Is another economic bubble on horizon?
Just 10 years after the financial crisis, many people find themselves asking the same odd question that a friend asked me last week when we met for coffee. “So, are we in a bubble?” A decade ago, of course, we faced such a deep, brutal financial crisis that we couldn’t imagine ever seeing record stock prices or home values again.
Millions of people lost jobs in the most recent recession. Millions lost their homes.
Now oddly enough, many are asking: “Are we in a bubble?” Seriously. The blue-chip index fell by nearly 54 percent measuring from its record close of 14,164.53 points on Oct. 9, 2007, to rock bottom at 6,547.05 points on March 9, 2009. But now the Dow is trading close to 26,000.
People who have money tucked away in mutual funds in a 401(k) — and those who own homes in communities where home prices have surged — are wondering what’s next, as they’re seeing record values for much of their wealth.
Everyone, of course, isn’t flush with cash or even back where they started a decade ago.
If you don’t have a good paying job anymore or you’re carrying a lot of debt, you’re not talking about bubbles. Instead, you’re talking about how to pay the bills.
“Half the population is a have and half the population is a have not,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, “If you’re a have not, none of this makes sense at all.”
The financial crisis in 200809 was built on a house of cards where way too many people were taking on too much debt as they made can’t-miss bets on stocks or real estate.
While the U.S. economy is about as strong as ever since the economic recovery began nine years ago, many people aren’t engaging in speculative investing, Zandi said.
Consumers continue to be confident overall and the labor market remains strong.
“The tight labor market is providing employment opportunities to more Americans,” said Federal Reserve governor Lael Brainard, who spoke Sept. 12 before the Detroit Economic Club meeting at Masonic Temple.
Yet she also noted that the Federal Reserve’s assessment suggests that “financial vulnerabilities are building, which might be expected after a long period of economic expansion and very low interest rates.”
“Rising risks are notable in the corporate sector, where low spreads and loosening credit terms are mirrored by rising indebtedness among corporations that could be vulnerable to downgrades in the event of unexpected adverse developments,” Brainard said.
Notably, she said, “leveraged lending is on the rise again.”
Charles Ballard, a professor of economics at Michigan State University, said the risks associated with corporate debt levels make him believe that “we are either in a bubble or close to one.”
The surge in corporate debt is not as out of control as the subprime mortgage explosion, he said. But he said it is worrisome.
“Each of the last three recessions was preceded by a big surge in corporate debt,” Ballard said. “Sure enough, in the last few years, we have had another big surge in corporate debt.”
What happens next, of course, is anyone’s best guess.