The Economy: Why It's Worse Than You Think
By Daniel Gross | NEWSWEEK
June 16, 2008 (issue)

The forgettable first half of 2008 is stumbling to a close. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that American employers axed 49,000 jobs in May, the fifth straight month of job losses—an event that signals a recession sure as the glittery ball dropping on Times Square augurs a New Year. The report, which inspired a 394-point decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average Friday, was the latest in a run of bad news. Auto sales, the largest retailing sector in the U.S., were off 10.7 percent in May from the year before. And housing? Ugh. Nationwide, according to the Case-Shiller Index, home prices in the first quarter fell 14 percent.

Yet hope springs eternal that the second half will be better than the first. Economists polled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia in May believe the economy will grow at an annual rate of 1.7 percent and 1.8 percent in the third and fourth quarters, respectively. Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors, tells NEWSWEEK that "home sales and prices in most of the country will improve during the second half of 2008." (Yun is the Little Orphan Annie of forecasters. He's always sure the sun will come out tomorrow.) Last month, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said, "We expect to see a faster pace of economic growth before the end of the year."

The cause for optimism: the U.S. has called in the economic cavalry, which has responded in textbook fashion. The Federal Reserve has aggressively cut interest rates, bringing the Federal Funds rate down from 5.25 percent last September to 2 percent. Earlier this spring, Congress and President Bush, in a rare moment of bipartisan accord, passed a stimulus package, which will shove nearly $100 billion into the pockets of American consumers by mid-July.

But this downturn is likely to last longer than the eight-month-long recession of 2001. While the U.S. financial system processes popped stock bubbles quickly, it has always taken longer to hack through the overhang of bad debt. The head winds that drove the economy into this dead calm— a housing and credit crisis, and rising energy and food prices—have strengthened rather than let up in recent months. To aggravate matters, the twin crises that dominate the financial news—a credit crunch and the global commodity boom—are blunting the stimulus efforts. As a result, the consumer-driven economy may not bounce back as rapidly as it did in the fraught months after 9/11.

As it seeks to regain its footing in the second half, the U.S. economy faces two significant obstacles, neither of which was evident in 2001. The first is entirely homegrown: the self-inflicted wounds of the promiscuous extension and abuse of credit in the housing and financial sectors. The second is a global phenomenon that has comparatively little to do with American behavior: rampant inflation in commodities such as oil, food and steel. These trends have conspired to inflict genuine economic pain and deflate consumer confidence. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index in May slumped to a 16-year low.

While the treatment of the current malaise has been essentially identical to the reaction to the 2001 slump—aggressive Federal Reserve rate cuts and tax rebates—the symptoms are quite different. In 2001, an implosion in the technology sector and a slump in business investment pushed the economy over the edge. Even though some 3 million jobs were shed between 2001 and 2003, consumers soldiered on through the downturn. "We had a massive reduction in both long- and short-term interest rates, which set off the housing and consumption boom," says Ian Morris, chief U.S. economist at HSBC. (Remember zero-percent car loans?) This time, it's the opposite. While businesses—especially those that export—are holding up, the economy is being dragged down by the cement shoes of a freaked-out consumer and a punk housing market.

The difficulties today start—as they began last year—with housing and housing-related credit. Last Thursday, the Mortgage Bankers Association quarterly report showed that the percentage of mortgage borrowers behind on their payments—6.35 percent—was the highest since the MBA began tracking the number in 1979. It's not just subprime. In the first quarter of 2008, 36 percent of all foreclosures initiated were on prime adjustable-rate mortgages in California. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's, says the decline in home prices has slashed $2.5 trillion from household wealth, or about $25,000 per homeowner. The fall has also removed an important source of support for consumer spending, as Americans who grew accustomed to borrowing against rising home equity to finance car purchases or vacations now find themselves bereft. Banks are extricating themselves from the home-equity-line-of-credit business in the same way college students get themselves out of relationships gone bad: abruptly. Judi Froning, a second-grade teacher in San Diego, was surprised last week when she received a letter from Chase informing her that it was terminating her untapped HELOC. "In the light of declining home values, they said they are stopping, effective May 31, any draw on my line of credit," she says.

Despite repeated claims that the damage has been contained, the banks that recklessly financed the housing boom—and then traded mortgage debt even more recklessly—are still cleaning up the mess. But it turns out (surprise!) the same sort of clouded judgment led banks to excesses in commercial lending, and in loans to private-equity firms. The battered financial system, which has raised tens of billions of dollars on onerous terms from new investors to shore up balance sheets, is still likely to suffer more pain from the popped credit bubble, said Bruce Wasserstein, the CEO of the investment bank Lazard, speaking at a New York breakfast. "The harm will radiate for another year." The latest victim: Wachovia CEO G. Thompson Kennedy, cashiered after the North Carolina-based bank suffered a string of losses. Next up: write-offs for bad credit-card and commercial real-estate debt. After a serene period between 2004 and '07 in which the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. went without a single bank failure, four have gone under so far this year. FDIC chairperson Sheila Bair warned of the "possibility that future failures could include institutions of greater size than we have seen in the recent past." In preparation, the agency has brought staffers out of retirement.

The financial system is supposed to be a tube, transmitting lower interest rates. Banks borrow from the Fed, and pass through lower costs to customers and to the markets at large. But today banks are acting more like dried sponges, absorbing the liquidity the Fed is providing to shore up their balance sheets and make up for losses, rather than releasing the cash into the economy. The Federal Reserve reports that in April, 55 percent of commercial banks said they are tightening lending standards on commercial loans, up from 30 percent in January. Judy Eisenbrand, a Moorpark, Calif., real-estate agent, notes that buyers also can't get loans as easily today, even in strong markets. "The standards are so much stricter than they were during the boom days," she says.

The upshot: the Fed's adrenaline isn't really circulating through the commercial bloodstream. According to mortgage-data firm HSH, rates on conforming 30-year mortgages (under $417,000) have only fallen marginally since the Fed began cutting rates, from 6.4 percent on Sept. 21 to 6.17 on May 30, while jumbo loan rates haven't budged at all. Worse, this may be as good as it gets. Last Tuesday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke indicated that the Fed may be done cutting rates. Why? "Inflation has remained high," Bernanke said, "largely reflecting continuing sharp increases in the prices of globally traded commodities."

Economists say it generally takes nine to 12 months for Federal Reserve interest-rate cuts to work their way into the system. By contrast, sending checks to consumers tends to produce quick results. Some retailers have reported a surge of business spurred by the tax rebates. But consumers are shopping for necessities, not discretionary items. Sales at Wal-Mart and Costco were up in May, while sales at Kohl's and Nordstrom were down. David Rosenberg, chief economist at Merrill Lynch, argues that higher food and gas prices are eating the rebate. Follow the math. The rebate checks will total about $120 billion. Studies suggest that about 40 percent of that total, or about $48 billion, will be spent in short order; the rest will be saved or spent later. Rosenberg reckons that higher energy costs—crude-oil prices are up 40 percent so far in 2008—are draining about $30 billion out of household cash flow per quarter, and that food inflation, running at a 9 percent annualized rate, drains another $20 billion per quarter. "So instead of the stimulus being filtered into real economic activity, it's being diverted into the checkout counter at Albertson's and the gas station," he says.

Last November, retired school principal Barbara McGeary, 75, of Camp Hill, Pa., switched from a Toyota Rav 4 SUV to a Prius. But the savings she realizes are eaten by a higher food bill. "When I go to the grocery store, I see prices have doubled on some of the things I'm purchasing," she says. Last year she paid $3.99 for a container of about two dozen brownies. Now that they're retailing for $8.49, she bakes her own. McGeary and her husband are also eating at home more than ever. "Restaurants, of course, have had to increase their prices," she says.

While the housing and credit crisis is homegrown, the higher prices for high-octane gasoline and corn chips are effectively imports. Historically, or at least since the end of World War II, if the U.S. sneezed, the world caught a cold. When we used more gas, oil prices rose, and when we used less gas, oil prices fell. As GM vice chairman Bob Lutz points out, "Usually petroleum prices were the first to react to a severe U.S. slowdown." In the past it would have been unthinkable for oil to spike if Americans were cutting back.

Many factors, from a weak dollar to rising speculation, are behind the higher commodity prices. But at root, $4-per-gallon gasoline and $20-per-pound steaks are largely a function of the changing economic geography, and the diminished stature of the U.S. Last January, the talk of the World Economic Forum in Davos (aside from the locale of the Google party) was the prospect of "decoupling"—the notion that India and China could maintain their breakneck economic growth rates even if the U.S. pooped out. Five months later, the global economy seems to have decoupled faster than Jessica Simpson and John Mayer. The world is growing without us. "My impression is that China and India both have sufficient domestic demand-led growth to continue to have vibrant growth even if the U.S. has a sustained period of difficulty," former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin tells NEWSWEEK. Producers of commodities are enjoying the fruits of higher prices. Sorry, Tom Friedman, the world is no longer flat. "It is upside down," says Mohamed El-Erian, co-CEO of bond mutual-fund giant PIMCO. "The growing robustness of the emerging economies enables them to step up to the global plate at a time when the U.S. has to take a breather in order to put its financial house in order." This rampant global economic growth—more people eating better, more people driving, more people using electricity—is translating into higher prices at the Stop & Shop.

The situation we're in is nowhere near stagflation—the consumer price index is rising at a 3 percent annual rate, compared with 13 percent in 1979. But it's still a shock to the system. Fuel surcharges have become de rigueur from exterminators to personal trainers. On May 28, Dow Chemical announced it would increase prices 20 percent to compensate for higher energy prices. The realization that the U.S. no longer controls its economic destiny is contributing to the widespread feeling of unease and crisis of confidence. Economically speaking, the 1990s belonged to the U.S. and New York and Silicon Valley. But as this decade motors toward its close, it seems powered by China, and Russia, and Dubai and Mumbai. It's as though we're home watching reruns while everybody else is out partying. Worse, some of those benefiting the most from the new tilt on the Risk board are hostile to the U.S., like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. In a recent study, Mary Egan, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group, found that 71 percent of those polled agreed with the following statement: "Because the world has changed so much, the U.S. economy will not be as strong as it was—or at least not for the next several years."

Such surveys measure sentiment, and any analyst worth his weight in PowerPoint presentations will tell you that sentiment doesn't always translate into cash activity in the marketplace. But there's one marketplace where sentiment—and especially consumer confidence—matters greatly: politics. The last time consumer confidence was this low was in October 1992—the month before incumbent George H.W. Bush won 37 percent of the popular vote, the worst performance of any incumbent in history. "The economy is always the biggest issue in a general presidential election," says Tom Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, because it's a referendum on the party in power. A recent CBS News poll showed more people identified the economy as their leading concern (34 percent) than identified oil prices (16 percent) and Iraq (15 percent) combined.

Yale economist Ray Fair has developed a formula in which particular economic factors can foreshadow election outcomes. Crude summary: when there's lots of good news on growth and inflation in a presidential term, it favors the incumbent party. With growth low and inflation high, John McCain comes out with 44 percent in November. (Before Obama-ites go making reservations for the Inaugural, consider that the formula misfired in 1992.)

All things being equal, the limping economy should favor Obama. While McCain has taken pains to distance himself from the Bush administration, he has heartily embraced the most significant component of Bush's economic legacy: the tax cuts. But in presidential elections, all things are never equal. Obama and McCain have staked out different economic turf. For Obama, it's middle-class tax cuts, and creating new jobs in environmental and tech fields; for McCain it is repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax, expanding free trade (a winner in an age of rising exports) and a summer gas holiday. But if the economy worsens significantly, if oil spikes to $150 per barrel and unemployment becomes more widespread, the campaign will likely take on a different tenor. The typical dialogues about taxes and spending, health care and pensions will assume a greater prominence. But a crisis atmosphere would require both candidates to come up with big-picture narratives about America's role in the world economy, and how the nation can reassume financial leadership—something neither has yet done comprehensively.

It's not all doom and gloom. Businesses that thrive on a weak dollar are holding up nicely. "In fact many sectors are benefiting from strong growth overseas, including high-tech, capital goods, chemical and other raw materials, aircraft," says Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight. Bob Toney, president of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based National Liquidators, which auctions repossessed boats and yachts, has doubled his staff to 78 employees to pick up around 120 boats a month. "Two years ago, we had 200 cases in our inventory and now we have 610," he says.

But it's the mainstream indicators—not countercyclical businesses—that will point to a recovery. For signs that tomorrow really is a day away, look to the thing that got us into this mess: housing. "Housing doesn't have to return to the bubble era. It's just that the rate of decline has to stop," says Lakshman Achuthan, managing director at the Economic Cycle Research Institute. Reductions in the level of housing inventories for sale will be a hopeful sign. Other tea leaves are the weekly reports on jobless claims, retail chain stores, and mortgage application activity. "This will give you an early read on potential trend shifts in consumption," says Ian Morris, chief U.S. economist at HSBC.

Just as sharp spikes in the price of oil and commodities have dented confidence, precipitous falls in the commodity markets could bolster consumer confidence. But that doesn't seem likely any time soon: on Friday, the price of a barrel of oil rose $10.75 to a record $138.54.

With Catharine Skipp in Florida, Jamie Reno in San Diego, Karen Springen in Chicago, Temma Ehrenfeld in New York and Daniel Stone in Washington

© 2008

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