Private Sector De-leveraging: A Rally in a Bull Costume

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the rally. The Dow rose a piddly 11 points. Gold sold off $1.

This rally has gone on for so long most people think it is not a rally at all, but a new bull market. Worldwide, it has taken equities up some 73%…making it one of the greatest rallies ever.

What are we to think? Are we alone in thinking it’s still a trap? What happened to the problems that led to the crisis of ’07-’09?

If you don’t think about it too much you might think everything is fine. Stocks are up. Business profits are up. GDP is up. Housing and unemployment seem to be stabilized. What’s not to like?

The recovery is a done deal as far as most people see it. The rescue efforts, initiated by the feds, were a big success…or so they believe. It has been 12 months since the bottom…and the world still has not ended. Everything is back to normal…isn’t it?

The problem in ’07-’09 was that too many people owed too much money.

And what has happened to change that? The net level of indebtedness in the US has actually gone up since ’07!

Huh? How’s that? We’re in a de-leveraging phase, aren’t we?

Well…yes…but only in the private sector. The feds are still adding debt.

Let’s look at the private sector first. There, we find unemployment still around 10%. Adult males in their prime working years, however, have fewer jobs than ever before. One figure we saw shows that only 4 out of 5 of them are working.

That is just the beginning of the problem for these fellows. They’re getting fewer college degrees, compared to women, than ever before. They’re earning less money too – again, compared to women. Fewer are the chief breadwinners in their households. And fewer are even in a household at all – more are alone.

Let’s not get distracted by the suffering of the masculine part of the population…

…we’re looking at what is going on in the broader economy. Is it healthy and growing? Or is the stock market just a honey trap…a bear market trap for the unwary investor?

The private sector is de-leveraging. Not only is the unemployment rate high, the typical family also lost a lot of money when its house went down in price. And since the typical householder is also in his 40s or 50s, he has to consider his retirement and how he’s going to fund it.

Stocks? While they’ve bounced back nicely, the stock market is still well below its highs…and still in a losing position over the last ten years. A 73% gain sounds nice, but it would take a 100% gain to recover the losses of the ’07-’09 bear market.

Houses? One out of four mortgaged houses is still underwater. In some new developments, the figure is as high as one out of two. And there is little likelihood that the owners will be high and dry anytime soon. People no longer expect to retire on the gains from their houses.

This leaves the middle-aged householder without much choice. He has to save money. Remember, the boom of the 2003-2007 period was caused by dis-saving. Now, a higher savings rate will mean less spending for many, many years. This is a fundamental and important change of direction for the economy. It will restrict business growth and restrain profit growth too.

So, is it possible to slough off the crisis and return to business as usual? Nope. Not possible. You can pretend that things are back to normal. You can act as if they are back to normal. You can invest as though they are back to normal. But you can also lose your money.

But they’re not normal at all. They’re different. The 1982 to 2007 period was…mostly…a boom time, caused by rapid increases in debt, asset prices, and consumer spending. The next period is…mostly…a bust time – when asset prices, private debt, and consumer spending go down.

Sooner or later, but probably sooner, the stock market will realize it. Our Crash Alert flag – tattered and faded – is still flying.

Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning