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Economy Hanging by a Thread

A bleak jobs report sent stocks and commodities tumbling on Wednesday, while new signs of distress gripped the service industries index. An updated report from the ADP showed that private sector hiring slowed more than expected from March to April as companies struggled to meet rising raw material costs and flagging consumer demand. The service industry index (ISM) –which “ranges from utilities and retailing to health care, finance and transportation”–slumped to its lowest level since August signaling widespread deceleration and a progressive deterioration in the fundamentals. The turnaround has forced economists to rethink their projections for 2nd Quarter GDP and to watch more vigilantly for signs of contraction. This is from the New York Times:

“The economy lost steam in the first quarter. Growth in personal consumption ? the single largest component of the economy ? slowed markedly. Business-related construction cratered and residential construction fell. Exports stumbled. The only unambiguous plus was continued business investment in equipment and software, which is necessary but not sufficient for overall growth.

In all, economic growth slowed from an annual rate of 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 1.8 percent in the first quarter of 2011….

When lauding the economy, Mr. Bernanke and many other economists and politicians point out, correctly, that the unemployment rate has declined from a recession high of 10.1 percent in late 2009 to 8.8 percent now. That would be encouraging news if it indicated robust hiring for good jobs. It does not.

Over the last year, the number of new hires has been outstripped by the masses who have either given up looking for work or who have not undertaken a consistent job search, say, after graduating from high school or college. Those missing millions are not counted in the official jobless rate; if they were, unemployment today would be 9.8 percent. The rate would be 15.7 percent if it included those who took part-time jobs in lieu of full-time ones.” (“The Economy Slows” New York Times)

So, even the New York Times agrees that unemployment would be nearly 16 percent if the figures were correctly calculated. Those are Depression numbers. 14 million people are out of work and record numbers of people are on food stamps (44 million)

Wednesday’s down-market sent commodities plunging as signs of emerging deflation pushed investors into Treasuries. Gold and silver fell sharply. Troubles in Japan, China and the eurozone have intensified fears of a global slowdown and perhaps another bout of recession. The dollar strengthened for the third straight session, in spite of the Fed’s zero rates and $600 billion bond buying program. Trillions of dollars in monetary and fiscal stimulus have jolted stocks back to life, but debt-deflation dynamics in the broader economy are as strong as ever. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, consumer retrenchment has reduced discretionary spending, and housing continues its inexorable nosedive. The stock market continues to inch higher buoyed by central bank liquidity and margin debt, but investors are increasingly skittish and searching for direction.

The soaring price of gas has shifted consumer spending from retail to energy consumption, the opposite of what the Fed had intended. This from Early Warning:

“I doubt energy prices can go a whole lot higher without triggering another recession, so it depends on whether the world can scrape up a few more mbd of oil to keep growth going without prices rising too much more. We will be watching oil production statistics closely…

…We are in an era where the availability of natural resources is not sufficient to support the wealth levels that the developed world has grown accustomed to, along with the speed of growth with which the developing world is trying to approach those same levels….. the global economy keeps trying to grow in a way that is inconsistent with the resource constraints, and then some part of the system tears and gives way….

I would argue that this data is at least consistent with the narrative that, in the post 1973 era, energy is consistently in somewhat problematic supply, and you can think of many of the recessions as showing a pattern in which energy prices are rising as the world overshoots what can currently be supplied, or what can currently be supplied drops as a result of geopolitical events, and energy prices rise until some pre-existing weakness in the global economic fabric tears in the course of a recession, and prices fall back again….” (“Energy prices and recessions”, Early Warning)

Welcome to Peak Oil; the era of resource scarcity has begun. Today’s troubles will to be a recurrent theme in the years ahead as the economy goes from boom to bust and previous levels of growth become more short-lived and unsustainable. Naturally, our leaders have settled on a strategy for addressing the impending energy shortages; endless war disguised as humanitarian intervention. This is the type of shortsightedness that passes as policy.

The main economic indicators are still turned up, but just barely. The economy is hanging by a thread. Loan demand is weak, wages are flat, and markets are on a knife-edge. Here’s a clip from The Big Picture:

“…the real problem is loan demand (confirmed while speaking to bank organizations in half a dozen states over the past year). Loans have to be repaid, meaning that the money must be used to finance the acquisition of employees or equipment that will “pay back” the loan. Common sense. But record numbers of owners (as high as 28%) have reported that “weak sales” is their top business problem while only 4% reported “financing” as a top problem….. Ninety-three percent reported all their credit needs met in March, including 53 percent who said they were not even interested in a loan. No customers means no need for a loan to finance hiring, inventory purchases or expansion (only survival ? not a good bank loan!).

But they don’t get it in Washington D.C. And not understanding the problem produces bad policy, and there has been plenty of that. If lending is picking up, it is because customers are showing up and there is a reason to invest and hire. The reverse doesn’t work ? you can’t force feed the credit to owners and have more customers suddenly show up ….That’s “pushing on a string”. Just ask the banks.” (“Loan Demand, Not Credit, Is the Problem”, The Big Picture)

There’s no demand for credit because consumers are in the red and need to balance their accounts. (“93 percent reported all their credit needs met in March.”) It’s pointless to focus on getting the banks to lend, when people are broke and don’t want to borrow regardless of rates. Just like its pointless to dump monetary stimulus into the stock market if it pushes up food and energy prices (headline inflation) reducing consumers ability to spend on other things. This isn’t hard to figure out; it’s Econ 101. So, why is the policy upside-down?

That said, the stock market should continue to trend upward for another couple months until the Fed’s bond buying program ends and investors realize that the real economy is stuck in the ditch. But, for now, it’s “Party like it’s 1929”. Bernanke’s punch bowl is overflowing and there’s still plenty of time to make money. The hangover comes later.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state and  can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com

 

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MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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