David Rosenberg’s Observation

By on August 23, 2008

David Rosenberg, North American Economist for Merrill Lynch, made this interesting observation excerpted from a piece titled The Elusive Bottom, published August 14, 2008, and provided by John Mauldin in his weekly missive:

3) Interest coverage ratio has to come down to 10.5%

The third and last marker comes down to the household balance sheet. What I’m referring to here is interest coverage in the household sector. We have a record debt-income ratio, but that’s a stop-to-flow concept. I’m talking about interest coverage, how much are principal and interest payments from the record debt absorbing out of household income? It is 14.1%. It’s at a near-record high. We have never been in a recession with this metric at this level. So, that means there are too many things that are levels we’ve never seen before. The whole thing about economic bottling is you run the rest of it based on the past, and there are so many things that we’re entering into this thing that I’ve never seen before.

There is, I’d have to admit, a wide dispersion around the forecast I am providing. What I am really trying to do is put things into a certain perspective. What I know, being an economist, is that in some sense you’re a glorified historian. So when I take a look at the chart of interest coverage in the household sector, what do I see? I see that after the recession of the early 1980s, this interest coverage ratio got down to 10.5% by 1982 and, voila, that was the touch-off point for a multi-year bull market and economic expansion.

Then we had the recession of the early 1990s, and what do you know? In 1992, interest coverage went down to 10.5% again. That was the launching pad for a multi-year bull market and economic expansion. We’re 14.1% in this metric today. I know this historical record tells me that there is something about a 10.5% ratio that is a very cathartic event. The problem is that to get there from here would require the elimination of $2 trillion of household debt. So, maybe when NYU’s Nouriel Roubini talks about that the total losses could be up to $2 trillion, maybe he’s not talking through a paper bag.



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