The Great Stagnation of 2011

I go away for a few days and come back to a slug of not encouraging economic news.

The really big news was related to industrial production and manufacturing which was either down or stagnant, depending on the index you look at.

The two reports that were negative were the Empire State Fed and the Philadelphia Fed manufacturing reports which both reported substantial drops in economic activity:

As you can see, Philadelphia dropped 7.7% (the first drop since September) and NY dropped 7.8% (the first drop since November). The weakness was in new orders and inventory accumulation, things that you don't want to see decline. Separately the inventory-to-sales ratio increased 0.8%, a small but negative indicator.

The index of industrial production as announced by the Fed was flat in May, up 0.1%, but the year-over-year trend was still declining:

It is true that all production is aimed at consumer consumption but looking at consumption alone is not as good an indicator of real organic economic growth as is the production side of the economy. The reason being that production usually leads consumption out of an economic slump, not the other way around. The Fed's and the Administration's attempts at monetary and fiscal stimulus haven't worked because of their misplaced emphasis on consumption. They don't examine the issue of why people aren't consuming. As readers of The Daily Capitalist know, the keys to new economic growth are savings, debt reduction, and the liquidation of malinvested projects.

People aren't going to spend until they feel they are economically secure and there aren't a lot of reasons right now for them to feel secure. And the data shows it.

Retail sales for May came out slightly negative (-0.2%), but that is a bit misleading. Here is the chart:

As you can see, the trend has been flat-to-negative since January, 2011. For several reasons economists like to strip out auto sales, a big ticket item that may skew the data. Doing that, ex. autos, retail sales were up 0.3%. Again the data is confusing because the ex. auto data still includes gasoline sales which were up 22.3% YoY. Gains were seen in health care, building materials, miscellaneous retailers, and non-store (Internet) retailers.

Then there is price inflation.

The PPI and CPI reports also came in last week. Starting at the producer level, the PPI increase moderated to a 0.2% gain (core, ex. energy and food, up 0.2%). But the year-over-year trend was still up 7.0% in May (ex. energy and food, up 2.1%). The PPI has been declining since January, 2011, but the rate of increase is still high:

On the consumer side, the May CPI also was up 0.2%, slightly less than in April, but still a strong upward trend as shown in this YoY chart (up 3.2% YoY):

Ex. energy and food, it was up 0.3% for the month, and 1.5% YoY. Apparel, shelter, new vehicles, and recreation were all up, but energy and gasoline were down along with airline fares, tobacco, and personal care. This price inflation may seem mild to the casual observer, but it is the trendline that is important.

Interestingly, someone revived the Misery Index, or at least I just discovered it. The Misery Index was created back in the 1970s and is described thusly:

It is simply the unemployment rate added to the inflation rate. It is assumed that both a higher rate of unemployment and a worsening of inflation both create economic and social costs for a country. A combination of rising inflation and more people out of work implies a deterioration in economic performance and a rise in the misery index.

The Index is now at 12.16. To put this in perspective, it was at its highest, 20.76 during the Carter Administration, and hasn't been this high since 1983 (it declined after Reagan was elected). Its lowest points were 3.53 during the Eisenhower Administration (1953) and again during the Clinton years, 6.05 in 1998.

This has resulted in a decline in consumer confidence. The Gallup Economic Confidence Index declined 9 points in the past two weeks (ending June 12):

The Reuters/Univ. of Michigan consumer sentiment poll reflected a similar decline.

I will leave you with one more bit of data, perhaps the most important, from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) who regularly put out data from the member surveys. Their ??Small Business Optimism Index declined again, for the third straight month:

“Corporate profits may be at a record high, but businesses on Main Street are still scraping by,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. ...


For the third month running, several key economic indicators continued their downward tumble. Job market indicators continued to deteriorate, anticipating very weak job creation and a higher unemployment rate. Capital spending plans and inventory investment plans all weakened and remain at recession levels. Inflation continues to rise, a notable business concern for owners who are raising their own prices at the fastest pace seen in years. And driving the economic uncertainty, one in four owners still report weak sales as their top business problem (followed by taxes and regulations and red tape, only 3 percent cite financing).

The most important thing among these data was the lack of capital spending:

Capital spending remains historically low in spite of very low interest rates and all sorts of expensing incentives. Fifty percent of firms reported making capital expenditures over the past six months, and the percent of owners planning capital outlays in the next 3 to 6 months fell 1 point to 20 percent, a recession level reading.

What does all this mean? It means that the foundry of job creation for one-half of the new jobs created in America, small businesses, are stalling out again because of all the factors discussed above. Also, I wouldn't expect a lot of job growth from the multinationals as not even a declining dollar can offset the cooling off of demand from money-stimulated countries like China, India, and Brazil.

It means that consumers aren't going to save our economy from stagnation. It means that stagnation will continue along with inflation. And it will be fun to watch all the naysayers who don't think you can have an economic slowdown and inflation at the same time.

It also means that my forecast of the likelihood of QE3 is still valid.

This article originally appeared in The Daily Capitalist.