US Economic Outlook Only Facing One Direction

Another week gone by. Nothing has been learned. Nothing has been proven. Nothing has been decided.

In the markets, we mean. It looks like the stock market is finally rolling over. After a big drop on Wednesday, the Dow followed up with a modest drop yesterday – down another 58 points.

Is the market really headed down? We’ve been wrong about it before. About the timing, that is. But we still have little doubt that this market is headed down. Why? That’s just the way it works. After hitting extraordinary highs, we must have extraordinary lows in the forecast. Winter follows summer, no?

You can imagine as many reasons why stocks might want to go down as we can. Households are de-leveraging. People are getting older and shopping less. Savings rates are going up. Housing is underwater and sinking. Unemployment is nearly 10% officially…much higher than that in reality. The US is broke. The empire is probably rolling over too. Emerging markets are leaner, faster, more solvent and more competitive. We now have to compete on both ends – sales and raw materials – with 3 billion people who do not have to carry the burdens of success on their backs.

Do we have to go on?

Of course, Mr. Market can do what he wants. He won’t get any argument from us. But we’re pretty sure he’s ready to take a long walk down a long, lonely road.

Want to see the roadside attractions? Just look out the window. The New York Times:

During the great housing boom, homeowners nationwide borrowed a trillion dollars from banks, using the soaring value of their houses as security. Now the money has been spent and struggling borrowers are unable or unwilling to pay it back.

The delinquency rate on home equity loans is higher than all other types of consumer loans, including auto loans, boat loans, personal loans and even bank cards like Visa and MasterCard, according to the American Bankers Association.

Lenders say they are trying to recover some of that money but their success has been limited, in part because so many borrowers threaten bankruptcy and because the value of the homes, the collateral backing the loans, has often disappeared.

The result is one of the paradoxes of the recession: the more money you borrowed, the less likely you will have to pay up.

For two years, we’ve been talking about US household de-leveraging. Some of the debt is paid off. But much of it just disappears. Here’s how; the TIMES continues:

“When houses were doubling in value, mom and pop making $80,000 a year were taking out $300,000 home equity loans for new cars and boats,” said Christopher A. Combs, a real estate lawyer here [in Phoenix], where the problem is especially pronounced. “Their chances are pretty good of walking away and not having the bank collect.”

Lenders wrote off as uncollectible $11.1 billion in home equity loans and $19.9 billion in home equity lines of credit in 2009, more than they wrote off on primary mortgages , government data shows. So far this year, the trend is the same, with combined write-offs of $7.88 billion in the first quarter.

Even when a lender forces a borrower to settle through legal action, it can rarely extract more than 10 cents on the dollar. “People got 90 cents for free,” Mr. Combs said. “It rewards immorality, to some extent.”

The amount of bad home equity loan business during the boom is incalculable and in retrospect inexplicable, housing experts say. Most of the debt is still on the books of the lenders, which include Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase.

Yes, dear reader, we are on a long, lonely road.

Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning