By Martin Hutchinson
When the Labor Department recently reported that U.S. payrolls fell by 345,000 jobs in May - the lowest total in eight months - commentators were suddenly spotting "green shoots" of economic recovery virtually everywhere they looked.
Given that more than $800 billion of federal money has been earmarked for U.S. "stimulus" projects, one would actually expect that the frightening job losses of the past six months would quickly reverse, and that the U.S. economy would soon start creating the 3 million jobs that U.S. President Barack Obama has promised.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
That's not to say that the outlook is for a Great Depression, an economic reversal in which a country's output plummets by 25% or more from its peak level. While the current U.S. recession may well be the "worst since the Great Depression," it's becoming clear that the peak-to-trough output decline will be something like 5% - worse than the recessions of 1973-75 and 1980-82, both of which saw output declines of about 3.5%, but not all that much worse.
After all, the money supply has not been allowed to collapse as it did during the 1930s and there has been no repetition of the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, though the "Buy America" provisions in the original stimulus outline and the corresponding "Buy China" provisions in China's corresponding package indicate that "Smoot-Hawleyism" still lurks just beneath the surface.
However, the following four factors make it almost certain that the U.S. economy will be slow:
- Record-low interest rates make it impossible for the U.S. central bank to use rate cuts to jump-start growth.
- The huge U.S. budget deficit will force the federal government to continue its heavy borrowing - potentially "crowding out" private-sector players seeking loans to finance their own growth.
- The growing size and influence of the U.S. public sector.
- And an over-growth of government regulation.
Let's consider each one.
First and foremost, the U.S. Federal Reserve has loosened money supply inordinately over the last year, with short-term interest rates at 0.00% and money supply growth at 15% per annum. Thus, there is no Fed loosening available to spur employment.
Interest-rate-sensitive sectors - especially housing and construction - are likely to remain depressed for years. These sectors are major employers of low-skilled and semi-skilled labor, which will not be picking up their normal slack.
A second adverse factor is the exceptionally large federal budget deficit - expected to reach $1.85 trillion, or 13% of the U.S. economy, in this year alone, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). That deficit will stretch several years into the future, thanks to the stimulus package and various bailouts initiatives.
In the short term, these rescue-oriented provisions have helped U.S. employment, not the least by allowing federal and state governments to do some hiring. But in the longer term, the federal borrowing they have caused will restrict the private sector's access to the capital markets. That will hinder small businesses in particular. Indeed, the private sector will find it difficult to fund capital expansion, and again the result is likely to be a dearth of hiring.
A third adverse factor is the expansion of the public sector itself. To some extent, it does not matter how budget deficits are financed; the important consideration is the transfer of resources from the private sector - allocated by the automatic optimization of the so-called "price mechanism" - into the public sector, where no such considerations apply.
It's not just a question of government itself; it's now clear, for example, that Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp. (OTC: GMGMQ) are to be controlled by the government - with subsidies - at our expense.
When General Motors announces, as the company did Wednesday, that it will build automobiles on the basis of an assumed oil price of $100-$120 per barrel, one sees at once a politically motivated strategy; GM will cease making the large cars that in the past have been its principal source of profit. If oil prices average $50 or less, as is perfectly possible in a long period of sluggish global growth, General Motors will be a mess - and will need to be bailed out by us again.
The late William F. Buckley Jr. once claimed that 500 names chosen at random from the Boston telephone book could do a better job of running the country than Congress; I wouldn't mind betting that such a random selection would also make a better job of running General Motors than the government.
Related to the growth in government is the growth in regulation. For example, President Obama's "cap-and-trade" plan to address global warming will impose a new tranche of costs on the U.S. economy, without any great offsetting spurs to employment. In areas such as energy production and heavy industry, employment will be depressed by the additional cost burdens those areas bring, as well as by the simple difficulty of complying with the new regulations.
To see where a larger state sector and more regulation can lead, one need only look at the European Union (EU). Whereas U.S. unemployment was below 5% for much of the last decade, the lowest rate reached since 2000 was 8.8% in the EU. What's more is that certain areas of the EU have much worse records than this.
In Spain, for example, unemployment was close to 20% for much of the 1980s and 1990s, and has now soared once again to no less than 18.2%. The EU is not ensconced in a Great Depression and Spain remains a relatively wealthy country; nevertheless, the rigidities in the European system are such that unemployment remains persistently high, with adverse social effect, such as the rioting in the Paris banlieus.
The European Commission (EC) recognized this problem as early as the 1980s, and has been gradually pushing Europe towards the more open U.S. labor market, with only moderate success.
Because of over-loose money, excessive budget deficits, growing government and impending regulation, it is thus unlikely that the U.S. economy and its job market will bounce back as quickly as it has in the past.
The investment "takeaway" from this is obvious, I fear: A substantial part of one's money should be invested in the free-market economies of East Asia, where regulation and taxation are lower, so even though a recession has also hit, recovery is likely to be much more robust.
[Editor's Note: Longtime global investing expert Martin Hutchinson has made a specialty of evaluating banking profit plays, and in recent reports has warned investors away from "Zombie Banks" and devised his own "stress test" to highlight the best profit plays in the troubled U.S. financial-services sector. Hutchinson brings that same creative analysis to his The Permanent Wealth Investor trading service, which uses a combination of high-yielding dividend stocks, profit plays on gold and specially designated "Alpha Dog" stocks to create high-income portfolios for his subscribers. Hutchinson's strategy is tailor-made for uncertain periods such as this one, in which too many investors just sit on the sidelines and watch opportunity pass them by. Just click here to find out about this strategy - or Hutchinson's new service, The Permanent Wealth Investor.]
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