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The Coming Boom

By Morgan Housel - Nov 8, 2012 at 9:53PM

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Reasons for optimism.

Our collective record of predicting what the economy will do next is dreadful. Twelve years ago, few worried about terrorism, many worried about Y2K, and the thought of zero percent interest rates was preposterous. Not a single person knows what the future holds, and so what I'm about to write isn't so much a prediction as an observation of potential.

After five years of collapse and stagnation, we could be on the cusp of a new economic boom. I'm not expecting anything like the mid-1980s or late 1990s, mind you. But the odds that the next five years will be markedly better than the last five years are good -- and growing better by the day.

The new boom will be driven by three things: A rebound in housing construction, the rise in domestic energy-production, and the end of consumer debt deleveraging.

Start with housing. From 2002 to 2007, a net average of 1.3 million American households were created every year. During that time, almost 2 million new homes were built annually. Today, it's the other way around. In the last year, 1.1 million new households were formed, but just 700,000 new homes were built.

Just as the overbuilding of homes during the housing bubble was unsustainable, today's level of home construction cannot last -- it's just far too low to meet demand. Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that household formation will average 1.5 million from 2010 to 2020. Factor in scrappage, and new-home construction needs to more than double from current levels to meet those projections.

What happens then? The Center for Housing Policy estimates that every new home generates 2.1 new jobs -- both directly, from construction workers and real-estate agents, and indirectly, as those workers spend more money. The National Association of Home Builders puts it at 3.05 jobs per new home. Whatever the true figure is, it adds up fast when we're talking about the need to build a million homes per year above current levels.

Next is energy. Domestic oil-production declined nearly every year from 1986 to 2008, falling by 41%. It has since risen consistently for the first time in three decades, now up more than 30% in the last four years. The U.S. produced more oil in July than in any other month since 1998. And growth in America's energy output since 2008 has surpassed that of any other country in the world, according to energy analyst Daniel Yergin.

The boom in natural gas production is even more impressive. Thanks to new fracking technologies, and a push to find new supplies after the 2008 energy shock, domestic natural gas production hit an all-time high in January, 35% above where it was five years before. Companies like Chesapeake (CHKA.Q) have discovered so much natural gas in the last few years that they are actually struggling as prices collapse to decade lows.

If this trend continues, which seems likely, it could be a transformational boost to the economy. The rise in domestic energy production has already shaved $175 billion off our annual import bill compared with five years ago, according to Yergin. Beyond the financial savings, the geopolitical dividends this yields are huge. Then there are jobs. Loews (L -0.82%) CEO James Tisch says that every billion cubic feet per day of natural-gas production generates between 7,000 and 10,000 new jobs. Yergin's firm, IHS, estimates 1.3 million energy-related jobs will be created in the next seven years.

Finally, households have been buried in unaffordable debt for the last five years. But they've been shedding the burden, both by defaulting on debt, and paying it down -- a so-called "deleveraging." Their progress has been nothing short of remarkable: As a percentage of disposable income, household debt payments are now at the lowest level since 1993.

A McKinsey & Co. report from January estimated households deleveraging could be complete by the middle of next year. It may already be over. Total household debt has stopped declining, and is now roughly flat year over year.

When the deleveraging ends, households will have more flexibility to buy a new car, take a vacation, or repair a roof -- things they've probably been putting off for years. Most importantly, they'll be able to do it in a safe, sustainable way that doesn't involve piling on debt beyond their ability to repay. Household deleveraging has likely been the single biggest weight on the economy in recent years. The tailwind that comes from its completion shouldn't be underestimated.

Anything can happen going forward -- recessions, banking collapses, wars, you name it. But we are in a nearly opposite position compared with five years ago. Back then, the economic reality was much bleaker than perception. Today, I have a feeling it's the other way around.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics. 

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