Identifying a recession is a tricky thing, and that was never more apparent than in the flip-flopping of many economists’ opinions on the state of the economy and its odds for a recession. It wasn’t too long ago that 71 percent of economists believed we were already in a recession, and even more thought a recession inevitable. Wachovia, which last month put the odds of recession at 90 percent, just downgraded those odds to 45 percent, according to The Wall Street Journal. Is the economy really turning around, and can we begin to be a little optimistic about the future?
Recent data released by the government has been a little better than expected, but I think we are missing some things. Perhaps we are clinging to any last ray of hope we can find, but the bottom line is we should look at the facts for what they are, not coat them in sugar. One example is that yesterday everyone was elated that the CPI came in at only a 0.2 percent increase, compared to the expected 0.3 percent. This surely is good news--I don’t want to discount that--yet at the same time we can’t take this to mean that our inflation fears are over and that everything is peachy. First off, I have my concerns that the numbers being reported by the government aren’t all that accurate to begin with. In addition, while inflation might be taking a little break, so to speak, I don’t think it is gone.
Another piece of irrational exuberance in my book was how the market treated the recent earnings reports from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Fannie Mae reported a loss of more than $2 billion, much more than was anticipated, yet their stock skyrocketed that same day. Something just doesn’t seem right about that. Then this week, Freddie Mac actually beat estimates and reported a loss of only around $150 million. That seems great compared to the $2 billion loss over at Fannie, but in order to cut their losses to only $150 million, Freddie Mac had to alter their accounting methods. I’m no accounting expert, but any time I hear of companies altering their accounting practices, and voila, their books suddenly look better, I get suspicious (if anyone has more knowledge about this, I’d love to hear your take). As we saw in the foreclosure numbers reported this week, the housing problems are far from gone. More and more people are losing their homes, and to me that doesn’t spell good news for Fannie and Freddie, or the housing market in general.
We also saw reports this week that more companies are laying workers off--typically not a positive sign at all--yet for the most part the markets shrugged off this news in favor of celebrating the fact that inflation was only at 0.2 percent last month. While it certainly is good news to see the economy rebounding somewhat, and for the economic news to come back better than we expect, I urge investors not to get their hopes up too much at this point. It is possible that the interest rate cuts and the economic stimulus package will come together to bring our economy out of the rut it’s been in, but I certainly wouldn’t put those chances as high as 55 percent. I still think a recession is coming, and whether it is officially here now, or whether we are able to delay it, it will surely come. Our economy has too many serious problems to fix with a few Band-Aids.
If Bernanke discovered the magic recession avoidance elixir, that is just fabulous, and we all should be ecstatic.
At the same time it has always been my belief that you plan for the worst, so that’s what I’m doing. Jump on the U.S. economy is great wagon if you will, but be careful, because I’m pretty sure the axel is loose.