Economic & Investment Outlook For 2009

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
by Gary D. Halbert
January 6, 2009

IN THIS ISSUE:

1.  Editor’s Notes On BCA & The Other Gary Halbert

2.  Obama & The New Age Of Big Government

3.  The Economy – Have We Seen The Worst Of It?

4.  Are The Bailouts Necessary & Will They Work?

5.  The Latest Disappointing Economic Reports

6.  Stock Markets – Might We Have Seen The Bottom?

Introduction

2008 proved to be a catastrophic year in the financial and credit markets as well as for most investors as judged by the global equity markets.  The credit markets and bank lending activity ground to a virtual halt, something not seen in most of our adult lifetimes.  Consumer confidence and spending, which now accounts for over 70% of US GDP, fell off a cliff in the span of just 3-4 months late last year.  We are now in an unprecedented “credit crisis,” the outcome of which remains to be seen.

The US government and the Federal Reserve have responded to the credit crisis in ways that most of us could never have imagined, and they are not nearly done yet.  Much more is to come.  We can agree or disagree with these giant bailout measures, but like them or not, even more enormous government rescue programs are sure to come in the Barack Obama administration, on top of his already aggressive plans such as nationalized health care, etc.

One thing to keep in mind is that our new President is a man who embraces government ownership and control of the private sector, so we can expect more massive bailouts in the next year or longer as needed.  Already, Mr. Obama is suggesting another fiscal stimulus package approaching $1 trillion this year, and that is just the beginning – I promise.  But the point of what follows is not a political piece.  The question is whether or not the plans will work.

What we do know is that we are officially in a recession that reporting agencies now believe began in December 2007.  Most forecasters now expect that GDP plunged 4-5% (annual rate) in the 4Q of last year, and will continue to fall for at least a couple more quarters.  Meanwhile, deflation is becoming a greater threat.  In the pages that follow, we will take an in-depth look at the latest economic and inflation numbers.  I’ll give you the latest thinking from my best sources on what may lie ahead. 

But first, I have a couple of important Editor’s Notes that have resulted from many reader inquiries, before we get into the meat of this week’s letter.  Let’s get going.

Editor’s Notes

The Bank Credit AnalystI frequently get questions from long-time readers asking why I do not mention the Bank Credit Analyst (BCA) or quote from their monthly reports as I have for many years.  Considering the amount of interest, an explanation is in order.

You may recall that BCA maintained throughout 2007 that the subprime mortgage dilemma would be contained to the housing market, and that a recession was not the most likely scenario for the US or the rest of the world.  Then in early 2008, BCA did an abrupt about-face on the subprime crisis, complete with a forecast of a credit crisis and a potentially deep global recession. 

I have to admit I was surprised that BCA was late in identifying perhaps the most significant trend change in our lifetimes and an oncoming credit crisis.  However, no economic forecasting service is perfect, and I have a number of other sources of economic and financial forecasts that were also late to recognize the full effect of the subprime debacle.  So that is not the reason I no longer quote BCA.

Quite the contrary.  In early 2008, BCA contacted me in regard to my summarizing and quoting their materials.  According to BCA, some of their subscribers had complained about having to pay a large amount of money for what I periodically offered to my clients and E-Letter readers for free.  When I first began sharing BCA’s outlook over 20 years ago, my comments were limited to a monthly newsletter that went only to my clients and prospective clients.  Now, however, my Forecasts & Trends E-Letter goes out to over a million e-mail addresses each week.

While BCA has long been a valuable source of information for me, I fully understand their concerns.  After all, they make their money through subscriptions, so anything that might diminish their subscription base would obviously need to be addressed.  As a result, I agreed to no longer quote or summarize BCA’s views of the economy or markets in light of their concerns.

Finally, it is important to note that BCA has never been my sole source of economic information and forecasts.  My staff and I review numerous other sources for forecasts and analysis that help me in forming my own view of the economy, the markets, etc.

The “Other” Gary HalbertAs a reminder, to this day I am often confused with Gary C. Halbert, which is most interesting since Gary C. Halbert passed away in early 2007.  For the record, I am Gary D. Halbert and am no relation to Gary C. Halbert; in fact, I never met the man.  Apparently, Gary C. Halbert was a successful copywriter and marketer at some point in his life, and he had a newsletter called “The Gary Halbert Letter” and a website by the same name. 

The confusion typically occurs when someone does an Internet search for “Gary Halbert.”  If you type Gary Halbert into Google, for example, the entire first page of results are for Gary C. Halbert – even though the man has been dead for nearly two years.  The first Google result for me – Gary D. Halbert - is not until the lower part of page two.

We have often wondered how much business we have lost over the years from investors who searched the Internet looking for me but found the other Gary Halbert instead and were not favorably impressed!  I have no idea why Gary C. Halbert’s website is still on the Internet.

If, however, you type in “Gary D. Halbert,” you’ll find me at the top of the non-sponsor results.  Bottom line: if you should refer someone to me, please advise them to include my middle initial “D.” if they wish to find me on the Web.  Better yet, advise them to go to my website at www.halbertwealth.com.

On that note, let me extend a huge THANK YOU to all of our clients who have referred friends, relatives, etc. to us over the years.  Client referrals are one of our best sources of new business!

With the above noted housekeeping items out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the economy, the ongoing credit crisis and the investment markets.  But first, let’s consider the bigger picture of what to expect from President Obama.  The following is not meant to be a political slam on our soon-to-be new president; rather it is simply a perspective on the times to come.

Obama & The New Age Of Big Government

There is no arguing that Barack Obama is one of the most liberal politicians of our time, as is Joe Biden.  President-elect Obama believes that more government is the solution, not the problem.  He has stacked his new Cabinet with Clinton retreads who believe as he does, including Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State designee.

President-elect Obama vows that as soon as he is in office, he will pass a gargantuan financial rescue bill (bailout) that is estimated to be as large as $800 billion to $1 trillion in an attempt to unfreeze the credit markets and create at least one million new jobs.  No doubt the Democrat controlled Congress will go along.  It appears that a number of Republicans will go along as well.

Mr. Obama says his huge rescue plan will be targeted at tax cuts and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs.  I, however, predict that much of the bailout money will continue to go to recapitalize banks, financial institutions, automakers and other large companies that get into serious trouble.  Obama may have no choice if he and the Fed are to stave off a debt deflation and a depression.

In fairness to President-elect Obama, he comes into office at one of the worst possible times in the last century.  He is inheriting the worst economy in decades, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and a record large federal budget deficit – just to name a few.  He has an enormous job ahead of him with major problems that have no immediate solutions, and which may get worse before they get better.

But keep one thing in mind dear readers.  President-elect Obama comes from a political persuasion that believes it is perfectly acceptable for the government to own equity stakes in the private sector.  And he comes into power at exactly the time in which much of the public is more than willing to see this happen, and when even some conservative analysts admit that such steps are probably a “necessary evil.”

Based on the many comments I receive from readers, it is obvious that many of you are totally against the government bailouts.  Be warned, however, that the bailouts are far from over in my opinion.  So it is in this context that I move on to more specific issues.

The Economy – Have We Seen The Worst Of It?

As noted above, we see and read lots of economic, financial and investment forecasts at my company.  Here is the general consensus on the economy of late (obviously, there are forecasts that are better and worse than the consensus I see out there).  The general consensus is that the US economy (GDP) fell by an annual rate of 4-5% in the 4Q.  We won’t get the first official GDP estimate until the end of this month.

The general consensus is that the first half of 2009 will also see negative GDP, but perhaps not as bad as the 4Q we just endured.  The unemployment rate is expected to rise to at least 8%, and some believe 10%, well before the end of this year.  However, most forecasters currently believe that the US economy will bottom out and begin a slow recovery some time in the second half of this year – assuming, of course, that there are no more big negative shocks, and that the banks slowly resume lending.

Some of my respected sources believe that, if necessary, the Obama administration and/or the Fed will institute some government mechanism that will guarantee bank loans if that’s what it takes to unfreeze the credit markets.  (I’m not making this up, folks.)

Assuming the economy bottoms out sometime in the second half of this year, the general consensus is that GDP will grow at a below-trend rate of only 1½-2½% for the next several years following 2009 as the world continues to deleverage (i.e. – reduce debt).

Of course, there are some respected forecasters that believe the above noted scenario is too optimistic.  Some believe that the bailouts will not be successful, the credit markets will not unfreeze this year, and that we are headed for a modern day depression.  Others believe that even if the bailouts work, we will be facing runaway inflation in 2010 and beyond.  Clearly, there are few, if any, rosy scenarios floating around today.

Are The Bailouts Necessary & Will They Work?

Most conservatives (and even some liberals) I talk to are opposed to the various government bailout measures to-date and the trillion dollar rescue package that President-elect Obama has planned.  Many say, “Let ‘em all fail.”  Several media polls have shown that a majority of Americans are opposed to the bailouts.  Personally, I would much prefer an economic stimulus plan that eliminated the capital gains tax and reduced other taxes, but that is not going to happen with the Democrats in control of Congress and the White House. 

Given that reality, most of the sources that I respect agree that the bailouts and the various actions by the Fed were necessary in an effort to avoid a debt deflation and a possible depression.  Their argument is that with consumer spending accounting for over 70% of GDP, and with consumer spending having fallen off a cliff, the government had to step in to keep us from going from a serious global recession to something worse.

In fact, some forecasters are calling on other countries to follow the lead of US policymakers and slash their interest rates and recapitalize their money center banks.  Some actually criticize Europe for resisting such rescue efforts, while praising the UK for its financial rescue efforts.

Further, I would also say that there is a consensus in the forecasting world that it was a huge mistake for the government to let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt.  Many analysts believe that it was the failure of Lehman that caused the major banks to put a lockdown on lending, even to each other.

I certainly don’t expect to make any bailout converts with this discussion.  However, I think it is pertinent to point out that there are respected analysts and forecasters that believe the government and the Fed had no choice but to do what has been done, and that the government may have to do even more if we are to avoid a depression.

Now to the question of whether the bailouts will work.  At this point, the answer is we don’t know.  The first “economic stimulus package” of $168 billion last spring was considered pretty much a non-starter. Various sources have estimated that most Americans who received the tax rebate checks in late April and May saved most of the money or used it to pay off credit card debt or other bills, rather than spend the money as was hoped by the Bush administration.

One thing is clear, however: the Bush administration did not have a well-designed plan for how it intended to use the first $350 billion of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).  That was obvious when President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson changed the objective of the TARP from buying up troubled mortgage-related securities to recapitalizing the major banks and most recently the automakers. 

Some (but certainly not all) of the criticism of Bush and Paulson may have been unfair.  I don’t believe anyone knew how difficult it would be to reinstate trust in the credit markets and to get the major banks lending once again.  As discussed above, President-elect Obama will face the same challenge when he takes office, and talk of some kind of government loan guarantee program for the banks continues to gain momentum, for better or worse.

While it remains unclear if the bailouts will work, there is now little doubt that Mr. Obama’s request for a massive new rescue program of up to $1 trillion will be passed by the Congress within the next month or two.  Over the weekend, several leading Republicans stated that they would support such a huge stimulus program, provided it was not loaded with earmarks.  So I believe it is safe to assume we will see Obama get his wish.

The Latest Disappointing Economic Reports        

I have been poring over economic data for over 25 years, and I do not remember another time when the various reports have been as overwhelmingly negative as over the last month or so.  Let’s take a look at the latest numbers.  As noted earlier, most forecasters expect that 4Q GDP fell by 4-5%; however, that report won’t be out until January 30.

The final report on 3Q GDP was an annual rate of –0.5%, about as expected, following +2.8% in the 2Q.  The decline in 3Q GDP was largely the result of a 3.8% drop in personal consumption expenditures.

The Index of Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) fell 0.4% in November (latest data available).  The LEI has been falling for over a year.  More troubling, the six-month change in the LEI was negative 2.8%, and the 12-month change was –5.6%.  The Conference Board reported that the Consumer Confidence Index fell to a new all-time low of 38.0 in December.

Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions grew substantially worse in December.  Those claiming business conditions are “bad” increased to 46.0% from 40.6% in November, while those claiming business conditions are “good” declined to 7.7% percent from 10.1%. Consumers’ assessment of the labor market was also considerably more negative than in November.  Those saying jobs are “hard to get” rose to 42.0% from 37.1% in November, while those claiming jobs are “plentiful” decreased to 6.2% from 8.7% a month earlier.

The plunge in consumer confidence resulted in even worse than expected retail sales during the holiday season.  Spending Pulse, an organization that collects consumer spending data from MasterCard, says consumers spent about 20% less on electronics, women’s clothes and jewelry in November and December in comparison with the same period last year. Spending Pulse says total retail sales declined up to 8% during this holiday season.

The numbers are not all in yet, but it also appears that online sales declined for the first time ever.  Reuters reported that online sales for the holiday period up to December 23 fell 3% from the same period last year, marking the first decline in Internet spending since comScore, Inc. started tracking online sales in 2001.

On the manufacturing front, the news is equally dismal, if not worse.  The Institute for Supply Management (ISM), a purchasing management group based in Tempe, Ariz., said its manufacturing index was 32.4 for December, the lowest reading since June 1980, when it stood at 30.3.

Manufacturing activity failed to grow for the fifth consecutive month, according to the ISM, and  ISM noted that the December decline was representative of all sectors of manufacturing.  An ISM index reading above 50 indicates growth, while a reading below 50 indicates a slowdown.  A reading below 41 is typically associated with recession in the broader economy.

Industrial production fell 0.4% in November and was 5.5% below yearago levels.  Capacity utilization (the factory operating rate) fell to 75.4 in November, down from 81.1 a year ago.  Durable goods orders declined 1.0% in November, following the huge drop of 8.4% in October.  It was the fourth consecutive monthly decline in durable goods orders.

The unemployment rate jumped to 6.7% in November, the highest level in more than 14 years.  Forecasters expect the December unemployment rate to jump to 7% when the latest report comes out on Friday.  Nonfarm payroll employment fell sharply by 533,000 in November.  As noted earlier, most analysts expect the unemployment rate to rise to 8% or higher in the first half of 2009.  At 500,000 jobs lost per month, it could hit 10% by the end of this year if the economy doesn’t begin to rebound.

News on the housing front was equally disappointing.  Sales of existing homes plunged 8.6% nationally in November.  New homes sales also declined again in November.  The national median sales price for existing homes fell by the largest monthly amount on record in November.  The median price was $181,000 as compared to $208,000 a year ago, a decline of 13.2% nationally.  Of course, in many areas prices are down far more than 13% over the last year.

The National Association of Realtors reported that there were 4.2 million unsold homes on the market at the end of November.  At the current sales pace, it would take 11.2 months to sell all the homes on the market.  NAR also notes that many homeowners have taken their properties off of the market.  Understandably, housing starts continue to plunge, with November starts at 625,000 versus 771,000 a month earlier.

Deflation – Consumer Price Index Goes Negative

As I have discussed above and in previous E-letters, the government and the Fed desperately want to hold off deflation in the economy.  This fear is the overriding reason behind the bailouts, including the potentially $1 trillion stimulus package Mr. Obama and Congress are planning.  Lawmakers are particularly frightened now that the Consumer Price Index has gone negative for the last several months, and especially as it plunged lower in October and November. 

In October, the CPI fell by a full 1.0% - the largest monthly dive since records began to be kept in 1947.  Yet the record October decline was significantly eclipsed in November when the CPI plunged 1.7%.  The Chained Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (C-CPI-U) decreased a full 2.0% in November.  Of course, the significant fall in energy prices is helping this trend along, but there is much more at work here than just falling gasoline prices. 

For the 12 months ended November, the CPI actually rose 1.1%.  That compares starkly to July of last year when the CPI was up 5.6% on a year-over-year basis.  The trend in price inflation is clearly falling rapidly.  Even the “Core” CPI – less food and energy – is falling.  The Core CPI was down 0.1% in October and was unchanged in November. 

Wholesale prices are falling even faster.  The Producer Price Index fell 2.8% in October and another 2.2% in November.  The 2.8% dive in October was the largest monthly decline on record.  The Labor Department also reported that the price of imported goods dropped 4.7% in November and more than 10% in the past quarter.  Prices are coming down in a hurry!  This is Bernanke’s worst nightmare!

Price data such as the above, and similar numbers from around the world, are leading to increased discussion about deflation.  A recent cover story in The Economist made it pretty much official: Deflation, not inflation, is now the greatest concern for the world economy.

Over the past year, producer prices have fallen throughout the developed world.  Consumer prices have been falling for the last six months in France and Germany.  In Japan, wages have actually fallen 4% over the past year.  Prices are also falling in China and Hong Kong.

So far, none of these price declines looks anything like the massive deflation that accompanied the Great Depression. But the appearance of deflation as a widespread problem is disturbing, not only because of its immediate economic implications, but because until recently most economists regarded sustained deflation as a fundamentally implausible prospect, something that should not be a concern. 

Such assumptions are now under fire as the Fed has slashed short rates to zero.  I assume we’ll be discussing deflation a lot more this year.

Stock Markets – Might We Have Seen The Bottom?

The US and global equity markets will be buffeted in 2009, on the negative side, by slowing economic growth, continued deleveraging, a shortage of credit and possible deflation.  On the positive side, the markets should be aided by extremely low interest rates, the government’s massive efforts to reflate the economy and unfreeze the credit markets and the possibility that a lot of money now on the sidelines could come back into the market at some point.

Unlike the general consensus about where the economy is headed this year (worse in the first half, but a recovery by year-end), there is no such consensus regarding where the stock markets are going over the next year or longer.  Opinions and forecasts are all over the board. 

Some analysts I respect believe that the US stock market is in a secular bear market, and that we probably have not seen the worst of it.  If the economy is going to get worse in the near-term, and then grow at below-trend rates of 1½-2½% over the next 2-3 years after 2009, this is a rather dire forecast for corporate earnings, which supports the case for lower stock prices over time.

Other analysts I also respect believe that the waterfall collapse in equity prices in 2008 significantly overshot on the downside, and that the November lows could represent the bottom, although they would not be surprised to see a retest of the late November lows at some point. 

Forecasters in the latter camp point to the fact that there is an ocean of money around the world that is sitting in Treasuries and other no-risk/low-risk vehicles earning next to nothing.  They suggest that with an even modest uptick in consumer confidence, a flood of domestic and international money could come rushing back into US equities – especially with the rebound in the US dollar last year.      

Most analysts in both camps seem to agree that the equity markets are overdue for a potentially strong corrective rally which could play out over the next several months.  Specifically, most forecasters I read believe that there will be some kind of “Obama rally” after the inauguration.  The problem is that the broad equity indexes have already rallied 20-25% from the five-year lows in November.  

S&P 500 Chart

Conclusions

One thing appears clear: 2009 is likely to be another wild year in the markets.  So, what is an investor to do?  Remain in cash and earn little or no return, or jump back into equities and risk losing even more money if the market retests the November lows as some analysts expect?  I can’t tell you what the market is going to do in 2009, but I can restate what I have said since beginning this E-Letter in 2002 – it’s wise to have at least part of your portfolio in an investment program that can switch to a defensive posture (cash or hedged) in uncertain markets, in my opinion.

While I don’t have space in this week’s E-Letter, in upcoming issues I’m going to discuss how active management – investment programs that have the ability to go to cash or hedge long positions - benefited investors in 2008.  I’m also going to highlight the huge inflows into some of these programs during 2008, even though most mutual funds were hemorrhaging assets badly.  And you may be interested to learn where these inflows were coming from.  What do they know that you don’t know?  The answer may surprise you.

I’ll also bring you up to date on the performance of the latest additions to our AdvisorLink team, the Scotia Partners Growth S&P Plus and S&P Moderate Growth programs.  While past performance cannot guarantee future results, suffice it to say that Scotia’s programs continue to meet our expectations.

If you’d rather not wait on these future issues and want to learn more about Scotia and the other actively managed investment programs that have the potential to become defensive when market conditions warrant, feel free to give one of our Investment Consultants a call at 800-348-3601 or send us an e-mail at info@halbertwealth.com.  You can also find out more about these programs on our website at www.halbertwealth.com, or request a complete Scotia Investors Kit by completing our online Scotia request form.

Wishing you a profitable New Year,

Gary D. Halbert

SPECIAL ARTICLES

Tyranny of the Tax-Exempt (Must Read!!!)
http://www.newsmax.com/insidecover/obama_stimulus_package/2009/01/06/168219.html

Obama's Trillion Dollar Political Stimulus Package
http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/01/fiscal_follies.html

Obama Eyes $300 Billion Tax Cut - What A Surprise!
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123111279694652423.html

Obama Lies About Government Bailout Plan
http://www.aim.org/aim-column/obamas-lies-about-government-bailout-plan


Read Gary’s blog and join the conversation at garydhalbert.com.


Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by ProFutures, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of ProFutures, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, ProFutures, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.

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