With the ink barely dry on the recent stimulus package, commentators are already calling for a fresh round of stimulus. But will these calls be heeded, or fall on deaf ears? For now, it looks like the Obama Administration is standing firm. And, really, what else could we expect? A call for more stimulus at this juncture is only a signal that the first package was destined to be a failure from the beginning, an admission that this Administration could not afford so early in the term. Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, delivered a clear message today:
“We absolutely need to let this one work,” Christina Romer, chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, said Monday at the Brookings Institution. Tax withholding tables are just now being changed to get more money into consumers’ pockets, she said, and many forecasters are saying the recent uptick in consumption may mean the economy is approaching bottom. “I think people are perhaps seeing some light at the end of the tunnel,” Ms. Romer said.
Light at the end of the tunnel...what information exactly is flowing into the Oval Office? Did the White House get the same jobs report the rest of us saw last Friday? Not so much light in that report as pitch black. Another 651k employees cut from payrolls, unemployment pushed to 8.1%, and the U6 rate pushed to a whopping 14.8%. These numbers are all expected to deteriorate in the months ahead. What else did we see last week? Perhaps the light was the in the ISM reports? Manufacturing barely budged, and remains mired deep in recession territory; nonmanufacturing tells a similar tale. Initial claims fell, but at 639k still signalscontinued sharp deterioration in the labor market, and the 4-week moving average still edged up. Maybe she is referring to the downward revision to 4Q08 productivity, which suggests firms still have more work to do in reducing labor costs.
Recent data shows little light, in my opinion. It describes an economy in virtual free fall. Romer appears to be holding onto the hope that the relative stabilization in real consumption expenditures signals a bottom of activity. I hope she is correct, but I remain cautious - households are getting a significant boost right now from declining energy prices, but with oil prices settling out in the $35 to $50 zone, future gains are less likely. Moreover, the confidence numbers are not supportive of a bounce back in consumer spending (click on chart to enlarge):
Most irritating is that Romer knows all this; she is much too smart to not appreciate the severity of the data. But once you go are in the Administration - whatever Administration - you heed to the party line. Romer continues the line:
The White House is betting that addressing the root cause of the economic downturn — the housing and financial-sector trouble — will be enough (along with the stimulus spending) to return the U.S. to growth. Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, “loves to say, ‘There’s more stimulus in financial rescue than in stimulus,’” Ms. Romer said. “By getting our financial markets back, getting lending going again, that’s incredibly important for aggregate demand and for spending.”
Sometimes I feel like I am in Oz. And I want to go home, so badly do I want to go home. To a time that credit flowed like water from a spring, and the answer to all life's problems could be found in a home equity line of credit. And Geithner is whispering to me, "just click your heels, and say 'I want to go home.'" Yet for months I have been clicking my heels - since Fall of 2007 - and still I am stuck in Oz.
Efforts to unglue the financial system are important, but I sense that the Administration's expectations of what will be delivered by a fix will fall far short of what is necessary to fill the growing hole in the US economy. Even BOA (NYSE:BAC) CEO Ken Lewis, in a self-serving WSJ op ed, admits as much:
Second, one of our greatest challenges is balancing the need to extend credit with the need of households to pay down excessive debt. In an economy that became too dependent on debt-driven consumption to create growth, the prospect of household deleveraging is sobering. The answer, in my view, is to let competitive forces lead us back to responsible lending practices, not the type of indiscriminate lending that has created so many problems.
Even if households suddenly rediscover their love affair with credit, a big if given the destruction of wealth in recent months, they will find themselves stymied by tighter credit conditions. A healthy, well functioning financial system simply will not extend credit on the scale seen in recent years. Without a replacement for that demand, economic activity will slide into a sub par equilibrium, and would likely remain sub par for an extended period of time as structural imbalances are corrected. David Altig at macroblog summarizes:
When I look ahead, I envision the U.S. economy over the next several years in terms of a simultaneous process of recovery and reformation: Recovery in the sense that the actual contraction of GDP will end, but reformation in the sense of structural transformation in financial markets, consumer behavior, and perhaps an adjustment of the global imbalances that are arguably at the root of much of the financial instability that has characterized the past decade.
Additionally, what is the time line for a financial market fix? One month, or one year? Will TALF jump start the securitization market overnight? How much damage will be done to the US economy while we wait? This Administration appears willing to find out.
In short, I grow increasingly fearful that the pace of economic deterioration will leave the US economy in a much deeper hole than this Administration expected, swallowing the stimulus package. Moreover, that even with a functional financial market, crawling out of that hole will be difficult at best. I see little but fiscal stimulus that could fill that hole. You might not like it, you might worry about the long term budgetary consequences, but we all might soon fall back on the old battlefield adage: There are no atheists in foxholes.