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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.”

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“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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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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