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© 2008 – 2014 John T. Burke, Jr.

Scary Economic News

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The information which I’m passing along to you today might come as a shock to those listening to the usual stock market cheerleaders, who predict good times ahead.  Let’s start with economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  For quite a while, Dr. Hussman has been warning us to avoid drinking the Kool-Aid served by the perma-bulls.  In his latest Weekly Market Comment, Hussman offers yet more sound advice to those under the spell of brokerage propagandists:

I want to emphasize again that I am neither a cheerleader for recession, nor a table-pounder for recession.  It’s just that given the data that we presently observe, an oncoming recession remains the most probable outcome.  When unseen states of the world have to be inferred from imperfect and noisy observable data, there are a few choices when the evidence isn’t 100%.  You can either choose a side and pound the table, or you can become comfortable dwelling in uncertainty, and take a position in proportion to the evidence, and the extent to which each possible outcome would affect you.

With most analysts dismissing the likelihood of recession, I have been vocal about ongoing recession concerns not because I want to align myself with one side, but because the investment implications are very asymmetric.  A slow but steady stream of modestly good economic news is largely priced in by investors, but a recession and the accompanying earnings disappointments would destroy some critical pillars of hope that investors are relying on to support already rich valuations.

Yale Professor Robert Shiller is the guy who invented the term “irrational exuberance”, which was title of his bestselling book – published in May of 1996.  Although the widely-despised, former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan is often credited with creating the term, Greenspan didn’t use it until December of that year, in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute.  Shiller is most famous for his role as co-creator of the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, which he developed with his fellow economists Karl Case and Allan Weiss.  While many commentators decried the idiotic economic austerity programs which have been inflicted across Europe, Professor Shiller investigated whether austerity is at all effective in spurring economic growth, seeking a better understanding of austerity’s consequences.  In a recent essay on the subject, Dr. Shiller cited the work by Jaime Guajardo, Daniel Leigh, and Andrea Pescatori of the International Monetary Fund, who recently studied austerity plans implemented by governments in 17 countries in the last 30 years.  The conclusion reached by Professor Shiller should sober-up the “rose-colored glasses” crowd, as well as those aspiring to implement similar measures in the United States:

The austerity plans being adopted by governments in much of Europe and elsewhere around the world, and the curtailment of consumption expenditure by individuals as well, threaten to produce a global recession.

*   *   *

There is no abstract theory that can predict how people will react to an austerity program.  We have no alternative but to look at the historical evidence.  And the evidence of Guajardo and his co-authors does show that deliberate government decisions to adopt austerity programs have tended to be followed by hard times.

Policymakers cannot afford to wait decades for economists to figure out a definitive answer, which may never be found at all.  But, judging by the evidence that we have, austerity programs in Europe and elsewhere appear likely to yield disappointing results.

The really scary news concerning the state of the global economy came in the form of a report published by the World Bank, entitled Global Economic Prospects (Uncertainties and vulnerabilities).  The 157-page treatise was written by Andrew Burns and Theo Janse van Rensburg.  It contains more than enough information to induce a serious case of insomnia.  Here are some examples:

The world economy has entered a very difficult phase characterized by significant downside risks and fragility.

*   *   *

The downturn in Europe and weaker growth in developing countries raises the risk that the two developments reinforce one another, resulting in an even weaker outcome.  At the same time, the slow growth in Europe complicates efforts to restore market confidence in the sustainability of the region’s finances, and could exacerbate tensions.

*   *   *

While contained for the moment, the risk of a much broader freezing up of capital markets and a global crisis similar in magnitude to the Lehman crisis remains.  In particular, the willingness of markets to finance the deficits and maturing debt of high-income countries cannot be assured.  Should more countries find themselves denied such financing, a much wider financial crisis that could engulf private banks and other financial institutions on both sides of the Atlantic cannot be ruled out.  The world could be thrown into a recession as large or even larger than that of 2008/09.

*   *   *

In the event of a major crisis, activity is unlikely to bounce back as quickly as it did in 2008/09, in part because high-income countries will not have the fiscal resources to launch as strong a countercyclical policy response as in 2008/09 or to offer the same level of support to troubled financial institutions.

*   *   *

Developing countries need to prepare for the worst

In this highly uncertain environment, developing countries should evaluate their vulnerabilities and prepare contingencies to deal with both the immediate and longer-term effects of a downturn.

If global financial markets freeze up, governments and firms may not be able to finance growing deficits.

*   *   *

One major uncertainty concerns the interaction of the policy-driven slowing of growth in middle-income countries, and the financial turmoil driven slowing in Europe.  While desirable from a domestic policy point of view, this slower growth could interact with the slowing in Europe resulting in a downward overshooting of activity and a more serious global slowdown than otherwise would have been the case.

In other words, Europe’s economic austerity programs could turn another round of economic contraction into a global catastrophe (as if we needed another).

This is what happens when economic policymaking is left to the plutocrats and their tools.  “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”  It appears as though we are well on our way to a second financial crisis – with more severe consequences than those experienced as a result of the 2008 episode.


Some Sad News

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From Steve Waldman’s Interfluidity website on January 25:

Maxine Udall, “girl economist”, has been one of my favorite bloggers, a person who combines the power of economic thinking with a deep appreciation for moral and social concerns, all expressed in a very human, very charming, voice.

Today we learn that her name in real life was Alison Snow Jones, and that she is with us no more.  Wow.  This is an awful loss.

I don’t really know what to say.  But Maxine Udall had plenty to say, so I’ll just excerpt.

David Pinney and Meredith Frost have been kind enough to keep the Maxine Udall website going, with this, their expressed wish, in mind:

Please read, link to, and mine Dr. Jones’s writing for information, insight and inspiration.  Her deepest hope was to challenge people to think in new ways about our society and how we live, and to bring her unique viewpoint to as many people as possible.

Accordingly, I have added the Maxine Udall Girl Economist site to my blogroll and I encourage you to click on that link to read some of her essays.  I expect that we will find some interesting comments posted there in the weeks and months ahead.  Dr. Jones had some great thoughts and I would like to contribute to the effort toward keeping those thoughts alive in cyberspace and in the minds of others for as long as possible.

Steve Waldman provided some great excerpts from a few of the essays by Dr. Jones here.

What follows is a passage from a piece she wrote last year, lamenting our ongoing pathetic state of affairs and beyond that – the fact that the financial industry became a “brain drain” –  pulling talented people away from professions which could have allowed those individuals to make more significant contributions to society:

I remain committed to capitalism:  free markets when they function well, regulated markets when they don’t.   The above are simply additional arguments for reining in and regulating casino-like behavior and casino-like rewards in any market, not just capital markets.  In the long run, we will all be dead, but as long as someone will be alive, they deserve a better world and a better life than one gets in a casino where the odds are disproportionately in favor of the house and the house is an unholy combination of corporate power and wealth backed by government laissez faire and largesse.

The following statement by Steve Waldman concerning the loss of Dr. Jones highlights the feelings shared by many of us:

I scan and read so many blog posts every day, even great writing often fades into the background.  Going through the last few months of her work makes me terribly sad that this is a person I will never meet.



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