Jewish World Review Dec. 12, 2000/ 15 Kislev 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THIS YEAR'S sinking stock market -- the worst since the bear market of 1990 -- has sent up economic red flags that recession may be just around the corner.
Surely there will be another recession -- defined as an outright decline in the overall level of economic activity for at least two quarters -- in my lifetime. But as yet I do not see one coming next year. That said, my relatively optimistic view would be bolstered if government tax, money and regulatory policies tilted away from austerity and back toward growth. More on that later.
Certainly, however, recent economic numbers show that prosperity is looking a bit long in the tooth. Car, computer and home sales have slowed markedly. Factory orders for electronic equipment (read information technology) are down. Industrial manufacturing activity has contracted slightly for three of the last four months. Early holiday sales look to be slower than last year. Consumer confidence is faltering. Jobless claims are on the rise. Estimates of future business profits have been halved. Third quarter GDP growth came in at 2.4% annualized, the slowest pace in four years.
The tech-heavy Nasdaq index has been clobbered since last summer, losing 33% of its value. Year-to-date the index is off 30%, after tripling between October 1998 (the last major downturn) and March of this year (it's peak). However, it should be noted that even at current levels the Nasdaq has grown 70% from two years ago.
Other major equity indexes have fared relatively better, but still down on the year. The more old-economy Dow Jones industrial average and the broader S&P 500 have lost 7% year-to-date. Bear markets are normally defined as a 20% loss for an extended time period, say six months or longer. So the Nasdaq would certainly qualify, but the Dow and the S&P would not, at least so far. Ditto for the all-encompassing Wilshire 5000, an index closely monitored by the Federal Reserve, where the loss this year has been nearly 10%.
Official bear market or not, the roughly one hundred million members of the new Investor Class who own shares have not fared well this year. By rough estimates shareholders have lost about $1.5 trillion in wealth this year, and it is this declining wealth effect that leads some economists to predict recession next year.
However, let's not forget that the vast majority of Investor Class shareholders are in for long-term retirement purposes, not short-run spending. What's more, as a result of low inflation and high investment returns, the consumption share of household wealth has been declining for twenty years. So day-to-day spending from stock market wealth is an over-rated economic point. Also, remember that as a proxy for stock market wealth the S&P index has increased three-fold since 1990, and overall household net worth has grown by a net of about $22 trillion since then.
Similarly, sales revenue and profit growth of many technology companies were also temporarily boosted by the Y2K-effect, as were their share prices. However, as revenues and profits descend toward more normal trends, so have their stock prices.
In other words, the Y2K booster rocket on economic growth and stock prices was temporary. Between the end of 1998 and mid-2000, real GDP growth increased at a 5.1% annual rate, nearly a full percentage point above the economy's five-year trend growth rate of 4.4% per year. As the Y2K-effect wears off over the next six quarters stretching to the end of 2001, a 3% GDP growth rate -- including a couple of 2% quarters -- would actually be consistent with the economy's longer-term 4% potential to grow. Unfortunately, the temporary growth correction, which from peak to trough on a quarterly basis might be 6% to 1%, may at times feel like a recession when in fact the underlying long-run prosperity cycle is still intact.
FED SHOULD EASE NOW
Despite clear disinflationary signals from commodity and financial markets, where gold and bond market rates have been falling and the exchange value of the dollar has been rising, the Fed stubbornly keeps its fed funds policy rate at 6˝%. Serious credit strains are unfolding in the high-yield junk bond market and parts of the banking system as a result of the Fed-induced liquidity shortage, yet monetary policymakers persist in their mistaken belief that low unemployment causes rising inflation. If the Fed would discard its Phillips curve and embrace inflation-sensitive market prices as a policy guide, then the fed funds rate could drop a percentage point in the next few months without endangering the goal of domestic price stability.
BIG INFLATION CAUSES RECESSION
Big inflation increases create an economywide tax hike effect, reducing the usefulness and buying power of money. It's a tax hike on money. Big interest rate increases resulting from inflation turn off the credit spigots, raise financing costs, reduce investment demands, and compress stock market multiples. Inflation also penalizes investment risk and wealth-creation by raising the effective tax-rate on unindexed capital gains derived from the sale of stocks and other assets. Inflation is the most powerful recession-inducer.
But the absence of inflation today leaves the economy more resilient and flexible than in past cycles. It would probably take a 5% to 6% inflation rate to cause recession. The probability of this is exceedingly remote.
DON'T FORGET TECHNOLOGY
Also, rapid innovation rates, including more powerful bandwidth, and numerous wireless appliances connected to the Internet, and rapid diffusion rates, i.e., the mass consumerization of information tech and its applications, will continue to thrust the economy fast-forward. Long waves of technological advance produce above-average growth, productivity, profits and stock market returns, with below-average inflation and interest rates.
Low inflation, King dollar and the technology-induced productivity rise act as shock absorbers to cushion the impact of things like temporary energy price hikes, Y2K transition, or even Fed tightening actions.
While personal tax collections increased $144 billion over the past year, personal savings fell $138 billion. So, in a massive resource transfer, overflowing government coffers are draining purchasing power from the private economy. Surpluses are up, but private saving is down from diminished take-home pay. And debt paydowns to wealthy bondholders and foreign governments provide no relief to the vast majority of the workforce, who do not own bonds.
Another prosperity threat comes from rising regulatory burdens. Overzealous regulation, particularly the Justice Department's anti-trust lawsuit to break up Microsoft earlier this year, blocks the supply of risk capital necessary to finance innovative technologies just as surely as big tax hikes or major inflation spikes.
It is no coincidence that the Nasdaq market peak last winter came nearly at the same time as the Microsoft break-up decision. Nor is it surprising that the reappearance of Microsoft-basher David Boise as Al Gore's chief election-contesting lawyer coincided with a vicious post-election Nasdaq sell-off (Boise as attorney general, trustbusting Oracle, Dell, Compaq, Sun Microsystems, et al?). Risk capital ran for the stock market exits.
NO MAJOR PROSPERITY-KILLERS
Come to think of it, with only a few modest policy turns in a
business-friendly Bush administration toward incentive-refreshing cuts in
marginal tax-rates, enhanced super-saver private investment accounts for
retirement, greater substitution of market competition for government
regulations and continued expansion of global free trade, then our
noninflationary technology-backed and productivity-enhanced economic growth
potential could be raised to 5%, and Nasdaq 10,000 will be well within range.
Hold that thought, and keep the faith. Better times are
JWR contributor Lawrence Kudlow is chief economist for CNBC. He is the author of American Abundance: The New Economic & Moral Prosperity. Send your comments about his column by clicking here.