Depression and the Great American Exodus

Depression and the Great American Exodus by Jim Rickards for Daily Reckoning

Is the worst of the economic collapse over?

Not really. The economy is off the bottom, but that’s only to be expected after the historic collapse of March–May and the stock market crash in March and April.

The question now is not whether we’re growing again. We are. The questions are how fast is that growth, and how long will it be before we return to 2019 levels of output?

And this question applies not just to the U.S. but to the entire global economy, especially the large producers such as China, Japan and the EU.

Here, the news is not good at all.

Recent data suggests that we may not reach 2019 output levels until 2023 at the earliest, and that something close to full employment may not return until 2025.

A simple example will make the point.

Just Not Enough Growth

Assume 2019 GDP has a normalized level of 100. Now assume a 10% drop (that’s about how much the U.S. economy will decline for the full-year 2020 according to many estimates).

That moves the benchmark to 90 in 2020.

Now assume 5% growth in 2021 (that would also be the highest growth rate in decades).

That will move the benchmark back up to 94.5. Next assume growth in 2022 is 4% (that would also be near record annual growth for the past three decades).

That would move the benchmark up to 98.3. Here’s the problem…

An output level of 98.3 is still less than 100. In other words, back-to-back growth of 5% in 2021 and 4% in 2022 is not enough to recover the 2019 level after a 10% decline in 2020.

But the situation is even worse than I just described.

Worse Than a Technical Recession

China PMI figures have recently been 50.9 (manufacturing) and 54.4 (services).

The Wall Street happy talk brigade is cheering these numbers because they “beat” expectations and they show growth (any number over 50 indicates growth in a PMI index series).

But growth is completely expected. The problem is that growth is so weak.

A strong bounce back from a collapse should produce PMI readings of 60 or 70 if a robust recovery were underway. It’s not.

Here’s the reality: What the U.S. economy is going through right now is far worse than a technical recession.

A recession is defined as two or more consecutive quarters of declining growth along with higher unemployment.

A recession beginning in February has already been declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which is the private arbiter of when recessions begin and end.

If we judge strictly by growth figures, the recession may already be over (although we won’t know for months to come, until quarterly growth figures are available and the NBER has time to evaluate them and make a call).

Most recessions don’t last that long, usually only about six–nine months. But that misses the fact that we’re really in a new depression.

The New Depression

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Growth may be weak, but it’s still growth. How can you say we’re in a depression?”

Well, as I’ve explained before, the starting place for understanding depression is to get the definition right.

Economists don’t like the word “depression” because it does not have an exact mathematical definition. For economists, anything that cannot be quantified does not exist. This view is one of the many failings of modern economics.

Many think of a depression as a continuous decline in GDP. The standard definition of a recession is two or more consecutive quarters of declining GDP and rising unemployment, as I just explained.

Since a depression is understood to be something worse then a recession, investors think it must mean an extra-long period of decline.

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