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The 2009 credit boom is coming to an end.

Posted by Arkady K. On 11/21/2012

The credit expansion boom of 2009 will eventually go down as yet another period of credit expansion promoted by the Fed that will have lead to another predictable bust.   Today, it will be interesting to examine how the various levels of production are behaving under years and years of artificial interest rate suppression.  It will also be helpful to look at charts and graphs examining the business cycle theory and the impact of time preference as taught by Mises.

For starters, those new to the concept - a very brief paraphrasing of the general idea.

Under a healthy functioning market people's consumer patterns impact their savings.  More consumption equals less saving and less consumption more saving.  In order to progress the society must save such that it can make investments in machinery, equipment, technology, etc if it hopes to increase the capacity of production.   Sure ,you can harvest 10 coconuts a day, consume them by night and repeat the process.  You can also defer consumption, save a coconut and once savings are sufficient build a coconut harvesting tool that will yield 20 coconuts a day while using those coconuts saved to sustain development.

In the world of money this behavior can be witnessed through interest rates or time preference.  If the consumer  begins saving, then he has suggested that the current goods are not as valuable to him now as they would be in the future.  This increases the supply of resources, the cost of borrowing these resources will invariably drop as the supply becomes more and more abundant.   Thus, once again, in a normal and healthy market the drop in consumption leads to saving thus leading to lower interest rates.

Why is this important?  Just like one would be tempted to build a coconut gathering machine when sufficient coconuts can provide for such an investment, low interest rates send a message to business (wo)men that a large amount of resources is available for consumption.  Thus, the further away the investment from the immediate consumer good the more interest rate sensitive it becomes - as the big investments require a lot of time (and thus interest payments).   So investment heavy industries like mining and raw materials are considered early stages of production, while wholesaling, services and retail are late stages of production.

Or as Mises explains ever so succinctly in required reading for every human being:
Technological conditions make it necessary to start an expansion of production by expanding first the size of the plants producing the goods of those orders which are farthest removed from the finished consumers' goods. In order to expand the production of shoes, clothes, motorcars, furniture, houses, one must begin with increasing the production of iron, steel, copper, and other such goods.
But what happens when the interest rates are incorrect?  What happens to all the business (wo)men that mistakenly considered the phenomena as an indication of resources that simply do not exist?   They will at some point literally run out of money as the amount of resources available were far lower than the manipulated rate suggested.  The false rates can come from either a central bank policy or the expansion of too much credit from large banks that have no fear of going bust (bailed out by the Fed or State like the wild cat banking days of the 1800s).

So indeed, if the entire theory that the banks and their expansion of credit cause the booms and busts , a scourge on humanity for the past hundreds of years, then I should be able to either prove or disprove the theory right here and now.

So my assertion is that the artificial credit boom from 2009 has sent the wrong signals to the economy and the amount of resources actually available is lower than meets the eye.   This means that farthest removed industries should be struggling, while the easy credit should be juicing the consumer and consequently boosting the retailers and service.  This is of course very dangerous and very wrong, because it violates the basic premise we outlined earlier.  If the interest rates are this low, it would suggest that the consumer is NOT spending and the system is awash with resources (money).

So is it?

Stages of Production

In order to visually demonstrate the various levels of production I have stacked stock indices representing the levels of production.  Highest is mining (furthest away), followed by basic materials, so on and so on finally ending at retail.   These are indices or baskets of stocks, while not a perfect measurement due to the lag effect of stocks, it should serve pretty well for our demonstration.   At the bottom of the charts is the federal fund rate, the interest rate set by the all knowing Federal Reserve.

The years are from 1999-present.


Take a moment to absorb the charts.  Now lets walk through from furthest to consumer, to closest to consumer.

  • Right off the bat, the worst performing sector is mining, virtually at multi-year lows not far from its 2009 bottom!  
  • Basic materials while doing better, has put in a top and is showing a visible downtrend.
  • Wholesalers, positioned somewhere in the middle in the production chain are still at the highs, but the trend has slowed down dramatically.  So far, all three failed to exceed the tops made in 2008. 
  • Next is consumer services, which not only is at new highs but has now exceeded the 2008 top!
  • Lastly,  very similar to consumer services enjoying the hell out of Bernanke's funny money. 
This suggests that tough times for the economy are ahead as investments and expansions into production are beginning to dry up and retract.   Recession is straight ahead as the poor investments realizing a shortage in resources begin to undo the mistakes forced upon them by artificial rates. 

One other critical point to glean from this exercise is the utter refutation of the entire Keynesian "animal spirits" philosophy.  We are told even today that booms and busts are natural, simply humans acting irrational and then suddenly curtailing their rabid spending habits causing contractions and recessions.  Except that if that was true, then 2008 would look very different.  Instead if you look at the charts again, you see the following:
  • Mining:  Decline of 65%
  • Basic materials: Decline of 64%
  • Wholesalers: Decline of 41%
  • Services: Decline of 42% 
  • Retailers: Decline of 40%
So if the animal spirit theory was true, how come the consumer related industries contracted the least and the furthest away contracted the most!?

Simple, because that theory belongs in the waste basket along with your copy of General Theory.  Instead we have an elegant, logical and impervious explanation.  The industries thought there were more resources, they were wrong, the investments were bad, the contraction must begin.  In fact the faster the contraction begins the better everyone will be!

The 2008 crisis

Now there are  two "oddities" about the chart that some of you may be noticing.

First is the observation that the 2007-2008 decline in the consumer facing sectors started earlier than the miners, materials, etc.  This is strange for two reasons:  First, the current patterns look very different and second, it seems like a contradiction in the assertion that the consumer is being driven by credit.

Second is the abrupt fall of miners/materials/etc after posting new highs.  The explanation to both is below.

First the consumer:


Consumer non-revolving credit, on a year by year basis.   As you can see, in 2005 credit began to shrink reaching one of the lowest points in the past 12 years.   

So what happened?

Scroll up again and look at the fed fund rate from 2005 to 2007 and you will see a rapid increase in interest rates from 1% to 5%.  That shut down the credit happy consumer, an unfortunate reality of America - a country's whose economic purchasing ability is just a function of its ability to go into debt.

You can see the massive spike in credit accumulated in 2010-2011.  This was achieved by zero percent interest rates that began in 2009.   For those wondering, yes, revolving also shot up - but not as much.

The economy is literally being pulled into two opposite directions at once.  Low interest rates are SUPPOSED to mean people are curbing consumption!  Welcome to the Central Bank Fun House!  Is it really a surprise that the early stage industries are declining?  We can't have it both ways.

History and logic suggest that banking and the supply of money must be severed from the State entirely. Beating a dead horse here, but centrally planned rates and supply of money is not working. 
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"It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.” - M. Rothbard