Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Do Blue Dogs Democrats Drink Beer?

The following commentary is from the August issue of the Forbes Growth Investor, which was released to subscribers on August 3.

By Vahan Janjigian - Is the recession over? With Q2 GDP falling just 1%, many economists are asking themselves this question. There is a general sense that the economy hit bottom during the second quarter and is already on the mend. While some corporations have been reporting better-than-expected results, the evidence for an economic recovery is not entirely convincing.

Corporations that beat their earnings estimates did so largely because of cost cuts, not because of higher revenues. In fact, in many cases the year-over-year revenue declines were simply frightening. While some CEOs claim to see signs of stabilization in their markets, almost no one is saying that things are getting better.

The decline in GDP was better than expected, but only because net exports and government spending contributed 1.38 and 1.12 percentage points, respectively, to growth. Ordinarily, a contribution to growth from net exports would be good news. However, exports did not rise in the second quarter. They fell. Net exports rose only because imports fell even more. This slowing of international trade is due to the weakening dollar as well as to consumers saving a greater share of their income. In fact, personal consumption expenditures, the largest component of GDP, fell 1.2% as the personal savings rate surged to 5.2%. As for government spending, there is no comfort in the fact that its role in the economy is growing. Even so-called Blue Dog Democrats are beginning to ask if this makes sense.

Measured in 2005 dollars, second quarter seasonally adjusted real GDP was $12.892 trillion, down almost 4% from its peak exactly a year ago. You have to go back almost four years to find a lower figure. If economic growth hits the top end of projections made by Federal Reserve economists, it will take well over a year to get back to where we were one year ago. Ironically, while those Fed economists have become slightly more bullish about growth, they have become considerably more bearish about employment. They now expect the unemployment rate to peak at 9.8-10.1% this year, an estimate that could easily prove conservative. Even by 2011, they don’t see it dipping below 8.4%.

Although rising unemployment puts a housing recovery at risk, the housing market may have already bottomed. Both existing and new home sales have climbed three months in a row and inventories have fallen. More importantly, prices are beginning to firm. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price indexes posted month-over-month gains for the first time since mid-2006. Because the most recent figures are for May, there is real hope that things are even better now than the data suggest.

The bulls got what they were looking for—evidence that the worst is over. They reacted by pushing stock prices to their highest levels since last October. I doubt the euphoria can last. Corporations can’t produce earnings by cutting costs forever. Eventually, they will need revenue growth. With consumers still cutting back on their purchases, the 46% rally in the S&P 500 from its March 9 low seems premature. Stocks are already pricing in a strong economic recovery. Evidence contradicting this thesis will likely cause a significant sell-off.