While most pundits are still grasping at anecdotal “green shoots” to celebrate the beginning of a “recovery,” the hard data just released by the Federal Reserve reveals a continuing collapse of unprecedented dimensions.
It’s all in the Fed’s Flow of Funds Report for the first quarter of 2009, which I’ve posted on our website with the key numbers in a red box for all those who would like to see the evidence.
Here are the highlights:
Credit disaster (page 11). First and foremost, the Fed’s numbers demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the credit market meltdown, which struck with full force after the Lehman Brothers failure last September, actually got a lot worse in the first quarter of this year.
This directly contradicts Washington’s thesis that the government’s TARP program and the Fed’s massive rescue efforts began to have an impact early in the year.
In reality, the credit market shutdown actually gained tremendous momentum in the first quarter. And although it’s natural to expect some temporary stabilization from the government’s massive interventions, the first quarter was SO bad, it’s impossible for me to imagine any scenario in which the crisis could be declared “over.”
Here are the facts:
- We witnessed one of the biggest collapses of all time in “open market paper” — mostly short-term credit provided to finance mortgages, auto loans, and other businesses. Instead of growing as it had in almost every prior quarter in history, it collapsed at the annual rate of $662.5 billion. (See line 2.)
- Banks lending went into the toilet. Even in the fourth quarter, when the meltdown struck, banks were still growing their loan portfolios at an annual pace of $839.7 billion. But in the first quarter, they did far more than just cut back on new lending. They actually took in loan repayments (or called in existing loans) at a much faster pace than they extended new ones! They literally pulled out of the credit markets at the astonishing pace of $856.4 billion per year, their biggest cutback of all time (line 7).
- Meanwhile, nonbank lenders (line 8) pulled out at the annual rate of $468 billion, also the worst on record.
- Mortgage lenders (line 9) pulled out for a third straight month. (Their worst on record was in the prior quarter.)
- And consumers (line 10) were shoved out of the market for credit at the annual pace of $90.7 billion, the worst on record.
- The ONLY major player still borrowing money in big amounts was the United States Treasury Department (line 3), sopping up $1,442.8 billion of the credit available — and leaving LESS than nothing for the private sector as a whole.
Bottom line: The first quarter brought the greatest credit collapse of all time.
Excluding public sector borrowing (by the Treasury, government agencies, states, and municipalities), private sector credit was reduced at a mindboggling pace of $1,851.2 billion per year!
And even if you include all the government borrowing, the overall debt pyramid in America shrunk at an annual rate of $255.3 billion (line 1)!
Asset-backed securities (ABS) got hit even harder (page 34). This is the sector where you can find most of the new-fangled “structured” securities — the ones Washington had already identified as a major culprit in the credit disaster.
Did they make any headway in stopping the ABS collapse? None whatsoever! The total outstanding in this sector (line 3) fell at an annual pace of $623.4 billion in the first quarter, the WORST ON RECORD!
U.S. security brokers and dealers were smashed (page 36). Brokers were forced to reduce their total investments at the breakneck annual pace of $1,159.2 billion in the first quarter, after an even hastier retreat in the prior quarter (line 3)!
What’s even more revealing is that they were so pressed for cash, they had to dump their Treasury security holdings in massive amounts — at an annual pace of $424 billion (line 7)! Given the Treasury’s desperate need for financing from any source, that’s not a good sign!
Government agencies got killed (page 43). Households dumped their Ginnie Maes, Fannie Maes, Freddie Macs, and other government-agency or GSE securities like never before in history, unloading them at the go-to-hell annual clip of $1,395.7 billion (line 6).
And the rest of the world (mostly foreign investors), which had started unloading these securities in the third quarter of last year, continued to do so at a fevered pace (line 10).
Mortgages got chopped again (page 48). Home mortgages outstanding were slashed at an annual clip of $87.3 billion in the second quarter of last year, $324.2 billion in the third quarter, $271 billion in the fourth, and another $61 billion in the first quarter of this year (line 2).
A slowdown in the collapse? For now, perhaps. But the first quarter also brought the very first reduction in commercial mortgages, an early sign of bigger commercial real estate troubles ahead (line 4).
Trade credit is dying (page 51, second table). If you’re in business and you don’t have cash on hand to buy inventories, supplies, or other materials, beware! Large and small corporations all over the country have been slashing trade credit at an accelerating pace (line 3).
In the first quarter of last year, this aspect of the credit crisis was still in its early stages; trade credit outstanding was shrinking at an annual pace of just $15 billion. But by the second quarter, this new disaster burst onto the scene at gale force, with trade credit getting docked at the rate of $151.2 billion per year. And most recently, in the first quarter of 2009, it was slashed at the shocking pace of $277.2 billion per year.
And I repeat:
With ALL of these figures, we’re not talking about a decline in new credit being provided, which would be bad enough. We’re talking about a collapse that’s so deep and pervasive, it actually wipes out 100 percent of the new credit and brings about a net reduction in the credit outstanding — a veritable dismantling of America’s once-immutable debt pyramid!
For the long-term health of our country, less debt is not a bad thing. But for 2009 and the years ahead, it’s likely to be traumatic, delivering …
The Most Wealth Losses of All Time
Who is suffering the biggest and most pervasive losses? U.S. households and nonprofit organizations (page 105)!
The losses have been across the board — in real estate, stocks, mutual funds, family businesses, life insurance policies, and pension funds.
In U.S. households alone, the losses have been massive: $1.39 trillion in the third and fourth quarters of 2007 (not shown on page 105) … a gigantic $10.89 trillion in 2008 … $1.33 trillion in the first quarter of 2009 … $13.87 trillion in all, by far the worst of all time.
And these losses have equally massive consequences for 2009 and 2010:
- Deep cutbacks in consumer spending ahead, plus a virtual disappearance of conspicuous consumption …
- More massive sales declines at most of America’s giant manufacturers, retail firms, transportation companies, restaurants, and more, plus …
- Big losses replacing profits at most U.S. corporations!
Rescues That Make the Crisis Worse
The U.S. government has taken radical, unprecedented steps to counter this credit collapse. And for the moment, it HAS been able to avert a financial meltdown.
But no government, even one run amuck with spending and money printing, can replace $13.87 trillion in losses by households.
Consider just two of the government’s most egregious escapades:
- On January 7, Fed Chairman Bernanke was so desperate to revive U.S. mortgage markets that he embarked on a new, radical program to buy up mortgage-backed securities. So far, he has pumped over a half trillion dollars of fresh federal money into that market. But it has barely made a dent; despite all his efforts, mortgage rates have zoomed higher anyway, snuffing out a mini-boom in mortgage refinancing.
- Four months later, on May 17, the Fed was so desperate to revive other credit markets, it even caved in to industry appeals to finance recreational vehicles, speedboats, and snowmobiles, according to Saturday’s New York Times. But that has barely made a dent in those industries. And the expansion of direct Fed financing to these esoteric areas is not possible without greatly damaging the credibility — and credit — of the U.S. government. Result: Higher interest rates.
Can Mr. Bernanke take even MORE radical steps? Can he trek where no other modern-day central banker has ever gone before?
Not without shooting himself in the foot! It still won’t be enough to avert a continuation of the debt crisis. Indeed, all it can accomplish is to kindle inflation fears, drive interest rates even higher, and actually sabotage any revival in the credit markets.
Look. The nearly $14 trillion in financial losses suffered by U.S. households has inevitable consequences. And massive, nonstop borrowings by the U.S. Treasury in the months ahead — driving interest rates still higher — can only make them worse.
My urgent warning: If you fall for Wall Street’s siren song that “the crisis is over,” you could be in for a fatal surprise.
Don’t believe them. Follow the numbers I have highlighted here. Then, reach your own, independent conclusions.
Good luck and God bless!
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