Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reality Check (May 2009)

Time for another reality check as it's been over a year since the last reality check.

As I said last year, the majority of economists and commentators are clueless about the severity of the economic decline (and of course we now know for certain that they were), once again, we now find the majority of economists still totally out to lunch. Just today, AP tells us that more than 90% of economists predict that the recession will end this year ! Yes, these are the same "gurus" who were telling us last year there wouldn't even be a recession !!!

As I often say, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story, but just for fun, let's review the factors I discussed last year to see where we stand:

1) Savings Rate: Contrary to the past several years, the savings rate has now turned positive, which is good for retirement accounts, but not so good for the economy. Clearly, there is a new shift towards frugality, that is not likely to be short-lived. After all, the Boomers are getting ready to retire and they have seen some hefty 40% declines in their overall wealth portfolios that need to be made up somehow. Economists clearly expect consumers to immediately shift back to their spendthrift ways, which is totally unfounded. As I indicated before, the consumer is roughly 70% of the U.S. economy, so each 1% increase in the savings rate shaves about .7% from GDP. Right now the savings rate is hovering around 4% whereas the long-term historical rate is closer to 8%. I know, last year I said that a negative savings rate is bad and now I am saying that a high savings rate is bad, but it's more a question of speed of adjustment. As an analogy, exercise is great, but if you weigh 400 pounds and haven't worked out in 40 years, it's not a good idea to attempt a marathon i.e. something might just stop working.

2) Housing Market: According to this week's Barron's, the next leg down in housing is right around the corner...Here are a few key snippets from the article:

"The Housing Hurricane will Howl Again"
by Mike Morgan
"We're out of the eye of the hurricane, but here comes the back half of the storm"
"Law firms for banks are once again lining up to file foreclosures"
"All of the Obama Administration's attempts to revive, resuscitate and shock the housing market into recovery have failed."
"Unfortunately, there are no signs of recovery, despite the hype and the twisting of numbers in many media reports"

3) Credit/Banking crisis:
The Fed has squandered trillions of dollars on this issue, but guess what, they only scratched the surface (subprime). As I predicted two years ago, subprime was the tip of the iceberg and now prime is starting to be the next source of problems i.e. every prime borrower who just lost his job is now the new subprime. Also, as expected, bank failures are starting to accelerate...

4) Unprecedented levels of debt: Guess what? The debt is still out there! Apparently we need to pay off all of the old useless junk we bought before we can go out and borrow to buy some new useless junk - go figure. In addition, 500k+ job losses per month, hiring freezes, salary freezes and the worst job market in 30 years haven't done anything for household balance sheets either.

5) Trade Deficit: Good news ! The trade deficit has been reduced, because...Bad News ! nobody can afford to buy anything anymore...

6) Two Never-ending Wars: Enough said...

7) Energy Crisis: Good news ! Oil has come down in price...Bad News ! Alternative energy projects have been shelved en masse and if the economy starts to recover, oil will shoot back up again ...

8) Fed out of ammo (Not!): Last year I said the Fed was out of ammo (short of printing money), so I was kind of wrong and kind of right. I was wrong, because the Fed was not out of ammo, as they invented the TARP, the TALF and twenty other new programs to give away money. I was right however, because then they did start to print money !!!
As a next step they will likely drop money out of helicopters as Ben Bernanke has promised he will do, so I correct myself to say that the Fed will NOT be out of ammo until we are all carrying our money around in wheel barrows (my apologies for being wrong about this).

In summary, more than 90% of economists do not understand all of the above basic facts, which is truly mind-boggling. This isn't Econ 101, this is Econ for Fucking Morons. I have no doubt these dolts lost a big chunk of their assets in the recent market decline and therefore believe that the coming collapse will see them duly stripped of the remainder.