Poor Adolf Merckle. The tycoon must have been down to his last billion or so. He was “broken” by the credit crunch, says the Financial Times. He wrote a farewell note and stepped in front of the 7:38 Express on its way to Munich.
As far as we know, the worldwide meltdown has claimed as much as $30 trillion dollars, according to one figure we saw, but relatively few lives. That makes it a comedy…not a tragedy.
Too bad for Herr Merckle. He didn’t appreciate the humour of it.
Yesterday was a bad day for investors. They are all expecting a recovery. Instead, the patient got sicker…the Dow fell 245 points. Oil slipped down nearly $6. And gold? Et tu AU? Yes, gold fell too – down $24.
So, here is a good place to take up our guesswork about what is going on in the world’s markets and what we should expect.
It all seemed too simple, a few days ago. It was. Too simple, that is.
The world’s markets have begun a major correction. The world’s governments – led by the United States – are determined to stop it. They want people to spend like there was no tomorrow. But people are acting like every day is tomorrow. Instead of spending, they are beginning to save.
Then comes news that vacancies in malls are at a 10-year high. Malls are places where consumers buy stuff. The days of stuff-lust are over. Ergo, less retail space is needed.
But if they buy less stuff, fewer people are needed to sell stuff…to make stuff…to move stuff…to count stuff and so forth.
“Pink slips pile higher,” reports the Associated Press. Employers cut nearly 700,000 jobs in December. The total for last year, when the final counts are made, is expected to be about 2.4 million. But the job losses have barely begun. It was only at the end of 2008 that most businesses realized they were in trouble. The real job losses will come this year.
The unemployment rate in November was about 6.7%. In December, it was said to be around 7%. If you put into the number all the people who have given up looking for work, the figure would go to about 12%. But even that will seem like full employment after the tsunami of job cuts hits this year.
Since so many Americans live without substantial reserves – savings – the pressure on Misters Obama and Bernanke to ‘do something’ will increase. What can they do? Spend money.
“US deficit set for post-war record,” reports the Financial Times. Reports today tell us that Obama says deficits will go “over $1 trillion.” One estimate put it at $1.2 trillion for ’09. We’ve seen others at $1.5 and even $2 trillion.
What they are trying to do is two things: replace private spending with public spending…and cause consumer prices to rise.
But replacing private spending with public spending, alone, is a task that would have staggered Hercules. In the past, the U.S. consumer could be counted on as the planet’s chump of last resort. He didn’t have any money. Still, when an economy slumped, he nevertheless kept spending – buying on credit. Gradually, the whole world economy came to rely on him. But now he’s stopped borrowing; in the last 12 months net consumer lending has collapsed. With neither more income nor more credit he has had to stop buying. And without buying from the U.S. consumer, the world economy is dying in a ditch.
Of course, U.S. rescue teams are on the scene. But if the U.S. government is going to save American households, it practically has to save every gadget maker in China…every call center in India…every rubber plantation in Malaysia…all the wine makers in Bordeaux – all the industries and jobs that relied on U.S. consumers. Otherwise, prices fall.
Even the United States can’t afford a bailout of this magnitude. Trillion-dollar deficits won’t be enough. Martin Wolf, in the FT, quotes a report from Levy Economics – “even with the application of almost unbelievably large fiscal stimuli, output will not increase enough to prevent unemployment from continuing to rise through the next two years.”
With rising unemployment the pressure to ‘do something’ grows. And the feds redouble their efforts. And this is where we find the basic logic our forecast:
In the fight against the global financial illness, the feds can’t cure the patient. All they can do is to deliver larger and larger doses of their quack medicine – until the patient dies.
*** A few days ago, this seemed so obvious, we worried that it was too obvious. Mr. Market doesn’t reward people for doing the too-obvious thing. He sets them up. Then he destroys them. He always seems to find a way.
The Barron’s survey told us that Wall Street’s strategists all believe stocks will go up in ’09. The only question is how much. The bulls think they’ll go up and keep going up. The bears think they’ll go up…and then go back down again.
And currently, there’s more money on the sidelines – waiting – than there is in the game. U.S. money market funds now exceed the amount in equity funds, for the first time in 15 years. According to the dominant view, this money is just itching to get back in the game and score a major victory. Battered in ’08…it wants to get even in ’09. This attitude, we hasten to point out, is not what you find at the end of a bear market…it’s what you find at the beginning of one. People still think that they will make money in stocks – it’s just a matter of time! And how much!
Will Mr. Market give these people what they expect? Or what they deserve?
We don’t know, but we see two possibilities:
The first is that there is no significant rally. Instead of going up, a torrent of bad financial news washes stocks further downstream in the first quarter. There, they will stay for the next 5, 10, or 15 years…until they give up all hope of ever making any money in the stock market.
The second possibility is that stocks do rally…strongly enough that that money now on the sidelines comes back in – just in time to get wiped out by the next major leg downwards.
*** If we were in an earlier phase of the imperial cycle – such as we were in 1920 – we would ride out the bust…liquidate the mistakes…and bounce back stronger than ever.
But this is 2009…not 1920. The empire is now old and tired. It has been burdened with so many fixes, rules, privileges and safety nets it cannot compete in many key industries. It is also heavily in debt…and running a trade deficit and a public deficit that sink it further into debt each day.
At this stage, Americans do not boldly face the future…they want protection from it. And so the feds flex every flabby muscle trying to hold it back. Of course, no one can stop the future. Birds gotta fly. Fish gotta swim. And the future’s gotta happen.
All the feds can do is to make it happen in a different way. Almost certainly a worse way. More tomorrow…as we keep thinking…
*** We also promised, yesterday, to tell you how you could escape… Americans already have a huge burden of private debt. Now, their government is adding an even huger new burden of public debt. How are you going to get out of this stalag of debt? What will happen to it? What effect will it have on your investments?
Hmmm….our answers will have to wait another 24 hours…we’re out of time for today.
*** This year marks the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s revolution. How things change! As a note in the Financial Times reminds us, a half century ago a young lawyer took charge in Havana while an old general ruled in Washington. Now a young lawyer takes charge in Washington while an old general tries to hold on in Havana.