End Of The Bubble Bailouts
By A. Gary Shilling
For a quarter-century, Americans’ spending binge has been fueled by a declining savings rate and increased borrowing. The savings rate of American consumers has fallen from 12% in the early 1980s to -1.7% today (see chart below). This means that, on average, consumer spending has risen about a half percentage point more than disposable, or after-tax, income per year for a quarter-century.
The fact that Americans are saving less and less of their after-tax income is only half the profligate consumer story. If someone borrows to buy a car, his savings rate declines because his outlays go up but his disposable income doesn’t. So the downward march in the personal savings rate is closely linked to the upward march in total consumer debt (mortgage, credit card, auto, etc.) in relation to disposable income (see chart below).
Robust consumer spending was fueled first by the soaring stock market of the 1990s and, more recently, by the housing bubble, as house prices departed from their normal close link to the Consumer Price Index (see chart below) and subsequently racked up huge appreciation for homeowners, who continued to save less and spend more. Thanks to accommodative lenders eager to provide refinancings and home equity loans, Americans extracted $719 billion in cash from their houses last year after a $633 billion withdrawal in 2004, according to the Federal Reserve.
But the housing bubble is deflating rapidly. I expect at least a 20% decline in median single-family house prices nationwide, and that number may be way understated. A bursting of the bubble would force many homeowners to curb their outlays in order to close the gaps between their income and spending growth. That would surely precipitate a major recession that would become global, given the dependence of most foreign countries on U.S. consumers to buy the excess goods and services for which they have no other markets.