Friday, January 25, 2013

Optimism Abounds

The stock market has thundered forward since the turn of the year.  Unemployment claims are near their twelve month low and even California thinks it sees balanced budgets ahead in their future.  So, are we there yet?

Unfortunately, nothing has really changed.  Let's begin with California.  California, New York and Illinois face an almost immediate crisis with their pension systems.  These problems are far, far larger in magnitude than their total annual spending budget for everything else they do.  And, the clock is ticking.  These problems don't get better every day; they get worse. 

California, like New York and Illinois, believe that higher tax rates have no effect on economic behavior.  They are wrong.  Thus, the revenue projections these states are expecting from higher tax rates are an illusion.  Even without pension funding issues, these states are on a straight line to some form of bankruptcy, even if the day of reckoning is not (yet) known with certainty. These states have done nothing to reign in excessive spending or face up to unfunded liabilities....nothing at all, much like their big sister -- the US government.

At the national level, the US remains mired in the slowest economy recovery in modern times.  New and higher taxes that impact almost all Americans and almost all businesses (think income taxes, payroll taxes, Obamacare-imposed taxes and higher health insurance rates for almost everyone).  These new taxes will slow any green shoots in the economy from gaining enough strength to power a real recovery.  Expect continued stagnation, continued high unemployment.

What about Europe?  Aren't things better there?  There is certainly a pervading sense of euphoria that the worst is over.  Is it?  What has changed?  Today, Europe has significantly more sovereign debt than it had two years ago.  Today,  the Eurozone is in a recession which it wasn't in two years ago.  Today, the same stultifying labor laws and regulations maintain their stranglehold on European economies.  No real change there.

Recall the fall of 2007.  This was a time period a full year after the housing market had begun its collapse and after several large mortgage companies had gone bankrupt.  This was a time three months after the asset-backed securities market (a market responsible for 20 percent of all debt financing in the US) had ceased to function. 

What happened with all of these problems staring us in the face?  The stock market surged to an all time high topping 14,000 in October, 2007.  Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns traded at their all time highs in a burst of euphoria that the worst was over.  Five months later Bear Stearns collapsed and within twelve months Lehman Brothers failed in the climax of the financial collapse of 2008.

It is an interesting question why the stock market surged in late 2007 after it was widely known that the housing market was in full freefall and that housing finance was shaking the foundations of most of the larger banks.  One wonders why European stocks are surging today in face of the facts on the ground. As for the US markets, is current market enthusiasm well founded or are we repeating the late 2007 scenario?




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