The Great Debate

U.S. recovery – a mixed scorecard

Ultra-low interest rates and massive liquidity injections have acted like a painkiller, stabilising the U.S. economy and preventing it from going into shock. But they have not cured the underlying problem of over-extended households and an economy dependent on increasing consumer indebtedness as its main source of growth.

The result is a highly uneven recovery. While many parts of the manufacturing and the service sectors are rebounding strongly, those most dependent on credit, particularly housing and autos, and others associated with them such as home furnishing remain depressed.

Low rates have largely solved the cash flow problem, at least for households that have remained in employment. But household balance sheets are still undergoing what is likely to be a long and painful period of adjustment that will continue to act as a drag on credit-driven spending for several more years.

It is not clear monetary or fiscal policy can help much more in these areas. It was precisely overspending on cars and homes that got U.S. consumers into such a disastrous financial position during the mid and late 2000s.

Households have no real income growth to finance renewed spending on big ticket items and lack the confidence needed to take on much more debt to finance extra consumption. Even if confidence somehow recovered, most lenders remain wary about the poor creditworthiness of potential borrowers and the weak state of their balance sheets.

from Commentaries:

Japan takes a kinder approach to growth

The victorious Democratic Party of Japan did not put economic growth at the heart of its electoral sales pitch. The party's manifesto mentions "growth" only once. The word "support", by contrast, appears 19 times.

Even so, there are reasons for optimism that the DPJ's softer and more nurturing policies are just what the economy needs.

The global slump provided a painful reminder of the dangers of Japan's export-oriented growth strategy. Output has fallen even faster than in other rich countries, leaving national income at roughly the same level as in the early 1990s.

Japan: The mother of all miserable recoveries

jamessaft1(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Investors met the news that Japan’s economy has emerged from a bone-breaking recession calmly and rationally: they sold shares quickly and in large amounts and made bets that consumer prices are going to be falling for years to come.

That’s because Japan’s recovery, coming as it does after a global bubble in the production of what I call, for lack of a more technical term, “stuff,” is really not sustainable.

The fact that the consumer portion of the recovery is only a reflection of income transfers from government to individuals isn’t very encouraging either.

Stress test the consumer

Christopher Swann– Christopher Swann is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

People can be divided into three classes, it has been said: the haves, the have-nots and the have-not-paid-for-what-they-haves. The prevalence of the third category may be the biggest single source of vulnerability for the U.S. recovery.

A stress test of the consumer could reveal more distressing results than the one conducted on the banking system.

The recovery will feel familiar: lousy

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

The good news that the United States cannot keep contracting the way it has been is not to be confused with a return to robust expansion, a point financial markets eventually will grasp.

Consumers, the mainspring of the U.S. economy, will see the cash from government stimulus slip through their fingers but will still face very ugly personal balance sheets and a brutal job market. Their party is not going to get started again for some time.