Thursday, December 4, 2008

Financial Indicators of the Deteriorating Real Economy

More and more we see concern being expressed about the deteriorating real economy and less emphasis being placed on the crises within the financial sector. The concern about the growing weakness in the real economy points to a longer and deeper recession than had been anticipated.

The current recession, as defined by the NBER, is in its 12th month and trails two other recessions which lasted 16 months as the longest post-World War II downturns on record. As economists revise their forecasts, most seem to believe that the 16 month period will be exceeded and many are saying that the current recession will reach the 20-24 month time span.

Economists only have to point to the daily release of employee layoff announcements to support their increasing pessimism. Companies are restructuring and these efforts are accompanied by reductions in workforce by 5,000 and 10,000 and more, per firm. AT&T announced today that they are going to lay off 12,000 employees and are taking a $600 million charge in the fourth quarter to cover severance payments. And, given recent experience, there will be two or three other companies announcing layoffs today. There will be more tomorrow…and Monday…and…

Then these layoffs must work their way through the rest of the economy. Lower spending…credit card defaults…additional decline in sales…more layoffs…and so on and so on. The effects are cumulative.

The policy problem is how to stop the cumulative contraction so that the downward spiral is broken.

The potential effects of this downward spiral in the real economy are being translated into the financial markets and the warnings are rather severe. For example, take the article in the Financial Times, titled “Record number of companies at risk of default”: This article focuses on the Markit iTraxx Crossover index which measures the cost of protecting junk-grade companies against default. This index rose above 1,000 basis points for the first time ever indicating that “a record number of companies are on the verge of default because of deepening financial problems.”

The authors also write that “Some of the world’s leading investment-grade companies look in danger of default, according to CDS prices.” The point being that the future shows nothing but dark clouds now. As these firms continue to restructure to avoid default on their debt the situation, at least in the short run, can only worsen because the layoffs lead to lower incomes which results in lower spending which results more restructuring and so on.

This deterioration in the real economy is also being transmitted to the government sector. There are two concerns being expressed in terms of the government securities. First, at local and regional levels…state and local governments…there is a restructuring gong on as government revenues drop and attempts are made to bring government budgets into balance…or at least into manageable level of deficit.

Second, governments at the national level are attempting to protect financial markets and combat the deterioration in their real economies. As a consequence, national deficits are ballooning and concern is being raised over the possibility of default on the part of sovereign nations. Another article in the Financial Times speaks to this concern: “Sovereign CDS prices soar as debt mounts”: “Credit default swaps, which insure against bond defaults, rose to all-time highs on the US, UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany yesterday…The dramatic rise is due to investor concerns over the amount of bonds the government will have to issue to bail out the banks and stimulate the economy.” The concern relates not only to the current economic and financial difficulties but also to the possibility that these governments will not be able to stem the downswing and will have to issue more and more bonds in the future.

Retail sales figures for November have just been release and the story reads that November retail sales are amongst the weakest in many years.

The difficulty that any government faces in attempting to compose a monetary or fiscal policy that can turn this situation around is that it is in the best interests of most economic units in the economy, individual, family, business, or non-profit, to get back to basics, to restructure what they do, to cut back their living standard, and to reduce debt. Consequently, government efforts are like “pushing on a string”…there is nothing to push against.

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