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Economy

Quick Look at the Economy

2016 isn’t off to the greatest economic start if you’re anywhere but the United States. China’s stock market has flirted with free fall, the Middle East has Shia-Sunni outright war in the tea leaves, and commodity prices have all but collapsed. The EU and Japan still pass the mirror test to see if they’re breathing – but barely.

With clients in agriculture, financial services, and construction on the agenda for the first half of the year I’m asked to weigh in. Generally, I’m optimistic.

There are problem areas. Commodity prices in the low range means crop farmers see the end of their 6-7 year run of record returns. Not a lot of new pickups in the shed these days. It’s a return to eking out profit from slim margins. Livestock producers benefit from lower feed prices. A lot of eyes are on the presidential election where a Republican win could affect biofuel policy that’s been buoying up grain prices – with corn as the leader. Plus the El Nino introduces even more weather and moisture uncertainty than usual. The dollar is expected to remain strong, working against exports. Huge amounts of US grains are sold overseas and the competition is stiff.

Financial service companies – banks, insurance, credit unions – depend on a stable to rising economy to produce loan demand. A GDP performance for the US economy usually points to a reasonably good year but it’s not quite that simple. The Fed is raising interest rates, albeit tentatively. The rest of the world is not. It makes for difficult decision-making. I’ll be in the room for about a dozen strategic planning meetings in this sector this year and the discussions will be “interesting.”

No sector deserves a better environment than construction and the outlook is fairly good this year after nearly a decade of abysmal to bad news. Commercial construction for 2016 should be up. One of the key indicators, billings at architectural firms, were up significantly for all of 2015 which should translate to buildings coming out of the ground in ’16. The home building sector is also looking positive. The National Association of Home Builders is projecting about a 25% increase in 2016 year on year despite some nagging worries about labor availability and costs. Job creation is a big driver in this sector.

But the question about whether the US economy can stand up to a world slowdown still stands. There are several factors that work in the country’s favor:

  • The US is so much better an investment destination than other global regions that it stands to attract more capital.
  • US consumers, as long as the job outlook remains strong and fuel prices remain low, will spend.
  • China is a totalitarian state. Don’t overlook the possibility that it can do almost anything it wants to get growth back up to a 5% GDP range. Plus it still possesses huge cash reserves.
  • The EU and Japan don’t have a great recent track record for growth but neither do they stand to take a deep dive into recession.

The Middle East and Us

Almost 3 months into the wave of unrest in the Middle East and we’re staring at events like a deer in headlights. It might be a good time to take stock of how events might play out.

The best case scenario for an American economic recovery, avoidance of inflation, and $6 gasoline?
Moderation. Ghadifi quietly leaves Libya. A compromise between the separatists and the former cabinet and military. Eqypt remains somewhat quiet and their military fulfills promises of Mubarak crony removals and elections.

But those two possibilities are far less than certain. I’d give them less than 40% probability right now. Libya’s important production of light sweet crude oil will come offline for some time. Today I passed my first sign for $5.00 gasoline in San Diego, CA.

The more troubling events could occur in Saudi Arabia. The mere fact that government troops are firing rubber bullets at crowds is chilling. Despite the royal family throwing billions at the less advantaged citizens the groundswell from the educated population could destabilize the largest exporter of oil in the world. Crux facts: there is a huge concentration of the Shia minority around the Saudi’s oil production and shipping locations. Just like Benghazi in Libya, it’s strategic.

So what?

Think
1979.

Oil prices spike to $200 or perhaps beyond.

Oh yeah, you might not have been born then or you are too young to remember. Lines around blocks at gas stations (and there were almost 3 times as many as we have today with a population half the size). Declaration of a national crisis. Rationing. Price controls. Gas cans in auto trunks. Third world stuff.

Then, in the years that followed, runaway inflation coupled with a recession and double-digit interest rates. I was running a business in a market with real resistance to price increases when my operating line of credit went to 22%. It’s one reason I never, ever again want to make payroll for more than 40 people.

Worse, the US government can’t absorb a huge spike in what it pays to service the debt. The dollar will be wiped away as the world’s reserve currency, capital will leave the country, and the 1930’s will repeat and potentially be even more catastrophic.

I’m not saying the scenario is likely. I think it is still less than 30% probable but that probability increases daily to the point where we want to think through implications and actions.

In a recent Twitter post I pointed out a NY Times article on a fellow who’s gone “off the grid” in Texas by living in the desert on solar and wind power and capturing rainfall for water. Funny thing is that it’s both one of the most read and most e-mailed articles on the publication at this writing.

More in the days and weeks ahead. Hope for moderation in the Middle East and some leadership in our country. This could become a perfect catalyst for us to take steps to begin resolving our financial, energy, and world dominance issues.

Tracking, January 2011

A new year and new blips on the radar screen in our practice. I post items here from time to time that we’re watching because of our scanning, clients, or upcoming engagements.

Food Prices - for well over two years we’ve tracked a steady uptick in worldwide food prices. One visual element in our briefings and conference presentations is the UN’s index of world prices which shows a steady climb that now has exceeded the “trigger point” of 2007-08.

What do we mean by “trigger point?” When riots occur in less developed nations over food. Large portions of the population in these countries spend 50% or more of their incomes on food. This is a ticking time bomb that has been known to overthrow governments and even cause wars.

The
“North Atlantic Recession” - come on, it is no longer a global recession or even the “Great Recession” when you view it from Brazil, India, or China. It’s the recession that still either cripples or impedes the US and the EU. Even Canada is out and expanding.

The
“Employment Follies” - how badly can a government manipulate statistics? Just look at the jobless in America. OK, every governing administration wants to make the news better but creating 65,000 jobs in a month when it’s going to take over a quarter million new jobs every 30 days to get back to something like 5% unemployment is not good news. Especially when most of the jobs are in hotels, restaurant kitchens, or temporary services. Employment is a key trend for America’s return to economic health. We should be realistic about it.

The Oil Forecast

For the last three years, ever since it became obvious that the world was slipping into a recession and commodity prices would come down, I’ve forecasted an inevitable return to rising oil prices.

My logic: the recession reduces demand but only temporarily. Recovery from recessions is uneven globally. Some regions recover months, perhaps even years before others. A robust economy in Asia and to a lesser extent in Latin America will create demand that will drive prices up despite a slight fall in use in the U.S. and the EU.

Speculation or unexpected geopolitical events – “triggers” – will create volatility. Speculators will enter the market on supply shortages. No regulating body can keep them away from the opportunity to make money.

My forecast from mid-2008 forward: 75 to 85% confidence that an oil price spike and permanent plateau above $100/barrel will come sometime in the 2011-2014 time frame.

It’s been of interest to clients in, well, almost every field. Because as one CEO said to me on being asked what energy prices affect, “Everything!”

As the economic recovery has forged ahead strongly almost everywhere except the North Atlantic the price of a barrel of oil has risen back through the $50, $70, then $90 levels. Now the unprecedented events in the Middle East have taken Brent futures over $111. West Texas will follow.

Will it stay there? Of course it depends on a complex array of factors. Economic effects, how high the price spikes, volatility, whether the Saudi’s can really make up most of the shortfalls, refining bottlenecks, and more. In the weeks ahead I’ll place more information here on the implications of this important trend.

In the meantime I’m getting a lot of queries from clients who quickly remember my forecasts and are running through their Plan B strategies to react to the development or are confident because they planned for the high probability of this years ago.

The Consumer Christmas 2010

I spent time at the epicenter of American spending over the past few days. The Christmas shopping at Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan was, in a word, tepid.

Don’t get me wrong. The store was busy but large areas were deserted. A store that stays open 24 hours a day is a phenomenon in itself but those wandering the aisles were being attracted to sale racks and less-spendy areas of the store.

It was interesting that many of the fur-bedecked matriarchs leading families very slowly and deliberately through the store’s luxury departments were speaking other languages. A lot of Russian and many Asian languages filled the air as we steered around them.

It’s not surprising. Almost all surveys of consumer behavior in the U.S. show a concentration on reducing debt that is unprecedented. Spenders are coming to grips with the fact that jobs are not multiplying, they’ve got to make do with what they have, and the smartest thing they can do is get out from under credit card and other debt as quickly as possible.

Where was shopping intense in Manhattan? Jack’s Dollar Store located just a few blocks from our hotel. Wall to wall shoppers all the way up to the closing hour.

The most likely scenario for the economy, in my opinion, is a long slow recovery. What I observed falls in line with that. I think a GDP growth near 3% in 2011 will enable the unemployment rate to drop below 9%. Spending will return cautiously. It won’t be for big-ticket items but will begin to bolster support for more indulgent food, some travel, culture, entertainment, and family involvement.

We attended sold-out Broadway shows but there were half-priced tickets available up to curtain time at almost all shows. Movies that you would have to buy tickets for days in advance at prime viewing times were walk-up purchases. Top-rated restaurants were busy but not overwhelmed. On the eve of the Christmas rush I’ve been getting discount and free-shipping (even of the rapid variety) offers on a regular basis.

We’ve moved into an era of moderation and introspection. May we emerge more sober and wiser.