Mike Whitney - On Tuesday, the 30-year fixed rate for mortgages plunged to an all-time low of 4.56 per cent. Rates are falling because investors are still moving into risk-free liquid assets, like Treasuries. It’s a sign of panic and the Fed’s lame policy response has done nothing to sooth the public’s fears. The flight-to-safety continues a full two years after Lehman Bros blew up.
Housing demand has fallen off a cliff in spite of the historic low rates. Purchases of new and existing homes are roughly 25 per cent of what they were at peak in 2006. Case/Schiller reported on Monday that June new homes sales were the “worst on record”, but the media twisted the story to create the impression that sales were actually improving! Here are a few of Monday’s misleading headlines: “New Home Sales Bounce Back in June”–Los Angeles Times. “Builders Lifted by June New-home Sales”, Marketwatch. “New Home Sales Rebound 24 per cent”, CNN. “June Sales of New Homes Climb more than Forecast”, Bloomberg.
The media’s lies are only adding to the sense of uncertainty. When uncertainty grows, long-term expectations change and investment nosedives. Lying has an adverse effect on consumer confidence and, thus, on demand. This is from Bloomberg:
The Conference Board’s confidence index dropped to a 5-month low of 50.4 from 54.3 in June. According to Bloomberg News:
“Sentiment may be slow to improve until companies start adding to payrolls at a faster rate, and the Federal Reserve projects unemployment will take time to decline. Today’s figures showed income expectations at their lowest point in more than a year, posing a risk for consumer spending that accounts for 70 per cent of the economy.
“Consumers’ faith in the economic recovery is failing,” said guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC in Philadelphia, whose forecast of 50.3 for the confidence index was the closest among economists surveyed by Bloomberg. “The job market is slow and volatile, and it’ll be 2013 before we see any semblance of normality in the labor market.” (Bloomberg)
Confidence is falling because unemployment is soaring, because the media is lying, and because the Fed’s monetary policy has failed. Notice that Bloomberg does not mention consumer worries over “curbing the deficits”. In truth, the public has only a passing interest in the large deficits. It’s a fictitious problem invented by rich corporatists (and their think tanks) who want to apply austerity measures so they can divert more public money to themselves. In the real world, consumer confidence relates to one thing alone–jobs. And when the jobs market stinks, confidence plummets. This is from another article by Bloomberg:
“Consumer borrowing in the U.S. dropped in May more than forecast, a sign Americans are less willing to take on debt without an improvement in the labor market.
The $9.1 billion decrease followed a revised $14.9 billion slump in April that was initially estimated as a $1 billion increase, the Federal Reserve reported today in Washington. Economists projected a $2.3 billion drop in the May measure of credit card debt and non-revolving loans, according to a Bloomberg News survey of 34 economists.
Borrowing that’s increased twice since the end of 2008 shows consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 per cent of the economy, will be restrained as Americans pay down debt. Banks also continue to restrict lending following the collapse of the housing market, Fed officials said after their policy meeting last month” (Bloomberg)
Consumer confidence is falling, consumer credit is shrinking, and consumer spending is dwindling. Jobs, jobs, jobs; it’s all about jobs. Budget deficits are irrelevant to the man who thinks he might lose his livelihood. All he cares about is bringing home the bacon. Here’s a quote from Yale professor Robert Schiller who was one of the first to predict the dot.com and the housing bubble:
“For me a double-dip is another recession before we’ve healed from this recession … The probability of that kind of double-dip is more than 50 per cent. I actually expect it.”
There’s no need for the economy to slip back into recession. It is completely unnecessary. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke knows exactly what needs to be done; how to counter deflationary pressures via bond purchasing programs etc. He has many options even though interest rates are “zero bound”. But Bernanke has chosen to do nothing. Intransigence is a political decision. By the November midterms, the economy will be contracting again, unemployment will be edging higher, and the slowdown will be visible everywhere in terms of excess capacity. The Obama economic plan will be repudiated as a bust and the Dems will be swept from office. The bankers will get the political gridlock they desire. Bernanke knows this.
On Tuesday, a $38 billion Treasury auction drove 2-years bond-yields down to record lows. (0.665 per cent) Investors are willing to take less than 1 per cent on their deposits just for the guarantee of getting it back. Bond yields are a referendum on the Fed’s policies; a straightforward indictment of Bernanke’s strategy. Three years into the crisis and investors are more afraid than ever. The flight to Treasuries is an indication that the retail investor has left the market for good. It is a red flag signaling that the public’s distrust has reached its zenith.
Presently, big business is awash in savings ($1.8 trillion) because consumers are on the ropes and demand is weak. The government’s task is simple; make up for worker retrenchment by providing more fiscal and monetary stimulus. If private sector and public sector spending shrink at the same time, the economy will contract very fast and recession will become unavoidable. So, Go Big; create government work programs, help the states, rebuild infrastructure and support green technologies. The economy is not a sentient being; it makes no distinction between “productive” labor and “unproductive” labor. The point is to keep the apparatus operating as close to capacity as possible–which means low unemployment and big deficits.
Increasing the money supply does nothing when interest rates are already at zero and consumers are slashing spending. Bernanke has added over $1.25 trillion to bank reserves but consumer borrowing, spending and confidence are still flat on the canvass. The problem is demand, not the volume of money. Bernanke knows what to do, but he refuses to do it. He’d rather line the pockets of bondholders, bankers and rentiers. This is from Calculated Risk:
“This report from the National League of Cities (NLC), National Association of Counties (NACo), and the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) reveals that local government job losses in the current and next fiscal years will approach 500,000, with public safety, public works, public health, social services and parks and recreation hardest hit by the cutbacks.
The surveyed local governments report cutting 8.6 per cent of total full-time equivalent (FTE) positions over the previous fiscal year to the next fiscal year (roughly 2009-2011). If applied to total local government employment nationwide, an 8.6 percent cut in the workforce would mean that 481,000 local government workers were, or will be, laid off over the two-year period.”
The cutbacks will ravage local governments, state revenues and public services. Emergency facilities by the Fed provided $11.4 trillion for underwater banks and non banks, but nothing for the states. The GOP is helping the Fed strangle the states by opposing additional aid for Medicare payments and unemployment benefits. Many cities and counties will be forced into bankruptcy while Goldman Sachs rakes in record profits on liquidity provided by Bernanke. It’s a disaster.
The bottom line? When Wall Street is hurting, money’s never a problem. But when the states are on the brink of default and 14 million workers are scrimping to feed their families, it’s time for belt-tightening. Explain that to your kids.