Into the Abyss: The Cycle of Debt Deflation
One of the most famous quotations of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises is that “There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency involved.” In fact, the US economy is in a downward spiral of debt deflation despite the bold actions of the federal government and of the US Federal Reserve taken in response to the financial crisis that began in 2008 and the associated recession. Although the vicious circle of debt deflation is not widely recognized, precisely what von Mises described is happening before our eyes.
A variety of positive economic data has been reported in recent months. Retail sales rose 0.4% in April 2010 as consumer spending rose and the US gross domestic product (GDP) grew at a rate of 3%. In May 2010, home sales rose to a five-month high and consumer confidence rose 17% (from 57.7 to 63.3). Industrial production rose 0.8% and durable goods orders rose 2.9%, more than had been forecast. However, the modest gains reported represent the continuing adaptation of economic activity at dramatically lower levels compared to the pre-recession period and most of the reported gains have been substantially manufactured by massive government deficit spending.
Despite the widely reported green shoots, in May, the unemployment rate rose to 9.9% while paychecks in the private sector shrank to historic lows as a percentage of personal income, and personal bankruptcies rose. Roughly 14% of US mortgages are delinquent or in foreclosure, credit card defaults are rising and consumer spending hit 7 month lows. To make matters worse, the reported increase in consumer credit, in fact, points to a further deterioration because consumers appear to be borrowing to service existing debt. Outside of the federal government, which is borrowing at record levels and expanding as a percentage of GDP, and outside of the bailed out financial sector, debt deflation has continued unabated since 2008.