Friday, June 25, 2010

Impairing household balance sheets

The western household balance sheets are substantially large. But the recent crisis has brought about serious change in asset valuations. As the assets devalue and there is a corresponding impairment in the equity or debt side of the balance sheet.  If asset devaluation reduces your loans then balance sheet quality remains unaffected. For the US housing assets, the debt side was reduced. Hence while winding down of housing reduced the size of balance sheet it could not have impaired its quality. So the problem of US housing may have been lesser than anticipated from household balance sheet point of view.

The bailout, however, shifted this burden from bank balance sheets to government balance sheets. Now, government balance sheets are fed from household and corporate incomes. Thus what was earlier a housing loan problem is now a tax problem. In other words, the problem shifted from household balance sheet to household cash-flow.

On the credit card debt will be more tricky. Credit card debt will not be reduced in usual circumstances. The hit will be on equity side, thus severely impairing the balance sheets.

The cash-inflows are reducing while the outflows remain. The bailout has added a large chunk of committed cash out flow. Households will have to find matching inflows to offset this burden. Thus there is tremendous free cash flow problem.

Increasing government inefficiency, as government gets bigger, will only add to this burden. Unlike housing loan there is no jingle-mail option for taxes. Taxes, like death, are a certainty. So the bailout has shifted what was essentially a quality-neutral adjustment into a large impairment in balance sheet quality. 

So the western households will have to go through a severe pain before consumption returns to the pre-crisis level. This problem is going to haunt us for next half a decade unless we come up with some really radical solution.