Sunday, December 16, 2007

You Can Almost Hear It Pop

The American economy is slipping into its second post-bubble recession in seven years. Just as the bursting of the dot-com bubble led to a downturn in 2001 and ’02, the simultaneous popping of the housing and credit bubbles is doing the same right now.

Home prices are likely to fall for the nation as a whole in 2008, the first such occurrence since 1933. And access to home equity credit lines and mortgage refinancing — the means by which consumers have borrowed against their homes — is likely to be impaired by the aftershocks of the subprime crisis.

There is hope that young consumers from rapidly growing developing economies can fill the void left by weakness in American consumers. Don’t count on it. American consumers spent close to $9.5 trillion over the last year. Chinese consumers spent around $1 trillion and Indians spent $650 billion. It is almost mathematically impossible for China and India to offset a pullback in American consumption.

America’s central bank has mismanaged the biggest risk of our times. Ever since the equity bubble began forming in the late 1990s, the Federal Reserve has been ignoring, if not condoning, excesses in asset markets. That negligence has allowed the United States to lurch from bubble to bubble.

Fixated on the narrow “core inflation” rate, which excludes the necessities of food and energy, the Fed has ignored new and powerful linkages that have developed between economic activity and increasingly risky financial markets.

Over time, America’s bubbles have gotten bigger, as have the segments of the real economy they have infected. The Fed needs to rethink its reckless, bubble-prone policy. Once the current crisis subsides, the economy will require the tight money of higher interest rates — the only hope America has for breaking the lethal chain of endless asset bubbles. Stephen S. Roach, the Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia.