2011 started with so much economic promise. Jobs were being created, stock markets were rising. Interest rates were rising quickly too, in anticipation of strong economic growth. Then, oil and gas prices spiked over the unrest in Egypt and Libya. Gas prices reached $4.00 per gallon in May and everyone’s tipping point was reached. Enough!
Consumers cut back spending and continue to pay down or shun debt. The economy was creating jobs at a half decent pace in the first quarter and then job growth hit a wall in May. The unemployment rate ticked back up above 9%. Housing, so very important to consumer confidence, resumed its downward trend after seeming to have stabilized in late 2010.
Japan’s earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear accidents caused severe disruptions in the supply chain for manufacturers of automobiles and electronics; these disruptions are expected to ease in the coming quarters. Bad weather, including tornados and river flooding, also hurt the economy in the second quarter.
Debt problems in Greece and other European countries reared up again and caused a flight to quality as investors bought Treasury bonds and sold stocks in the second quarter. Forward price-earnings multiples are down to 12 times, versus a historical norm of 15.5 times. Weakening economic data did not help either and led to further rate declines, albeit only halfway to the “crazy” low levels of last October and November.
Some of the factors that are causing this economic “soft patch” are temporary (including bad weather, Japan woes, and high oil prices) and some of the factors will linger, most notably stubbornly high unemployment rates and weak housing markets. Some of the forward looking indicators, such as unemployment claims, construction spending, and especially backlogs, have weakened in the last couple of months, signaling slowing growth.
Economists keep ratcheting down their projections for GDP for 2011 and 2012, probably as a result of the weaker forward looking indicators. The latest Wall Street Journal Survey of Economists shows projections of 2.7% and 3.0%, respectively. The Federal Reserve is a little more optimistic, at an average of 2.8% and 3.5%, respectively. These growth rates imply slow, steady recovery and relatively low interest rates as unemployment will be slow to fall from its lofty levels above 9%.
Last quarter, I wrote that I was surprised by the employment data. The total labor force kept dropping this year through April and the numbers of persons “not in the labor force” kept rising. People don’t exit the labor force during a recovery, at least not in any recovery since World War II, according to Chris Low of FTN. Well, finally in May, the situation reversed and people reentered the labor force, so, at least for now, we have found some of the MIA.
But we still have work to do. Since the Great Recession began in December, 2007, until May, 2011, we are still down a net of 6.5 million to 6.9 million jobs, based on household surveys and payroll surveys of employment, respectively.
It is one of the most frightening stories that I have seen recently, with the exception of the Casey Anthony trial’s not guilty verdicts. There is a group of computer hackers calling themselves “Anonymous” and who are referring to themselves as “hacktivists.” They are attacking Internet websites, while encouraging others to do so too, of companies and governments that they simply don’t like or don’t agree with. The hacking began last year with denial of service, or “DOS,” attacks on Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal for rejecting Wikileaks payments. They have hacked the government sites of Iran, Egypt, and Turkey and even the public sites of the CIA and the FBI. They recently attacked Sony PlayStation’s site, which was down for one month. The group left a file on Sony’s networks, called “Anonymous.” Inside the file, it simply said “We are Legion.” Sony spent the entire month and over $170 million getting its site reopened. The costs of protecting Internet data are escalating.
In early June, the group declared war on the Federal Reserve. I guess they don’t like Ben Bernanke. They are apparently moving from DOS attacks to stealing data to disclosing data online. Will they be able to hack the networks of the largest owner/creator of pure money? This has to be one of corporate America’s biggest fears and potentially one of our economy’s biggest expenditures in protecting online networks. For our economy’s sake, let’s hope the Fed can win this war.
Putting It All Together
In the understatement of the year so far, Ben Bernanke stated that short term rates will be lower for longer than we think. So the Fed has just told us that they are keeping rates low for an extended (really extended) period of time. I have contended for some time that the Fed will not raise rates until the unemployment rate is substantially lower. Government stimulus, for all intents and purposes, is over. The ongoing arguments over the debt ceiling and the likelihood of large reductions in government spending to reduce massive deficits mean that there will be no more fiscal stimulus.
Burdensome overregulation is all we will “get” from government. No extended tax cuts and business credits are in our future. The Federal Reserve’s stimulus is ending too. The $600 billion quantitative easing, or “QE2,” program, which injected those funds into the economy, ended on June 30th. Lower gas prices, lower being a relative term from the high of $4.00 in May, will be the only tax cut we will get. Slow growth will be the result.
Low short term rates are also supported by one of Keynes’ favorites – the “liquidity trap” – which is alive and well. Fear of investing in an uncertain economy and unknown market conditions is mostly to blame. Businesses have $1.9 trillion in cash on their balance sheets at the end of the first quarter. Banks currently have $2 trillion in excess reserves, or cash. At the end of May, money market mutual funds totaled $2.75 trillion. All of this money earns next to nothing, so critical is the desire to avoid risk and preserve principal. As long as this money remains parked in cash, short term rates will remain near zero.
You may notice that I have not mentioned the word “inflation” up to this point. That is intentional. The higher inflation rates caused by high energy and food prices will be proven to be “transitory.” Not until we have truly defeated the evil of deflation – ask anyone trying to sell a house – will we have an inflation problem. It is a problem for another day. QE3 anyone? Stay tuned.
Thanks for reading! DJ 07/06/11
Dorothy Jaworski has worked at large and small banks for over 30 years; much of that time has been spent in investment portfolio management, risk management, and financial analysis. Dorothy has been with First Federal of Bucks County since November, 2004.