The world is rapidly getting poorer. According to the International Monetary Fund, worldwide losses from the financial crisis already measured $1.4 trillion through November.
Although it is equivalent to more than 2 percent of the world’s GDP, this figure does not even come close to reflecting the size of paper losses incurred as a result of the collapse of asset prices. Some $7.5 trillion has been wiped out on Wall Street since October 2007. Worldwide, equity market losses approach $30 trillion. The value of American residential properties fell by another $5 trillion, and some 12 million American households now have negative equity in their homes, meaning that they owe more on them than the houses are worth.
The destruction of value in the real estate sector can’t be fully estimated yet. In addition to the face value of distressed mortgage-backed securities, which currently are not traded, there is the $63 trillion notional value of contracts insuring such bonds from default.
The extraordinary thing about the asset price meltdown has been how bubbles first inflated and then lost air one after another. First the U.S. housing market began to weaken in mid-2007, sending a massive wave of speculative liquidity sloshing around the world. It quickly inflated a bubble in stocks, at which time the Dow Jones Industrial Average touched 14,000. A year later, the Dow was down some 40 percent, while in some overbought emerging markets the losses were in the 60 percent to 70 percent range.
Commodities were next, as gold surpassed $1,000 per Troy ounce in May and oil hit $147 per barrel in July. Less than six months later, oil prices were down by two-thirds, and metals, chemicals and other commodities tumbled across the board.
Now, one more bubble has been created, this time in U.S. government debt. Since the advent of the subprime mortgage crisis, the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond has been cut by more than one-half, from over 5 percent to 2.5 percent. At the long end of the yield curve, the 30-year bond now pays just 3 percent, while at the short end investors snap up T-bills at zero percent interest.
The rally in Treasuries has been driven by two considerations. First, investors are looking for safety as they flee the carnage in various asset markets. One-to-three month T-bills are certainly the safest asset there is. Second, investors fear that the looming recession could be open-ended, resulting in a deflationary spiral. If consumer prices start to decline, a nominal yield of 2.5 percent to 3 percent could translate into a pretty substantial return in real terms. This happened during the Great Depression, when shrinking demand fed consecutive rounds of layoffs, whereas rising unemployment in turn depressed demand and drove down consumer prices.
Mismatched Supply and Demand
However, both these expectations could prove wrong. T-bonds may not offer the kind of safety investors are looking for; nor are inflation trends likely to prove so benign for savers and holders of riskless U.S. government bonds. On the contrary, the T-bubble may be the next one to burst, and bond prices may plunge just as spectacularly as house, commodity and stock prices have done earlier in the current financial debacle.
The U.S. Federal Reserve is cognizant of the experience of the 1930s and is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of the past. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke agrees with the late Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman, who believed that the Depression could have been avoided if only the Fed had drowned the U.S. financial system with liquidity. As a result, in line with Friedman’s recommendations, since the advent of the crisis the Fed has been pouring money liberally into the banking system. At the same time, the incoming Obama Administration will be taking no chances and will supplement massive monetary stimulus with public spending.
Washington is already awash in red ink. The Federal budget deficit reached a record $237 billion in October, the first month of fiscal 2008. For the fiscal year as a whole, the deficit is expected to hit at least $1 trillion, and the government will need to raise $1.5 trillion in new debt according to ex-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. This is likely to be a very conservative estimate.