October 3, 2022

An Economic Puzzle – Consumer Confidence Hits Six Year High While Majority of Americans Say U.S. Still in Recession

courtesy: forbes.com

If everyone from the Fed Chairman on down to the average man in the street seems confused about how the economy is doing, well, it’s because they are. The economy is still in a recession, a depression or an emerging boom depending on who you listen to. Two recent news articles published days apart highlight the divergence of opinion on the state of economic affairs.

Consumer Confidence Revisits High Set in 2007

Americans are more confident about the economy than at any time since July 2007, a survey found, suggesting consumers will spend more and accelerate growth in the months ahead.

The University of Michigan said on Friday that its final reading of consumer sentiment in July was 85.1. That’s up one point from June and nearly 13 points higher than a year ago.

Rising home prices and steady job gains are bolstering household wealth and income. The proportion of Americans who expect their inflation-adjusted incomes to rise in the coming year is greater than at any time since late 2007, the survey found. And the percentage of Americans who say their home values have risen is also at a six-year high.

Majority of Americans Say U.S Still in Recession

The economy may be sputtering along. But it hasn’t been in recession for more than four years. More than half of Americans think it still is.

A majority of people — 54% — in a new McClatchy-Marist poll think the country is in an economic downturn, according to the survey conducted last week and released Tuesday.

The McClatchy-Marist poll found that Americans who earn less are more likely to think the economy is in a recession. Of those earning less than $50,000 a year, nearly two-thirds say the downturn is still underway. For those earning more than that, only 47% think so.

Is it any wonder that Bernanke swings from tapering to easing in the same week? The Federal Reserve, packed with PhD economists, seems as equally confused about the state of the economy as the average consumer.

After considering the divergent opinions, two general conclusions regarding the economy are possible here.

-Predicting the future is a fool’s game, and
-Consumers who have well-paying jobs, money in the bank and rising incomes are far more likely to be optimistic about the future than someone with no job and no money.

Optimists On Housing Recovery May Have To Wait Another Decade – Humpty Dumpty Vs The Fed

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Housing prices were never supposed to decline year over year.

Economic depressions were supposed to be a relic of the past.

If the economy weakened, the Fed would fix everything with lower interest rates and Congress would pass some new laws to create new jobs.

If things got really tough, the government would temporarily increase the debt and the magic of Keynesian economics was supposed to quickly “re-stimulate” the economy.

Our children were expected to lead more prosperous lives.  They were not supposed to move back in with Mom and Dad after four expensive years of college – arriving on the doorstep with a diploma in one hand, student loan notes in the other, telling us that they couldn’t find a job.

Day by day, we are discovering that a lot of things that were never supposed to happen are happening and no one seems able to turn things around.

The Federal Reserve and the White House promised to re-inflate the collapsed humpty dumpty real estate bubble with printed money and bailout programs for banks and defaulted homeowners.

An ex Princeton professor, now Chairman of the Federal Reserve, spent his life studying the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  He was supposed to know how to prevent another one, or so he assured us.

Fast forward to 2022 – housing prices that were supposed to have recovered a decade ago are still at levels seen more than 20 years ago.

Not possible you say?  Optimists and shills for the housing industry might want to consider some inconvenient truths.

Will the U.S. have 20 years of stagnant home prices?

What if real estate prices remain the same for another decade?  As I look at economic trends in our nation including the jobs we are adding, it is becoming more apparent that we may be entering a time when low wage jobs dominate and home prices remain sluggish for a decade moving forward.  Why would this occur?  No one has a crystal ball but looking at the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, growth of lower paying jobs, baby boomers retiring, and the massive amount of excess housing inventory we start to see why Japan’s post-bubble real estate market is very likely to occur in the United States.  It is probably useful to mention that the Case-Shiller 20 City Index has already hit the rewind button to 2003 and many metro areas have already surpassed the lost decade mark in prices.  This is the aftermath of a bubble.  Prices cannot go back to previous peaks because those summits never reflected an economic reality that was sustainable.

Courtesy: doctorhousingbubble.com

The days of “no doc” loans are long gone and not likely to return anytime soon.  Lenders have reactivated a quaint old mainstay of mortgage underwriting and now require borrowers to verify the capacity to service debt payments.  Higher home prices require rising incomes but real incomes for many Americans have been declining for decades.

The income of the typical American family—long the envy of much of the world—has dropped for the third year in a row and is now roughly where it was in 1996 when adjusted for inflation.

The income of a household considered to be at the statistical middle fell 2.3% to an inflation-adjusted $49,445 in 2010, which is 7.1% below its 1999 peak, the Census Bureau said.

The Census Bureau’s annual snapshot of living standards offered a new set of statistics to show how devastating the recession was and how disappointing the recovery has been. For a huge swath of American families, the gains of the boom of the 2000s have been wiped out.

Earnings of the typical man who works full-time year round fell, and are lower—adjusted for inflation—than in 1978.

Gary Shilling, who correctly called the housing bubble collapse, tells the Wall Street Journal that housing prices could decline another  20% or more.

It will take a 22% drop to return median single-family house prices to the trend identified by Robert Shiller of Yale University that stretches back to the 1890s and prevailed until the housing bubble began. (It adjusts for inflation and the tendency of houses to get bigger over time.) And corrections usually overshoot on the downside just as bubbles do on the upside.

The problem is excess inventories. They are the mortal enemy of prices, and we’ve calculated an excess of two million housing units, over and above normal working levels of inventories of new and existing homes. That is huge, considering that before the housing market collapsed, about 1.5 million new homes were being built annually, a figure that shrank to 568,000 in February. At current rates of housing starts and household formation, it will take four years to work off the excess inventory, plenty of time for those surplus houses to drag down prices.

Additionally, our inventory estimate doesn’t even include future foreclosures, some five million of which are waiting in the wings. The 49% drop in new foreclosures since the second quarter of 2009 is a mirage, and was partly due to the Obama administration pressuring mortgage lenders to try to modify troubled mortgages to keep people in their homes. (They were largely unsuccessful.)

We can say that “We are not Japan” but every passing day proves otherwise.  And for those misguided souls who still believe that the government and Fed can put humpty dumpty back together again, don’t you think that if they could have they would have?

Obama Jobs Plan Bad Joke For Both Employed and Unemployed

The long awaited and hugely hyped Obama “Jobs Solution Speech”, hastily crafted between rounds of golf on the Vineyard, is unlikely to help either the employed or  unemployed.

Obama’s calls his new proposals the “American Jobs Act” but it strongly resembles the $825 billion stimulus spending program of 2009 which was ineffective and failed to stimulate the economy or create new jobs.   Taxpayers will likely fail to see the logic of a $447 billion stimulus program working any better than a $825 billion stimulus program.

The latest proposals out of the White House appear to be another desperate Keynesian attempt to keep the economy on life support long enough to boost Obama’s chances in the presidential election race.  Expecting voters to buy into Obama’s new program pushes the bounds of credibility.  Why would a relatively small $447 billion program work any better than the $4 trillion in deficit financed spending since Obama came into office?

Telling voters that the new half trillion dollar program will be paid for from future mythical budget cuts isn’t likely to fly either after seeing the results of the latest fiasco on deficit reduction talks that lead to a downgrade of the US credit rating.

Half of $447 billion “Jobs Act” program consists of payroll tax cuts for both employers and employees.  While probably adding to aggregate spending, the tax cuts do not address the fundamental problems of unemployment and income stagnation over the past decade.

Why Payroll Tax Cuts Won’t Work

What business bases hiring decisions on a 2% drop in the social security (FICA) tax?  Any business man stupid enough to decide to hire new employees simply because his share of the FICA tax will be slightly lower is already out of business.  New employees are added by businesses when there is added demand for their products and when they are confident that a lasting economic recovery is underway.  Today, there is subdued demand and no confidence – a cut in the FICA tax does nothing to change this situation.

Regarding the payroll tax cut for employees, here’s how one Connecticut resident assessed the situation.

“I am currently making $80,600 per year.   The recent reduction of 2% in the FICA tax resulted in an increase of $31 per week to my paycheck.  Meanwhile, the State of Connecticut just passed the largest tax increase in history, retroactive to the first of the year, which results in paying $17 more per week.  My weekly deduction for medical insurance increased by $12 per week since last year and our employer has suspended pay increases.

My net benefit from the FICA tax reduction is $2 a week.  Meanwhile, the cost of gasoline, home heating, insurance and groceries has risen at least 6% over the past year.  Even if the FICA tax cut was made permanent, an extra $2 per week is certainly not going to motivate me to spend more.

My savings goals for college funding and retirement have been destroyed by a collapsing stock market and zero interest rates on savings.  I  have to cut current spending in order to meet my savings goals and any extra income would be saved, not spent.”

Did Obama talk to any “real people” outside of the group of Washington elites and millionaire celebrity pals he hangs around with?  I think not.

Did Obama talk to any “real businessmen” before coming out with his warmed over and effective stimulus plan?  I think not.

Did Obama talk to “Helicopter Bernanke” about how to spread out the $447 billion of borrowed money?  The government could simply spend the $447 billion by sending every household in America a check for $3,886 attached with a note telling the recipients to thank their grandchildren whose future has been mortgaged.

Voters are rightfully disgusted by the rapid decline in their standard of living, the debasement of the US currency and the self serving dealings of the ruling Washington elites.  To pull out an old campaign slogan, “It’s time for a change”.

There are no easy answers to pulling a debt laden economy out of depression, but increasing transfer payments, small tax cuts, massively increased regulatory burdens, trillions in stimulus spending and zero interest rates have not worked.  Maybe the Washington elites should simply step aside, stop micro managing the $14 trillion dollar US economy and allow the creative forces of capitalism to work

No Mortgage Payments For A Year Would Stimulate Spending

Experts Predict Depression

Are we in a depression?  Jon Markman of MSN Money eloquently explains the world’s financial dilemma.

Too Late To Avoid A Depression? – MSN Money

Policymakers are quickly running out of time and room for error. And even a brilliant plan — which we haven’t seen yet — could fail without some good luck.

The problem is that the models often fail to accurately forecast human behavior, and politicians regularly screw it all up by ignoring the data and diverting funds to pet projects.

Over the past week, the world’s intellectual, business, government and philanthropic elite emerged from World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, with grim faces and warnings of financial doom.

Credible economic analysts now say there is still a narrow window of time in which policymakers in the United States, Europe and Asia can avoid a meltdown over the next year by immediately coordinating the injection of real financial adrenaline to banks, companies, households and local governments — not just rhetoric and indiscriminate spending. Yet that window is closing fast, and if the right steps are not taken soon it may be shut for years.

The Stimulus Money Could Pay Every One’s Mortgage Payment For A Year

The experts are predicting a possible depression and the economy needs major monetary stimulus.

The government could provide a massive shot of adrenaline to consumer spending by eliminating the consumer’s biggest monthly payment – the mortgage.  The one  trillion dollars that Congress wants to spend can cover the interest due on every residential mortgage in the country for a year.  Here’s ten reasons why the plan would work.

1.  According to the Federal Reserve, total home mortgage debt as of the second quarter of 2008 was $10.6 trillion.   Assuming an average interest rate of 6.5% the interest payments would only be $689 billion for one year.  Equivalent payments could  be made to homeowners without mortgages and renters.  The total cost would roughly equal the one trillion in stimulus spending that has been proposed by Congress.

2.  Eliminating the mortgage payment would allow consumers to strengthen their balance sheets by paying off some debt.

3.  Many consumers would effectively have a substantial pay increase since the average mortgage payment can easily consume up to 40% of gross monthly income.  It is inevitable that a significant part of the extra cash would be spent.  The increased spending would increase demand for goods and services and reduce further job losses.

4. The mortgage payment is the biggest monthly expense for most people.  Not having to pay the mortgage for a year would greatly boost consumer confidence.  Restored confidence could stimulate future spending after the one year mortgage holiday ends.

5.  Homeowners who are in arrears on their mortgages would be given an opportunity to catch up.

6.  The default problem for the banks would be temporarily eliminated since the mortgage payment would be made by the government.   Not having a mortgage payment for a year would strengthen the consumer’s finances thereby lessening the number of defaults after the mortgage holiday is over.

7.  The American consumer knows how to spend – he just does not have the money right now.  Give it to him and let it be spent with no strings attached.

8. Millions of individual consumers will spend or invest the money more wisely than bureaucrats in Washington.

9. Those homeowners who have lost their jobs and are now struggling to pay their mortgages will be given immediate financial relief.

10. This plan would allow renters to save their stimulus payments for a down payment on a home, thereby providing support to the housing market.

If the Congress wants to borrow one trillion dollars that the American taxpayer will eventually have to pay back, then put that money directly into our pockets with a Mortgage Holiday.    We do not need Congress to spend our money for us.

Insolvent Banking System Eludes Government Containment

Denial Of Reality Becoming Impossible

The game of pretending that the world banking system and national governments are solvent becomes more difficult by the hour.

The true magnitude of the write downs that the banking industry needs to take to reflect the reality of asset impairment was highlighted by the Royal Bank of Scotland.   Pretending that the losses do not exist is no longer worth the effort since no one is fooled anymore.  There can be no recovery in bank lending unless impaired assets are written down and sufficient amounts of new capital are raised.  This is the point at which things get interesting since the capital markets are not open to the banks; the lender of only resort to the banking industry are the world’s central governments.  The really scary question now is whether the central governments have the financial capacity to recapitalize the banking industry (along with everyone else) without resorting to printing money on a grand scale.

Far from being contained, as some have proclaimed, the banking crisis continues to expand.  The debate is no longer focused on whether the banking industry is solvent.  The real question is whether central governments can contain the economic meltdown.

Consider the size of losses reported by Royal Bank of Scotland and the excuses and comments by RBS Chief Executive Stephen Hester.

RBS Expects Huge 2008 Losses

LONDON — Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC said Monday that tough market conditions in the fourth quarter and mounting impairment charges could push it to a 2008 full-year loss of as much as £28 billion ($41.29 billion), the U.K.’s biggest ever corporate loss.

The government currently owns just under 58% of RBS after last year underwriting a £15 billion rights issue that saw little take-up by existing shareholders.

The move means RBS will now have to pay back less to the government, but it has also to agree to boost lending to consumers and businesses. The Monday update comes ahead of the announcement of its 2008 results on Feb. 26.

RBS Group Chief Executive Stephen Hester said: “The dislocation of credit markets and the global economic downturn continue to hit RBS hard, as with many other banks.

“We are making progress in recognizing excess risk and dealing with it. Significant uncertainties and risks inevitably remain.

“In this context, the support we are receiving from the government benefits all our stakeholders and enables us to provide more customer support in return.”

“With enhanced core capital, removal of the preference share dividend and the prospect of further asset and liquidity measures, RBS is able to continue its strategic restructuring purposefully,” he added.

What Chief Executive Hester is really saying is that he managed RBS poorly and took ridiculous lending risks; no one will buy our shares or debt securities and we need a government bailout to prevent closing the bank.  Nonetheless, we now recognize “excess risk” and are ready to start lending again once we receive government funding.

Hester should be fired for incompetence –  he dissipated investor money and bank capital and now wants to try his hand with government supplied funding.

The question of how the British Government will raise the funds to bail out RBS is answered by The Telegraph.

Bank of England Edges Closer to Printing Money

Under the scheme’s terms, the Bank will be able to buy assets including corporate bonds and commercial paper, a move which Mervyn King, the Bank’s Governor, called “an important additional tool to improve financing conditions in the economy”.

The asset purchase facility does not in itself amount to quantitative easing or “printing money”, because the scheme initially will be financed by Treasury Bills and does not involve an increase in the money supply.

However, the Treasury has given the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee the option to go down that road by extending the scheme at a later date and paying for assets with what amounts to newly created money and not Treasury bills.  Quantitative easing is a more unconventional tool available to the Bank beyond interest rates as it attempts to halt the pace of economic decline in the UK.

“This does not mean that quantitative easing will definitely happen, but does allow the MPC to move fairly quickly if they want to,” he said.

Ross Walker, economist at Royal Bank of Scotland, said: “This framework could readily evolve into full-blown quantitative easing – we would expect it to do so given the proximity of Bank Rate [to zero] and deteriorating economic conditions, perhaps as soon as March/April.”

I agree with Ross Walker – full blown money printing will occur as demands on the British treasury continue to explode in size.   The British Government, approaching the limits of their borrowing capacity, will come to the rescue of RBS and others by printing money.  At this point, no one is even trying to pretend that RBS is solvent or that the British government can bailout every failing enterprise.  The end result will be a catastrophic destruction of confidence world wide.  When governments’ last resort is to print money, one can sense that the end of the old order is near.

Half of Europe Trapped in Depression

Events are moving fast in Europe. The worst riots since the fall of Communism have swept the Baltics and the south Balkans. An incipient crisis is taking shape in the Club Med bond markets. S&P has cut Greek debt to near junk. Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish bonds are on negative watch.

Dublin has nationalised Anglo Irish Bank with its half-built folly on North Wall Quay and €73bn (£65bn) of liabilities, moving a step nearer the line where markets probe the solvency of the Irish state.

A great ring of EU states stretching from Eastern Europe down across Mare Nostrum to the Celtic fringe are either in a 1930s depression already or soon will be. Greece’s social fabric is unravelling before the pain begins, which bodes ill.

This week, Riga’s cobbled streets became a war zone. Protesters armed with blocks of ice smashed up Latvia’s finance ministry. Hundreds tried to force their way into the legislature, enraged by austerity cuts.

“Trust in the state’s authority and officials has fallen catastrophically,” said President Valdis Zatlers,
who called for the dissolution of parliament.

Spain lost a million jobs in 2008. Madrid is bracing for 16pc unemployment by year’s end.

Private economists fear 25pc before it is over. Spain’s wage inflation has priced the workforce out of Europe’s markets. EMU logic is wage deflation for year after year. With Spain’s high debt levels, this is impossible.

Italy’s treasury awaits each bond auction with dread, wondering if can offload €200bn of debt this year. Spreads reached a fresh post-EMU high of 149 last week. The debt compound noose is tightening around Rome’s throat. Italian journalists have begun to talk of Europe’s “Tequila Crisis” – a new twist.

Greece no longer dares sell long bonds to fund its debt. It sold €2.5bn last week at short rates, mostly 3-months and 6-months. This is a dangerous game. It stores up “roll-over risk” for later in the year. Hedge funds are circling.

Printing money, a self destructive tactic is the last option left to the governments mentioned above.  Expect major social unrest in these countries as their governments collapse the national wealth through the printing press.

Depression Ahead, Prepare for Stock Rout

LONDON (Reuters) – Societe Generale said on Thursday that the United States’ economy looks likely to enter a depression and China’s could implode.

In a highly bearish note, veteran cross asset strategist Albert Edwards said investors should now cut equity exposure after a turn-of-the-year rally and prepare for a rout.

He predicted that the S&P 500 index of U.S. stocks could be set for a fall of around 40 percent from recent levels.

“While economic data in developed economies increasingly reflects depression rather than a deep recession, the real surprise in 2009 may lie elsewhere,” Edwards wrote.

“It is becoming clear that the Chinese economy is imploding and this raises the possibility of regime change. To prevent this, the authorities would likely devalue the yuan. A subsequent trade war could see a re-run of the Great Depression.”

Edwards has long been one of the most bearish analysts in London, first with Dresdner Kleinwort and then with SocGen.

The world Central Governments are resorting to the nuclear option – printing money – in a last attempt to hold the financial system intact.   Had they allowed selected major bankrupt institutions to fail, severe financial pain would have been inflicted on many.   The strategy of attempting to save all bankrupt industries with printed money will result in worthless currencies worldwide,  thereby guaranteeing financial ruin for all.