Don't be fooled by good economic news

Unemployment is going down. Consumer debt is going up. Even the housing market is showing signs of improvement. But the US economy is far from recovery mode.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
A real estate sign is displayed in front of a home in Little Rock, Ark. Home sales rose in December to the highest pace in nearly a year, but Bonner argues that the improved housing market and other signs of improvement in the economy do not mean that things are getting better.

We have a wintry landscape here in Baltimore…or what is left of one. But forget the weather, happy days are here again.

At least, that is what you might think from reading the newspapers. Unemployment is going down. Consumer debt is going up. Even the housing market is showing signs of improvement.

Gold is rising — investors seem to think inflationary pressures are building. The 10-year T-note yield is back over 2%. And stocks are having their best January in 15 years…

And now, once again, the commentariat is talking about a ‘recovery’ from the Great Recession.

But we’ll give it to you straight, dear reader. There wasn’t any Great Recession and there won’t be a recovery. You don’t recover from what ails the US economy. You die. Then, a new economy can be born.

Still, there are many recovery sightings. But so far, the recovery itself remains as elusive as Bigfoot.

Here’s Bloomberg, with more details:

A decline in unemployment and pickup in manufacturing point to accelerating US growth. Some economists say the numbers may not be as good as they look.

One reason: the severity of the economy’s plunge in late 2008 and early 2009 after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed threw a wrench into models used to smooth the data for seasonal changes, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Nomura Securities International Inc.

“The impact of the financial crisis does seem to have affected seasonal factors for several indicators,” Andrew Tilton, a senior economist at Goldman Sachs, said in a telephone interview from New York. It “might tend to make things look a little better in the early winter and look a little worse in the spring time.”

Most economic data are adjusted for seasonal changes to facilitate month-to-month comparisons. Without those changes, for example, construction would always pick up in the summer, when the weather is milder, and decline in the winter.

The adjustment process is unable to distinguish between a one-time shock, like Lehman’s demise, and a recurring issue that would need to be smoothed away. For that reason, the mechanism gives some data a leg up from about September through about March before turning negative the rest of the year.

The economy contracted at an average 7.8 percent annual pace from October 2008 through March 2009, the worst back-to-back quarters in the post World War II era. The 18-month recession ended in June 2009.

The adjustment process “has been knocked out of whack by the financial crisis,” Ellen Zentner, a senior US economist at Nomura in New York, said in a telephone interview. “The model ends up adjusting for a growth pattern that isn’t there. The sudden drop-off in economic activity in late 2008 is not a pattern, it doesn’t happen late every year. It was a one-off event.”

In effect, the models are over-compensating…trying to make sense of the big collapse of ’08-’09 by treating it as though it were a seasonal adjustment issue. If the winter weather were so severe as to cause such a big drop-off, the machines reason, we must move the bar lower next year. Then, even a modest improvement will look spectacular.

But Goldman’s economists estimate that unemployment will average 8.5% this year — almost unchanged from last year. That is not a recovery. And we have to wonder…what will power the ‘recovery’ analysts believe they seem coming?

Not household spending. Households don’t have any money to spend. What then?

Nothing. There will be no recovery. Instead, the US economy is in the process of zombification and ossification…which is what happens when the feds refuse to allow dead-men industries to die.

Ottmar Issing, of the European Central Bank, is on the case:

“The problem of ‘too big to fail’ is that it has made society — more precisely, the taxpayer — hostage to the survival of individual financial institutions…the taxpayers’ billions committed to rescue supposedly systemic institutions has dealt a big blow to confidence in the free market system…and has in turn become a threat to free societies.”

Well, yes. Now, the game is rigged. The fix is in. The zombies are dealt the aces. The rest of us get a bum hand.

But wait…didn’t the US government make a profit from its loans to the banks? Didn’t the banks pay back the money? Didn’t taxpayers come out ahead?

Oh dear reader, please stop…we can’t stop laughing. We’re afraid we might pull a muscle.

Imagine a bartender. He realizes that his customers have been handing out IOUs all over town — including to him. And he also knows his customers can’t pay. People are beginning to wonder…they’re beginning to discount the IOUs. A crisis is coming…

What does he do? He lends the customers more money and buys the IOUs from the other merchants! Naturally, the value of the IOUs goes back up. Because now, holders know they’ll get their money. Even the value of the IOUs owned by the bartender go up. Wonder of wonders, he has even made a profit on the deal!

Happy days are here again.

Which reminds us of Hemingway’s conversation between Bill Gorton and Mike Campbell.

Bill asks; “How did you go bankrupt?”

Mike answers: “Two ways. Gradually. Then, suddenly.”

We’re still in the ‘gradually’ phase. Stay tuned…

Bill Bonner
 for The Daily Reckoning

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