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No Consensus About the Future

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As the election year progresses, we are exposed to wildly diverging predictions about the future of the American economy.  The Democrats are telling us that in President Obama’s capable hands, the American economy keeps improving every day – despite the constant efforts by Congressional Republicans to derail the Recovery Express.  On the other hand, the Republicans keep warning us that a second Obama term could crush the American economy with unrestrained spending on entitlement programs.  Meanwhile, in (what should be) the more sober arena of serious economics, there is a wide spectrum of expectations, motivated by concerns other than partisan politics.  Underlying all of these debates is a simple question:  How can one predict the future of the economy without an accurate understanding of what is happening in the present?  Before asking about where we are headed, it might be a good idea to get a grip on where we are now.  Nevertheless, exclusive fixation on past and present conditions can allow future developments to sneak up on us, if we are not watching.

Those who anticipate a less resilient economy consistently emphasize that the “rose-colored glasses crowd” has been basing its expectations on a review of lagging and concurrent economic indicators rather than an analysis of leading economic indicators.  One of the most prominent economists to emphasize this distinction is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Hussman’s most recent Weekly Market Comment contains what has become a weekly reminder of the flawed analysis used by the optimists:

On the economy, our broad view is based on dozens of indicators and multiple methods, and the overall picture is much better described as a modest rebound within still-fragile conditions, rather than a recovery or a clear expansion.  The optimism of the economic consensus seems to largely reflect an over-extrapolation of weather-induced boosts to coincident and lagging economic indicators — particularly jobs data.  Recall that seasonal adjustments in the winter months presume significant layoffs in the retail sector and slow hiring elsewhere, and therefore add back “phantom” jobs to compensate.

Hussman’s kindred spirit, Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI), has been criticized for the predictiction he made last September that the United States would fall back into recession.  Nevertheless, the ECRI reaffirmed that position on March 15 with a website posting entitled, “Why Our Recession Call Stands”.  Again, note the emphasis on leading economic indicators – rather than concurrent and lagging economic indicators:

How about forward-looking indicators?  We find that year-over-year growth in ECRI’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) remains in a cyclical downturn . . .  and, as of early March, is near its worst reading since July 2009.  Close observers of this index might be understandably surprised by this persistent weakness, since the WLI’s smoothed annualized growth rate, which is much better known, has turned decidedly less negative in recent months.

Unlike the partisan political rhetoric about the economy, prognostication expressed by economists can be a bit more subtle.  In fact, many of the recent, upbeat commentaries have quite restrained and cautious.  Consider this piece from The Economist:

A year ago total bank loans were shrinking.  Now they are growing.  Loans to consumers have risen by 5% in the past year, which has accompanied healthy gains in car sales (see chart).  Mortgage lending was still contracting as of late 2011 but although house prices are still edging lower both sales and construction are rising.

*   *   *

At present just four states are reporting mid-year budget gaps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; this time last year, 15 did; the year before that, 36. State and local employment, which declined by 655,000 between August 2008 and last December – a fall of 3.3% – has actually edged up since.

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Manufacturing employment, which declined almost continuously from 1998 through 2009, has since risen by nearly 4%, and the average length of time factories work is as high as at any time since 1945.  Since the end of the recession exports have risen by 39%, much faster than overall GDP.  Neither is as impressive as it sounds:  manufacturing employment remains a smaller share of the private workforce than in 2007, and imports have recently grown even faster than exports as global growth has faltered and the dollar has climbed.  Trade, which was a contributor to economic growth in the first years of recovery, has lately been a drag.

But economic recovery doesn’t have to wait for all of America’s imbalances to be corrected.  It only needs the process to advance far enough for the normal cyclical forces of employment, income and spending to take hold.  And though their grip may be tenuous, and a shock might yet dislodge it, it now seems that, at last, they have.

A great deal of enthusiastic commentary was published in reaction to the results from the recent round of bank stress tests, released by the Federal Reserve.  The stress test results revealed that 15 of the 19 banks tested could survive a stress scenario which included a peak unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 50 percent drop in equity prices, and a 21 percent decline in housing prices.  Time magazine published an important article on the Fed’s stress test results.  It was written by a gentleman named Christopher Matthews, who used to write for Forbes and the Financial Times.  (He is a bit younger than the host of Hardball.)  In a surprising departure from traditional, “mainstream media propaganda”, Mr. Matthews demonstrated a unique ability to look “behind the curtain” to give his readers a better idea of where we are now:

Christopher Whalen, a bank analyst and frequent critic of the big banks, penned an article in ZeroHedge questioning the assumptions, both by the Fed and the banks themselves, that went into the tests.  It’s well known that housing remains a thorn in the side of the big banks, and depressed real estate prices are the biggest risk to bank balance sheets.  The banks are making their own assumptions, however, with regards to the value of their real estate holdings, and Whalen is dubious of what the banks are reporting on their balance sheets. The Fed, he says, is happy to go along with this massaging of the data. He writes,

“The Fed does not want to believe that there is a problem with real estate. As my friend Tom Day wrote for PRMIA’s DC chapter yesterday:  ‘It remains hard to believe, on the face of it, that many of the more damaged balance sheets could, in fact, withstand another financial tsunami of the magnitude we have recenlty experienced and, to a large extent, continue to grapple with.’ ”

Even those that are more credulous are taking exception to the Fed’s decision to allow the banks to increase dividends and stock buybacks.  The Bloomberg editorial board wrote an opinion yesterday criticizing this decision:

 “Good as the stress tests were, they don’t mean the U.S. banking system is out of the woods.  Three major banks – Ally Financial Inc., Citigroup Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. – didn’t pass, and investors still don’t have much faith in the reported capital levels of many of the rest.  If the Fed wants the positive results of the stress tests to last, it should err on the side of caution in approving banks’ plans to pay dividends and buy back shares – moves that benefit shareholders but also deplete capital.”

So there’s still plenty for skeptics to read into Tuesday’s report.  For those who want to doubt the veracity of the banks’ bookkeeping, you can look to Whalen’s report.  For those who like to question the Fed’s decision making, Bloomberg’s argument is as good as any.  But at the same time, we all know from experience that things could be much worse, and Tuesday’s announcement appears to be another in a string of recent good news that, unfortunately, comes packaged with a few caveats.  When all is said and done, this most recent test may turn out to be another small, “I think I can” from the little recovery that could.

When mainstream publications such as Time and Bloomberg News present reasoned analysis about the economy, it should serve as reminder to political bloviators that the only audience for the partisan rhetoric consists of “low-information voters”.  The old paradigm – based on campaign funding payola from lobbyists combined with support from low-information voters – is being challenged by what Marshall McLuhan called “the electronic information environment”.  Let’s hope that sane economic policy prevails.


 

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.”

*  *  *

“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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