Sunday, October 12, 2008

20 things to expect from the new post-apocalyptic economy

What will U.S. regulatory and financial climate will look like in a few months from now? It may look remarkably like the climate of five or 10 years ago.

By Jerome Idaszak, Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter
Renuka Rayasam, Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter

September 26, 2008

When the smoke clears on the current financial and legislative turmoil -- the economic landscape will look considerably different than it did just a few months ago. Here's what we see ahead:

A much less leveraged economy. Cash will be king. In practical terms, that means: Little financing of speculative building and higher pre-leasing hurdles for commercial real estate. More money up front on merger and acquisition deals. Bigger mortgage down payments. Lower limits on credit cards. And higher capital reserves for banks.

And less risk-taking in other ways as well. Borrowers will need squeaky-clean track records. Financial deals at publicly traded firms will be more transparent. Buyers will demand a much clearer understanding of exactly what they're getting.

More modest rewards -- the natural consequence of less risk taking. Fewer stocks racking up double-digit gains. Slower appreciation of property values. Smaller returns on endowments for universities and nonprofits. For consumers: Fewer second homes, boats, new cars and so on. More households will live within their means.

A feast for bottom fishers. Investors with cash, the patience to wait out a gradual recovery and a heart stout enough to withstand periodic wild swings, will be in the catbird seat. They're positioned to make a bundle, snapping up undervalued assets -- businesses, real estate, securities, etc. Even out-of-work talent will go cheap to employers savvy enough to nab it.

Fewer financial firms, as big universal banks swallow up midsize regionals.

More government oversight of financial markets. Better communication and coordination among regulatory agencies. Increased disclosure requirements. A tighter rein on short-selling. Closer supervision of credit rating agencies. And more.

But a revival of private financial firms -- investment banking partnerships and boutique merger and acquisition houses, for example. Their allure: minimizing regulatory burdens and filling a need for investors willing and able to take larger risks for larger returns.

Simpler forms of securitizing debt -- plain vanilla ways to spread risk. Secondary markets for mortgages and other assets won't vanish. But the instruments bought and sold will be less exotic.

Greater scrutiny of executive compensation, whether mandated by Congress or not. Shareholders are sure to take on the issue more aggressively in the near term.
Higher taxes and/or a bigger federal deficit as Uncle Sam shoulders the load of Wall Street's toxic debt. Although eventually the government may make money on the deal, in the short term, the Treasury -- and therefore, the taxpayers -- will pony up billions.

Higher long-term interest rates. Treasury yields must rise to lure capital -- foreign or domestic -- driving up mortgage and corporate bond rates. Short-term rates will slide, though, as the Federal Reserve tries to keep the economy afloat and put banks back on solid ground.

In reality, the change isn't to a new environment. It's a return to traditional norms of the past, before cheap money inflated asset values, undermined lending standards and encouraged excess risk. It's bitter medicine, but it's necessary.