Thursday, April 19, 2007

Consumer (aka importer) of last resort

Lawrence Summers wonders whether the global economy can rely on the U.S. as the importer of last resort:

It is clear though that the global economy has been relying on the US as an importer of last resort; that the US economy has been relying on the consumer for its primary impetus; and that until now consumers have been encouraged to spend their incomes fully or more than fully by being able to access the wealth in their homes.

Summers notes that the U.S. imports 70% more than it exports.

But the growth syllogism is now in doubt. Recent developments in the subprime sector exacerbate housing’s brake on US economic growth. Foreclosures will bloat the supply overhang of houses. At the same time reductions in capital in the housing finance sector and more rigorous credit standards will reduce the demand for new homes.

Even as these developments reduce housing prices and the construction of new houses, housing finance problems are likely to magnify wealth effects on consumption as consumers face upward resets on their mortgage rates and are unable to refinance as they had planned, and as home equity, car and credit card lending conditions tighten.

If consumer spending declines and interest rates fall or appear likely to fall, there is the real possibility that the foreign lending to the US that has financed imports far in excess of exports will start to dry up, leading to a combination of higher long-term interest rates and a weaker dollar. This would tend to raise inflationary pressures, transmit US weakness to the rest of the world and could, by discouraging foreign demand for US assets, lead to further downward pressure on investment in plant, equipment and commercial real estate.

I wrote about asset attrition earlier, and this is another example of it.

The financial problems, which Summers relates to attrition in assets' financial value, and the real asset attrition, about which I wrote earlier, are related like the chicken and the egg!

No comments: