No Light at the End of the Economic Tunnel

With rising numbers of American workers filing jobless claims, those staying on benefit rolls is now the most since February of 1983. The latest figures from the OECD show that United States unemployment was 6.5 percent, with the rest of the world following along ominously. US employers have now shed jobs for the tenth month running.

All of this has to do with the worsening global Economic Time™. The excess demand for money is intensifying an excess supply of goods – so why hire? More importantly, why not fire? Behind this is the fact that America’s earnings outlook remains bleak: S&P 500-member companies have reported third-quarter contractions of over 9 percent and analysts guess that for the full year, earnings will contract by 8 percent.

Based on what the Economic Clock™ is suggesting, “18” is more likely than “8” perent earnings contraction: after all, when you have an excess supply of goods, margins as well as turnover wilt, so what else can drive profits?

At least President-Elect Barack Obama appears to have a fantastically deep pool of experienced talent to draw upon (e.g. former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, and Timothy Geithner, the chairman of the New York Reserve Bank. to name but a few, as well as leaving the very astute and erudite Dr. Ben Bernanke at the US Federal Reserve.

Nobody can change cycles. Winter is a very useful cycle in that in its duration, the bad stufaf is cleaned out and paves the way for spring. This is how we view the current cycle, the Economic Time™ (see www.EconomicClock.com) in our jargon. It is characterized by an excess demand for money (banks won’t lend), and thus an excess supply of goods

All that President Obama, when he takes office January 20, can do is to alleviate/lessen/anaesthetize the pain: he cannot skip this part of the cycle. It is the commercial banks -- NOT the Central Banks – that are creating an excess demand for money. They are regulating themselves and thus are choosing not to lend. That choice is based on profitability, and will take a long time to undergo transformation. Meanwhile, when the world’s central banks change policy they are driven by policy – NOT by profits – and thus they can choose to alter policy at one board meeting.

I am afraid that Obama can do little to stop cost-push stagflation, which we identified “in the coming” back in the spring of 2006. He is on more dangerous ground when he made comments about China being a currency manipulator. How will that affect relations?

This is where things get truly dangerous: he must manage expectations.My latest and very short book, Trade Myths: Globalization and the trade balance fallacy (see www.TradeMyths.com), is designed to counter such a myth, namely that only exchange rates drive trade balances.

Indeed, if this were the case, why do Germany and Japan – with ever-strengthening currencies – have growing trade surpluses, while America, with an ever-weakening currency – have a swelling trade deficit? Thus, his argument is misplaced and dangerous.

He would be wiser to focus on praising the successes of America’s multinationals operating abroad: they not only are giving America a global trade surplus of nearly US$3 trillion. If Obama uses this cheap rhetoric that China has to stop “manipulating” her currency, then there is very little to prevent Chinese officials, at a grass roots level, from impeding the operations of those American multinationals operating so successfully abroad.

Already America has fanned China’s ire by adamantly continuing to sell arms to Taiwan – just as she is angering Russia with the construction of her missile defence shield in the Czech Republic. Of course, China has picked precisely this moment to send her Taiwan envoy to Taipei to deepen ties between both places, precisely where the US is in policy limbo.

{mospagebreak}

A More Protectionist America

This is precisely what happens, and certainly not only in America, when the Economic Time worsens: instead of looking at their own domestic shortcomings such as failed education and tax policies, politicians anywhere chase the cheap vote by blaming the “bad” foreigner. In my book, Trade Myths, I counter this by including the very successful roles of multinationals’ overseas operations – and show that America has a global trade surplus while China has a global trade deficit.

Obama has to manage expectations, and I am afraid that despite all of his “it’s time for a change” hype, this issue of trade, too, will be painted with lipstick – but remain a pig.

All the interest rate cuts: Are they helping, needed, are we on the right track in tackling the credit crunch? These are like ice water drunk after a night of heavy drinking: they only alleviate the pain, but they cannot cure anything. The reason is that greedy banks got so carried away that now, they have swung from greed to fear.

The good news is that they are regulating themselves; the bad news is that this creates an excess demand for money, which in turn intensifies an excess supply of goods: The chickens of irresponsibility have come home to roost. Stagflation, driving by cost-push inflation, is on the way.

Lower rates only alleviate the pain, but they are not a sufficient reason for banks to resume lending. Faced with lower turnover by lending less, they now are supporting margins by not passing lower interest rates on to the consumer. Indeed, crazily enough in Hong Kong, banks are actually raising their mortgage rates, even though their funding costs are falling.

Formerly chief regional economist for leading London-based investment banks in Hong Kong, Enzio von Pfeil is now an independent investment adviser and a regular contributor to Bloomberg Television UK, Bloomberg Television Deutschland, and to CNBC Asia. This is adapted from his website www.EconomicClock.com .