Hurricane Watch for Real Estate

The next hurricane bearing down on the United States isn't headed for one of our coasts — it's aimed for a direct hit on our economy.

Coming after Ophelia in the alphabet, its name begins with an R, as in "real estate bubble (search)." And it's going to leave a path of destruction, starting with plummeting real estate values and hemorrhaging bank balance sheets. Banks have been stuffing those balance sheets with mortgage assets: in 1980, mortgage-related assets were 20 percent of total bank credits; now, in 2005, they are 61 percent of that total.

The equivalent of the local and state officials who weren't prepared for Hurricane Katrina are the bankers and mortgage loan officers who offer no-interest loans to help people buy more house than they could afford if they took out a 30-year loan. In addition, the "local officials" have been aided by the Federal Reserve, which has been pumping more credit into the already swollen lakes of debt surrounding the U.S. economy. And none of these folks will be able to help once Hurricane Real Estate Bubble bursts over the economy.

As Bob Prechter writes in his most recent Elliott Wave Theorist, "Let's understand the current claim: The government, the Fed and the banks have fostered a massive potential financial crisis, and now these same outfits are going to save us?"

According to a Reuters survey of 23 economists last week, the growth in the U.S. gross domestic product in the third and fourth quarters "have been cut to 3.6 percent and 3.1 percent respectively from 4.3 percent and 3.4 percent before Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast at the end of August."

If the damage from Katrina in one region can do that, what will a national Hurricane Real Estate do? And who will take the blame? Fingers will point again, but the damage to the economy will have been done.

The Bush administration asked the media not to play the "blame game" following Hurricane Katrina. But when it comes to one of our national pastimes (and I don't mean baseball), it's hard to keep people from pointing fingers. There's even a new piece of paraphernalia to help play the game. It's a giant foam rubber hand with forefinger extended and the words, "It's Your Fault!" written on it, manufactured by a company called ShiftTheBlame.

Trying to hold back the torrent of blame proved to be as fruitless as trying to hold back the floodwaters of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. The same thing could be said for our efforts to support the U.S. economy even as the nation goes farther and farther into debt. Consumers have been doing their darnedest, though, spending money at the malls and the car dealerships, refinancing their mortgages and taking out home equity loans to spend more.

In fact, people have been spending so feverishly that last month, as a nation, we went into the red. We finally spent more than we make, taking the U.S. savings rate below 0 to -0.6 percent in July, which is the "lowest level since the government began keeping these records in 1959," according to an MSNBC report.

You could argue that we're just following the lead of our government. It's also spending more than it takes in and has reached the point where it's borrowing money from other nations to pay the interest on the debt we already owe. Hmmm — that sounds a lot like a consumer who spends more time switching to new credit cards to help pay the bills rather than actually cutting back on personal expenses or making more money in the first place.

The whole house of cards is due to get a jolt through the end of this year as more credit card companies raise the minimum monthly payments rates for their credit cardholders. They are being forced to do that by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (search), which wants to help people pay off their debts in less than 20 years. (The new rule was promulgated in January 2003, but the banks asked for lots of time to phase in the increases.)

Paying a higher minimum each month is a good thing, in that the consumer pays off the principle sooner with less interest. But between the increased payments on the monthly credit card bills and the coming real estate hurricane, the consumer is going to be hard-pressed to continue spending more in the marketplace.

To top it off, we are hardly preparing ourselves for the inevitable category 4 or 5 hurricane when housing prices do come down. Just ask those who actually lived through the stock market crash of 1987 and the ensuing savings and loans debacle, which caused a real estate depression in the early 1990s. Memo to those who didn't own property then: prices went down, not up.

And whom will we blame when we find that we can't pay up, because we can't go back to the well to take out more equity from our houses? It might be healthy to blame ourselves for overreaching and going too far into debt, but more likely the usual suspects will take the blame: the president and the Federal Reserve.

Susan C. Walker writes for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company. She has been an associate editor with Inc.magazine, a newspaper writer and editor, an investor relations executive and a speechwriter for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She received her B.A. in Classics from Stanford University.