© 2008 – 2018 John T. Burke, Jr.

Recession Watch

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A recession relapse is the last thing Team Obama wants to see during this election year.  The President’s State of the Union address featured plenty of “happy talk” about how the economy is improving.  Nevertheless, more than a few wise people have expressed their concerns that we might be headed back into another period of at least six months of economic contraction.

Last fall, the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) predicted that the United States would fall back into recession.  More recently, the ECRI’s weekly leading index has been showing small increments of improvement, although not enough to dispel the possibility of a relapse.  Take a look at the chart which accompanied the January 27 article by Mark Gongloff of The Wall Street Journal.  Here are some of Mr. Gongloff’s observations:

The index itself actually ticked down a bit, to 122.8 from 123.3 the week before, but that’s still among the highest readings since this summer.

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That’s still not great, still in negative territory where it has been since the late summer.  But it is the best growth rate since September 2.

Whatever that means.  It’s hard to say this index is telling us whether a recession is coming or not, because the ECRI’s recession call is based on top-secret longer leading indexes.

Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds has been in full agreement with the ECRI’s recession call since it was first published.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman discussed the impact of an increasingly probable recession on deteriorating stock market conditions:

Once again, we now have a set of market conditions that is associated almost exclusively with steeply negative outcomes.  In this case, we’re observing an “exhaustion” syndrome that has typically been followed by market losses on the order of 25% over the following 6-7 month period (not a typo).  Worse, this is coupled with evidence from leading economic measures that continue to be associated with a very high risk of oncoming recession in the U.S. – despite a modest firming in various lagging and coincident economic indicators, at still-tepid levels.  Compound this with unresolved credit strains and an effectively insolvent banking system in Europe, and we face a likely outcome aptly described as a Goat Rodeo.

My concern is that an improbably large number of things will have to go right in order to avoid a major decline in stock market value in the months ahead.

Another fund manager expressing similar concern is bond guru Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital. Daniel Fisher of Forbes recently interviewed Gundlach, who explained that he is more afraid of recession than of higher interest rates.

Many commentators have discussed a new, global recession, sparked by a recession across Europe.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), recently emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  It is feared that the recession in Europe – where America exports most of its products – could cause another recession in the United States, as a result of decreased demand for the products we manufacture.  The January 24 World Economic Outlook Update issued by the IMF offered this insight:

The euro area economy is now expected to go into a mild recession in 2012 – consistent with what was presented as a downside scenario in the January 2011 WEO Update.

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For the United States, the growth impact of such spillovers is broadly offset by stronger underlying domestic demand dynamics in 2012.  Nonetheless, activity slows from the pace reached during the second half of 2011, as higher risk aversion tightens financial conditions and fiscal policy turns more contractionary.

On January 28, Steve Odland of Forbes suggested that the Great Recession, which began in the fourth quarter of 2007, never really ended.  Odland emphasized that the continuing drag of the housing market, the lack of liquidity for small businesses to create jobs, despite trillions of dollars in cash on the sidelines, has resulted in an “invisible recovery”.

Jennifer Smith of The Wall Street Journal explained how this situation has played out at law firms:

Conditions at law firms have stabilized since 2009, when the legal industry shed 41,900 positions, according to the Labor Department.  Cuts were more moderate last year, with some 2,700 positions eliminated, and recruiters report more opportunities for experienced midlevel associates.

But many elite firms have shrunk their ranks of entry-level lawyers by as much as half from 2008, when market turmoil was at its peak.

Regardless of whether the economic recovery may have been “invisible”, economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) has consistently described the recovery as “U-shaped” rather than the usual “V-shaped” graph pattern we have seen depicting previous recessions.  Today Online reported on a discussion Dr. Roubini held concerning this matter at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos:

Slow growth in advanced economies will likely lead to “a U-shaped recovery rather than a typical V”, and could last up to 10 years if there is too much debt in the public and private sector, he said.

At a panel discussion yesterday, Dr Roubini also said Greece will probably leave Europe’s single currency within 12 months and could soon be followed by Portugal.

“The euro zone is a slow-motion train wreck,” he said.  “Not only Greece, other countries as well are insolvent.”

In a December 8 interview conducted by Tom Keene on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance Midday”, Lakshman Achuthan, chief operations officer of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, explained his position:

“The downturn we have now is very different than the downturn in 2010, which did not persist.  This one is persisting.”

*  *  *

“If there’s no recession in Q4 or in the first half I’d say of 2012, then we’re wrong.  …   You’re not going to know whether or not we’re wrong until a year from now.”

I’m afraid that we might know the answer before then.


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Harsh Reality

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Several years ago, at one of the seven Laurie Anderson performances I have attended, Ms. Anderson (now Mrs. Lou Reed – although I seriously doubt whether she uses that moniker) described her first meeting with Philip Glass.  Immediately after meeting Glass, she anxiously asked him:  “Are things getting better or are things getting worse?”

These days, that same question is on everyone’s mind.  It appears as though the mainstream news media are hell-bent on convincing us that everything is just fine.  Nevertheless, many of us remember hearing the same thing from Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson during the summer of 2008.  As a result, we ponder the onslaught of rosy prognostications about the future of our economy with a good degree of skepticism.  Regardless of whether there might be some sort of conspiracy to convince the public to go out and spend money because everything is all right  . . . consider these remarks by Steve Randy Waldman from a discussion about market monetarist theory:

Self-fulfilling expectations lie at the heart of the market monetarist theory.  A depression occurs when people come to believe that income will be scarce relative to prior expectations and debts.  They nervously scale back expenditures and hoard cash, fulfilling their expectations of income scarcity.  However, if everybody could suddenly be made to believe that income would be plentiful, everyone would spend freely and fulfill the expectations of plenty.  The world is a much more pleasant place under the second set of expectations than the first.  And to switch between the two scenarios, all that is required is persuasion.  The market-monetarist central bank is nothing more than a great persuader:  when “shocks happen”, it persuades us all to maintain our optimism about the path of nominal income.  As long as we all keep the faith, our faith will be rewarded.  This is not a religion, but a Nash equilibrium.

The persuasion described by Steve Waldman has been drowning out objective analysis lately.  Obviously, the sovereign debt crisis in Europe has created quite a bit of anxiety in the United States.  The mainstream media focus is apparently targeting that consensual anxiety with heavy doses of “feel good” material.  One must search around a bit before finding any commentary which runs against that current.  I found some and I would like to share it with you.  The first item appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek on November 22:

Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Chief Executive Officer Mohamed A. El-Erian said U.S. economic conditions are “terrifying” as the nation struggles to recover from recession.

The odds of the U.S. returning to recession are as much as 50 percent, El-Erian said during an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” with Betty Liu.  U.S. economic growth was worse than expected and congressional policy makers are gridlocked over what to do about the economy and the deficit, which risk exacerbating an already weak recovery, he said.

“We have less economic momentum than we thought we had and we have no policy momentum,” said El-Erian, who also serves as co-chief investment officer with Pimco founder Bill Gross at the world’s largest manager of bond funds.

“What’s most terrifying,” he said, “we are having this discussion about the risk of recession at a time when unemployment is already too high, at a time when a quarter of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, at a time then the fiscal deficit is at 9 percent and at a time when interest rates are at zero.”

Let’s not forget that all of this is happening at a time when we are plagued by the most dysfunctional, stupid and corrupt Congress in our nation’s history.  President Obama is currently preoccupied with his re-election campaign.  His own leadership failures are conveniently re-packaged as products of that feckless Congress.  As a result, Americans have plenty of justification for being worried about the future.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently shared some information with us, which he acquired by attending an InvestmentNews Round Table, as well as from reading Gary Shilling’s expensive newsletter:

Get it? Main Street America, you should “expect very slow growth” in 2012.  That was the response when asked what “scenarios are you painting for your clients?”  The panelist at a recent InvestmentNews Round Table then added:  “It’s going to be ugly and violent.”  Why?  Because the politicians “are driving things” and they are “capricious, which leads to volatility.”  And clients are “not really happy,” but “they lived through ‘08 and ’09,” so 2012 will be “just a little bump in the road.”

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So don’t kid yourself folks, recent economic and market “ugliness and violence” not only won’t end soon, it’ll get meaner and meaner for years after 2012 elections … no matter who wins.  Only a fool would believe that a new bull market will take off in 2013.  Ain’t going to happen.  That’s a Wall Street fantasy.  Fall for that, and you’re delusional.

In fact, you better plan on a very long secular bear the next decade through 2020.  With the European banks, credit and currency on the edge of a global financial meltdown, there’s a high probability that a black swan virus, a contagion will sweep the world, making all investing “uglier” and more “violent” for Americans in 2013, indeed for the rest of the decade.

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Shilling sees “a secular bear market really started in 2000 and may persist for a decade as a result of slower GDP growth,” yes, persist till 2020 “with 2% to 3% deflation.”  He warns:  “Nominal GDP might not gain at all,” like recent flat-lining.  Which coincides with the expectations of America’s professional financial advisers.

Are you still feeling optimistic?  Consider the closing thoughts from a piece by Karl Denninger entitled, “The Game Is About Done”:

30+ years of lawless behavior has now devolved down to blatant, in-your-face theft.  They don’t even bother trying to hide it any more, and Eric “Place” Holder is too busy supervising the running of guns into Mexico so the drug cartels can shoot both Mexican and American citizens.

What am I, or anyone else, supposed to do in this sort of “market” environment?  Invest in…. what?  Land titles are worthless as they’ve been corrupted by robosigning, margin deposits have been stolen, Madoff’s clients had confirmations of trades that never happend and proved to worthless pieces of paper instead of valuable securities and while Madoff went to prison nobody else has and the money is still gone!

Without enforcement of the law — swift and certain — there is no deterrent against this behavior.

There has been no enforcement and there is no indication that this will change.

It will take just one — or maybe two — more events like MF Global and Greek CDS “determinations” before the entire market — all of it — goes “no bid” as participants simply stuff their hands in their pockets and say “screw this.”

It’s coming folks, and I guarantee you this:  Whatever your “nightmare” scenario is for such an event, it’s not bearish enough.

Keep all of this in mind as you plan for the future.  I would not expect that you might hear any of this on CNBC.

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Voices Of Reason For An Audience Of Psychotics

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A “double-dip” recession?  Maybe not.  In his August 30 article for the Financial Times, economist Martin Wolf said the 2008 recession never ended:

Many ask whether high-income countries are at risk of a “double dip” recession.  My answer is:  no, because the first one did not end.  The question is, rather, how much deeper and longer this recession or “contraction” might become.  The point is that, by the second quarter of 2011, none of the six largest high-income economies had surpassed output levels reached before the crisis hit, in 2008 (see chart).  The US and Germany are close to their starting points, with France a little way behind.  The UK, Italy and Japan are languishing far behind.

If that sounds scary – it should.  The fact that nothing was done by our government to address the problems which caused the financial crisis is just part of the problem.  The failure to make an adequate attempt to restore the economy (i.e.  facilitate growth in GDP as well as a reduction in unemployment) poses a more immediate risk.  Here’s more from Martin Wolf:

Now consider, against this background of continuing fragility, how people view the political scene.  In neither the US nor the eurozone, does the politician supposedly in charge – Barack Obama, the US president, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor – appear to be much more than a bystander of unfolding events, as my colleague, Philip Stephens, recently noted.  Both are – and, to a degree, operate as – outsiders.  Mr Obama wishes to be president of a country that does not exist.  In his fantasy US, politicians bury differences in bipartisan harmony.  In fact, he faces an opposition that would prefer their country to fail than their president to succeed.  Ms Merkel, similarly, seeks a non-existent middle way between the German desire for its partners to abide by its disciplines and their inability to do any such thing.  The realisation that neither the US nor the eurozone can create conditions for a speedy restoration of growth – indeed the paralysing disagreements over what those conditions might be – is scary.

Centrism continues to get a bad name because two of the world’s most powerful leaders have used that term to “re-brand” passivity.

Martin Wolf is not the only pundit expressing apprehension about the future of the global economy.  Margaret Brennan of Bloomberg Television interviewed economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a “Dr. Doom”) on August 31.  Roubini noted that there is no reason to believe that Republicans will consent to any measures toward restoring the economy during this election year because “if things get worse – it’s only to their political benefit”.  He estimated a “60% probability of recession next year”.  Beyond that, Roubini focused on the forbidden topic of stimulus.  He pointed out that the limited 2009 stimulus program prevented a recession from becoming another Great Depression “but it was not significant enough”.  Nevertheless, a real economic stimulus is still necessary – but don’t count on it:

With millions of unemployed construction workers, we need a trillion-dollar, five-year program just for infrastructure – but that’s not politically feasible, and that’s why there will be a fiscal drag and we will have a recession.

Nick Baker of Bloomberg BusinessWeek observed that Dr. Roubini’s remarks negatively impacted the stock market on Wednesday, “offsetting reports showing faster-than-estimated growth in American business activity and factory orders.”

If you aren’t worried yet, the most recent Weekly Market Comment by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds might get you there.  Pay close attention to Hussman’s distinction between opinion and evidence:

It is now urgent for investors to recognize that the set of economic evidence we observe reflects a unique signature of recessions comprising deterioration in financial and economic measures that is always and only observed during or immediately prior to U.S. recessions.  These include a widening of credit spreads on corporate debt versus 6 months prior, the S&P 500 below its level of 6 months prior, the Treasury yield curve flatter than 2.5% (10-year minus 3-month), year-over-year GDP growth below 2%, ISM Purchasing Managers Index below 54, year-over-year growth in total nonfarm payrolls below 1%, as well as important corroborating indicators such as plunging consumer confidence.  There are certainly a great number of opinions about the prospect of recession, but the evidence we observe at present has 100% sensitivity (these conditions have always been observed during or just prior to each U.S. recession) and 100% specificity (the only time we observe the full set of these conditions is during or just prior to U.S. recessions). This doesn’t mean that the U.S. economy cannot possibly avoid a recession, but to expect that outcome relies on the hope that “this time is different.”

While the reduced set of options for monetary policy action may seem unfortunate, it is important to observe that each time the Fed has attempted to “backstop” the financial markets by distorting the set of investment opportunities that are available, the Fed has bought a temporary reprieve only at the cost of amplifying the later fallout.

Be sure to read Hussman’s entire essay.  It provides an excellent account of the Fed’s role in helping to cause the financial crisis, as well as its reinforcement of a “low level equilibrium” in the economy.  In response to those hoping for another round of quantitative easing, Hussman provided some common sense:

The upshot is that it remains unclear whether the Fed will revert to reckless policy in September, or whether the growing disagreement within the FOMC will result in a more enlightened approach – abandoning the “activist Fed” role, and passing the baton to public policies that encourage objectives such as productive investment, R&D, broad-benefit infrastructure, and mortgage restructuring – rather than continuing reckless monetary interventions that defend and encourage the continued misallocation of resources and the repeated emergence of speculative bubbles.

President Obama should look to John Hussman if he wants to learn the difference between centrism and passivity.


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More Good Stuff From David Stockman

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August 2, 2010

The people described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks” have their hands full.  Just as some Democrats, concerned about getting campaign contributions from rich people, were joining the ranks of the deficit chicken hawks to support extension of the Bush tax cuts, people from across the political spectrum spoke out against the idea.  As I pointed out on July 19, President Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – David Stockman – spoke out against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, during an interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast:

The Bush tax cuts never should’ve been passed because, one, we couldn’t afford them, and second, we didn’t earn them  …

The infamous former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, had already spoken out against the Bush tax cuts on July 16, during an interview with Judy Woodruff on Bloomberg Television.  In response to Ms. Woodruff’s question as to whether the Bush tax cuts should be extended, Greenspan replied:  “I should say they should follow the law and let them lapse.”

When Alan Greenspan appeared on the August 1 broadcast of NBC’s Meet The Press, David Gregory directed Greenspan’s attention back to the interview with Judy Woodruff, and asked Mr. Greenspan if he felt that all of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to lapse.  Here is Greenspan’s reply and the follow-up:

MR.GREENSPAN:  Look, I’m very much in favor of tax cuts, but not with borrowed money.  And the problem that we’ve gotten into in recent years is spending programs with borrowed money, tax cuts with borrowed money, and at the end of the day, that proves disastrous.  And my view is I don’t think we can play subtle policy here on it.

MR. GREGORY:  You don’t agree with Republican leaders who say tax cuts pay for themselves?

MR. GREENSPAN:  They do not.

The drumbeat to extend the Bush tax cuts has been ongoing.  Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, claimed on July 23, that those tax cuts would be one way of providing stimulus for the economy – provided that such a move were to be offset “with increased revenue or lower spending.”  Increased revenue?  Does that mean that people – other than those earning in excess of $250,000 per year – should make up the difference by paying higher taxes?

On July 31, David Stockman came back with a huge dose of common sense, in the form of an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled, “Four Deformations of the Apocalypse”.  It began with this statement:

IF there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.  The nation’s public debt — if honestly reckoned to include municipal bonds and the $7 trillion of new deficits baked into the cake through 2015 — will soon reach $18 trillion.  That’s a Greece-scale 120 percent of gross domestic product, and fairly screams out for austerity and sacrifice.  It is therefore unseemly for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to insist that the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers be spared even a three-percentage-point rate increase.

The article included a boxcar full of great thoughts – among them was Stockman’s criticism of the latest incarnation of voodoo economics:

Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too.  But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.

Mr. Stockman took care to lay blame at the foot of the man he described in the Lloyd Grove interview as an “evil genius” – Milton Friedman – who convinced President Nixon in 1971 to “to unleash on the world paper dollars no longer redeemable in gold or other fixed monetary reserves.”

Despite the fact that tax cuts are considered by many as the ultimate panacea for all of America’s economic problems, David Stockman set the record straight about how the religion of taxcut-ology began:

Through the 1984 election, the old guard earnestly tried to control the deficit, rolling back about 40 percent of the original Reagan tax cuts.  But when, in the following years, the Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, finally crushed inflation, enabling a solid economic rebound, the new tax-cutters not only claimed victory for their supply-side strategy but hooked Republicans for good on the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts.

By fiscal year 2009, the tax-cutters had reduced federal revenues to 15 percent of gross domestic product, lower than they had been since the 1940s.

Stockman’s discussion of “the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial culture” is probably just a teaser for his upcoming book on the financial crisis:

But the trillion-dollar conglomerates that inhabit this new financial world are not free enterprises.  They are rather wards of the state, extracting billions from the economy with a lot of pointless speculation in stocks, bonds, commodities and derivatives.  They could never have survived, much less thrived, if their deposits had not been governmentguaranteed and if they hadn’t been able to obtain virtually free money from the Fed’s discount window to cover their bad bets.

On the day following the publication of Stockman’s essay, Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News Sunday – prepared with notes again written on the palm of her hand – to argue in support of extending the Bush tax cuts.  Although her argument was directed against the Obama administration, I was fixated on the idea of a debate on the subject between Palin and her fellow Republican, David Stockman.  Some of those Republicans vying for their party’s 2012 Presidential nomination were probably thinking about the same thing.