Monday, August 08, 2005

Signs of the Economic Apocalypse 8-8-05

From Signs of the Times 8-8-05:

The dollar closed at 0.8099 euros last week, down 1.3% from last week's close of 0.8208 euros. That puts the euro at 1.2348 dollars compared to 1.2184 dollars the previous Friday. Oil closed at 62.31 dollars a barrel on Friday, a record weekly close, and up 2.4% from the close of $60.83 a barrel the previous Friday. Looking at oil in euros, a barrel of oil would cost 50.46 euros, up from 49.93 euros a week earlier. Gold closed at 442.90 dollars an ounce, up 1.6% from $435.80 on the previous Friday. Gold in euros would be 358.68 euros an ounce, up 0.3% from 357.68 on the previous Friday. The gold/oil ratio closed at 7.11 down 0.7% from 7.16 last week, meaning the price of oil rose faster than the price of gold. In the U.S. stock market last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 10,561.14 down 0.8% from last week's close of 10,640.91. The NASDAQ closed at 2.178.92, down 0.3% from last week's close of 2184.83. The yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury Bond was 4.39%, up ten basis points from the previous Friday's close of 4.29% continuing a steady climb in long-term U.S. interest rates.

While the sharp drop in the dollar and U.S. stocks and the sharp increase in the price of gold and oil would seem to be ominous signs for the U.S. economy, the media was taking it in stride, at least, attributing the fall in stocks to the strong U.S. employment report for July and the rise in oil to a lack of refining capacity:

Oil nears record on US refinery snags

Oil climbed within pennies of its all-time high on Friday as U.S. refinery outages hampered efforts to meet strong demand in the world's biggest consumer.

U.S. light sweet crude settled up 93 cents at $62.31 a barrel - the highest settlement on record - after climbing as high as $62.45, which was 5 cents shy of the all-time record set just Wednesday.

London Brent crude gained 95 cents to $61.07 a barrel.

"It's no secret that refineries are the problem. There wouldn't be a problem if there was any slack in the system," said Tony Nunan, a manager at Mitsubishi Corp.'s international energy business in Tokyo.

A half-dozen refineries in the United States have been forced into unplanned shutdowns since late July and some have had to delay planned restarts, leaving the market on edge after U.S. gasoline stocks fell a sharp 4 million barrels last week.

Gasoline inventories have fallen into the lower half of their seasonal average, while demand is running 1.1 percent stronger than last year with a month left in the summer season.

U.S. supplies of distillates, which include heating oil, rose 1.5 million barrels last week to stand almost 3 percent higher than a year ago, but even stronger demand growth for these fuels coupled with refinery trip-ups could dent supplies before winter.

"Demand is so high and capacity is so low, we can go from comfortable to uncomfortable inventories within a month," Nunan said.

Adding to concerns was news of a pipe bomb attack at PDVSA's Maracaibo headquarters in Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter. PDVSA said the three pipe bombs that exploded caused no damage or injuries.

Additional disruptions could come from an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season, which has already produced eight named storms and could culminate in as many as 21 tropical storms and 11 hurricanes, U.S. government weather forecasters have said.

OPEC PUMPS MORE

Prices have rallied more than 40 percent this year despite OPEC pumping at its highest rate in more than 25 years, with traders fearing the cartel's thinned cushion of spare production capacity may be insufficient to compensate for any unexpected outages.

Total OPEC production rose 290,000 bpd to 30.24 million bpd in July, the highest since December 1979, as Iraq boosted exports and the United Arab Emirates restored output at oilfields after maintenance, a Reuters survey showed.

OPEC is due to meet next month to discuss its output policy, where some members favor suspending quotas to allow a production free-for-all, Nigeria's top oil official Edmund Daukoru said on Thursday.

Most members, aside from Saudi Arabia, are already pumping flat out.
Daukoru said OPEC might decide to keep production quotas unchanged or raise them, but would not cut output.


What was that about a pipe bomb attack in Venezuela? Who would order an attack on the headquarters of Venezuela's national oil company except CIA backed rebels? Why were the refineries shut down in the United States? Why isn't Saudi Arabia pumping "flat out" like the article says the rest of OPEC countries are? Could it be that the United States wants high oil prices? High oil prices certainly have helped Bush-connected oil sector corporations. Something to keep in mind when listening to the Peak Oil chorus.

The consensus about the July U.S. jobs report which showed a rise of 207,000 jobs was that it showed the U.S. economy is growing at a healthy rate and that it will lead the U.S. Federal Reserve Board to keep raising interest rates.

Jobs growth unexpectedly strong in July

By Tim Ahmann

Fri Aug 5,12:10 PM

U.S. job growth picked up last month as employers added 207,000 workers to their payrolls, a healthy gain that led Wall Street to increase bets on rate hikes from the Federal Reserve.

The unemployment rate held steady at the 5 percent reached in June, the lowest level since September 2001, the Labor Department said on Friday.

"This is a crystal clear indication that the labor markets are very healthy and it reinforces the notion that the economy is growing in a healthy, sustainable way," said Dana Johnson, chief economist at Comerica in Detroit.

The Fed, which has raised the benchmark overnight lending rate at each of its last nine meetings, is widely expected to bump it up another quarter-percentage point to 3.5 percent when officials gather on Tuesday.

"The Fed is going to keep chugging along," said Robert MacIntosh, chief economist at Eaton Vance Management in Boston.

Financial markets see the rate hitting 4 percent by year end, although the jobs report had some betting it could move even higher.

The payrolls gain, spurred on by service-sector hiring, was stronger than expected by economists who had looked for an increase of 183,000 with the jobless rate steady.

Prices for U.S. government bonds fell sharply on the data, pushing yields higher, the dollar strengthened and stock prices fell as markets braced for further Fed interest rate increases.

The Bush administration hailed the report as a sign of the economy's vigor. "This shows that the fundamentals of our economy are strong and that we are continuing on a positive path of growth and prosperity," U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow said in a statement.

While some economists thought the report might be skewed by Hurricane Dennis, which battered the Florida panhandle in mid-July, the department said the storm appeared to have no discernible impact on the figures.

A net upward revision of 42,000 to the combined job count for May and June contributed to the report's solid tenor. U.S. employers added 166,000 workers in June and 126,000 in May.

The pickup in job growth last month pushed this year's average monthly payroll gain to 191,000, a pace economists see as strong enough to slowly tighten the labor market.

The factory sector, which shed 4,000 workers last month, was one of the only weak spots. However, the Labor Department noted that an 11,000-job drop in auto manufacturing reflected larger-than-normal temporary plant shutdowns for retooling.

STRONG ECONOMY = HIGHER RATES

The report was the latest in a string of strong data and the last significant piece of economic news before Fed policy-makers meet next week.

Average hourly earnings shot up six cents, or 0.4 percent, in July -- the biggest rise in a year. However, earnings are up just 2.7 percent over the past 12 months, suggesting wages have yet to become a big inflationary concern.

"As far as the Fed is concerned, payrolls growth is probably just about right -- not too hot and not too cold," Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics told clients in a research note.

Job growth was tepid at construction firms, which brought on just 7,000 new workers, but was strong on the service side of the economy.

Retailers added 50,000 workers, the biggest gain in that sector since April 2000. The strong retail hiring in part reflected job growth at automobile dealers coping with a surge of shoppers enticed by special incentives.

Professional and business service firms, education and health service employers and the leisure and hospitality industry all exhibited robust hiring.

In another spot of bright economic news, the independent Economic Cycle Research Institute said on Friday its leading index of the U.S. economy rose to a 12-week last week. ECRI said the index suggested prospects for U.S. economic growth were improving gradually.


The long-term interest rates which have been rising steadily lately have started to affect the mortgage rates which have also risen lately. If the United States economy were a closed system, these interest rate hikes would be nothing to worry about, but given the unpegging of the Chinese Yuan from the dollar, which will add considerable upward pressure on U.S. interest rates, this is bad news which could lead to the bursting of the housing bubble, thereby bringing down the world economy. Notice in the above article that the rise in the construction sector was very small, only 7,000 jobs. Notice also that the strongest sector was retailing - people spending money they shouldn't on new cars, having been lured by incentives for 2005 models that have hurt profits for auto companies while calling into question the sales for 2006 models which will be introduced soon.

Mortgage rates continue upward climb

30-year benchmark rises to 5.82 percent, Freddie Mac reports

The Associated Press

Updated: 1:21 p.m. ET Aug. 4, 2005

WASHINGTON - Mortgage rates continued their upward climb this week, with rates on 30-year mortgages rising to their highest point since the middle of April.

In its weekly survey, mortgage giant Freddie Mac reported Thursday that rates on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages rose to a nationwide average of 5.82 percent, up from 5.77 percent last week.

It marked the fifth week in a row that rates on 30-year mortgages went up. This week's increase left rates on 30-year mortgages at their highest since they averaged 5.91 percent for the week ending April 14.

Yet rates on 30-year mortgages are still considered good and have stayed below 6 percent for all but two weeks this year. That has helped to propel home sales to record levels in June.

Rates on 15-year, fixed-rate mortgages, a popular choice for refinancing a home mortgage, averaged 5.38 percent this week, compared with 5.34 percent last week. This week's rate also was the highest since the middle of April.

"Long-term mortgage rates will more than likely rise over the next few months, albeit modestly compared to shorter-term rates," predicted Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac's chief economist.


Given all this supposedly great economic news in the United States, why do polls show that most people think the economy is in bad shape? The following wire service article provides a clue:

US workers struggle to cope in new economic reality

By Alister Bull

Thu Aug 4, 2005 1:58 PM ET

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Laid off from an auto factory assembly line two weeks before Christmas, Gary Asnell is still jobless and doesn't care to hear about the virtues of retraining as he struggles to keep a roof over his family's head.

"They say it's a great opportunity to go back to school. But I've got to juggle to find a job to pay the bills, make the house payments and feed the children," said Asnell, a 44-year-old father of three.

In the face of rabid global competition and outsourcing of work to cheap-labor countries like China, nearly three million American manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2000.

Those at the sharp end of this process now often face serious pay cuts or retraining to qualify for jobs in industries that have vacancies which may still not pay as much as they were making before.

In the heart of the U.S. Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri was an archetypal factory town. Twenty five years ago, 40 percent of all of its high-paying jobs were in manufacturing, according to a March study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

But in the last 10 years, it has lost 63,000 manufacturing jobs. Today, the industry provides just 3 percent of all job vacancies, a recent Job Openings Survey from the University of Missouri found, while health care, social assistance and the hospitality industry deliver 60 percent.

Getting a well-paid position in any of these areas could easily demand a trip back to the classroom. Even for the young, the process is tough.

Jessica Fitter was lucky. Just 22 years old, she worked at the same plant as Asnell. She is now taking a two-year accounting course and expresses optimism about her future.

Yet even once she graduates, Fitter said the pay will only just match what she made before, at least until she gains more experience. Meanwhile, the loss of income has been hard.

"Our budget took a big hit. We have to move, we can't afford our place anymore," she said. Her partner was laid off with her and is now making much less building houses.

They were among 237 workers cut at Lear Corp. in St. Louis when the company, which makes seats for Ford and Lincoln SUVs, halved the assembly line shifts last Dec. 17 as Ford slashed demand from a nearby plant. As it happens, Ford Motor Co. is in the process of shedding another 900 St. Louis workers.

Everyone who lost their job at Lear was offered the chance to retrain. But this option does not appeal to everyone.

"The curriculum, you need to do it, you just don't have it anymore," said Asnell. "I had the prerequisites 15-20 years ago, but I don't now."

With his schooling a distant memory and bills to pay right now, Asnell knows his well-paid union job has vanished and the work that remains will pay barely half as much.

"We were up to $19 an hour (at Lear), but most of the jobs now pay $7-$8 an hour. Ten bucks is considered the upper limit and if you make $12 you're on top of the world," he said.

Of the 8,000 entry-level jobs identified in the University of Missouri study, 45 percent paid less than $8 an hour and the next 25 percent paid less than $15 an hour.

Even if he wanted to take a lower-paid job, Asnell finds that prospective employers don't want to take the chance of hiring. He said they usually look at how much he earned before, inform him that he wouldn't be happy making less and close the interview.

NATIONAL CRISIS

Officials from President Bush on down somberly acknowledge the process of globalization is sometimes painful and demands a national effort to improve education and skill development.

But among people dealing directly with the fallout of this upheaval in the U.S. industrial base, the truth for older workers is that their standards of living may never recover.

At the state level, dedicated teams are working hard to ease the transition back to work and can claim some success.

"It really is walking someone through a grieving process," said Donald Holt, executive director in the St. Charles County, Missouri career center, where many of the state's job losses from the and auto industry have fallen.

His staff offer all manner of support for displaced workers and will also pay for retraining up to a point.

Yet even with jobs available in the St. Louis area, high demands for math and English literacy means that workers who left school several decades ago often have problems.

"It's an issue and we have to deal with it. You run into it with your older clients... who went in (to the factory) aged 18 and stayed for years. It is very hard for them to go into just about any occupation now without computer skills," Holt said.

Any new job in modern manufacturing demands some level of math and computing skills that many older workers just do not possess. Not that there are many manufacturing jobs out there.

Well-paid opportunities exist, particularly in health care, but they demand a solid grasp of math, physics and biology.

"In Kansas City, we had a pilot who went into radiology -- we paid for the retraining -- and he's started at $24 an hour. That's compared with $20 an hour as a pilot," said Don Rahm, a work force development specialist with the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

Still for those who see little prospect of making such a transition, there is a powerful sense of abandonment and anger at a culture that has chewed them up and spat them out.

"How much money do you have to make to make you happy?" demanded Asnell. "Sure, I understand how our economy works, but how many people do you have to crush for your company to be happy with what it is making?"


And, lest you think that these displaced workers don't know as much as the experts, here is an expert with his eye on the big picture:

Strength and Subjectivity

Max Fraad Wolff is a Doctoral Candidate in Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

August 4, 2005

As second quarter numbers are digested and expectations are ratcheted up, selective focus reigns supreme. The Peoples Bank of China (PBoC) decision to delink exclusively from the US Dollar, and the most recent profit and personal income numbers have gone unexamined and largely unpriced. Despite all this, our dominant three indexes have all underperformed our sub-accurate leading inflation measures. That must be why so many are so confident in their up revised prognostication. Just in case major macro events still interest you, I have cobbled together some thoughts on epic making recent developments that are particularly hard to spot through rose colored glasses and froth.

Personal income data, reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) on August 02, 2005 was terrifying. No, I don't mean that we have valiantly reached a national savings rate of 0%, although that is truly frightening. I mean that what everyone thinks of as personal income went up .2% not .5% in June. Wage and Salary disbursements went up a whopping .2% and supplemental income went up an astonishing .3%. Ouch! Where did the feds get that .5% headline number? Proprietors' income with inventory valuation and capital compensation adjustment was up a strong 2.0% in June. Proprietor's income grew at 400% its three year average rate while wage and salary income grew at 50% its anemic three year growth rate. Buckle up American Business the public is flush. Well, perhaps the next best thing, they spent like they were. Perennially undeterred by affordability, America went shopping for expensive durable goods. June spending on these expensive items came in just under 300% of its three year average growth rate. I guess folks are bullish given housing's great returns. Adjusted rental income was down 5.5%.

Now that the usual reports of beating expectations are in for better than three quarters of the S&P500 we can do some taking of stock. Yes, most firms (60%) beat expectations as they now do every quarter. Although earnings growth was strong in the second quarter, profit growth rates are decelerating and are expected to continue to slow for the rest of this year.

No one is talking about an ominous but interesting series of recent reports and polls on Brand America. Business for Diplomatic Action, a consortium of concerned business leaders, has been raising concern and warning about a global turning away.

Several recent polls reveal a growing hostility toward the US and this seems to be beginning to affect the perception of our businesses. The Anholt-GMI National Brands Index shows declining regard for the US outside simply our foreign policy. Most recently the US ranked 11th for overall perception thanks to low opinions of our culture and populace. A recent poll of 1004 Americans conducted by Foreign Affairs and Public Agenda discovered that a clear majority of Americans have become worried about the way America and her citizens are perceived around the world. Will earnings estimates remain immune to such sentiments?

Last but not least, the prestige and position of the US dollar declined last month. The much anticipated and quantitatively anti-climactic revaluation of the Yuan slipped into the past tense on July 21, 2005. While a modest 2.1% revaluation against the dollar failed to impress many, the real story is China's delinking, rapidly followed by Malaysia's decision to follow suit. Although China's move was much trumpeted as beneficial and a sign of our influence, I beg to differ. China is almost as influential an importer of raw materials as it is an exporter of finished goods. I see no reason brutal internal competition and the mortal need to grow exports may not result in the pass through of import cost savings to lower export prices. Where is that discussion? China and other nations must now change the composition of their currency reserves. They and Malaysia clearly need to reallocate reserves away from the dollar. Who else will follow? In addition, following on the rancorous dispute- with much political involvement in both nations- over Unocal, China's desire for contested global assets and acquisition currency will only grow. What does that portend?

In short, with just shy of the 70% of 2005 in the history books, the consensus is that all is well and getting better. Will this subjective view soon be subject to revision?


Wolf has put his finger on the crucial issue: subjectivity versus objectivity. People, cultures, and empires come to grief if they remain in the grip of subjective thinking. One symptom of this is the focus on oneself and the ignoring of others. Subjective thinking can also lead to wishful thinking, where bad news is discounted and power leads one to conclude that things are the way one wants them to be. The Thomas Friedman-type globalization cheerleading is a good example. James Howard Kunstler points out that 21st century globalization depends on peace and cheap energy. Steel and cars are very heavy. Transporting them halfway across the world used to cost more than it did to produce the goods. According to Kunstler, taking either leg of globalization away would eliminate it:

Globalisation is an anomaly and its time is running out

Cheap energy and relative peace helped create a false doctrine

James Howard Kunstler

Thursday August 4, 2005

The big yammer these days in the United States is to the effect that globalisation is here to stay: it's wonderful, get used to it. The chief cheerleader for this point of view is Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times and author of The World Is Flat. The seemingly unanimous embrace of this idea in the power circles of America is a marvelous illustration of the madness of crowds, for nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that globalisation is now a permanent fixture of the human condition.

Today's transient global economic relations are a product of very special transient circumstances, namely relative world peace and absolutely reliable supplies of cheap energy. Subtract either of these elements from the equation and you will see globalisation evaporate so quickly it will suck the air out of your lungs. It is significant that none of the cheerleaders for globalisation takes this equation into account. In fact, the American power elite is sleepwalking into a crisis so severe that the blowback may put both major political parties out of business.

The world saw an earlier phase of robust global trade run from the 1870s to a dead stop in 1914. This was the boom period of railroad construction and the advent of the ocean-going steamship. The great powers had existed in relative peace since Napoleon's last stand. The Crimean war was a minor episode that took place in backwaters of Eurasia, and the Franco-Prussian war was a comic opera that lasted less than a year - most of it the static siege of Paris. The American civil war hardly affected the rest of the world.

This first phase of globalisation then took off under coal-and-steam power. There was no shortage of fuel, the colonial boundaries were stable, and the pipeline of raw materials from them to the factories of western Europe ran smoothly. The rise of a middle class running the many stages of the production process provided markets for all the new production. Innovations in finance gave legitimacy to all kinds of tradable paper. Life was very good for Europe and America, notwithstanding a few sharp cyclical depressions and recoveries. Trade boomed between the great powers. The belle époque represented the high tide of hopeful expectations. In America, it was called the progressive era. The 20th century looked golden.

It all fell apart in 1914. Historians are still baffled about what really brought on the first world war. What did France or Britain really care about Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of a country already in deep eclipse? There were no active contests over territory at the time, not even in the Asian or African colonies. And yet the diplomatic failures of that fateful summer led to the great slaughter of the trenches, the death of a substantial portion of the younger generation, and a virtual nervous breakdown of authority in politics and culture. It would take a depression, fascism, and a second world war to resolve these issues and a new round of globalisation did not ramp up again until the mid-1960s.

It may be significant that the first collapse of globalisation occurred as the coal economy was transitioning into an oil economy, with deep geo-political implications for who had oil (America) and those who might seek to control the other major region closest to Europe that possessed it (then the Caspian, since Arabian oil was as yet undiscovered). The first world war was settled by those nations (Britain and France) that were friendly with the greatest producer of oil most readily accessed. Germany was the loser and again in the reprise for its poor access to oil. Japan suffered similarly.

We are now due for another folding up of the periodic global trade fair as the industrial nations enter the tumultuous era beyond the global oil production peak, which I have named the long emergency. The economic distortions and perversities that have built up in the current era are not hard to see, though our leaders dread to acknowledge them. The dirty secret of the US economy for at least a decade now is that it has come to be based on the ceaseless elaboration of a car-dependent suburban infrastructure - McHousing estates, eight-lane highways, big-box chain stores, hamburger stands - that has no future as a living arrangement in an oil-short future.

The American suburban juggernaut can be described succinctly as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The mortgages, bonds, real estate investment trusts and derivative financial instruments associated with this tragic enterprise must make the judicious goggle with wonder and nausea.

Add to this grim economic picture a far-flung military contest, already under way, really, for control of the world's remaining oil, and the scene grows darker. Two-thirds of that oil is in the possession of people who resent the west (America in particular), many of whom have vowed to destroy it. Both America and Britain have felt the sting of freelance asymmetrical war-makers not associated with a particular state but with a transnational religious cause that uses potent small arms and explosives to unravel western societies and confound their defences.

China, a supposed beneficiary of globalisation, will be as desperate for oil as all the other players, and perhaps more ruthless in seeking control of the supplies, some of which they can walk to. Of course, it is hard to imagine the continuation of American chain stores' manufacturing supply lines with China, given the potential for friction. Even on its own terms, China faces issues of environmental havoc, population overshoot, and political turmoil - orders of magnitude greater than anything known in Europe or America.

Viewed through this lens, the sunset of the current phase of globalisation seems dreadfully close to the horizon. The American public has enjoyed the fiesta, but the blue-light special orgy of easy motoring, limitless air-conditioning, and super-cheap products made by factory slaves far far away is about to close down. Globalisation is finished. The world is about to become a larger place again.

2 Comments:

Blogger jon said...

Looking for air conditioning repair info I found your post. I agree!

10:18 AM  
Blogger jiri said...

Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!

7:45 PM  

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