All of the data and the trends in the data indicate that it is possible that a recession might already have begun.
• Job creation has been dismal in the second quarter, with little hope for improvement soon; jobless claims are, once again, on the rise.
• Retail sales have fallen three months in a row; this has never occurred without an ensuing recession. What is of greater concern is that this has occurred while gasoline prices have been falling.
• While market pundits have cheered small gains in housing data, it is clear that housing is still bottom bouncing. Changes in foreclosure laws have caused supply constraints that have made it appear that home prices are rising again.
• Industrial production, the one bright spot in the economy, showed a decline in May before recovering somewhat in June.
• The drought has caused raw food and commodity prices to spike. These will soon translate into higher food and raw input costs. (Is anyone now questioning the wisdom of the congressional mandate to produce increasing quantities of ethanol from corn instead of sugar?)
• Consumer confidence continues at levels below those seen in past recessions . Much of this is due to uncertainty surrounding fiscal policy and taxes.
• In the June Philadelphia Fed Survey, manufacturers were asked to list reasons for slowing production; 52 percent cited uncertain tax policy and government regulations.
• Real incomes are falling. The downward bias in the inflation numbers produced by the government inflates the reported GDP numbers. It has been my view that, as a result of the biased reporting, the recession never really ended, and real GDP is much lower than reported.
Equity market up for year
Nevertheless, despite all of the poor data, the equity markets have held up. At 1,338 (the closing level on July 25), the S&P 500 is still 6.4 percent higher than it was at the beginning of the year. This is strange, given that every other major market in the world is down 20 percent and in bear market territory. Here are a couple of possible explanations:
• The equity markets used to be a leading indicator of the economy. Severe market corrections (20 percent or more) usually meant recession was either imminent or already here. But, with the advent of computerized trading, the market now appears to be more of a coincident indicator. In late 2007, when the last recession began, the market was only off 5 percent from its October peak.
• Europe: There is such financial chaos in Europe that a flight to the dollar is continuing. Because higher quality bond yields are so low, some of the funds have found their way into the U.S. equity markets, thus keeping them buoyed.
Neither of these two reasons should give investors any confidence that U.S. markets can hold up. Besides the poor internal economic data within the U.S., worldwide data have been weak. In addition to the obvious problems in Europe, China is in a much slower growth mode, as is Japan, the rest of Asia, and even the commodity producers like Australia and Canada.
Solvable “fiscal cliff”
Finally, the approaching “fiscal cliff” in the U.S. is another wild card that could have a significant impact on capital markets. The good thing about the “fiscal cliff” is that it isn’t an outside force being imposed. The cliff is avoidable and completely under the control of Congress and the president.
With all of this going on, is a bear market inevitable? While I think that the confluence of events (worldwide economic slowdown, slowdown in the U.S., European financial chaos, “fiscal cliff”) make it likely, as I indicated in my last column, the application of “business friendly” policies could prevent it.
Until visibility into policy becomes clearer, investors should continue to be extremely cautious. They should remain liquid.
Finally, the U.S. economy is so fragile that any external shock, like a financial implosion in Europe, is certain to have negative impacts on U.S. markets. Policy responses to economic slowdown or financial chaos (e.g., printing of money by the European Central Bank or QE3 by the Fed) are likely to have a positive impact on the value of precious metals and commodities. And the ongoing drought will definitely move food and commodity prices upward.Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, a Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.