Tag: United States of America

The real risk is China, not Greece – 2015 Q2 Letter

The real risk is China, not Greece – 2015 Q2 Letter

Two inflection points long in the making appear to have arrived simultaneously over the past few weeks. In Europe, negotiations between Greece and Euro-zone countries that have lent to Greece appear to have broken down; and in China, the stock market has taken a remarkable tumble. In itself, the Shanghai market’s steep fall is not surprising or remarkable (this was a market which had risen 150% over the previous year), but it is interesting in terms of what it portends for other markets and factors in China.

The various actors in the Greek/Euro crisis have indulged in brinksmanship for a number of years. The ECB, Euro-zone countries and the Greek government have stumbled from one crisis to the next, taking action only when forced to do so. And when they have acted, the result is to defer rather than reach resolution. It is clear to us that no final resolution of Greece’s sovereign debts can be made without some debt relief. The Greek economy has shrunk enormously under the weight of uncertainty and austerity policies. None of the modeled targets for growth have been met and Greece’s debts are now a larger multiple of Greek GDP (180%) than ever before, largely because of the sharp decline in GDP. A sudden growth spurt may solve that, but given high unemployment, it is difficult to see that materializing without some level of debt relief to lower the amount of the outstanding loans and interest payments. In reality, the only thing that has been achieved thus far is that Greek loans have been moved from the balance sheets of European banks to the balance sheets of European nations. European (and international) banks that lent to Greece, knowing the risks, were bailed out. There has been no such deliverance for Greece itself, and, despite frantic 11th hour negotiations, we do not expect one in the coming days.

A crucial factor that has made the crisis much worse for ordinary individuals in Greece is the absence of a pan-European deposit guarantee scheme. Bank customers in the US have enjoyed a federal guarantee for their deposits since the 1930s. This guarantee currently applies to the first $250,000 on deposit at an FDIC covered institution and has been the primary reason the US has avoided widespread bank runs by retail customers for the past 80 years. In contrast, deposit guarantees and guarantee funds in Europe are run at the member state level. So Greece guarantees the deposits in its banks up to 100,000 Euros. Of course, Greece (unlike the US federal government) has no ability to actually print Euros on demand. That means most bank customers treat its deposit insurance with justified skepticism. Greek banks too cannot count on the European Central Bank to lend to them freely in a crisis. There is an emergency lending facility, but it works through the member state central banks and let’s just say relations between Greece and the ECB are not exactly amicable at the moment.

These two factors taken together explain the phenomenon of Greek pensioners queuing for hours to withdraw the maximum amount permitted from their bank accounts each day (60 Euros). They do not trust the funds will be covered by deposit guarantees and Greek banks are limiting withdrawals, afraid they will run out of Euros.

As a study in contrasts, we have Puerto Rico, which is facing a similar government debt crisis, largely brought on by similar factors (mismanagement, misstatement of financial data, etc.). Yet, the impact is limited to the government’s ability to issue more debt and the value of its bonds. Puerto Rico’s bank will face no runs and will continue to function even if the government runs out of money. They are regulated and insured at the federal level. So, though Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is very serious, and will likely require some level of write downs, its banking system continues to hum along and is not at risk. If the European Union had a similar bank deposit guarantee system, we believe the Greek crisis would not have been as severe.

Lastly, what makes the Greek case significant and holds the market’s attention is not the size of Greece’s debts, which at around 300Bn are large, but not enormous. A 30% write-down of those debts would be 100Bn, some individual banks took write-downs in the 30-70Bn range during the financial crisis. Clearly Greek creditors (EU countries for the most part) could survive a 30% write-down.

What concerns the markets is that the Greek crisis lays bare an uncomfortable truth. The European Union is both unable, and unwilling to act decisively or with coordination in a crisis. The reasons are myriad, but to us, it has been particularly striking to hear World War I and II era rivalries and events repeatedly invoked by some commentators and even senior politicians. A skeptical observer might say that the institutions created to avoid the recurrence of war on the European continent seem to be hell-bent on re-living them. In contrast, though, we in the United States have had the traumatic experience of reliving civil war-era animosities over the past few weeks, those fervently invoking a North/South divide are firmly in the fringe and have been for at least a century. The same cannot be said of Europe.

We have been wary of asset prices and debt burdens within China for a number of years. Some of those concerns have bubbled to the surface in the last few weeks as the Chinese domestic market has endured a series of dramatic losses with many stocks hitting their down limits and several have halted trading entirely. Companies can also ask to suspend their own shares and many have. Most observers have expected such a crash since the on-shore Shanghai market has risen over 75% this year. What was underappreciated is how much of this rise has been driven by large numbers of first-time retail investors, many of them buying stock on margin (borrowed money). The conditions appear to resemble the state of the US market on the eve of the 1929 and 2000 stock market crashes. In certain ways, there are broader parallels with 1929. China is at roughly the same stage of relative development with the US that the US was to the UK in 1929. China has also seen massive investment in capital infrastructure with declining returns, not unlike the US investment in railroads in the 20s. Lastly, there are large quantities of questionable loans on the books at Chinese banks. Taken together, this story is much bigger and could have much wider repercussions than that just a few down days in a large emerging market.

The final consideration is political. Though there is a lot of tittering at the prospect of the Communist party attempting to support the stock market, this is driven by legitimate fears of political unrest if a severe downturn were to materialize. Coupled with factionalism within the party, such a downturn could make for a very volatile period in China, politically speaking. The impact is likely to be felt across commodity sectors (where China remains a major consumer), and a risk of contagion to other markets. In the short term, we expect the US markets will be seen as a relative safe haven. Though clearly, as one of the three largest economies in the world, any Chinese downturn will affect global market values.

On balance, we view the bursting of the Chinese equity bubble and antecedent effects as more significant than the Greek debt crisis. In terms of wealth impact, they certainly are — the Chinese stock market has lost over $3Tn over the past few weeks. That is ten times the amount of outstanding Greek debt. Margin balances owed by Chinese investors are larger than Greek debt. The real concern, though, is that the stock market bubble in its rise and fall, may lead to a bigger reckoning of Chinese financial institutions which are holding real-estate and provincial debt. As the real-estate sector has slowed, demand for land, which constituted a crucial source of funding for Chinese provinces, has dried up. Both real-estate developers and Chinese provincial government debts are looking very weak and they are widely held by Chinese banks and investors.

In general, we recommend appropriate caution for investors. Though the US markets may appear to be isolated from events in Europe and China, and might even benefit from some short-term “flight to safety”, they will eventually be impacted, and current valuations stateside do not bode well for that reckoning.

We continue to believe that investors will be well served to reduce exposure to risk assets in their portfolios and move some money into short term bonds and cash while awaiting a better buying opportunity.

2012 Themes: The More Things Change…

2012 Themes: The More Things Change…

Here are our top 10 investment themes for 2012.  These are the topics we think will have the biggest impact on client portfolios in the coming year…


1.  Steady as she goes: We think it unlikely the Fed will raise rates in 2012, largely due to the presidential election. With the ongoing crisis in Europe, the Fed would normally be engaging in further monetary easing, but there is nowhere to go below the current 0.00% target overnight rate. In most presidential election years, the Fed is hesitant to make large moves in either direction, to avoid appearing politically biased. That instinct is especially heightened in an election cycle where Fed policy action and arcane monetary policy debates have unexpectedly become contentious, emotional political issues.

2.  Risk Off: We believe risk assets (stock, real-estate, long-dated and high-yield bonds) will have a difficult 2012. Stocks have benefited from a sharp rebound after the credit crisis and are now back to the higher end of the historical range. Bonds meanwhile, are trading at yields that are lower than any seen in two generations. During the course of 2012, we would expect both to correct towards the mean. This should provide some interesting buying opportunities, especially for dollar-based investors.

3.  Break-Up or Make-Up, Brussels is good for both: 2012 should be the denouement for the European sovereign debt crisis.  Though it has been over a decade in the making, things have finally come to a head. All the dominoes (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy) are lined up, and we wait to see which the two players (France and Germany) will allow to fall before they stop the carnage. We believe a Greek default is extremely likely this year. Even if there is a pre-negotiated haircut with some lenders, the market will treat it with the seriousness that the first default by a “developed” economy in a generation should. In either case, Greek bondholders should be prepared for losses on the order of 60% of par value.

4.  Euro Trash: We expect the Euro to bear much of the burden of the European sovereign crisis, and the currency to weaken significantly against the dollar. We would not be surprised if the Euro approached parity with the dollar over the course of the year. When we discussed a Euro break-up last year, it seemed like an outlier scenario. We have been amazed at the speed with which events have moved and a potential Euro-exit for one or more peripheral economies is now being openly discussed.

5.  Blue States/Red States: The US presidential election cycle should be the major story in the US in 2012. US and individual state debt burdens will be the most important topic of debate, as the European sovereign debt crisis plays out in the background. American politicians will have to negotiate some cut in benefits for the charmed baby-boomer generation to ensure the financial burden of these programs in coming years does not doom the economic prospects of their children and grandchildren. This negotiation of a new social compact between the generations is the most important issue of our times.

6.  Chinese Math: At the 18th Communist party congress to be held this year, we expect power to be transferred to a new generation of Chinese political leaders. We have no doubt that the enormous state apparatus will be fully utilized to ensure economic stability during the transfer. However, we believe these efforts will ultimately be for naught. The structural shift required as China moves from an investment driven economy to a consumption driven one will make for a tumultuous year in Chinese markets. The stock market has been depressed for almost five years, GDP growth is slowing as labor costs rise, and we expect Chinese real-estate is beginning to make the first moves in an unavoidable decline towards more reasonable levels.

7.  Revolutionary Times: We were surprised to see the speed at which the political structure of the Middle East has been transformed in a remarkable series of revolutions. Though we have been aware of the demographic pressures that created the basis for these changes, their rapidity has astounded us. As events unfold in the Arab world, something perhaps even more remarkable has begun to happen in Russia. A previously apathetic Russian electorate seems to be flexing its muscle in opposition to a renewed Putin presidency.  We expect to see more political turmoil in Europe and the Middle East in 2012. This coupled with major elections and power-transfers in the US and China make for a very uncertain 2012 politically speaking. In our view, this will make for very jittery markets throughout the year.

8.  Oil Slicks: The events in the middle-east will of course have an impact on energy prices. We expect political tensions to keep oil prices artificially inflated in 2012, but longer-term we think $100 oil is unsustainable as alternative energy sources approach cost-parity with conventional sources. And while we’re talking about oil, we would like to reiterate our skeptical view of gold prices, which we believe would be well under $1,000 an ounce if the political and economic future were not as muddy.

9.  Smart Homes: The past decade has seen the widespread adoption of computing and telecommunications technology touch virtually every aspect of human activity. We expect the markets to be enamored with a couple of very high-profile IPOs expected in 2012/2013 (Facebook and Twitter). We believe some of the higher profile IPOs of 2011 will perform poorly (GroupOn for instance). The larger story will continue to be the steady march of the internet into every device and living room, placing a strain on core Internet infrastructure. We heard relatively little about a seminal event that took place in 2011, the last large block of addresses (IPv4 numbers) was assigned and there is no address space on the current infrastructure to accommodate another few hundred million devices. The public discussion has centered around the addition of new top level domain names (like .com, .org), but the addresses that sit behind these are the real concern. A new addressing scheme (IPv6) has been built into most devices for years, but adoption is minimal. We expect this will have to change in 2012, with a few hiccups along the way.

10.  Housing: Still a buyer’s market: We expect the overall US housing market to remain stagnant in2012 with pockets of strength, particularly in major urban areas (NYC, DC, San Francisco) and some suburban and rural areas that did not overbuild in the run-up to the credit crisis.  We believe there is still too much supply available and US consumers as a whole will be reluctant to financially over-commit themselves given job security concerns and how many were burned by homeownership in the past few years, despite record low mortgage rates.


2011 Q1 Letter & upcoming webinars

2011 Q1 Letter & upcoming webinars

We held our first “webinar” earlier this month on the timely topic of municipal bonds. We have posted the narrated presentation at www.youtube.com/wsqcapital for the benefit of those who were unable to attend. We plan to host three webinars this quarter:

To register for any of these webinars, please visit blog.wsqcapital.com. We will continue to add recordings of future presentations to our page on youtube. Feel free to pass along an invitation to anyone in your circle interested in learning more about these topics.

IRA contributions, Roth IRA conversions

Most taxpayers can make IRA contributions for the 2010 tax year up until the individual tax-filing deadline, which is April 18, 2011 this year.

Roth IRA conversion rules have changed and virtually anyone can now convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. Partial conversions of an IRA account are also permitted. Please contact us if you’d like to discuss specific issues surrounding your circumstances.

Interest Rates & QE2

In prior letters, we have discussed the extraordinary measures the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world have taken to keep interest rates at historic lows. Short-term rates in the US remain below current inflation levels, which means savers are being penalized for holding cash. This is no doubt due to the actions of the Fed which continues to purchase the bulk of newly issued US Treasuries under its Quantitative Easing program. We estimate short and medium-term rates are 1.5% to 2.0% below where they would otherwise be.

Meanwhile, the flames of inflation have begun to flicker. A combination of increased demand and easy money policies has driven up food and commodity prices. If this trend continues, maneuvering through the obstacle course of rising inflation will take a toll on the global recovery. And as is usually the case, the burden will be heaviest for the world’s poorest who spend a higher percentage of their income on necessities. We are beginning to see some policy action and rate hikes in developing markets. Unless inflation levels stabilize quickly, this will begin to impact global trade. We caution bond investors that future returns are likely to be lower than those in recent years past. We continue to recommend high-quality bonds with 3-5 year maturities.

Budgets and Bluster

The issues facing most developed-market governments are remarkably similar whether we are talking about Greece, Ireland and Spain, or the US, California and Illinois. The long-term challenge involves tackling unfavorable demographics and enacting the painful policy reforms required to tackle the cost of social programs. In the short term, the double-whammy of a real-estate/financial crisis requiring an immense expenditure of government support, followed by a great recession driving down tax revenues have created huge deficits. The exact mix differs: in Ireland the cost of a bank bail-out has supercharged the national debt, whereas in Greece the crisis is compounded by a culture of tax-evasion and protectionism. In the US, the core problem is reforming Medicare and a health-care system that takes in more revenue per person and results in lower levels of health than those in other developed countries.

The imminent congressional debates over the federal budget and the national debt ceiling will bring fiscal issues front and center in the US. As the 2012 election campaign kicks off over this summer, we expect fiscal issues will be key in every race. In Europe, meanwhile, the moment of reckoning for Greece, Ireland and Portugal fast approaches. European institutions will either have to come up with a plan for debt-restructuring or direct support to assist struggling governments in the short-term. Meaningful progress towards the longer term demographic and policy challenges will also need to be made.


Nature, Energy and Politics

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami took a terrible toll on the people of Japan. The economic damage is also enormous as a significant percentage of the area’s power generation and distribution capacity has been offline for weeks, impacting businesses and residences across the main island of Honshu. Rolling blackouts have affected many areas, including Tokyo. Two nuclear power generation facilities (Fukushima I and II), with a total of ten operational reactors between them, suffered severe damage. It is now clear that all the reactors at Fukushima I will need to be scrapped. A large amount of fuel from the operating reactors and spent fuel stored at the facility has been damaged and released into the environment. The situation remains critical and the full extent of the crisis is still unknown.

Nuclear power generation requires operational and design expertise far more specialized than other forms of energy production. In general, the industry has recognized this and a great deal of thought and effort has been put into improving design and procedures. We should also not forget that most other forms of energy generation carry their own risks, and often a higher carbon footprint. For instance, the production and burning of coal costs numerous miners their lives every year, and damages the respiratory systems of populations globally. Hydro-electric dams have failed due to design faults or natural disasters causing a large number of casualties. We firmly believe renewable energy must be at the core of any long-term solution to global energy needs. Nevertheless, replacing our current energy infrastructure is a multi-decade project and represents an enormous investment. One step towards that process would be to accurately account for the true health and environmental costs of all forms of energy production. As things currently stand, the conventional energy industry derives numerous economic benefits from tax-breaks, favorable industrial policy and political gridlock in assessing the true environmental cost of greenhouse gas emissions.

With all this in mind, we believe certain modern nuclear plant designs can play a role as a crucial bridge technology. In many fast-growing economies, nuclear power is the only viable alternative to coal and gas for large scale power generation. It is clear though, that the nuclear industry will face tough public scrutiny and a risk re-assessment is underway. We are particularly concerned about the operational safety of nuclear power in countries without a strong tradition of accountability, independent oversight and open public discourse (see China). Some of these concerns are acute for certain developed nations such as Japan, which has few energy resources of its own and relies on nuclear power for 24% of its electricity needs. As a result, we continue to view long-term investments in renewable energy favorably.

Upheaval in the Middle East

Mass protests in the Arab world have captured the world’s imagination since the sudden, largely peaceful overthrow of Ben-Ali in Tunisia. We certainly do not believe every group engaged in protest has benign intentions and recognize that in some countries one repressive regime may be replaced by another. That said, we are hopeful the power of public protest and increasing civic engagement by ordinary citizens will transform the moribund political and economic regimes in the region. For the time being, we expect this part of the world will continue to experience upheaval over the next decade or more. In many of these societies, oil wealth has distorted economies and politics. A demographic bulge is now bringing about rapid change. Investors should remain aware that demographic and political change may cause certain markets to be disrupted over the next decade.

We are positive on emerging markets in the long-term, but advise caution for the present since asset prices have risen very rapidly. Further rises in oil prices could accelerate inflation and lead to a slow-down in global growth, which would impact emerging markets negatively.




Louis Berger                                                                                        Subir Grewal



Webinar Invitation: Tax-free municipal bonds

Webinar Invitation: Tax-free municipal bonds

Tax Free Municipal Bonds: Are They The Right Investment For You?

The past few months have been very eventful for the municipal bond market: the Bush era tax cuts have been extended, municipal governments are proposing massive budgets cuts, protests have broken out in states like Wisconsin and certain commentators have predicted widespread default. This uncertainty has provided an opportunity for those investors who know what to look for. In this webinar, we will provide an overview of municipal bonds, address many of the recent news events that have roiled these markets and share our approach to finding opportunities in this space.

This web-based presentation will run from 12:30-1:00 pm on Tuesday March 1st. It will include a 20 minute talk and 10 minutes for Q&A.

Please RSVP if you plan to attend as space is limited.

Presented by: Washington Square Capital Management

Speaker: Subir Grewal, CFA: Co-Founder and Principal

Date: Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Time: 12:30 pm, Eastern Standard Time (New York, GMT-05:00)

Discussion Topics:

  • Municipal bond market overview
  • The ramifications of recent legislative events
  • Our selection process and where we see opportunity

To register, please click here.

Political uncertainty at a critical juncture.

Political uncertainty at a critical juncture.

400px-Illinois_Railway_Museum-Switch_1We are frequently amused by the myriad explanations pundits present for any moves in the market. Our view has always been that single day moves are largely inexplicable, and that it often takes investors time to incorporate events into their thought-process, and to translate them into action. An example is the market rose yesterday in the face of much bad economic news. The explanation from pundits was that investors were celebrating the potential victory of a Republican candidate in the Massachusetts special election to fill the senate seat left vacant after Ted Kennedy’s death. Numerous commentators noted that “gridlock in Washington is positive for wall street”. The thinking is that government action creates uncertainty, this leads to businesses spending time and resources trying to compensate for changing rules, and this slows down economic activity and lowers earnings.

Now that we know the results of this special election, we believe investors should be concerned about the Republican candidate’s victory. The US finds itself in a particularly delicate position three years after the bursting of the biggest credit and real-estate bubble in decades. The hesitant stabilization of economic activity and confidence we have seen so far has been brought about by extremely large amounts of government spending and aid. Regular readers will know that one of our concerns has been the manner in which this government support is removed. At this juncture, gridlock in Washington is more likely to bode extremely poorly for the US economy. Congress has to find a way to pass health care reform, renew the term of the Fed chairman, reform financial regulation and evaluate the need for continued fiscal support. Did we forget to mention it has to do all of this in the face of the largest budget deficits since the second world war and a rising tide of populist sentiment in an election year?

Risk assets have recovered dramatically over the past few months in response to a massive, concerted effort by governments the world over to inject liquidity and support aggregate demand for goods and services.  This effort was led by the US and the UK, where the parties in power enjoyed comfortable majorities.  With Scott Brown’s election yesterday and an election looming for Gordon Brown’s Labour party, political certainty is in short supply on either side of the Atlantic.  At this sensitive moment, we believe this is a damaging development and that this uncertainty does not augur well for business or markets.

Retail sales trends this holiday season

Retail sales trends this holiday season


Retailers are in the business of parting consumers from their money and they have been remarkably successful at this over the past several years.  However, we believe this holiday season will turn out to be very tough for most retailers as consumers will continue to maintain tight control over their spending.  Consumer spending levels have been a concern since this recession started.  Most observers predicted consumer spending would fall since households entered this recession with very weak balance sheets, high debt levels and low savings.  Added to this weakness in household finances is the pace and extent of job losses, worse than any we have seen since 1983, with a real possibility that they may be worse than the early eighties.  Consumption usually falls when unemployment rises, because people spend less when they aren’t earning.  However, consumer spending has fallen further during this recession because of something called the wealth effect.  When people feel less wealthy, they tend to spend less.  And as home prices and investment valuations have fallen over the past couple of years, a lot of us (not just those unemployed) have begun to feel less wealthy, and as a result curtail spending.

A key portion of any recovery is the stabilization of consumer spending, and a crucial part of this spending occurs around the holidays.  With this in mind, we have been looking closely at expectations and trends for retail sales over the holiday season.

A recently released ARG/UBS survey polled consumers about their anticipated spending patterns this holiday season is very revealing.  They report that over 50% of survey respondents said they plan to spend less this holiday season on gifts, and most plan to buy fewer gifts for fewer people.  Even children know they have to limit their expectations for Christmas gifts.  ARG estimates sales will be down 2.9% when compared with 2008 (and those were down 2.7% over 2007).

We routinely look for unorthodox sources of economic data to complement traditional sources. One data source we’ve become interested in recently is Google Trends, which provides statistics on what people are searching for on Google.  The Google team has made a number of different “canned queries” available and their research team published a paper earlier in the year examining how Google trends could be used as a measure of activity.  What we found most intriguing were the luxury goods query statistics, which show a year over year decline of over 5%.  Since Google trends measures the proportion of total queries (i.e. it accounts for the fact that the total number of queries on Google is growing) it may simply be that interest in things other than luxury goods has risen, or that more people have found the best online stores and visit them directly.  However, we believe this data may augur poorly for luxury good sales this holiday season, and this view is reinforced by the ARG survey result that consumers are planning to trade down.

So, in our view the prognosis for retail sales this holiday season does not look good.  Where then does that leave us?  The chart below plots retail sales excluding-autos along the red line and retail sales and food services (a much broader measure) along the blue line.  We adjusted for inflation to produce these charts, the nominal numbers look worse since we had some deflation in 2008/2009.  The data is from the census.gov and bls.gov.


Retail sales are declining at a slower pace, but at -3.04% the rate of decline for September’s retail sales (ex autos) remains worse than any other seen over the past 15 years.  The remarkable story though, is in the level of sales, which we plot below.


In real terms, the broadest measure of consumption is in the same range as it was in 2000-2002.  Real retail sales excluding autos and food service are at 2004 levels.  These numbers look far worse on per capita terms since the US population is growing by 2.75 million a year.  What makes this picture even gloomier is that the current levels are being propped up by massive amounts of government support.  Unemployment benefit periods have been extended for the longer-term unemployed, and auto-sales have been propped up with incentives.  We shudder to think where consumption expenditure would be without these supports, yet at some point consumers and businesses will have to confront the reality that this government assistance cannot last indefinitely.

So where does this leave us?  We believe this will be another difficult holiday season for retailers, and the medium-term picture doesn’t look any better.  Consumers have cut back spending to real levels last seen 5-9 years ago, and there is no prospect of a quick rise to pre-recession consumption.  We see a slow, halting recovery over 5-7 years for the following reasons:

  • Unemployment is likely to remain over 6% for 5-7 years,
  • Chastened consumers are saving to repair their personal balance sheets and pay down debt
  • Stimulus spending will have to be withdrawn eventually
  • Federal and state deficits will have to be repaired and higher taxes will eat  into consumers discretionary income.

We now know that we had too many mortgage bankers, home construction workers, and investment bankers than natural growth could sustain.  It may well be true that we had too many retail stores and salespeople.  If retail sales do not recover for years, we will have to become accustomed to shuttered stores in many areas.  Many people formerly employed in retail trade will have to look to other industries for employment.  The big structural question confronting us is how US businesses are going to produce productive employment for these workers and resources.  This will require retraining, and it may require the movement of labor across geographies.   It will definitely take time.

Water and alternative energy

Water and alternative energy

800px-Drought_Swimming_HoleTodd Woody writes in the New York Times on the obstacles solar energy plants in the Southwest face in securing necessary water rights.  Certain solar technologies, particularly solar thermal can require large amounts of water to produce and cool steam.  Coal, natural gas and nuclear plants require much larger amounts of water per unit of energy produced (though not all of it is consumed), but they can be located near large bodies of water, with the nuclear or fossil fuel being transported to the plant.  Utility scale solar power plants in contrast, must be located in areas that receive a lot of sunlight, have high temperatures and by definition are arid.  This makes the water sourcing problem much more acute for solar, particularly solar thermal.  The American Southwest has had a history of battles over water rights, and the alternative energy industry is only the latest entrant in a long running dispute between cities, farmers, miners and environmentalists in a fast-growing area which has historically been a desert.   The US Department of Energy produced a report for congress in 2006 on the interdependency of water and energy production including a discussion of various technologies to improve water-use efficiency in power plants.  Wind turbines do not require water.

Consumption, savings and unemployment

Consumption, savings and unemployment

The Grasshopper and the Ants
The Grasshopper and the Ants

Though we remain optimistic about the prospects for US growth over the longer-term, and continue to believe in the diversity and resiliency of the US economy, it is difficult to see much optimism in the short to medium term. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been delving into unemployment statistics at the state and local level to get a better sense of how bad this recession has been for employment.

US unemployment rate (1948 onwards)
US unemployment rate (1948 onwards)

The national unemployment rate in June was 9.4%. With the exception of the recession of 1982-1983 (when it reached 10.8%), this is the worst unemployment rate in the post-second world war period. At a regional level, in nine states, the current unemployment rate is the highest since 1976 (the earliest year data is available at the BLS), and in another eight states (plus D.C.) it is within one percentage point of the record. Amongst those setting records, are two of the largest state economies CA and FL (also those worst affected by the real-estate boom, and a wide-swath of mid-atlantic states, MD, VA, GA, NC, SC. So in 18 of 50 states, joblessness is higher than most people have ever experienced. In absolute terms, more of the labor force is unemployed now (15.2 million) than at any time since 1948.

It is likely that unemployment will continue to rise until early 2010, and the unemployment rate could well exceed that of 1982-1983 and reach 11%. The primary reason for our pessimism about the speed and strength of a recovery is the shaky ground on which US households find themselves. Years of low and negative savings rates combined with falling asset prices have affected the biggest components of US household wealth, our homes and investments. The reverberations of this wealth effect will be felt for many quarters of US consumption and consumer confidence.

Unemployment affects consumer confidence in a way that GDP figures and corporate profits cannot. Continuing unemployment, seeing friends or neighbors out of work for months on end, makes consumers rethink every purchase.

Continued Unemployment Claims (1967 onwards)
Continued Unemployment Claims (1967 onwards)

Since we do not foresee a quick recovery in consumer demand, we believe a quick recovery in unemployment to the 5-6% level is unlikely. In prior recessions of similar severity, unemployment has not returned to the 6% range till 3-4 years have passed. This would suggest a return to full-employment in 2012 or 2013. It may take longer. We believe a structural adjustment is underway, with two sectors of the economy, construction and finance, shrinking to a semi-permanent lower level of activity. Former workers from these industries will need to retool themselves for work in other areas, or may need to relocate to another part of the country. This will take time.

The unwelcome triplet of rising unemployment, falling asset prices, and a financial crisis that has felled many firms that were household names will affect the American consumers’ view of thrift and spending for years to come. We believe the current recession’s affect on US consumer behavior will be long-lasting, as will the US investor’s new-found skepticism towards real-estate, debt and equities. This is similar to how a traumatic episode affects survivors. For an entire generation of Americans, this recession is their first encounter with generally difficult economic conditions and the realities of the business cycle. We believe there is a fundamental shift underway for a generation of Americans, away from a culture of high consumption, towards a new-found frugality.

The grasshoppers are chastened and the ants have been vindicated in particularly dramatic fashion.