January 2010 - Money Morning - Only the News You Can Profit From

Fourth Quarter U.S. GDP Report is All Sizzle and No Steak

When the Roman poet Phaedrus cautioned that "things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many," he could easily have been describing the latest report on the U.S. economy.

According to a report released Friday, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) expanded at a 5.7% annual rate in the fourth quarter, exceeding most estimates. But many economists are skeptical that such growth is sustainable. In fact, many analysts say the numbers are downright misleading.

Roughly two thirds of the growth came from businesses restocking inventories. Efforts to rebuild inventories contributed 3.4 percentage points to GDP growth – the most in two decades. But there wasn't a lot of "sell-through." In fact, excluding the change in inventories, final sales increased at a 2.2% annual rate, a signal that the economy remained weak despite strong top-line numbers.

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Looking For a Bright Spot? Productivity Growth May be America's Secret Weapon

The U.S. employment picture isn't pretty. At 10%, the unemployment rate is at its highest level in nearly three decades, and it's expected to move higher. American employers cut 4.2 million jobs last year, and nearly 15.3 million people are unemployed.

Those bemoaning the increase in U.S. joblessness are right to do so. But they should also remember that unemployment is a direct result of the U.S. economy's greatest strengths – its ability to grow productivity even in a recession.

The Conference Board publishes a Total Economy Database, which gives productivity growth figures – nearly 50 years' worth, in some cases – for most of the world's major economies. The results for 2009 were just released. And the Conference Board's conclusion jumps right off the page at you: The U.S. economy is nowhere near as bad off as many pessimists believe.

In the U.S. economy's bid to rebound in this post-financial-crisis world, productivity growth may be this country's secret weapon.

How can productivity fuel the rebound? Read on...

Seven Ways to Profit From the Obama Administration's New "Clean Energy Economy" Push

After Wednesday night's State of the Union address, the Obama administration has added a new mantra to its lexicon.

Welcome to the "Clean Energy Economy."

In a speech in which embattled U.S. President Barack Obama badly needed to reinvent himself, the nation's chief executive focused on initiatives designed to add value to the U.S. economy and create jobs. Clean energy technology was front-and-center as one of those initiatives.

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Fed Gambles on Low Inflation and a Stable Housing Market

The so-called "exit strategy" has yet to enter the picture.

U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers yesterday (Wednesday) announced that the benchmark Federal Funds rate would remain in its record-low range of 0.00% to 0.25% for an "extended period." And policymakers also said that the nation's central bank would continue with its plan to wind down its purchases of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities.

The term "exit strategy" is a financial euphemism for boosting interest rates. By keeping short-term interest rates at what many experts say are artificially low levels, the Fed is betting that inflation will remain subdued in the short and medium-term and that the beleaguered U.S. housing market will be able to stage its recovery without crutches.

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My Confrontation With Ben Bernanke: The One Question He Refused to Answer

The Secret Service agents watched me warily as I approached U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

I didn't waste any time. After introducing myself, I showed him a copy of the talk he gave at the American Economic Association (AEA) meetings in January 2007. I circled all the times he used the words "panic," "crisis," and "stress" in his speech, entitled "Central Banking and Bank Supervision of the United States."

A total of 36 occasions.

I asked him point-blank: "Did you know in advance that a financial crisis was headed our way?"

He looked nervous. I could tell he was uncomfortable with my question. He looked at me stoically and smiled.

And he refused to answer.

But there was no doubt in my mind what the correct answer was. I think he was worried about his job if he said, "Yes."

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Why the Volcker Plan Doesn't Go Far Enough

I don't often agree with the Obama administration. So I have to say that I was surprised when I heard it had a plan to reduce the risk of another banking crisis. It wants to prohibit banks that are protected by deposit insurance from engaging in risky, proprietary trading, and it wants to break up some of the very largest banks.

I made both those recommendations in my forthcoming book "Alchemists of Loss" (Wiley 2010). The book, written jointly with Kevin Dowd, a British finance professor, should debut sometime late this spring(we sent the manuscript to the publisher last weekend – what a relief!). But after I studied the Obama plan further, I realized that I shouldn't have been surprised – the idea's sponsor was former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker.

Why Volcker's plan doesn’t go far enough...

Mortgage Investments Offer Both Opportunity and Risk: Making Sense of Conflicting Reports

Recently, I finished reading an engaging book that explained in detail how John Paulson generated more than $20 billion betting on a crash in the housing markets. Many wise investors could see the writing on the wall months ahead of the panic period, but since you can't exactly short an individual house, it was difficult to figure out the best way to profit from the coming crash.

After months of studying and more than one false start, Paulson eventually determined that the best strategy was to buy protection on mortgage securities. I'll spare you the tedious details, but the concept of mortgage securities is very interesting (and potentially very lucrative). Essentially, many of the loan originators – the companies actually lending money for home purchases – didn't want to keep these loans on their books. Instead, they bundled the loans together in a pool and sold these "securitized" loans to investors.

Over time, the process got very complicated, with the pools being sliced up into different categories – some with more risk and potentially greater returns, and some with much lower risk and consequently lower profits. Leading up to 2007, there was so much investor demand for these securities that the loan originators couldn't keep up with all the buyers. Eventually, new derivative markets emerged, allowing more investors to bet on these pools of mortgages.

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Can Bernanke Tune Out Political Pressure as the FOMC Again Ponders Policy Changes?

When U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke emerges from the central bank's monthly policymaking meeting at around 2:15 p.m. today (Wednesday), it's a near certainty that he'll reaffirm his pledge to keep interest rates "exceptionally low" for an "extended period" of time.

Bernanke has kept the benchmark Federal Funds rate at a record low range of 0.00%-0.25% since December 2008, and that's not likely to change as a result of today's meeting of the central bank's Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC).

At some point, however, Bernanke will have to tighten credit and raise interest rates in order to soak up all the excess liquidity and curb inflation in the U.S. economy. But the question remains: When that time comes, will Bernanke have the fortitude to do so?

There's no simple answer. And for good reason: With the country mired in its worst financial crisis in most Americans' lifetimes, the central bank's decisions now are as political in focus as they are economic.

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