Sharp contraction in money supply points to Wall Street crunch

Section:

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
The Telegraph, London
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/main.jhtml?xml=/money/2008/08/19/cnusec...

The US money supply has experienced the sharpest contraction in modern history, heightening the risk of a Wall Street crunch and a severe economic slowdown in coming months.

Data compiled by Lombard Street Research shows that the M3 "broad money" aggregates fell by almost $50 billion (L26.8 billion) in July, the biggest one-month fall since modern records began in 1959.

"Monthly data for July show that the broad money growth has almost collapsed," said Gabriel Stein, the group's leading monetary economist.

On a three-month basis, the M3 growth rate has fallen from almost 19 percent earlier this year to just 2.1 percent (annualised) for the period from May to July. This is below the rate of inflation, implying a shrinkage in real terms.

The growth in bank loans has turned negative to a halt since March.

"It's obviously worrying. People either can't borrow, or don't want to borrow even if they can," said Mr Stein.

Monetarists say it is the sharpness of the drop that is most disturbing, rather than the absolute level. Moves of this speed are extremely rare.

The overall debt burden in the US economy is currently at record levels, raising concerns that a recession -- if it occurs -- could set off a sharp downward spiral.

Household debt is now 131 percent of disposable income, compared with 93 percent at the top the dotcom bubble, 79 percent in the property boom of the late-1980s, and 62 percent at the end of the 1970s.

The M3 data measures both cash and a wide range of bank instruments. It tends to provide an early warning signal of major shifts in the economy, although the US Federal Reserve took the controversial decision to stop reporting the statistics in 2005 on the grounds that the modern financial system had rendered the data obsolete.

Monetarists insist that shifts in M3 are a lead indicator of asset prices moves, typically six months or so ahead. If so, the latest collapse points to a grim autumn for Wall Street and for the American property market. As a rule of thumb, the data gives a one-year advance signal on economic growth, and a two-year signal on future inflation.

"There are always short-term blips but over the long run M3 has repeatedly shown itself good leading indicator," said Mr Stein.

He cautioned that the three-month shifts in M3 can be highly volatile.

M3 surged after the onset of the credit crunch, but this was chiefly a distortion caused by the near total paralysis in parts of the American commercial paper market. Borrowers were forced to take out bank loans instead. The commercial paper market has yet to recover.

The University of Michigan's index of consumer sentiment has fallen to the lowest level since the 1980s recession.

The US economy is without doubt facing severe headwinds going into the autumn.

Richard Fisher, the ultra-hawkish head of the Dallas Federal Reserve, warned over the weekend that growth would be near "zero" in the second half of the year.

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