Major Lending Pullback Predicted by Maverick Wall Street Analyst Could Have Dire Implications for U.S. Economy

By William Patalon III
Executive Editor

Money Morning/The Money Map Report

Oppenheimer & Co. (OPY) analyst Meredith Whitney's reputation has soared like a skyrocket since she made her bearish - but highly prescient - call on the banking sector, including Citigroup Inc. (C), as Money Morning reported last fall.

Now she's back. And her outlook for the financial sector is actually worse. Whitney is now predicting that the banking-sector's financial crisis will extend well into next year. If not beyond.

And that's not even the bad news.

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Whitney now says the worst may be yet to come. The banking-sector financial crisis will last at least until the end of next year, and may actually stretch well past that. And that could lead to a major U.S. downturn.

"We believe the credit crisis is far from over," Whitney wrote in a research report last week. "In fact, we believe what lies ahead will be worse than what is behind us."

The so-called "first wave" of the credit crisis hit banks' trading books. But the second lightning strike will hit lenders where it hurts the most - right in their lending businesses. If she's right, the impact on the economy will be devastating.

Here's why. The banking system's "originate-to-distribute" model changed the rules of the game. No longer did banks make loans that were based on very careful risk-of-loss analyses. Under the new system, banks make loans - such as subprime mortgages - which are then "securitized," or packaged together, into debt instruments that the trading operations of banks, investment banks or institutional investors might then purchase, believing it was a way of achieving higher returns.

Initially, this led to higher profits. Which induced banks to boost lending so that they could boost securitizations. But here's the problem. First, since the banks were no longer going to keep the loans, they relaxed lending standards. In fact, they actually had to since, second, they wanted to boost those volumes.

When the underlying loans unraveled as the subprime-mortgage crisis spiraled deeper and deeper out of control, companies such as The Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. (BSC) took losses that just kept growing. Bear Stearns is now being taken over by JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), with the help of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

The sins weren't limited to banks, however. Consumers stoked this credit inferno - and, in doing so, unknowingly created their own funeral pyre.
Consumers grew accustomed to the "rolling loan gathers no loss" mindset, Whitney says. Housing values were soaring, and as long as those values continued to rise, homeowners could continue to roll over their loans into new borrowings - often packing in a lot of ancillary consumer debt from credit cards or car payments long the way.

When the housing market collapsed, however, homes were no longer a real-estate-version of an automated teller machine (ATM) that consumers could turn to each time they needed to eradicate debt from car loans, home loans or even credit-card debt.

When banks stopped lending, consumers had nowhere to turn to roll over their loans. Making matters worse were two other factors:

  • First, many of their loans had so-called "re-set" provisions that permitted the loans to reset at much higher interest rates - a fact that caused the overall monthly mortgage payments to increase, sometimes by as much as 40% or more. And since their incomes weren't rising in kind, many consumers could no longer make these payments, and defaulted on their mortgages.
  • Second, the downturn in the housing market sent home prices into a severe tailspin, in some cases leaving homeowners with mortgage balances that were much larger than the new (lower) market value of their home. And if the mortgage loan also reset, that homeowner was hit with a double-whammy blow - a boosted mortgage payment on a house whose value had plunged.

Those resets have caused foreclosures to soar, the news is going to get lots worse, real estate data firm RealtyTrac Inc. said last month. Indeed, U.S. home foreclosures likely won't peak until the fourth quarter, Money Morning reported last month.

"What we're really looking at is ongoing fallout from people overextending themselves to buy homes they couldn't afford and using highly toxic loan products to get into the houses in the first place," Rick Sharga, RealtyTrac's vice president of marketing, told The Associated Press. "We're going to see quite possibly a record amount of foreclosure activity in the third or fourth quarter," reflecting the spike in monthly payments because of the re-sets on adjustable-rate subprime mortgages that will take place in May and June.

And that brings us back to Whitney.

The banking sector's lending pullback will fuel these losses and foreclosures, for many of the reasons we've detailed here. Already, banks will likely have to set aside an additional $170 billion in reserves through the end of 2008 - just to keep up with mounting loan losses.

To do that, banks will have to further rein in lending - to the tune of about $2 trillion worth of available credit lines, reported.
For some context, the annual gross domestic product (GDP) of the entire U.S. economy is approaching $14 trillion. Two-thirds of that is driven by consumer spending.

That's why the lending pullback is going to have a massive contractionary effect on the U.S. economy.

"New and unforeseen strains on consumer liquidity will push more consumers into precarious credit positions and cause consumer credit losses to be far worse than what is currently estimated, even by the most-draconian of investors," Whitney wrote.

News and Related Story Links:

  • Money Morning News Analysis:
    With Record Mortgage "Re-sets" Still to Come, U.S. Home Foreclosures Likely Won't Peak Until the Fourth Quarter of This Year, Expert Says

About the Author

Before he moved into the investment-research business in 2005, William (Bill) Patalon III spent 22 years as an award-winning financial reporter, columnist, and editor. Today he is the Executive Editor and Senior Research Analyst for Money Morning at Money Map Press.

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  1. […] More than $2 trillion in consumer credit could be cut in the next 18 months, as credit-card companies pull back credit lines in anticipation of credit funding problems and regulatory changes, said Meredith Whitney, an Oppenheimer Holdings Inc. (OPY) banking analyst who’s well-known for her gutsy and prescient (and ultimately correct) market calls. […]