Monday, February 23, 2004

Debt vs. Income: At the Point of No Return

At the Point of No Return

...Income and job growth are so low that we have certainly passed “The Point of No Return”. There cannot be an easy resolution to the debt bubble and resolution will only come when a crisis forces change. Perhaps, for this election year, crisis can be postponed by continuing to facilitate an increase in borrowing so that debts can be rolled over, but increased. By 2005, the ultimate outcome to resolve the debt problem looks like it will be a combination of inflation, rising interest rates and debt default.

The reason we do not believe that job and income growth will save the day for the American worker is we have never before seen in history such increases in government spending, tax cuts, federal budget deficits, consumer spending and borrowing, with so little job growth. The massive fiscal and monetary stimulus has mostly been spent. There will be some nice tax refunds this spring, and that’s it! The peak of mortgage refinancing is already past. Construction spending is at a peak and the percentage of people who own their homes is at a record 69%. Mortgage underwriting shows that 5% of homebuyers in 2003 really couldn’t afford to buy a home, and another 5% could lose their home if one spouse becomes unemployed.

While the industrial sector is recovering, employment in the manufacturing sector has not increased since the start of the recession - there has been job loss in manufacturing for the past 42 months in a row. The United States has been in an economic recovery for over a year and a half and continues to lose manufacturing jobs every month! This is unprecedented!

Capacity utilization in the US remains about 76%, while massive new investments in production capacity are being made in Asia. The drop in the dollar has primarily affected trade with Europe, and Europe isn’t stealing our jobs. As long as Asia buys our dollar debt and continues to hold their currencies down against the dollar, job growth will happen there, but not here. Even when China and the rest of Asia “finally float” their currencies, few jobs will come back to America. In the United States, we only produce 45% of the manufactured goods we consume and much of that production is in electricity, petroleum refining, chemicals etc., that are capital intensive, with few workers required. Critically, many of the workers listed as employed in manufacturing are not engaged in manufacturing at all but in design, marketing, and distribution. Even if the Chinese currency doubled in value, the labor cost for a worker in China would still only be a fraction of the cost for an American in America. The sad fact remains that Personal Income growth will not happen because of job growth. Personal Income remains under pressure as higher “valued added” manufacturing jobs are exchanged for lower paying part-time and service jobs. America is losing manufacturing jobs paying $45,000 - $60,000 a year so it needs three new service jobs paying $15,000 - $20,000 a year just to replace the one manufacturing job that was lost.

So, where are Americans and their mountain of debt headed? If the days of borrowing more - courtesy of both the Federal Reserve and Asia’s Central Banks - are winding down later this year when Asia revalues its currency, it looks like there will only be two ways out: increased inflation and debt default. Both are likely. When those Chinese goods at Wal-Mart go up 30% in price, Americans will see inflation. The Fed will accommodate most of the inflation, but there will be a rise in interest rates. Inflation, if allowed and encouraged, will save the wage earner so he can continue to service his consumer debts. Rising interest rates will smash into housing prices like a tornado in Kansas. Homeowners who have a 30-year fixed rate mortgage will come out in the end, if they don’t have to sell their home for at least 10 years. Anyone who wants to sell their home will see some “asset deflation”, and financial institutions will experience substantial “debt default”. The Federal Reserve will “print money like crazy” to fight asset deflation and encourage inflation. Sometime before or after the Presidential election, the financial markets will be interesting, but painful to many. ...Link

No comments: