Weekend Edition November 16-18, 2012
Global Depression Enters Year Five
Welcome to the Lousiest Recovery of All Time
by MIKE WHITNEY
Is this the lousiest recovery of all time?
Check it out: The number of people currently on food stamps in the US is at a record-high of 47.1 million. That’s more than twice as many recipients than in 2007 when the crisis began. And the percent of Americans living below the poverty line has skyrocketed, too. It’s gone from 12.3 percent in 2006 to 16.1 percent today. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 50 million people in America are now living below the poverty line. In other words, if you’re poor in America your numbers are growing and things are getting worse. Some recovery, eh?
And it’s not just the poor who are hurting either. The middle class is getting clobbered, too. Unemployment is still way too high (7.9 percent) and, according to the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances, middle income families have seen nearly 40 percent of their net worth go up in smoke since 2007. The bulk of the losses are attributable to the giant housing bust of ’07 which wiped out $8 trillion in home equity leaving the majority of baby boomers unprepared for retirement. It’s a desperate situation that no one seems to want to talk about, but the reality is that millions of people are going to have to figure out how to scrape by on next-to-nothing or work until they’re too senile to punch a clock. As far as these folks are concerned, the recovery is just a big joke.
So who’s really benefited from the so called recovery?
Well, that’s a no brainer: Wall Street and the 1 percenters, that’s who. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has pumped enough uber-cheap money into financial markets to fill a small ocean, all with the clear intention of keeping stocks bubbly so his fatcat speculator friends can cream the system and take home even bigger bonus checks. The Fed’s quantitative easing program has sent stocks into the stratosphere, in fact, all three major US indices have more than doubled since the program was first launched in 2008. There’s only one drawback; it doesn’t do jack for the real economy. Oh, and another thing, its effect on stocks is only temporary, the equivalent of a sugar rush. Check out this post by Charles Biderman at TrimTabs and you’ll see what I mean:
“On September 14 the day of the most recent Fed easing, the S&P 500 peaked at 1466. And ever since then stocks have been selling off and opened today down about 6%.
On previous videos I predicted that the current QE would have very little impact on both the stock market and the economy. And that is what happened. Why did I predict that? Short term interest rates are already at zero and it has been five months now since mortgage rates reached current record low levels. So yes, as a result of Operation Twist after tax income rose to a $300 billion in annualized growth this past June through September. That was up from a $200 billion growth rate over the first five months of 2012. Since October, after tax income – remember this is a before inflation number – has dropped back to a $200 billion growth rate. In other words, the Fed this year will in essence print half a trillion dollars that will not improve after tax income nor help stock prices grow……
So the US economy is currently barely growing despite huge amounts of deficit spending and money printing.” (“Bernanke Put Dead and Very Little Chance Stocks Avoid Year End Sell Off”, Trim Tabs Money Blog)
This is Bernanke’s worst nightmare. Stocks are looking wobbly and his nutcase monetary theories are no longer working. But rather than change directions and admit his error, Bernanke has decided to double-down and throw the printing presses into high-gear. But how can he do that, you may wonder, after all, hasn’t the Fed already committed to purchasing $40 billion mortgage-backed securities per month for “as long as it takes” (QEternity) to lift GDP rises and reduce unemployment?
Yes, he has, but that doesn’t mean the Moneymaker in Chief doesn’t have more arrows in his quiver. He does. Here’s the story from Bloomberg:
“The Federal Reserve is embarking on the next step in Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s journey toward greater transparency — tying its outlook for borrowing costs to measures of employment and inflation.
Policy makers “generally favored the use of economic variables” to provide guidance on the when they are likely to approve their first interest-rate increase since 2008, according to minutes of their Oct. 23-24 meeting released yesterday. Such measures might replace or supplement a calendar date, currently set at mid-2015.
A number of officials also said the Fed may need to expand its monthly purchases of bonds next year after the expiration of a program to extend the maturities of assets on its balance sheet, known as Operation Twist. The discussion indicates that Fed officials judge the economy still needs record stimulus to reduce an unemployment rate stuck near 8 percent.” (“Fed Moves Toward Tying Interest-Rate Decisions to Economic Data”, Bloomberg)
So what does it all mean? It means that Bernanke and his Merry Pranksters are ratcheting it up to the next level. It means they’re going to keep flooding the financial markets with liquidity until the jobless rate comes down. It doesn’t matter that QE hasn’t moved the dial on unemployment at all or that the Fed has already expanded its balance sheet by $2.5 trillion and that no one has any idea of how Bernanke is going get rid of his stockpile of junk assets without sending the markets into an Armageddon death-spiral. None of that matters. They’re just going to put their foot on the gas and let ‘er rip! Doesn’t that sound a tad reckless?
Here’s an excerpt from the FOMC statement on September 13 that helps to connect the dots:
“If the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially, the Committee will continue its purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate until such improvement is achieved in a context of price stability.”
In short: “We’re not done yet, guys, not by a long-shot.”
This is supply side arrogance in the extreme. Bernanke continues to believe that the entire economy can be effectively run by moving levers at the Central Bank. He thinks that if you plop enough money into the top of the system, (financial markets) it will eventually dribble downwards to the worker bees. Fat chance. It hasn’t happened yet, but not from want of trying.
Bernanke is right about one thing though, inflation expectations are beginning to fade which means that disinflation or outright deflation are a growing threat to the economy. Take a look at this blurb from The Economist:
“….since mid-October, there has been an unmistakable reversal in the inflation-expectations trend. Based on 5-year breakevens, all of the September spurt has been erased. And 2-year breakevens are back at July levels. Given my optimism over the Fed’s September moves and the apparent strength of underlying fundamentals in the economy, I would like to disregard this trend, but one should be very reluctant to abandon guideposts that have served one well just because they’ve moved in an inconvenient way.” (“Monetarypolicy—Is there a problem?”, The Economist)
This is why Bernanke is wheeling out the heavy artillery, because QE3 hasn’t boosted spending or borrowing at all. Business investment is still in the doldrums and earnings have hit the skids in a big way. So where are all the green shoots? The only difference between 2008 and today is a steroid-inflated stock market and a few more multi-billionaire 1 percenters. Everything else is about the same, only worse.
If Bernanke was serious about fixing the economy, he’d stop all the monetary chicanery and let stocks nosedive by a couple thousand points. That would wake up Congress and force them to do their damn job. Zero rates and boatloads of liquidity just aren’t doing the trick, anyone can see that. In fact, all the hocus pocus and crackpot “accomodative” policies are just making people nervous and adding to the uncertainty. It’s time to get back to basics, fiscal stimulus.
Bernanke should follow the advice of Nomura’s chief economist Richard Koo. Koo has done extensive research on Japan’s 20 year running-battle with deflation and explained in excruciating detail what needs to be done to emerge from, what he calls, a balance sheet recession. Here’s a sample of his work:
“The most important lesson of the last 20 years in Japan and of the last four years in western economies is that monetary policy is ineffective when there is no private demand for funds…
“In Japan, there has been little or no private loan demand since 1995, when the BOJ brought interest rates down to near-zero levels. And neither the economy nor asset prices have recovered, even though, as BOJ Governor Masaaki Shirakawa has noted, the BOJ embarked on quantitative easing fully eight years before its counterparts in Europe and the U.S…..
When businesses and households not only stop borrowing money but start to work off their debt, the resulting absence of borrowers effectively traps central bank-supplied liquidity in the financial system, and as a consequence the funds neither stimulate the economy nor spark inflation……”
Sound familiar? And here’s more from the Financial Times via Economist’s View:
“Today, the US private sector is saving a staggering 8 per cent of gross domestic product – at zero interest rates, when households and businesses would ordinarily be borrowing and spending money. … This is the result of the bursting of debt-financed housing bubbles, which left the private sector with huge debt overhangs … giving it no choice but to pay down debt or increase savings, even at zero interest rates.
However, if someone is saving money or paying down debt, someone else must be borrowing and spending that money to keep the economy going. … With monetary policy largely ineffective and the private sector forced to repair its balance sheet, the only way to avoid a deflationary spiral is for the government to borrow and spend the unborrowed savings in the private sector….
The challenge now is to maintain fiscal stimuli until private sector deleveraging is completed.” (“Explain the disease to help US citizens”, Richard Koo, Financial Times)
Bernanke’s smart enough to know that more-of-the-same (QE) won’t get the economy back on track. He knows that Koo is right. But that doesn’t mean there will be a change in policy. There won’t be, mainly because QE reinforces the caste system where all the goodies go to the silk-stocking hotshots at the top and everyone else gets table scraps. It’s just plain old class warfare. And, guess what: their class is winning.
MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.