Again and again in these past few months, financial markets have appeared to be on the verge of something very scary. It happened first and most jarringly in February, when subprime-mortgage woes made headlines in the U.S. and a market crashlet in Shanghai sent global stocks into a swoon. Lately the scares have been smaller but more frequent: a sharp rise in interest rates in May, runs on a couple of hedge funds in June, a sudden drop in demand for risky mortgage and corporate debt in July.
During each of these episodes, the financial pages filled with fret: Would this be the moment when markets turned south, when credit dried up, when hedge-fund managers and private-equity partners started applying for work at Wal-Mart?
Then markets calmed, the Dow cracked 14,000, and the world got back to business. Don't count on that happening forever--today's jitters do probably presage something worse. "Rather like a brontosaurus that has been bitten on the tail and most of the body hasn't noticed it yet, the signal is working its way up the vertebrae," says Jeremy Grantham, chairman of Boston money manager GMO. But even the bearish Grantham doesn't see the reckoning coming tomorrow or even necessarily next year. And in the meantime, something with far more impact on most Americans' lives than a stock-market correction has already happened.
That something is the close of a remarkable era of easy money. Cheap credit helped fuel the stock bubble at the end of the past millennium and almost entirely fueled the real estate boom of the first years of this millennium. It kept us spending through the tough years that followed the stock market's collapse, and it allowed the Bush Administration to finance big budget deficits without strain. Easy money also helped enable the rise of private equity as a major economic force.
Now, though, it's history. With each new market minipanic this year, interest rates have gone up a tad, lending standards have gotten a little tighter, and the easy-money era has receded further. Rates are still low by historic standards, and some kinds of loans are still cheaper than they were last summer. But the economy was growing at more than 3% then. This year it has sputtered. Interest rates are supposed to sink when that happens. They haven't.
Why not? Interest rates are set in two main ways. Short-term rates--like those on credit cards, home-equity loans and adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMS)--are determined mostly by the Federal Reserve. It sets them with an eye on inflation. If the Fed fears that prices are rising too fast, it will raise rates to slow the economy. Longer-term rates, like those on a standard mortgage, are set on the open market. They are partly a bet on how well the Fed will control inflation but also reflect supply and demand. If there are lots of people with money to lend and not so many who want to borrow it, rates go down.
Which brings us back to our story: in the second half of the 1990s, the U.S. had about the only healthy big economy on the planet. Especially after the Asian currency crises of 1997, which brought on a deep regional depression, there just wasn't much demand for money outside the U.S. There also wasn't much demand for that other crucial economic fuel--fuel. As a result, the long-term rates set by the market stayed low, and falling prices of oil and other commodities allowed the Fed to keep short-term rates down even as the U.S. economy boomed.
After the stock-market crash of 2001 and 2002, the Fed worried that inflation was so low it might turn into deflation. So it cut short-term rates even further, reducing them to 1% in 2003, while the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond--a key benchmark of long-term rates--dropped as low as 3.13%. The result: a real estate boom, as ultra-low mortgage rates made houses affordable at ever higher prices. Cash from refinancings and home-equity loans also kept consumer spending strong. By mid-2004, confident that deflation was out of the picture, the Fed began raising rates again. But the longer-term interest rates, the ones controlled by investors, stayed stubbornly low. The most plausible explanation went something like this: Asian governments and consumers, still shell-shocked from the crises of the 1990s, were saving instead of spending and sending much of those savings to the U.S.
Forward to 2007. "Now the world is booming, credit demand in Asia is rising, and you don't need the U.S. consumer to be the spender of last resort," says Robert J. Barbera, chief economist at the brokerage firm ITG. The world economy is in its fifth year of nearly 5% growth. But the U.S. is no longer leading. Foreign financial markets are booming and pulling in money. Rising commodity prices are complicating the Fed's inflation-fighting job. As a result, the U.S. consumer can no longer count on a steady flow of low-interest debt.
"If you're a global benevolent despot, you'd say this is all to the good," Barbera notes. But if you are stuck with an ARM that's about to reset or have been relying on home-equity loans to make ends meet, you may be in trouble. And if you work for a business like Home Depot that depends on consumer spending, you may be in trouble too.
Because the world economy is so strong, times are still good for business in general. Recent jitters in the riskier parts of the bond and loan markets may slow the private-equity boom (private-equity firms use borrowed money to purchase the likes of Chrysler and Hilton) but don't necessarily presage a crash. The Federal Government, which gets an ever higher percentage of its revenue from the minority of taxpayers who are profiting from the global boom, is making out O.K. as well. But the era of easy money, when ordinary Americans could count on borrowing their way out of trouble, looks to be over.