Saturday, October 15, 2011

National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges--10/13/11--The Not So Gloomy Economist

Thursday’s lunchtime speaker was Gregory L. Miller, Chief Economist for SunTrust Banks, Inc. His presentation was not too gloomy but a bit disturbing. He began Saturday Night Live style saying, “I’m the economist and you’re not.”

Miller predicted that “there is not going to be a double dip recession.” He said that his “subjective prospect that the economy will fall into recession is not significant.” He estimated the prospect of recession at 25% which he said was not great because at any given time, there is a 15% prospect of recession.

On the other hand, Mr. Miller said that the rest of the world has a 60% chance of recession, noting that at least three countries in the Euro Zone were already in recession and that others were at risk.” Nevertheless, he said that, “whether or not the rest of the world goes into recession, we will not.” Mr. Miller suggested that a global recession could even help the United States, since it would make foreign goods less expensive. He said this would be good for lovers of French wine. He noted that despite the weak economy elsewhere in the world U.S. exports were still increasing.

Miller noted that the private sector in the United States was “fine under the circumstances” but that the “public sector is not pulling its weight at a time when it should be doing it.” He added that “Pulling the economy deeper when it’s already in the soup is not a government function but that’s what it’s doing.” Miller said that the private sector was growing at a rate of 3.6% while the overall economy was growing at a rate of 2.8% indicating that the public sector was a net drain of 0.8% on the economy.

Mr. Miller said that in the U.S. economy, the housing, government and credit sectors were weak. He said that the housing sector was at the bottom but that condos were “a virtual black hole.” He said that housing and credit are usually leading sectors, but that the rules are different now and the standards are higher. He said that two trillion dollars has been dumped into bank balance sheets where it is stuck in capital accounts of regulated banks who aren’t sure what their capital requirements are. He said that banks were reluctant to put loans on the books when they don’t know whether they will pass audit.

With regard to the labor market, he pointed out that the Obama administration’s current jobs bill consists largely of former Republican proposals. However, “the opposition is obliged to hate the dominant party’s policy even if it is the right thing.”

Mr. Miller noted that the current $450 billion proposal would have more effect than the previous $800 billion stimulus bill because it funneled money to the private sector where the multiplier is higher rather than the prior stimulus which went through state and local governments.

However, he said, “It’s not the jobs. Nine percent unemployment is not what’s wrong with the economy.” He said that the natural unemployment rate is 6% and that when we had 4% unemployment, there was too much employment in the economy. He said that 30% of the newly unemployed came from the construction and mortgage finance sectors. He said there is a mismatch between those who want jobs and those who are looking to employ. He said that two-thirds of the unemployed would likely remain unemployed and “we don’t want them employed.”

Miller said that interest rates will remain painfully low until at least the middle of 2012. Nevertheless, banks are finding it more profitable to park their cash at the Fed where they can earn 0.25% interest. He pointed out that reserves have increased from $500 billion to $3 trillion. He said that to get banks lending, the Fed would need to lower the rate it pays to zero or even charge banks to keep their cash parked at the Fed.

He said that the Euro sovereign debt crisis was a crisis of banking and culture, not an economic crisis. He said that U.S. banks held only 0.10% of their assets in European sovereign debt and that this was concentrated in banks that could afford to absorb the loss.

In summary, the U.S. economy is not going into recession, the prospect for the rest of the world looks bleak, unemployment is not going back to where it once was, banks are not lending and the U.S. government is dysfunctional. That’s about as rosy of a view as you can get from an economist.

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