Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why did the US leverage itself so much?

There has been some discussion in the blogosphere about Peter Thiel's interview Back to the Future with Peter Thiel - Interview - National Review Online. One of the central question in the discussion is Why US leveraged itself to this extent - referring to the excess debt carried by US households. 

The question reminds me of an Aesop's fable about donkey and goat. A man is leading a donkey on a leash when a few people decide to play a prank on him. In turns one of them would appear to pass down the road and ask him why he is walking his goat instead of carrying it on his shoulders. After a few passes the person is convinced that his donkey is actually a goat and tries to carry it over his shoulders.

The same is situation with US consumers. Over time people have been telling the US consumer that loans to them are most safe. Over time US consumers were convinced that they can safely borrow more as future growth will take care of the repayment. The situation worked well for a generation and there was no reason to assume it was broken. So they never stopped even when the future growth was no longer certain. In fact US consumer continued borrowing despite evidence that with current policy (marked down exchange rates and export-oriented growth models) US is nearly certain to have de-growth.

As I mention in the book, the blame for the last leg of overextending consumer was the result of big-money. Big money required paper to play with and creating the paper implied creating real assets even when there was no demand. I think that makes Gary Shilling's ideas, particularly the one of selling consumer financiers, make lot of sense.