The Beginning Of The End
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If Everything Is Just Fine, Why Are So Many Really Smart People Forecasting Economic Disaster?

Apocalyptic Disaster - Public DomainThe parallels between the false prosperity of 2007 and the false prosperity of 2014 are rather striking.  If we go back and look at the numbers in the fall of 2007, we find that the Dow set an all-time high in October, margin debt on Wall Street had spiked to record levels, the unemployment rate was below 5 percent and Americans were getting ready to spend a record amount of money that Christmas season.  But then the very next year the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression shook the entire planet and everyone wondered why most people never saw it coming.  Well, now a similar pattern is unfolding right before our eyes.  The Dow and the S&P 500 both hit record highs on Monday, margin debt on Wall Street is hovering near record levels, the unemployment rate has ticked down a little bit and Americans are getting ready to spend more than 600 billion dollars this Christmas season.  The truth is that the economy seems pretty stable for the moment, and most people cannot even imagine that an economic collapse is coming.  So why are so many really smart people forecasting economic disaster in the near future?

For example, just consider what the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center is saying.  This is an organization with a tremendous economic forecasting record that goes all the way back to the Great Depression.  In fact, it predicted ahead of time the financial trouble and the recession that would happen in 2008.  Well, now this company is forecasting that there is a 65 percent chance that there will be a global recession by the end of next year…

In 1929, a businessman and economist by the name of Jerome Levy didn’t like what he saw in his analysis of corporate profits. He sold his stocks before the October crash.

Almost eight decades later, the consultancy company that bears his name declared “the next recession will be caused by the deflating housing bubble.” By February 2007, it predicted problems in the subprime-mortgage market would spread “to virtually all financial markets.” In October 2007, it saw imminent recession — the slump began two months later.

The Jerome Levy Forecasting Center, based in Mount Kisco, New York, and run by Jerome’s grandson David, is again more worried than its peers. Its half-dozen analysts attach a 65 percent probability of a worldwide recession forcing a contraction in the U.S. by the end of next year.

Could they be wrong?

It’s certainly possible.

But I wouldn’t bet against them.

John Hussman is another expert that is warning of financial disaster on the horizon.  He believes that we are experiencing a massive stock market bubble right now and that stocks are approximately double the value that they should be

If you look at corporate profits and especially corporate profit margins, they’re one of the most cyclical and mean-reverting series in economics. Right now, we have corporate profits that are close to about 11% of GDP, but if you look at that series you will find that corporate profits as a share of GDP have always dropped back to about 5.5% or below in every single economic cycle including recent decades, including not only the financial crisis but 2002 and every other economic cycle we have been in.

Right now stocks as a multiple of last year’s expected earnings may look only modestly over valued or modestly richly valued. Really if you look at the measures of valuation that are most correlated to the returns that stocks deliver over time say over seven years or over the next 10 years the S&P 500 in our estimation is about double the level of valuation that would give investors a normal rate of return.

Could you imagine the chaos that would ensue if stocks really did drop by 50 percent?

Well, Hussman says that this is precisely what must happen in order for stock prices to return to historical norms…

Right now, like I say, we are looking at stocks that have been pressed to long-term expected returns that are really dismal. But more important than that, in every market cycle that we’ve seen with the mild exception of 2002, we’ve seen stocks price revert back to normal rates of return. In order to get to that point from here, we would have to have equities drop by about half.

If that does happen, it will make the crisis of 2008 look like a Sunday picnic.

Meanwhile, other very prominent thinkers are also warning that an economic nightmare is rapidly approaching.

Economic cycle theorist Martin Armstrong foresees major economic problems in 2015 which will ultimately lead to “civil unrest”  in 2016

It looks more and more like a serious political uprising will erupt by 2016 once the economy turns down. That is the magic ingredient. Turn the economy down and you get civil unrest and revolution.

And of course there are a whole lot of other economic cycle theorists that are forecasting that we are about to experience a massive economic downturn as well.  For much more on this, please see this article and this article.

What is truly frightening is that we have never even come close to recovering from the last economic crisis.  One poll that was taken just prior to the recent election found that only 28 percent of Americans said that their families were doing better financially.  In addition, here are some more survey numbers about how Americans are feeling about the economy

According to voter exit polls conducted by CNN, 78% said they are worried about the economy, with 69% saying that, in their view, economic conditions are not good. 65% responded that the country is on the wrong track vs. only 31% who believed that it is headed in the right direction.

Even though we are repeating so many of the same patterns that we experienced back in 2007, we are doing so with a fundamentally weaker economy.  The last crisis did a tremendous amount of permanent damage to us.  For an extensive look at this, please see my previous article entitled “12 Charts That Show The Permanent Damage That Has Been Done To The U.S. Economy“.

And there are lots of signs that much of the planet is already entering another major economic slowdown.  In a recent article, Brandon Smith summarized some of these.  He says that we are currently witnessing “the last gasp of the global economy“…

Global exports, and thus consumer demand, are plunging. Germany, the only pillar left to prop up the failing European Union, has experienced a severe decline in exports not seen since 2009.

China, the largest exporter and importer in the world, and Chinese companies, have been caught in a number of instances using fraudulent invoices to artificially inflate their own export numbers, in some cases reporting 50% more exported goods than had actually existed.

China’s manufacturing has also declined for the past five months, exposing the nature of its inflated export stats and indicating a global slowdown.

The Baltic Dry Index, a measure of global shipping rates for raw goods, and thus a measure of demand for shipping, continues to drag along near historic lows.

The U.S. consumer (the only economic asset the U.S. has besides the dollar’s world reserve status), has seen declines in spending as well as wages.

In the meantime, long term jobless Americans continue to fall off welfare rolls by the millions, making unemployment numbers look good, but the overall future picture look terrible as participation rates dissolve into the ether of government statistics.

How is such poverty being hidden? Foodstamps. Plain and simple. Nearly 50 million Americans now subsist on food stamp programs today, and this number shows no signs of dropping. In states like Illinois, two people sign up for food assistance for every citizen that happens to find a job.

From time to time, I get accused of “spreading fear” and of being obsessed with “doom and gloom”.

But that is not the case at all.

I actually want our economy to stay stable for as long as possible.  Many Americans don’t realize this, but even the poorest of us live in luxury compared to much of the rest of the world.  It would be wonderful if we could all live out our lives in peace and quiet and safety.

Unfortunately, it is simply not going to happen.

And it does not take an expert to see what is coming.

Anyone with half a brain should be able to see the economic disaster that is approaching.

There is hope in understanding what is happening and there is hope in getting prepared.  Millions of Americans that are willingly blind to our problems are going to have their lives absolutely destroyed when they get blindsided by the coming crisis.  So please use this brief period of relative stability to get prepared and to warn others.

Once this false bubble of hope runs out, all of our lives are going to dramatically change.

Most People Cannot Even Imagine That An Economic Collapse Is Coming

Thinking - Public DomainThe idea that the United States is on the brink of a horrifying economic crash is absolutely inconceivable to most Americans.  After all, the economy has been relatively stable for quite a few years and the stock market continues to surge to new heights.  On Friday, the Dow and the S&P 500 both closed at brand new all-time record highs.  For the year, the S&P 500 is now up 9 percent and the Nasdaq is now up close to 11 percent.  And American consumers are getting ready to spend more than 600 billion dollars this Christmas season.  That is an amount of money that is larger than the entire economy of Sweden.  So how in the world can anyone be talking about economic collapse?  Yes, many will concede, we had a few bumps in the road back in 2008 but things have pretty much gotten back to normal since then.  Why be concerned about economic collapse when there is so much stability all around us?

Unfortunately, this brief period of stability that we have been enjoying is just an illusion.

The fundamental problems that caused the financial crisis of 2008 have not been fixed.  In fact, most of our long-term economic problems have gotten even worse.

But most Americans have such short attention spans these days.  In a world where we are accustomed to getting everything instantly, news cycles only last for 48 hours and 2008 might as well be an eternity ago.

In the United States today, our entire economic system is based on debt.

Without debt, very little economic activity happens.  We need mortgages to buy our homes, we need auto loans to buy our vehicles and we need our credit cards to do our shopping during the holiday season.

So where does all of that debt come from?

It comes from the banks.

In particular, the “too big to fail banks” are the heart of this debt-based system.

Do you have a mortgage, an auto loan or a credit card from one of these “too big to fail” institutions?  A very large percentage of the people that will read this article do.

And a lot of people might not like to hear this, but without those banks we essentially do not have an economy.

When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, it almost resulted in the meltdown of our entire system.  The stock market collapsed and we experienced an absolutely wicked credit crunch.

Unfortunately, that was just a small preview of what is coming.

Even though a few prominent “experts” such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman have declared that the “too big to fail” problem is “over”, the truth is that it is now a bigger crisis than ever before.

Compared to five years ago, the four largest banks in the country are now almost 40 percent larger.  The following numbers come from a recent article in the Los Angeles Times

Just before the financial crisis hit, Wells Fargo & Co. had $609 billion in assets. Now it has $1.4 trillion. Bank of America Corp. had $1.7 trillion in assets. That’s up to $2.1 trillion.

And the assets of JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation’s biggest bank, have ballooned to $2.4 trillion from $1.8 trillion.

At the same time that those banks have been getting bigger, 1,400 smaller banks have completely disappeared from the banking industry.

That means that we are now more dependent on these gigantic banks than ever.

At this point, the five largest banks account for 42 percent of all loans in the United States, and the six largest banks account for 67 percent of all assets in our financial system.

If someone came along and zapped those banks out of existence, our economy would totally collapse overnight.

So the health of this handful of immensely powerful banking institutions is absolutely critical to our economy.

Unfortunately, these banks have become deeply addicted to gambling.

Have you ever known people that allowed their lives to be destroyed by addictions that they could never shake?

Well, that is what is happening to these banks.  They have transformed Wall Street into the largest casino in the history of the world.  Most of the time, their bets pay off and they make lots of money.

But as we saw back in 2008, when they miscalculate things can fall apart very rapidly.

The bets that I am most concerned about are known as “derivatives“.  In essence, they are bets about what will or will not happen in the future.  The big banks use very sophisticated algorithms that are supposed to help them be on the winning side of these bets the vast majority of the time, but these algorithms are not perfect.  The reason these algorithms are not perfect is because they are based on assumptions, and those assumptions come from people.  They might be really smart people, but they are still just people.

If things stay fairly stable like they have the past few years, the algorithms tend to work very well.

But if there is a “black swan event” such as a major stock market crash, a collapse of European or Asian banks, a historic shift in interest rates, an Ebola pandemic, a horrific natural disaster or a massive EMP blast is unleashed by the sun, everything can be suddenly thrown out of balance.

Acrobat Nik Wallenda has been making headlines all over the world for crossing vast distances on a high-wire without a safety net.  Well, that is essentially what our “too big to fail” banks are doing every single day.  With each passing year, these banks have become even more reckless, and so far there have not been any serious consequences.

But without a doubt, someday there will be.

What would you say about a bookie that took $200,000 in bets but that only had $10,000 to cover those bets?

You would certainly call that bookie a fool.

But that is what our big banks are doing.

Right now, JPMorgan Chase has more than 67 trillion dollars in exposure to derivatives but it only has 2.5 trillion dollars in assets.

Right now, Citibank has nearly 60 trillion dollars in exposure to derivatives but it only has 1.9 trillion dollars in assets.

Right now, Goldman Sachs has more than 54 trillion dollars in exposure to derivatives but it has less than a trillion dollars in assets.

Right now, Bank of America has more than 54 trillion dollars in exposure to derivatives but it only has 2.2 trillion dollars in assets.

Right now, Morgan Stanley has more than 44 trillion dollars in exposure to derivatives but it has less than a trillion dollars in assets.

Most people have absolutely no idea how incredibly vulnerable our financial system really is.

The truth is that these “too big to fail” banks could collapse at any time.

And when they fail, our economy will fail too.

So let us hope and pray that this brief period of false stability lasts for as long as possible.

Because when it ends, all hell is going to break loose.

How Will The Stock Market React To The End Of Quantitative Easing?

Stock Market Crash - Public DomainIt is widely expected that the Federal Reserve is going to announce the end of quantitative easing this week.  Will this represent a major turning point for the stock market?  As you will see below, since 2008 stocks have risen dramatically throughout every stage of quantitative easing.  But when the various phases of quantitative easing have ended, stocks have always responded by declining substantially.  The only thing that caused stocks to eventually start rising again was a new round of quantitative easing.  So what will happen this time?  That is a very good question.  What we do know is that the the performance of the stock market has become completely divorced from economic reality, and in recent weeks there have been signs of market turmoil that we have not seen in years.  Could the end of quantitative easing be the thing that finally pushes the financial markets over the edge?

After all this time, many Americans still don’t understand what quantitative easing actually is.  Since the end of 2008, the Federal Reserve has injected approximately 3.5 trillion dollars into the financial system.  Of course the Federal Reserve didn’t actually have 3.5 trillion dollars.  The Fed created all of this money out of thin air and used it to buy government bonds and mortgage-backed securities.

If that sounds like “cheating” to you, that is because it is cheating.  If you or I tried to print money, we would be put in prison.  When the Federal Reserve does it, it is called “economic stimulus”.

But the overall economy has not been helped much at all.  If you doubt this, just look at these charts.

Instead, what all of this “easy money” has done is fuel the greatest stock market bubble in history.

As you can see from the chart below, every round of quantitative easing has driven the S&P 500 much higher.  And when each round of quantitative easing has finally ended, stocks have declined substantially

Chart By DayOnBay

And of course the chart above tells only part of the story.  Since April 2013, the S&P 500 has gone much higher…

S&P 500

If someone from another planet looked at that chart, they would be tempted to think that the U.S. economy must be expanding like crazy.

But of course that is not happening.

This market binge has been solely fueled by reckless money printing by the Federal Reserve.  It is not backed up by economic fundamentals in any way, shape or form.

And now that quantitative easing is ending, many are wondering if the party is over.

For example, just check out what CNN is saying about the matter…

Even in this bull market, all good things must come to an end.

The Federal Reserve is expected to close a chapter in history this week and announce the conclusion of its massive stimulus program. Known as quantitative easing, the program is widely credited with driving investors back into stocks in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

“I think to some extent quantitative easing has provided an assurance to investors that (has) kept them optimistic,” said Bruce McCain, Chief Investment Strategist of Key Private Bank in Cleveland, Ohio. “Now we’re going to have to see whether investors can ride without training wheels.”

Everyone knows that quantitative easing was a massive gift to those that own stocks.

So how will the stock market respond now that the monetary heroin is ending?

We shall see.

Meanwhile, deflationary pressures are already starting to take hold around the rest of the globe.  The following is an excerpt from a recent Reuters report

After months of focus on slack in U.S. labor markets, the Federal Reserve faces a new challenge: the possibility that weak inflation may be so firmly entrenched it upends the return to normal monetary policy.

The soft global inflation backdrop, from sliding oil prices to stagnant wages in advanced economies, has triggered debate over whether the Fed and its peers merely need to wait for a slow-motion business cycle to improve, or face a shift in the underlying nature of inflation after the global recession.

That uncertainty has become the Fed’s chief concern in recent weeks, likely to shape upcoming policy statements and delay even further the moment when interest rates, pinned near zero for nearly six years, will start rising again.

If the Federal Reserve and other global central banks were not printing money like mad, the global economy would have almost certainly entered a deflationary depression by now.

But all the Federal Reserve and other global central banks have done is put off the inevitable and make our long-term problems even worse.

Instead of fixing the fundamental problems that caused the great financial crash of 2008, the central bankers decided to try to paper over our problems instead.  They flooded the global financial system with easy money, but today our financial system is shakier than ever.

In fact, we just learned that 10 percent of the biggest banks in Europe have failed their stress tests and must raise more capital…

The European Central Bank says 13 of Europe’s 130 biggest banks have flunked an in-depth review of their finances and must increase their capital buffers against losses by 10 billion euros ($12.5 billion).

The ECB said 25 banks in all were found to need stronger buffers — but that 12 have already made up their shortfall during the months in which the ECB was carrying out its review. The remaining 13 now have two weeks to tell the ECB how they plan to increase their capital buffers.

Most people do not realize how vulnerable our financial system truly is.  It is essentially a pyramid of debt and credit that could fall apart at any time.

Right now, the “too big to fail” banks account for 42 percent of all loans and 67 percent of all banking assets in the United States.

Without those banks, we essentially do not have an economy.

But instead of being careful, those banks have taken recklessness to unprecedented heights.

At this moment, five of the “too big to fail” banks each have more than 40 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives.

Most Americans don’t even understand what derivatives are, but when the next great financial crisis strikes we are going to be hearing a whole lot about them.

The big banks have transformed Wall Street into the biggest casino in the history of the planet, and there is no way that this is going to end well.

A great collapse is coming.

It is just a matter of time.

The Dow And S&P 500 Soar To Irrational Heights – Meanwhile The Ultra-Wealthy Rush To Buy Gold Bars

Gold Bars - Public DomainDid you know that the number of gold bars being purchased by ultra-wealthy individuals has increased by 243 percent so far this year?  If stocks are just going to keep soaring, why are they doing this?  On Thursday, the Dow Jones industrial average and the S&P 500 both closed at record highs once again.  It is a party that never seems to end, and there are a lot of really happy people on Wall Street these days.  But those that are discerning realize that we witnessed the exact same kind of bubble behavior during the dotcom boom and during the run up to the last financial crash in 2007.  The irrational exuberance that we are witnessing right now cannot go on forever.  And the bigger that this bubble gets, the more painful that it is going to be when it finally bursts.  Those that get out at the peaks of the market are the ones that usually end up making lots of money.  Those that ride stocks all the way up and all the way down are the ones that usually end up getting totally wiped out.

To get an idea of how irrational the markets have become, all one has to do is to look at Twitter.

Would you value “a horribly mismanaged company” that is less than 10 years old and that has never made a yearly profit at 31 billion dollars?

Well, that is precisely how much the financial markets say that Twitter is worth at this moment.

Even though Twitter will probably never be much more popular than it is right now, it continues to bleed money profusely.  On a GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) basis, Twitter lost an astounding 145 million dollars during the second quarter of 2014…

Twitter’s GAAP net loss totaled $145 million, up from $42 million a year ago. On a GAAP basis, Twitter lost $0.24 per share. Investors, however, were not expecting Twitter to be profitable by GAAP measurements, so the loss isn’t too much of a drag.

Why would anyone want to invest in such a money pit?

Here are some more disturbing financial numbers about Twitter from David Stockman

Currently, Twitter (TWTR) is valued at $31 billion.That’s 18X revenue, but the catch is that the revenue in question is it’s lifetime bookings over the 18 quarters since Q1 2010.

When it comes to profits, the numbers are not nearly so promising!  For the LTM period ending in June, TWTR booked $974 million of revenue and $1.7 billion of operating expense. That why “NM” shows up in its LTM ratio of enterprise value to EBITDA. It turns out that its EBITDA was -$704 million. In fact, its R&D expense alone was 83% of revenues.

Of course the truth is that Twitter should be able to make money.

And it probably would be making money if it was being managed better.

The following is what Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel said about Twitter on CNBC the other day…

“It’s a horribly mismanaged company — probably a lot of pot-smoking going on there.”

But because Twitter is a “hot tech stock” investors are literally throwing money at it.

And there are many other tech companies that have similar stories.  Off the top of my head, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Yelp and Pinterest come to mind.

Fueled by the quantitative easing policies of the Federal Reserve, U.S. stocks have enjoyed an unprecedented joy ride.

However, as David Stockman recently told Yahoo Finance, the subsequent crash is likely to be enormously painful…

“I think what the Fed is doing is so unprecedented, what is happening in the markets is so unnatural,” he said. “This is dangerous, combustible stuff, and I don’t know when the explosion occurs – when the collapse suddenly is upon us – but when it happens, people will be happy that they got out of the way if they did.”

The behavior that we are observing in the stock market simply does not reflect what is happening in the economy overall whatsoever.

In many ways, U.S. economic fundamentals just continue to get even worse.  Small business ownership in the United States is at an all-time low, the labor force participation rate is the lowest that it has been in 36 years, and the U.S. national debt has grown by more than a trillion dollars over the past 12 months.

But on Wall Street right now, there is very little fear that the party is going to end any time soon.

The following is how Seth Klarman recently described the market complacency that he is seeing at the moment…

To put it a bit differently, writer and investor John Mauldin is right when he says that there is “a bubble in complacency.” Fear has effectively been banished. The members of the Fed know it. Stock traders who chase the market to new highs almost daily know it. Implied volatilities (and realized volatilities) are historically low (the VIX Index recently hit a seven-year low), and falling. The Bank for International Settlements recently cautioned that financial markets are euphoric and in the grip of an aggressive search for yield. The S&P has gone over 1,000 days without a 10% decline, according to Birinyi Associates. Dutch and French 10-year government bond yields are at 500 and 250 year lows, respectively; Spain, 225 years. Spanish debt yields were recently inside of U.S. levels.

But as Klarman also observed, just because “investors have been seduced into feeling good” does not mean that this current bubble is any different from what we witnessed back in 2007…

It’s not hard to reach the conclusion that so many investors feel good not because things are good but because investors have been seduced into feeling good—otherwise known as “the wealth effect.” We really are far along in re-creating the markets of 2007, which felt great but were deeply unstable when shocks started to pile up. Even Janet Yellen sees “pockets of increasing risk-taking” in the markets, yet she has made clear that she won’t raise rates to fight incipient bubbles. For all of our sakes, we really wish she would.

Meanwhile, the ultra-wealthy are making moves to protect themselves from the inevitable chaos that is coming.

For example, the Telegraph recently reported that sales of gold bars to wealthy customers are up 243 percent so far in 2014…

The super-rich are looking to protect their wealth through buying record numbers of “Italian job” style gold bars, according to bullion experts.

The number of 12.5kg gold bars being bought by wealthy customers has increased 243 percent so far this year, when compared to the same period last year, said Rob Halliday-Stein founder of BullionByPost.

“These gold bars are usually stored in the vaults of central banks and are the same ones you see in the film ‘The Italian Job’,” added David Cousins, bullion executive from London based ATS Bullion.

Do they know something that we don’t?

The ultra-wealthy are able to stay ultra-wealthy for a reason.

They are usually a step or two ahead of most of the rest of us.

And any rational person should be able to see that this financial bubble is going to end very, very badly.

Economists: The U.S. Economy Shrank In Q1, But Better Days Are Just Around The Corner

Smiley Face - Photo by FlyingtigersiteDuring the first three months of this year, the U.S. economy contracted at a 1 percent annual rate.  Despite this, mainstream economists flooded the mainstream media with assurances that much better days are just around the corner on Thursday.  In fact, many of them boldly predicted that U.S. GDP would grow at a 3 or 4 percent annual rate in the second quarter.  None of them seem the least bit concerned that another major recession is rapidly approaching.  Instead, they just blamed the bad number for the first quarter on a “severe winter“, and the financial markets responded to the GDP news quite cheerfully.  In fact, the S&P 500 soared to another brand new record high.  No matter how bad the numbers get, almost everyone in the financial world seems quite optimistic.  But is there actually good reason to have such optimism?

As Zero Hedge has pointed out, if it wasn’t for dramatically increased healthcare spending due to the implementation of Obamacare, U.S. GDP would have actually dropped at a 2 percent annual rate during the first quarter of 2014.

That would have been an absolutely disastrous number.

But within a very short time of the revised U.S. GDP number being released, the mainstream media was inundated with positive stories about the news.

For example, CNN published a story entitled “U.S. economy shrinks, but it’s not a big deal” and CNBC released a survey of nine prominent economists that showed that their consensus forecast for the second quarter of 2014 is GDP growth at a 3.74 percent annual rate.

It just seems like almost everyone wants to forget about what happened during the first quarter and wants to look ahead to a great number for quarter two.

Joseph Lavorgna, the chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, is boldly forecasting a 4 percent growth rate for the second quarter.  So is Jim O’Sullivan.  In fact, it is hard to find any “expert” in the mainstream media that does not expect rip-roaring economic growth this quarter.

For example, just check out these quotes…

-Stuart Hoffman, the chief economist for PNC Bank: “The first quarter was disappointing, but rather than view that as an omen of a recession or the first of a down leg in the economy, I see the seeds of a big bounce back in spring.”

-Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics: “For those worried about a recession, it’s worth remembering that employment increased by nearly 300,000 in April.”

-The Bank of Tokyo’s Chris Rupkey: “2Q growth seen at nearly 4%… Weak 1Q is stone cold dead as an indicator of where the economy is headed.”

-Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs: “Because of weaker inventory investment in Q1, we increased our Q2 GDP tracking estimate by two-tenths to 3.9%.”

-Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. CEO Jeffrey Stibel: “Using an alternative model for projecting job growth, we see an entirely different scenario, one in which the U.S. unemployment rate will fall below 5 percent by no later than the middle of next year.”

Hopefully they are right.

Hopefully we are not heading into another recession.

But as I discussed in an article earlier this week, evidence continues to mount that another recession has already begun for much of the country.

And there was another number that was released today that seems to confirm this.  According to CNBC, there was a 6 percent drop in exports in the first quarter of 2014 when compared to the first quarter of 2013…

The U.S. economic reversal was led by a 6 percent drop in exports year over year, until recently hailed as a key driver of the U.S. recovery, and which had risen 9.5 percent in the last three months of 2013.

The slackening of trade has spread to the developing world, where emerging economies are seeing less demand from the U.S., Europe and China for raw materials and other exports.

We saw a similar decline happen in mid-2008 as the U.S. economy plunged into recession.

And Bloomberg’s Consumer Comfort index has fallen to the lowest level that we have seen in six months.  U.S. consumers are increasingly tapped out, and the ongoing “retail apocalypse” is evidence of that fact.

A declining middle class simply cannot support the massive retail infrastructure that America has developed.  As the middle class has fallen to pieces, it was just a matter of time before big trouble started erupting for the retail industry.  This is something that David Stockman recently wrote about…

It does not take much analysis to see that these bell ringers do not represent sustainable prosperity unfolding across the land. For example, around 1990 real median income was $56k per household and now, 25 years later, its just $51k—-meaning that main street living standards have plunged by about 9% during the last quarter century. But what has not dropped is the opportunity for Americans to drop shopping: square footage per capita during the same period more than doubled, rising from 19 square feet per capita at the earlier date to 47 at present.

This complete contradiction—declining real living standards and soaring investment in retail space—did not occur due to some embedded irrational impulse in America to speculate in real estate, or because capitalism has an inherent tendency to go off the deep-end. The fact that in equally “prosperous” Germany today there is only 12 square feet of retail space per capita is an obvious tip-off, and this is not a teutonic aberration. America’s prize-winning number of 47 square feet of retail space per capita is 3-8X higher than anywhere else in the developed world!

Without middle class jobs, you can’t have a middle class.  That is why our employment crisis is at the very heart of our economic problems.  Even using the government’s highly manipulated unemployment figures, there are still quite a few cities out there that have official unemployment rates in the double digits

The unemployment rate in Yuma, Ariz., is 23.8%. In El Centro, Calif., it is 21.6%. El Centro sits in an area of California in which unemployment in many metro areas is double the national average. In Merced the figure is 14.3%, in Yuba City the figure is 14.5%, in Hanford it is 13.1% and in Visalia it is 13.4%. In several metros close to these, the figure is above 10%. Most of them are inland from San Francisco and the area just south of it, which also happens to be among the nation’s most drought-plagued regions. This means jobs recovery is highly unlikely.

But of course the truth is that if the government actually used honest numbers, the unemployment rate for the entire nation would be in double digits.

And as I like to remind people, according to the government’s own numbers approximately 20 percent of the families in the entire nation do not have a single member that is employed.

So how is it possible that the “unemployment rate” is just a little above 6 percent?

It is a giant sham.

But that is what they want.

They want us feeling good and thinking that everything is going to be okay.

Unfortunately, they used the same approach back in 2007 and 2008, and we all remember how that turned out.

How Far Will Stocks Fall This Time When The Fed Decides To Slow Down Quantitative Easing?

Bear Market - Photo by Appalachian EncountersWhen QE1 ended there was a substantial stock market correction, and when QE2 ended there was a substantial stock market correction.  And if you will remember, the financial markets threw a massive hissy fit a few months ago when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke suggested that the Fed may soon start tapering QE3.  Clearly Wall Street does not like it when their supply of monetary heroin is interrupted.  The Federal Reserve has tricked the American people into supporting quantitative easing by insisting that it is about “stimulating the economy”, but that has turned out to be a massive hoax.  In fact, I just wrote an article that contained 37 statistics that prove that things just keep getting even worse for ordinary Americans.  But quantitative easing has been exceptionally good for Wall Street.  During QE1, the S&P 500 rose by about 300 points.  During QE2, the S&P 500 rose by about 200 points.  And during QE3, the S&P 500 has risen by about 400 points.  The S&P 500 is now in unprecedented territory, and stock prices have become completely and totally divorced from reality.  In essence, we are in the midst of the largest financial bubble this nation has ever seen.  So what is going to happen when the Fed starts pulling back the monetary crack and the bubble bursts?

A lot of people out there are claiming that the Federal Reserve will never end this round of quantitative easing.  They are suggesting that the Fed may hint at tapering from time to time, but that when push comes to shove they will just keep printing more money.

There is just one big problem with that theory.

The rest of the world is watching, and they are very troubled by quantitative easing.  Therefore the Fed must end it at some point because they desperately need the rest of the world to keep playing our game.

Our current economic prosperity greatly depends upon the rest of the planet using our dollars as the reserve currency of the world and lending trillions of dollars to us at ultra-low interest rates.  If the rest of the world decides to stop going along with the program, the system would come crashing down very rapidly.

That is why it was so alarming when China recently announced that they are going to quit stockpiling more U.S. dollars.  For a long time China has been warning us to quit recklessly printing money, and now China is starting to make moves that will make them more independent of us financially.

If the Fed does not bring quantitative easing to an end soon, other nations may start doing the same thing.

So the Fed knows that they are on borrowed time.  Faith in the U.S. financial system is declining very fast.

But the Fed also knows that ending QE3 is going to be very tricky for the financial markets.  The other times that the Fed has ended quantitative easing, it has turned out to be very painful for Wall Street.

So this time, the Fed seems to be trying to do what it can to use the media to mentally prepare investors ahead of time.  For example, the following is what Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal wrote just a few days ago

Markets are positioned more to the Fed’s liking today than they were in September, when it put off reducing, or “tapering,” the monthly bond purchases. Most notably, the Fed’s message is sinking in that a wind down of the program won’t mean it’s in a hurry to raise short-term interest rates. Futures markets place a very low probability on Fed rate increases before 2015, in contrast to September, when fed funds futures markets indicated rate increases were expected by the end of 2014. The Fed has been trying to drive home the idea that “tapering is not tightening” for months and is likely to feel comforted that investors believe it as a pullback gets serious consideration.

In case you missed the subtle messages contained in that paragraph, here is a rough translation…

“Don’t worry.  The Federal Reserve is your friend and they say that everything is going to be okay.  Investors believe what the Fed says and you should too.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  Tapering is not tightening, and when the Federal Reserve does decide to taper the financial markets are going to take it very calmly.”

The Fed (and their messengers) very much want to avoid a repeat of what has happened before.  As you can see from the chart posted below, every round of quantitative easing has driven the S&P 500 much higher.  And when each round has ended, there has been a substantial stock market correction.  The following chart was originally produced by DayOnBay.org

Chart By DayOnBay

And of course the chart above is incomplete.  As you can see below, the S&P 500 is now sitting at about 1,800…

S&P 500

So let’s recap.

From the time that QE1 was announced to the time that it ended, the S&P 500 rose from about 900 to about 1,200.

When QE1 ended, the S&P 500 fell back below 1,100.

In a panic, the Federal Reserve first hinted at QE2 and then finally formally announced it.  That round of QE drove the S&P 500 up to a bit above the 1,300 mark.

Once QE2 ended, there was another market correction.  The S&P 500 fell all the way down to 1,123 at one point.

In another panic, the Federal Reserve first announced “Operation Twist” and then later added QE3.  Since that time, the S&P 500 has been on an unprecedented tear.  At this point, the S&P is sitting at about 1,800.

And of course those massively inflated stock prices have absolutely no relation to what is going on in the U.S. economy as a whole.  In fact, the truth is that economic conditions for most of the country are steadily getting worse.  Just today we found out that for the week ending November 30th, U.S. rail traffic was down 16.3 percent from the same week one year earlier.  That is a hugely negative sign.  It means that the flow of goods is slowing down substantially.

So the Federal Reserve has created this massive financial bubble that is totally disconnected from reality.  The only way that the Federal Reserve can keep this bubble going is to keep printing lots more money, but they also know that they cannot do that indefinitely because the rest of the world is watching.

In essence, the Federal Reserve is caught between a rock and a hard place.

When the Fed does ultimately decide to taper (whether it be December, January, February, etc.), the consequences are likely to be quite dramatic for the financial markets.  The following is a brief excerpt from a recent article by Howard Kunstler

But even in a world of seemingly no consequence, things happen. One pretty sure thing is rising interest rates, especially when, at the same time as a head-fake taper, foreigners send a torrent of US Treasury paper back to the redemption window. This paper is what other nations, especially in Asia, have been trading to hose up hard assets, including gold and real estate, around the world, and the traders of last resort — the chumps who took US T bonds for boatloads of copper ore or cocoa pods — now have nowhere else to go. China alone announced very loudly last month that US Treasury debt paper was giving them a migraine and they were done buying anymore of it. Japan is in a financial psychotic delirium scarfing up its own debt paper to infinity. Who’s left out there? Burkina Faso and the Kyrgystan Cobblers’ Union Pension Fund?

The interest rate on the US 10-year bond is close to bumping up on the ominous 3.0 percent level again. Apart from the effect on car and house loans, readers have pointed out to dim-little-me that the real action will be around the interest rate swaps. Last time this happened, in late summer, the too-big-to-fail banks wobbled from their losses on these bets, providing a glimpse into the aperture of a black hole compressive deflation where cascading chains of unmet promises blow financial systems past the event horizon of universal default and paralysis where money stops moving anywhere and people must seriously reevaluate what money actually is.

What Kunstler is talking about is something that I have written about previously many times.  When QE3 slows down (or ends), that is likely going to cause the yield on 10 year U.S. Treasuries to rise substantially, and that would have a whole host of negative consequences for the U.S. economy.

Most notably, it would threaten to blow up the quadrillion dollar derivatives casino that Wall Street usually manages to keep so delicately balanced.

The truth is that we are going to have massive problems no matter what the Federal Reserve does now.

If the Federal Reserve keeps wildly printing money, our financial system will become a massive joke to the rest of the planet and other nations will stop using our dollars and will stop lending us money.

That would be absolutely disastrous.

If the Federal Reserve stops wildly printing money, the massive financial bubble that Wall Street is enjoying right now will burst and we could have a financial crisis even greater than what we experienced back in 2008.

That would also be absolutely disastrous.

So does anyone out there see an easy way out of this under the current system?  If you think that you have such a plan, please feel free to share it below…

Whenever Margin Debt Goes Over 2.25% Of GDP The Stock Market Always Crashes

Bubble - Photo by Jeff KubinaWhat do 1929, 2000 and 2007 all have in common?  Those were all years in which we saw a dramatic spike in margin debt.  In all three instances, investors became highly leveraged in order to “take advantage” of a soaring stock market.  But of course we all know what happened each time.  The spike in margin debt was rapidly followed by a horrifying stock market crash.  Well guess what?  It is happening again.  In April (the last month we have a number for), margin debt rose to an all-time high of more than 384 billion dollars.  The previous high was 381 billion dollars which occurred back in July 2007.  Margin debt is about 29 percent higher than it was a year ago, and the S&P 500 has risen by more than 20 percent since last fall.  The stock market just continues to rise even though the underlying economic fundamentals continue to get worse.  So should we be alarmed?  Is the stock market bubble going to burst at some point?  Well, if history is any indication we are in big trouble.  In the past, whenever margin debt has gone over 2.25% of GDP the stock market has crashed.  That certainly does not mean that the market is going to crash this week, but it is a major red flag.

The funny thing is that the fact that investors are so highly leveraged is being seen as a positive thing by many in the financial world.  Some believe that a high level of margin debt is a sign that “investor confidence” is high and that the rally will continue.  The following is from a recent article in the Wall Street Journal

The rising level of debt is seen as a measure of investor confidence, as investors are more willing to take out debt against investments when shares are rising and they have more value in their portfolios to borrow against. The latest rise has been fueled by low interest rates and a 15% year-to-date stock-market rally.

Others, however, consider the spike in margin debt to be a very ominous sign.  Margin debt has now risen to about 2.4 percent of GDP, and as the New York Times recently pointed out, whenever we have gotten this high before a market crash has always followed…

The first time in recent decades that total margin debt exceeded 2.25 percent of G.D.P. came at the end of 1999, amid the technology stock bubble. Margin debt fell after that bubble burst, but began to rise again during the housing boom — when anecdotal evidence said some investors were using their investments to secure loans that went for down payments on homes. That boom in margin loans also ended badly.

Posted below is a chart of the performance of the S&P 500 over the last several decades.  After looking at this chart, compare it to the margin debt charts that the New York Times recently published that you can find right here.  There is a very strong correlation between these charts.  You can find some more charts that directly compare the level of margin debt and the performance of the S&P 500 right here.  Every time margin debt has soared to a dramatic new high in the past, a stock market crash and a recession have always followed.  Will we escape a similar fate this time?

S&P 500

What makes all of this even more alarming is the fact that a number of things that we have not seen happen in the U.S. economy since 2009 are starting to happen again.  For much more on this, please see my previous article entitled “12 Clear Signals That The U.S. Economy Is About To Really Slow Down“.

At some point the stock market will catch up with the economy.  When that happens, it will probably happen very rapidly and a lot of people will lose a lot of money.

And there are certainly a lot of prominent voices out there that are warning about what is coming.  For example, the following is what renowned investor Alan M. Newman had to say about the current state of the market earlier this year

“If anything has changed yet in 2013, we certainly do not see it. Despite the early post-fiscal cliff rally, this is the same beast we rode to the 2007 highs for the Dow Industrials. The U.S. stock market is over leveraged, overpriced and has been commandeered by mechanical forces to such an extent that all holding periods are now affected by more risk than at any time in history.”

Unfortunately, most Americans never get to hear such voices.  Instead, most Americans rely on the mainstream media to do much of their thinking for them.  And right now the mainstream media is insisting that we are not in a stock market bubble…

Forbes: “Why Stocks Are On Solid Footing And This Is No Bubble

ABC News: “AP Survey: Economists See No Stock Market Bubble

Businessweek: “Prognostications: It’s Not a Stock Bubble

Yahoo: “This Is NOT a Stock Bubble! Says Ben Stein

MarketWatch: “Is a stock bubble coming? No, say economists

So what do you think?

Do you believe that we are in a stock market bubble that is about to burst, or do you believe that everything is going to be just fine?

Please feel free to express your opinion by posting a comment below…

Will The Wealthy Race To Dump Stocks And Other Financial Assets Before The Fiscal Cliff Kicks In?

The election results made it abundantly clear that taxes are going to be going up, and right now a lot of wealthy people all over America are trying to figure out how to best position themselves for the hit that is coming.  There are a whole host of tax cuts that are set to expire on December 31st, and many analysts are now speculating that we could see a race to dump stocks and other financial assets before 2013 in order to get better tax treatment on those sales.  Of course it is still possible that Congress may reach a bargain which would avoid these tax increases, but with each passing day that appears to be increasingly unlikely – especially regarding the tax increases on the wealthy.  Whatever you may believe about this politically, the truth is that we should all be able to agree that these looming tax increases provide an incentive for wealthy people to sell off financial assets now rather than later.  After all, there are very few people out there that would actually prefer to pay higher taxes on purpose.  If the race to dump financial assets becomes a landslide, could this push stocks down significantly late in the year?  Already there are all sorts of technical signs that indicate that stocks are ready for a “correction” at the very least.  For example, the S&P 500 has already closed below its 200 day moving average for several days in a row.  Could the “sell off” that has already begun become a race for the exits?

A lot of Americans have heard about the looming “fiscal cliff”, but most don’t really understand the specifics.

For investors, there are several key changes which will happen unless Congress does something by January 1st.

First of all, the tax rate on capital gains will go from 15 percent to 20 percent.  For those with high incomes, the rate will be even higher than that thanks to a tax increase that our politicians managed to sneak into Obamacare.  So, some wealthy individuals will see their capitals gains taxed at nearly 24 percent in 2013 unless something is done.

For dividends, the outlook is even more frightening.  The tax rate on dividends will increase from 15 percent right now to over 43 percent for the highest income earners.

We have already seen these tax increases play into business decisions that have been made in recent months.  For example, it is being reported that George Lucas potentially saved hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes by selling Star Wars to Disney this year rather than next year.

Anyone out there that wants to take advantage of the current tax rates on capital gains and dividend income better do so now, because these tax rates look like they are going to go away and they probably will not be back for a very, very long time.

According to CNBC, this makes the next couple of months an ideal time to dump stocks and other financial assets…

For many of the wealthy, 2012 is becoming a good year to sell.

They’re worried about the “fiscal cliff,” which is when tax cuts expire and spending cuts are set to go into effect at the end of the year.

Fearing an increase in capital gains and dividend taxes, many of the rich are unloading stocks, businesses and homes before the end of the year.

And the truth is that stocks simply did not have much higher that they could possibly go anyway.  Anyone that is trying to “get out while the getting is good” should take heed of what Marc Faber recently told CNBC

“The market is going down because corporate profits will begin to disappoint, the global economy will hardly grow next year or even contract, and that is the reason why stocks, from the highs of September of 1,470 on the S&P, will drop at least 20 percent, in my view.”

In fact, Faber is absolutely convinced that a full-blown stock market crash is coming no matter what happens with the fiscal cliff…

“I think the whole global financial system will have to be reset and it won’t be reset by central bankers but by imploding markets — either the currency [markets, debt market or stock markets,” he said. “It will happen — it will happen one day and then we’ll be lucky if we still have 50 percent of the asset values that we have today.”

Politics and economics have always been deeply intertwined.  The results of the most recent election are going to have some very deep consequences.  Already we have seen a large number of businesses either announce layoffs or that hours for their workers will be cut back.  You can find a bunch of tweets from small business owners talking about how they won’t be hiring anyone or that they will be forced to reduce hours right here.  You can find a bunch of tweets from average citizens all over the country talking about how their hours are already being cut back right here.

With each passing day, our country is getting poorer, it is getting even deeper in debt and our economy is becoming even more unstable.  We are on a path that will only lead to total economic disaster, but the American people just voted for more of the same.

So now we will get to see how this all plays out.

Is there anyone out there that is still optimistic about what is coming next for the U.S. economy?

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