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Tales From The Dark Side

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Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently discuss my skepticism about the true state of America’s economy.  It gets painful listening to the “usual cheerleaders” constantly tell us about the robust state of our economy.  The most recent Federal Reserve Beige Book serves as the Bible for these true believers.  One need only check in on a few of the websites listed on my blogroll (at the right side of this page) to find plenty of opinions which run contrary to the current dogma that America is on its way to a full economic recovery.

One of my favorite websites from this blogroll is Edward Harrison’s Credit Writedowns.  When I visited that site this evening, I was amazed at the number of contrarian commentaries posted there.  One piece, “The economy is nowhere near as robust as stocks would have you believe” dealt with one of my favorite subjects:  the Federal Reserve’s inflation of the stock market indices by way of quantitative easing.  Here is an interesting passage from Harrison’s essay:

My view is that the stock market has gotten way ahead of itself.  Easy money has caused people to pile into risk assets as risk seeks return in a zero-rate environment.  The real economy is nowhere near as robust as the increase in shares would have you believe. Moreover, even the falling earnings growth is telling you this.

Bottom line: The US economy is getting a sugar high from easy money, economic stimulus, and the typical cyclical aides to GDP that have promoted some modest releveraging.  But the underlying issues of excess household indebtedness, particularly as related to housing and increasingly student debt, will keep this recovery from being robust until more of the debts are written down or paid off.  That means the cyclical boost that comes from hiring to meet anticipated demand, construction spending, and increased capital spending isn’t going to happen at a good clip.  Meanwhile, people are really struggling.

The hope is we can keep this going for long enough so that the cyclical hiring trends to pick up before overindebted consumers get fatigued again.  Underneath things are very fragile. Any setback in the economy will be met with populist outrage – that you can bet on.

Another posting at Credit Writedowns was based on this remark by financier George Soros:  ”People don’t realize that the system has actually collapsed.”

Bloomberg News has been running a multi-installment series of articles by financial analyst Gary Shilling, which are focused on the question of whether the United States will avoid a recession in 2012.  In the third installment of the series, Shilling said this:

In the first two installments, I laid out the reasons why the U.S. economy, despite current strong consumer spending and the recent euphoria of investors over stocks, will weaken into a recession as the year progresses, led by renewed consumer retrenchment.

If my forecast pans out, the Federal Reserve and Congress may be compelled to take further action to bolster the economy.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, a number of economic indicators are pointing in the direction of a faltering economy.  The Economic Cycle Research Institute index remains in recession territory.  The ratio of coincident to lagging economic indicators, often a better leading indicator than the leading indicator index itself, is declining.  Electricity generation, though influenced by the warm winter, is falling rapidly.

One of the most popular blogs among those of us who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid being served by the “rose-colored glasses crowd” is Michael Panzner’s Financial Armageddon.  In a recent posting, Mr. Panzner underscored the fact that those of us who refuse to believe the “happy talk” are no longer in the minority:

In “Americans Agree: There Is No Recovery,” I highlighted a recent Washington PostABC News poll, noting that

no matter how you break it down — whether by party/ideology, household income, age, or any other category — the majority of Americans agree on one thing: there is no recovery.

But the fact that things haven’t returned to normal isn’t just a matter of (public) opinion. As the Globe and Mail’s Market Blog reveals in “These Are Bad Days for Garbage,” the volume of waste being created nowadays essentially means that, despite persistent talk (from Wall Street, among others) of a renaissance in consumer spending, people are continuing to consume less and recycle more than they used to.

Many people (especially commentators employed by the mainstream media) prefer to avoid “dwelling on negativity”, so they ignore unpleasant economic forecasts.  Others appear trapped in a new-age belief system, centered around such notions as the idea that you can actually cause the economy to go bad by simply perceiving it as bad.  Nevertheless, the rest of us have learned (sometimes the hard way) that effective use of one’s peripheral vision can be of great value in avoiding a “sucker punch”.  Keep your eyes open!


 

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Double Bubble

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I’m sure there has been a huge number of search engine queries during the past few days, from people who are trying to find out what is meant by the term: “quantitative easing”.  My cynical, home-made definition of the term goes like this:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

The curiosity about quantitative easing has increased as a result of the release of the notes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) which boosted expectations that there will be another round of quantitative easing (often referred to as QE II).  On October 15, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  After discussing how weak the economic recovery has been (as demonstrated by lackluster consumer spending and the miserable unemployment crisis) Bernanke pointed out that the Fed’s current predicament results from the fact that it has already lowered short-term, nominal interest rates to near-zero.  He then noted that the federal funds rate will be kept low “for longer than the markets expect”.  Bernanke finally got to the point that people wanted to hear him discuss:  whether there will be another round of quantitative easing.  Here is what he said:

In particular, the FOMC is prepared to provide additional accommodation if needed to support the economic recovery and to return inflation over time to levels consistent with our mandate.  Of course, in considering possible further actions, the FOMC will take account of the potential costs and risks of nonconventional policies, and, as always, the Committee’s actions are contingent on incoming information about the economic outlook and financial conditions.

In other words:  They’re still thinking about it.  Meanwhile, former Secretary of  Labor, Robert Reich, wrote a great essay telling us that the Fed will go ahead with more quantitative easing.  After defining the term, Professor Reich added this important tidbit:

Problem is, it won’t work.  Businesses won’t expand capacity and jobs because there aren’t enough consumers to buy additional goods and services.

I’m sure that was a helluva lot more common sense than many people were expecting from a professor at Berkeley.  Beyond that, Professor Reich gave us the rest of the bad news:

So where will the easy money go?  Into another stock-market bubble.

It’s already started.  Stocks are up even though the rest of the economy is still down because money is already so cheap. Bondholders (who can’t get much of any return from their loans) are shifting their portfolios into stocks.  Companies are buying back more shares of their own stock.  And Wall Street is making more bets in the stock market with money it can borrow at almost zero percent interest.

When our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program, the Fed feels pressed to come up with a fake one that blows another financial bubble.  And we know what happens when financial bubbles get too big.

Another bubble currently under expansion is the “junk bond” bubble.  Sy Harding wrote an important article for Forbes entitled, “Fed Still Blowing Bubbles?“.  Here is some of what he said:

The economy’s problems at this point don’t seem to be the level of interest rates, but the lack of jobs, dismal consumer confidence, and the unwillingness of banks to make loans.

However, just the anticipation of additional quantitative easing and still lower long-term interest rates has already potentially begun to pump up the next bubbles, as investors have moved out the risk curve in an effort to find higher rates of return. Money has been flowing at a dramatic pace into high-yield junk bonds, commodities, and gold.  And the stock market has surged up 12% just since its August low when talk of another round of quantitative easing began.  Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar has been trashed further on expectations that the Fed will be ‘printing’ more dollars to finance another round of quantitative easing.

Nevertheless, Sy Harding isn’t so sure that QE II is a “done deal”.  After making his own cost-benefit analysis, Mr. Harding reached this conclusion:

It’s a no-brainer.  Blow another bubble and worry about the consequences down the road.

Yet in his speech Friday morning Fed Chairman Bernanke did not go all in on quantitative easing, stopping short of announcing a new policy, saying only that the Fed contemplates doing more, but “will take into account the potential costs and risks.”

So uncertainty remains for a market that has probably already factored in a substantial new round of stimulus.

This raises an important question:  How will the markets react if the consensual assumption that there will be a QE II turns out to be wrong?

Bond guru, Mohamed El-Erian of PIMCO,  recently wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he asserted his conclusion that judging from the FOMC minutes, “it is virtually a foregone conclusion” that the Fed will proceed with QE II.  El-Erian described this anticipated action by the Fed as an effort to “push” investors “to move out on the risk spectrum and buy corporate bonds and stocks”.

Getting back to my earlier question:  If the Fed decides not to proceed with QE II, will the bubbles that have been inflated up to that point make such a large pop as to drive the economy toward that dreaded second dip into recession?  On the other hand, if the Fed does proceed to implement QE II:  What will be the ultimate cost to taxpayers for something Robert Reich describes as a “fake” jobs program “that blows another financial bubble” and accomplishes nothing else?

As Professor Reich has pointed out, the Fed itself is the one being “pushed” to take action here because “our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program”.  Unfortunately, any “jobs program” initiated by the government has become a “third rail” issue with mid-term elections looming.   As I stated previously, if the economic crisis had been properly addressed two years ago, when the political will for an effective solution still existed, the Fed would not be faced with the current dilemma.  But here we are   .  .  .   just blowing more bubbles.


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The Weakest Link

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November 2, 2009

Everything was supposed to be getting “back to normal” by now.  Since late July, we’ve been hearing that the recession is over.  When the Gross Domestic Product number for the third quarter was released on Thursday, we again heard the ejaculations of enthusiasm from those insisting that the recession has ended.  Investors were willing to overlook the most recent estimate that another 531,000 jobs were lost during the month of October, so the stock market got a boost.  Nevertheless, as was widely reported, the Cash for Clunkers program added 1.66 percent to the 3.5 percent Gross Domestic Product annualized rate increase.  Since Cash for Clunkers was a short-lived event, something else will be necessary to fill its place, stimulating economic activity.  Once that sobering aspect of the story was absorbed, Friday morning’s news informed us that consumer spending had dropped for the first time in five months.  The Associated Press provided this report:

Economists worry that the recovery could falter in coming months if households cut back on spending to cope with rising unemployment, heavy debt loads and tight credit conditions.

“With incomes so soft, increased spending will be a struggle,” Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S.economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients.

The Commerce Department said Friday that spending dropped 0.5% in September, the first decline in five months.  Personal incomes were unchanged as workers contend with rising unemployment.  Wages and salaries fell 0.2%, erasing a 0.2% gain in August.

Another report showed that employers face little pressure to raise pay, even as the economy recovers.  The weak labor market makes it difficult for people with jobs to demand higher pay and benefits.

*   *   *

. . .  some economists believe that consumer spending will slow sharply in the current quarter, lowering GDP growth to perhaps 1.5%.  Analysts said the risk of a double-dip recession cannot be ruled out over the next year.

With unemployment as bad as it is, those who have jobs need to be mindful of the Sword of Damocles, as it hangs perilously over their heads.  As the AP report indicated, employers are now in an ideal position to exploit their work force.  Worse yet, as Mish pointed out:

Personal income decreased $15.5 billion (0.5 percent), while real disposable personal income decreased 3.4 percent, in contrast to an increase of 3.8 percent last quarter. Those are horrible numbers.

The war on the American consumer finally bit Wall Street in the ass on Friday when the S&P 500 index took a 2.8 percent nosedive.  When mass layoffs become the magic solution to make dismal corporate earnings reports appear positive, when the consumer is treated as a chump by regulatory agencies, lobbyists and government leaders, the consumer stops fulfilling the designated role of consuming.  When that happens, the economy stands still.  As Renae Merle reported for The Washington Post:

“The government handed the ball off to the consumer and the consumer fell on it,” said Robert G. Smith, chairman of Smith Affiliated Capital in New York. “This is a function of there being no jobs and wages going lower.”

The sell-off on the stock market also reflected a report released Friday showing a decline in consumer sentiment this month, analysts said.  The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell to 70.6 in October, compared with 73.5 in September.

Rich Miller of Bloomberg News discussed the resulting apprehension experienced by investors:

Only 31 percent of respondents to a poll of investors and analysts who are Bloomberg subscribers in the U.S., Europe and Asia see investment opportunities, down from 35 percent in the previous survey in July.  Almost 40 percent in the latest quarterly survey, the Bloomberg Global Poll, say they are still hunkering down.  U.S. investors are even more cautious, with more than 50 percent saying they are in a defensive crouch.

*   *   *

Worldwide, investors and analysts now view the U.S. as the weak link in the global economy, with its markets seen as among the riskiest by a plurality of those surveyed.  One in four respondents expects an unemployment rate of 11 percent or more a year from now, compared with a U.S. administration forecast of 9.7 percent.  The jobless rate now is 9.8 percent, a 26-year high.

Even before the release of “good news” on Thursday followed by Friday’s bad news, stock analysts who base their trading decisions primarily on reading charts, could detect indications of continuing market decline, as Michael Kahn explained for Barron’s last Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis continues to generate criticism from across the political spectrum while breeding dissent from within.  As I said last month, the administration’s current strategy is a clear breach of candidate Obama’s campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  The widespread opposition to the administration’s proposed legislation to regulate (read that: placate) large financial companies was discussed by Stephen Labaton for The New York Times:

Senior regulators and some lawmakers clashed once again with the Obama administration on Thursday, finding fault with central elements of the White House’s latest plan to unwind large financial companies when their troubles imperil the financial system.

The Times article focused on criticism of the administration’s plan, expressed by Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  As Mr.Labaton noted, shortly after Mr. Obama was elected President, Turbo Tim Geithner began an unsuccessful campaign to have Ms. Bair replaced.

On Friday, economist James K. Galbraith was interviewed by Bill Moyers.  Here’s what Professor Galbraith had to say about the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis:

They made a start, and certainly in the stimulus package, there were important initiatives.  But the stimulus package is framed as a stimulus, as something which is temporary, which will go away after a couple of years.  And that is not the way to proceed here.  The overwhelming emphasis, in the administration’s program, I think, has been to return things to a condition of normalcy, to use a 1920s word, that prevailed five and ten years ago.  That is to say, we’re back to a world in which Wall Street and the major banks are leading, and setting the path–

*   *   *

. . . they’ve largely been preoccupied with keeping the existing system from collapsing.  And the government is powerful.  It has substantially succeeded at that, but you really have to think about, do you want to have a financial sector dominated by a small number of very large institutions, very difficult to manage, practically impossible to regulate, and ruled by, essentially, the same people and the same culture that caused the crisis in the first place.

BILL MOYERS:  Well, that’s what we’re getting, because after all of the mergers, shakedowns, losses of the last year, you have five monster financial institutions really driving the system, right?

JAMES GALBRAITH:  And they’re highly profitable, and they are already paying, in some cases, extraordinary bonuses.  And you have an enormous problem, as the public sees very clearly that a very small number of people really have been kept afloat by public action .  And yet there is no visible benefit to people who are looking for jobs or people who are looking to try and save their houses or to somehow get out of a catastrophic personal debt situation that they’re in.

This is just another illustration of how “trickle down economics” doesn’t work.  President Obama knows better.  He told us that he would not follow that path.  Yet, here we are:  a country viewed as the weak link in the global economy because the well-being of those institutions considered “too big to fail” is the paramount concern of this administration.



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