“The US is really in the worst condition of any major economy or country in the world,” says ShadowStats Editor John Williams. In the following interview with The Gold Report, John concludes the nation is in the midst of a multiple-dip recession and headed for hyperinflation.
The Gold Report: Standard & Poor’s (S&P) has given a warning to the US government that it may downgrade its rating by 2013 if nothing is done to address the debt and deficit. What’s the real impact of this announcement?
John Williams: S&P is noting the US government’s long-range fiscal problems. Generally, you’ll find that the accounting for unfunded liabilities for Social Security, Medicare and other programs on a net- present-value (NPV) basis indicates total federal debt and obligations of about $75 trillion. That’s 5 times the gross domestic product (GDP). The debt and obligations are increasing at a pace of about $5 trillion a year, which is neither sustainable nor containable. If the US was a corporation on a parallel basis, it would be headed into bankruptcy rather quickly.
There’s good reason for fear about the debt, but it would be a tremendous shock if either S&P or Moody’s Investor Service actually downgraded the US sovereign-debt rating. The AAA rating on US Treasuries is the benchmark for AAA, the highest rating, meaning the lowest risk of default. With US Treasuries denominated in US dollars and the benchmark AAA security, how can you downgrade your benchmark security? That’s a very awkward situation for rating agencies. As long as the US dollar retains its reserve currency status and is able to issue debt in US dollars, you’ll continue to see a triple-A rating for US Treasuries. Having the US Treasuries denominated in US dollars means the government always can print the money it needs to pay off the securities, which means no default.
TGR: With the US Treasury rated AAA, everything else is rated against that. But what if another AAA-rated entity is about to default?
JW: That’s the problem that rating agencies will have if they start playing around with the US rating. But there’s virtually no risk of the US defaulting on its debt as long as the debt’s denominated in dollars. Let’s say the US wants to sell debt to Japan, but Japan doesn’t like the way the US is running fiscal operations. It can say, “We don’t trust the US dollar. We’ll lend you money, but we’ll lend it in yen.” Then, the US has a real problem because it no longer has the ability to print the currency needed to pay off the debt. And if you’re looking at US debt denominated in yen, most likely you would have a very different and much lower rating.
TGR: Is there a possibility that people would not buy US debt unless it’s in their currency?
JW: It is possible lenders would not buy the Treasuries unless denominated in a strong and stable currency. As the USD loses its value and becomes less attractive, people will increasingly dump dollar- denominated assets and move into currencies they consider safer. And you’ll see other things; OPEC might decide it no longer wants to have oil denominated in US dollars. There’s been some talk about moving it to some kind of basket of currencies – something other than the US dollar, possibly including gold. This would be devastating to the US consumer. You’d get a double whammy from an inflation standpoint on oil prices in the US because the dollar would be shrinking in value against that basket of currencies.
TGR: Different countries are starting to discuss the creation of an alternative to the USD as reserve currency. How rapidly could an alternative currency appear?
JW: That would involve a consensus of major global trading countries; but just how that would break remains to be seen. Let’s say OPEC decides it no longer wants to accept dollars for oil. Instead, it wants to be paid in yen. It’s done. It’s not a matter of creating a new currency – it’s a matter of how things get shifted around…Part of the weakness in the dollar now is due to the way the world views what’s happening in Washington and the ability of the government to control itself. That’s a factor that may have forced S&P to make a comment. So, even having a weaker economy in Europe would not necessarily lead to relative dollar strength.
TGR: If the US experiences a continued, or even greater, recession, doesn’t that impact spill over into Canada?
JW: The Canadian economy is closely tied to the US economy, and bad times here will be reflected in bad times in Canada. However, I’m not looking for a hyperinflation in Canada. Its currency will tend to remain relatively stronger than the US dollar. Canada is more fiscally sound; it generally has a better trade picture and has a lot of natural resources. Keep in mind that economic times tend to get addressed by private industry’s creativity and, thus, new markets can be developed. For instance, you’re already seeing significant shifts of lumber sales to China instead of to the US.
TGR: What about the effect on other countries?
JW: The world economy is going to have a difficult time. You do have ups and downs in the domestic, as well as the global, economy. People survive that. They find ways of getting around problems if a market is cut off or suffers. I view most of the factors in Canada, Australia and Switzerland as being much stronger than in the U.S Even when you look at the euro and the pound, they’re generally stronger than in the US. Japan is dealing with the financial impacts of the earthquake. There’s going to be a lot of rebuilding there. But, generally, it’s a more stable economy with better fiscal and trade pictures. I would look for the yen to continue to be stronger. Shy of any short-term gyrations, the US is really in the worst condition of any major economy and any major country in the world and, therefore, in a weaker currency circumstance.
TGR: Then why are media analysts talking about the US being in a recovery?
JW: You’re not getting a fair analysis. There’s nothing new about that. No one in the popular media predicted the recession that was clearly coming upon us, and the downturn wasn’t even recognized until well after the average guy on Main Street knew things were getting bad. We have some particularly poor-quality economic reporting right now. The economy has not been as strong as it advertised. Yes, there has been some upside bouncing in certain areas, but it’s largely tied to short- lived stimulus factors.
Are we really seeing a surge in retail sales? If so, you should be seeing growth in consumer income or consumer borrowing – but we’re not seeing that. The consumer is strapped. An average consumer’s income cannot keep up with inflation. The recent credit crisis also constrained consumer credit. Without significant growth in credit or a big pick-up in consumer income, there’s no way the consumer can sustain positive economic growth or personal consumption, which is more than 70% of the GDP. So, you haven’t started to see a shift in the underlying fundamentals that would support stronger economic activity. That’s why you’re not going to have a recovery; in fact, it’s beginning to turn down again as shown in the housing sales volume numbers, which are down 75% from where it was in normal times.
TGR: But we were in a housing boom. Doesn’t that make those numbers reasonable?
JW: Housing starts have never been this low. Right now, they are running around 500,000 a year. We’re at the lowest levels since World War II – down 75% from 2006 – and it’s getting worse. I mean the bottom bouncing has turned down again. We’re already seeing a second dip in the housing industry. There’s been no recovery there.
In March, all the gain in retail sales was in inflation. Retail sales are turning down. You’re going to see a weaker GDP number for Q111. The GDP number is probably the most valueless of the major series put out; but, as the press will have to report, growth will drop from 3.1% in Q410 to something like 1.7% in Q111.
TGR: You’ve stated that the most significant factors driving the inflation rate are currency- and commodity-price distortions – not economic recovery. Why is that distinction important?
JW: The popular media have stated that the only time you have to worry about inflation is when you have a strong economy, and that a strong economy drives inflation. There’s such a thing as healthy inflation when it comes from a strong economy. I would much rather be in an economy that’s overheating with too much demand and prices that rise. That’s a relatively healthy inflation. Today, the weak dollar has spiked oil prices. Higher oil prices are driving gasoline prices higher – the average person is paying a lot more per gallon of gas. For those who can’t make ends meet, they cut back in other areas.
You also have higher food prices. It’s not due to stronger food or gasoline demand – it’s due to monetary distortions. Unemployment is still high, even if you believe the numbers. I’ll contend the economy really isn’t recovering. At the same time, you’re seeing a big increase in inflation that’s killing the average guy.
TGR: Why isn’t there more pressure on the US government to reduce the debt deficit?
JW: When you get into areas like debt and deficit, it’s a little difficult to understand. The average person, though, should be feeling enough financial pain that political pressure will tend to mount before the 2012 election; but whether or not the average person will take political action remains to be seen. I don’t think you have until 2012 before this gets out of control and there’s hyperinflation. It could go past that to 2014, but we’re seeing all sorts of things happening now that are accelerating the inflation process.
TGR: Like the dollar at an all-time low.
JW: If you compare the US dollar against the stronger currencies, such as the Australian dollar, Canadian dollar and Swiss franc, you’re looking at historic lows. You’re not far from historic lows in the broader dollar measure.
TGR: In your April 19 newsletter, you stated, “Though not yet commonly recognized, there is both an intensifying double-dip recession and a rapidly escalating inflation problem. Until such time as financial market expectations catch up with the underlying reality, reporting generally will continue to show higher-than-expected inflation and weaker-than-expected economic results.” What do you mean by “until such time as financial market expectations catch up with the underlying reality?”
JW: A lot of people look closely at and follow the consensus of economists, which is looking at (or at least still touting) an economic recovery with contained inflation. I’m contending that the underlying reality is a weaker economy and rising inflation. I think the expectation of rising inflation is beginning to sink in. Given another month or two, I think you’ll find all of a sudden the economists making projections will start lowering their economic forecasts.
TGR: Do you think economists will shift their outlooks before we get into hyperinflation or a depression?
JW: In terms of economists who have to answer to Wall Street, work for the government or hold an office like the Federal Reserve chairman, by and large, they’ll err on the side of being overly optimistic. People prefer good news to bad news. If Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said we were headed into a deeper recession, it would rattle the market. People on Wall Street want to have a happy sales pitch. What results may have little to do with underlying reality…According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the defining authority in timing of the US business cycle, the last recession ended in June 2009. So, this current recession will be recognized as a double-dip recession. The Bureau doesn’t change its timing periods.
I’ll contend that we’re really seeing reintensification of the downturn that began in 2007. Although it’s not obvious in the headline numbers of the popular media, you’ll find that September/October 2010 is when the housing market started to turn down again. That is beginning to intensify. We’ll see how the retail sales look when they’re revised. When all the dust settles, I think you’ll see that the economy did start to turn down again in latter 2010. Somewhere in that timeframe, they’ll start counting the second or next leg of a multiple-dip recession.
TGR: This has been very informative, John. Thank you for your time.
The Casey Research Team
For Daily Reckoning Australia