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The Catastrophist View

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In a recent interview, John Santer, a district director of NeighborWorks America, a community-based nonprofit, pointed out that 43 percent of American households spend more than they earn each year, and fewer than six in ten have enough savings to last them three months if they were suddenly out of a job. So where’s the money coming from? From 1991 to 2005, Americans borrowed $530 billion against the value of their homes each year.

James Glassman, a senior economist at JPMorgan Chase, told a Tulsa, Oklahoma, luncheon crowd in early October that before 1985, consumer spending grew in line with income, but since that time, it’s grown half a percent faster on an annual basis. As a result, household savings, which once reached 10 percent of income, is now literally negative. “My guess is that in five years we’ll look back and realize … that the consumer we knew for twenty years is coming to an end,” he said.

Roger Ehrenberg, an ex–Wall Streeter and author of the financial blog Information Arbitrage, forecasts extreme financial pain. “You’ve got a weaker dollar, declining economic fundamentals, and a debt-strapped consumer—I’d call that a bad fact set,” he says. “Lay on top of that the mortgage problem and declining home values, and you can paint a pretty ugly picture.”

THREAT NO. 4
That the Rest of the World Decides They Don’t Need Us and the Dollar Tumbles Hard

The dollar is falling, possibly collapsing, depending on whom you talk to. The greenback has sunk close to its lowest point in the post-1973 floating-exchange-rate era, so low that it’s been overtaken by the Canadian dollar—affectionately known as the loonie—for the first time since 1976. How low will it go? When Alan Greenspan was asked by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes last month what currency he’d like to be paid in, his response was telling: “[The] key question … is, ‘In what currency do you wish to hold your assets?’ And what I’ve done is I diversify.” Translation: He isn’t betting on the dollar. And neither is the majority of Wall Street.

Here’s why catastrophists see that as a major problem: About 25 percent of our government debt is held by foreign governments, with the major holders being Japan ($610.9 billion), China ($407.8 billion), the U.K. ($210.1 billion), and our friends in the Middle East, the oil-exporting countries ($123.8 billion). When the current Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, cuts rates to soften the housing blow for Americans, he also weakens the dollar by making dollar-based investments less attractive. And when the dollar weakens, so, too, does the value of these gigantic positions held by the foreign governments. At some point, they’re no longer going to tolerate the losses we inflict on them by lowering rates, and if that happens and they start dumping dollars, watch out for the peso.

The bulls will tell you that foreign governments understand the American economy is the key to global economic health, and that they’ll suck it up and take it when we devalue their debt. To which Schiff offers another analogy. Imagine if five people were washed up on a desert island: four Asians and an American. In splitting up their duties, one Asian says he’ll fish; another will hunt, another will look for firewood, and another will cook. The American assigns himself the job of eating.

“The modern economist looks at this situation and says the American is key to the whole thing,” says Schiff. “Because without him to eat, the four Asians would be unemployed.” The alternative: Without the American, the Asians might eat a little more themselves and even spend some time building a boat. This is happening as we speak: With the rise of the Chinese consumer class, the local citizenry is now spending, and the country is no longer totally dependent on exports. Which means they’re no longer totally dependent on us.

Readers of the financial press are surely familiar with the buzzword of the moment, decoupling. It’s used to describe how U.S.-Europe and U.S.-Asian trade relationships are becoming less dependent at the same time as European-Asian ties are growing. Most Asian nations, including China, are seeing more rapid growth in exports to Europe than to the U.S. And the U.S. now accounts for a declining share of European exports. The bearish interpretation: that the longtime global embrace of the dollar is loosening.


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