2010 is finally history. The economic recovery, which officially began in 2009, was scarcely evident as the US economy muddled through 2010. It seemed that for every piece of good news, like the strong end to the 2010 Christmas shopping season, was countered by news of a setback, such as unemployment rates that unexpectedly returned to nearly 10% during the same period.
The government’s stimulus efforts have run their course. The TARP program is officially over and tax credits for new home buyers have all expired. The economy now has to perform on its own without all that artificial stimulation.
The fed has reduced interest rates to historic lows to internally stimulate the economy. If interest rates were the cause of The Great Recession this action should have revved up the economy and put us back on track. With federal reserve interest rates at 0% the economy should be white-hot. However, high interest rates are not the problem, so lowering them did not spark an economic rebound. Here’s why with my forecast for 2011:
Unemployment Will Probably Stay Stuck Near 10%
The dirty little secret behind this statistic is that the 10% figure represents only those who currently have no earned income. Those who are working one or more part-time jobs because they can’t find a full-time work, are underemployed in their field, or who are laboring out-of-bounds of their education or training are considered by the government to be employed. When this expanded population is taken into account, the actual unemployment/underemployment statistic is most likely double the official figure.
Unfortunately, there are now multiple barriers to lowering our now chronically high unemployment level. Some of the most important are:
- The huge oversupply of foreclosed and unsold homes – The reasoning here is straightforward: there is no need for new construction in a saturated market, which means no construction jobs. Jobs in support industries that supply new home construction goods and services will obviously also be affected. More on this topic below.
- Continued restraint in consumer spending – more on this topic below.
- Major (and many smaller) corporations continue to outsource overseas everything from manufacturing to admin support – much is made of sending low skill or semi-skilled manufacturing jobs overseas, while the US supposedly maintains its edge through high tech startups at home. The government likes to point to numerous high tech startup companies as proof this strategy is working.
Some entrepreneurs do successfully start corporations that may eventually employ 50 white collar workers. However, the product they create is outsourced to manufacturing overseas in a factory that employs perhaps 5000 workers to produce it. Granted, it may cost less per unit to manufacture there, but those 5000 low skilled or semi-skilled workers employed there are exactly the type of person most likely to be unemployed in the US.
So, manufacturing, the great economic engine that for over 100 years was the promise of the high school graduate being able to enter the middle class, is essentially gone, which in great measure explains the growing class rift in our nation.
Note that when manufacturing is sent overseas, the outsourcing company essentially has to teach the foreign corporation how to create the new product, which is new knowledge that a foreign power can use to its own benefit. China is the best example of this. We have successfully trained and paid the Chinese (and others) to beat us at our own game, as evidenced by China’s growing economic might and a political presence that now must be reckoned with.
- Hiring temporary workers, rather than in-house employees – temporary or contract workers are far cheaper to hire than in-house employees who qualify for benefits like health insurance and the retirement program. The company owes no loyalty to temps or contractors, and they can be hired and fired at will.
- Corporations no longer hire employees with “potential” or experience in parallel or complementary industries – major corporations have ceased to think long-term in many areas, shifting their focus nearly exclusively to near term actions that produce short-term results. Examples of this myopic view range from focusing on the next quarter’s stock earnings per share to viewing employees as a short-term commodity rather than long-term assets.
Viewing employees as a commodity results in corporate behavior of hiring what’s needed for the moment and discharging them when the immediate need disappears, which in turn results in a goal of only searching for and hiring employees “who can make an immediate contribution to the bottom line.”
- The exponential increase in education, credential, and experience criteria for candidate employees over and above actual position requirements – new hire employees are now expected to “hit the ground running” and be able to “make an immediate contribution to the bottom line.” Like a new electronic gadget, a new employee should be able to “work right out of the box.”
This new expectation was unheard of only a few years ago during the era when employees were a valuable asset to be invested in over the long term. Then, new hires weren’t expected to be able to make meaningful contributions until they had been with a corporation long enough to learned the ropes.
Now, most hiring authorities don’t even make the effort to understand what skill set is actually required to perform the job they’re hiring for. So, advanced degrees, myriad commercial certificates, and recent experience in everything are specified in the hope that the overkill will result in a person eventually hired that can do the job.
These excessive requirements are then passed to the human resources (HR) department, which dutifully uses them as an inflexible tool to screen the applicant database. The popularity of online employment applications has exacerbated this problem, where the HR person can enter “MBA” as a search term and never see the many capable, well qualified people who are discarded because they don’t have this degree.
As an example, you may not need an engineer with an MBA to be the head of a maintenance department. The better candidate may well be a military veteran non-commissioned officer (NCO) who successfully ran a repair depot. Hiring the former NCO would bring superb talent and a broad background into the organization, could probably be hired at a substantial savings for the company, and may stay with the company longer than the highly credentialed engineer who is intent on furthering his career climbing the corporate ladder.
Further, most large corporations have returned to profitability during the Great Recession through extreme cost cutting, mostly through layoffs in their labor force. Employees who survived the purges were told to take on the extra responsibilities of their former colleagues, so technically the same amount of work is being performed by fewer people (which is responsible for the great gains in national productivity figures compiled by the government and widely reported in the media). This approach obviously places all the necessary skill set eggs into fewer baskets, which creates entirely predictable problems when the new multi-taskers eventually leave and corporations try to replace them with another single person who can do the newly defined mega-job, rather than spreading skills (and risk) over several employees.
- The well documented bias against hiring the unemployed – On the surface this bias may seem counterintuitive, after all, someone who’s unemployed is readily available and could probably start Monday, right?
However, the corporate thought process generally follows this logic path; “most corporations layoff their least productive workers during a downsizing, therefore if you’re unemployed you were among the least desirable or productive workers or you wouldn’t have been laid off. It follows then that there must be something wrong with you that we don’t know about, otherwise you would be employed” regardless of your skill set, recent experience, or personal references.
It’s unfortunate that this twisted and nonsensical logic that is frequently imposed on situational “outsiders”, from marital status to any of society’s other membership groupings, has now found its way into corporate hiring mentality.
I recommend Louis Uchitelle’s book, The Disposable American, for more on this topic. (I have no financial interest in this recommendation.)
The unemployment bottom line – The unemployment/underemployment rate will little change in 2011, with those fitting the categories above most affected.
Real Estate Foreclosures Will Continue at a Record Pace and Housing Prices Will Remain Depressed in Most Areas of the Country
The government statistics here are shocking, with estimates that nearly half (HALF!) of all homeowners with mortgages have homes that currently appraise for less than the mortgage value; they’re “upside down”. Further, nearly 20% of all mortgages nationwide were in some stage of foreclosure at the end of 2010, with rates much higher in the hardest hit states of Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and California.
The efforts of the banking industry to work through this massive backlog lead to the “robo-signing” fiasco, where foreclosure paperwork was being routinely approved under oath en mass without verifying what was being attested to in the court documents. Faced with active investigations by attorneys-general in all 50 states, banks temporarily suspended foreclosure proceedings during the 4th quarter of 2010 to straighten out the mess they created, which the news media widely (and inaccurately) reported as a sign the economy is improving. However, the backlog must be worked through to get the bad debt off the banks’ books, so foreclosures will resume at perhaps even a greater pace when the paperwork is straightened out, probably by the second quarter of 2011.
The huge inventory of foreclosed and otherwise unsold homes will keep housing prices depressed. As long as there are so many unsold homes on the market (with more to arrive when the banks resume foreclosure processing), the oversupply will keep prices down and may drive them ever lower in 2011. Even after the foreclosure backlog is reduced, many new home sale listings will appear on the market when prices start to rise from the concealed backlog of those who want or need to sell, but didn’t list when prices were low, which will depress prices again. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took until 2015 to work through this immediate and hidden backlog.
The real estate bottom line – in most markets, residential real estate values will remain depressed or will decline further in the high impact states. Now is the time to buy if you have income security, the necessary available cash, an astronomical credit rating to qualify for a mortgage, and can find a bank willing to lend.
Energy Prices Should be Stable
Recent articles in authoritative publications have reported that on-shore crude oil storage is full to capacity and that mothballed tankers functioning simply as floating storage tanks are anchored off the coasts of Great Britain and Iran. A recent inventory showed that 50+ tankers were anchored off of the coast of England alone.
Most oil producing countries derive the majority of their national income from crude oil sales, so their incentive is to keep pumping, regardless of market price, in order to maintain their revenue stream, which will keep supplies abundant. So, the world is awash in crude oil, with inventory stores in excess of demand, putting downward pressure on gasoline prices. Overall, gas prices should remain relatively stable during the first half of the year, absent an unplanned disruption like a major refinery fire or a hurricane that destroys oil platforms. That’s good news for every household and corporate budget in our petroleum-based economy.
The wild card is China, again. Prior to the recession, China became a net importer of crude oil and was starting to compete on the world market for the limited supply of crude available (remember $150 per barrel spot market crude?). If other world economies improve and start consuming more oil, then everyone will return to competing for limited energy supplies on the world market. And China will most certainly win any contest here, because their trade surplus has given them an unlimited supply of dollars to buy oil with.
The energy bottom line – energy prices will most likely slowly increase throughout the year as the fragile recovery continues and the economies of the world pick up steam.
An alternative scenario is that energy prices remain stable when China’s real estate bubble collapses (see 2011 Economic Forecast – Part 1: The World View from a US Perspective for elaboration on this possibility), causing a large loss of personal wealth for the average Chinese citizen, dramatically driving down internal consumption, and leading to China’s own internal economic recession.
Crude prices will not decline because OPEC will adjust production to maintain oil in the $90-$100 price range.
Consumer Spending Will Remain Flat
People out of work spend only what they have to on the barest necessities. People who are afraid they will be next out of work, cut back on spending in order to save for what might come to pass, and also focus on buying only the practical, needed, and necessary. People who are secure in their jobs, but don’t want to be seen conspicuously consuming during hard times, will curtail their luxury purchases. Need I say more?
Further, it’s underreported that the historically low interest rates have meant a sharp drop in savings interest income for retirees. Retirees dependent on interest income have had to sharply reduce their spending in order to avoid further encroachment on their principal. Typically, the budget cuts include things like the lawn service contract, the beauty shop, dry cleaning, and eating out, all of which impacts local businesses.
The modest economic improvement widely reported during the last half of 2010 is probably the result of businesses simply restocking depleted inventories to low levels, which is good news but not great news. However, the buying surge that turned the 2010 Christmas shopping season into a last minute success means that retailers will start 2011 on better financial footing because they won’t have to start the year having to liquidate seasonal inventory (and profits) at 50%-70% off to generate cash flow.
Additional reasons that I think consumer spending will continue to be restrained in 2011 include the increased personal savings rate (an eventual benefit, but lowers consumer spending in the short term), a focus on reducing credit card debt, unplanned new car payments in the household budget resulting from the federal Cash for Clunkers program, and credit that’s either not available at any price or only at unfavorable interest rates and terms when it is.
The consumer spending bottom line – consumer spending on non-essential purchases will continue to be restrained in 2011. When consumers do make purchases, they will focus on the needed, necessary, and practical, and avoid luxury items even if they can afford them. Family vacations will be to local or regional destinations, rather than William M. Webster IV exotic venues.
The Credit-Starved Economy
It’s widely reported that large corporations are currently hoarding large amounts of cash. This stockpile gives them the ability to hire, expand production, and grow organically if they wanted to, but they are refusing to do so in light of what I’ve shared above. Even a White House meeting with the president in 2010 wasn’t enough to persuade them to resume hiring if they can meet market demand with staff on hand.
However, large corporations continue to have aspirations to grow and, rather than slowly growing organically, the method they’re often choosing is rapid growth through acquiring their competition. When companies combine, the result may possibly be good for the new, larger corporation (the marriages generally have a 50-50 chance of commercial success), but the result always has two negative economic impacts:
- The cash and loans required to buy the competitor removes large amounts of capital from the market that would otherwise be available for mortgages and loans to small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs), and
- Mergers always result in layoffs as the new corporation works to eliminate duplicate functions to help pay for the merger. After all, you don’t need two payroll departments, two HR departments, two training departments, etc.