A Dreary Monday Followed By Yet Another Super Tuesday

Pretty much everyone we encountered on Monday asked how we’re doing, as the friendly folks here in Wichita tend to do, and we were able to cheekily answer that we’re faring better than the stock markets. Most of the people we met got the dark humor in our reply, as they’d heard the news that Monday was an historically bad day on Wall Street.
All three of the major American exchanges suffered at least a 7 percent drop, which comes after a few weeks of alarming declines, and all the smart money on the rest of the world’s markets seems similarly panicked, with no apparent good news on the horizon to turn things around in the near future. The main reason for the dive is the steadily spreading coronavirus pandemic, which has thus far killed only a tiny fraction of the world’s population but already cancelled big events and shut down schools and disrupted global supply chains and currently has most of Italy in quarantine. The markets are also worried that oil prices are plummeting on falling demand and a dispute between Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Russia and Saudi Arabia, which can’t agree on an ideal price to fix.
Neither of these developments can be credibly blamed on President Donald Trump, but so far the smart money isn’t betting that he has any solutions. Trump has thus far argued the coronavirus threat is overblown, based on his hunches and natural ability to grasp the science of epidemiology because he had a “super-genius” uncle who taught physics at the Massachussets Institute of Technology, but by Monday he was proposing a slew of government programs and “stimulus” measures redolent of President Barack Obama to prop up the economy just in case. The Federal Reserve Board is on the brink of offering zero interest loans and already printing more money to make up for the trillion dollars of deficit spending by the government, the bond markets are offering pretty much zero return on long or short-term yields, Trump is “tweeting” demands they go even further, and we can well understand why the smart money isn’t reassured.
The worries about the plummeting oil markets are harder to understand. We’re old enough to remember when the OPEC cartel’s price-gouging was the global economy’s biggest worry, and won’t mind a bit if the local gasoline prices fall below $2 a gallon as expected, but it does seem to be a troubling sign for the rest of the global economy. Trump will surely be conflicted about it, as he’s good friends with both the Russian and Saudi dictators and would love to take credit for cheap gasoline, but nothing he might say or do about it is likely to stabilize any of the markets.
Today is another big Tuesday in the Democratic presidential primary races, and the smart money is betting that former Obama-era Vice President Joe Biden will knock self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders out of the race, but that won’t help much. The stock markets had a rare good day when Biden took the lead over Sanders after last week’s “Super Tuesday,” but no one’s betting that Biden has all the answers.
It’s all quite desultory, but for now we can tell anyone who asks that we have no symptoms of the coronavirus and are feeling somewhat healthier than the stock markets. Here’s hoping that all of our dear readers are faring at least as well, and that we all make it through.

— Bud Norman

These Scary Times

Having survived the swine flu and the bird flu and AIDS and SARs and the Ebola virus and all the other pandemics that were supposed to wipe out humankind, we’ve been feeling pretty cocky about our chances of surviving this newfangled coronavirus. After what happened on Wall Street on Monday, however, we’re at less a wee bit nervous.
News that the coronavirus has spread from China to South Korea, Iran and Italy renewed concerns that it will further disrupt the international trade system and the many gazillions of money that it generates, which has already seen much global several business with the gargantuan Chinese economy brought to a screeching halt. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped a jaw-dropping 1031 points, which is a jaw-dropping 3.6 percent, and the Standard & Poor and NASDAQ suffered even worse percentage losses, and for now all the smart money seems scared.
Aside from the already horrific death toll and severe economic consequences from the coronavirus, there are also political implications. President Donald Trump can’t plausibly be blamed for the coronavirus and the resulting stock markets, but he always implausibly claimed full credit for all the impressive stock market gains during his administration and has thus tied his political fortunes to the latest indexes. Decisive presidential leadership is called for, but at this point there’s not much Trump or any possible president might do.
The White House has requested congress to pass a $1.8 billion emergency spending bill to bring the total of spending on the coronavirus to $2.5 billion, which is a good idea that will probably win bipartisan approval, but by Washington standards that’s a relatively puny amount of money to throw at a problem of this size. There are many very smart people in America’s scientific community, but for now the smart money is betting that they won’t have this problem solved by election day, which seems a smart bet to us.
Trump is also calling on the Federal Reserve and the rest of the world’s central banks to reassure the world markets with a fresh infusion of that sweet opium of newly-printed cash, but at this point there’s not much more they can do. Several of the world’s biggest economies are offering below zero interest rates, which is every bit as stupid as it sounds, and despite what Trump has called the best American economy ever the Federal Reserve has been setting interest rates historically close to zero and the budget deficit is over a trillion dollars. A debt-ridden America and the rest of the debt-ridden world are ill-prepared to deal with one of those occasional Black Swan events, as the smarty-pants economists call it.
Which is not to say that any of those damned Democrats running for the presidency have any solutions. Self-described socialist and current Democratic front-runner Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will have a a harder time paying for his all his trillions of dollars of spending on all of America’s problems if there’s an economic downturn. The relatively sane and centrist Democratic candidates also don’t have any answers, and we frankly admit that neither nor do we few remaining NeverTrump Republicans,
Pretty much everyone anti-Trump will get their digs in, though. Trump has taken his usual position against foreigners entering the country, but some very quarantined cases of the virus have come in, and Trump’s skepticism about fancy pants scientists seems to have decimated the government agencies charged with dealing with pandemics. Trump has questioned the scientific community’s assessments of global climate change and the quality of America’s air and water and the cancerous effects of wind turbines, and he’ll probably soon ask you to believe that he knows more about the coronavirus than anyone.
Even so, we expect to eventually die from something other than the coronavirus, and to survive whatever political and economic upheavals it might bring. Which is not to say it will be a happy ending for anybody.

— Bud Norman

On the Night After Christmas

Here’s hoping you all had a merry Christmas, or at least a merrier one that President Donald Trump seems to have had. For Trump, who was forced by public relations reasons to forestall a planned golfing vacation at his ritzy Mar-a-Lago resort in sunny south Florida, it wasn’t so much a Christmas as it was a “Festivus.”
Fans of the classic “Seinfeld” sit-com will recall that “Festivus” was a holiday the George Costanza character’s cranky father invented as an alternative to Christmas, and was devoted to the “airing of grievances” and “feats of strength.” Our cranky president spent most of Christmas Eve and Christmas airing a wide variety grievances via “Twitter” and a rare Christmas news conference, about everything from the damned Democrats to the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” to the alleged idiot that Trump appointed to chair the Federal Reserve, and trying his best to convince the public the he’s far stronger than any of them.
Although we try our best to ignore the news on Christmas Eve and Christmas, we read and watched enough that we were not convinced.
The third partial government shutdown of Trump’s first two years in office looks bad enough that Trump felt compelled to remain in frigid Washington rather than enjoy the sunny climes and opulent golf course at Mar-a-Lago, and the Democratic majority that’s soon to be installed in the House of Representatives has no apparent incentive to cave to the unpopular president’s demand for five billion dollars of funding for his unpopular campaign promise of a big and beautiful wall along the entirety of America’s border with Mexico. Partial government shutdowns are also unpopular, and although Trump is now blaming this one on the Democrats the “fake news” networks can gleefully replay the very real video of Trump recently bragging to the Democratic leaders in Congress that he’ll take all the credit for this one. Trump is already saying that he doesn’t need a wall across the entire Mexican border, and is talking about “steel slats” rather than the 30-foot-tall concrete and rebar structure he once envisions, and concedes that the Democrats can call it a mere fence if they want, and he’s pretty much given up on the campaign promise that Mexico will happily pay for it,
The former Federal Bureau of Investigation director and decorated Marine combat veteran in charge of the “Russia thing” probably isn’t much intimidated by Trump’s “tweets,” either, so we expect that will continue to vex Trump well into the next year. Trump’s remaining Republican allies in Congress are increasingly disinclined to protect Trump from that, too, and have increasingly little incentive to do so.
Our best guess is that the stock markets will continue their recent swoon when the reopen today, and that the Fed chairman Trump appointed and can’t fire without causing a political and economic crisis probably won’t be budged by any presidential “tweets.” The Fed has recently nudged the prime interest rate toward historical norms, but the markets are also spooked by the Trump trade wars that have raised the cost of a steel-slat border barrier by 25 percent, and the inevitable cyclical slowing of the global economy that won’t be helped if the central bank of the all-important American economy is perceived as acting in the short term political interests of an unpopular president, so once again Trump doesn’t seem to be negotiating or “tweeting” from a position of strength.
Starting today Trump will be dealing with all this with an acting Attorney General, an acting defense secretary, an acting secretary of the interior, an acting chief of staff who’s moonlighting on the job while running the Office of Management and Budget that’s overseeing the partial shutdown of the government, no ambassador to the the United Nations or South Korea at all, and an understaffed White House legal team responding to all the subpoenas that the “Russia thing” investigation and the incoming Democratic House majority will surely be serving in the coming weeks.. This isn’t likely to reassure the markets or Trump’s already skeptical international and domestic allies, but Trump’s die-hard fans can still reassure themselves that at least he fights.

— Bud Norman

Trump Gets Fed

Way back when politics and economics and all that made some sort of sense, before this crazy election year, much of the media would always devote a great deal of ink and internet pixels to the latest oracular pronouncements of the Federal Reserve Board. These days it takes a lot to knock president-elect Donald Trump off the front pages, but the almighty Fed was still able to elbow its way to a column just above the fold on Wednesday with a mere slight upward tweak in the interest rate, and we expect plenty of further commentary about it as the commentariat figures out the hard-to-figure Trump angle.
The Fed’s quarterly-or-so oracular pronouncements were damned hard enough to decipher even way back when politics and economics and all that made some sort of sense, and even the smart guys on Wall Street always seemed to have a hard time figuring it out, but in the age of Trump it’s exponentially more complicated. All of the inviolable laws of economics will ultimately be enforced, which does not bode well, but all of the inviolable laws of politics have been so brutally violated in this crazy election year that there’s no reliable guide to what comes next. What’s come before has been worrisome enough
For the past eight years or so the Fed has been “quantitative easing” enough money at pretty-much-zero-percent rates into the economy to sustain a a doubling of the national debt and two percent-or-so growth rate in the gross domestic product and a stock market boom that has outrun that pace like a hare past a tortoise. The past eight years or so have also seen the unemployment rate go from a depth-of-recession rate over 10 percent to a relatively robust 4.6 percent, with household wages and a few other economic indices also showing recent improvement, and given the latest enthusiasm of the stock markets the Fed has apparently decided that now is the time to put an ever so slight foot of the economic brake.
History shows that recessions have always come to an end, though, and always with a more robust and v-shaped recovery than the last eight years or so have seen. That 4.6 percent unemployment rate is not bad, but the numbers of the underemployed and those of working age but out of the work are horrible by modern standards. As for the ongoing stock market boom, we place more faith in Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. That long awaited uptick in household income is welcome, but doesn’t seem to have placated the most recent electorate. For the past eight years or so we’ve groused that President Barack Obama’s penchant for government-run health care and similarly disruptive regulatory schemes have had something to do with this, and enough people in a few key states were just as eager to put the brakes on Obamanomics, and thus Trump won, so at this point it becomes murky.
Since Trump’s victory the stock markets have been exuberant, perhaps irrationally so, as Alan Greenspan might have said, at the prospect of all that quantitatively eased money flowing at pretty much zero interest rates through an already recovering economy suddenly disencumbered of all those Obama-imposed layers of regulations and taxations and rhetorical scoldings, along with all the cheap oil that’s going to come gushing through the Environmental Protection Agency’s weakened barriers. As much as we dispute the Fed’s self-congratulatory reasons for its slight touch on the economic brakes, we’re the self-doubting sorts who can’t really fault their decision as we head with one headlight into the economy’s dark and twisting road. Even before taking office Trump has intervened in the affairs of businesses ranging from aerospace to air conditioning, and is proposing a bigger-than-Obama-sized infrastructure plan to revive an economy that isn’t in recession but isn’t all that great, none of it bodes well for the national debt, and so far Trumponomics looks to be just as disruptive as its predecessor but in all in sorts of unpredictable ways. so perhaps some pat on the brakes is indicated.
Way back when Trump when merely a long shot candidate for the presidency he was “tweeting” his outrage that the Fed was keeping interest rates artificially low for the political benefit of Obama, which we didn’t argue, and so far as we can tell at this moment he hasn’t “tweeted” anything to the contrary since the Fed’s announcement. Perhaps he’s trying to figure out the political and economic implications himself, and finding it damned complicated, and maybe he’s cocky enough to think that he can make his deregulation of this and regulation of that work well enough even with slightly higher than zero percent interest rates, and in such a crazy election year as this he might even be right. This is a complicated matter, though, even for such a savvy businessman as Trump.
Trump has always come out ahead of his creditors, through six bankruptcies and two divorces and untold lawsuits by everyone from stiffed busboys to disgruntled real estate students, but now he’s up against the biggest bank of them all. The Fed is by law entirely independent of any branch of the federal government, and that law is likely to be backed by all the Democrats and a bigly number of Republicans in the legislative branch and a majority of the judicial branch, so we expect that Trump will sooner or later pick a fight with them. In the past the Fed has usually won these these confrontations, most famously when the aforementioned Greenspan agreed to open the monetary spigots in exchange for President Bill Clinton’s more business friendly policies, which wound up winning Clinton reelection in ’96 but couldn’t win his re-relection in ’16, but in this crazy election year everything seems up for negotiation.

— Bud Norman