Submitted by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns
This is a post I wrote earlier to day at Credit Writedowns. I just noticed that Albert Edwards and David Rosenberg are saying similar things. See the FT Alphaville post on their comments here.
As for me, for the last few months, I have been casting around looking for bullish data points as counterfactuals to my more bearish long-term outlook. I have found some, but not enough. If you recall, early this year, I stated that we are in depression, making the case for the ongoing downturn as a depression with a small ‘d.’ Nevertheless, I was quite optimistic about the ability of policymakers to engineer a fake recovery predicated on stimulus and asset price reflation and I certainly saw this as bullish for financial shares if not the broader stock market. But, I saw these events as temporary salves for a deeper structural problem.
As a result, I have been on a quest to find data which disproves my original thesis – signs that the green shoots that everyone keeps talking about (and a term I had banned from my site) are part of a sustainable economic recovery. Unfortunately, I have concluded that they are not. This post will discuss why we are in a depression, not a recession and what this means about likely future economic and investing paths. I will try to pull together a number of threads from previous posts, add some context via Wikipedia links and draw in some good discussion via recent posts by Prieur du Plessis on balance sheet recessions and Marshall Auerback on the sector financial balances model of economics which completed the picture for me.
This post is very long and I have had to shorten it in order to pull all of the ideas into one post. Please do read the linked posts for background as I left out some of the detail in order to create this narrative.
Let’s start here then with the crux of the issue: debt.
Deep recession rooted in structural issues
Back in my very first post in March of 2008, I said that the U.S. was already in a recession, the only question being how deep and how long – a question I answered in the next post saying “we are definitely in recession. And according to Gary Shilling, this recession is going to be a big one. Worse than 2001, 1990-91 or the double dip recession of 1980-82.” This has certainly turned out to be true. The issue was and still is overconsumption i.e. levels of consumption supported only by increase in debt levels and not by future earnings. This is the core of our problem – debt.
I see the debt problem as an outgrowth of pro-growth, anti-recession macroeconomic policy which developed as a reaction to the trauma of the lost decade in the U.S. and the U.K.. This was a period of low growth, high inflation and poor market returns, in which the U.K. became the sick man of Europe and labor strife brought that economy to its knees. It is a period that saw the resignation of an American President and the humiliation of the Iran Hostage Crisis.
In essence, after the inflationary outcome that many saw as an outgrowth of the Samuelson-Keynesianism of the 1960s and 1970s, the Reagan-Thatcher era of the 1990s ushered in a more ‘free-market’ orientation in macroeconomic policy. The key issue was government intervention. Policy makers following Samuelson (more so than Keynes himself) have stressed the positive effect of government intervention, pointing to the Great Depression as animus, and the New Deal, and World War II as proof. Other economists (notably Milton Friedman, and later Robert Lucas) have stressed the primacy of markets, pointing to the end of Bretton Woods, the Nixon Shock and stagflation as counterfactuals. They point to the Great Moderation and secular bull market of 1982-2000 as proof. This is a divisive and extremely political issue, in which the two sides have been labelled Freshwater and Saltwater economists (see my post “Freshwater versus saltwater circa 1988”).
However, just as the policy of the 1950s to the 1970s was not really Keynesian (read Keynes’ General Theory as Richard Posner did and you will see why), the 1980s-2000 was not really an era of true ‘free markets.’ I call it deregulation as crony capitalism. What this has meant in practice is that the well-connected, particularly in the financial services industry, have won out over the middle classes (a view I take up in “A populist interpretation of the latest boom-bust cycle”). In fact, hourly earnings peaked over 35 years ago in the United States when adjusting for inflation.
Remember, the 1970s was a difficult period in which the U.K. and the U.S. saw jobs vanish in key industrial sectors. To stop the rot and effectively mask the lack of income growth by average workers, a new engine of growth had to be found. Enter the financial sector. The financialization of the American and British economies began in the 1980s, greatly increasing the size and impact of the financial sector (see Kevin Phillips’ book “Bad Money”). The result was an enormous increase in debt, especially in the financial sector.
This debt problem was made manifest repeatedly during financial crises of the era. Not all of these crises were American – most were abroad and merely facilitated by an increase in credit, liquidity, and international capital movement. In March 2008, I wrote in my third post on the US economy in 2008:
From the very beginning, the excess liquidity created by the U.S. Federal Reserve created an excess supply of money, which repeatedly found its way through hot money flows to a mis-allocation of investment capital and an asset bubble somewhere in the global economy. In my opinion, the global economy continued to grow above trend through to the new millennium because these hot money flows created bubbles only in less central parts of the global economy (Mexico in 1994-95, Thailand and southeast Asia in 1997, Russia and Brazil in 1998, and Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in 2001-03). But, this growth was unsustainable as the global imbalances mounted.
Eventually, the debt burdens became too large and resulted in the housing meltdown and the concomitant collapse of the financial sector, a looming problem that our policymakers should have seen. This is why my blog is named Credit Writedowns. But, make no mistake, the housing and writedown problems are only symptoms. The real problem is the debt – specifically an overly indebted private sector (note the phrase ‘private sector’ as I will return to this topic).
Read the rest of this article at Naked Capitalism