September 03, 2004
As much as I like to think of myself as a contrarian,
I find it difficult to believe that having a negative outlook on
the US economy and the US dollar is a contrarian opinion. Of course,
here, and at many of the investment conferences I attend, we’re
all just preaching to the choir, so I don’t necessarily expect
my opinions to be contrarian over here. But do the general public,
economists at large, and investors in general really believe the
US economy is on solid ground?
Listen to these headlines from the Wall Street Journal:
“GM’s August Sales Fall 14%; Ford Reports a 13% decline…
Consumer Confidence Wanes As Concern About Jobs Mounts… GM,
Ford Plan Cuts in Production… Soft Income Data Suggest Slowdown…”
Just last month Alan Greenspan gave an upbeat review
of the economy in his testimony before the Senate, saying that the
current recovery is broad-based and sustainable. Hmm, this doesn’t
sound like a broad-based and sustainable recovery to me.
In all fairness, Mr. Greenspan has admitted that the
economy is going through a “soft patch”, but he expects
that the economy will pick up again later this year. Growth may
well pick up a bit later this year, who knows? But will a slight
upturn in the economy indicate that the worst is over, or will it
just be a counter-cyclical upturn in what is otherwise a long-term
My money is on red, lots of it. I expect that corporate
profits will decline, stock prices will decline, employment will
decline, bond prices will decline and, as a result, government receipts
At the same time, the government will increase its
spending: it has to finance an ever-expanding War on Terrorism and
soon it will have to face up to the fact that it stole the baby
boomers blind -- their Social Security Account is empty.
Increasing government expenditures and decreasing
government receipts -- because the economy is slowing down -- imply
higher tax rates. And higher tax rates are not exactly how you stimulate
Just like the US economic growth during the Nineties
became a self-propagating phenomenon -- feeding on itself to keep
going while being fueled by foreign capital -- so too will the downturn
snowball and grow, with reduced economic activity in one sector
spilling over into others. The whole economy is, after all, connected.
Given that the US government has no restraint when
it comes to spending money you can bet that the budget deficit is
going to keep growing. Financing the budget deficit will ensure
that interest rates keep rising and higher interest rates will reduce
corporate profits. Lower corporate profits will increase unemployment
and an increase in unemployment will put the brakes on consumer
spending. Less consumer spending implies less corporate revenues,
which means less profits and more lay-offs.
The government gets its money from taxing corporations
and individuals. If corporate revenues and profits decline the government
gets less tax revenues and so it will increase its taxation of individuals.
But it is highly unlikely that the loss of corporate tax revenue
can be made up from an increase in personal income tax rates, so
even if the government doesn’t increase its current level
of spending the budget deficit will grow. And it’s folly to
think that the government won’t increase its spending. So
read the previous paragraph again.
It’s already happening: All three Big Autos
reported lower sales for August, it seems that their incentives
are not having enough impact on consumers any more. I wonder why?
Could it be that consumers are tapped out? After all, how many new
SUVs do we really need?
In response both General Motors and Ford said they
are preparing to cut production, and you know what that means…
lay-offs. No wonder consumer confidence is waning. On Wednesday
the Conference Board announced that its consumer confidence index
declined seven percent last month because people are concerned about
the job market.
According to the Commerce Department corporate profit
growth in America came to an abrupt halt in the second quarter,
apparently due to higher energy costs and slowing consumer demand.
So it’s not just the auto industry that’s suffering.
But like Bobby McFerrin says: “Don’t worry,
be happy.” Americans are, after all, still very wealthy. The
median household net worth in the United States was $55,000 dollars
in 2000. Eighty-three percent of that, however, is home equity.
Without home equity, the median household net worth is only $13,473.
But don’t worry, these folks are determined to spend the world
out of recession even if it takes all the money they have, and all
the money they can borrow.
Realtors are quick to point out that annual median
home prices in the US haven’t declined in the past fifty years;
so don’t worry. On an inflation-adjusted basis, however, the
national median home price has declined in eight of the past thirty-three
Mortgage rates will rise as the growing government
deficit forces medium and long-term interest rates up. That is likely
to put the brakes on the housing bubble that has developed in some
parts of the country, such as California, where the median home
price shot up twenty-one percent in the past year alone.
But this is an election year; so don’t expect
consumers, economists and politicians to pay much attention to anything
other than the talking heads on TV. Next year, when the dust has
settled, life will return to normal and American consumers will
once again wonder where they can get money to go spend at the mall.
I don’t know for how much longer the Chinese,
Japanese and other benevolent foreigners are going to send their
savings to this country so that we can buy new digital TVs and cell
phones, but I do know that I am putting as much of my own money
as possible into natural resource stocks -- predominantly mineral
exploration companies (if you want to know which ones, you can subscriber
to my newsletter; details are at www.paulvaneeden.com).
As much as it doesn’t feel contrarian to be
bearish on the dollar and bullish on natural resources, gold is
still dirt-cheap (in my opinion) compared to other financial assets
and that, alone, is an indication that gold investors are still
Paul van Eeden
PS I’ll be at the investment conference
in Las Vegas next week so there won’t be a commentary next
Friday. If you can, you should come too. Details are at www.iiconf.com.
Paul van Eeden works primarily to find investments for his
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