Category: economy

The bear crying wolf

A perennially bearish hedge fund manager with an Austrian economics bent recently appeared as a guest on the Tom Woods Show.  Tom Woods opened the discussion with:

What do you say to somebody who says, “The trouble with you Austrian-influenced financial guys is that you’re always bearish, so of course you’re going to be right when things go wrong.  Why should I listen to you now?”

Great question.  Are we Austrians eventually right, but always early?  Is this one “big, fat, ugly bubble” that, when it bursts, will vindicate all of us?  Are we just flat wrong?  Is Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) out of touch with reality?  Or are we stopped clocks, right twice a day, but miss out on a lot of opportunities the rest of the time?

For the full article by Kevin Duffy, see here.

Caterpillar is no butterfly

If Caterpillar offers a window into the global economy, the view isn’t pretty.  Year-over-year revenue growth by geography/segment:

North America:

  • Construction -3.5%
  • Energy & transport -15.7%
  • Mining -7.4%

Latin America:

  • Construction -46.8%
  • Energy & transport -6.6%
  • Mining -5.6%

EAME:

  • Construction -18.0%
  • Energy & transport -4.7%
  • Mining -20.1%

Asia/Pacific:

  • Construction -30.5%
  • Energy & transport -17.3%
  • Mining -12.2%

Takeaways:

  • Mining revenues down over 60% from the peak.  Declines are coming from depressed levels.
  • North America E&T (shale boom) was a bright spot, now a negative.
  • North America Construction was a bright spot, now negative.
  • Construction around the world is plunging (-29.4% excl. North America).

CEO Doug Oberhelman was interviewed on CNBC yesterday and asked if he regretted buying back stock at $100/share (traded at 79.76 at previous day’s close).  His response:

When you do a buyback at an industrial company like us, we have a lot of cash on our balance sheet.  Our balance sheet is strong, our debt-to-cap ratio is as strong as it’s been in decades, and having cash just sit on the balance sheet doesn’t do anybody any good.

[…] Caterpillar’s a 90-year old company and I am convinced at some point, probably not in the too distant future, those $100 shares will look cheap.  They’ll certainly look cheap today and you look at this as a long-term basis.

Oberhelman apparently sees no need to batten down the hatches even though he’s in the mother of all storms (and we’re just getting started).  In fact, he just hiked the dividend 10% in June and now wants to ramp up buybacks!  Keep in mind, Oberhelman never saw this storm coming.  On November 15, 2010, just months from the top of the commodity bubble, he paid $8.6 billion for Bucyrus International, which he called “a strong statement about our belief in the bright future of the mining industry.”  The company’s press release announcing the deal read:

The acquisition is based on Caterpillar’s key strategic imperative to expand its leadership in the mining equipment industry, and positions Caterpillar to capitalize on the robust long-term outlook for commodities driven by the trend of rapid growth in emerging markets which are improving infrastructure, rapidly developing urban areas and industrializing their economies.

Caterpillar is the ultimate canary in the global economy coalmine.  As their 2nd quarter confirmed, the canary is stone cold dead.  Yet eerily, hardly anyone is talking about it.  Fittingly, CEO Oberhelman is still at the helm.

Peak profits, stock prices?

Recently a respected colleague said our strategy was rational but markets, and the world for that matter, were highly irrational.  After participating in financial markets for the last 25 years I thought my experiences allowed me to see it all-wrong!  So after reflecting on our irrational state of affairs the logical side compiled some of the glaring data sets signifying a massive market top. 

First, a chart created by John Hussman (www.hussmanfunds.com) indicates how much excess we’ve witnessed in corporate profitability vs GDP lately.  Keep in mind his data includes financials which to this day remain a subsidized black box.  (Click on image to enlarge).New Picture (1)

Of course this hasn’t stopped wall street from expecting further net margin expansion:

 

Profit margin growth

Before Wall Street follows Congress out the door for the holidays maybe they should scrutinize this:

profits vs labor

To derive this unprecedented profit picture both consumers and government went on a spending binge.  US national debt, through 5 years of record deficits, added almost $7.7 trillion to our balance sheet-can you say malinvestment?personal savings govt deficits profits

 

Now, if we remove the creators of financial alchemy we notice the real economy topped many quarters ago. 

 

Nonfinl corp profits

So if you care to break away from CNBS and look at the graphs above rational behavior would suggest profit taking and or short exposure.  In fact, it was just 7 years ago that many of these same signals were sent to the market yet we were labeled as the boys crying wolf.  If your timing is perfect the crowd labels you a genius but too early, a chump. 

 

 

Global asset deflation: nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

Over the past several months global stocks, bonds and currency markets have hit a wall.  Just 6-8 months earlier the central banks of Europe, Japan and the US were signaling endless monetary accommodation which initially emboldened global speculators and their reach-for-yield mantra.  Now we look around for evidence or confirmation that the four year stimulus experiment is DOA.

First, emerging market stocks, bonds and currencies have all dropped somewhere between 7% and 12% the last few months as the carry trade (borrowing in low cost currencies in order to buy higher returning risk assets, thus capturing the spread) comes off the boil.  Second, political commentary out of China confirms our earlier thoughts that a credit bubble for the ages has begun to burst.  Since the central banking talking heads opened their mouths last month, Shibor rates (Chinese overnight unsecured lending rate amongst 16 largest banks)  have spiked to levels not seen since 2004:

Shibor-overview

Here is the latest on the Chinese banking system from Bloomberg:

Policy makers could be taking advantage of tight funding to “punish” some small banks, which previously used low interbank rates to finance purchases of higher-yielding bonds, Bank of America Merrill economists led by Lu Ting wrote in a report. Tight interbank liquidity could last until early July, according to the report.

‘Warning Shot’

“The PBOC [People’s Bank of China] clearly has an agenda here,” said Patrick Perret-Green, a former head of Citigroup Inc.’s Asian rates and foreign exchange who works at Mint Partners in London. “To fire a massive warning shot across the banks’ bows and to see who is swimming naked. Moreover, it fits in well with the new disciplinarian approach” adopted by the government, he said.

Chinese regulators are forcing trust funds and wealth managers to shift assets into publicly traded securities as they seek to curb lending that doesn’t involve local banks, so-called shadow banking, according to Fitch Ratings.

The tightening is “emblematic of some of the shadow banking issues coming to the fore as well as some of the tight liquidity associated with wealth management product issuance, and the crackdown on some shadow channels,” Charlene Chu, Fitch’s head of China financial institutions, said in a June 18 interview. She earlier estimated China’s total credit, including off-balance-sheet loans, swelled to 198 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 from 125 percent four years earlier, exceeding increases in the ratio before banking crises in Japan and South Korea. In Japan, the measure surged 45 percentage points from 1985 to 1990, and in South Korea, it gained 47 percentage points from 1994 to 1998, Fitch said in July 2011. [Emphasis mine.  Japan and South Korea experienced bubble economies during these periods which both burst.]

Look at the massive growth in nonbank (shadow) lending in China post 2008 credit crisis while keeping in mind most of this was indirectly backed by the largest banks under the “wealth management” label:

Chinese shadow banking

Maybe this is why China made the news last week when a proposed 15.5 billion renminbi bond offering failed (for the first time in nearly 2 years), receiving only 9.5 billion renminbi.

Over in Russia and Korea we see even more instability permeating the credit landscape.

Romania’s Finance Ministry rejected all bids at a seven-year bond sale yesterday because of market volatility, while South Korea raised less than 10 percent of the amount planned in an auction of inflation-linked bonds. Russia scrapped a sale of 15-year ruble-denominated bonds June 19, the second time it canceled an auction this month, and Colombia pared an offering of 20-year peso debt by 40 percent. A cash shortage led to failures last week of China Ministry of Finance debt sales.

More than $6.9 billion left funds investing in developing-nation debt in the four weeks to June 19, the most since 2011, according to Morgan Stanley, citing EPFR Global data. The exodus is reversing the $3.9 trillion of cash that flowed into emerging markets the past four years as China’s annual economic growth averaged 9.2 percent and spurred demand for Brazilian iron ore, Russian oil and gas and Chilean copper.

Romania rejected all 688 million lei ($200 million) of bids at a bond sale yesterday because of “unacceptable price offers,” according to an e-mailed statement from the central bank. It was the first failure since August.

South Korea sold just 9 percent of the 600 billion won ($524 million) it targeted from 10-year inflation-linked bonds this week. Colombia’s government pared an auction on June 19 of 20-year inflation-linked peso bonds by 40 percent, to 150 billion pesos ($77 million).

Russia canceled planned sales of 10 billion rubles ($311 million) of notes this week, citing a lack of demand within an acceptable yield range of 7.70 percent to 7.75 percent. Yields on ruble bonds due in 2028 jumped 30 basis points, or 0.30 percentage point, yesterday to 8.1 percent, the highest level since the debt was sold in January.

After endless monetary interventions the prior 3-4 years governments around the world temporarily created the illusion that interest rates would stay below nominal GDP growth targets.  The sleight of hand only lasted this long because so many of the “professional money managers” never questioned the actions of central bankers (a.k.a. asset inflationistas) .  As currencies, bonds and stock markets decline in unison around the world, one might pose the question “Have central bankers lost control of their monetary experiment?”  Or better yet, why would so many “investors” believe that a group of central banks with combined reserves of $11.5 trillion could levitate with over $240 trillion in global assets?   Which then begs the question,  where does one hide?

Fred Hickey compares today’s central banks to 19th century patent medicine factories

Fred Hickey, editor of The High-Tech Strategist ($150/year, thehightechstrategist@yahoo.com), grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, known as the “Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.”  In his latest HTS he discusses the genesis of the patent medicine industry in his hometown during the mid-1800s:

For a time, Lowell became America’s largest industrial center…  In addition to the textile factories, other industries grew up in the city around the same time, including patent medicine factories – Father John’s Medicine and J.C. Ayer & Co. among them.

Dr. J.C. Ayer founded J.C. Ayer & Co. in Lowell and his factory became one of the largest of its kind in the world.  Advertising was the key to success…, with the company distributing millions of copies of its free “almanac” (propaganda) annually around the world – in eight languages, including Chinese.  A sample from the almanac:

“The skillful pilot steers his ship through all dangers and guides her safely to port.  So the skillful physician pilots his patient through the perils of sickness to perfect health.  In cases of General Debility, so common at present day, he recommends the use of Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, because of its superior efficacy in aiding the formation of pure and vigorous blood, thereby restoring the normal condition to every fibre, organ, nerve, and muscle of the body.  It cures others and will cure you.  This standard remedy is compounded of the best tonics and alternatives known to science, and its superior qualities as blood-purifier and invigorator have stood the test of nearly half a century.”

Ayer became fabulously wealthy, amassing a fortune of some $20 million – quite a sum for the time.

Though Dr. Ayer never practiced medicine, the cover of each J.C. Ayer almanac was decorated with classical engravings such as one showing the Greek physician Hippocrates standing atop the earth declaring: “Heal the sick.”  What was not to believe with such evidence coming from a great doctor?

Hickey goes on the draw the parallel to central banking:

 Today, we look back and laugh – how could these people be so gullible?  Yet, the world is currently under the spell of its own modern-day quacks – known as central bankers.  Central bankers are touted as having the cure for all of our financial problems.  Their tonic, with the scientifically-sounding name of “quantitative easing,” or QE for short, is guaranteed to restore our financial health, to cleanse us from all our ills.  Whether the cause is spending beyond our means (perennial trillion dollar deficits and gigantic debts), making entitlement promises we cannot keep, building a gigantic welfare state of dependents, having a dysfunctional (and sometimes corrupt) government, constructing a byzantine tax system, tying up our businesses in a web of regulations, enabling “too-big-to-fail” banks to grow monstrously bigger – all can be cured with the magical elixir called QE.

Our skillful physician pilots (brandishing their doctorates from Princeton and M.I.T.) have discovered a miracle cure to be sure – at least that’s what one hears all day long from the talking heads on CNBC…  The media dissects Bernanke’s every utterance for clues as to whether he will supply more of the miracle or not.  The cameras are always on – even when he’s just laying out lame jokes at a Princeton commencement ceremony.

The QE medicine is seductive and addictive…

The best part yet – the QE medicine that he and other central bankers around the world are ladling out tastes so good… With QE, stocks will never fall on Tuesdays (20 straight up Tuesdays in a row), stock markets will never again have a 5% “correction,” (nearing 200 days without a 5% decline), investors can lever up with margin debt to record levels ($384 billion and counting – exceeding the 2007 pre-crash level)…  Investors have become so addicted to the QE wonder drug than even the merest hint of a lower dosage (tapering) sends up cries of anguish from the financial world.  Stock prices wobble; interest rates soar and CNBC anchors throw hissy-fits.

Other than the hallucinogenic effects, is the drug working?

Despite an additional $6 trillion of deficit spending, 0% interest rates and trillions of dollars of newly-created high-powered monetary reserves by the Federal Reserve (QE) that has driven asset inflation sharply higher (stocks, bonds, farmland, art and gold); over the past 4+ years we have experienced the slowest economic recovery in post-war history…  Last month investors celebrated a pathetic 165,000 jobs created, when 278,000 of those jobs were part-time.  In other words, we lost another 113,000 full-time jobs.  The U-6 unemployment rate (including part-time workers unable to find full-time work) ticked UP to 13.9%… With jobs hard to get and real inflation-adjusted incomes falling, the average American consumer is under pressure.  Witness the fairly miserable first quarter sales results from America’s largest retailers reported last month.  Same-store sales fell year-over-year at Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl’s and Sears…  Yesterday we received the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) report for May which, at a reading of 49.0, showed the biggest contraction in American manufacturing activity in four years – since the “Great Recession” of 2009…  I’ve been going through scores of first quarter earnings reports and conference calls from the largest technology companies.  The numbers and commentary were consistently gloomy – it was the worst batch of results I’ve seen since the end of the Great Recession.

At this stage of recovery something is terribly wrong.  Let me clue you in on a little secret – money printing doesn’t work.

The Japanese chugged plenty of this medicine…

Japan was the first to try “QE” to resolve its problems (though it was certainly not the first to try money printing).  They’ve been attempting to lift their economy out of a decades-long recession for many years.  The Bank of Japan (BOJ) tripled its balance sheet but did nothing to address the real underlying causes of the disease.  They did not address their lifetime employment system that hobbles business flexibility.  They did little to correct the ridiculous rules and regulations that suffocate the agricultural, medical and retail industries.  They raised taxes.  They massively increased government spending, wasting trillions of dollars and causing a debt pileup (235% of GDP and still rising) – the likes of which the world has never seen from a developed country.  As one would expect, the attempt failed spectacularly.

Yet the American snake oil salesmen claimed they didn’t drink enough!

Dr. Bernanke, and other high priests of central planning (including Paul Krugman) lectured the Japanese that their problem was they weren’t swilling enough of the QE tonic fast enough.  For a decade the BOJ resisted, always citing concerns over inflation.  Finally, Shinzo Abe was swept into power on the campaign promise of more licorice for everyone! After eliminating the key inflation-phobes (Masaaki Shirakawa) from the BOJ and replacing them with Bernanke-like clones (Haruhiko Kuroda), the new era of “Abenomics” was on…  The BOJ announced a plan to double its monetary base (high-powered money) within two years.  In other words, they opted to chug the whole bottle of medicine at once.

After discussing the post-WWI German experiment in money printing gone awry (Weimar hyperinflation), Hickey sees the American experiment ending badly:

Despite this horrific central banker record, U.S. investors still want to believe that Father Ben’s QE medicine will eventually work.  But just because the crowd believes this fantasy, doesn’t mean I have to.  As long as the Fed continues to print tens of billions of dollars a month, stocks can continue to climb higher, but the gap between the economic reality (poor) and the stock valuations (euphoric) widens to ever more dangerous levels.  Another crash is coming and I intend to avoid it – once again.

In conclusion, Fred Hickey offers an antidote to the QE drug:

Throughout history, the antidote to money debasement has always been gold.

Japanese government bonds take biggest 2-day hit in 5 years

As Tyler Durden of Zero Hedge reported, 10-year JGBs took their worst 2-day plunge since the financial meltdown of Q4, 2008:

The last 2 days have seen JGB prices plunge at the fastest rate since the post-Lehman debacles in Sept/Oct 2008 smashing back to 13 month highs.  5Y yields are surging even more – trading above 34bps now (up from 9.9bps on March 5th). These are simply astronomical moves in the context of JGB history and strongly suggest Abe & Kuroda are anything but in control of the quadrillion Yen domestic bond market as they jawbone inflation expectations into the psychology of the people.

Meanwhile, the Japanese yen has fallen off a cliff as the Bank of Japan (BoJ) opens the monetary floodgates:

Jeff Berwick, editor of The Dollar Vigilante Blog weighs in on the bond vigilantes calling the BoJ’s bluff:

Traders should take note of Japanese Government Bond prices.  On April 4th the Bank of Japan made the announcement that they intended to DOUBLE the money supply and buy government bonds roughly equaling $80B a month.  Does this number sound familiar?  It should since the US Federal Reserve’s own quantitative easing program is roughly $85 B a month.  An important data point to remember here is that the Japanese economy is only 1/3 the size of the US economy, but its own quantitative easing program equals that of the US.   To say Japan is “doubling down” on the same failed policy approach it has taken for the last 20 years would be a bit of a misnomer.  This is Japan’s “all in” move as I try to keep the gambling metaphor rolling.  A gamble is exactly what this is, a very big gamble with no precedent in economic history.

What are the consequences of rapidly increasing government spending, monetizing $80B a month in debt, and flooding the market with yen?  It is hard to miss the headlines as the Yen on the futures exchange is now trading at below 100 yen to the USD for the first time in four years.

Berwick offers an explanation as to why bondholders are beginning to act more rationally:

Why are bonds trading lower?  Think about this from a prudent lender’s point of view and you will have your answer.  If I give you yen, and you give me a security (bond) that says you will give me back my yen with interest in 10 years, then why would I sit with that security and let you pay me back with a devalued currency?  Well, in Japan bondholders appear to be speaking with their market participation.  Bond holders are doing exactly what they should be doing.  Bond holders should be liquidating bonds and converting money out of yen into non-yen denominated securities and investments (note all the M&A activity from Japanese companies in the last seven months as the smart money runs and not walks out of Japan and the yen).

How can the savers in Japan be sitting idly by and watching the purchasing power of their savings being destroyed?  We are on the first chapter of a very ugly time in Japan where policy makers decisions will strain the very social fabric of the country.  We will have a front row seat to the failings of the Keynesian economic philosophy.  It will not be pretty for Japan. And it could very well be the first major event in The End Of The Monetary System As We Know It.

Last Friday, in his Daily Rap, Bill Fleckenstein mentioned the possibility of a Japanese canary in the sovereign debt coal mine:

Japan was the epicenter of fireworks that spread around the world, as last night their equity market rallied 3% even as their debt market had a bit of a nasty spill. However, it must be kept in perspective that the change was rather small and rates have only backed up to where they were in February. So it is not exactly huge trouble, but it could be the start of a shift. At the moment, the bond and currency markets are declining in Japan. Should that continue and should the bond market worsen materially, it would be an early sign of what an eventual funding crisis would look like.

Of course, as long as Japan’s central bank is buying such huge amounts of paper it can thwart that for a time, but it could be the first sign of a bond market anywhere revolting against the printing press. As I say, it is very early days and I don’t want to make too much of it, but a trickle can eventually become a flood, and a trickle has to start somewhere.

Over three weeks ago, in our Q1 letter to investors, we mentioned the possibility of a “Wizard of Oz moment” as the BoJ accelerated its monetary experiment:

Two weeks ago, the Bank of Japan announced a doubling of its asset purchase program.  In Pavlovian response, speculators bid up Japanese government bonds strongly, with the 10-year yielding just under 0.40%.  The following day those gains completely evaporated.  Had the BoJ lost control and the market called its bluff?

For now Goldilocks prevails, but for how long?  Fleckenstein considers the glaring (and widening) disconnects:

So we continue to be in the most perverse sweet spot in the history of the money-printing era that began over 20 years ago. Between the BOJ and the Fed, we are printing about $1.8 trillion a year, along with massive deficit spending, and those policies are regarded as a panacea for equities and just fine for bonds, but horrible for assets that protect one against inflation. Of course, that makes no sense, but when you are in a warped environment (and this is the most warped ever), crazy things not only happen, they lead to even crazier outcomes until the madness finally stops, after which all hell breaks loose.

So much for the notion that central bankers are in control.  Did the global reach-for-yield bubble just go “pop”?

A gold bull explains the disconnect between asset prices, economic statistics and the real economy

In the May 2, 2013 issue of The Goldenbar Report (gold@goldenbar.com), editor Edmond Bugos gave this succinct account of the ongoing economic Three-card Monte:

In the end, the bears are going to be wrong about the end of the bull market because these policies cannot actually strengthen the economy as Goldman and others naively predict.  They can only create the boom-bust cycle, and continue to divert wealth into uneconomic activities for as long as it is tolerated…as long as savers and wealth creators don’t push back, or as long as the Fed doesn’t try to take away the punch bowl in a delusion of over-confidence.

Despite what macroeconomic texts teach, rising stock prices and GDP do not indicate anything about real economic growth regardless of how many times the media suggests the opposite.  Neither does a falling unemployment rate indicate that the economy is producing any lasting work.  If the policy is diverting scarce capital into wealth destroying activities those jobs will disappear when the supporting policy does (capital is always scarce in that it is finite relative to our infinite wants –if there is unemployment or excess capacity it is because it was previously employed poorly to ends that were obviously overestimated, and is not easy to re-mobilize towards the production of goods that people value higher).  The trend in GDP and asset prices is an illusion to support the growth lie…they are metrics that belong to a faulty economic framework.

Further, Bugos distinguishes between the real economies of the euro zone, Japan, and the U.S.:

Additionally: because the Bank of Japan and ECB have not been as easy as the Fed, although there is a high relative degree of over-regulation and public sector bureaucracy in the former (regions), their economies have had a better chance to adjust to reality…while the Fed, by keeping its pedal to the metal meanwhile, has continued to divert resources towards bubble (wasteful) activities…i.e. the US economy hasn’t been given the same chance to heal. The boom is where the damage is being done, and the bust is where the markets are trying to correct the imbalances caused by the boom. The Fed didn’t allow this latter healing in the US. The ECB and BOJ did. My point being: there could be some real growth in Japan and Europe whereas in the US it is mostly ephemeral and unsustainable.

Ironically, U.S. assets prices have benefitted from their perceived safe haven status as capital flees the euro zone’s troubles.  Is such confidence completely unwarranted?

 

Speculative economy distances itself from real economy

According to a report released 2 weeks ago by the Pew Research Center, the wealthiest 7% of Americans – those most likely to own stocks – saw their net worth rise 28% in 2009-2011, while the lower 93% witnessed a 4% decline.

High yield bond offerings set record in January

According to an article in today’s Bloomberg, “corporations sold $25.9 billion of junk-rated debt in 2010, the fastest start to a year on record.” The market for riskier debt has since cooled:

“Three months ago, every piece of spaghetti stuck to the wall,” said Jason Brady, a managing director who invests $54 billion at Thornburg Investment Management Inc. in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Now it seems, the market is more price sensitive.”

The securities slid 1.16 percent this month after gaining 1.52 percent in January and 57.5 percent in 2009, according to Bank of Merrill Lynch data. Merrill Lynch’s Global Broad Market Corporate Index showed.

The extra yield investors demand to own high-yield debt instead of Treasuries has grown to 688 basis points from this year’s low of 599 basis points, or 5.99 percentage points, on Jan. 11, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch U.S. High-Yield Master II Index.

One of the many disastrous consequences of the Fed’s zero interest rate policy is the enticing of investors to reach for yield. Last year $460 million fled money market funds for riskier pastures, even high yield debt. As the old Wall Street saying goes, “more money is lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun.”

Deceitful GDP statistics

The US Federal Government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis released its 4th quarter 2009 GDP statistics today. The news– 5.7% annualized GDP growth, led primarily by a large jump in inventories. Economist David Rosenberg made the following observations:

First, the report was dominated by a huge inventory adjustment — not the onset of a new inventory cycle, but a transitory realignment of stocks to sales. Excluding the inventory contribution, GDP would have advanced at a much more tepid 2.2% QoQ annual rate, not really that much better than the soft 1.5% reading in the third quarter.

Second, it was a tad strange to have had inventories contribute half to the GDP tally, and at the same time see import growth cut in half last quarter.

Third, if you believe the GDP data — remember, there are more revisions to come — then you de facto must be of the view that productivity growth is soaring at over a 6% annual rate. No doubt productivity is rising — just look at the never-ending slate of layoff announcements. But we came off a cycle with no technological advance and no capital deepening, so it is hard to believe that productivity at this time is growing at a pace that is four times the historical norm. Sorry, but we’re not buyers of that view.

In the fourth quarter, aggregate private hours worked contracted at a 0.5% annual rate and what we can tell you is that such a decline in labour input has never before, scanning over 50 years of data, coincided with a GDP headline this good. Normally, GDP growth is 1.7% when hours worked is this weak, and that is exactly the trend that was depicted this week in the release of the Chicago Fed’s National Activity Index, which was widely ignored. On the flip side, when we have in the past seen GDP growth come in at or near a 5.7% annual rate, what is typical is that hours worked grows at a 3.7% rate.

No matter how you slice it, the GDP number today represented not just a rare but an unprecedented event, and as such, we are willing to treat the report with an entire saltshaker — a few grains won’t do.

Government spending, at all levels, is a depredation on the private productive economy– the government produces nothing and can spend only what it taxes, borrows or inflates out of the rest of the economy. Technically speaking, government spending should be dragged out of GDP stats as well, not just this quarter but all quarters.

Meanwhile, yesterday Helicopter Ben was reconfirmed by a 70-30 vote of the Senate, ensuring the financial community that another tidal wave of cash is just over the horizon should it be necessary.

With a sworn inflationist back in the saddle (okay, he never left) and GDP surging at an annualized rate of 5.7% as if massive government intervention were a sound foundation for economic recovery, this market should be heading for new highs, right? Wrong. The markets swooned, continuing their miserable march downward, as they have all week, with the Dow closing Friday -53, NASDAQ -31 , and the S&P 500 down 10 with an ominous, last-minute, high-volume selloff as if to seal the deal.

Superstitious soothsayers at CNBC insist that a negative January close means “bad luck” for the markets all year long. One thing seems increasingly certain at this point… this “recovery” is taking its last gasps of noxious air and the broad market has already kicked the bucket.

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