By Dr. Daniel Thornton at Hedgeye
I published the graph below in a recent essay titled, Why the Fed’s Zero Interest Rate Policy Failed, but the graph deserves special attention because of what it seems to imply for the economy going forward. The graph shows household net worth (wealth) as a percent of personal disposable income. Household net worth as a percent of disposable income increased dramatically in the mid-1990s. Its collapse precipitated the 2000 recession. It increased even more dramatically during the subsequent expansion only to collapse again, precipitating the 2007 – 2009 recession.
Once again, household net worth has increased dramatically. Since the end of 2012 it has increasing by nearly 100 percentage points to 640% of disposable income. This is scary; not just because it is an incredibly large rise in wealth in a short period of time, but because it happened twice before with very bad consequences.
The first rise in household wealth ended because of the bursting of what is known as the Dot.com bubble. It is called the Dot.com bubble because the NASDAQ composite index rose dramatically in the mid-to-late 1990s only to fall even more dramatically beginning in 2000Q1. The graph below shows that the rise and fall of household net worth was accompanied by the rise and fall of the NASDAQ.
The NASDAQ and household net worth reached their respective peaks at exactly the same time, 2000Q1, after which they both fell precipitously. Household net worth recovered quickly during the expansion, but the NASDAQ didn’t. Indeed, the NASDAQ didn’t reach its 2000Q1 level again until 2014Q3. In contrast, household wealth as a percent of disposable income rose quickly, increasing by 125 percentage points from 2002Q3 to 2006Q4 before declining even more precipitously.
The large increase in household wealth was largely driven by an equally large and, as it turned out, unsustainable rise in house prices, as shown in the graph below. Not surprisingly, house prices and household net worth both peaked in 2006Q4.
By 2015Q1, household wealth had surpassed its 2006Q4 peak. This time the rise in wealth was fueled by both equity and house prices. The relevant question is: Is the 100 percentage point rise in household net worth sustainable, or will house and equity prices fall dramatically again?
The latter answer seems most likely. One reason is behavior of household net worth has been unusual since the mid-1990s. The graph below shows the level of household net worth over the period 1952Q1 to 2015Q4. The graph also shows a quadratic trend line estimated over the period 1952Q1 to 1994Q4 and extrapolated to 2015Q4.
During the entire period from 1952Q1 to 1994Q4, household net worth tracks the trend line very closely. Since 1995Q1, however, household net worth has been consistently above the trend line and the gap has been getting progressively larger. Such behavior would be a concern in any circumstance, but it is particularly troubling because we know that the previous two boom cycles were followed by busts. The recent rise in household net worth has not been accompanied by a correspondingly large increase in output or the price level. Hence, it too does not appear to be supported by economic fundamentals—it appears to be unsustainable.
The Fed’s monetary policy has contributed to this problem. First, by keeping the federal funds rate below its own estimates of the normal or natural rate for much of this time and way below the normal rate for nearly a decade. The second, by unnecessarily purchasing a massive amount of government and mortgage-back securities, which Fed Chair Yellen and her colleagues are reluctant to sell. I don’t see the Fed doing anything different anytime soon.
I predict that the current level of household net worth is not sustainable. I believe that some unforeseeable event will prick the bubble, perhaps this year. The result will be recession which will, unfortunately, be accompanied by more misguided monetary and fiscal policies. I call this monetary and fiscal policy insanity: Keep doing the same thing and expect a different result! I would love to be wrong, but I doubt I will be.