Greg Ip Is Kinda Sorta Optimistic

He doesn’t fear a Great Depression. But a five-year or a ten-year anemic recovery is still in his Visualization of the Cosmic All:>Economist.com: What has brought this turnabout? In part, the normal corrective powers of the economy. Larry Summers, Barack Obama’s main economic adviser, has noted that current annualised vehicle sales of about 9m are well below the 14m necessary for replacement and rising population, while annualised housing starts are about a quarter of the rate needed to support the forming of new households. The improvement is also the expected response to monetary and fiscal stimulus, both of which have been exceptionally aggressive. The Federal Reserve, having lowered short-term interest rates in effect to zero, has intervened in bond markets to push down long-term mortgage rates as well. On April 1st paycheques were due to begin reflecting the tax cuts in Barack Obama’s $787 billion fiscal stimulus.>As investors have shifted their economic outlook from catastrophic to merely grim, the stockmarket has shot higher, by 19% on April 1st from its 12-year low on March 9th. Like houses, stocks look cheap. Strategists at Deutsche Bank estimate that investors can expect to earn an additional seven percentage points over the long run from holding stocks instead of Treasury bonds, the highest such “equity risk premium” in at least 25 years. Mr Summers says it may be “the sale of the century”.>Yet even if the bottom in economic activity is in sight, a robust recovery almost certainly is not. Housing usually leads the way out of recession as falling interest rates unleash pent-up demand. But easy credit in earlier years has turned many renters into homeowners already. At the end of last year 67.5% of households owned their home, down from a peak of 69% in 2006 but still well above the 64% that prevailed from 1965 to 1997. Moreover, many prospective buyers cannot take advantage of low mortgage rates because higher down-payments are now required. The tonic of lower interest rates has been dulled by the dysfunctional financial system. That is why credit markets have not reflected the optimism of stocks and are forcing corporations to pay punitive yields on the bonds they issue. Consumer spending may also be depressed for some years to come by the record 18% collapse in household net worth over the course of last year, a drop of $11 trillion. That is a chief reason why the OECD on March 31st released an exceptionally gloomy prognosis, predicting that the American economy would shrink by 4% this year and not grow at all next year. Deflation, it said, “may become a threat”…

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