Saturday, March 15, 2008

Slump and crunch -- nouns of choice for economic catastrophe

Are you getting as tired of these two words as I am? It seems economic writers either lack creativity or have collectively decided these are jargon. I'm leaning toward the first explanation, but the second could be real, since pundits and experts seem to favor these terms.

It's interesting that these both these terms are single syllable with short 'u' sounds. Slump. Crunch. Slump suggests an atypical period of poor performance as in, "The batter is suffering a slump." Crunch evokes collisions of heavy objects. Cars crunch when they hit each other. Crunch can also be the sound of breakfast cereal, or footfalls on ice-covered snow. As for the historic economic crisis of late, collision is probably on the mark.

What is colliding? Conventional wisdom lists subprime loans, trade deficit, housing bubble, falling dollar, rising energy prices, lax mortgage regulation, repeal of Glass-Steagall, and more.

But what is really colliding? Our financial system has become remote from the so-called real economy. Put another way: individual greed has overrun collective concern for each other. The desire to make a buck at the expense of others has triumphed. Nothing new under the sun, really. And this greed has enabled lots of people choosing to live beyond their means over understanding the limits that the economy has placed upon them.

Yesterday, I heard an economist proclaim that "credit is the lifeblood of our economy." Translation: the promise to pay tomorrow for something I want to day is fueling our economy.

Home Depot now has a hilarious ad campaign: "It's time to put off procrastination" with no payments for 12 months. I think it's meant to be a pun on put off, as well as to be ironic. Don't procrastinate in possessing what you want, just procrastinate in paying for it. Because as long as you charge it, we'll get our money. Deal done. Seems cynical.

So the credit crunch comes from loss of confidence that borrowers can pay back loans, which collides with the need of institutions to borrow money to make loans. Big lenders withhold from other lenders who would make sure you can "put off procrastination."

For a moment, people shake their heads, maybe splash water on their faces and say "hey wait a minute, all that equity justifying our credit/debt complex (financial system) just evaporated. How the hell are people going to pay that back?"

How indeed? Selling apples on the street corner? Probably not.