The Ultimate Sell Signal
The “ultimate sell signal,” is how our old friend Bill Donoghue describes it.
“Government’s lone fiscal watchdog resigns,” is the relevant headline. It refers to David Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office. Mr. Walker has been alarmed at the growing indebtedness of the U.S. government for a long time. He regularly travels, doing what he calls the ‘Fiscal Wake-Up Tour”, warning all who will listen that the United States is headed for big trouble if it doesn’t get its finances under control.
(Both Walker, and the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour, are featured prominently in the documentary Addison and Short Fuse have been working tirelessly on, called I.O.U.S.A.
The basic problem is well known and has been frequently illustrated throughout history. Democracy responds to the mob of voters; and the mob wants bread and circuses – at someone else’s expense, of course.
In America, circa 2008, Congress responds to the desires of people who vote in current elections. The voting age has been lowered to 18, but the next generation, the unborn generation, has no voice in modern government. Not even a whimper. Inevitably, politicians pander to the living in order to get votes...and inevitably the next generation gets the bills.
We will return to this theme in a minute...but let us first look at yesterday’s news:
The Dow had a good day on Monday – up 189 points. Oil stayed just under $100 a barrel. And gold lost 7 bucks, to rest at $940, after hitting a new record high last week of $958.
Meanwhile, we read the news we expected:
House resales are at a 9-year low. And the housing slump is working its way into family budgets. The housing boom of ‘97-’07 raised the real value of residential U.S. real estate by approximately $8 trillion. Americans “took out” $3 trillion, according to an estimate we saw recently. That $3 trillion boost was responsible for much – or perhaps all – of U.S. GDP growth over the past five years.
But now that housing prices are going down, the implied wealth in residential housing is shrinking. And instead of taking money out of their homes, mortgage lenders are demanding that they put it back in. Millions of families are already said to be ‘upside down’ with more mortgage than house. If they sell – and many must sell – lenders expect them to make up the difference.
Americans have only three major assets. They have property – houses, mostly. They have financial assets – stocks and bonds. And they have the value of their own labor. All of those assets are stagnant...or actually going down. And they may continue going down for many years.
Under these circumstances, families have no choice. They have to reduce their standards of living.
Of course, they fought against it. When housing boom no longer provided ready cash, Americans turned to credit cards. But the rates are much too high...and credit card lenders grew wary very quickly. Then, they turned to their retirement accounts.
Americans “crack open their 401(k) nest eggs,” is the way the Houston Chronicle described it. But they don’t have that much in their retirement accounts...and they’re getting older at an alarming rate.
Finally, they had no other choice...and here comes the headline:
“Americans at all income levels tighten belts,” says the Christian Science Monitor . But here’s the interesting twist; just as we predicted, thrift is becoming a virtue again. The article:
“Looking at things differently is a theme running through conversations of Americans at all income levels these days as they review their spending habits. Nearly 2 out of 3 consumers intend to reduce indulgent spending in 2008, according to a new survey by HSBC Bank USA. Four out of 5 want to increase the amount they save.
“Even at the top layers of luxury, there has been some softening in spending,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of The Luxury Institute in New York. That includes yachts, jets, cars, and additional homes.
“Among those who do not dwell in that economic stratosphere, the new prudence is often a necessity, stemming from uncertainty about jobs, high fuel costs, heating bills, and the price of healthcare. For others, like Palmer, it is voluntary and represents, at least in part, a shifting of values. They regard an economic downturn as an opportunity to reassess their priorities.
“It’s a good wake-up call for a lot of people, that the good times don’t last forever,” says Kim Danger, founder of Mommysavers.com. “People realize they don’t need an expensive lifestyle to focus on the things that really matter.”
Left to their own devices, people would adjust. They would cut back. They would make do. They would increase savings and prepare for whatever the world threw their way. The next few years would be rough for many people. Many are in need of major downscaling. Still, Americans are resilient. And they have great resources to work with. They would accept change if they had to.
But they also have the feds. And the feds want to prevent change in the worst possible way. What would be the worst way to prevent a correction? Simple – more cash and credit...in short, more inflation. But inflation only works when people are fooled by it. That is, when it makes them feel richer...the way inflation in the housing market made them feel richer...or inflation in the stock market made them feel richer. Inflation in consumer prices has the opposite effect – it makes them feel poorer.
All over the world, inflation seems to have shifted from housing and stocks to prices for basic materials – such as oil, wheat, and copper. And now it’s working its way into consumer prices. In Mexico, the government has had to freeze prices of tortillas. In China, rice prices have been nabbed. In Argentina, the government holds down the price of energy.
And in America, the feds are handing out cash...and artificially pushing down the price of credit.
It if were only that easy!
*** “Homebuilding bulls are hoping for a quick housing market recovery, because they need one for the stocks to have a sustainable rally. This spring, as selling season kicks off, you’ll start hearing ‘affordability’ arguments from housing bulls in the media. I suggest ignoring them,” colleague Dan Amoss tells us.
“Housing bulls fail to appreciate how the easiest mortgage environment in history magnified every homebuyer¹s purchasing power. They also focus on monthly payments in a 5-6% mortgage environment, without incorporating the burden of falling house prices. Incomes and 5% mortgages can support housing prices in many areas of the U.S., but not in areas like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and most of California and Florida.
“According to the latest S&P/Case-Shiller index, average home prices are down 8% year over year,” continues Dan. “With 6% mortgages available for creditworthy borrowers, this makes the real mortgage rate about 14% on a nationwide basis. The real mortgage rate feels like 19% if you are looking to buy in one of the previously hot markets suffering 13% price declines.
“It’s reasonable to assume that the housing bust is about half over, in terms of price declines. The odds heavily favor further price declines in the most overextended markets, followed by years of flat prices. This doomsday scenario¹s epicenter will be homebuilding stocks.”
*** Poor David Walker...howling in the wilderness...
The last time we looked, the shortfall between what had been promised – in the form of Treasury bonds, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the like – and what might reasonably be collected in taxes toted up to some $50 trillion, or about a half a million dollars per family. In other words, the whole country is bankrupt...and the financial obligations of the U.S. federal government should be regarded by investors as though they were subprime debt. It is a huge debt that the debtor cannot pay.
As headman at the General Accounting Office, David Walker, has been fretting about this for years...and trying to get the politicians to cut spending and balance the budget. He might as well have been trying to get a pack of wolves to eat Greek salads for lunch. It has been a thankless, frustrating job, especially during the Bush II years. This ‘conservative’ administration added more to America’s burden than all the administrations since George Washington – put together.
During an interview for I.O.U.S.A. , Addison found out that Mr. Walker had read our book – Empire of Debt – on his own accord. This, we believe, is what pushed him over the edge. So, now he’s resigned...but isn’t giving up on the cause he’s been fighting for all of those years at the GAO. Pete Peterson, Commerce Secretary under Richard Nixon and founder of the Blackstone Group, has set up a foundation and given Mr. Walker a job. He’ll have $1 billion to work with...and the impossible task of trying to bring U.S. government finances in order.
Of course, we’d be delighted to see him succeed. But there’s a big gap between what we’d like and what we’ve got. The former may be public spirited; but the latter is definitely bloody-minded. The former may wish to imagine that the United States will cut spending, balance the budget, encourage savings and restore America’s economic vigor. But the latter knows the voters wouldn’t stand for it. We wish him luck.
History must run its course, says The Daily Reckoning , with a superior air. Old empires must decay and collapse, so as to make room for new ones.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Sell the United States. Buy Japan. Buy Latin America. Buy gold .
The Daily Reckoning