Thursday, July 01, 2010

Is a Double Dip Recession in the Cards?

The following is an edited version of Vahan Janjigian's commentary from the July issue of the Forbes Growth Investor:

When I was a kid, a double dip was a special treat. It meant you got two scoops of ice cream instead of one. When it comes to the economy, however, a double dip is no treat at all. It means you recover from a recession only to go into another one.

Readers of this page know I have been bearish on the economy for some time. In my view, things had gotten so bad there was no way they could quickly rebound. While I felt a rally off the March 2009 lows was justified, I also believed the market got way ahead of economic realities. After all, I saw no evidence of real demand for goods and services. Whatever demand I did see was artificially induced by increased amounts of government spending. However, with the national debt at 90% of GDP and a budget deficit of $1.4 trillion, the government cannot keep spending for long.

A few months ago, it was a faux pas to talk of a double dip recession. Today, it is de rigueur. A double dip is by no means a certainty, yet the odds are certainly growing in its favor. All that government spending was not particularly effective.

Look at housing. The latest figures on new home sales were abysmal. Why that would surprise any economist is beyond my comprehension. What happens when the government offers generous tax breaks to anyone who signs a contract to buy a house? We get plenty of signed contracts. And what happens when the tax breaks expire? Sales fall off a cliff. This is why April’s new home sales were strong and why May’s new home sales plunged. It also explains why pending sales of existing homes plunged in May. Furthermore, a signed contract does not guarantee a closing. Thanks to the mortgage-related financial crisis we are still struggling through, lenders have significantly tightened credit standards. Mortgage rates are at historic lows, yet many would be homebuyers cannot get approved to close the deal.

Housing is not the only market in distress. The latest ADP Employment Report showed a gain of only 13,000 nonfarm private jobs. That was 50,000 less than expected. Prepare yourselves for Friday when the Department of Labor releases its nonfarm payroll figures. The market is expecting a loss of 100,000 jobs. A number significantly worse than that will cause tremendous volatility in stock prices.

With the housing and employment markets so weak, how confident could consumers be? Not confident at all. After rising three months in a row, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index plunged in June. Only 8% of consumers surveyed think business conditions are good and only 4% believe jobs are plentiful. Consumers who lack confidence do not usually behave in a manner that spurs economic growth.

Finally, while I focus almost solely on stocks, I cannot help but notice the behavior of two non-equity assets. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note dipped well below 3%, yet gold prices are near $1,200 per ounce. Investors who believe these assets are reliable gauges of inflationary expectations are confused. The low bond yield signals no fear of inflation, but the high gold price signals the opposite. However, things really are different this time. Inflation has nothing to do with the prices of these assets. Increasingly risk averse investors now view Treasury bonds and gold as safe havens. They are selling risky assets such as stocks and bidding up the prices of safe assets. Stocks are getting cheaper, but I believe it is still too early to jump in with both feet.