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The Economy - Hyping Hope
While Peddling Fear

By Joel Skousen
World Affairs Brief 
Barack Obama and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke were reading from the same playbook this week, hyping hope in the economy, but still wringing all the necessary leverage out of public fear to justify the certainty of future bailouts. Obama claimed he could see "signs of economic progress," while Bernanke echoed the foolishly optimistic remarks of John McCain when he said "I am fundamentally optimistic about our economy." Bernanke said there are signs that the "sharp decline" in the US economy is slowing. Even if that were true, which is by no means certain, there are still other major crises ahead. It is of little consolation when the bottom is nowhere in sight. Obama's speechwriters had injected into his remarks some defensive remarks targeting the growing backlash against the bailouts as exemplified by this week's Tea Party protests nationwide.
Obama rejected criticism that he was acting with "reckless abandon" by touting the old mantra that deep crises require powerful actions: "History has shown repeatedly that when nations do not take early and aggressive action to get credit flowing again, they have crises that last years and years instead of months and months - years of low growth, years of low job creation, years of low investment, all of which cost these nations far more than a course of bold, upfront action." That's a distortion of economic history and a classic case of "pushing on a string" --an economic term for trying to increase supply of credit when there is little desire to take on more debt. Interest rates are effectively at zero percent and few are taking the bait.
Past depressions were caused by a tightening of monetary policies after a period of expansion of the money supply. This crisis was caused by a purposeful and massive expansion of credit, which cannot be overcome with more credit, even at zero rates. Business wants profits and needs them fast, not more debt. Their ratio of debt to equity is already too high to pay off, unless you are the recipient of bailout moneys. That's why Goldman Sachs and other insider banks are showing "profits" --easy to do when you have billions in bailout funds to undergird your expenses, but those profits aren't real, and are only being bandied about to spur a buying of bank stocks.
All the world's major financial powers know that a major sea change is in the offing, and they are desperate to find a way to get out of dollars--without selling them directly into the financial markets, which would collapse the value of the dollar. They know that US monetary policy has only one way to go and that is toward massive inflation--which only the US can get away with, at least for a bit longer, due to its massive quantitative advantage. The big money holders are betting against the dollar in the long term even though the dollar is so far holding its own (due to the weakness of other currencies).
China has made a decisive decision not to wait any longer for the dollar to collapse. It is moving to buy up massive amounts of strategic materials and minerals while prices are cheap and while the dollar still has some value. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Daily Telegraph noted, "China's State Reserves Bureau (SRB) has been buying copper and other industrial metals over recent months on a scale that appears to go beyond the usual rebuilding of stocks for commercial reasons. Nobu Su, head of Taiwan's TMT group, which ships commodities to China, said Beijing is trying to extricate itself from dollar dependency as fast as it can. 'China has woken up. The West is a black hole with all this money being printed. The Chinese are buying raw materials because it is a much better way to use their $1.9 trillion of reserves. They get ten times the impact, and can cover their infrastructure for 50 years.'
"The SRB has also been accumulating copper, aluminum, zinc, nickel, and rarer metals such as titanium, indium (thin-film technology), rhodium (catalytic converters) and praseodymium (glass). While it makes sense for China to take advantage of last year's commodity crash to restock cheaply, there is clearly more behind the move. 'They are definitely buying metals to diversify out of US Treasuries and dollar holdings,' said Jim Lennon, head of commodities at Macquarie Bank. John Reade, metals chief at UBS, said Beijing may have made a strategic decision to stockpile metal as an alternative to foreign bonds. We're very surprised by Chinese demand. They are buying much more copper than they will need this year. If this is strategic, there may be no effective limit on the purchases as China's pockets are deep.'"
This same strategy is being employed even here at home as more and more middle-class professionals jump on the preparedness bandwagon and start stockpiling commodities, survival equipment and retreat properties. Clearly they are not swayed by the facile ploy of pushing economic optimism on the American public.
Most of the statistics about growth are illusory and sometimes based upon temporary stimulus offerings that won't last. For example, new home sales saw a spike this last quarter specifically because of monetary incentives passed by state legislatures and Congress, but only applicable to new, never before occupied home. Those new homes sales figures are being driven mostly by the lure of getting a freebie from government. Even then, the pool of potential buyers who can qualify is relatively small--and more than half the buyers are speculators.
The spike in sales of used homes was primarily due to the steady rise of foreclosures. As Bloomberg News reported, "U.S. foreclosure filings rose to a record in the first quarter as employers cut jobs in the recession and temporary programs to delay action on defaults came to an end RealtyTrac Inc. said. 'A total of 803,489 properties received a default or auction notice or were seized, 24 percent more than a year earlier... Filings for the month of March totaled 341,180, also a record.' 'Foreclosures haven't peaked yet,' said David Olson, president of the mortgage research firm Wholesale Access in Columbia, Maryland." But the spike in numbers of used home sales doesn't tell the other half of the equation--that prices are still falling. According to the S&P Case/Shiller Index of 20 U.S. cities "prices fell 19 percent in January from a year earlier, the fastest drop on record. The measure has fallen every month on a year-over-year basis since January 2007. Mortgage applications declined last week for the first time in a month, a sign that even with borrowing rates below 5 percent may not be enough to spur a housing recovery." None of this supports an optimistic view of the economy.
What about the housing rescue plan by the Obama administration? "The housing-rescue plan is intended to help as many as 9 million homeowners near default refinance into cheaper loans. About 7.6 million mortgage holders don't qualify because they owe too much more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, according to real estate valuation service Zillow.com. Obama's plan allows owners to refinance if their mortgages exceed their property value by 5 percent or less."
Other economic reports show a worsening pattern in the US. Rex Nutting of MarketWatch says, "The economy continued to worsen across the United States in March and early April, amid scattered signs that the pace of the decline was lessening in some regions... the economy declined at a 6.3% annual pace in the fourth quarter, and economists are forecasting a decline of 5% in the first quarter and about 2% in the current quarter. Almost all sectors were contracting or slowing in almost all regions... Manufacturing weakened, retail spending was 'sluggish,' the housing markets were 'weak' and banks reported rising delinquencies and deteriorating loan quality." A good part of that declining loan quality is in the commercial sector. As that sector falls into delinquency, a lot of heretofore stable banks, which evaded subprime mortgages, are going to go under.
Nutting also wrote that the decline in industrial output is the worst since VE Day after WWII. "The output of the nation's factories, mines and utilities fell 1.5% in March despite higher production of motor vehicles and a boost from utilities, the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday. Industrial production is down 13.3% since the recession began in December 2007, the largest percentage decline since the end of World War II. Output fell at a 20% annual rate in the first quarter, and is now at the same level as December 1998. Factory production fell 1.7% in March. Factory output has fallen 15.7% during the recession, also the largest decline since 1945-1946. Capacity utilization fell by a full percentage point to 69.3%, the lowest since the data series begins in 1967."
As expected, consumer prices, according to Bloomberg, "posted their first annual decline since 1955 and unused American manufacturing capacity reached a record, alleviating concern that Federal Reserve actions will cause inflation to soar. The consumer price index fell 0.4 percent in March from a year before, and 0.1 percent from the previous month, the Labor Department said in Washington." In reality, this is good news as declining prices tend to lead to a positive resolution of economic woes. If only the feds would stop trying to prop up home prices and let them fall further. Despite current declines, home prices are still too expensive relative to people's income.
The bottom line, as expressed by John Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, is this: "We are going to have an economic recovery, but it won't feel like one most of us are used to." That's because a permanent change is taking place in foreign and domestic consumption. People will remain wary for many years about returning to the free spending, easy credit buying habits of the past. Don't expect those to come back (unless hyperinflation arrives--which will drive people to buy now just to avoid rapidly rising prices). For now, people and businesses will have to get used to a permanent lower level of consumption, which is healthy for the economy.
(End of excerpt)
World Affairs Brief, April 17, 2009 Commentary and Insights on a Troubled World.
Copyright Joel Skousen. Partial quotations with attribution permitted. 
Cite source as Joel Skousen's World Affairs Brief http://www.worldaffairsbrief.com 
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