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John Mauldin: My View on the Last Half of the Year

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What does the end of QE2 mean? What can we expect from Europe? Is a commodity bubble getting ready to burst? Is it really a bubble?

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Editor's note: The following was originally published by John Mauldin on July 2, 2011.

We are halfway through the year, and what a ride it has been. Today I will share my thoughts on what the next six months could look like, and endeavor to keep it short and simple, as we have a holiday weekend. There will be more than a few charts. What does the end of QE2 mean? What can we expect from Europe? Is a commodity bubble getting ready to burst? Is it really a bubble? There is a lot to cover.

I recorded a PBS show a month or so ago, and it is airing this weekend on a number of stations around the country, so look for details at the end of the letter. Now let's jump in.

We Should Be OK, Except…

The economy should be in Muddle Through range (around 2% growth), absent any shocks. For instance, today we had the June ISM number, which was stronger than most analysts expected, at 55.3. There was a lot of whispering that it could dip below 50. Some of the internal components were a little soft, though. New Orders were barely above 50. And Backlogs fell below 50. Exports fell to the lowest level in two years (more on that below). Of the 18 industries surveyed, only 12 reported growth.

But Muddle Through is not going to allow us to really cut into the unemployment problem. We need at least 3% and most economists think we need to see 3.5% to result in some real strong jobs numbers for several months in a row. That just doesn't seem to be in the cards. Richard Yamarone at Bloomberg is calling for a recession by the end of the year, and he sent me a rather vivid PowerPoint of his latest thoughts. Let me share a few of those slides with you.

The following chart shows what I mean by Muddle Through not being enough to really cut into unemployment. As GDP seems to be slowing rather than picking up, the correlation between employment and growth is not encouraging. And if you look at the NFIB (National Federation of Independent Businesses) data, small businesses are not really back in the hiring game, and that is where the action needs to happen. We will see a new survey next week, but I doubt we will see a major jump in expectations.



About two years ago I wrote a rather lengthy piece about why unemployment would be a problem until at least the middle of the decade. When you lose 8 million jobs, with about 2-3 million of those jobs permanently gone, it is tough to dig out of the hole. We can't look to housing construction to be the driving force that it once was for another 3-4 years, and commercial construction is falling.

I was talking to a friend yesterday who is a director on two local bank boards. He pointed out that while the government wants banks to lend, the regulators (the Fed) are basically saying they can do development loans without very large equity components. They want 50% loan-to-value of very-reduced valuations. Let's look at two charts from Rich. One shows commercial construction and the other shows regional and strip mall vacancies. Construction spending for May 2011 fell 0.6% below its revised level in April, and is 7.1% below its May 2010 level. This is not the stuff that makes real estate moguls want to part with their cash. Nor does it bode well for construction jobs.





OK, only two more charts from Rich (Over My Shoulder subscribers can see the whole thing. More on that below.) The first is the smoothed ECRI (Economic Cycle Research Institute) index over the last 20 years. We can see it turning over. The ECRI weekly leading index decreased to 126.4 for the week ending June 24, from an unrevised 127. The smoothed, annualized growth rate fell to 2% from an unrevised 2.9%. The ECRI WLI has been consistently losing momentum in recent months, adding to concerns about the sustainability of the recovery.



The ECRI itself points out that their index is simply signaling a weakening economy but does not signal a recession. And you can see that there have been similar downturns in the past without a recession or even a recovery. But the recent trend is disconcerting and must be watched.

And the last chart is one I had not seen before, and is interesting. Rich notes that if year-over-year GDP growth dips below 2%, a recession always follows. It is now at 2.3%.

Growth is clearly decelerating. Look at the growth numbers from the St. Louis Fed website for the last six quarters:

2009-10-01 13019.012
2010-01-01 13138.832
2010-04-01 13194.862
2010-07-01 13278.515
2010-10-01 13380.651
2011-01-01 13444.301

It will be very interesting to see, at the end of the month, what the numbers are for the second quarter. Another quarter like the first quarter and we should either be close to or actually dip below 2%.



What Happens If There Is a Shock?


The problem with a slow-growth economy that is basically at stall speed is, if there is any type of "exogenous" shock, the economy can easily tip over into recession. There are several potential sources of a shock coming from the outside the US.

The first is from Europe. I have been writing about this for a very long time. It is the number one thing in my worry closet. We have dodged a short-term bullet with Greece and Europe coming to terms this week, but in late July they will have to find AT LEAST €50-70 billion more euros in loans and rollovers, and then more next year. Without projected asset sales it could reach €100 billion very easily. And willpower is waning on the part of creditor countries. Opposition against throwing good money after bad is increasing, as recent polls in Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Slovakia have shown. How long Merkel can hold her coalition together in the face of growing discontent is not clear. Powerful, authoritative voices in Germany are starting a daily chorus of chanting "no" to more bailouts.
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