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2019-06-04 — washingtonpost.com

Middle-market lending, of course, is just part of the biggest expansion in corporate borrowing the U.S. economy has ever seen, a result of eight years of cheap and easy money engineered by the Fed and other central banks after the 2008 financial crisis.

The ratio of corporate borrowing to a variety of metrics -- profits and assets, book value or the size of the overall economy -- is at or near an all-time high. So is the riskiness of the loans, reflecting the amount of debt companies have taken on, the absence of covenants and the rosy assumptions made about the amount of cash flow companies will have to cover debt service.

Meanwhile, the difference in interest rates between the safest loans and the riskiest -- in financial jargon, the "spread" -- is at historically low levels, a reliable indication of too much money chasing too few good lending opportunities. According to the latest "financial stability" reports from the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund, all of these measures have gotten worse in the last two years, with many flashing yellow and red on their dashboards of systemic financial risk.

...

If all this newly borrowed money were being used to create new technology or enhance productivity, piling up all this debt might be a risk worth taking. But the evidence suggests that what it is mostly doing is artificially stimulating the economy. Companies have used much of this newly borrowed money to buy back their own shares, pay special dividends to private equity investors and acquire other companies, all of which have the effect of inflating stock prices. The recent wave of richly priced mergers and overpriced stock offerings, and the declining returns offered by recent commercial real estate deals, are all good indications of a credit bubble waiting to burst.

So, is this a replay of 2008?

... as before, this excess of supply relative to demand has led to a deterioration of lending standards that started in the shadow banking system and has now spread to regulated banks anxious about a further reduction in their market share. (My favorite stat: During the first three months of this year, according to Trepp, a data company, interest-only loans -- loans requiring no payback of principal until the loan is due -- accounted for three-quarters of all new commercial real estate loans.)

...

Perhaps the biggest similarity between the previous credit bubble and this one, however, is the stubborn reluctance of regulators to let some of the air out of the credit bubble before it bursts.

... The [Financial Stability Oversight] Council is headed by Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who eventually made more than $10 million buying and selling -- with partners -- a California bank that, after engaging in aggressive mortgage lending, failed during the last housing crisis.

...

Powell, Quarles and Mnuchin are overconfident for the same reason Fed chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson were overconfident during the Bush years.

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