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Thursday, March 06, 2008

From soup to nuts

Steve Moyer gives a pretty clear (occasionally a bit aerated) potted history of the woeful train of events, over the ten years from the start of the technology stock boom to the popping (and it's only just started) of the real estate bubble.

Nobody had to invest in tech stocks, but we all have to live somewhere. A bubble in housing is really pernicious, because it has implications for almost everyone.

Low interest rates inflated property prices, which led to much larger mortgages. Deflating valuations by raising interest rates would trap many mortgage-holders who have taken on big loans and kept up a good credit history so far.

Therefore, unless the government is willing to deal with the political pain of accelerated mortage defaults, interest rates must now stay low-ish for a long time. So I guess that credit risk will be adjusted not by price, but by access: it will simply get harder to find a willing lender. If there is less lending, then that (it seems to me) is deflationary.

I don't believe that the burden of the monster mortgage will be reduced by rapid general inflation of both wages and prices as in the 70s and 80s. Increased world demand for food and energy will inflate prices, but globalisation means that for many - especially the poorer sort - wages won't keep up. The cost of housing will be a generation-long millstone around the neck.

Inflating the currency won't help. It will reduce the wealth of savers, but if we are importing not only luxuries but (increasingly) necessities, inflated wages will be gobbled up by inflated import prices.

Some may argue that currency debasement will make our exports more competitive. But for a long time now, manufacturing industry has been disappearing like snow in midsummer. Even if our export prices should become more competitive because of foreign exchange rates, domestic productive capacity has shrivelled: whole factories and shipyards have gone abroad, and the related human resources have withered, too. You can't reconstruct the proletariat and their workplaces overnight. Gone are the days when the Midlands engineering worker tinkered with metal in his garden shed, showing his son how to use the tools. Half a mile from where I live, one of the big engineering plants set up by the Birmingham-based Lucas family was taken over first by the Italian Magneti Marelli, then by the Japanese super-corp Denso, and now it's been stripped of its machines and will be demolished to make way for... housing. Goodness know how the mortgages on them will be paid.

I think Karl Denninger is right: the banks must be made to eat some of the debt they fed us. Either they will be ruined, or we shall be.


Anonymous said...

We have to get from A to B somehow. "A" being a society supported by wealthy individuals with savings who are involved in productive employment, and "B" being a post industrial, impoverished, socialist, banana republic in a world lead by China.

How we get there is the only unknown.

I suppose continual inflation and gradual decline will at least make the transition more orderly than it otherwise may have been.

Sackerson said...

James Kynge has looked at China's demography and economy and he thinks that country will find its economic progress swallowed up by a population that is increasing because of improved longevity. They'll never get as rich as us per capita, but by taking over our industrial production they'll make us much poorer.

However, we probably don't need all the wealth we currently have - it's half killing many of us. On the other hand, we do really need the things we always assumed we had: liberty, privacy, democracy, some useful work to do, family and friends. It looks as though we'll have to fight our own leaders to retain these things.

Nick Drew said...

You are right about having to fight our own leaders on this

A large part of the establishment will cheerfully sell us and our liberties down the Yellow River

murdoch, google, blair, ...

BTW, good to see you back in regular posting mode, Sackers

Anonymous said...

There's no need to suppose that "China" will remain singular. Its history is one of centralised empires interrupted by periods of warring states.