As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

You Mean People With No Money Aren't Spending?

Economists, living in their bubble, managed to be surprised by this.

U.S. consumer credit plunged more than five times as much as forecast in July as banks restricted lending terms and job losses made Americans reluctant to borrow.

Consumer credit fell by a record $21.6 billion, or 10 percent at an annual rate, to $2.5 trillion, according to a Federal Reserve report released today in Washington. Credit dropped by $15.5 billion in June, more than previously estimated. Credit fell for a sixth month, the longest series of declines since 1991.

The credit crunch, stagnant incomes and declines in household wealth are casting doubt on the strength of the economic recovery. The arrival of the government’s “cash for clunkers” program in late July wasn’t enough to keep credit that covers car loans from plummeting by a record amount, as consumers delayed other purchases [...]

Economists had forecast consumer credit would drop $4 billion in July, according to the median of 31 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey. Projections ranged from declines of $12 billion to no change from the previous month. The Fed initially said consumer credit decreased by $10.3 billion in June.

I'm guessing that cash for clunkers was the only thing bringing anyone out to purchase something on credit. Otherwise, people simply don't have the money after years of wage stagnation and record unemployment. People are learning the "new normal" of frugality out of complete necessity. In the long run, living within means is a good thing; in the short run, it's debilitating to the US economy.

And it's another example of how economists are not living in the real world with their models and charts. They don't see anything wrong with corporations making massive profits off the backs of consumers living on credit, or how that entire system could fold like a house of cards. They viewed capitalism as a shiny object and never saw its potential pitfalls in an unregulated form.

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations. The renewed romance with the idealized market was, to be sure, partly a response to shifting political winds, partly a response to financial incentives. But while sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at, the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation.

Of course, their salaries in part depend on them not knowing these facts, as the Federal Reserve has essentially bought off the profession and tilted it toward the principles of the unfettered free market. Ryan Grim's article is a must-read.

...the head of China's sovereign wealth fund: "Both China and America are addressing bubbles by creating more bubbles and we’re just taking advantage of that. So we can’t lose.”

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