At ByDesign Financial Solutions, a debt-counseling service in Modesto, Calif., they're working overtime these days. "Our call volume went up 97% in the past five weeks, which has left us scrambling," says Martha Lucey, president of the nonprofit agency. "[The callers] are close to the max on their credit cards, and they just can't figure out how to manage. We've seen credit-card companies decreasing lines of credit, and the [debtors] don't have any room left. They just can't juggle things like they used to."
At Keller's, a popular Modesto housewares store, the end of that profligacy is shockingly apparent to owners Cherie and Joyce Keller. Sales are evaporating, and they are worried about the Christmas shopping season. "It was sudden death — there were no people shopping," says Joyce Keller. "It took the crash for people to understand that this wasn't just a problem in California."
Economic reality, in other words, is settling in across the nation. Every tumultuous period of financial boom and bust comes to be defined by a word or catchphrase. Tulipmania. The Great Depression. The dotcom bubble. The word that could define the financial times we are now living through — and the economic pain that has begun — is leverage.
Leverage was the mother's milk of Wall Street — and of Main Street — for the past 20 years. Leverage meant debt, specifically the number of dollars you could borrow for every dollar of wealth you had. It meant borrowing other people's money to invest in something you wanted to invest in, or to buy something you wanted to buy. On Wall Street, debt funded investments in pretty much everything a financial firm could bet on, including the toxic mortgage-backed securities that led the way into this crisis. On Main Street, it meant borrowing to buy a house or a condo — maybe two — then perhaps borrowing again off the increasing value of that property to pay for something else: a flat-screen TV, a new set of golf clubs, your daughter's braces.
The debt binge was fueled by easy money and the belief that prices of assets — those of houses in particular — never went down; only interest rates did. That era is over. It will be replaced by what will be one of the more painful, and consequential, economic chapters in our history: the great deleveraging of America. On Wall Street, the largest financial institutions on the planet are reducing their debt and trying to build up capital, which once upon a time was the seed corn of their business, and now must be again. Retail banks like Wachovia and investment banks like Morgan Stanley have been so burned by their own reckless use of debt that only recently — and after unprecedented government intervention — have they been willing to once again make the most basic short-term loans to one another. The gradual thawing of the overnight-lending market, which seemed to begin on Monday, Oct. 20, was the first sign that Wall Street's credit markets were, however haltingly, regaining some sense of equilibrium after the previous, harrowing month.
But the credit crunch is not anywhere near over. "It took 20 years for us to get into this situation — leveraged to the hilt — and it will take more than a couple of years to unwind it," says Paul Ashworth, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics. "And even when we get back to normal, that normal is not going to be the same. We won't have this sort of freely available credit that we had before for households and businesses. It's going to be a different reality — a more austere one — when we come out on the other end of this."
The one exception, though, is Uncle Sam. Even before the financial crisis forced the government's hand, the U.S. had again become addicted to deficit spending — relying on the kindness of strangers (in this case, mainly Chinese and Japanese central bankers) to finance its spendthrift ways. In September the Congressional Budget Office's baseline deficit forecast for 2008 was $407 billion. Now, with the Treasury's massive intervention in support of banks and financial markets ($700 billion at a minimum) and with a second economic-stimulus package a political certainty, the government deficit could soar next year to $1 trillion.
In the short term, that may be a necessary price to pay to pump life into the economy, but the effects of deleveraging on Wall Street and Main Street still threaten the steepest recession in the U.S. since the early 1980s, when unemployment peaked at 10.8% in 1982. Here's why that's so, and how we can still emerge from this crisis a little bit wiser — and, eventually, a lot more solvent — for our trouble.
Wall Street's Newfound Virtue
In February 2000, one of the street's most powerful executives petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow his firm and other investment banks to raise their levels of leverage. He wanted the commission to alter something called the net-capital rule, which he said was "the single most important factor in driving significant parts of our business offshore."
That exec was Henry Paulson, then the CEO of Goldman Sachs, now U.S. Treasury Secretary. Four years later, the SEC complied, amending the rule; the effect was to allow Wall Street to borrow even more money to finance its businesses. At the most aggressive investment banks, leverage ratios reached 30 to 1. That is, for every dollar in equity capital the firm had, it borrowed $30.
Now those ratios are being unwound with a vengeance. In interviews, Wall Street executives, like John Mack, CEO of Morgan Stanley, talk of reducing their leverage to a ratio of 12 to 1 — a regulatory requirement, now that both Morgan and Goldman have turned themselves into commercial rather than investment banks — as if there were some button they could push to make it happen. But the truth is that for U.S. banks, reducing their use of debt and rebuilding their devastated balance sheets is a long and painful process. Deleveraging is part of what creates a credit crunch: institutions that have been hammered by the decline in real estate prices will be making fewer loans available to businesses and consumers alike.
We've seen this movie before, and it's not a happy one. Japan's financial sector imploded in the 1990s as bubbles in real estate and stock prices (sound familiar?) burst. Eventually, Japan's central bank drove interest rates to near zero to stimulate the economy. But it was, as the economists say, "pushing on a string." Banks were reluctant to lend because they needed to hoard capital to repair their balance sheets — just as they need to do now in the U.S. Economic growth slowed, and demand for the credit that was available diminished. The result was Japan's infamous Lost Decade: 10 years of low or no growth.
Is that what the U.S. is in for? Not necessarily. One crucial difference is that the Federal Reserve under Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Great Depression, has reacted to this crisis much more swiftly than his Japanese counterparts did in the 1990s. His nickname is "Helicopter Ben," because he believes it's the government's job to litter the landscape with money, if necessary, to prevent economic collapse. No surprise, then, that he endorsed the Treasury's plan to inject capital directly into the banks and this week backed yet another stimulus package for the economy.
Main Street's Pullback
For millions of Americans, the prospect of living within their means is a meaner one by the day. And it has consequences that are already showing in the bankruptcies of retailers such as Linens 'n Things, Mervyns, Steve & Barry's, Shoe Pavilion, Goody's and Sharper Image and in the possibility of poor holiday sales. The overleveraged consumer is the biggest economic problem the country faces, because debt has been the rocket fuel that has propelled growth for most of the past decade. Two-thirds of the $14 trillion U.S. economy is driven by consumer spending, and the relentless shopper has also been critical to the growth in once booming exports led by economies like China's.
American consumers had become more addicted to debt than Wall Street was. Total household debt at the end of last year was $13.8 trillion, up 20% since 2005. At the same time, the household savings rate ticked down close to zero; the rocket's engine was running on empty.
Now consumers everywhere are reeling. Christopher Adams is an architect who lives with his wife Rachel in a North Miami Beach condo project in which fully 25% of the 244 units are in foreclosure. That means higher maintenance fees for those — like the Adamses — who continue to pay their mortgages. And as his monthly payments have gone up, Adams' income has gone down. His firm has lost three projects over the past year as commercial developers canceled jobs. As a result, he and his wife make decisions that ripple through the economy. He cashed out of his 401(k) to pay bills. A plan to buy a new car? History. They took their son out of an expensive private school. Credit cards? They don't use them anymore. "Debit cards and cash only," says Rachel.
For a U.S. company in retail — the country's second largest industry, employing some 25 million Americans — those are about the most depressing words you can hear. And millions of Americans are now on the same page. Consider Maria Calderon, a single mother of two in Greenacres, Fla., who works for the Palm Beach County public defender's office. Two months ago, she lost a second, part-time job that had helped pay the bills. She soon surrendered to the gods of credit-card debt. She visited a West Palm Beach credit-counseling service to deal with some $20,000 in unpaid bills. "I wasn't ashamed," says Calderon. "I had to tighten up. It was a decision I had to make to take care of my two kids."
The great risk, as consumers like Calderon cut their spending, is that bad economic news begets more bad news. Bernanke recently called this the "adverse-reaction loop": as consumers spend less, the economy weakens more, unemployment rises, mortgage foreclosures increase, putting more pressure on the financial system, and on the downward spiral goes. Capital Economics' Ashworth acknowledges that the "scenario is out there. It can't be totally dismissed. This deleveraging process could get very, very scary."
Washington's Answer: Charge!
This, you'll not be surprised to learn, is what the government is trying to avoid at all costs. "We're going to see an evaporation of concern about fiscal restraint simply because the threat of an economic collapse is so great," says Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute, a public-policy think tank. In other words, as the real world sheds debt, the government takes on more and more in the hope that at some point the economy will stabilize and then begin growing again.
The good news is that most economists believe all the weaponry the government is throwing at the problem will eventually have an effect. Interest rates are low and probably headed lower. More fiscal stimulus is on the way. Many economists are currently forecasting a couple of quarters of outright economic contraction. But many see a resumption of slow growth by the second half of next year. The sky, in other words, is not necessarily falling.
It just looks that way right now. "This is the worst economy I've seen since I've been in business," says Tom Slater, owner of Slater's Home Furnishings in Modesto. He's been in business for 39 years. Slater's behavior reflects the malaise: he has cut his personal spending at restaurants and retailers. But he realizes he's part of the solution too. "You can't stop and say, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that someone's going to do business with me," he says. "We just have to do better business."
Less-leveraged business, in fact. The irony is that in the deleveraged society the U.S. is in the process of becoming, it's the careful consumer who may ultimately bail out the economy. Ashworth believes the U.S. savings rate will rise to 5% of GDP over the next two to three years. "We're going to save more and spend less, because now we don't have a choice," he says. That increase in savings, he figures, will amount to some $1 trillion — about the projected size of next year's deficit.
That would eliminate the need for foreigners to fund our deficits. The hope is that as we sober up from our debt binge, we'll at least be able to do it ourselves. An era of thrift may be necessary now, but at some point, Americans are going to have to feel like spending again for the economy to grow. It's just hard to see, amid the current economic gloom, when that day will come.
— with reporting by Hector Florin/West Palm Beach, Kristin Kloberdanz/Modesto, Mark Kukis/Washington and Siobhan Morrissey/Miami