Thursday, December 9, 2010

Some reasons for optimism

Yeah, right. But let's give Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes, a chance to speak his mind:

"The Conference Board," he writes, "predicts sickly 1.2% growth in 2011. That's down from 2.6% this year, which didn't feel all that great. But I think 2011 will do better. Not a boom, but somewhere close to 3%. Here's why."
1. Nongovernment deleveraging is over.
Here are the facts: Aggregate demand in the U.S.--which is the sum of annual GDP plus new public and private debt--fell from $18.8 trillion in 2008 and $17 trillion in 2009 to an estimated $14.2 trillion in 2010. In other words, this year's aggregate demand will be less than the estimated $14.6 trillion GDP. Amazing, isn't it? Net net, the U.S. is no longer overleveraged. It's actually negatively leveraged, thanks mostly to the $3 trillion in cash held by U.S. corporations.

This means America will not, like Japan, succumb to a decades-long bout of debt deleveraging and deflation. The Great Deleveraging is over, with inflation now the greater worry.

2. Stocks are up.
You can carp about stocks and say that they're up 75% since March 2009 only because (1) the dollar is punk, and therefore real returns aren't as large as they appear in the rearview mirror; (2) corporations have cut costs and laid off people; and (3) stocks may look cheap from a P/E ratio of 14 but really aren't so cheap if you use Yale economist Robert Shiller's rolling ten-year average P/E, which is about 20 now. You can also point to the mid-November stock slump as a harbinger of doom. Scoff all you want, but the fact remains: Stocks have trended up. Which means 401(k) plans are up. Americans are starting to feel a bit better.

3. A small business recovery is under way.
Small businesses have been slow to snap back from the Great Recession, but the trend is looking better. Light truck purchases are up. Who buys light trucks? Small businesses. Credit contraction has stopped, although expansion hasn't started and probably won't for another year.

4. The housing collapse is toothless.
Nationally, houses may face another 10% drop. This is hard to predict, given the pending foreclosure mess, the bank-lending paralysis and the cheap-dollar inflation. But one thing is clear: Investment in new houses as a percentage of GDP has fallen from a peak of 6.3% during the 2005 bubble to 2.4% this year. Housing can't hurt the economy to the extent it did in 2007-09.

5. Entrepreneurship isn't dead.
You may be forgiven for thinking that the great age of U.S. startups is over. But American entrepreneurs are alive and well, tapping new sources of capital and, as in the case of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, choosing to stay private (though Facebook could easily command a $40 billion valuation). The new entrepreneurs are heralding a new age of dynamic private companies.
He has other reasons, as well.

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