Monday, May 16, 2005

Signs of the Economic Apocalypse 5-16-05

From Signs of the Times 5-16-05:

In the U.S. stock market, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 10,140.12 on Friday, down 2% from the previous Friday’s close of 10,345.40. The NASDAQ closed at 1976.80, up 0.48% from the previous week’s 1967.35. The yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury bond closed at 4.13% down from the previous week’s 4.26%. The dollar closed at .7933 euros, up 1.8% compared to the previous Friday’s close of .7791. That put a euro at 1.2606 dollars compared to last week’s 1.2824. Oil fell last week, closing at $48.67 a barrel, down 4.7% from $50.96 a week earlier. In euros, the price of oil closed at 38.61 euros a barrel, down 2.9% from the previous Friday’s close of 39.74. Gold closed at $420.60 an ounce on Friday, down 1.5% from $426.80 the previous Friday. Gold in euros would be 333.66 an ounce, down just 0.26% from last Friday’s 332.81. Gold did better against oil last week. At Friday’s close an ounce of gold would buy 8.64 barrels of oil, up 2.5% from the previous week’s 8.43.

The announcement recently by IBM that it was cutting thousands of jobs in western Europe, brought into relief the fact that, while lagging a bit behind the United States in this, the more advanced economies of Europe are seeing the outsourcing and offshoring wave begin to crest. (Note, while we often lump both under the term ‘outsourcing’, it is worth keeping in mind the difference: ‘outsourcing’ refers to firms contracting out various business processes to other companies, while ‘offshoring’ refers to companies moving jobs to low wage countries, whether or not those jobs remain within the firm in question):

Major Job Losses At Computer Giant IBM
Computer giant IBM has announced plans to shed thousands of workers. Up to 13,000 jobs are expected to go - most of them from its struggling European operations. The company signalled the job cuts were part of efforts to reinvent itself after it ditched its personal computer unit.

It said it foresaw reducing its 329,000-strong workforce through "voluntary and involuntary" cuts by 10,000 to 13,000 employees worldwide.

"The majority of the overall workforce reductions are planned for Europe, and the company has initiated discussions of these changes with local consultation bodies," a statement said.

IBM said the success of the revamp depended "on reducing bureaucracy and infrastructure in lower-growth countries and creating teams that can work across country borders."

"This eliminates the need for a traditional pan-European management layer to co-ordinate activity.

"As a result, IBM will create a number of smaller, more flexible local operating units in Europe to increase direct client contact."

This process will put considerable pressure on the social safety net of which Europeans are so justly proud. Here’s Business Week:

May 23, 2005


U.S. multinationals are scaling back their presence in Western Europe in favor of more promising venues.

David N. Farr, chairman and chief executive of St. Louis industrial group Emerson Electric Co., keeps a close eye on Europe. That makes sense. The region accounts for about one-fourth of Emerson's $15.6 billion revenues and 16% of its worldwide assets. But more and more, Farr is discouraged by what he sees. Western European sales have been flat for months, as corporate customers delay purchasing the power networks, air-conditioning systems, and other big-ticket capital goods Emerson sells. Come to think of it, there hasn't been much life in these markets for years. "The European economies have continued to weaken and weaken," Farr laments. Even worse, a strong euro and stringent anti-layoff laws make it tough to trim costs.

Now, Emerson has had enough. It has halted new investment in Western Europe, while pouring money into faster-growing, more lightly regulated economies in the old Soviet bloc. Vacant jobs in Western Europe are not being filled. "As we need more capacity, we're putting it in Eastern and Central Europe," says Edward L. Monser, Emerson's chief operating officer.

It's hardly news that Western Europe is a tough place to do business these days. Growth for the euro zone economy is forecast to be below 1.5% this year, less than half the rate in the U.S. and Asia. Unemployment averages 8.9%, retail sales are sagging, and euro zone manufacturing production shrank in April. High oil prices only add to the gloom. U.S. multinationals from McDonald's to Caterpillar to Wal-Mart complain that their European operations, particularly in Germany, are dragging down companywide sales and profits.


But as Europe heads into a fifth year of economic anemia, some U.S. multinationals are finally concluding that a robust recovery won't arrive soon -- if ever. Like Emerson, they're scaling back longstanding operations and diverting investment to more promising venues. Until now, many U.S. companies have hesitated to reduce European payrolls because of local laws requiring cumbersome, expensive layoff procedures. But more and more are concluding that it's worth the trouble. IBM says that the bulk of the 10,000 to 13,000 worldwide job cuts it announced on May 5 will be in Western Europe, while the company is hiring in Hungary and Slovakia. General Motors Corp. plans to eliminate up to 12,000 Western European jobs by 2006, even as it expands manufacturing in Poland.

The big numbers tell the story most clearly. Foreign direct investment in the European Union's 15 longstanding member countries fell almost 50% in 2004, to $165 billion, with every one of the EU's major economies except Britain posting a decline. By contrast, in the eight Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU last year, foreign investment rose by one-third, to $36 billion. Foreign direct investment in the U.S. also rose sharply last year.

Of course, the U.S. is losing manufacturing and service jobs to lower-wage countries, too. And European companies are doing plenty of offshoring themselves. A survey by Woodlands (Texas)-based consulting firm TPI found that European companies accounted for 49% of all major outsourcing contracts last year, ahead of U.S. companies, which had 44%.

There are two trends at work here, neither of which bode well for western Europeans. First, the neoliberal corporate project to use transnational bodies like the WTO to undermine national sovereignty in the area of economic and social policy proceeds apace. The project is to punish Europe for showing that you can have an advanced, dynamic economy with many elements of socialism in place. That will not be allowed to continue if the capitalist globalisers have anything to say about it. Second, we can also see the development of economic spheres of influence, with much of the western European offshoring going to eastern Europe, rather than Latin America or India as is the case in the United States (which is not to say that many European jobs will not be lost to India or China).

For readers of these pages it is old news, but there are increasing signs that mainstream commentators are thinking in apocalyptic terms, especially when it comes to the economy. We would like to welcome The New York Times to the doomsday club!

The Perfect Storm That Could Drown the Economy

We seem to be living in apocalyptic times. On NBC's "Revelations," Bill Pullman and Natascha McElhone seek signs of the End of Days. In the Senate, gray-haired eminences speak of the "nuclear option."

The doomsday theme is seeping into the normally circumspect world of economics. In April, Arjun Murti, a veteran analyst at the investment bank Goldman Sachs, warned that oil could "super-spike" to $105 a barrel. And increasingly, economists are prophesying that the American economy as a whole may be sailing into choppy waters.

Just look at the many obvious and worrisome portents. The government each year spends much more than it brings in, and so the nation has a large budget deficit ($412 billion in fiscal 2004, and growing). Americans also import far more goods than they export, and so the nation has record trade and current account deficits.

As consumers, Americans personally spend significantly more than they earn. Worse, some imbalances are eerily reminiscent of conditions that helped touch off recent economic crises: Mexico in 1994, Asia in 1997, Russia in 1998 and Argentina in 2002. Throw in rising interest rates, warnings of a housing bubble and the potential for higher inflation and slower growth (a k a stagflation) - and you can understand why some economic analysts may be plumbing the New Testament for inspiration.

The forces propelling and buffeting the economy are like a series of interrelated and interconnected weather systems. Could they be setting the conditions for a perfect storm - a swift series of disturbances that causes lasting damage? If so, what would it look like?

"There's a pattern that is familiar from so many other countries that have gotten into debt problems," said Jeffrey A. Frankel, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "A simultaneous rise in interest rates, fall in securities prices and depreciation of the currency."

Of course, economists, always armed with bandoliers of caveats, are quick to warn that the economy is relatively healthy. Job growth numbers released on Friday were strong, with 274,00 new jobs created in April.

And they warn against drawing parallels too sharply between the mighty United States and emerging markets. The dollar remains the world's reserve currency, and the United States is a global military and political hegemon. And the nation has been able to borrow huge amounts for years without suffering a crisis.

That said, how might a perfect storm be created? It would likely gather overseas, and wouldn't necessarily take the form of a terrorist strike or oil shock. The United States finances its spendthrift ways by selling dollars and dollar-denominated securities (like Treasury bills) to foreign creditors, mostly to central banks in Asia. To sustain growth, the United States needs foreign creditors to continue to add to their piles every day.

Any signs to the contrary are worrisome. In February, when the Korean government suggested that the Bank of Korea might diversify its foreign exchange holdings, "this seemingly innocuous statement set off a small panic in our stocks and bond markets," said James Grant, editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer.

If the Bank of China, which has been accumulating dollars at the rate of $200 billion a year, decides to cut back on new purchases, either to diversify or to let its currency appreciate, the United States would quickly have to offer sharply higher interest rates to retain existing investors and entice new ones. Nouriel Roubini, an economics professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, estimates that if China cut its rate of accumulation by half, long-term interest rates in the United States could rise by 200 basis points over a few months and the value of the dollar would fall.

Such a rising tide - the yield on the 10-year bond shooting from 4.25 to 6.25, the average 30-year mortgage rising from 6 percent to 8 percent - would mean instantly higher borrowing costs for the government, businesses and consumers. It would drench Wall Street, soaking the stocks of giant interest-rate-sensitive blue chips like Citigroup and making life difficult for speculative, debt-ridden companies. Some highly leveraged hedge funds or investment banks caught on the wrong side of trades would incur significant losses.

The United States weathered a sharp decline in the stock market just a few years ago, in large part because of the housing market's strength. But a sharp rise in interest rates would literally hit home. For new home buyers, or for people with adjustable rate mortgages, 200 extra basis points of interest on a $400,000 mortgage would represent $8,000 a year in extra payments. If mortgage rates were to rise sharply, housing prices would level off and perhaps do the unthinkable: fall.

Suddenly, the mechanisms that have allowed consumers to keep the economy afloat - the ability to realize profits from selling homes, to refinance mortgages at lower rates and to borrow cheaply against home equity - would be broken. In the absence of sharply rising wages, that $8,000 in extra interest would be $8,000 less to spend at Home Depot, or at the Cheesecake Factory, or at Disney World.

"Personal expenditures in the past 15 months have been largely financed by borrowing," said Wynne Godley, a Cambridge University economist who is affiliated with the Levy Institute at Bard College. "And even a reduction in the pace of debt creation will force people to start spending less, on a big scale."

If the dollar weakens and consumption falls, the trade and current account deficits would start to narrow. But the United States economy would slow and, perhaps, even shrink.

"The result would not be a full-blown financial crisis most likely, but it would still be a major recession," said Barry Eichengreen, a professor of economics and political science at the University of California at Berkeley.

What would create the full-blown crisis? When the slowdown starts to radiate across the globe, said Catherine L. Mann, senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for International Economics.

For years, the American consumer has been the engine of global growth, by gobbling up the output of oil wells in Saudi Arabia and factories from Mexico to China. "The slowdown in consumer spending is going to have a negative influence on the global economy through reduced international trade," Ms. Mann said.

What's more, a recovery would be comparatively slow in coming. When the global economy came to a screeching, synchronous halt in 2001, the United States led much of the world back to growth because the federal government went on a stimulus binge for several years: Congress significantly increased government spending while cutting taxes, and the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to historic lows, and held them there.

But in the perfect economic storm, none of these three powerful levers would be readily available. Today's deep budget deficits make both significant tax cuts and spending increases unlikely. And rising interest rates would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Federal Reserve to reduce the cost of borrowing.

It sure sounds alarming. But as the clouds gather and the wind stiffens, we sail onward, with no apparent adjustment in course, full steam ahead.

We are seeing now a blitzkrieg, a shock and awe attack on those who work for a living. Medicaid is being cut. Corporations are slipping out of their commitments to retired workers. One wonders how much the ballyhooed financial problems of General Motors are smokescreens for their attempt to break their promises on pay and healthcare to their retired workers. A reader wrote in with the following:

Many more worthless promises will be exposed before this cycle of economic chaos ends.

Other companies are waiting in the wings to unload their pension promises to workers as part of the effort to make American business more "competitive". GM and Ford, Delta, and many others will now see this ruling as a green light to declare bankruptcy and rid themselves of the obligations and promises they made to their employees over the years.

And I'll wager that executive pension plans will be unaffected by this ruling.

But something even more insidious is at work here than just a pension plan scam.

This is just another step in the ruination of the American middle class. While the corporation gets to slide out of its pension obligations by declaring bankruptcy, under the new personal bankruptcy law just passed, the individual won't be able to escape their debt obligations as easily as this. The personal bankruptcy revision has made it harder and more complicated to do so.

Step 1: Lure people into taking on greater and greater loads of debt. Place ads for EZ loans everywhere, on computers, in the mail, on TV, in newspapers, everywhere.
Encourage everyone to buy overpriced homes and to refinance those loans as often as possible to keep people spending.

Promote adjustable rate mortgages and interest only home loans so everyone can participate.

Status of this step: in place

Step 2: Change the personal bankruptcy laws to make it harder for individuals to have debt excused.

Status of this step: in place, due to be fully implemented around Sept-Oct 2005.

Step 3: Allow corporate pension liabilities to be erased or modified as part of keeping America competitive.

Pretend that the government will see to it that pensions will never be allowed to fully default.

Get people used to making sacrifices for the good of the economy.

Status of this step: in progress right now.

Systematically, all the exits are being sealed for the middle class American and any hope of financial independence. When the time is right, the trap door will open and down the hatch they'll go, probably expressing shock and awe that something like this could ever happen in the greatest nation in the world.

The next step will be for them to crawl on their hands and knees to the government seeking "help".

I suspect that the Sept-Oct 2005 time frame is ripe for the trap door to be opened. That's when the new personal bankruptcy law will be in place and binding.

The scandal of the pensions is compounded by what these corporations did with the pension profits in the 1990s. Then, when the stock market was soaring, corporations counted the paper gains of their pension funds as revenue. Companies like General Motors probably were not making much money selling cars, but they could count the increases of their pension fund as revenue and, adding to that the profits of their financial arm, GMAC, they could appear to be a healthy company and enjoy stock price increases as a result. Now, with the stock market stalled, they are trying to get out of their commitments to their retired workers.

United Airlines pension default sign of growing pressures

The 6.6 billion dollar pension plan default by United Airlines may have been the largest in US history. But it won't be the last, analysts say.

And it is likely that many Americans who get company-sponsored pensions will end up with significantly smaller retirement incomes than they had been counting on.
Company-funded defined benefit pension plans, which cover 44 million Americans, are underfunded to the tune of 450 billion dollars, according to data from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the government insurer of private pensions.

The US government insurance program, designed to protect workers from pension plan defaults, is also in trouble.

At the same time, President George W. Bush's proposal to create private accounts within the Social Security system could pose additional risks for retirees.

"It's a ticking time bomb waiting to go off and the longer we wait the larger the blast will be," said Randall Krozner, an economics professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business who has advised Bush on pension reform.

The crisis with the defined benefit pension system could cost taxpayers as much as the 125-billion-dollar bailout of the savings and loan industry in the 1980s, Krozner said.

United's default could easily force other airlines to take similar actions in order to remain competitive. The nation's top two automakers, Ford and General Motors, may also be at risk of defaulting on their massive pension plans if there are unable to revitalize weak sales and recover from recent credit downgrades to junk status, Krozner added.

The trouble began when the stock market started sliding in March of 2000. Pension funds took a massive hit and companies already struggling with weak economic performance cut back their contributions.

Then the bankruptcies started. By the end of 2004, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. had a 23.3 billion dollar deficit.

While future stock market growth will help many underfunded pension plans recover their losses, reform of the insurance program is needed to help prop up the system, said Cary Burnell, a researcher with the United Steelworkers of America.

"Defined benefit plans are one of the pillars that have built the American middle class and brought seniors out of poverty," said Burnell, who worked on the 3.7-billion-dollar Bethlehem Steel pension plan default.

"Pension plan termination is a terrible thing," he said.

Further complicating matters is the fact that US corporations have been moving away from defined benefit pension plans and have instead offered defined contribution plans, known as 401k plans, which are tax-sheltered savings accounts.

While these easily transferable plans are popular with the nation's highly mobile workforce, they are not insured and shift all of the risk onto individual workers.

The Bush administration is also promoting a system that would shift Social Security contributions to personal accounts.

Even the Catholic Church is doing this. Pension fund abandonment has even reached the Catholic Church! The Boston Archdiocese, under the corporate-style leadership of Archbishop O’Malley, has seen plant closings (closing of parish churches) and now we hear them saying that the Archdiocesan pension fund is “underfunded.” They want to cut back on health benefits for retired priests!

Retirement changes eyed for priests

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff

May 12, 2005

The cash-strapped Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is considering significant changes in its expectations of senior priests that would encourage clergy to continue to work after they retire and require priests with financial assets to help pay for nursing-home or assisted-living care.

The archdiocese says that it remains committed to taking care of its clergy and that it will guarantee that no retired priests are without shelter, healthcare, or income. But the archdiocese says it must change benefits or risk running out of money in its pension fund.

The adjustments, which were circulated in a draft policy to all priests and are being discussed at meetings with clergy around the archdiocese, are being proposed as many private companies are eliminating or reducing pension benefits.

The archdiocese says it faces a $55 million unfunded liability in its pension fund for priests. Actuaries say that is the amount the archdiocese has promised to retirees, an amount that it does not have in the bank. The archdiocese attributes the problem to poor investment performance and longer average life span and says the shortfall is unrelated to the costs of settling abuse cases or closing parishes.

Given the pattern we have been noticing wherein some bogus good economic news is released on Friday afternoon of a week with a lot of bad news, there was some reason to doubt the reliability of the “strong” U.S. jobs report that came out the previous Friday. Sure enough, sceptics have shown that when you look beneath the surface of the report, the picture does not look so good. Here is Paul Craig Roberts:

America is Losing

More Phony Jobs Hype


Careless journalists and commentators are hyping the 274,000 new April payroll jobs as evidence of the health of the US economy. An examination of the details of the new jobs puts a different view on the matter.

April's job growth is consistent with the depressing pattern of US employment growth in the 21st century: The outsourced US economy can create jobs only in domestic nontradable services.

Of the 274,000 April jobs, 256,000 were in the private or nongovernment sector, and 211,000 of these were in the service sector as follows: 58,000 in leisure and hospitality (primarily restaurants and bars), 47,000 in construction, 29,200 in wholesale and retail trade, 28,000 in health care and social assistance, 17,300 in administrative and support services (primarily temps), 11,700 in transportation and warehousing, 8,800 in real estate. A few scattered jobs in other service categories completes the picture.

Americans regard themselves as “the world's only superpower,” but the pattern of American job growth in the 21st century is that of a third world economy. The US economy has ceased to create jobs in high tech sectors and in export and import-competitive sectors. Offshore outsourcing of manufacturing and of engineering and professional services is dismantling the ladders of upward mobility that made the American Dream possible.

Related to the pattern of exporting high paying jobs while keeping low paying ones, wages fell in the United States at the sharpest rate since 1991, at the end of another Bush’s run at power, according to the Financial Times:

Wages in US show steepest fall in rate since 1991

By Christopher Swann in Washington

May 11 2005

Real wages in the US are falling at their fastest rate in 14 years, according to data surveyed by the Financial Times.

Inflation rose 3.1 per cent in the year to March but salaries climbed just 2.4 per cent, according to the Employment Cost Index. In the final three months of 2004, real wages fell by 0.9 per cent.

The last time salaries fell this steeply was at the start of 1991, when real wages declined by 1.1 per cent.

Stingy pay rises mean many Americans will have to work longer hours to keep up with the cost of living, and they could ultimately undermine consumer spending and economic growth.

Many economists believe that in spite of the unexpectedly large rise in job creation of 274,000 in April, the uneven revival in the labour market since the 2001 recession has made it hard for workers to negotiate real improvements in living standards.

Even after last month's bumper gain in employment, there are 22,000 fewer private sector jobs than when the recession began in March 2001, a 0.02 per cent fall. At the same point in the recovery from the recession of the early 1990s, private sector employment was up 4.7 per cent.

“There is still little evidence that workers are gaining much traction in their negotiations,” said Paul Ashworth, US analyst at Capital Economics, the consultancy. “If this does not pick up, it raises the prospect of a sharper slowdown in consumer spending than we have been expecting.”

The amazing thing is that in the United States there are many analysts who keep saying that offshoring is good for the economy. Common sense, on the one hand, or sophisticated, non-linear analysis on the other will tell you that that can’t be true, but neo-classical economics has neither common sense nor the understanding of non-linear dynamics. Furthermore, neo-classical economics feeds into the dangerous tendency in the United States to believe in American Exceptionalism, the notion that the normal workings of cause and effect do not apply to the United States. The idea that “things are different here” is not much different than the belief that drove the stock bubble of the internet era: “things are different now.”

We may be reaching the end of the line for American Exceptionalism. Empires fall by overreaching. At some point the money spent on the military goes to protect old gains rather than bringing new wealth in. Often, the leaders choose to bet everything in order to avoid collapse, a “double or nothing” strategy of desperation. Watching the money go down the Iraq sinkhole, one can’t help but wonder if the United States is poised for a complete collapse, not just an economic one. According to Willam S. Lind:

When people ask me what to read to find an historical parallel with America's situation today, I usually recommend J.H. Elliott's splendid history of Spain in the first half of the 17th century, The Count-Duke of Olivares: A Statesman in an Age of Decline. One of the features of the Spanish court in that period was its increasing disconnection with reality. At one point, Spain was trying to establish a Baltic fleet while the Dutch navy controlled the Straits of Gibraltar.

A similar reality gap leapt out at me from a story in the May 3 Washington Post, “Wars Strain U.S. Military Capability, Pentagon Reports.” Were that the Pentagon's message, it would be a salutary one. But the real message was the opposite: no matter what happens, no one can defeat the American military. According to the Post,

The Defense Department acknowledged yesterday that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stressed the U.S. military to a point where it is at higher risk of less swiftly and easily defeating potential foes, though officials maintained that U.S. forces could handle any military threat that presents itself . . .

The officials said the United States would win any projected conflict across the globe, but the path to victory could be more complicated.

“There is no doubt of what the outcome is going to be,” a top defense official said. “Risk to accomplish the task isn't even part of the discussion.”

It isn't, but it certainly should be. The idea that the U.S. military cannot be defeated is disconnected from reality.

Let me put it plainly: the U.S. military can be beaten. Any military in history could be beaten, including the Spanish army of Olivares's day, which had not lost a battle in a century until it met the French at Rocroi. Sooner or later, we will march to our Rocroi, and probably sooner the way things are going.

Why do our senior military leaders put out this "we can't be beaten" bilge? Because they are chosen for their willingness to tell the politicians whatever they want to hear. A larger question is, why do the American press and public buy it? The answer, I fear, is "American exceptionalism" ­ the belief that history's laws do not apply to America. Unfortunately, American exceptionalism follows Spanish exceptionalism, French exceptionalism, Austrian exceptionalism, German exceptionalism and Soviet exceptionalism.

Reality tells us that the same rules apply to all. When a country adopts a wildly adventuristic military policy, as we have done since the Cold War ended, it gets beaten. The U.S. military will eventually get beaten, too. If, as seems more and more likely, we expand the war in Iraq by attacking Iran, our Rocroi may be found somewhere between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers.

If the United States invades one more country, things like the monthly jobs numbers will have little to do with what happens to the world economy.


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