Economic Reports Indicate U.S. Economy Heading Down

by: Daryl Montgomery

Default notices on U.S. home mortgages rose 33% in July. Retail sales and food services rose only 0.0% -- adjusted for inflation they were negative. The CPI inflation measure for August came in at 0.4%, almost as high as it was in July. Weekly jobless claims rose again this week, coming in at 428,000. All are pointing to an economy in trouble.

The Great Recession began in the housing market after subprime loans started to default in large numbers in 2007. The U.S. economy will continue to have difficulties until all the excesses are ringed out of house prices. Government policy has instead been geared toward stabilizing the market with temporary fixes. The Federal Reserve instituted a number of programs to funnel money into the mortgage markets to protect the banks that had too much exposure to real estate loans and the Obama administration has created programs like HAMP (Home Affordable Mortgage Program) to lower the foreclosure rate. Banks themselves have avoided or delayed foreclosures as long as possible because they don't want the properties on their books. All the government's efforts have certainly slowed down the rate of foreclosures and that may ultimately be all that they accomplish. A 33% increase of foreclosure notices in July indicates a new wave of foreclosures is likely next year.

Meanwhile, U.S. retail sales are declining if you take inflation into account. Retail sales increased strongly with rising home prices in the first years of the 2000s, but after the housing market turned south they have yet to recover. They have been held up by trillion dollar plus annual federal budget deficits, Federal Reserve money printing, and government stimulus programs including the "Cash for Clunkers" gift to the auto industry. Despite all of these efforts, retail sales and food services were up 0.0% in July (the same 0.0% for jobs created in August). The mainstream media reported 0.1%, but this is only the retail sales component of the report. The report is not adjusted for inflation, so even if retail sales rose 10% a year, but inflation was also 10%, there would be no actual growth (although that is not the story you would get from mainstream news sources).

Retail sales are crucial for the U.S. economy because they make up approximately 70% of GDP. If they don't grow in real terms (after being adjusted for inflation), it is difficult for the economy to grow. To get a quick read on how the retail sales numbers are being impacted by rising prices all that is necessary is to look at the gasoline sales subcomponent. There is no reason to think Americans are using a lot more gasoline from year to year, if anything less is being used. Yet, year over year gasoline sales are up 20.8%. This is caused by inflation. Retail sales and food services overall were up 7.2% year over year. Adjusted for a realistic inflation rate, this number would be somewhat negative.

That is not to say that the government is reporting an inflation rate that high. The just released CPI for August was 0.4% or 4.8% on an annualized basis. It was 0.5% in July or 6.0% on an annualized basis. Alternative inflation measures from ShadowStats.com indicate actual U.S. inflation is several percentage points higher than the official numbers indicate. ShadowStats.com calculates its inflation numbers the same way the U.S. government did in the 1970s. Since there have been many changes in how U.S. inflation is determined since then, it is not meaningful to compare current numbers to the past ones since doing so is like comparing apples to oranges. The ShadowStats numbers indicate that inflation is much higher now or if you don’t accept that, then you are left with the absurd conclusion that high inflation didn’t exist in the 1970s (you will find that this is the case if you use current methods to recalculate the 1970s inflation numbers).

The other major drag on the U.S. economy - lack of jobs - also seems to be getting worse. Weekly claims rose again this week to 428,000. Over 400,000 is considered a recessionary level. With the exception of a few weeks, these have been continually over 400,000 for almost three years now, indicating an ongoing recession (despite all the claims to the contrary of a recovery). The trend is actually worse than it appears however. These numbers should strongly regress toward the mean (move back to the long-term average), but haven't as of yet. As a recession goes on eventually everyone that is going to be laid off eventually has been and that should cause this number to decline for statistical reasons even if the economy isn't improving. That it has managed to stay at such high levels for almost three years is truly amazing.

The overall picture provided by U.S. economic reports indicates a flat or declining economy with rising inflation. Little progress seems to have been made in the last three years. The new credit crisis arising in Europe is only going to make matters worse. The U.S. economy was merely weak before Lehman Brothers defaulted, but it fell off a cliff after that.

Disclosure: None.

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