Jim Grant: Ringing the Bell at the Top?

In the following Wall Street Journal commentary, “From Bear to Bull,” a long-time critic of the excesses and wayward policies that brought this country to its knees suggests the outlook for the economy is brighter than many people, especially the pessimists, believe:

James Grant argues the latest gloomy forecasts ignore an important lesson of history: The deeper the slump, the zippier the recovery.

“As if they really knew, leading economists predict that recovery from our Great Recession will be plodding, gray and jobless. But they don’t know, and can’t. The future is unfathomable.

Not famously a glass half-full kind of fellow, I am about to propose that the recovery will be a bit of a barn burner. Not that I can really know, either, the future being what it is. However, though I can’t predict, I can guess. No, not “guess.” Let us say infer.

Though we can’t see into the future, we can observe how people are preparing to meet it. Depleted inventories, bloated jobless rolls and rock-bottom interest rates suggest that people are preparing for to meet it from the inside of a bomb shelter. . .

The Great Recession destroyed confidence as much as it did jobs and wealth. Here was a slump out of central casting. From the peak, inflation-adjusted gross domestic product has fallen by 3.9%. The meek and mild downturns of 1990-91 and 2001 (each, coincidentally, just eight months long, hardly worth the bother), brought losses to the real GDP of just 1.4% and 0.3%, respectively. The recession that sunk its hooks into the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter of 2007 has set unwanted records in such vital statistical categories as manufacturing and trade inventories (the steepest decline since 1949), capacity utilization (lowest since at least 1967) and industrial production (sharpest fall since 1946).

It isn’t just every postwar disturbance that sends Citigroup Inc. (founded in 1812) into the arms of the state or has General Electric Co. (triple-A rated from 1956 to just this past March) borrowing under the wing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Neither does every recession feature zero percent Treasury bill yields, a coast-to-coast bear market in residential real estate or a Federal Reserve balance sheet beginning to resemble that of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Yet these things have come to pass.

Americans are blessedly out of practice at bearing up under economic adversity. Individuals take their knocks, always, as do companies and communities. But it has been a generation since a business cycle downturn exacted the collective pain that this one has done. Knocked for a loop, we forget a truism. With regard to the recession that precedes the recovery, worse is subsequently better. The deeper the slump, the zippier the recovery. To quote a dissenter from the forecasting consensus, Michael T. Darda, chief economist of MKM Partners, Greenwich, Conn.: “[T]he most important determinant of the strength of an economy recovery is the depth of the downturn that preceded it. There are no exceptions to this rule, including the 1929-1939 period.”

Growth snapped back following the depressions of 1893-94, 1907-08, 1920-21 and 1929-33. If ugly downturns made for torpid recoveries, as today’s economists suggest, the economic history of this country would have to be rewritten. Amity Shlaes, in her “The Forgotten Man,” a history of the Depression, shows what the New Deal failed to achieve in the way of long-term economic stimulus. However, in the first full year of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and the first full year of recovery from the Great Depression), inflation-adjusted gross national product spurted by 17.3%. Many were caught short. Among his first acts in office, Roosevelt had closed the banks. He had excoriated the bankers, devalued the dollar, called in the people’s gold and instituted, through the National Industrial Recovery Act, a program of coerced reflation.

“At the business trough in 1933,” Mr. Darda points out, “the unemployment rate stood at 25% (if there had been a ‘U6’ version of labor underutilization then, it likely would have been about 44% vs. 16.8% today. . . ). At the same time, the consumption share of GDP was above 80% in 1933 and the household savings rate was negative. Yet, in the four years that followed, the economy expanded at a 9.5% annual average rate while the unemployment rate dropped 10.6 percentage points.” Not even this mighty leap restored the 27% of 1929 GNP that the Depression had devoured. But the economy’s lurch to the upside in the politically inhospitable mid-1930s should serve to blunt the force of the line of argument that the 2009-10 recovery is doomed because private enterprise is no longer practiced in the 50 states . . .”

To be sure, Mr. Grant rightfully acknowledges the folly of economic forecasting and is careful about pinpointing when we might expect to see his anticipated strong recovery.

Yet by citing the work of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, which has recently been suggesting that a major upswing is on the cards, Mr. Grant seems to make it clear that now is the time for optimism.

Unfortunately, his rationale is weak, if not totally wrong. For the most part, his argument rests on the premise that, historically at least, strong recoveries have followed severe contractions.

Aside from discounting the fact that there are aspects to the current unraveling that are historically unique and extraordinarily unsettling (e.g., total credit market debt relative to gross domestic product is well beyond anything this country has ever witnessed), Mr. Grant makes a number of curious assertions.

For one thing, he assumes that the current downturn is near its nadir, instead of a temporary floor built on a massive stimulus injection and a knee-jerk bout of inventory restocking. Among logicians, such an analytical approach might be described as “begging the question.”

Mr. Grant also gives short shrift to the fact that in many ways — see “A Tale of Two Depressions” by Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke for more on this subject — the economic episode that most closely parallels the current downturn is the one that occurred during the Great Depression, and which lasted twice as long as the latest one has.

Perhaps our economy will rebound sharply in 2011, but from what level? Should we really be preparing for the best right now — instead of the worst — given how many dangerous icebergs –like the accelerating meltdown in commercial real estate and the mortgage reset timebomb — are only just floating into view?

History suggests that time is not on the side of the optimists when it comes to episodes like the one we are going through right now. As I’m sure Mr. Grant is aware, Professors Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff have published a research paper, “The Aftermath of Financial Crises,” based on data going back more than a century, which concluded that post-crisis downturns tend to be “protracted affairs.”

To bolster his allegedly contrarian argument, Mr. Grant points to the swollen ranks of pessimists preparing to meet the future from “inside of a bomb shelter.” But after decades of bubble-induced euphoria and an economy built on massive debt and unparalleled overconsumption, I wonder if he is engaging in a bit of dot-com era relativism — where the Nasdaq was “cheap” at 4,000 because it was down 20 percent from its peak (it is now 2,132).

If savings rates, debt levels, and the share of the U.S. economy accounted for by consumer spending were to return to, say, pre-Greenspan era norms, then one bomb shelter might not be enough to handle the economic onslaught that is still headed our way.

Finally, Mr. Grant makes the cardinal error of many ivory tower economists. He credits equity investors with the wisdom of crowds. Those are the same people who bid share prices to new all-time highs in the fall of 2007, just as credit markets were unraveling, home prices were collapsing, and the bottom was falling out of the real economy. Hmmm.

That said, it is certainly not my intention to lump Jim Grant with all those clueless strategists, economists, and policymakers who failed to see things coming. In fact, I think he is a very smart guy and I’ve always enjoyed hearing what he has to say. But the fact is that bull and bear markets frequently have one thing in common: turning points marked by the public capitulation of one or more prominent contrarians.

Given what Mr. Grant has just written, I can only ask: Did one of the world’s best known bears just ring the bell at the top of the great dead cat bounce?




From Bear to Bull

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