Double dip or global deflation?
The page proofs of my upcoming book, “Inflated: How Money and Debt Built the American Dream,” just went back to the editors. One of the benefits of writing a book about U.S. financial history is that it forces you to take a long view of both economics and the political narrative used to describe it. It is the issue of language and labels, in my view, that is making it so difficult for Americans to understand the current state of the economy.
The National Bureau of Economic Research just declared that the “recession” that began in 2007 ended in the middle of 2009, making it the longest downturn since WWII. The only problem is that none of the people who work at NBER today, which is one of my favorite research organizations, are old enough to remember what the U.S. economy was like before WWII; before the age of Keynesian socialism and the use of debt to stimulate growth and employment became standard policy in Washington.
Let’s start with the term “recession,” which itself reflects the assumption that economic growth is always positive and the trend line is always upward sloping. While many economists in the U.S. remain convinced that this is an accurate descriptor, what Americans and many other people of the world need to consider is whether the assumption that the economy will grow endlessly is reasonable.
In the period following the Crisis of 1907 and before the start of WWI, Americans faced a grim economic outlook. Jobs were scarce, product and commodity prices were flat, and the value of farm products and land had been falling for years. The American economy was entirely dependent upon Europe for financing and to buy U.S. products, mostly agricultural and other commodities. The dismal economic scene fed the rise of the Progressive movement in U.S. politics.
WWI provided a sharp relief from this picture of economic stagnation. Employment rebounded, American agricultural prices soared and the value of real estate around the U.S. also rose sharply. With renewed growth came inflation, however, so that by the time that WWI ended, prices for many consumer staples had doubled, but wages did not keep pace. Economic activity gradually slowed as the U.S. made its way through the Roaring Twenties, but many Americans never saw any benefit from this period of speculation and financial excess.
Following the Crash of 1929, the pretense observed by both political parties that all was well in the U.S. economy evaporated into almost twenty years of economic stagnation. While the massive mobilization for WWII provided the appearance of a recovery, and the period of the Cold War extended this mirage on a sea of public debt and paper dollars, the basic issue of overcapacity remained.
From the 1970s, when the U.S. shifted from defense to housing as the chief driver of American economic growth, the illusion became ever more attractive and, seemingly at least, permanent. But the sad fact is that much of what Americans think was real growth supported by real income and real work was, in fact, the result of deficit spending and reckless monetary expansion by the Fed, first under Alan Greenspan and now Ben Bernake.
In an interview for my book former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker noted:
We live in an amazing world. Everybody has big budget deficits and big easy money, but somehow the world as a whole cannot fully employ itself. It is a serious question. We are no longer just talking about a single country having a big depression but the entire world. If the world as a whole cannot employ everyone who is ready and able to work, it raises some big questions.
Earlier this week in a research note for the IRA Advisory Service, we reported that some of the leading experts in the housing sector believe that the U.S. is less than 25% through the restructuring of defaulted loans on commercial and residential real estate, and that the backlog is growing. Last week at the AmeriCatalyst conference held in Austin, TX, Laurie Goodman from Amherst Securities predicted that one in five U.S. households remains at risk of foreclosure. If this prediction turns out to be correct, the optimistic view of the U.S. economy and banking sector must be radically revised — and soon.
Just as the housing sector and the related debt was the driver of the U.S. economy over the past several decades, I believe that the deflation of the housing market could spell an equally drastic period of shrinkage in economic activity in the U.S. and around the world. In order to meet this challenge, both the political and economic communities need to put aside preconceived notions of how the economy should look and begin to develop new language to describe what is really happening to consumers and businesses. Only then can we truly begin the process of working through what is the most serious economic contraction in the U.S. since WWI.