Australian markets are lower for a second day, American markets are down, Europe is lower and Asia is off the boil just days after The Economist magazine featured a cover story on the region’s apparent rebound from the recession.

The driver for Asia’s slump was the continuing fall in China, with another 5.8% drop on Monday to take the fall from the high point on August 4 to more than 17%, and disbelief in Japan at the second quarter economic “recovery”.

Chinese investors are now seeing the wheels spinning slower, especially in bank lending, while the Japanese say the economic rebound has no depth and it’s safer to take profits and retreat for a while.

Another 3%+ fall will put the Chinese market into bear territory for the first time in 10 months.

The main global index, the MSCI of 23 markets in developed economies, sank 2.8% — the biggest drop since April 20, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index slid 2.4%.

Some investors are worried that we are now less than a month away from the anniversary of the failure of Lehman Brothers, the near collapse of Merrill Lynch, plus the failure and collapse of Washington Mutual. We are working our way through the one year anniversary of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the near implosion of AIG.

Markets don’t like first anniversaries of calamities, as they tend to amplify concerns.

Not helping was the disbelief in Japan yesterday that the quarter-on-quarter rise of 0.9% in second quarter economic growth was sustainable, especially when it was driven by government spending and investment, and by private consumption stimulated by the government’s cash splashes.

Rising exports also helped, but business investment fell nastily. And with an election due on August 30 that could very well end 53 years of almost-unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party Government, there’s a feeling that the domestic economy doesn’t have enough fuel in the tank to sustain a viable recovery.

The twin effects of the Chinese slump and Japan’s fall after what appeared to be obviously positive news on the economy (the recession ending) spread to Europe and the US overnight, confirming growing fears that the March rally, and the renewed upturn since mid July, was a bit too much and it would be safer to take profits.

The slump in Asia and Europe forced US investors to look again at the plight of the US consumer. Friday saw a fall as consumer confidence fell for a third month and is now approaching levels last week in March. That means that the 50% jump in market value, improvements in housing and other green shoots, have failed to convince American consumers that their lot had improved.

Seeing they account for around 70% of economic activity, the importance of the crushed financial position and what it means for the economy, has finally broken through the mule-headed bullishness of many investors, analysts, economists and the like.

Like Japan, France, Germany, China, Hong Kong and Singapore, the US economy is no longer being battered into submission by an intense recession. But unlike many other countries, whose consumers haven’t been as badly damaged financially and morally by the crunch and slump, US consumers, especially homeowners, remain at the centre of the problem, the black hole that is American housing.

The stabilising in price falls, demand for new and existing homes and the upturn in builders’ confidence are all at the margin: unemployment is still growing (but more slowly). Those US economists and other funny money people worried about inflation, can’t see how the continuing fall in consumer demand, wages and incomes, plus weak spending and retail sales means there’s no way inflation will be a problem in the US for a year or more to come, perhaps more.

So oil fell to a two-week low, below $US66 a barrel, copper and other commodity prices again fell as US bond yields tumbled (a bit of nervy buying for safety’s sake). The US dollar rose, the Aussie dollar eased (but probably not by as much as the rise in the greenback against other currencies might have indicated).

Now there’s worries about corporate and commercial credit markets in the US (they have never gone away, just obscured by the rally in every part of the markets by investors using cheap government provided money to punt to their hearts’ content.

Fears about the health of US banks are returning after the biggest failure this year, the shutting of the $US25 billion in assets Colonial BancGroup of Alabama. But there’s been a steady death toll among small regional and local banks this year that has gone on despite the rally on Wall Street.

These failures have robbed more and more communities and their consumers of credit availability. The green shoots Wall Street and the Fed see in aggregate, are few and far between in many small towns and cities across America at the moment, especially in the subprime shattered states of California, Michigan (cars there have added extra pain), Georgia, Florida, parts of Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and states in the south east.

The Fed overnight said that its latest quarterly loan offices survey had good and bad news the good was thwart there had been a slight easing in lending restrictions on prime, high quality home loans; the bad news was that lending was tightened generally, with no improvement expected until late next year.

In the July survey, domestic banks indicated that they continued to tighten standards and terms over the past three months on all major types of loans to businesses and households, although the net percentages of banks that tightened declined compared with the April survey.

Demand for loans continued to weaken across all major categories except for prime residential mortgages. The fractions of domestic banks reporting additional weakening in demand in this survey were slightly lower than those in the April survey for Commercial and Industrial loans and home equity lines of credit, approximately the same for commercial real estate (CRE) and non-traditional residential mortgages, and slightly higher for consumer loans.

In response to a special question, domestic banks pointed to decreased loan demand and deteriorating credit quality as the most important reasons for declines in Commercial and Industrial lending this year.

In response to a second special question, most banks reported that they expected their lending standards across all loan categories would remain tighter than their average levels over the past decade until at least the second half of 2010; for below-investment-grade firms and nonprime households, the expected timing is later, with many banks reporting that standards for such borrowers will remain tighter than average for the foreseeable future.

That means many consumers and companies in the US won’t be able to get bank finance for months, a year, or perhaps longer. Housing, jobs and consumer sending are going to remain under pressure for a year or more. Many of these small companies and consumers have no money and no other access to credit. That remains the bottom line for the US and the rest of the world.

Peter Fray

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