Archive for June 5th, 2011
So many economists and financial pundits seem absolutely shocked that the U.S. economy is slowing down again. It is as if this latest wave of bad economic data has caught them completely by surprise. Now, in the mainstream media we are seeing all kinds of headlines declaring that the U.S. economy is headed for disaster. But anyone with half a brain could have seen this coming. This year alone, we have seen the worst tsunami in Japanese history, the worst U.S. tornado season in recent memory and the worst Mississippi River flooding in decades. In addition, chaos in the Middle East has pushed the price of oil up to very high levels. Of course all of those things were going to have an effect on the economy. In addition, all of the long-term trends that have been destroying the U.S. economy for decades have not been taken a breather. In fact, the truth is that all of our long-term economic problems have been accelerating. So yes, the sky is falling, it is time to panic and the U.S. economy really has fallen and it really can’t get up. It is just that everyone in the mainstream media seems to have believed that Ben Bernanke and Barack Obama would just sprinkle a bunch of fairy dust on the economy and everything would just magically get better. Well, in the real world things simply do not work that way.
Despite an unprecedented debt binge by the federal government and nightmarish money printing by the Federal Reserve, the economic downturn continues to drag on. Andrew Barber, a strategist at Waverly Advisors in Corning, New York recently told CNN the following….
“People are starting to see that this sort of malaise is not just going to go away no matter what you do.”
And “malaise” is a really good word for what we have been experiencing. For those that remember the late 1970s, what we are going through today is similar in a lot of ways.
But what is perhaps even more frightening is that 2011 is starting to look a lot like 2008 all over again.
In particular, we are starting to see some real signs of instability in the financial markets.
When Moody’s downgraded Greek debt again on Wednesday all the way down to Caa1, I was only moderately alarmed. The truth is that everyone knows Greece is a basket case so a debt downgrade wasn’t really all that surprising.
When Moody’s announced that it plans to review the U.S. government’s AAA debt rating “if there is no progress on increasing the statutory debt limit in coming weeks” that got the attention of a lot of people around the world, but it was not totally unexpected. Moody’s is telling Congress that they better raise the debt ceiling or else. A lot more pressure will be applied to Congress before this is over.
When Moody’s warned that it may downgrade the debt ratings of Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, that really set off alarm bells for me.
Do you all remember what set off the financial panic in 2008?
Do the names “Bear Stearns” and “Lehman Brothers” ring a bell?
Well, right now there are some frightening indications that we may see more trouble at some “too big to fail” institutions.
But will there be any willingness to do more bailouts this time?
Right now the financial markets are closely mirroring their performance just prior to the financial collapse of 2008. One great example of this is these charts which were recently posted by the Financial Armageddon blog. It looks like bank stocks may once again be leading the way down.
Hopefully the financial system can hold together and we won’t have a repeat of 2008 right now, because if it happens it is going to be really messy.
But even without a “financial collapse” we already have all of the economic problems that we can handle.
Robert Brusca, the chief economist at FAO Economics, is being quoted by CNN as saying the following….
“We’ve had a poor economic recovery to begin with, and now it appears to be segueing into an end.”
At this point, U.S. consumer confidence is already lower than it was back in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed. U.S. consumers are holding on to their money more tightly these days and that is not a good sign for an economy that is so highly dependent on consumer spending.
The latest manufacturing numbers have also been very distressing. Measures of manufacturing activity all over the world are indicating that we have now entered an economic slowdown. This is also similar to what we saw a few years ago.
We should all feel really bad for anyone that is entering the workforce right now. We are in the midst of graduation season, and the only thing that our new graduates have to look forward to is an economic crisis that never seems to end.
On a recent article entitled “Global Financial Markets Tremble As Bad Economic News Continues To Pour In” a reader named Esta left the following comment….
I feel sad for yet another year of graduates entering a horrible job market. I recently read, and I think it was in the mainstream media, that only half the 2010 college grads have found jobs of any kind, only half of those have found jobs requiring a college education, and that 85 percent of all grads moved right back in with their parents. The job growth rate is so low that we keep employing fewer and fewer people as a percentage of our adult population. Why isn’t that still a recession?
What a future our college graduates have to look forward to, eh? Moving back in with your parents, a crappy job (if you can find one) and a pile of student loan debt that will crush you financially for decades.
We are always told that “more education” is the answer, but even many of our most highly educated young people can’t find jobs. In fact, it turns out that a third of last year’s law school graduates aren’t even practicing law….
The law school class of 2010 is making news for all the wrong reasons. The budding legal minds who managed to find employment last year have set a new record–only 68.4 percent of them are in jobs that require them to pass the bar exam, the lowest share since the Association for Legal Professionals began collecting data.
Now it looks like the economy is going to starting heading downhill once again.
What is that going to do to the job market?
Last year, only 45.4% of Americans had jobs. That was the lowest figure since 1983.
In some states it was even worse than that. In states like California, Arizona and Mississippi only about 37 percent of people had a job last year.
The economic news just seems to get worse and worse and worse. The American people have been relatively calm over the past several years as they have waited for the promised “economic recovery”, but what do you think is going to happen if we have another major economic downturn and unemployment spikes back up by several more percentage points?
And what in the world can our “leaders” really do to “help” the economy if we do have a repeat of 2008?
We are already running trillion dollar deficits.
The Federal Reserve is already printing money like it is going out of style.
So what would their next moves be?
Most Americans have no idea how fragile our financial system and our economy really are.
Let us hope and pray that things can hold together for as long as possible, because when the next wave of the economic collapse happens it is going to be really, really messy.
Collier County, Florida — Have you heard the one about a homeowner foreclosing on a bank?
Well, it has happened in Florida and involves a North Carolina based bank.
Instead of Bank of America foreclosing on some Florida homeowner, the homeowners had sheriff’s deputies foreclose on the bank.
It started five months ago when Bank of America filed foreclosure papers on the home of a couple, who didn’t owe a dime on their home.
The couple said they paid cash for the house.
The case went to court and the homeowners were able to prove they didn’t owe Bank of America anything on the house. In fact, it was proven that the couple never even had a mortgage bill to pay.
A Collier County Judge agreed and after the hearing, Bank of America was ordered, by the court to pay the legal fees of the homeowners’, Maurenn Nyergers and her husband.
The Judge said the bank wrongfully tried to foreclose on the Nyergers’ house.
Read the rest at digtriad.
This guest essay by longtime correspondent Kevin Mercadante examines the costs to making short-term profits and government spending the metrics that guide the entire economy.
Political Myopia and America’s Manufacturing Decline
by Kevin Mercadante
For decades voices in the woods have been warning us of impending crises in the foundational systems that make the U.S. economy go. We’ve been advised of impending disasters in Social Security, Medicare, pension funding, the national debt, healthcare, energy and increasingly, employment. Charles and others sounded the alarm on the housing bubble years before it hit.
But as has become our happy little way, we ignore warnings, preferring to dismiss them as the staple fodder of the “gloom-and-doom” crowd.
We should have learned our lesson with the exploding of the real estate bubble, but perhaps we haven’t. It could be that we’re doomed to experience the falling of one domino after another until we come out of our media induced entertainment stupor fully prepared to face more than a few ugly realities.
While the fallout of the housing and mortgage collapse has proven to be a crisis worthy of capturing our attention, other dominos are indeed falling, but doing so with far less fanfare and concern.
A BIG sector where the battle is already lost
Earlier this year, the IMF reported that China has over taken the US as the world’s top manufacturing nation ( IMF Bombshell: Age of America Nears End ). Over the past few decades we’ve had abundant warning that such a transition would occur. Mostly we’ve ignored the signs, contenting ourselves that the service economy and more government spending would more than replace what ever would be lost, and that come what may, America is still No.1!
But manufacturing isn’t just another sector of the economy—it’s the economic foundation of all modern industrial societies. To one degree or another, all other economic sectors rest on the foundation of the nations manufacturing production. It’s preposterous to believe that services and government spending can carry real economic growth in an economy devoid of the production of real goods—certainly not a nation as large as the U.S.
Because manufacturing produces tangible goods, it is the key to exports. Exports, in turn, are the key to trade surpluses and trade surpluses are the source of large international reserves—the kind that produce coveted creditor nation status.
China, Japan and Germany are creditor nations. All have large international surpluses, because all have large manufacturing sectors contributing to outsized exports that produce regular trade surpluses. And while the experts tell us that our manufacturing decline is due to high wages, it’s worth noting that both Japan and Germany have wage levels that are at least as high as the U.S, yet both have thriving manufacturing and export sectors. What is it that they can do that we can’t? We even have far more natural resources than either country!
Is the decline of manufacturing and our status as the world’s biggest debtor nation coincidental? Hardly.
But it gets worse. Manufacturing is also the fulcrum of technology, an area in which the U.S. has long claimed dominance, almost as some sort of birthright. As manufacturing goes, so will military-, computer- and medical-technology—and the high paying jobs they provide. The implications of the manufacturing decline are far more ominous than the collapsing of the housing bubble.
Politics and the manufacturing decline
If manufacturing is so important, we should be asking a critical question: where has our leadership been in the face of our decline?
I’m not talking about the current leadership—but I’m not excluding it either—the blame on this goes back at least a couple of decades. Have we the citizenry been holding our leaders accountable? It appears not.
What’s worse is that there seems be no “good guy” political party on this issue. As much as we might love to believe that there’s a good guy vs. bad guy element behind every issue, alas there isn’t. Both the Republicans and the Democrats have made substantial contributions to the country’s manufacturing decline, albeit from different directions.
What are some of the things Republicans have supported that have had a material negative impact on the nations manufacturing base?
- Advancing favorable tax policies to conglomerates that move manufacturing production overseas.
- Championed brushfire suburban development (“any development is good development”), sucking the life out of urban areas—which once were the very centers of American manufacturing.
- Enthusiastically supported the FIRE economy for its ability to grow and create jobs much more rapidly than capital intensive manufacturing.
- Allowed their patriotism and unbridled optimism over “all things American” to cause them to underestimate the capabilities of foreign competition.
- Demanded balanced budgets when Democrats were in control—but when Republicans are in power they shift to “deficits don’t matter”. Deficit spending creates a false sense that money can be created out of thin air, rather than earned through the production and export of real goods.
And how about the Democrats—the one-time champions of union workers?
- They’re the purveyors of not in “my back yard” (NIMBY)—if it’s ugly, noisy or dirty, move it somewhere else. How does manufacturing grow or even survive in that environment?
- In growing suburban areas, they use “environmental concerns” to keep out manufacturing, businesses with physical inventories and even suburban agriculture (pesticides, animal habitat destruction, etc.)
- They tend to favor “gentrification”, which is code for the elimination of the working class. They want sanitized neighborhoods, clear of work vehicles, chicken coops and physical inventory.
- Though they claim to want to restrict growth in the suburban fringe, many seem to live there anyway.
- Though they tend to cry foul over the corruption of the FIRE economy, they nonetheless tolerate it willingly because it’s “clean”.
- They’re the party of tax-and-regulate. Any tax as a good tax—especially when it’s levied on businesses. That’s a difficult environment for any business to operate in, but more so for manufacturing concerns because they’re capital, inventory and labor intensive.
Not surprisingly, there are common platforms between the parties. For example, both are obsessed with maintaining the escalation of property values. But decades of relentless increases in real estate prices have done more than their share to degrade small business, agriculture and manufacturing. Property becomes so expensive that the land beneath a business enterprise is worth far more than the business itself. The land is then sold to make way for subdivisions, condominiums, office buildings and strip malls—the very nesting grounds of suburban development and the FIRE economy.
Neither party is concerned with true urban renewal or worker retraining—the kinds of efforts that could resuscitate a declining manufacturing base and provide jobs for millions of workers. Generous student loan programs are supported for elite university educations, but little emphasis is placed on community colleges and technical schools training workers for jobs closer to the ground.
What politicians of both stripes have been truly good at is keeping the issue out of public site. They’re as quick to bury the debate as they are to show up at ribbon cutting ceremonies at the opening of brand new (foreign owned) manufacturing plants in their home districts.
Is it at all hard to see why America’s manufacturing base has eroded to second class status?
Our favorite form of political participation: Blame the other party
There’s an article of faith in American politics: what ever is wrong with country is the fault of the other party. It’s not just the leadership of the two parties that engage in the practice either—it’s a common belief of the man on the street. That’s a simplistic belief that shows that we’re not emotionally prepared to face and deal with our problems.
Democrats tend to believe that the nation is in good shape as long as a Dem is in the White House. A March poll on President Obama’s approval rating found that while only 42% of the general population approve of the president’s job, fully 80% of Democrats do. What could explain such an enormous gap in perception?
The Republican faithful are no different. The very economic conditions contributing to Obama’s low approval rating were well in play during 2007-2008 when George W. Bush was at the helm. The economy was heading down the drain while Republicans were in denial—after all, their guy was in and all was well. Now they rail against Obama’s continuation of Bush’s policies as if the economic decline began in January of 2009.
Will that kind of partisanship fix anything?
Charles has written many times that the nation’s ills will not be fixed by tinkering at the fringes, policy adjustments and promises of reform. Yet this is what politicians in both parties promise—and what we choose to believe even as reality screams otherwise. No real sacrifice, no real change—just get rid of the other party and all will be as it should. Is that a solution? Has it saved American manufacturing? Even more important, will that be our strategy for dealing with other major problems?
The truly dark side of ignored problems is that by the time they become front page news, it’s already too late! The task will no longer be to fix a broken system, but to build a new one from the ground up. Will this be the course with deficits, pension funding, healthcare and energy? We can hope not, but the trend is very unsettling.
Kevin Mercadante is a regular reader of Of Two Minds, a professional blogger and the owner of OutOfYourRut.com, a website about careers, business ideas, money and more.
But we were told this was just a little bailout, remember? And that it wouldn’t be of material consequence or size, right? So….what’s this?
In a preview of a story to run Monday, the German magazine Der Spiegel said on its web site that the package — the equivalent of $145.2 billion — could be necessary if the economically ravaged nation continued to rely on foreign aid through 2013 and 2014. That comes on top of the 110 billion euros, or $160 billion, in bailout funds agreed to last year.
At what size does a bailout package become “material”? Is not $300 billion, roughly, in that range?
And remember, this is Greece – a small nation with a “small” problem. What of Ireland, Portugal, Italy and…. Spain?
Seventeen governments in the zone will seek longer maturity from creditors for Greece’s debt. The process is to begin as early as July. A new Greek aid package is expected to be approved by Euro finance ministers at a meeting on June 20.
Ah yes, “seek.” This is an attempt to avoid triggering the Credit Default Swaps that we know the banks had written against this debt. Well, that’s nice. Now about those swaps and the number of them compared to the actual bonds outstanding….. and whether anyone had capital adequacy to pay them. They didn’t, right?
Standard & Poor’s Friday said in a report that for issuers rated at Greece’s level, single-B, a “voluntary” debt exchange would likely be default if creditors received securities with terms less favorable than are available in the secondary market. With 10-year Greek debt yielding 15% in the secondary market and two-year debt yielding over 20%, that is almost certain to be the case under the exchange process planned by euro-zone governments.
Officials say that they are willing to accept a downgrade of Greece by the credit-rating agencies due to the exchange offer—so long as a “credit event” that would require payouts to holders of Greek credit-default swaps isn’t triggered.
Of course it’s a default – “take this bond with less-favorable terms in exchange, or we don’t pay.” That’s very much identical to sticking a gun in someone’s face.
Now how you keep that from being a “credit event” is beyond me. More to the point, why is it that four years into this mess we have as citizens – not just here but worldwide – failed to demand that these swaps and other instruments be exchange traded and that capital adequacy and margin be proved, in cash, on a nightly basis?