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Monday, April 19, 2010

Benjamin Franklin, Strategic Default, and Economic Recovery

Strategic Defaults Driving Retail Sales?

A penny saved is a penny earned.

--Benjamin Franklin, circa 1780

A penny defaulted on is a penny earned.

--Benjamin Franklin, 2010??

No, I have no way of knowing whether a modern-day Benjamin Franklin would have uttered the second quote. In fact, he didn't even say the first one (that hasn't stopped him getting credit for it, though!).

But the sentiment is well-placed.

More and more economists now see a connection between rising strategic defaults -- the term for owners who walk away from their underwater homes to preserve their cash flow -- and recovering retail sales.

That link helps explain a conundrum -- namely, why are retail sales improving when hiring is anemic and unemployment is still high?

Strategic Default Economics

The (partial) answer appears to be that people who've ditched their expensive mortgages have more disposable income to spend at Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, restaurants, etc.

Sometimes, A LOT more.

So, somebody who bought a home at the peak in Las Vegas (or Southern Florida, or Phoenix) for, say, $600k and has seen prices subsequently drop 40% could easily rent for $2,500 a month, instead of paying their $4,500 monthly mortgage. And live in just as nice a place.

An extra $2,000 in monthly disposable income.

Multiply that phenomenon by a couple hundred thousand people, and suddenly it's no surprise to see retail sales pick up.

Here's what David Rosenberg, former chief economist at Merrill Lynch and now playing the same role at Canadian firm Gluskin Sheff, says in today's edition of his daily market analysis ("Breakfast with Dave"):

Speaking of the U.S. housing market, we are convinced that strategic defaults by various homeowners, along with double-digit growth in tax refunds, have spurred the jump in retail sales (Easter timing helped too) of late. The economy is growing, the bulls are in a great mood, apparently we are into a new phase of job creation, and yet somehow 320,000 mortgage loans that were current when 2010 began were at least 60 days past due in March. Interesting.

--David Rosenberg, "Breakfast with Dave" (4/19/2010)

Of course, more borrower defaults ultimately means more foreclosures, which translates into more housing market supply -- and more bank write-off's.

But thanks to the Federal Reserve's policy of zero percent interest rates, banks are now booking huge profits to help offset their mortgage and housing-related losses ("Citigroup Posts $4.4 Billion Profit" -- WSJ).

They also continue to benefit from the government's unofficial policy of "too big to fail," with the implicit promise of future bailouts, if and when needed.

It all sort of recalls the chorus from a classic rock 'n roll song:

Take a load off Annie, take a load for free;
Take a load off Annie, And (and) (and) you put the load right on me

--The Band; lyrics, "The Weight"

The (financial) weight, indeed.

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