One of the more praiseworthy features of the Fox Business Republican debate was the discussion of the last mega-financial crisis and how to prevent a repeat. Although at their debate on CNN the Democratic presidential candidates were quizzed on the bubble and its bursting and possible remedies, the Milwaukee event marked the first time these subjects came up for the Republicans.
Better late than never, but that’s pretty strange given that the last bubbles inflated and the crisis broke out on the GOP’s watch. In fact, it’s downright disturbing. For a new meltdown remains by far the greatest economic threat to America’s future due to the Federal Reserve’s overly easy money policies – despite the latest reassurances from former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke that such warnings are ludicrous. Maybe not so coincidentally, two important new signs of re-bubble-ization have just appeared.
The first was reported by Quartz’s Matt Phillips, who pointed out that the Federal Reserve’s latest figures on Americans’ borrowing behavior showed that consumers in September took out an all-time record $28.9 billion in new loans in September. In the process, they broke a record set 14 years ago, and increased their credit outstanding by the greatest percentage since 1943 – when these records started to be kept. And even if you adjust for inflation, household borrowing is at lofty levels historically.
Many economists view such increases as a bullish economic sign – signaling that Americans are so confident about their future prospects (and repayment potential) that they’re willing to take on more debt. That may be true, but the data on wages and incomes strongly indicate that this confidence is really overconfidence. And if interest rates really are going to be raised by the Federal Reserve, even gradually, this overconfidence may be tomfoolery.
Also not so bullish – the makeup of these new loans. As economist Allison Schrager has sagely pointed out, not all borrowing decisions are created equal, even for individuals with comparable incomes. Some, like student loans, are arguably sensible investments in one’s own human capital and potential (though signs of diminished returns from a college education seem to be popping up everywhere). Others, like mortgages, are arguably sensible investments in an asset that could well appreciate in value (though the inflation and bursting of the housing bubble should have taught everyone that real estate is no longer a sure thing). And still other loans simply finance consumption – which lacks any capacity to increase one’s wealth.
Unfortunately, much of the September surge in consumer borrowing was in auto and credit card debt – which won’t bring any financial benefits.
The second sign of reb-bubble-ization was reported by Bloomberg News’ Tracy Alloway, who covered a Goldman Sachs study showing that leverage levels in Corporate America are at their highest levels in a decade – during the bubble years. In other words, thanks largely to the super-easy monetary policy pursued by the Federal Reserve since the crisis peaked, even though corporate profits have surged to new records, American business has gone on such a frantic shopping spree that its debt load has grown much faster. Indeed, according to Goldman Sachs, these debts are now at twice the levels they hit in the pre-crisis era.
Just as with consumers, rising interest rates could wreak havoc with the balance sheets of U.S. companies. And just as with consumers, relatively little of this borrowing is being devoted to strengthening these firms in what might be called the old-fashioned way – i.e., through the development of new products and services. Instead, much of this new debt has been used to fund mergers and acquisitions, and stock buybacks.
The Fox Business debate, however, does deserve criticism in one sense. It followed an entirely conventional course in focusing on crisis-proofing American finance by improving Wall Street regulation. Certainly such improvement has been warranted. But the financial crisis was rooted in weaknesses in the real economy. Until presidential candidates start presenting realistic plans for fostering more good jobs and the incomes they generate, and for spurring more production and the earnings they generate – which would reduce the need for binge borrowing in the first place – a new financial crisis looks much more like a matter of “when,” not “if.”