Yesterday, markets were closed in both the United States and Britain. Still, here at Markets and Money ’s mobile command post, we continued our lonely vigil. What are we waiting for? What are we watching for?
Ah, dear reader…just a little dignity, a little grace, a little courage and beauty. That’s all we ask. Can we find it on Wall Street? In Washington? In politics or economics? We hope so, because that’s all we have to work with here at Markets and Money.
Oil went up yesterday. Asian markets fell – with Japan taking its biggest hit in six weeks. And the dollar fell. Speculators are beginning to bet that the Fed will cut rates for an 8th time; that’s the world on the street. As we predicted, the first 7 cuts have done wonders for the prices of oil, gold and commodities…but little for the real economy. Oil has gone up 60% in six months…putting big pressure on U.S. household budgets. Now, instead of taking the hint – that it’s time to go in the other direction, by raising rates to head off rising prices – speculators think Ben Bernanke will continue battling deflation with further rate cuts. Maybe, maybe not…but our guess is that it doesn’t matter. Even if the Fed raises rates, it is unlikely to raise them enough to block the consumer price inflation already in the pipeline.
In economic theory, the supply of money is the key to prices. Prices should remain more or less stable when the supply of money increases at the same rate as the supply of goods and services. But in the last 15 years, the U.S. money supply increased about twice as fast as GDP. The surprising thing was that prices didn’t rise. That was the period known as the Great Moderation. As reported here yesterday, food prices only increased at a 2.5% annual rate…even though money supply, MZM, was going up at nearly 9%.
We have given our opinion as to why consumer prices did not go up. We guessed, too, that those trends that labored so hard to hold them down have now walked off the job. Prices now seem to be adjusting to a higher money supply, with food up 4% last year, officially. Unofficially and anecdotally, consumer prices are rising at about 10% per year.
But while consumer prices were stable during that 15-year period…asset prices frequently went into bubble territory. And now, we await the Final Bubble, dear reader…about which we will have more to say later in the week.
In the meantime, the winner of the Enron Prize, and former headman at the Fed, Alan Greenspan, is in the news this morning. The Financial Times reports that he believes “there still greater than 50% probability of recession.”
Warren Buffett, on the other hand, says recession is already a fact of life. And he says it will be “deeper and longer that people expect.”
The old timer’s definition of a recession was ‘when your neighbor loses his job.’ When you lose your own job, it’s a depression. How many people have lost their jobs in this downturn? Well, for the answer to that question we look to the same people who give us the official inflation numbers – the apparatchiks at the U.S. Labor Department. Therein, of course, hangs a tale…and we will let Dana Samuelson of Danagold tell it:
“The average person judges a recession mainly on employment. If jobs are available, then the economy is holding up. If jobs are scarce, the economy is poor. By that standard, the economy is really struggling, with payrolls down in each of the first four months of the year. But the headline figures, again, don’t reflect the lived reality of Americans. At 5.0% in April, down from 5.1% in March, the current BLS unemployment rate is relatively low by historical standards. Yet the number of jobless Americans of prime working age, that is, men aged 24 to 54, is historically high at 13.1%. Most of these people don’t qualify as unemployed but they are nonetheless out of work.
“Why don’t these would-be workers show up in the headline statistics? Mainly because the government’s definition of the unemployed includes only people who do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the four weeks preceding the survey, and are currently available for work. But it excludes the self-employed, 1099 workers who can’t get enough contracts, those working part-time or on commission only, and the under-employed (like real estate agents waiting tables or mortgage brokers bagging groceries). It also doesn’t count those who’ve given up looking for work altogether – a category known as ‘discouraged workers,’ defined as persons not currently looking for work specifically because they believe there aren’t any jobs available for them. Some analysts say this particular group of jobless Americans – who believe their prospects for finding a job are getting ever dimmer, yet who don’t figure in the computation of the unemployment rate – represent the nation’s dire job situation. According to John Williams’ Shadow Government Statistics, the primary source for unbiased economic data, if adjusted for ‘discouraged workers,’ the actual unemployment figure for April rose to 13.1%, up from 13.0% in March. Now that’s recessionary!”
Real inflation at 10%? Real unemployment at 13%? Maybe. But we have not quite seen the fall off in consumer spending that these numbers suggest…
Markets and Money