Two Ways to Tell if the U.S. Economy is Ready to Get Back on its Feet

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The U.S. economy has been crippled by the financial crisis. And regardless of what policymakers try to do to spur growth, it will hobble along lamely until two major economic pillars are rectified.

Simply put, there's no chance that stock investors will see a healthy, long-term bull market until credit again begins to flow freely and home prices start rising.

Unfortunately, neither the credit market nor the housing market is yet ready to lead a sustainable economic rebound. But knowing that these are the two legs on which our economy stands, we can effectively gauge their condition, and thus be better able to predict a stock market rally.

Let me explain.


The Credit Crutch

When evaluating the health of the economy, the first place to look is right in the pocket of the American consumer. Consumer spending accounts for between 66%-70% of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). There simply isn't much hope for the economy if consumers aren't spending. And consumers can't spend freely if they don't have access to credit.

Consumer spending also drives the stock market. At this point, it doesn't matter how productive companies become or how much they cut expenses and overhead; if there's slack demand for their goods and services, they won't meet revenue expectations and stock prices will suffer.

The "Great Recession" has forced many U.S. companies to clean their houses by trimming waste, expenses, and overhead. Also, thanks to low interest rates, businesses can refinance their debts to save on interest expenses. All that is missing is for the demand side of the equation to pick up.

But therein lies the economy's, and by extension, the stock market's problem.

The prospect of a double-dip recession has nothing to do with the health of most of America's companies. What matters is whether or not inexpensive, long-term credit is available to spur demand and consumption.

What's worrisome right now is that big banks aren't anxious to extend credit in the form of direct loans, mortgages, or revolving credit lines. It's a lot safer for them to borrow money from one another and the U.S. Federal Reserve at next to nothing, and then buy risk-free government treasuries and agency paper than it is to extend credit to borrowers in a potentially faltering economy.

The fear that interest rates are close to bottoming out is another impediment to big banks freely extending credit. Because banks borrow on a very short-term basis they have to constantly roll over their short-term borrowings. If short-term rates start rising, banks' funding costs rise, and that erodes margins on the long-term loans they've made. It's even possible for banks to lose money on their loan portfolios if they haven't matched up long loans with short borrowing costs.

While smaller community banks and middle-market regional banks have the same funding issues that big banks have, they don't have the size and clout of the too-big-to-fail banks, so their borrowing costs are actually higher. So is their cost of equity, because investors know they aren't too big to fail. These banks also have smaller commercial loans on their books that they can't offload or refinance as easily as the big banks can. Giant distressed loans are more appealing to institutional and hedge fund investors than the smaller types of loans made more locally by community banks.

Lastly, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) and other bank regulators have been playing catch-up in their bank monitoring efforts. Regulators are hitting an increasing number of institutions with enforcement actions, even though it's too little, too late. As regulators look into banks to assess risk management, risk-based capital ratios, credit quality and how losses are accrued, they're finding a lot that they don't like. Enforcement actions are demands to clean up deficiencies, fix accounting issues, shake up management and often require institutions to increase capital.

The net result of these enforcement actions is that management assessment reports create an unwelcome record of problems and deficiencies that scares off equity investors and provides fodder for future lawsuits against bank boards and their officers. In an environment of heightened scrutiny it's unlikely that these banks will be willing to add to their loan books while facing funding, accounting, regulatory and legal headwinds.

Since the extension of credit to consumers by banks is so critical to economic growth, it makes sense for an investor to monitor whether credit to consumers is expanding or contracting,

To follow credit extension trends go to the Federal Reserve's website: www.federalreserve.gov. Click first on the "Economic Research & Data" tab and then the "Data Download Program" link on the left side of the screen. Under the heading "Principal Economic Indicators" click on "Consumer Credit-G.19." From there you can download consumer credit data.

Healing Housing

The major leg of the U.S. economy is the residential real estate market.

Simply put, most Americans' largest asset is their home. Homes are a source of pride and stability, and as home prices appreciate, Americans "feel" wealthier and can tap into their home equity when they're in need of a loan.

The National Association of Home Builders estimates that housing contributes between 17%-18% to GDP. It's also a fact that consumer spending related to housing upkeep, appliances, furniture and decoration has a powerful ripple effect throughout the economy.

Putting a floor under sliding housing prices is critical to consumer confidence, consumer health, and the entire economy.

Unfortunately, fixing the residential real estate market may be America's most intractable problem. It's going to require a whole new set of regulatory, lending, and securitization practices.

Smoothing out all of the interconnected pieces of the very complicated residential real estate fabric will be a long, painstaking process. And it's one that investors should carefully monitor. So keep an eye on home price trends and sales numbers.

You can do this by going to www.realtor.org. Click on the "Existing-Home Sales" link under the "Housing Statistics" header. There you'll get the latest housing sales and price data with comparisons to previous months, as well as trend commentary.

Consumer spending and the housing market drive the economy. So knowing if credit extension trends and residential real estate pricing and sales trends are negative or positive will help you navigate the murky depths of this recovery.

More importantly, knowing when those trends have turned positive will give you the strongest signal possible that the direction of the stock market will undoubtedly be up, up and away.

Action to Take: Follow the progress of the credit market and housing market by going to www.federalreserve.gov and www.realtor.org.

[Editor's Note: Shah Gilani, a retired hedge-fund manager and renowned financial-crisis expert, walks the walk. In a recent Money Morning exposé, Gilani warned that high-frequency traders (HFT) were artificially pumping up market-volume numbers, meaning stocks were extremely susceptible to a downdraft.

When that downdraft came, Gilani was ready - and so were subscribers to his new advisory service: The Capital Wave Forecast. The next morning, because of that market move, investors were up 186% on a short-term euro play, and more than 300% on a call-option play on the VIX volatility index.

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Take a moment to check out Gilani's capital-wave-investing strategy - and the profit opportunities that he's watching as a result. And take a look at some of his most-recent essays, which are available free of charge. To read one of his most-popular essays, please click here.]

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About the Author

Shah Gilani is the Event Trading Specialist for Money Map Press. He provides specific trading recommendations in Capital Wave Forecast, where he predicts gigantic "waves" of money forming and shows you how to play them for the biggest gains. In Short-Side Fortunes, Shah shows the "little guy" how to make massive size gains – sometimes in a single day – by flipping large asset classes like stocks, bonds, commodities, ETFs and more. He also writes our most talked-about publication, Wall Street Insights & Indictments, where he reveals how Wall Street's high-stakes game is really played.

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  1. Jim Donald | August 27, 2010

    If the American economy is as dependent on residential house prices as this article suggests – then God help America and by extension God help us all.
    For a nation to have a healthy economy the bulk of that economy has to be involved in international export trade.
    To be dependent on further debt creation in order to boost consumer spending is nothing short of insane.
    America is finished as the premier world economic power.

  2. don perkins, Economist / Contractor | August 27, 2010

    Shah, your analysis is good but shallow. Suspect you know more than you are stating, re distribution of income and consumer's potential to spend, structural problems that no one seems to be willing to address that likely will stymie things until they are, etc.

    Why do market analysts like yourself ignore such fundamentals? Is it because they are always brown nosing big investors, many of whom who now have a disproportionate share of both the income and the wealth pie? If so, your stance seems self defeating, if not, what am I missing? Not trying to antagonize; reference: "The State of Woring America", 2008 2009.

  3. richard lamb | August 27, 2010

    All the more evidence that the trillions inserted by Government to keep the bubble enflated was misdirected. Had they followed Warren Hardings example and Andrew Mellons beliefs about resolving debt the crap would be gone and an honest interchange wouild be in place.
    It might take a generation to wash away the corruption. Confidence, one destroyed, is not easily (never?) regained. My attitude towards this subject was flavored by the 1930's. I was born in '29.

  4. Phil Steinschneider | August 27, 2010

    Mr. Gilani,

    I always derive great pleasure reading your commentaries. I also enjoyed seeing your recent appearance on Fox Business.

    You make a plethora of valid arguments. There's no doubt that in order for the US economy to return to its former glory, both consumer spending needs to increase and real estate prices have to begin appreciating again. But here's the question: Do we want to go back to that?

    Maybe it's time for us to reassess how important it is to own a house and consume. Instead, we might be a happier and richer nation of we begin manufacturing more and getting rid of our clutter.

    Debt-based consumption only makes sense when it improves productivity and fundamentally enhances our lives. Frivolous consumption, which is an act that doesn't actually produce a return of any kind, should only be exercised with excess savings.

    Since America no longer has any savings, the economic upheaval yet to come when our creditors realize we can't pay them back will be gut-wrenching.

  5. Jahangiri | August 27, 2010

    When are You Experts going to Get it …Its about JOBS JOBS JOBS.
    When people have a regular confident source of income…consumerism will come back and help every sector in the economy.

  6. Tib Csabai | August 27, 2010

    The article's main points totally miss the salient issues restraining our economy … namely the "silent" but very costly wars / occupations we are waging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the huge military outlay with bases around the world; and the lack of credit for the nations small businesses. This nation can not run an economy that is burdened by a $200 billion per year war outlay, and a $700billion per year "defense" budget. Nor with $700 billion bailout of the largest banks and no credit available for Main St USA.

    Lyndon Johnson proved you cannot have both guns and butter in Vietnam, even though he "raped" the Social Security trust fund to make it look like he could.

    To get this nation going economicaslly, it needs loans for small businesses, and an end to the near trillion dollar defense spending that protects us against a few hundred religious nuts!

  7. Lucien | August 27, 2010

    Why do you say housing prices need to be supported? Housing prices are still at least 40% too high. You know that. Buyers will not buy till the prices drop to where they need to be. To support housing prices would only prolong the recession.

  8. Cmor | August 30, 2010

    Jahangiri is right on target. Americans getting back their jobs at fair pay to sustain a middle class lifestyle is the key pillar that, once built again, will signal that our economy is back on track.

    However, there may be other pillars that need to be rebuilt again BEFORE the Jobs Pillar can be built. That's where the complexity comes into play. What strong and tall pillars can realistically bring jobs back? Maybe bringing manufacturing back to American soil for starters. But this isn't realistic. It will never happen naturally.

    Americans are in for a tough haul. We don't make things anymore. We're service oriented now. We're consultants. Advisors. Marketers. Thinkers not doers. Soft.

    And the world around us won't pay for our advice or help much longer. They're the doers now. Tougher.

    Nothing short of The Next Big Thing is going resurrect the Jobs Pillar to even half the previous century's height. Previous big things were cars, jets, The A-Bomb, PLASTICS, The Microwave Oven, electronics, computers, global RT communications…now what? I'll give a few examples of what can spur it all again, and I'm not saying all are good…

    1) Discovery of and communication with alien life on another planet.
    2) Discovery of a super cheap, practical, and reusable energy supply.
    3) Discovery of accessible genetic modification to extend our lifespans.

    Going to war hasn't and won't do it this time! 9/11 wasn't 12/7/41. No Silent Generation of DOERS was produced. Just USERS. Strong thumbs, lazy and dormant.

    Let's face it, finding the way to make it cheaper to employ Americans on American soil to make useful products may indeed be harder than all three of the above. I don't think I'm going to see it again in my life, and I'm only 40.

    God Save America! Yea right. How about, "Americans Save America!"

  9. sharon ehrhardt | August 30, 2010

    I agree with your, bank analysis but I can't agree that credit to consumers and houses that are way overpriced in terms of incomes should or can rise again. When corporations are incentived to bring jobs home through taxes or whatever we will see prosperity once more.

    the fact is a big percentage of good jobs have either been sent overseas or replaced by automation and workers no longer have any bargaining power. To enable underpaid or unemployed workers to borrow more is not the answer. Mortgages should equal no more than 3 years of income with 20 per cent down. The housing bubble cannot be re-inflated no matter what the government does. We have to restructure our economy in such a way as to create productive jobs here at home with decent incomes. When will the big international corporations figure out that we can't be a prosperous nation if our citizens can't afford their products? Unless we have a huge bout of non-productive inflation, housing won't be any higher in 20 years. The effort to re-inflate housing is really about trying to save the banks from their own folly. It is a bottomless pit.

  10. Tom T | September 19, 2010

    Yes, the lack of credit and falling real estate are 2 big wobbly legs, but to wait for them to turn around will be longer than a month of Sundays, and will require a rebound in jobs. We need about 10 million jobs now, and there are no good answers for this. Temporary work on public works projects just kicks the can down the road, as Japan has proven recently.
    With the second round of mortgage resets, this time its Alt-A and Option ARM loans already underway and peaking next year, it will be years before a stable residential market returns.
    The Fed and the administration are sinking the country with debts, and creating more trillions to quell all crises as needed. Its their only answer to these problems, and the only course the public would accept. They told us it would work years ago, so decide for yourselves if you believe it. Hope springs eternal as the saying goes, and most Americans would rather hope than face the reality of where this path leads.

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