The Housing Chronicles Blog: Settle down, Chicken Littles!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Settle down, Chicken Littles!

Lately we've been warned about a possible "financial collapse" related to the housing market that will mean another "Depression" and a steady decline in the U.S. standard of living (not to mention torturous declines in housing prices nationwide).

Or maybe not.

Writing in his blog, Dr. George Friedman (Founder and CEO of Stratfor, a consulting firm providing intelligence on global economic, political and security issues) argues that today's interlinked global economy will likely prevent any Depression-style meltdown in the U.S. economy.

While this is a lot to copy over, his points are made so well that I think they must be shared as much as possible, although I highly recommend reading the entire blog entry.

Given the broad belief that the subprime crisis is only the beginning of a general financial crisis, and that the economy will go into recession, we would have expected major market declines by now. Markets discount in anticipation of events, not after events have happened. Historically, market declines occur about six months before recessions begin. So far, however, the perceived liquidity crisis has not been reflected in higher long-term interest rates, and the perceived recession has not been reflected in a significant decline in the global equity markets.

When we add in surging oil and commodity prices, we would have expected all hell o break loose in these markets. Certainly, the consequences of high commodity prices during the 1970s helped drive up interest rates as money was transferred to Third World countries that were selling commodities. As a result, the cost of money for modernizing aging industrial plants in the United States surged into double digits, while equity markets were unable to serve capital needs and remained flat.

So what is going on?

Part of the answer might well be this: For the past five years or so, China has been throwing around huge amounts of cash. The Chinese made big, big money selling overseas — more than even the growing Chinese economy could metabolize. That led to massive dollar reserves in China and the need for the Chinese to invest outside their own financial markets. Given that the United States is China’s primary consumer and the only economy large and stable enough to absorb its reserves, the Chinese — state and nonstate entities alike — regard the U.S. markets as safe-havens for their investments. That is one of the things that have kept interest rates relatively low and the equity markets moving. This process of Asian money flowing into U.S. markets goes back to the early 1980s.

Another part of the answer might lie in the self-stabilizing feature of oil prices, the rise of which should be devastating to U.S. markets at first glance. The size of the price surge and the stability of demand have created dollar reserves in oil-exporting countries far in excess of anything that can be absorbed locally. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has made so much money, particularly in 2007, that it has to invest in overseas markets.

In some sense, it doesn’t matter where the money goes. Money, like oil, is fungible, which means that if all the petrodollars went into Europe then other money would flow into the United States as European interest rates fell and European stocks rose. But there are always short-term factors to consider. The Persian Gulf oil producers and the Chinese have one thing in common — they are linked to the dollar. As the dollar declines, assets in other countries become more expensive, particularly if you regard the dollar’s fall as ultimately reversible. Dollars invested in dollar-denominated vehicles make sense. Therefore, we are seeing two massive inflows of dollars to the United States — one from China and one from the energy industry. China’s dollar reserves are derived from sales to the United States, so it is stuck in the dollar zone. Plus, the Chinese have pegged the yuan to the dollar. The energy industry, also part of the dollar zone, needs to find a home for its money — and the largest, most liquid dollar-denominated market in the world is the United States.

In other words, the combination of the rise of China and higher oil prices may actually help soften the blow from the mortgage meltdown by stabilizing both the dollar and the economy. Very interesting...

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