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This Economist is Forecasting a Recession – And He's Never Been Wrong
The U.S. economy is "tipping into a new recession" and there's nothing President Barack Obama or the U.S. Federal Reserve can do to prevent it, according to Lakshman Achuthan, co-founder of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI).
Now, if you're wondering why you should believe this prediction ahead of others then there's something you should know: According to The Economist, Achuthan's predictions on the direction of economy – either toward recession or recovery – have never been wrong.
"We don't make false alarms," Achuthan said, noting that ECRI did not forecast a recession last year when other prognosticators were.
A new recession could topple the stock markets into another deep funk like the one caused by the 2008-2009 downturn when the markets plummeted more than 50%.
The ECRI uses dozens of leading indexes to make its forecasts, and as of last week, Achuthan said those indicators were all pointing to a recession.
"We're seeing the weakness spread widely," Achuthan told MarketWatch. "There's a contagion…that's not going to be snuffed out. The nature of a recession is not a statistic. It's a vicious feedback loop. Sales fall, production falls, income falls and that depresses sales. We're in that and it's going to run its course."
Worse still, he doesn't think any governmental policy changes can prevent it.
"It is not reversible," Achuthan told Bloomberg Radio. "There is virtually nothing that can be done to avert what is going to happen."
Don't Buy Into Europe's Latest Rescue Effort – The Continent's Banks Are About to Go Bust
The latest plan to preserve the European Union (EU) and save the global banking sector is to force European banks to increase their equity capital.
The goal, of course, is to restore confidence and stability. But if that's the case, then why are so many analysts and savvy investors still nervous?
To put it bluntly, because they know it won't work.
As it stands, the capital shortage is about 200 billion euros ($277 billion) according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). I think it's more like 1 trillion euros ($1.4 trillion) by the time you factor in all the cross holdings and the daisy chain of exposure that makes the entire banking system there look like Swiss cheese.
Why Recapitalization Won't Work
There are three things that are especially problematic to me:
- European Union (EU) ministers apparently are going to put capital into the system without knowing how much it needs or exactly where to put it. Hard to believe, but thanks to the opaque nature of the derivatives markets, nobody can be sure exactly how much exposure any one bank or financial institution has.
- Healthy banks that do not need an infusion will get one anyway. Rainer Skierka, who is a stock analyst at Bank Sarasin & Cie AG, shares my belief that this will lead to massive dilution for shareholders.
- Any bank that is undercapitalized will effectively be the recipient of capital that has been diverted away from healthy banks and into its toxic financials. Unfortunately, this money will be placed at higher risk in an effort to earn the incremental income needed to backstop bad bets that already are on the books. That means shareholders who are led to believe things are improving will actually find their money at an even higher risk than before.
As I have noted repeatedly since this crisis began, regulators are fighting the wrong battle and have been since 2008. They are worried about liquidity when they should be worried about solvency.
Sure, a bank recapitalization can repair the banking system when it comes to keeping money moving in terms of short-term credit – but no amount of money can prepare European banks for a sovereign default or credit freeze because there literally isn't enough money on the planet to recapitalize the banking system unless you remove the risks that plague it.
The "system" is still at incredible risk.
The total worldwide notional derivatives exposure is more than $600 trillion dollars according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). And that's against a gross market value of merely $21.1 trillion.
In other words, banks have invested in instruments valued at $21 trillion but with a total exposure that's 28.4-times that — or $600 trillion dollars.
This is why rogue traders are such a problem; they can take disproportionately large risks with not a lot of capital, which often leads to catastrophe.
Take Nick Leeson, the former derivatives broker who worked for Barings Bank. His leveraged trading losses eventually reached $1.4 billion, or twice Baring's available trading capital. Barings went under as a result.
More recently, Kweku Adoboli, who served as director of exchange traded funds (ETFs) at UBS AG (NYSE: UBS), blew a $2 billion hole in UBS' balance sheet.
Part of the problem is that n obody knows exactly how much cash banks spend to amass such investments because derivatives and sovereign debt trading instruments are still largely unregulated and "self policed" within the industry.
So what's this have to do with our money?
U.S. Economy In Crisis: How To Prepare For The New 2012 Recession
just finished a battery of media appearances on Fox Business, Bloomberg, BNN and CNBC Asia, and without exception I was asked about two things: President Barack Obama's jobs bill and the U.S. Federal Reserve's "QE3."
The first thing investors and analysts want to know is whether or not the president's jobs bill will work. The answer to that question is "no" – not as it stands, anyway.
Don't Worry: Apple Stock Will Bounce Back
Suddenly, Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) appears mortal.
With Apple stock falling 5.59% yesterday (Wednesday) to close at $398.62 following an uncharacteristic earnings miss Tuesday, the company has lost its aura of invincibility.
Apple delivered $7.03 a share on $28.27 billion in revenue but analysts had expected earnings of $7.28 a share on revenue of $29.45 billion.
"The implications of an Apple miss means more than is typical, given the importance of its auraof brilliance in sustaining premium price points and product loyalty," Alex Gauna of JMP Securities wrote in a research note. "This will likely also add to well-placed investor anxiety around how the company sustains its momentum under new leadership."
The earnings disappointment – Apple's first since the second quarter of 2002 – was just one of several recent bruises suffered by the Cupertino, CA-based tech giant.
Concern started brewing in August when Steve Jobs resigned as CEO, but Jobs' death from pancreatic cancer earlier this month seemed to rob Apple of some of its magic.
Then the Oct. 4 introduction of the iPhone 4S was met with disappointment because it wasn't the much-rumored iPhone 5.
The series of stumbles has Apple investors wondering whether their days of huge gains are over. But the emotional reaction to Apple's earnings is a mistake.
"While the Q4 miss – following management transition – may restrain near-term investor sentiment, we think the new management team should be given its opportunity to show what it can do," RBC Wealth Management analyst Mike Abramsky said in a research note.
Abramsky also pointed out several strengths that show why abandoning Apple stock now would be premature: "Apple's key franchises (iPad, iPhone) remain early and underpenetrated, with significant growth drivers (4G, China, emerging markets, enterprise, etc.) ahead," he said.
In fact, a comprehensive look at the company's fundamentals as well as its prospects shows that there's still tremendous potential for growth.
Four Moves to Make Before Greece Defaults
The very austerity measures that Greece implemented to remedy its sovereign debt crisis have crippled its economy so badly the country is actually sinking deeper into the red, making default all but inevitable.
Already suffering from a four-year-old recession, the Greek economy has been dragged down further by the series of austerity measures – tax increases combined with cuts in pensions and wages. As a result, the Greek economy is expected to contract 5.5% this year and 2.5% in 2012.
The Greek government announced this week that unemployment soared to 16.5% in July, up from 12% a year earlier. It's expected to rise to 17.5% before the end of this year.
With its gross domestic product (GDP) shrinking, Greece has less money to repay its debts, and worse, it must continue borrowing at higher interest rates.
Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to rise to 162% this year and 181% in 2012.
"Without drastic action, [Greece's] debt-to-GDP ratio will rise to even more alarming levels," a Milken Institute report on the Greek debt crisis said earlier this month. "The ratio is reaching levels at which it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a country to avoid default on its debt."
Even the "troika" of Greek lenders – the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) – concluded in a report released yesterday (Thursday) that the troubled country's "debt dynamics remain extremely worrying."
"When compared with the outlook of a few months ago, the debt sustainability has effectively deteriorated given the delays in the recovery, in fiscal consolidation and in the privatization plan," the report said.
The report also expressed concern that Greece's budget deficit for 2011 will fall between 8.5% and 9% of GDP, which exceeds the target of 7.75% of GDP set by the troika as a condition for granting the most recent batch of bailout loans.
To continue to meet the troika's criteria for still more bailout loans – which Greece must have to avoid default – even more austerity measures will be needed.
But the Greek public, as well as many politicians, has displayed more resistance with each new set of austerity measures.
- Did You Miss the Dow's Biggest Monthly Point Gain Ever?
Rising Wages in China Good for Glocals, But Few Jobs Coming Back
Although some economists have predicted that steeply rising wages in China would bring some jobs back to the United States, the biggest winners will be the large multinational companies operating in China.
Last week the Guangdong province, where many of China's factories are concentrated, announced a 20% increase to the minimum wage. Combined with two earlier hikes in April and July, the total increase over the past 10 months is a startling 42%.
And with an eye toward booting domestic consumption, the government plans to keep the raises coming – on average 20% a year through 2015.
That extra money will get spent with domestic Chinese businesses as well as U.S. corporations with a strong presence in China – such as McDonald's Corp. (NYSE: MCD) – but is dramatically raising costs for Chinese manufacturers.
Between the wage increases and slumping global demand, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries warned on Tuesday that as many as one-third of Hong Kong's 50,000 factories could downsize or close by the end of the year.
As China's competitive advantage in wages erodes, some analysts have predicted a wave of jobs returning to the United States from China. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) forecast a return of 2 million to 3 million jobs by 2020.
But Money Morning Chief Investment Strategist Keith Fitz-Gerald doubts any repatriation of jobs will be quite so massive.
"That's wishful thinking on the part of Westerners," said Fitz-Gerald, who operates The New China Trader service for the Money Map Press, who noted that "labor rates are still very, very low" in China.
Although Fitz-Gerald said a few "industries with little value-added" could see the return of some jobs to the United States as a result of China's rising wages, other factors will restrain a mass migration of jobs across the Pacific.
Despite reports of major labor shortages in the eastern coastal parts of China, Fitz-Gerald said there remains "vast undeveloped low-wage areas ripe for industrial expansion" in the western provinces of China.
"They have a 50-year initiative called the "Go-West' program that is designed to push labor from the eastern regions to the western ones," Fitz-Gerald said. "If the jobs are pushed west, there will be no great exodus of jobs from China."
The majority of jobs that do leave China, he said, will probably go to areas with even cheaper labor, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Mexico.
"That should make U.S. manufacturers very nervous," Fitz-Gerald said of Chinese jobs moving to Mexico. "The Chinese would be building stuff on our back doorstep."
With a factory just across the U.S. border, a Chinese manufacturer would save a lot of time and money on shipping.
Three Psychological Stumbling Blocks That Kill Profits
Face it, the past 12 years have been horrible for most investors.
This is not necessarily because the markets have been rocky, but rather because the vast majority of investors are hardwired to do three things that kill returns.
You can blame Washington, the European Union, debt, high unemployment, or half a dozen other factors if you want to, but ultimately, the person responsible is the same one staring back at you from your bathroom mirror in the morning.
That's why understanding the bad habits you didn't know you had can be one of the quickest ways to improve your financial wealth.
Here's what I mean.
Dalbar, a Boston-based market research firm, produces annual research that compares the returns of stock and bond markets with those of individual investors. The latest, covering the 20-year period ended last year, shows that the Standard & Poor's 500 Index returned an annualized gain of 9.1%. That stands in sharp contrast with the measly 3.8% gain individual investors averaged over the same timeframe.
Fixed income investors didn't do any better. According to the Dalbar data, t hey gained a mere 1% a year versus an annualized return of 6.9% for the Barclay's Aggregate Bond Index.
In other words, investors' self-defeating decisions contributed to an underperformance that was 58% below what it could have been for stocks and 85.5% below what it could have been for bonds.
Three reasons: recency bias, herd behavior, and fear.
It's All About Perspective
Recency bias is what happens when short-term focus trumps long-term planning and execution.
It's what happens when somebody yells "fire" and everybody runs for the same exit at once despite having entered through any of half a dozen doors in the auditorium. Simply put, recency is recent knowledge that overrides longer-term thinking and memory.
This is why momentum trading works, for example, or the news channels seem to cover the same stocks at nearly the same time – because a huge number of people are focused on exactly the same companies simultaneously. Logically, they then become the subject of increased attention and tend to move more strongly or consistently.
The question of why is the subject of much debate among human behaviorists, but I chalk it up to the fact that human memories tend to focus on recent events more emotionally than they do longer-term plans that are put together with almost clinical detachment.
And the more extreme the events or the news, the sharper our short-term focus becomes.
That's why, according to "Mood Matters," a book by Dr. John Casti, one of the world's leading thinkers on the science of complexity, "bombshell events are assimilated almost immediately into the prevailing [social] mood" where as longer-term cycles bear almost no witness to gradual change.
If that doesn't make sense, think about what happened on 9/11. Most of the world's major markets bottomed within minutes of each other on short-term panic and emotion. Then, when trading resumed days later, they began to climb almost in sync as highly localized events once again faded into the longer-term fabric of our world.
And that brings me to herding.
The Herd Mentality
We'd rather be wrong in a group than right individually so the vast majority of investors tend to make decisions, and mistakes, together en masse.
China Still Key for Investors Despite Slumping Stock Markets
Despite the recent downturn in China's stock market, investors need to remain focused on the profit-generating long-term growth potential of the Asian powerhouse.
Chinese exchange-traded funds (ETFs), a popular way for U.S. investors to dip their toes into the Chinese stock markets, are off an average of more than 21% for 2011. That's a big shift from 2010, when the average China fund gained 13%, or 2009, when the average gain was an eye-popping 64.5%.
Anthony Bolton, one of the United Kingdom's most respected fund managers, called the end of the third quarter "a brutal period for Asian markets – as difficult a time to be running money as I can remember."
Bolton's U.K.-based Fidelity China Special Solutions Fund dropped 28.9% in six months.
A recent bounce up from lows reached in October has some experts wondering if China's stock markets hit a bottom or if they might slip still lower, but in any case investors mustn't abandon China, said Money Morning Chief Investment Strategist Keith Fitz-Gerald.
"Long-term, you can't afford to be without Chinese stocks," Fitz-Gerald said. "Timing is not what you should be focused on. You need to be focused on growth, and who has the money."
Fitz-Gerald pointed to the debt-crippled economies of the United States and Europe.
"That's not where the money is," he said. "It's in the emerging economies like China."
Several factors have combined to rock the Chinese stock market this year. The Chinese government has attacked inflation by raising interest rates five times over the past 12 months, but at the cost of slowing economic growth.
Even so, the Chinese central bank has projected the country's gross domestic product (GDP) will grow at a 9.2% rate in 2011 and an 8.5% clip next year.
That's still more than triple the growth of the U.S. economy. The Philadelphia Fed's quarterly survey yesterday (Monday) lowered its projected U.S. GDP for 2012 to 2.4%.
European Bond Traders Are Going For the Jugular
If you look at the crisis in Europe, the key questions to ask are clear: Will this crisis continue to spread? And will the United States get singed by the fallout?
In both cases, the answer is a very clear "Yes."
Whereas traders once were content to play around the edges by trashing Greece, Ireland and Portugal, now they're going for Europe's jugular vein. What I mean is that traders now are dumping the debt associated with so-called "core" European Union (EU) nations.
French and Austrian bonds, for example, sank to near record lows Tuesday, as yield premiums over German debt rose to 192 basis points and 184 basis points respectively according to Bloomberg.
Yields and prices run in opposite directions. If yields are rising, that means prices are falling and vice versa.
At the same time, Italian yields again sliced through 7%, the level at which debt is regarded as unsustainable. That's the second time in a week that's happened.
Meanwhile, the Spanish premium over German debt hit 482 points, which is above the 450 point spread at which both Ireland and Portuguese banks were forced into bailout status.
As measured by a combination of credit default swaps, correlation, and systemic risk, things are now worse than they were in 2008 at the depths of the financial crisis.
The way I see it, the EU debt market has become a two-way street, much the way our financial markets have become addicted to U.S. Federal Reserve funds. If the European Central Bank (ECB) is buying debt as part of a bailout, the markets rally. If the ECB is not, the markets fall.
There are no real EU debt buyers.
There are four reasons why this matters to us: