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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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Trouble Ahead

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Forget about what you’ve been told by the “rose-colored glasses” crowd.  We are headed for more economic trouble.  On September 17, economist Lakshman Achuthan gave his prognosis for the economy to Guy Raz, of NPR’s All Things Considered:

Achuthan, co-founder and chief operations officer of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, says all of his economic indicators point to more sputtering ahead.

“The risk of a new recession is quite high,” he says.

In Toronto, Michael Babad of The Globe And Mail saw fit to focus on the latest forecast from “Dr. Doom”:

Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who forecast the financial crisis, went further today, warning that “we are entering a recession.”   The question isn’t whether there will be a double-dip, he said on Twitter, but rather how deep it will be.

And the answer, added the chairman and co-founder of Roubini Global Economics, depends on the response of policy makers and developments in the euro zone’s ongoing crisis.

As Gretchen Morgenson reported for The New York Times, the European sovereign debt crisis is already beginning to “wash up on American shores”.  The steep exposure of European banks to the sovereign debt of eurozone countries has become a problem for the United States:

Some of these banks are growing desperate for dollars.  Fearing the worst, investors are pulling back, refusing to roll over the banks’ commercial paper, those short-term i.o.u.’s that are the lifeblood of commerce.  Others are refusing to renew certificates of deposit. European banks need this money, in dollars, to extend loans to American companies and to pay their own debts.

Worries over the banks’ exposure to shaky European government debt have unsettled markets over there – shares of big French banks have taken a beating – but it is unclear how much this mess will hurt the economy back here.  American stock markets, at least, seem a bit blasé about it all:  the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index rose 5.3 percent last week.

Last Thursday, I expressed my suspicion that the recent stock market exuberance was based on widespread expectation of another round of quantitative easing.  This next round is being referred to as “QE3”.   QE3 is good news for Wall Street because of those POMO auctions, wherein the New York Fed purchases Treasury securities – worth billions of dollars – on a daily basis.  After the auctions, the Primary Dealers take the sales proceeds to their proprietary trading desks, where the funds are leveraged and used to purchase high-beta, Russell 2000 stocks.  You saw the results during QE2:  A booming stock market – despite a stalled economy.

I believe that the European debt situation will become the controlling factor, which will turn the tide in favor of QE3 at the September 20-21 Federal Open Market Committee meeting.

Most pundits have expressed doubts that the Fed would undertake another round of quantitative easing.  Bill McBride of Calculated Risk put it this way:

QE3 is unlikely at the September meeting, but not impossible – however most observers think the FOMC will announce a program to change the composition of their balance sheet (extend maturities).  It is also possible that the FOMC will announce a reduction in the interest rate paid on excess reserves (currently 0.25%).

Tim Duy expressed a more skeptical outlook at his Fed Watch website:

Even more unlikely is another round of quantitative easing.  I don’t think there is much appetite at the Fed for additional asset purchases given the inflation numbers and the stability of longer-term inflation expectations relative to the events that prompted last fall’s QE2.

On the other hand, hedge fund manager Bill Fleckenstein presents a more persuasive case that the Fed can be expected to react to the “massive red ink in world equity markets” (due to floundering European bank stocks) by resorting to its favorite panacea – money printing:

So, to sum up my expectations, I believe that not only will we get a bold new round of QE from the Fed this week, but other central banks will join the party.  (The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank are already printing money in an attempt to weaken their currencies.)  If that happens, I believe that assets (stocks, bonds and commodities) will rally rather dramatically, at least for a while, with the length and size of the rally depending on the individual idea/asset.

If no QE is announced, and we basically see nothing done, it will probably be safe to short stocks for investors who can handle that strategy.  Markets would be pummeled until the central planners (i.e., these bankers) are forced to react to the carnage. Such is the nature of the paper-money-central-bank-moral-hazard standard that is currently in place.

The Fed will announce its decision at 2:15 on Wednesday, September 21.  Even if the FOMC proceeds with QE3, its beneficial effects will (again) be limited to the stock market.  The real American economy will continue to stagnate through its “lost decade”, which began in 2007.


 

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