For many years after the Crisis, the main theme around consumer debt was the idea that Americans were deleveraging. However, steadily, consumer debt has risen back to alarming levels. In the first quarter of this year, consumer debt hit $14 tn, surpassing the $13 tn of leverage pre-Crisis. Student debt has been a major area of credit expansion. Even when comparing debt to the population, the debt per person is a little higher than in 2008.
FINSUM: So obviously inflation needs to be accounted for here, but the picture is still worrying. It is yet another sign that we may be nearing the end of this run.
Many advisors may respect the opinion of Bob Rodriguez. The former fund manager achieved some acclaim by accurately forecasting the Dotcom bust and Financial Crisis. The former CEO of First Pacific Advisors says that a financial crisis is now a “near certainty”. His fear is that excess leverage in the economy, coupled with a recession, will cause a big crisis. He believes “delusional” equity markets are now only starting to recognize this reality.
FINSUM: The preconditions for a crisis are there—a big buildup in corporate debt and pending recession. However, the timing and magnitude are both big question marks.
The market has been very worried about a potential bond market meltdown. Both investment grade and high yield debt have seen major losses lately as fears have mounted about high corporate debt heading into a possible recession and downturn in earnings. One of the big worries is that there will be a surge in BBB (the lowest rung of investment grade) debt that falls into junk status. However, Bank of America is more sanguine, arguing that growth is solid and companies have actually been issuing much less debt, and will continue to do so. Their view is that companies are in a much sounder financial position than before the last crisis.
FINSUM: The debt gorge that happened over the last several years is inevitably going to have consequences, and we think BAML is way too relaxed about the risks.
This story is not getting much attention in the US, but we thought it too big to ignore. S&P Global, one of the world’s leading credit raters, just announced that a “debt iceberg with titanic credit risks”. S&P says that China has seen a massive rise in borrowing by its local governments, much of it hidden from view, and the the excessive borrowing poses grave risks. The ratings agency says there is between $4.3 tn to $5.8 tn of off-balance sheet debt held by local governments following “rampant” borrowing. The debt is hidden is what are called “Local government financing vehicles” (LGFVs), which were entities used to raise debt before local governments were allowed to issue bonds in capital markets.
FINSUM: This is a pretty scary story that only the FT seems to be covering. It makes one wonder if LGFVs will be the acronym at the center of the next crisis.
Every time there is a bout of volatility, the financial media, and inevitably a few market analysts, forecast that ETFs may be at the center of the next flare up. Yet for the most part, ETFs have held up very well to periods of turmoil. Despite this solid performance though, the creeping logic that they might have a problem lingers. The Financial Times has just posted an article which argues that just as ETFs have managed to magnify the rise in equities, they will also exacerbate the fall. Since so many assets are now in passive funds, the risk of a herd mentality—with all investors having similar stop-loss orders—leading to a big selloff seems likely. Further, since there are fewer active managers playing the role of contrarians as the market falls, who is going to be there to insulate the market when it begins to tumble?
FINSUM: The ETF structure has proven itself quite resilient so far. We are not saying there won’t be a problem, but we feel like the underlying problem in the next meltdown might not have to do with ETFs themselves, rather it may just be magnified by them.