With the Recession Becoming Inevitable the Consensus Shifts Towards the Hard Landing View. And the Rising Risk of a Systemic Financial Meltdown
Nouriel Roubini | Nov 16, 2007
IT IS INCREASINGLY clear by now that a severe U.S. recession is inevitable in next few months. Those of us who warned for the last 12 months about a combination of a worsening housing recession, a severe credit crunch and financial meltdown, high oil prices and a saving-less and debt-burdened consumers being on the ropes causing an economy-wide recession were repeatedly rebuffed the consensus view about a soft landing given the presumed resilience of the US consumer.
But the evidence is now building that an ugly recession is inevitable. Thus, the repeated statements by Fed officials that they may be done with cutting the Fed Funds rate are both hollow and utterly disingenuous. The Fed Funds rate will be down to 4% by January and below 3% by the end of 2008.
More revealing of the change in mood the financial press and some of the most prominent market analysts are coming to the realization that a recession is highly likely. The Economist has a cover story and long piece arguing that a US recession highly likely (and citing this author's work with Menegatti and our views on the inevitability of such a recession).
More importantly, on Wall Street some of the leading analysts that had been in the soft landing camp for the last year have now moved their forecast in the direction of hard landing. It is not just David Rosenberg of Merrill Lynch who has been informally in the hard landing camp and is now explicitly talking about a consumer recession. It is not just Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs who was always more bearish relative to the soft landing consensus and is today explicitly talking about a US recession and a credit crunch reducing lending by $2 trillion.
Even in soft landing houses such as Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan the tone is completely different now. At Morgan Stanley Steve Roach was the in-house bear while Richard Berner (a most sophisticated economist and analyst) was the in-house soft landing optimist. With Roach now gone to run Morgan Stanley Asia, the commentary by Richard Berner has become increasingly darker. And the latest Monday piece by Berner is titled “The Perfect Storm for the US Consumer” where his points on the headwind forces hitting the US consumer are completely overlapping with my analysis of such risks in my recent “The Coming US Consumption Slowdown that Will Trigger an Economy-Wide Hard Landing. Berner starts with
“Serious pressures are mounting on the US consumer on five fronts: Job growth is slowing, surging energy and food quotes are draining purchasing power, adjustable rate mortgages are resetting, lending standards are tightening, and housing wealth will likely decline. Do these dark clouds finally and ominously herald the perfect consumer storm?”
And he concludes with:
“Risks to the consumer are rising, and the risk of outright US recession is higher now than at any time in the past six years: Housing is in sharp decline, consumers are vulnerable, and companies may cut capital spending and liquidate inventories. A strong contribution from global growth is still a huge positive, but spillovers from US weakness to trading partners may hobble that lone source of strength. These pressures could last longer or be more intense than I expect. And even if the economy skirts overall recession, corporate earnings will likely decline.”
An even more persistently bullish bank was JP Morgan that kept on warning for the last year that the biggest risks to the US economy was not a growth slowdown but rather a growth pickup and the risk that inflation would surprise on the upside and force a behind-the-curve Fed to raise the Fed Funds rate above 6%. This analysis obviously proved wrong and now the very smart – but mistaken - Bruce Kasman has had to throw in the towel and accept that the downside risks to grow are sharp and that the Fed will cut the Fed Funds rate to 4%. As he put it in his latest note:
US outlook change: More drag, more ease -- Drags from energy, and credit tightening push GDP forecast to 1% on average for current and upcoming quarter -- Fed is likely to recognize growing downside risk and ease 50bp, to 4% by end of 1Q08 -- December meeting outcome remains close, but we now expect 25bp move from a proactive Fed As the US moves through the fourth quarter, incoming economic news remains consistent with our forecast of a growth “pot hole”. Powerful drags now in place — from tighter credit conditions and an intensified contraction in residential investment — are evident in the decline in output and employment in the goods producing industries and in a slowing in consumption spending…. …three developments over the past month look set to increase downward pressure on growth.
• Oil on the boil. Global crude oil prices rose more than $10 dollars during October, and has held at an elevated level this month. If current levels are maintained, it would represent a drag on annualized household income of approximately one percentage point between now and the end of the first quarter. This drag, which has yet to have been felt, adds to the forces weighing on consumer spending.
• Temporary lifts to fade. Although an upward revision to 3Q07 growth to close to 5% now looks likely, this outcome is partly borrowing from growth in the quarters ahead. Defense spending, which has grown at a 9% annualized pace in the past two quarters, is almost certainly due for a pause. And a significant upward revisions to inventory building in 3Q07, points to an adjustment ahead. Indeed, the latest rise in ISM customer inventory index, combined with auto production schedules pointing to cutbacks through year end, suggests that stockbuilding is likely to subtract from growth this quarter and next.
• Credit tightening broadens. Results of the Fed’s latest Senior Loan Officers Survey indicates that credit conditions are tightening broadly and that demand for credit is slowing. Most recently, credit conditions have tightened significantly for commercial construction projects with CMBS securitizations plunging over the past couple of months. While the quantitative effects of this tightening is hard to measure, credit conditions look set to remain tight for a longer period than anticipated in our current forecast.
Taken together, these developments warrant a downward revision to an already sluggish growth forecast for the coming quarters. The trajectory of GDP growth is being lowered by one half percentage point per quarter through the middle of 2008, with the path of consumption, stockbuilding, and nonresidential construction activity shouldering much of the burden. During this quarter and next, GDP growth is expected to be particularly soft, averaging a meager 1% percent. The underlying resiliency of the US corporate sector will be severely tested through a period in which profits are expected to contract. While we continue to believe that firms are unlikely to retrench in a manner that produces a recession, the risks of a recession remain uncomfortably high. We currently place the risk of a recession taking hold in the coming two quarters at 35%. The Federal Reserve has made it clear that it is willing to act preemptively in the face of elevated recession risks. Having moved 75bp in two meetings, its October statement signalled that it viewed the risks to growth and inflation as balanced — a message that the bar for further easing was high. Against this backdrop, the Fed will need to shift materially its perceptions of risks about the outlook in the direction of our forecast change to produce ease. We now believe such a shift will take place and produce 50bp of additional ease by the end of the 1Q08.
When the most prominent and respected and sophisticated “soft-landing” analysts on Wall Street turn this bearish and start talking about high probability of a recession and downside risks to growth and of a consumer recession you know that these are code words for admitting implicitly – short of an official and explicit endorsement of such view that very few analysts of Wall Street can afford to have because of sell-side research constraints - that they believe that a recession is highly likely.
So at this point the debate is less and less on whether we are going to have a recession that looks inevitable; but it is rather moving towards a debate on how deep, protracted and severe such a recession will be. But the financial and real risks are much more severe than those of a mild recession.
I now see the risk of a severe and worsening liquidity and credit crunch leading to a generalized meltdown of the financial system of a severity and magnitude like we have never observed before. In this extreme scenario whose likelihood is increasing we could see a generalized run on some banks; and runs on a couple of weaker (non-bank) broker dealers that may go bankrupt with severe and systemic ripple effects on a mass of highly leveraged derivative instruments that will lead to a seizure of the derivatives markets (think of LTCM to the power of three); a collapse of the ABCP market and a disorderly collapse of the SIVs and conduits; massive losses on money market funds with a run on both those sponsored by banks and those not sponsored by banks (with the latter at even more severe risk as the recent effective bailout of the formers’ losses by theirs sponsoring banks is not available to those not being backed by banks); ever growing defaults and losses ($500 billion plus) in subprime, near prime and prime mortgages with severe known-on effect on the RMBS and CDOs market; massive losses in consumer credit (auto loans, credit cards); severe problems and losses in commercial real estate and related CMBS; the drying up of liquidity and credit in a variety of asset backed securities putting the entire model of securitization at risk; runs on hedge funds and other financial institutions that do not have access to the Fed’s lender of last resort support; a sharp increase in corporate defaults and credit spreads; and a massive process of re-intermediation into the banking system of activities that were until now altogether securitized.
When a year ago this author warned of the risk of a systemic banking and financial crisis – a combination of global liquidity and solvency/credit problems - like we had not seen in decades, these views were considered as far fetched. They are not that extreme any more today as Goldman Sachs is writing today on the risk o a contraction of credit of the staggering order of $2 trillion dollars in the next few years causing a severe credit crunch and a serious recession. As I will flesh out in a forthcoming note the risks of such a generalized systemic financial meltdown are now rising. Hopefully by now some folks at the New York Fed and at the Fed Board are starting to think about this most dangerous systemic financial crisis that could emerge in the next year and what to do to prepare for it.