August 5th, 2011
With the debt ceiling extended, the risk of a catastrophic automatic pro cyclical Treasury response, as previously discussed, has been removed.
What’s left is the muddling through with modest topline growth scenario we’ve had all year.
With a budget deficit humming along at 9% of GDP, much like a year ago when markets began to discount a double dip recession, I see little chance of a serious collapse in aggregate demand from current levels. Follow up:
Factors Driving a Flattening Yield Curve
It still looks to me like Japan has a lingering soft spot and will continue an L shaped ‘recovery.’ The Fed is struggling to meet either of its mandates (full employment and targeted inflation) will keep this Fed ‘low for long.’ The term structure of rates is moving towards that dealing with that scenario.
With the end of QE, relative supply shifts back to the curve inside of 10 years, which should work to flatten the long end vs. the 7-10 year maturities. The reversal of positions related to hedging debt ceiling risks that drove accounts to sell or get short the long end will also drive a curve flattening process.
Factors Driving a Moderating Stock Rally (or Worse)
The first half of this year demonstrated that corporate sales and earnings can grow at reasonable rates with modest GDP growth. That is, equities can do reasonably well in a slow growth, high unemployment environment.
However, a new realization has finally dawned on investors and the mainstream media. They now seem to realize that government spending cuts reduce growth, with no clarity on how that might translate into higher future private sector growth. That puts the macroeconomic picture in a bind. The majority seem to believe we need deficit reduction to ward off a looming financial crisis where we somehow turn into Greece, but at the same time now realize that austerity means a weaker economy, at least for as far into the future as markets can discount. This has cast a general malaise that’s been most recently causing both stocks and interest rates to fall.
Commodities and Inflation
With crude oil and product prices leveling off, presumably because of not so strong world demand, the outlook for inflation (as generally defined) has moderated, as confirmed by recent indicators. As Chairman Bernanke has stated, commodity prices don’t need to actually fall for inflation to come down, they only need to level off, providing they aren’t entirely passed through to the other components of inflation. And with wages and unit labor costs, the largest component of costs, flat to falling, it looks like the higher commodity costs have been limited to a relative value shift. Yes, standards of living and real terms of trade have been reduced, but it doesn’t look like there’s been any actual inflation, as defined by a continuous increase in the price level.
However, the market seem to have forgotten that the US has been supplying crude oil from its strategic petroleum reserves, which will soon run its course, and I’ve yet to see indications that Lybia will be back on line anytime soon to replace that lost supply. So it is possible crude prices could run back up in September and inflation resume. For the other commodities, however, the longer term supply cycle could be turning, where supply catches up to demand, and prices fall towards marginal costs of production. But that’s a hard call to make, until after it happens.
Returned Focus on the Eurozone
With the debt ceiling risks now behind us, the systemic risk in the euro zone is now back in the headlines. Unlike the US, where the Treasury is back to being counter cyclical (unemployment payments can rise should jobs be lost and tax revenues fall), the euro zone governments remain largely pro cyclical, as market forces demand deficits be cut in exchange for funding, even as economies weaken. This means a slowdown in deficits results in negative growth. Rising unemployment can accelerate, at least until the ECB writes the check to fund counter cyclical deficit spending.
China had a relatively slow first half, and the early indicators for the second half are mixed. Manufacturing indicators looked weak, while the service sector seemed okay. The possibility of a hard landing remains because:
It’s really too early to tell; and
The numbers from China can’t be trusted.
Japan Recovery may be Prolonged
Japan is recovering some from the earthquake, but not as quickly as expected, and there has yet to be a fiscal response large enough to move that needle. And with global excess capacity taking up some of the falloff in production, Japan will be hard pressed to get it back.
Falling crude prices and weak global demand softening other commodity prices, looks dollar friendly to me. And, technically, my guess is that first QE and then the debt ceiling threats drove portfolios out of the dollar and left the world short dollars, which is also now an additional positive for the dollar.
Weak U.S. Aggregate Demand
The lingering question is how US aggregate demand can be this weak with the Federal deficit running at about 9% of GDP. That is, what are the demand leakages that the deficit has only partially offset. We have the usual pension fund contributions, and corporate reserves are up, with increases in both retained earnings and cash reserves. Additionally, we aren’t getting the usual private sector borrowing to spend on housing/cars as might be expected this far into a recovery, even though the federal deficit spending has restored savings of dollar financial assets and debt / income ratio to levels that have supported vigorous private sector credit expansions in past cycles.
Impact of Bubbles
But what if the private sector credit expansions of the past were “not normal” and what we have now is a real normal? Looking back at past cycles it seems the support from private sector credit expansions that ’shouldn’t have happened’ has been overlooked, raising the question of whether what we have now is the norm in the absence of an ‘unsustainable bubble.’ For example, would output and employment have recovered in the last cycle without the expansion phase of the subprime fiasco? What would the late 1990’s have looked like without the funding of the impossible business plans of the .com and Y2K credit expansion? And I credit much of the magic of the Reagan years to the expansion phase of what became the Savings and Loan debacle. In addition, it was the emerging market lending boom that drove the prior decade. And note that Japan has not repeated the mistake of allowing the type of credit boom they had in the 1980’s, accounting for the last two decades of no growth. Conversely, China’s boom has been almost entirely driven by loans from state owned banks with no concern about repayment.
So my point is, maybe, at least over the last few decades, we’ve always needed larger budget deficits than imagined to sustain full employment via something other than an unsustainable private sector credit boom? Is it reasonable that prior decades could not have been as they were if the bubbles had not occurred unless government deficits were larger? And with today’s politics, the odds of pursuing a higher deficit are about as remote as a meaningful private sector credit boom.
So muddling through seems here to stay for a while. Investors may be coming to grips with that possible reality.
Elliott Waves: Potential High for Stocks and Low for Dollar by Avi Gilburt
Investors: The News is Getting Even Worse by Art Patten
Death of Risk-Free Investment by Martin Hutchinson
Is the End Near – Or Is It Different This Time? by Ed Easterling
The Budget Compromise: Congress Creates a Rube Goldberg Doomsday Machine by L.Randall Wray
A Congressional Card Game by Warren Mosler
Business Does Not Create Jobs – Consumers Do! by Warren Mosler