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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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Unwanted Transparency

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Immediately after assuming office, President Obama promised to provide a greater degree of transparency from his administration:

Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

Did you really believe that?  Do you remember Jane Mayer – author of that great book, The Dark Side, which exposed the controversial “enhanced interrogation techniques”?  Well, she just wrote an article for The New Yorker, discussing the Obama administration’s use of the Espionage Act of 1917 to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national security leaks.  At the outset of the article, Ms. Mayer made this observation:

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history – even more so than Nixon.”

Meanwhile, another sort of unwanted transparency is catching up with the Obama administration:  transparent motives.  Many commentators are finally facing-up to the reality that Obama never gave a damn about the unemployment crisis.  I have repeatedly emphasized that President Obama’s February, 2009 decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  In his own “Tora Bora moment”, President Obama decided to rely on the advice of the very people who helped cause the financial crisis, by doing more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.

A recent interview with economist Tim Duy focused on the inadequacy of the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009:

What went wrong with stimulus?  Why does unemployment remain so high?

I don’t think anything “went wrong” with the stimulus, other than it simply wasn’t enough to fill the depth of the economic hole caused by the recession.  There was simply a lack of political willpower to fully acknowledge the depth of the problem and bring to bear the appropriate resources.  The result is an economy that is not bouncing back quickly enough to close the output gap and create sufficient job growth to drive the unemployment rate down lower at a faster pace.

Is the economy not weak enough to justify more stimulus?  Or do policy makers think that deficit spending is not able to generate more jobs?

Yes, the economy is weak enough to justify additional stimulus, and the persistently low rates of government debt should prove that current fears of deficit spending are unjustified.  Some policymakers appear to believe that a commitment to fiscal austerity will in fact generate more job growth, but this is nonsensical –  austerity would only aggravate the existing challenges (as it has in Greece).  There is currently no constraint that prevents more fiscal stimulus from being effective in promoting additional economic growth.  Longer run, yes, the US federal budget does need to be addressed, but letting growth stagnate now will only intensify that challenge in the future. Policymakers, however, appear enamoured with the idea that these challenges need to be addressed now, and this attitude poses another risk to the recovery.

I want to focus on what Professor Duy described as a “lack of willpower”.  That lack of willpower was rooted in a lack of authenticity.  President Obama was never concerned about what most of us would consider “economic recovery” – reducing unemployment to just below five percent.  Obama’s goal was to do just enough to avoid another Great Depression.  Once that goal was accomplished, it was time to move on to other things.  My cynicism on this subject was validated in a recent essay by Mark Provost for Truthout, entitled, “Why the Rich Love High Unemployment”.  In fact, Provost’s article was met with such widespread enthusiasm that it was republished in its entirety on the following websites:  Naked Capitalism, Angry Bear and The Economic Populist.  Here are some key points from the piece:

Obama’s advisers often congratulate themselves for avoiding another Great Depression – an assertion not amenable to serious analysis or debate.  A better way to evaluate their claims is to compare the US economy to other rich countries over the last few years.

On the basis of sustaining economic growth, the United States is doing better than nearly all advanced economies.

*   *   *

But when it comes to jobs, US policymakers fall short of their rosy self-evaluations.

*   *   *

The gap between economic growth and job creation reflects three separate but mutually reinforcing factors:  US corporate governance, Obama’s economic policies and the deregulation of US labor markets.

*   *   *

Obama’s lopsided recovery also reflects lopsided government intervention. Apart from all the talk about jobs, the Obama administration never supported a concrete employment plan.  The stimulus provided relief, but it was too small and did not focus on job creation.

The administration’s problem is not a question of economics, but a matter of values and priorities.

Mark Provost’s essay featured this infamous quote from a Washington Post article written by Steven Rattner (Obama’s “car czar” during 2009 – whose task force was overseen by “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Larry Summers):

Perversely, the nagging high jobless rate reflects two of the most promising attributes of the American economy:  its flexibility and its productivity.  Eliminating jobs – with all the wrenching human costs – raises productivity and, thereby, competitiveness (the president’s new favorite word).  In the long run, increasing productivity is the only route to superior competitiveness.

*   *   *

That kind of efficiency is perhaps our most precious economic asset.  However tempting it may be, we need to resist tinkering with the labor market.  Policy proposals aimed too directly at raising employment may well collaterally end up dragging on productivity. And weak productivity would exacerbate the downward pressure on wages that caused the last decade to be the first in our history in which wages (after adjustment for inflation) declined.

In other words, productivity is more important than those pesky “wrenching human costs”.  Too bad there just isn’t some kind of spray or ointment for those things!  This attitude exemplified what Chris Hedges discussed in his book, Death of the Liberal Class.  In a recent article for Truthdig, Chris Hedges emphasized how the liberal class “abandoned the human values that should have remained at the core of its activism”:

The liberal class, despite becoming an object of widespread public scorn, prefers the choreographed charade.  It will decry the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or call for universal health care, but continue to defend and support a Democratic Party that has no intention of disrupting the corporate machine.  As long as the charade is played, the liberal class can hold itself up as the conscience of the nation without having to act.  It can maintain its privileged economic status.  It can continue to live in an imaginary world where democratic reform and responsible government exist.  It can pretend it has a voice and influence in the corridors of power.  But the uselessness and irrelevancy of the liberal class are not lost on the tens of millions of Americans who suffer the indignities of the corporate state.  And this is why liberals are rightly despised by the working class and the poor.

To repeat an important statement from Mark Provost’s essay:

The administration’s problem is not a question of economics, but a matter of values and priorities.

The unemployment crisis is destined to continue for several years – thanks to the administration’s abandonment of those human values discussed by Chris Hedges.


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