Recession Journal Part III: How Low Can We Go and When Will We Get There?
As a business blogger, high-finance business journalist, business man and one who minds his business – who pretends to know what he's talking about – I pretty much always answer "stay in bonds," when called upon for investment advice.
I hate giving it so I don't. I tend to just pose more questions, as I do in all discourse, objectively presenting many sides of the equation. So people can make up their own minds
After all there are two sides to every story and then there's the truth.
So I thought I'd utilize the ever-changing world of telecommunications, in a figurative sense of course, to try to get at the most pressing question these days: when will this crappy economy turn up?
The answer is, well, when it bottoms out.
But when is that?
Hold on let me check (ring ring).
Hello economic bottom? Economists and forecasters called and left a message, again.
They said they’re still looking for you and you’re still hard to find.
Therefore indicators for recovery from and continued length of the current recession remain inconclusive.
They also said, "We hope to see you soon because you’re neither here nor there."
Indeed, the more economic information that comes out, the more guesswork there is. As of July 17, jobless claims are up to 554,000 – a sum that is less than June numbers but still up versus 524,000 in the previous week, according to FactSet Economics.
Also as of June, the national civilian unemployment rate rose to 9.5%, the highest it’s been year-to-date and average hourly wages are also down compared to last year and last month. Additionally Federal government debt is up to $11.5 trillion as of the end of June opposed to $11.3 trillion at the end of May.
Yet there are a few bright spots. Home sales, building permits and monetary supply, through historically low interest rates, are all up.
So now we can breathe a little bit right?
Well, not so much. Those figures are up while consumer confidence and industrial production output, as of the end of last month, are still down.
Why the disparity among all the leading indicators? And what does a stoppage of declining figures mean vis-à-vis inclining figures in the future?
Enter the Federal Reserve, which this week released its Beige Book survey to arrive at forecasts based on statistical and anecdotal economic evidence. In the report, the Fed said that most of its 12 regional bank districts are seeing a slower pace of economic decline for the months of June and July but didn’t go so far as to predict a turn around.
To the glass-half-full soothsayers, this comes as an early sign that the worst of the worst economic doldrums since the Great Depression is closer to coming to a halt and that thereafter an ascent of the proverbial bar graph of growth will emerge once again.
Such are the sentiments Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, who, despite seeing personal his assets take a 30% decline in 2008, is bullish on the broader economy.
Bernanke recently told Congress that the economy’s contraction “appears to have slowed significantly,” with demand and production showing “tentative signs of stabilization.”
He echoes other policy makers such as New York Fed Chief William Dudley, who predicted that a modest recovery in housing activity and car sales coupled with fiscal stimuli from the government would give the U.S. economy moderate growth in the second half of this year.
Then in the same speech this week, Dudley turned around and said "the balance of risks is still tilted toward weakness in growth and employment and not toward higher inflation."
The only grain of certainty to be gleaned from cautiously optimistic policy makers and from the Beige Book is that neither provides any tangible signs of outright growth.
For instance the Beige Book found that retail demand was “sluggish” in most areas, and that auto sales were “mixed.” Manufacturing was “subdued, yet slightly more positive.” Meanwhile, according to the survey, non-financial services businesses are “largely negative with a few bright spots.”
Yeah that's clearly the sign of recovery right? (Pshhaw!)
Lastly, the most telling indicator, bank lending, “was stable or weakened further” in most loan categories across all 12 Fed districts, with tightened credit standards in at least seven districts. It looks like finding that elusive V-shaped recovery as it relates to the current economic downturn is going to take a bit longer, despite some sporadic cheerleading and sparsely positive numbers.
Plus one must take into consideration that financial firms are still digging out of holes, which means credit will remain tight and in Dudley’s words, for the near-term still “limit the pace of the recovery."
Suffice it to say, policymakers, analysts, investment managers and consumers will all be calling again next week, next month and perhaps even next year, looking for you, economic bottom.
Are you still there?
Well folks it's not there right now, act accordingly.