Sachs invested in its own imploding Global Equity Opportunities hedge fund in August, calling it an “opportunity” and not a “rescue,” people laughed. Guess who laughed last? Goldman, which had reportedly enjoyed a $370 million gain on its $2 billion rescue by October. The optimists stay focused on stories like Steve Jobs’s next stroke of genius.

But Schiff, whom CNBC calls “Dr. Doom,” has not, as bears do when winter approaches, gone off to hide in a cave. Why not? Because every single one of the underlying economic factors that he has identified as cause for concern has worsened. And his is no longer a lone voice in the woods. If you don’t care to listen to a man nicknamed Dr. Doom, you can listen to people like former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, esteemed bond-fund manager Bill Gross, or famed money manager Jeremy Grantham. They’re part of a growing chorus of voices that are saying many of the same things as Schiff.

Their bearish arguments come in many shapes and sizes, but here’s the basic one: The past five or six years have been deceptively fortunate ones for the U.S. economy. That’s because any troublesome developments—the surge in oil prices from $28 per barrel in 2003 to about $87 today, for example—have been papered over by rising home prices. Home equity has been used to buy flat-screen TVs, SUVs, and more homes. Wall Street bought up all this debt from lenders, thereby allowing them to lend more.

The softening of real-estate prices in most parts of the United States put a crimp in this system, but it hasn’t stopped it. The question is, what, if anything, will? What will bring on the apocalypse that Schiff and others believe is inevitable? They see it like this:

THREAT NO. 1
The Bottom Continues to Fall Out of the Housing Market

Manhattan’s gravity-defying real estate aside, it’s quite clear the nation is experiencing a genuine housing crisis. In August, pending home sales dropped 6.5 percent, and they currently sit at their lowest level since 2001. The National Association of Realtors conducted a recent survey that showed more than 10 percent of sales contracts fell through at the last moment in August, primarily owing to disappearing loan commitments from banks. The crisis will only deepen, when more borrowers see their adjustable-rate mortgages adjusted upward. There was a foreclosure filing for one of every 510 households in the country in August, the highest figure ever issued, and by one estimate, more than 1.7 million foreclosures will occur in the country by the end of 2008. That’s not just subprime borrowers: According to the Federal Housing Finance Board, while nearly 35 percent of conventional mortgages in 2004 used ARMs, some 70.7 percent of jumbo loans—those above $333,700 (the jumbo threshold in 2004; it’s now higher)—did too.

Historically, bond-market investors have been the boring counterparts to their equity-market brethren. But in his October Investment Outlook, famed bond investor Bill Gross was anything but. The managing director of money management firm pimco pointed out that the Federal Reserve is caught in a bind: It must continue to lower interest rates to ameliorate this burgeoning housing crisis, but in doing so, it “risks reigniting speculative equity market behavior, and … a run on the dollar.” (More on the dollar later.) Gross doesn’t have the answers but observes that the Fed is “in a pickle, and a sour one at that.” Worse yet, concerns that a rate cut might be inflationary actually caused bond yields to rise in the wake of the rate cut, something that doesn’t normally happen. The Fed’s influence, always overstated, might turn out to be nonexistent in a credit market that remains on edge.

Hedge-fund veteran Rick Bookstaber, the author of A Demon of Our Own Design, spells out a potentially disastrous scenario that could unfold regardless of what the Fed does: Continued foreclosures result in a further drop in housing prices, which results in further foreclosures, which result in a further drop in housing prices. Even for those of us not selling, reduced home values result in a reduced sense of security, which results in reduced consumption, which results in a slowing economy, which … you get the point.


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