by Tim Bond
Published: July 29 2009 16:13 | Last updated: July 29 2009 16:13
Never has a bull market climbed a steeper wall of worry. In spite of a proliferation of positive economic indicators, the consensus remains gloomy. Bullish economists are than hens’ teeth.
The average forecast for third-quarter US gross domestic product growth is a weak 0.8 per cent, which would be by far the slowest first quarter of any recovery on record. Since 1945, the average annualised real US growth rate in the first two quarters of recovery is 7 per cent. History provides abundant evidence that the deeper the recession, the stronger the bounce. Even the recovery from the Great Depression conformed to this rule, real US GDP grew 10.8 per cent in 1934 and 8.9 per cent in 1935.
Yet today’s consensus assumes this time things will be different. The persistence of such pessimism is striking given a strong Asian recovery is visible, with output, employment and demand all following V-shaped trajectories, and regional industrial production rapidly bouncing back above the previous peak. Yet this recovery is dismissed by western analysts, who appear unable or unwilling to believe the region is capable of endogenous growth. That 2009 will be the second year in a row in which the increase in Chinese domestic demand exceeds that of the US is a point roundly ignored.
The fate of the Chinese economy is supposedly in thrall to the US consumer, in spite of clear and persistent evidence to the contrary. The US economy, which provides a home to 17 per cent of China’s exports, is still seen as the arbiter of growth in Asia. This obstinate adherence to an outdated assessment of economic dependence is not the only gaping intellectual flaw.
The 9.5 per cent US unemployment rate is also viewed as an obstacle to recovery. This objection ignores the many contrary examples of high unemployment rates and subsequent recoveries, not least in the US. Thus in 1982, US unemployment hit 10.8 per cent, yet GDP soared at an average annual pace of 7.7 per cent over the next six quarters.
Similarly, few commentators consider the possibility that the large post-Lehman rise in US unemployment was a mistake on the part of panicky managements. Yet this is precisely what trends in labour productivity growth, not to mention common sense, tell us occurred. In the first half of 2008, labour productivity growth averaged 3.3 per cent, while the unemployment rate rose to 5.6 per cent. At that point, there was no evidence US companies were overstaffed. Thereafter, output collapsed, yet business productivity growth remained positive, registering an average yearly pace of over 2 per cent, as companies shed labour at a faster pace than they reduced output. Businesses, like markets, panicked after Lehman went under. Employment and output were both reduced far more than it turned out to be necessary, as businesses temporarily and understandably assumed a worst case scenario.
Just as global output is performing a V-shaped recovery, there is a big risk US employment will do the same, with monthly payrolls showing surprising growth by the end of 2009.
If unemployment is one half of the bearish consensus, de-leveraging is seen as the other main obstacle to recovery. Yet increases in private leverage never play a significant role in recoveries. Indeed, since 1950, US private sector borrowing ex-mortgages has declined an average 0.1 per cent of GDP in the first year of recovery, with non-financial business borrowing declining 0.6 per cent of GDP.
A regression of the household savings rate on the wealth-to-income ratio tells us the former has made the appropriate adjustment to declines in the latter. In fact, the rally in the stock market, the low level of interest rates and the stabilisation in house prices all tend to limit the risk of a further sizeable increase in the savings rate. So over the rest of this year, the standard cyclical timing of a US economic turning point tells us pessimistic expectations are likely to collide with the economic reality of a strong recovery. The net result is almost inevitable, in the shape of an inexorable continuation of the equity rally.
The writer is head of asset allocation at Barclays Capital