The “Street” and the financial media are portraying a totally misleading impression that the economy is now undergoing a normal recovery as each new piece of economic data is issued. At the same time the stock market has been in the process of pricing in the so-called great news. Let’s have a look at the actual numbers.
1) March retail sales were up 8.6% from the low a year earlier. However, this was still 3.6% below the peak sales in May 2008, almost two years ago. Moreover, sales are still slightly below the level reached back in December 2006, over three years earlier. Over the last 43 years retail sales had hardly ever gone down at all, even in recessions.
2) March industrial production (IP) was up 6.1% from the June trough, but was still down 9.1% from the top December 2007. At its current level IP is still where it was over 10 years ago in December 1999. Never since the depression in the 1930s has IP failed to exceed a level established 10 years earlier.
3) New orders for durable goods in February were up 12.8% from the low in March 2009, but were still 22% below the peak in late 2006. In fact orders are back at the same level as in the fall of 1997.
4) Initial weekly unemployment claims for the latest reported week are 456,000. Claims declined from a peak of 643,000 for the week ending March 29, 2009 to 477,000 on November 15. Since then, however, the number of claims has flattened out to a range between 439,000 and 490,000 weekly over the five-month period. This is still a recessionary number.
5) March housing starts were up 31% from the low April 2009, but still down 72% from the peak in January 2006. Except for the current recession the number of starts in March was the lowest in any month over the last 51 years.
6) As reported today, existing home sales were 535,000, up 6.8% from the prior month and 19% from the low in late 2008. However, this was still 27% below the peak in late 2005.
7) New vehicle sales in March were at an annual rate of 11.8 million, up 13.5% from the prior month and 28% from the recession low. This is still well below the average of about 16 million vehicles between in the decade ending in 2007.
8) February personal income was up 11.9% from the trough in July 2009, but still 1.5% below the top in May 2008. At the current level personal income is 2% higher than a year earlier after being down for 12 consecutive months. Prior to the current recession personal income had never been down year-over-year in any month going back to 1960, and the current plus 2% is still at recessionary levels.
9) Payroll employment in March increased 162,000 leaving the total 8.3 million jobs below the peak reached in February 2008 and equal to the number of jobs back in October 1999.
10) February consumer credit was down 4% from a year earlier, the biggest decrease on a year-to-year basis since late in World War ll.
The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed figures to a point where they are merely less depressed. And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy. In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable, and the data discussed in this comment doesn’t even include the fiscal problems of the states, the deteriorating federal fiscal outlook, sovereign debt problems subject to potential global contagion, the Chinese housing bubble, and the increased threat of “beggar thy neighbor” nationalistic economic policies. At current levels the stock market is substantially overvalued and subject to severe downside risk.
Mr. Roche is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Discipline Funds.Discipline Funds is a low fee financial advisory firm with a focus on helping people be more disciplined with their finances.
He is also the author of Pragmatic Capitalism: What Every Investor Needs to Understand About Money and Finance, Understanding the Modern Monetary System and Understanding Modern Portfolio Construction.