2008-01-21 Update

Major themes intact:

  • weak economy
  • higher prices


US demand soft but supported by exports.

US export strength resulting from non resident ‘desires’ to reduce the rate of accumulation of $US net financial assets. This driving force is ideologically entrenched and not likely to reverse in the next several months.

In previous posts, I suggested the world is ‘leveraged’ to the US demand for $700 billion per year in net imports, as determined by the non resident desire to accumulate 700 billion in $US net financial assets.

US net imports were something over 2% of rest of world GDP, and the investment to support that demand as it grew was probably worth another 1% or more of world GDP.

The shift from an increasing to decreasing US trade deficit is a negative demand shock to rest of world economies.

This comes at a time when most nations have decreasing government budget deficits as a percent of their GDP, also reducing demand.

The shift away from the rest of world accumulation of $US financial assets should continue. Much of it came from foreign CB’s. And now, with Tsy Sec Paulson threatening to call any CB that buys $US a ‘currency manipulator’, it is unlikely the desire to accumulate $US financial assets will reverse sufficiently to stop the increase in US exports. I’m sure, for example, Japan would already have bought $US in substantial size if not for the US ‘weak dollar’ policy.

All else equal, increasing exports is a decrease in the standard of living (exports are a real cost, imports a benefit), so Americans will be continuing to work but consuming less, as higher prices slow incomes, and output goes to non residents.

I also expect a quick fiscal package that will add about 1% to US GDP for a few quarters, further supporting a ‘muddling through’ of US GDP.

Additional fiscal proposals will be coming forward and likely to be passed by Congress. It’s an election year and Congress doesn’t connect fiscal policy with inflation, and the Fed probably doesn’t either, as they consider it strictly a monetary phenomena as a point of rhetoric.

Higher Prices:

Higher prices world wide are coming from both increased competition for resources and imperfect competition in the production and distribution of crude oil. In particular, the Saudis, and maybe the Russians as well, are acting as swing producer. They simply set price and let output adjust to demand conditions.

So the question is how high they will set price. President Bush recently visited the Saudis asking for lower prices, and perhaps the recent drop in prices can be attributed to those meetings. But the current dip in prices may also be speculators reducing positions, which creates short term dips in price, which the Saudis slowly follow down with their posted prices to disguise the fact they are price setters, before resuming their price hikes.

At current prices, Saudi production has actually been slowly increasing, indicating demand is firm at current prices and the Saudis are free to continue raising them as long as desired.

The current US fiscal proposals are designed to help people pay the higher energy prices, further supporting demand for Saudi oil.

They may also be realizing that if they spend their increased income on US goods and services, US GDP is sustained and real terms of trade shift towards the oil producers.


  • The real economy muddling through
  • Inflation pressures continuing

A word on the financial sector’s continuing interruptions:

With floating exchange rates and countercyclical tax structures we won’t see the old fixed exchange rate types of real sector collapses.

The Eurozone banking sector is the exception, and remains vulnerable to systemic failure, as they don’t have credible deposit insurance in place, and, in fact, the one institution that can readily ‘write the check’ (the ECB) is specifically prohibited by treaty from doing so.

Today, in most major economies, fiscal balances move to substantial, demand supporting deficits with an increase in unemployment of only a few percentage points. Note the US is already proactively adding 1% to the budget deficit with unemployment rising only 0.3% at the last initial observation in December. In fact, fiscal relaxation is being undertaken to relieve financial sector stress, and not stress in the real economy.

Food and energy have had near triple digit increases over the last year or so. Even if they level off, or fall modestly, the cost pressures will continue to move through the economy for several quarters, and can keep core inflation prices above Fed comfort zones for a considerable period of time.

Fiscal measures to support GDP will add to the perception of inflationary pressures.

The popular press is starting to discuss how inflation is hurting working people. For example, I just saw Glen Beck note that with inflation at 4.1% for 07 real wages fell for the first time in a long time, and he proclaimed inflation the bigger fundamental threat than the weakening economy.

I also discussed the mortgage market with a small but national mortgage banker. He’s down 50% year over year, but said the absolute declines leveled off in October, including California. He also pointed out one of my old trade ideas is back – when discounts on pools become excessive to current market rates, buy discounted pools of mortgages and then pay mortgage bankers enough of that discount to be able refinance the individual loans at below market rates.