What’s Going Well, and What’s Not

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the increase in exports from the US in today’s paper.  Also, they have this nifty interactive graphic that shows what areas of the US are benefiting most from exports.

Exports are a key to the new US economy.  Even though the dollar has rallied recently, it has become cheaper to manufacture many things in the US because the dollar is a lot cheaper than it was one to five years ago.  That makes US wages cheaper, and American workers are among the most productive in the world.

That’s the bright side of the US Economy, and it influences how I invest.  I pay more attention to global demand than to US consumer demand.

But now for the worries.

  • Money supply growth is anemic.  The Fed is not pushing on a string; the Fed is not pushing.  What strength they have is being directed toward solving financial market problems, not toward stimulating the US economy.  Banks are not expanding credit because they can’t afford to do it.
  • Residential real estate prices are likely (in my opinion) to fall another 10-20% across the US over the next two years.  That mortgage rates have fallen is a small help, but not enough to fundamentally change the situation.
  • The investment banks have cleared away some of their troubles, but they are still opaque, and their derivative books are possibly mispriced as a group.  Level 3 assets as a fraction of equity must come down.
  • Well, credit spreads have risen, but aside from financials, where are the junk bond defaults?  We had a ton of weak single-B and CCC issuance — where are the defaults?
  • There are a variety of weak finance companies that suffer in this environment, mostly due to their own foolishness: Chrysler, Ford, GM, AIG, mortgage insurers, and financial guarantors.

You’ll note that I have focused on financials.  That’s because in a credit-driven economy, if they are sick, then most of us are sick.

Regarding the fall in mortgage rates, that’s a good thing for financials, except that lending standards have tightened.  When we talk about the Fed “pushing on a string,” it means that when the banks are weak, lowering rates doesn’t do much; they can’t lend more because their balance sheets are weak.  With lower mortgage rates and tighter lending standards, the “pushing on a string” phenomenon reappears.  There aren’t that many people who can benefit from the lower rates, because many marginal buyers don’t have the wherewithal to meet the new lending standards.  That will change over time.  Indeed, when the Fed “pushes on a string” eventually their power is seen, delayed, but with a vengeance.  The same is true here, if mortgage rates stay low for long enough.

Things aren’t as bad as the bears put out, and are not as good as the bulls put out.  The economy is muddling with flattish growth as far as the average consumer sees, even if some export sectors are doing well.  That’s how I see it, and simplistic words like “recession” only cloud the picture.