This week began with shrieks of joy. First, a federal court came down on Bernie Madoff like a brick on a baldhead. Madoff, convicted of lying to investors, drew a sentence that only a sea turtle or a swamp oak could complete. Then, like children playing in the sea, investors were teased by one wave of good news…and tickled by the next.
Bloomberg reported that “Wall Street’s largest bond-trading firms say the worst may be over for investors…” Then, General Electric’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt and famous investor George Soros both said that the crisis is “behind us” and that growth will begin again next year. Finally, analyst John Dorfman opined that the stock market would be a safe place for their money at least through the end of the year.
And now comes the big American holiday – July 4th. Investors pack their suntan lotions and head off to the beach for Independence Day. With Jaws in a cage, they had judged it safe to go into the water. But then came Thursday’s news. Instead of going down as predicted, the number of job losses for June went up. Another 467,000 people became unemployed last month. The figure even surprised us; we didn’t think there were that many people who still had jobs.
And so…this weekend, investors walk along the beach deep in thought. Is it safe to go back into the water…or not? They should listen carefully. That gurgling sound they hear is not mermaids singing, it is the world economy, drowning.
As we reported in this space, the feds’ bailouts, boondoggles and bankers’ bonus plans aren’t working. At the end of last year, they predicted unemployment over 8% in 2009 – if the stimulus plan were not enacted. But it was enacted. Unemployment is at 9.5% already and it is still rising. It will be over 10% before the end of the year. Global trade is collapsing; exports from Germany and Japan are down about 40% from a year before. Prices are going down too – with a report this Wednesday that the entire Eurozone has slipped into negative inflation. And from Britain came data showing a contraction of 2.4% in the first quarter, bringing the year-to-year decline to nearly 5%. “Economy shrinks at 1930s rates,” said the headline in Wednesday’s Telegraph.
When we look at America’s employment numbers, we feel like a school doctor. We would call the authorities, except that it was the authorities who should be arrested. After the feds got finished with them, the numbers told of a better-than-expected drop in May U.S. payrolls. The key to this uplifting news was not a genuine improvement, but new and improved techniques in torture. Water-boarded with seasonal adjustments and birth/death models, the numbers began to see jobs everywhere. As for “discouraged workers”, meaning those who gave up looking because they couldn’t find a job, these unfortunate souls disappeared from the jobless figures altogether.
John William’s Shadow Government Statistics reports that without these twists, the numbers tell the same story they’ve been telling all year – unemployment is still getting worse, at about the same pace as earlier in the year. “The unadjusted annual decline in May payrolls was the worst since May 1958,” says Williams. And if they were allowed to speak freely – as they did in the ’30s – the figures would show real unemployment at over 20% of the workforce…or about 30 million people. That approaches Great Depression levels…and we’re still only in 1930, not 1932. As for those still working, an additional 1.5 million U.S. workers have been “forced into part time work” according to the Financial Times.
Analysts compare these sharp drops in trade, prices and employment to what happened after WWII. Come 1946 and the world had little use for so many soldiers, machine guns and artillery shells. Millions of young men were ‘de-mobed’ and joined the unemployed. And smokestacks suddenly stopped smoking. But that was at the very beginning of 62-year period of credit expansion. Consumers had pent up demand for houses, cars, and other goods and services…and they had the wartime savings to buy them with. Even so, it took three years of adjustment after the war before the stock market began to turn up.
Now, we are at the other end of the cycle – the beginning of a major credit contraction, with no pent-up demand, no savings, and too much capacity to turn out too much stuff that too many people don’t have the money to buy.
Meanwhile, housing prices are still going down in America…and with housing goes the lenders’ collateral. U.S. residential property prices have fallen 33 months in a row. So many houses are “underwater” that the United States is beginning to look like the lost continent of Atlantis.
More foreclosures are coming. U.S. mortgage loans typically call for “down the road modifications” that lead homeowners into a kind of financial cul de sac with no way out except foreclosure. According to a study by T2 Partners, there are three more big waves of foreclosures still ahead – including those in ‘prime” loans, home equity lines of credit, and in commercial real estate.
“When [these mortgage loans] start adjusting upward it will turn millions of homeowners into over-levered, underwater renters, and ensure housing is a dead asset class for years to come,” says Mark Hanson of the Field Check Group.
With incomes falling and house prices weak, consumers will miss payments, default, and cut back spending. Business earnings will decline; bankruptcies will increase. This economic undertow is treacherous. Investors should stay out of the water.
Until next time,
for Markets and Money