Monday, August 30, 2010

The backward slide into recession

Ongoing deleveraging has slowed personal consumption and trimmed 2nd quarter GDP to a revised 1.6%. The economy is sliding backwards into recession. As Obama's fiscal stimulus dries up and the private sector slashes spending, demand will continue to collapse pushing more businesses and households into default. The economy is now caught in a reinforcing downward cycle in which dwindling fiscal and monetary support is shrinking the money supply triggering a slowdown in activity in the broader economy.

Far right policymakers have shrugged off increasingly ominous economic data, choosing to pursue their political aims through obstructionism. Their goal is to block countercyclical measures that will boost activity, lower unemployment and narrow the output gap. By torpedoing the recovery, GOP leaders hope to take advantage of anti-incumbent sentiment and engineer a landslide victory in the midterm elections. But the timing could not be worse. The economy is in greater peril than most realize and badly in need of government intervention. As the current account deficit continues to widen, the global system inches closer to a major currency crisis. Ballooning trade imbalances signal that a disorderly unwinding of the dollar is becoming more probable. If the dollar drops precipitously, US demand for foreign exports will fall and the world will plunge into another deep slump.

The Fed ended its bond purchasing program (quantitative easing) at the end of March, but has promised to reinvest the proceeds from maturing bonds into mortgage-backed securities to keep its balance sheet from shrinking. But the Fed's action does not increase the money supply or reverse disinflation which is progressively edging towards outright deflation. The Central Bank is committed to providing additional resources to support the markets, but the Fed's primary policy tool--short-term interest rates---is already stuck at zero making the task more difficult. Without additional monetary stimulus, asset prices will tumble leading to another round of debt-liquidation and defaults. The housing market is already in full retreat. New and existing home sales have fallen to record levels clearing the way for steep price declines. Housing cannot recover without an uptick in employment which means that businesses need to see strong demand for their products. But product demand will remain weak until wages grow and struggling consumers dig their way out of the red. With personal consumption and business investment faltering, the government must step up its spending to avoid a return to recession.

The banks are not prepared for another wave of defaults, foreclosures and write-downs. Bank lending continues to shrink and the system is still fragile. A sudden turnaround in the equities markets would expose the banks to severe losses and force the Fed to provide emergency liquidity for wobbly financial institutions. The solvency of the banking system is largely public relations hype. The faux stress tests merely obfuscated critical details about the true, mark-to-market value of their assets. The nation's biggest banks are still wards of the state.

Much of the rot at the heart of the financial system remains hidden from view. Accounting sleight-of-hand, gigantic liquidity injections, and regulatory forbearance have all helped to perpetuate the fraud. The Fed continues to divert capital into zombie institutions which provide no tangible public benefit. Low interest rates, government guarantees on bonds, interest payments on reserves, the Fed's discount window, and the myriad lending facilities are some of the perks, subsidies, inducements and corporate welfare given to the banks at taxpayer expense. In return, the banks provide nothing; not even sufficient credit to generate another expansion. In its current configuration, the banking system is a net loss to society and a significant drag on growth.

Last week, 2nd quarter GDP was revised down to 1.6%. First quarter GDP was twice the size at 3.7%, while 4th quarter 2009 was higher still at 5%. The underlying trend is reasserting itself as growth turns to stagnation.

The Fed does not have the tools to fix the ailing economy. Quantitative easing can lower rates and keep asset prices inflated, but it cannot increase demand, reduce the output gap or lower unemployment. Only fiscal stimulus can do that and policymakers have rejected that option. The US is now facing a protracted period of high unemployment and subpar economic performance punctuated by infrequent stock market rallies and predictable bursts of optimism. The recovery is over.

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