Larry Summers Says: Wake Up

Lawrence Summers, former Chief Economist of the World Bank Secretary of the Treasury and President of Harvard, wrote an OpEd this weekend in the Financial Times that echos much of what you have read on this blog. The full article is linked here: Wake Up to the Dangers of a Deepening Crisis

Several streams of data indicate how much more serious the situation is than was clear a few months ago. First, forward-looking indicators suggest that the housing sector may be in free-fall from what felt like the basement levels of a few months ago. Single family home construction may be down over the next year by as much as half from previous peak levels. There are forecasts implied by at least one property derivatives market indicating that nationwide house prices could fall from their previous peaks by as much as 25 per cent over the next several years.

Second, it is now clear that only a small part of the financial distress that must be worked through has yet been faced. On even the most optimistic estimates, the rate of foreclosure will more than double over the next year as rates reset on subprime mortgages and home values fall. Estimates vary, but there is nearly universal agreement that – if all assets were marked to market valuations – total losses in the American financial sector would be several times the $50bn or so in write-downs that have already been announced by big financial institutions.

Third, the capacity of the financial system to provide credit in support of new investment on the scale necessary to maintain economic expansion is in increasing doubt. The extent of the flight to quality and its expected persistence was powerfully demonstrated last week when the yield on the two-year Treasury bond dropped below 3 per cent for the first time in years. Banks and other financial intermediaries will inevitably curtail new lending as they are hit by a perfect storm of declining capital due to mark-to-market losses, involuntary balance sheet expansion as various backstop facilities are called, and greatly reduced confidence in the creditworthiness of traditional borrowers as the economy turns downwards and asset prices fall.

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