Saturday, February 09, 2008

US indebtedness - The scope of the debt trap

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The long-term implications of high US personal (or family) debt may be worse than we anticipate. Various forecasts, discounting economic outputs from "back-to-normal" scenario 2-4 years in the future, may not have accounted for the problem correctly.

Debt stick on - even increases in bad times
Debt, much unlike losses, has an uncanny ability to stick - tying up future cash-flows for years, thereby constraining future consumption. Debt sticks on through job-losses, bankruptcies. In fact it increases - either in form of accumulated interest or future interest rates or loan availability. At least in India, where we do not have personal bankruptcies, this created systemic household poverty for generations. Drawing parallels from that, I believe, the time it will take to get the balance-sheets of US families to saner level of gearing might be much longer. Further more, for US, this exercise needs to be undertaken in/around recession years. Though it may not be generations, like in developing India, but it cannot be simply 2-4 years we anticipate.

Debt cause social pain
Corporate turnaround experts understand the kind of discipline and dispassionate execution it requires just to make small improvements. And it is still easier with a "company" than with household expenditures. Household cannot cut jobs and costs the way corporates can. Governments in progressive countries, like in US, tend to intervene with additional spending on social support - particularly education and healthcare. That spells problem for US.

In sum
We need to understand for median household debt what would be a good time frame get back in shape. We also need to understand the costs required to get them back in shape. The real future outcomes will lie hidden in these details.
As soon as we correctly value and discount these costs, the bearish-ness will vanish. Bulls don't like bullshit about recovery. Show us a real recovery and it's cost and we will "bear" it all the way into a bull run!