Advertisements

That Darned Inverted Yield Curve

The bond market has an inverted yield curve, a fancy term which means that the returns on two-year bonds exceed the returns on ten-year bonds, which means that the smart money is seeking safe haven from a coming storm. In plainer terms, an inverted yield curve has always been a reliable predictor of a looming recession.
Combined with some other distressing data about business investment and manufacturing hiring and economic downturns in such important countries as Great Britain and Germany and China, the news spooked Wall Street so bad that all the stock markets dropped by more than 3 precent with Dow Jones Industrial average having it’s worst day in decade. The three major American stock indexes have dropped a full 7 percent over the past three weeks, the Asian and European and South American markets are similarly panicked, and you can only imagine the anxiety its causing President Donald Trump.
Trump can and surely will still brag about the unusually low unemployment rate and how economic growth has been chugging along at a slightly better rate than the previous six years of the Obama administration, but for now he can’t brag that despite all his faults he’s delivered the greatest economy ever. For now he’s on “twitter” blaming Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell for not more aggressively cutting interest rates, but Trump appointed Powell, whose policies have been in the long term interest of the country rather than the short-term political advantage of Trump, and the smart money isn’t buying it even the rubes in the red MAGA ball caps do.
The smart money seems to think that Trump’s trade wars and deficit spending and petty feuds with longtime allies and trading partners is largely responsible for the mess. When Trump retreated from his threatened increase on tariffs with China on Tuesday the stock market had a good day, which was quickly erased by Wednesday’s carnage, and it’s increasingly clear that the trade wars have taken a toll on the global economy. The Chinese economy has slowed, but given that it’s either the biggest or second biggest in the world that hasn’t helped global economic growth, and given that Trump’s good buddy and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry about a recession during a reelection, So Trump’s not likely to win the greatest deal in the history of the world by election day. The British economy seems in recession due to its “Brexit” from the European Union, which Trump heartily and needlessly endorsed, the German government is blaming a recent economic downturn on Britain’s “Brexit” and a global economic downturn due to frayed trade relations, so the silver lining in the looming storm clouds is hard to find.
We’re not panicked, at least not yet, as the unemployment rate is still low, ┬ábut there are reasons to worry. During the last recession, the worst since the Great Depression, a Republican president and a Democratic Congress agreed on a controversial bail-out bill that was hated by both the far left and the far right, but won the endorsement of both major party presidential nominees. In retrospect we begrudgingly admit it might have averted a catastrophic economic meltdown, and note a couple of years later a Democratic president and Republican Congress didn’t get in the way in the longest economic expansion in America’s history, but we worry that such bipartisan solutions aren’t at all possible in the current political climate.
America carefully coordinated its monetary and other economic policies with our allies and trading partners during the last global recession, which might well have averted the worst of it, but that’s harder to envision happening these days. Trump has been antagonistic toward allies, obsequious toward enemies, and is not going to save the day with the greatest deal ever made.
Trump is not entirely to blame, of course. Adding to the world’s economic anxiety is an eye-popping 50 percent drop in the Argentine stock market after one of those Latin American socialist crazies got elected president, and Trump is right to argue that several of the Democratic contenders for his job are just as bad. If the economic excrement hits the fan between now and election day, the Democrats will happily place blame where blame is due but won’t do anything to bale out the country to the political benefit of Trump. None of our longtime allies seem interested in helping Trump, either, except for a few fellow populist and authoritarian nationalists.
Still, we’ll hold out hope for the best and leave it to Trump to worry about the worst. If he can’t run for reelection on the argument that for all his faults he’s wrought the greatest economy ever he’s in bad shape, as he he’s not very popular and has a lot of faults to overlook. We’ll also hold out hope that the damned Democrats don’t nominate some Latin American socialist crazy who would make things even worse, and for all our short-term worries we’ll place our long-term faith in the resiliency of the America’s still more or less free market economy and the eventual genius of the American people.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Trump’s Tough Stretch of News

Although he got in another lucrative weekend of golfing and socializing at his warm and sunny Mar-a-Lago resort, the last few days have not been kind to President Donald Trump. The team owned by his best friend in the National Football League was upset in the Super Bowl, the release of a much ballyhooed congressional memo did not completely vindicate him in the “Russia thing,” and suddenly the stock markets are in a swoon.
Trump will probably get over the Super Bowl soon enough, and maybe even score some political points against the winning players who have already announced they’ll skip a White House visit, but the ongoing “Russia thing” and the recent woes on Wall Street are more troublesome.
The president had hoped that a four page memo penned by the staff of die-hard Trump apologist and California Rep. Devin Nunes would persuade the American people to to demand an end to all the ongoing investigations into the “Russia thing,” and he got his wish with a certain portion of the public. All the right wing talk radio talkers and the rest of the die-hard Trump apologists relished the unsurprising revelation that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had used the “salacious and unverified” dossier of evidence compiled by a foreigner with money from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of its presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to obtain an early warrant in the investigation from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Sean Hannity even found that sufficient reason to demand that special counsel Robert Mueller’s snooping around cease and the indictments he’s already obtained again Trump’s campaign manager another high-ranking campaign official be dropped and the guilty pleas he’s already forced from Trump’s former national security adviser and a campaign foreign policy advisor be rescinded.
Alas, the rest of the public was more skeptical and Hannity’s demands are unlikely to be met. The more Trump-skeptical media noted the memo acknowledged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation started snooping around when an Australian official tipped them off that a drunken Trump campaign foreign policy advisor had been boasting in a London Pub about all the dirt his candidate was getting from the Russians, that still-classified material other than the information compiled by a respected former British intelligence agent was also submitted to the court, and that in any case the warrants were reauthorized by other FISA courts based on the finding they were yielding important evidence. The notion of a “deep state” conspiracy against Trump to stage a “coup” with “fake news” was always a hard sell, given that it involves Republican-appointed FBI agents seeking warrants from the Republican-appointed judges on FISA courts that the Republicans established and just last week voted to renew, and the four pages that Nunes’ staffers penned didn’t make the case.
Nunes also admits that neither he nor his staffers actually read the classified case that the FBI made for its FISA warrants, and everyone who has is saying that the memo is misleading. That includes the FBI chief that Trump appointed, and the impeccably Republican South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, who was a right wing talk radio hero just a couple of years ago for his dogged investigation of Clinton’s embarrassing role in the deadly Benghazi debacle. Gowdy was the only House Republican who got too look at the classified warrant application because Nunes had been forced to more or less recluse himself from the whole “Russia thing” after some embarrassing antics, and he told the media that “There is a Russia investigation without a dossier.” Listing off a number of reasons to snoop into the “Russia thing,” he accurately noted “To the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’ meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.”
Gowdy is one of several Republicans who aren’t seeking reelection, so be’s free to be so frank, but even some of his partisan colleagues who are hoping for another term are also distancing themselves from the Nunes memo. Several Republicans have signaled the support of a rebuttal memo penned by California Rep. Adam Schiff, who has seen the classified warrant application and seems a far smarter fellow than Nunes, and the “Russia thing” will surely linger.
Meanwhile the stock market has been plummeting, and for now that’s an even bigger problem for Trump.
By the sometimes perverse logic of the stock markets, the bad news is being driven by good news and might turn out in the long run to be good news. After an historically long run to record levels the markets are apparently worried the currently low unemployment rates and slight upticks in economy activity and long-forestalled wage increases will cause the Federal Reserve Board to slightly raise the rates on the historically inexpensively obtained money that has been fueling it, lest inflation rear its ugly head, and there’s a strong case to be made that a long-forestalled and much-needed market corrections is needed to forestall the inevitable next crash until after you’re dead. Trump will be hard-pressed, though, to make such a complicated argument.
Trump will quite plausibly claim that the recent stock market downturn is not his fault, but his critics will provably point out that he was always willing to take credit for the recent record highs. He “tweeted” about it 56 times, boasted about it in public pronouncements far more often, including that long-forgotten State of the Union speech he gave just a week or so ago, and for now he’s deprived of a favorite bragging point. He could turn on a dime and make the populist claim that he’ll gladly trade a workingman’s pay hike for some fat-cat investor’s coupon-clipping, and brag about how he prescient he was back in the campaign when he claimed the record stock market highs of President Barack Obama’s administration were just a great big bubble about to burst, but after all the boasts about those Wall Street records and given Trump’s limited vocabulary it’s a very complicated argument to make.
The sorts of people who do grasp such complicated economic arguments immediately recognize the Fed’s complicated role in all of this, and are probably aware that Trump has recently appointed its new chairman. The previous chairman was chairwoman Janet Yellen, who was generally well regarded by by all the smart people with the smart money for her open spigot policies in the early stages of recovery from the 2008 recession and gradual reductions during the slower-than-usual but longer-than-ever recovery that lasted through Trump’s first year.
It’s a longstanding presidential tradition to appoint a generally well-regarded Fed chairman to a second term regardless of the party that had made the first appointment, but Trump isn’t much for longstanding presidential traditions and to replace Yellen with his own guy. Of course Trump chose a guy, Jerome Powell, but he’s a former under secretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department and is widely expected to be the same sort of apolitical number-crunching policy wonk as Yellen, and along with all the stock holders we’ll be eager to see how he responds. Trump is probably wondering, too, as it will be hard to blame Yellen for a downturn that began shortly after she was replaced by Trump.
Our hope is that the stock markets and the broader economy both continue to fitfully prosper, and our expectation is that if it does Trump will take credit for it, and that if it doesn’t he’ll accept no blame. We wish Trump well with that whole “Russia thing,” too, but we hope that truth will prevail and expect that the special counsel will find plenty of it.

— Bud Norman