THE NUMBERS ARE HORRIFYING (USA)
Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on January 20, 2009
Jan. 26, 2009
Mohamed A. El-Erian
NEWSWEEK – Jan. 26, 2009
By Mohamed A. El-Erian
THE NUMBERS ARE HORRIFYING
On Tuesday, President-elect Barack Obama inherits an economic calamity, and the situation will get worse in the first few months of his presidency regardless of what he does. How quickly it improves thereafter is not just a matter of which policies he decides to pursue; importantly, it is also a function of how he pursues them. Investors need to pay close attention lest they experience yet another challenging and, in some cases, devastating year.
No one should doubt that we are still in the midst of a historic economic crisis. Having incurred massive losses, individuals and companies around the world are, not surprisingly, saving more—some by choice as they attempt to restore balance to their finances and others by necessity as their credit lines are cut by beleaguered lenders. As detailed elsewhere in this edition of NEWSWEEK, the world has entered an Age of Thrift. Less spending by individuals will mean even lower demand, and the production of goods and services will be cut, again.
The latest economic data vividly illustrate the self-fulfilling nature of this global phenomenon. The numbers are horrifying, and increasingly so. There’s been a violent collapse in industrial production in Europe; the latest monthly data now show annual contractions of 17 percent in Spain, 13 percent in the U.K., 9 percent in France and Italy, and 6 percent in Germany. Emerging economies are now on the same course, with contractions of 9 percent in Russia and 4 percent in Brazil.
At the same time, the labor market is deteriorating dramatically in both Europe and America. The United States has now registered 12 consecutive months of job losses, including more than half a million in December, bringing the 2008 total to 2.6 million—a level not seen for more than 60 years. The crisis continues to catch people by surprise, suggesting that too few people sufficiently understand its dynamics. The U.S. Commerce Department reports that December retail sales declined at more than twice the rate expected by most forecasters, and further extended the record for consecutive monthly declines, now six .and counting. President elect Obama faces the prospect of more corporate defaults, pension losses and personal bankruptcies in the coming months. Fortunately, he has already shown that he has a good understanding of the need for an aggressive fiscal stimulus, and Congress seems to be onboard.
Without massive public stimulus, there is little chance of countering the highly disruptive consequences of a too sudden and too prolonged ascent of the Age of Thrift.
Yet there is a risk that this consensus could break down in quibbling over the details. Specifically, we should stop the bickering over whether to cut taxes or raise spending. Both are required. The tax cuts should work mainly through employment channels, including a cut in the payroll tax as this will directly help employment and limit the fall in consumption. Government spending should focus on sectors that will quickly raise resource productivity, like infrastructure, which helps lower production costs, and social services, which raise human productivity overtime.
Obama also needs to step up efforts to alleviate the credit crunch. This is not about an immediate recovery in the banking system. It won’t happen. The sector is too damaged to act as a conduit of funds to the general economy. Instead, the government must come up with more imaginative ways to provide direct financing, particularly for mortgages and some areas of consumer finance.
Obama’s economic appointments suggest that he understands how important it will be to get the design and implementation of these policies right. The highly capable Larry Summers and Tim Geithner should focus on coming up with a master plan to lead the country out of the crisis. This will ensure that the immediate measures implemented are consistent over time with a resumption of economic growth and rising productivity.
Managing expectations is also more important than ever. In his remarks on the financial crisis in November and December, Obama came across as informed, committed and careful not to over-promise. Yet his efforts have been largely negated by recent talk out of Washington of regulatory clampdowns, potential abrogation of property rights and other non-market solutions. The president-elect will have to step up quickly to the challenge of consistently better communication if he is to instill the confidence that is critical for a meaningful economic turn later this year.
Finally, Obama should signal clearly that he knows a global dislocation requires a global response. What was a U.S. financial crisis has morphed into a challenge to the international market system. An effective solution will not materialize unless the United States takes a policy leadership role on the global stage. It’s a role no other country can credibly play. With Obama as president, the world is exceptionally welcoming to U.S. leadership. He must seize this opportunity for the economic good of America, and the world.
ELERIAN is CEO and co-CIO of PIMCO and author of “When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Economic Change,” winner of the 2008 FT/Goldman Sachs business book of the year award.