The Real Numbers Behind America's Phony Recovery

Wednesday is the big day. Investors are on the edges of their seats, waiting to find out what the Fed will do. Taper? No taper? Or maybe it will taper on the tapering off?

Our guess is the Fed will not commit to a serious program of reducing its support to the bond, equity and housing markets. It's too dangerous. Ben Bernanke – the man who didn't see the housing crash coming – won't want to see the stock market collapse just before he leaves office. He'll want to go out on a high note…

…and that means guaranteeing more liquidity.

Investors don't seem worried. On Monday, the Dow rose 130 points. Gold was up $10 an ounce. Most of the reports we read tell us the economy is improving. Unemployment is going down. Meanwhile, manufacturing levels are rising. Compared to Europe, the US is a powerhouse of growth and innovation, they say. Compared to emerging markets, it is a paragon of stability and confidence.

How much do investors love the US? Let us count the ways:

1. GDP per capita is running 7% – ahead of where it was in 2007. Among the world's major developed economies only Germany can boast of anything close. All the rest are falling behind.

2. The budget deficit – which was running at about 10% of GDP – is now down to just 4% of GDP.

3. Unemployment is going down, too. Heck, just 7 out of 100 Americans are officially jobless. Didn't Bernanke say he would tighten up when it hit that level?

4. And look at prices. Consumer price inflation is running at just 1% over the last 12 months. No threat from inflation, either.

 

Statistical Folderol

But wait …

What if all these things were delusions… statistical folderol… or outright lies? What if the true measures of the economy were feeble and disappointing? What if the US economy was only barely stumbling and staggering along?

Well, dear reader, you surely expect us to tell that the US economy is a hidden disaster… and we won't disappoint you. GDP? Carmen Reinhart studied the performance of rich economies following a financial crisis. Her paper, "After the Fall," showed that, six years after a crisis, per capita GDP was typically 1.5 percentage points lower than in the years before the crisis. But in the US, per capita GDP growth is running 2.1% lower than its pre-crisis level – significantly worse than average.

Deficits? Super-low interest rates have helped debtors everywhere. "Never have American companies brought a greater share of their sales to the bottom line," writes Bill Gross. How did they do that? Largely by taking advantage of the Fed's interest rate suppression program. But hey, the US government is the world's biggest debtor. It is the primary beneficiary of the Fed's miniscule rates.

That's part of the reason why deficits are low. Let the yield on the 10-year T-bond return to a "normal" 5%, and we'll see deficits soar again. (Interest payments, under this scenario, would add an additional $360 billion a year to the deficit.) Besides, it's not only the deficit that counts. It's also the total level of debt… and particularly the debt financed with funny money from the Fed.

Only twice in US history has the ratio of US Treasurys held at the Fed gone over 10% – once in 1944 and again today. The first time, it was a national emergency: World War II. Now, the Fed is merely fighting to protect a credit bubble.

Inflation? Yes, consumer price inflation is low. But what that shows is that real demand is still in a deleveraging trough. The money multiplier – the ratio of money supply to the monetary base – collapsed in 2008. It has not come back. Neither has the economy.

Unemployment? The rate has been doctored by removing people from the labor pool. The workforce is now smaller – as a percentage of the eligible pool – than at any time since 1978.

Besides, what is important is not the rate, but what people get from employment. On that score, it is a catastrophe. According to a Brookings Institution study, the average man of working age earns 19% less in real (inflation adjusted) terms today than he did during the Carter administration!

 

A Strange Kind of Recovery

What kind of economy is it that reduces a man's wages over a 43-year period? We don't know. But it's not likely to win any prizes. But why, with so many strikes against it, does the US economy still have the bat in its hands?

It's partly because the Fed has pumped up stock, bond and house prices – not to mention net corporate profit margins (by reducing the interest expenses on corporate debt) and consumer spending (through entitlement programs funded through the Treasury with ultra-low interest rates). So, the averages look pretty good… and they mask the ugliness beneath them.

The rich got richer on the Fed's EZ money. But the average "capita" is actually poorer. The bottom 90% of the population – people in 9 houses out of 10 – have 10% less income than they had 10 years ago.

This is not a success story. It's a disaster. And not one that tempts us into an overvalued US stock market.

 


 

The above article is from Diary of a Rogue Economist originally written for Bonner & Partners.

Bill Bonner founded Agora, Inc in 1978. It has since grown into one of the largest independent newsletter publishing companies in the world. He has also written three New York Times bestselling books, Financial Reckoning Day, Empire of Debt and Mobs, Messiahs and Markets.

 


 

 

 

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