In our view, housing activity is clearly at risk, and we see no real recovery until 2009. We believe that the economic costs of subprime loan defaults largely will be borne by lenders rather than borrowers because such borrowers have scant equity in their home. Thus, the spillover risk to the economy depends on whether lenders tighten lending standards significantly further. We do expect that the tightening in lending standards will crimp demand; indeed, the downdraft in June home sales to new lows suggests that the tightening in mortgage credit is already starting to bite. The ongoing buildup in inventories of unsold new and existing homes points to a mismatch between supply and demand that will require at least a 20% decline in 1-family housing starts to correct; that drop is already built in to our forecasts. In addition, we estimate that foreclosures over the coming year could add 7% to the inventory of homes available for sale and put further downward pressure on home prices and thus, potentially, on consumer spending. Likewise, the increase in the cost of capital and tighter standards for business borrowers means that the sluggish capex expansion is also at risk.
But there are also several reasons to be suspicious that such forces will materially weaken the economy. First, magnitude and duration both matter for assessing the extent to which any such credit tightening will affect growth; this episode has been modest and recent — so far. Second, other dimensions of financial conditions are moving in the opposite direction. Third, and contrary to the pessimists’ claims that the US economy’s sole source of fuel is a high-octane credit market, we continue to think that strong overseas growth and hearty domestic income gains will support overall US growth in general, and consumer spending in particular. Indeed, while market participants are ignoring past economic data on the theory that they don’t reflect the recent changes in financial conditions, initial economic conditions do matter. In particular, net exports have added 0.4% to overall US growth over the past year for the first time in a decade, and prospects for global growth remain strong. And US real disposable income rose by 3.2% over the past year — faster than the pace of spending.
Exactly. The economy needs one year’s grace for housing and consumer spending to get back in line. That is what it needs, and happily, that is what it will have. And the dollar will help.
In the long run though, government spending, especially in huge apportionment programs like social security, must be resolved to some semblance of sanity. And there’s one other spending spree that’s really being hidden in the numbers; the politicization of the military. What proportion of the military budget is really just politics finding a way to get a local income stream? Put another way, if you were king for a year, how much could you shrink military spending and actually increase the effectiveness of the best men and women in the country while providing in capital and research and wages for their future? Is it as high as 50%? There’s some smart military folks around who could make a pretty good guess.
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