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Warren warns of ‘coming economic crash’

By Alex Thompson

Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Monday predicted an imminent economic crisis unless the Trump administration and Congress quickly pass legislation to regulate the financial sector and significantly reduce middle class household debt.

“Warning lights are flashing. Whether it’s this year or next year, the odds of another economic downturn are high — and growing,” Warren (D-Mass.) wrote in a Medium post entitled "The Coming Economic Crash--And How to Stop It."

“I see a manufacturing sector in recession. I see a precarious economy that is built on debt — both household debt and corporate debt — and that is vulnerable to shocks. And I see a number of serious shocks on the horizon that could cause our economy’s shaky foundation to crumble,” she wrote.

Most of Warren’s proposals to head off the crisis are policies she has called for recently on the campaign trail such as forgiving over $600 billion in student loan debt, enacting her “Green Manufacturing Plan”, strengthening unions, providing universal child care and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

It is almost certain that President Donald Trump will not sign and the Republican-led Senate will not pass these policies, meaning that Warren’s prediction of a crash will likely be tested over the next two years.

The Democratic presidential candidate’s forecast of economic tumult flies in the face of much political conventional wisdom stating that Trump’s biggest re-election advantage is the economy. Unemployment levels recently hit a 50-year low, the majority of Americans think the economy is “good” or “excellent” and that it‘s a good time to find a job according to Gallup. The stock market continues to break records every few months.

The Trump administration and Republican allies in Congress often point to the economy’s performance as evidence of the president’s good stewardship even in the midst of self-created controversies and divisive policies. Trump himself often brags about the economy as well. Just last week on Twitter, he said the economy was “the best in our Country’s history” with the “Best Employment & Stock Market Numbers EVER” and that he has led the United States to the “Greatest Economic BOOM in the history of our Country.”

But Warren has long been arguing that the economy is not as strong as the toplines suggest. “The overall numbers about GDP or the stock market are great but they don’t reflect the lived experiences of most Americans,” she told reporters in May after a town hall in Nashua, N.H. “Go around a room like this. For most people, wages haven’t gone up in a generation and yet the cost of housing, the cost of health care, the cost of childcare, the cost of sending a kid to college have all gone through the roof. The middle class squeeze is real and it has gotten tougher for people over the last few years.”

There is some data backing this up as well. Gallup recently found that even as Americans‘ approval of the overall economy have risen, anxieties about their own personal finances have remained largely the same over the last few years.

Warren’s prediction of an economic downturn, however, goes beyond addressing middle-class economic anxiety.

She writes that she warned of the 2008 financial years beforehand and sees similarly ominous signs now. “And when I saw the seeds of the 2008 crisis growing, I rang the alarm as loud as I could,” she writes, citing interviews and her 2003 book Two Income Trap, which warned about a mortgage “lending industry run amok.”

“But the people with the power to stop the crisis didn’t listen — not enough of them anyway. Not the banks, not Alan Greenspan or other federal regulators, not Congress,” she wrote in her Medium post.

Instead of housing and mortgages, Warren pointed to leveraged corporate loans — lending to companies with high levels of debt — as a potential area of systemic risk. “These high-risk loans now make up a quarter of all American business loans, and they look a lot like the pre-2008 subprime mortgages: poorly underwritten loans with minimal protections that are then packaged and sold to investors,” she wrote.

These loans have increased during the Trump administration as federal regulators have relaxed 2013 guidance that tightened lending standards. Warren grilled Fed Governor Randal Quarles on the issue last November and sent a follow-up letter on the topic to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Fed Chair Jerome Powell, and other regulators.

Warren’s concern is shared by others. Former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen has been warning about these loans for the last several months. She told the Financial Times last fall that “[t]here has been a huge deterioration in standards; covenants have been loosened in leveraged lending...I am worried about the systemic risks associated with these loans.”

Warren’s office said Mnuchin didn‘t respond to her letter but Powell and several others regulators did write back earlier this year. Powell, FDIC head Jelena McWilliams, and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting wrote to Warren that “the leveraged loan market continues to warrant attention.” They acknowledged looser standards in some transactions and that they “are continuing to closely monitor how this combination of risks is evolving."

Warren also argued that high levels of household and corporate debt could also make any economic turmoil spread quickly and could be mitigated by enacting her agenda on items like raising the minimum wage and canceling student loans — bringing down the level of household debt. “The country’s economic foundation is fragile. A single shock could bring it all down,” she writes. “And the Trump Administration’s reckless behavior is increasing the odds of just such a shock.”

The potential shocks Warren points to are a reckless interaction with China, a no-deal Brexit, or breaking the debt ceiling. In a new move, Warren called for eliminating the debt ceiling altogether or having it go up automatically as Congress appropriates money to limit future risk.

“I’m seeing serious warning signs in the economy again — and I’m calling on regulators and Congress to act before another crisis costs America’s families their homes, jobs, and savings,” she wrote.