-Mark Twain (Pudd'nhead Wilson)
Americans, like all people, are creatures of habit. The greatest difference in the American habit and those of other cultures, is our national habit is shopping. We like to spend. What one owns, or wears, or drives, or goes to school, or lives, or vacations, or get their hair cut, or gets married, or goes to eat when dining out defines them in American Society.
Oft times we make the mistake of believing it's how much money a person makes that defines them, which may be true to a small few. However, for the rest of us, that too is just a means to an end. We want to make money, so we can turn around and spend it. This is why Americans are the most debt-riddled people in Western Civilization. We know what great is and we deserve it, right?
This is the unshakeable truth that the financial markets have been faced with since late-August, when small fissures in the credit dam began to express themselves. Around the clock internal meetings ensued at most large banks around the world, as their leadership began to prepare reporting 3rd Quarter figures to the world. "My God, we will be the laughing stock of the banking community", they thought. For not even the sharpest of pencils, that means you Jamie Dimon, could have thought their situation was not unique.
As the reporting period began in early-September, the trickle of bad news began to emerge. Massive mortgage debt, record foreclosures, delinquent car loans leading to widespread repossession, individual credit-card payments slowing down, record personal bankruptcy filings, small business loans having to be renegotiated, large commercial real estate loans being defaulted on and massive insurance pay-outs from Hurricane Ike. For the trickle was now a full blown tsunami.
The markets, being unprepared for such overwhelming bad news, and from so many different arenas, did what anyone would do in such situations, it collapsed.
While I cannot profess to have lived through the market crash that started "The Great Depression", I can say for certain, there were never less stable days in America, financially speaking, than those of September 15-17. That is, of course, excepting those of October 1-10 when they New York Stock Exchange (and thusly the American Investment community) lost 22% of it's wealth.
The uncertainty of those days in mid-September days produced a plethora of bad ideas as to how to fix the problem (hello $800 billion bailout). However, two main ideas that emerged are what now clearly going to have major negative, long-term repercussions for the American public.
The first idea was the focus by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department on how to stabilize the markets until Thanksgiving, a time when most Americans stop paying attention to affairs that do not involve their families. Usually, market "corrections" happen in October, which gave rise to this dandy from Mark Twain:
"October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks in. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February."Every economist is trained as to how to deal with such problems and the entirety of their training matrix is based on the dreaded "October Surprise."
What threw Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, was the "surprise" came not only in September, but early-September. This meant all their training on how to control a downturn for 4-6 weeks, was staring down the barrel of a finish line minimally 11 weeks away. This is what created so much uncertainty. And said uncertainty is what really rocked the market harder and harder as time wore on.
The Financial Market's hare is now coasting to certain victory, while the Economy's turtle plods along.
Well, now that the hare is finally and exasperatedly near the "finish line", prepare for the fan to start kicking out a rather familiar foul odor. Bad news, even in great economic times, is saved and distributed, like so many secret santa gifts, for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. 65% of all lay-offs happen during this period, most companies that are going to change leadership do so, companies settle lawsuits that have dragged on for years and the like. All because they know that spirits are high and we are not paying attention.
Unfortunately for most, attention will be payed like no time in our prior history a a nation. Hopefully, we can bear the weight of what is surely coming.
The second and more unfortunate idea to emerge is the unbelievably misguided theory of the core problem afflicting the economy, bad mortgages. That is a problem, but one that has been silently stalking us since late-2003, early-2004. Bad mortgages were a problem before they starting lending to sub-prime borrowers. Tales of bus drivers taking out loans to buy million dollar homes with swimming pools are greatly exaggerated. Bad debt was spread around in many directions.
Start-up small businesses were given billions of dollars in bad loans. The evidence is on display in every American neighborhood, expressed by the growing number of "Store For Rent" and "Commercial Space Available" signs on display. The unfortunate reality of their failure is a great many of these new small business owners leverage their homes to borrow for the new enterprise, making a bad situation into a crisis, all in one fell swoop.
Large Corporations were given massive loans to re-tool factories and invest in additional materials for a burgeoning market that did not, and does not, exist. This is the problem that expressed itself in the form of the trouble Ford and General Motors finds themselves in at the moment. Both have invested in infrastructure for 2009 model-year cars, when both have seen 2008 inventories balloon well beyond record levels.
These examples are just a small glance at the behemoth clogging the pistons of America's Economic Engine. However unseemly all these scenarios appear to be, the real core issue affecting everyone in this country, every company in this country, every trading partner with this country, is credit.
We are a credit society. We have been a credit society since at least the dawn of the 1980's, and a case could be made for earlier. Before then, people who wanted things, saved up their money and bought those things, or did well enough without them. Television re-runs of Archie Bunker yelling at Edith about her spending the family savings on a new dress, do not ring as credible or accessible to anyone under 40 years of age. Today's sitcom is more inclined to revolve around a wife hiding a credit-card bill for something she has already purchased. Herein lies the problem, fully and naked-as-can-be.
Americans have been resistant to living on a pay-as-you-go economy. Families forced to do so would surely have dramatic lifestyle changes. Older (I'm sorry, Certified "Pre-owned") cars would be di rigeur, hand-me-downs would a more familiar reality and, while I can't say they would not be as beautiful, family homes would be much, much smaller than they are at present. Think about it, when was the last time you met a kid that shared their bedroom with a sibling. How about the last time you saw a kid on television share a bedroom. Large is who we have become, in lifestyle and as individuals.
Businesses are in the same boat. When facing pay-as-you-go economics, the ability to adjust to a rapidly changing marketplace are fantastically diminished, almost to nil. Every bet, and I mean that literally, has to be a correct estimation, which pays off in expected dividends or beyond. The smallest misstep would create a cascading snowball effect, damaging the company in ways that would threaten it's existence. This would naturally lead to much more cautious leadership, less innovation and winnowing of options in the consumer marketplace.
This is a very realistic depiction of the American future should Financial Institutions continue upon the path of "correction they are on. The problem facing this country is the lack of available credit to the individual. Unsold housing inventory, as well as automobile inventory continue to swell, due to the Financial Community's decision to sit on it's hands and not loan money at present.
There is certainly a conversation in the offing for American's and American Business Leaders, about how to manage our existence within new boundaries. However, no is not the time.
This Holiday Season is going to be hard on a bunch of families, which means it will trickle up to have a tremendous negative impact on Retailers. This Thanksgiving weekend is the movie trailer to a new, terrifying Horror classic in the name of December.
Recognizing the "stakes" will not be enough for the Fed and Treasury. Identifying the problem on the ground and re-stimulating those at ground zero is the only way out of this economic morass.
Turn the pipes back on!