Green Shoots or Dandelion Weeds?

Go to Google. Type in "green shoots." In about a 10th of a second you will find 28,900,000 references. Scrolling through a few pages, you find a lot of references to the beginning of the end of the recession. Today we look at some data to see if we can indeed see the end. Most readers will be surprised to know that the number of people employed in the US went up (!) in April. Yet so did the unemployment rate. Is that green shoot just another dandelion weed in our economic garden?

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Thanks, and now let's jump into the letter.

Are the Green Shoots Really Dandelion Weeds?

When the employment numbers come out, my usual routine is to go the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and peruse the actual tables ( I was rather surprised to see that the actual number of people employed in the US rose by 120,000. That has certainly not been the trend for a rather long time.

So, are things back on track? Is the recession just about over? Is that a green shoot? I don't think so.

First, there are actually two surveys done by the BLS. One is the household survey, where they call up a fixed number of homes each month and ask about the employment situation in the household and then take that data and extrapolate it for the economy as a whole. So, while the number of employed rose, the number of unemployed rose a lot faster, by 563,000 to 13.7 million. In addition, there are 2.1 million who are "marginally attached" to the workforce. These individuals wanted and were available for work and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. They were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.

According to the survey, headline unemployment rose 0.4% to 8.9%, the highest level since 1983. But if you count those who are working part-time but want full-time work, as well as the "marginally attached," the unemployment rate (called the U-6 rate) is an ugly 15.8%.

For whatever reason, the markets were happy that the headline number of the other BLS survey, the establishment survey of lost jobs, was "only" 539,000, down from a negatively revised 699,000 in March. At least, the thinking was, the numbers were not getting worse, though it is hard for me to be encouraged by half a million lost jobs. That may not be the worst of it, however, since 66,000 jobs were temporary workers hired for the 2010 census, and the BLS estimated that the birth-death ratio added 226,000 jobs as a result of new business creation. Really? This will mean that there will likely be a major revision downward at some future point. The number will likely be well over 600,000 in the final analysis.

Further, it is likely that we will see at least another 1.0-1.5 million lost jobs over the rest of the year, taking unemployment very close to 10%. As an aside, the Treasury used an unemployment rate of 9.5% in their stress test of the banks, which suggests the test was not all that stressful. And, showing further weakness, there were 66,000 fewer temporary jobs. If there was really a nascent recovery, you would see a rise in temporary workers.

Average wages rose by a mere 3.2% on an annual basis, and by just 0.1% for the month, and the average work week was at an all-time record low of 33.2 hours. In nearly any inflation scenario, rising wages play an important part. This suggests that inflation is not in our near future.

Is That a Leaky Bucket?

Let's play a thought game. Picture the economy as a leaky bucket, maybe not as bad as the one below, but leaking nevertheless.


We have put holes in the bucket of our economy, and the "water," or GDP, is leaking out. We are going to settle at some new lower level of GDP and consumer spending. At some point, we can fix the holes and begin the process of increasing the level of the water. Typically, this happens relatively quickly.

However, a recent study showed that recessions that come as a result of or in conjunction with a financial crisis take a lot longer to recover from. The study looked at 122 recessions, of which 15 were associated with financial crises.

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The research, published as Chapter 3 in the April 2009 World Economic Outlook (WEO) of the International Monetary Fund, finds that recessions that are either associated with financial crises or that are highly synchronized worldwide have historically been longer and deeper, and featured weak recoveries (see chart). The combination of these two features -- a rare phenomenon in the postwar period -- resulted in even costlier recessions, which lasted almost two years.

"In addition to the current global recessionary cycle, there were three other episodes of highly synchronized recessions: 1975, 1980, and 1992. These recessions were on average longer and deeper. Distinct from other episodes, the recoveries from these recessions feature much weaker export growth, especially if the United States is also in recession.

"A perfect storm? Recessions that are associated with both financial crises and global downturns have been unusually severe and long lasting. Since 1960, there have been only six recessions out of the 122 in the sample that fit this description: Finland (1990), France (1992), Germany (1980), Greece (1992), Italy (1992), and Sweden (1990). On average, these recessions lasted some two years, were unusually severe, and featured weaker-than-average recoveries." (IMF)


In addition, I would suggest that the current recession is unlike any in the study, in that the habits of the American consumer are changing right before our eyes. Instead of spending and borrowing with little or no savings, people are now reducting their borrowing and increasing their savings. Savings are now 4% of income and are likely to rise to 7-8% or more in the next few years, as consumers see the need to repair their balance sheets and retirement funds.

Frugality Is Back in Vogue

While Wal-Mart and other low-cost retailer sales are up, Saks and other high-end retailers are down by as much as 30%. There is a new frugality in vogue. That new hole in the bucket? It is the damaged psyche of the American consumer. Consumer spending is going to fall, and when it does find that new level it is going to grow more slowly than in the past.

And that, gentle reader, is why the recovery is going to be a long slow Muddle Through. This recession will end, as all recessions eventually do. We will see a positive number, maybe as early as the 4th quarter. Employment should turn back up, albeit slowly, after that.

Typically, in a recession jobs are lost because sales slow and production is not needed. When sales recover, so do jobs.

But we are permanently destroying jobs in this recession, all up and down the food chain and in numerous industries. There will be fewer cars made, for a long time. Less demand for financial service jobs. Housing construction will be a long time recovering, well into 2011 or 2012.

And commercial real estate? General Growth, the largest operator of malls, with 166, filed for bankruptcy protection and in a very controversial move took all 166 malls into bankruptcy as well. General Growth was the largest issuer of Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities (CMBS), which is how the great majority of commercial mortgages are created. The lenders thought they had direct access to the cash flow of the malls. Some of those malls are quite profitable. Cue the lawyers.

If this rather aggressive move is allowed to stand up in court, it could do serious damage to the whole commercial real estate industry, which is already in upheaval, and throw new construction projects into serious difficulty. And less construction means fewer jobs.

Where Will the Jobs Come From?

As the water in our bucket seeks a new economic level, there are simply going to be fewer jobs to make "stuff," as we consume less. We can't rely on many of the old jobs and industries to come back in short order, as has been the case in the past. In order for new jobs to be created, we are going to have to create new businesses and expand current ones.

The vast majority of new job creation in the US is by small businesses and entrepreneurs. Yet today small business faces a tough environment. Banks have tighter lending policies. Venture capital is tough to find. Competition in a shrinking economy is brutal.

And the Obama administration wants to raise taxes on small businesses by raising taxes on the "rich." 75% of those rich he targets are small businesses who need capital in order to grow, but are having trouble getting it from banks.

Sure, entrepreneurs will do what they have to do, and higher marginal tax rates will typically not keep them from working as hard as possible to make their businesses successful. If the tax rates of the large majority of businessmen and women go back to the pre-Bush level, it will not make us close our businesses, but it will cut down on the capital we have available to expand. It will slow down economic growth and hinder job creation. There is just no getting around that fact.

There is a reason that high-tax states have higher unemployment rates and lower job growth. Taxes have consequences for economic growth.

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The sad reality is that it is going to take a long time to get back to acceptable employment levels in the US. It now takes an average of over 21 weeks to find a new job, a new record. Stories from friends in the financial services business are particularly difficult, as there are many very highly qualified people for every job that comes available. And it is not going to get better any time soon.

How could we add 120,000 new jobs while unemployment is going up? Because the number of people looking for jobs is growing far faster, as more and more young people come into the market place and couples now find they both must look for a job. And that is a trend that is going to continue.

So many bullish analysts talk about the second derivative of growth, by which they mean that we are slowing our descent into recession. But it is not the second derivative that is important. What is important is that the first derivative, actual growth, return. Until that time, unemployment will continue to rise, which is going to put pressure on incomes and consumer spending, and thus corporate profits.

Profits in the first quarter, with nearly 90% of companies reporting, are down over 50% from last year and are 18% less than estimates. Yes, inventories are down, but so is final demand from consumers and businesses. There is a reason that GM and Chrysler are shutting down for two months this summer. That will percolate throughout the economy.

As the realization that the economy is not due for a robust recovery sinks in, I think the chances for another serious bear market test of the stock market lows will become increasingly high. As David Rosenberg said in his final memo from Merrill Lynch (and good luck to him in his new position, where I hope we all still get to read his very solid analysis!), if a few weeks ago someone had said you could sell all your stocks 40% higher, most of you would have hit that bid.

Now that price has in fact been bid. Do you want to gamble on a renewed bull run in the face of a continually shrinking economy? I suggest you give it some serious thought, or at least put in some very real stop-loss protection.

Cleveland, New York, and Mother's Day

I thought I was staying home in May. Well, plans change. I am going to the Cleveland Clinic on Monday for a full physical with Dr. Mike Roizen (YOU: The Owner's Manual , etc.) which I have postponed for too long. This is an excellent program. I will give you a report next week.

Then on June 3rd I will be in New York for a very special conference hosted by my friends at The Big Picture. The conference is called "Capitalism after Crisis -- A look at Banking, Hedge Funds, and Media during the Recession ... and Beyond." It is an all-day affair on June 3, 2009 at the New York Athletic Club. There is a great line-up of speakers -- like Dylan Ratigan, Nassim Taleb, Doug Kass, Barry Ritholtz, Chris Whalen, and Josh Rosner -- and your humble analyst will do the closing keynote address. The conference is $895, but my readers get a special deal of $695 if they use this link:

Much of the family will gather for Mother's Day. My mother will be 92 in August. She is bionic, with two new knees and two new hips. Mother was in the WACs in World War II and went to Germany, where she met my father. She did not have an easy life, as Dad was an alcoholic for most of his life, but she stayed with him. She has always had a positive attitude. We almost lost her this last year, when she went into the hospital for minor surgery and ended up getting a very deadly stomach virus. She was actually giving my brother her last requests one night, as they thought she might not make it through the night -- but she did. I come from hardy stock.

And speaking of mothers, Tiffani is coming along and is now two months pregnant. I get the blow-by-blow narrative each day in the office. It does bring back memories. Enjoy your weekend; I certainly intend to enjoy mine. The Mavericks are in the playoffs, although so far Denver is eating our lunch. And Star Trek is out. I am a huge Trekkie. It will be a fun next few days.

Your can't wait to see Star Trek analyst,

John Mauldin Thoughts from the Frontline
John Mauldin

P.S. If you like my letters, you'll love reading Over My Shoulder with serious economic analysis from my global network, at a surprisingly affordable price. Click here to learn more.


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