STEVE HILTON remembers months of despair after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Customers rushed to the sales offices of Meritage Homes, the property firm Mr Hilton runs, not to buy houses but to cancel contracts they had already signed. “I thought for a moment the world was coming to an end,” he recalls.
In the following months Mr Hilton stepped up efforts to save his company. He gave up options to buy thousands of lots that the firm had snapped up across Arizona, Florida, Nevada and California during the boom, taking massive losses. He eventually laid off three-quarters of its 2,300 employees. He also had its houses completely redesigned to cut construction cost almost in half: simpler roofs, standardised window sizes, fewer options. Gone were the 12-foot ceilings, sweeping staircases and granite countertops everyone wanted when money was free. Meritage is now catering to the only customers able to get credit: first-time buyers with federally guaranteed loans. It is clawing its way back to health as a leaner, humbler company.
The same could be said for America. Virtually every industry has shed jobs in the past two years, but those that cater mostly to consumers have suffered most. Employment in residential construction and carmaking is down by almost a third, in retailing and banking by 8%. As the economy recovers, some of those jobs will come back, but many of them will not, because this was no ordinary recession. The bubbly asset prices, ever easier credit and cheap oil that fuelled America’s age of consumerism are not about to return.
Instead, America’s economy will undergo one of its biggest transformations in decades. This macroeconomic shift from debt and consumption to saving and exports will bring microeconomic changes too: different lifestyles, and different jobs in different places. This special report will describe that transformation, and explain why it will be tricky.
The crisis and then the recession put an abrupt end to the old economic model. Despite a small rebound recently, house prices have fallen by 29% and share prices by a similar amount since their peak. Households’ wealth has shrunk by $12 trillion, or 18%, since 2007. As a share of disposable income it is back to its level in 1995. And if consumers feel less rich, they are less inclined to spend. Banks are also less willing to lend: they have tightened loan standards, with a push from regulators who now wish they had taken a dimmer view of exotic mortgages and lax lending during the boom.
Consumer debt rose from an average of less than 80% of disposable income 20 years ago to 129% in 2007. If other crises of the past half-century are any guide, America’s consumers will spend the next six or seven years reducing their debt to more manageable levels, reckons the McKinsey Global Institute. This is already changing the composition of economic activity. Consumer spending and housing rose from 70% of GDP in 1991 to 76% in 2005 (see chart 1). By last year it had fallen back to 73%, still high by international standards.
The effect on the economy of deflated assets, tighter credit and costlier energy are already apparent. Fewer people are buying homes, and the ones they buy tend to be smaller and less opulent. In 2008 the median size of a new home shrank for the first time in 13 years. The number of credit cards in circulation has declined by almost a fifth. American Express is pulling back from credit cards and is now telling customers how to use their charge cards (which are paid off in full every month) to control their spending.
Normally, deep recessions are followed by strong recoveries as pent-up demand reasserts itself. In the recent recession GDP shrank by 3.8%, the worst drop since the second world war. In the recovery the economy might therefore be expected to grow by 6-8% and unemployment to fall steadily, as happened after two earlier recessions of comparable depth, in 1973-75 and 1981-82.
But this particular recession was triggered by a financial crisis that damaged the financial system’s ability to channel savings to productive investment and left consumers and businesses struggling with surplus buildings, equipment and debt accumulated in the boom. Recovery after that kind of crisis is often slow and weak, and indeed some nine months into the upturn GDP has probably grown at an annual rate of less than 4%. Unemployment is well up throughout the country (see map), though it declined slightly in February.
So if America is to avoid the stagnation that afflicted Japan after its bubbles burst, where is the demand going to come from? In the short term the federal government has stepped up its borrowing—to 10% of GDP this year—to counteract the drop in private consumption and investment. Over the next few years this stimulus will be withdrawn. Barack Obama wants the deficit to come down to around 3% of GDP by the middle of this decade, though it is not clear how that will be achieved. Indeed, if the rest of the economy remains moribund, the government may be reluctant to withdraw the stimulus for fear of pushing the economy back into recession.
Tighter credit and lower consumer borrowing are not the only drivers of economic restructuring. A less noticed but significant push comes from higher energy prices. A strengthening dollar and ample supply kept oil cheap for most of the 1990s, feeding America’s addiction to imports. That began to change a few years before the crisis as the dollar fell and emerging markets’ growing appetite put pressure on global production capacity.
A fourfold increase in oil prices since the 1990s has rearranged both consumer and producer incentives. Sport-utility vehicles are losing popularity, policies to boost conservation and renewable energy have become bolder, and producers have found a lot more oil below America’s soil and coastal seabed. Imports of the stuff have dropped by 10% since 2006 and are likely to come down further. When natural-gas prices followed the rise in oil earlier this decade, exploration companies used new methods to get at gas trapped in shale formations from Texas to Pennsylvania. Abundant domestic shale gas should radically reduce America’s gas imports.
America’s economic geography will change too. Cheap petrol and ample credit encouraged millions of Americans to flock to southern states and to distant suburbs (“exurbs”) in search of big houses with lots of land. Now the housing bust has tied them to homes they cannot sell. Population growth in the suburbs has slowed. For the present the rise of knowledge-intensive global industries favours centres rich in infrastructure and specialised skills. Some are traditional urban cores such as New York and some are suburban edge cities that offer jobs along with affordable houses and short commutes.
A burst of productivity could lift incomes and profits. That would enable consumers to repay some of their debt yet continue to spend. The change in the mix of growth should help: productivity in construction remains low, whereas in exports the most productive companies often do best. But the hobbled financial system will make it hard for cash-hungry start-ups to get financing, so innovation will suffer.
The outlook for business investment depends on whether it is for equipment or buildings. Spending on equipment is expected to be fairly strong, having largely avoided excess in the boom period, and indeed in the fourth quarter of 2009 it raced ahead at an annual rate of 19%. In February John Chambers, the boss of Cisco Systems, a maker of networking gear, called it “one of the most robust, positive turnarounds I’ve seen in my career”. Demand for new buildings is far lower: empty shops and offices attest to ample unused capacity. And business investment typically accounts for only 10-12% of GDP, so it will never be a full substitute for consumer spending.
The road to salvation
As consumers rebuild their savings, American firms must increasingly look abroad for sales. They have a lot of ground to make up. Competition from low-wage countries, mostly China, has increasingly taken over the markets of domestic industries such as furniture, clothing or consumer electronics. Yet shifts in the pattern of global growth and the dollar are laying the groundwork for a boom in exports. “There’s a world view that the United States is the consumer of the world and emerging markets are the producer,” says Bruce Kasman, chief economist at JPMorgan Chase. “That has changed.” He reckons that America will account for just 27% of global consumption this year against emerging markets’ 34%, roughly the reverse of their shares eight years ago.
The cheaper dollar will resuscitate some industries in commoditised markets, but the main beneficiaries of the export boom will be companies that are already formidable exporters. These companies reflect America’s strengths in high-end services and highly skilled manufacturing such as medical devices, pharmaceuticals, software and engineering, as well as creative services like film, architecture and advertising. Thanks to cheap digital technology, South Korea and India now knock out the sort of low-budget films that compete with standard American fare. But only Hollywood combines the creativity, expertise and market savvy to make something like “Avatar” which has earned $2.6 billion so far, some 70% of which came from abroad. That adds up to several jumbo jets.
Exports are a classic route to recovery after a crisis. Sweden and Finland in the early 1990s and Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea in the late 1990s bounced back from recession by moving from trade deficit to surplus or expanding their surplus. But given its size and the sickly state of most other rich countries’ economies, America will find it much harder. It has been exporting more to emerging markets than to developed ones for several years, but if other countries, particularly China, do not sufficiently boost domestic demand, “the unwinding of the global imbalances could reverse quite quickly in 2010,” says an IMF staff paper.
America’s current-account deficit, the broadest measure of its trade and payments with the rest of the world, shrank from 6% of GDP in 2006 to 3% last year (see chart 2). Could it come down to zero? It nearly did in 1991 after five years of booming exports. This time the deficit started out a lot larger and the rest of the world is weaker. Still, even stabilisation around 3% would be a blessed relief because it would slow the growth in America’s indebtedness to foreigners.
America’s imbalances were years in the making and will not be undone overnight. But the elements of a rebalanced economy are already visible a 40-minute drive to the south of Mr Hilton’s offices in Scottsdale, Arizona. Around the same time that Mr Hilton was watching sales of his homes dry up, Brian Krzanich, head of global manufacturing at Intel, was finalising plans to spend $3 billion retooling his company’s massive semiconductor factories in nearby Chandler. Mr Krzanich knew perfectly well there was a recession going on. Intel’s sales were down and 3% of the staff at the factories had been laid off. But he also knew that once global demand rebounded, Intel would have to be ready to produce a new generation of cheaper, smaller and more efficient chips. “Unless you think your business is going to shrink for an extended period, like seven years, it always pays to make that investment,” he says. In the last quarter of 2009 Intel, helped by resurgent demand for technology, enjoyed record profit margins, and Mr Krzanich was approving overtime.
Mr Hilton, for his part, runs his company on the assumption that the days of easy money and exuberant consumers are gone for ever. In his office he has a yellowed copy of the Wall Street Journal from September 18th 2008, the week when Lehman failed and American International Group was bailed out. “Worst crisis since the 30s with no end in sight”, reads one headline. “I wish I’d had that article in 2005,” says Mr Hilton. He keeps it around as an antidote any time he is “feeling all happy and slappy”.