18 June 2011

Watching a Crash in slo mo

There's a lot going on in this deceptively simple chart so let's take it one step at a time. First, "Total Credit Market Debt" is everything - financial sector debt, government debt (federal, state, and local), household debt, and corporate debt - and that is the bold red line (data from the Federal Reserve).

Next, if we start in January 1970 and ask the question, "How long before that debt doubled and then doubled again?" we find that debt has doubled five times in four decades (blue triangles).

Then if we perform an exponential curve fit (blue line) and round up, we find a nearly perfect fit with a R2 of 0.99. This means that debt has been growing in a nearly perfect exponential fashion through the 1970's, the 1980's, the 1990's and the 2000's. In order for the 2010 decade to mirror, match, or in any way resemble the prior four decades, credit market debt will need to double again, from $52 trillion to $104 trillion.

Finally, note that the most serious departure between the idealized exponential curve fit and the data occurred beginning in 2008, and it has not yet even remotely begun to return to its former trajectory.

This explains everything.

It explains why Bernanke's $2 trillion has not created a spectacular party in anything other than a few select areas (banking, corporate profits), which were positioned to directly benefit from the money. It explains why things don't feel right, or the same, and why most people are still feeling quite queasy about the state of the economy. It explains why the massive disconnects between government pensions and promises, all developed and doled out during the prior four decades, cannot be met by current budget realities.

Our entire system of money, and by extension our sense of entitlement and expectations of future growth, were formed during and are utterly dependent on exponential credit growth. Of course, as you know, money is loaned into existence and is therefore really just the other side of the credit coin. This is why Bernanke can print a few trillion and not really accomplish all that much, because the main engine of growth expects, requires, and is otherwise dependent on credit doubling over the next decade.

To put this into perspective, a doubling will take us from $52 to $104 trillion, requiring close to $5 trillion in new credit creation each year of that decade. Nearly three years has passed without any appreciable increase in total credit market debt, which puts us roughly $15 trillion behind the curve.

What will happen when credit cannot grow exponentially? We already have our answers; it's been the reality for the past three years. Debts cannot be serviced, the weaker and more highly leveraged participants get clobbered first (Lehman, Greece, Las Vegas housing, etc.), and the dominoes topple from the outside in towards the center. Money is dumped in, but traction is weak. What begins as a temporary program of providing liquidity becomes a permanent program of printing money needed in order for the system to merely function.

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