Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Virtuous Economic Cycle Components

After a severe recession there are going to be some very damaged sectors of an economy. They don't all spring back at once. Some lead, some lag the general upturn. While past upturns offer patterns that may be repeated, the economy is a complex beast, so it is not surprising if details differ in each cycle.

In 2009 the stock market indexes hit bottom, then had a good climb. In 2010 so far we have been up and down a number of times, ending around flat today after a good start to September. Not knowing history, one might theorize that the stock market should have a damping effect on economic cycles (not dipping as deeply, not rising as quickly). This would be because a common theory is that stocks are about future value. So stock prices should take into account long-term returns, which should in turn take into account the cycles of growth and recession that characterize capitalist economies.

But, in just one for-instance, in early 2009 the stock market averages dipped far more, as a percentage, than GDP. Same in the 2001 crash. But in 2001 the fall came mainly because leading up to 2000 investors forgot to take into account that the profitability of the companies' would drop when a recession took hold. The Federal Reserve failed in its duty to dampen a bubble because big egos mistakenly believed, and told the mass of investors, that cycles were over, to be replaced by more-or-less steady economic growth.

At its bottom in 2009 the stock market was suffering from the opposite delusion: that the economy would never recover. I would argue that in 2007, with the exception of the banking sector, most stocks had in fact priced in the entire economic cycle. The commodity sector had not, and of course housing prices and loans against housing had not. Many people lost all or much of their retirement investments not because they had invested badly, but because they panicked and sold near the bottom.

The big price swings in stocks are because they are auction markets. They are efficient at matching buyers with sellers, but they overprice and underprice securities when there is a deficit of one party or the other.

Today housing, both used housing stock and the building of new housing, is still weak. There are still some pockets of vacuum where people pretend there are loans that will be repaid; there is still turbulence. But the economy can suffer a fair amount of turbulence without crashing.

Demand continues to pick up despite the fact that we are no longer seeing net stimulus from the government sector. Some sectors of the economy are showing strength, notably agriculture and export-oriented industry. Those who are employed are much more confident of keeping their jobs than they were a year ago. They also, on the whole, have paid down their debts and are in a much better position to shop more without getting themselves into trouble. So I would expect that as the employed spend more retailers will be encouraged to do more hiring.

That is the thing about the virtuous part of the cycle. More hiring means more retail sales, and less of a drain on government for unemployment compensation and the like. More retail sales means more manufacturing. And in turn more hiring.

In 2011 we can expect people who have huddled together in houses and apartments to save money to begin to feel secure enough to venture out on their own. That means more rental income (if not increased rents or housing prices, at first) and, after all these many years, the absorption of excess housing stock.

All these processes take time. The stock market is an important part of this cycle. People spend more when their stocks are up. Those who own stocks represent a disproportionate part of the spending equation. If investors are so cautious that stocks take another dive, that will slow down the natural upswing. If the market moves up smartly in the near term, that will accelerate the recovery.

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