Leo Haviland provides clients with original, provocative, cutting-edge fundamental supply/demand and technical research on major financial marketplaces and trends. He also offers independent consulting and risk management advice.

Haviland’s expertise is macro. He focuses on the intertwining of equity, debt, currency, and commodity arenas, including the political players, regulatory approaches, social factors, and rhetoric that affect them. In a changing and dynamic global economy, Haviland’s mission remains constant – to give timely, value-added marketplace insights and foresights.

Leo Haviland has three decades of experience in the Wall Street trading environment. He has worked for Goldman Sachs, Sempra Energy Trading, and other institutions. In his research and sales career in stock, interest rate, foreign exchange, and commodity battlefields, he has dealt with numerous and diverse financial institutions and individuals. Haviland is a graduate of the University of Chicago (Phi Beta Kappa) and the Cornell Law School.


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AMERICA’S DEBT CULTURE © Leo Haviland April 6, 2015

America continues to have a love affair with debt. The nation has achieved remarkably little progress in improving its comprehensive (all-inclusive) debt situation since 2009’s very elevated debt relative to nominal GDP percentage. Increasing federal indebtedness has substantially though not entirely outweighed modest improvements in the consumer and state and local government domains. As the national government is a representative (democratic; “We, the People”) one, the country has not significantly mended its troubling overall debt problem.

A review of total American credit marketplace debt portrays the development and entrenchment of a national culture of debt. The long run trend toward greater debt holdings (and tolerance of debt) probably indicates and intertwines with a growing bias toward consumption and spending rather than saving. The increasing borrowing and massive debt accumulation arguably in part also probably reflect an increasingly widespread sense of entitlement to American Dream goals of the “good life” and a “better life”.

Total United States credit marketplace debt at end 2014 stood at about $58.7 trillion (Federal Reserve Board, “Financial Accounts of the United States”, Z.1 data; 3/12/15). The total includes US household, financial and non-financial business, and government debt, plus the relatively small foreign/rest of the world category. Compare 2001’s $29.2tr. Thus America’s credit marketplace debt has doubled in roughly a dozen years, and there has been no yearly fall in the sum since 2001.

What does a long run examination of total United States credit marketplace debt as a percent of nominal GDP reveal? Review the post-World War Two landscape. For over five decades, from the early 1950s up through the glorious Goldilocks Era that ended in 2007, and for a couple of years thereafter, total US indebtedness as a percentage of nominal GDP climbed steadily and substantially.

The bottom in overall US credit marketplace debt as a percent of GDP was 1951’s 129.5 percent. It inexorably edged up for about thirty years. It then started to accelerate from 1981’s 164.1pc. In 1985, it reached 200.3pc, with 1998’s 257.4pc, and 2001’s 275.1pc. In 2003, that measure attained 298.2pc. As debt became increasingly popular, it joyously soared during the blissful Goldilocks period to 346.1pc in 2007. As the gloomy American (and global) financial crisis emerged and proceeded, total US credit marketplace debt peaked at 362.0pc in 2009.

Despite pillow talk from many pundits about improving American debt conditions, that gigantic percentage has fallen only modestly since 2009. It slipped to 349.7pc of nominal GDP in 2010, and 340.6pc in 2012. However, it has diminished very little since then, with 2013 at 338.0pc and 2014 at 337.1pc. Significantly, 2014’s percentage remains not far from the heavenly Goldilocks Era 346.1pc height of 2007.

Another statistic further underscores the growth and persistence of America’s debt culture. Not only is the current credit marketplace debt as a percent of GDP level still historically high and close to the Goldilocks plateau. The arithmetic drop of 24.9 percentage points from the five years 2009 to 2014 (362.0pc less 337.1pc) is only about half the 47.9 point increase over the four years from 2003-07 (298.2 versus 346.1).

The Federal Reserve’s long-running extraordinary and very easy monetary policy (notably money printing/quantitative easing and interest rate yield repression) seek not only to ignite and sustain economic recovery and buy time for serious action in the federal and other debt realms. The Fed has battled to boost inflation to a supposedly sufficient level, while it has simultaneously repressed debt securities yields. Its artful strategies reflect the central bank’s ardent devotion on behalf of the constituency of debtors (borrowers) relative to the one of savers (creditors).

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America's Debt Culture (4-6-15)


Europe’s ongoing sovereign debt and banking crisis grasps many headlines and excites worldwide fear. America’s continuous federal fiscal fiasco and restless debates regarding it will continue to capture attention as election year 2012 beckons. Yet noteworthy debt, deficit, and funding issues lurk in other financial corners.

In America, state and local debt topics generally feature less prominently in marketplace and national media commentary. However, the federal story is not the whole story. State and local debt is substantial. Moreover, pension (and other benefit) funding obligations represent a huge challenge for many states and communities. It pays to focus on these matters alongside federal and household indebtedness, for it further highlights the status and policies of the 50 United States as a major debtor nation.

In America, in principle, each citizen “is king of its castle”. However, in a representative democracy, it should not be surprising that debt trends and levels for “individuals in general” substantially mirror those for the nation as a whole. As thriftiness can be popular, so can appetite for debt.

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State and Local Travels – US Non-Federal Debt Vistas (12-6-11)


Recent historically high nominal United States corporate profit levels are a key factor inspiring many to buy and hold US stocks. Bullish forecasts regarding future net earnings, especially when such predictions extend out to misty medium term or murky long run time horizons, sustain and bolster this enthusiastic ownership. In turn, stock rallies sometimes boost optimism regarding potential corporate profitability and overall economic growth, for many have faith that equity marketplaces are forward-looking indicators for “The Economy”.

Has the US entered a blessed New Era of very high corporate profitability that will stretch happily out into the indefinite future? Probably not. Has America revived the wonderful time of the Goldilocks economy? Probably not. Higher nominal corporate profits and ascending nominal stock prices, when accompanied by rising nominal GDP, can assist national confidence and encourage spending in the short term. However, since the nominal levels are not the real (genuine) ones, they do not translate into an equivalent amount of real and permanent prosperity.

Yet even if very elevated corporate profitability does not continue, what may have caused a sustained notable upward shift relative to long run history in the ratio of nominal US corporate profits to nominal GDP? To some extent, it reflects corporate cost-cutting measures and other battles to improve efficiency. The easy money policies of the Federal Reserve Board (sustained low interest rates; money printing) and its allies and massive deficit spending (stimulus) perhaps play roles. But picture the context of sluggish to declining real US household income, still-damaged consumer balance sheets, high unemployment, weak housing prices, and very low consumer confidence. With that domestic (home) background, high US nominal corporate profits- and especially a more elevated nominal profit versus GDP ratio- also arguably reflects economic globalization trends and profits captured from overseas. If so, then relatively high American corporate profits do not entirely reflect (do not fully represent) actual overall US prosperity (“Our Economy”), merely that of many of its corporations.

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US Corporate Profits- Patterns and Perspectives (11-1-11)


Yet despite these economic rescue and repair programs, the continued substantial overall weakness in the US real estate marketplace reflects and warns of trouble. In particular, what do the housing sector and its consequences for the consumer balance sheet suggest? One should view real estate in the context of consumer confidence. The foundation for and structure of the recovery fabricated by the homespun policies of the Fed and the political herd is fragile. Although progress has been made, the shattering damage of the international economic disaster that commenced in 2007 has not been fixed. Though the worldwide economic recovery that emerged in spring 2009 is not entirely a house of cards, it’s also not entirely built on solid ground.

Nominal GDP growth is better than none at all, right? All else equal, money printing does not over time breed permanent real GDP growth. Also, deficit spending borrows from the future to spend in the present; it may boost current output, but at the end of the day, this factor primarily involves a shift of money between players and across time. All else equal, even if a slump in the broad real US trade weighted dollar benefits the US economy, that tends to undermine those of many of its trading partners. Holding policy interest rates such as Fed Funds low does not preclude higher yields later. Don’t those substantially in debt or suffering injury to their net worth often endorse easy money policies? Despite optimism indicated by rosy prices in the S+P 500 and lofty corporate profits, US real economic growth probably will be mediocre looking forward from now. What happens to American real estate still matters a great deal for the global economy.

Given the still-weak home and commercial real estate marketplaces, the net worth of many banking institutions probably is vulnerable to marking-to-market of existing real estate loan portfolios. Renewed economic weakness of course would worsen that problem. In any event, banks nervous about their capital strength will not hurry to significantly expand their overall lending.

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American Real Estate (The Money Jungle, Part Two)