National Commentary

The ‘New Normal?’

bentonmugSipping white wine out on the porch during a party on a summery early evening in Arlington, a small group of us, fairly savvy on matters pertaining to the wider economy, mused about the current, relentless refrain coming from Washington and Wall Street that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and that the turn-around from the brink of the worst economic collapse of our lifetimes is underway.

It is not hard to imagine, I proposed, that there were many groups of people just like us, sipping wine on summery porches, talking about the signs of a recovering economy…in, say, 1931. There were signs back then, signs not unlike the one the experts are pointing to now, that prosperity was just around the corner. Little did they know then, I mused, that they were facing eight or nine years of the Great Depression ahead of them.

Have you ever noticed how you never hear from your broker unless it’s about some allegedly-good news? Maybe I’m a little slow on such things, but in reality brokers and others, like the IRS I suppose, who say they are “here to help you,” are actually just looking for pretexts to reach their hands into your pockets. News of promising economic trends is just such a pretext.

Given the last couple of years, the financial “experts” should be ashamed to call themselves such. They just say, “Ah, oops! Who would have known?” After all, it’s not their money, it’s yours. They’re about as good at forecasting as Sports Illustrated “experts” are at predicting who will make it to the World Series any given year. It is obvious they get paid to predict, not to be right.

Now comes the latest sophistry that is designed to convince you to cautiously move your life savings from the mattress back into the market place. It is called the “New Normal,” and it has been touted all this week on CNBC, the all-business cable TV channel. The components of the “New Normal” are lower growth, lower employment, more savings and more government control.

In other words, the “New Normal” is a happy-face name for a deep and persisting economic malaise which, to the extent is being conceded as inevitable, will bring with it consequences bound to lurch the global economy back to that brink of total collapse.

The “New Normal” tries to subsume the obvious signs that a swift rebound to the world as it was before last summer are nowhere in the works. But we can figure out how to use your money to make money in a global economy mired in deflation and rising unemployment.

“The Economy is Still At the Brink” proclaims the opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times by Sandy Lewis and William D. Cohan. “Huge structural flaws remain in the architecture of our financial system,” they, as well-qualified observers, explain. They note that everything done to revive the economy so far has been directed to achieve a return to last year’s status quo.

They note correctly that “confidence will return only when jobs can be found and mortgage payments made,” adding we “are a long way from the point where those struggling to get by will feel like spending again. What happens when people buy a car once every 10 years instead of once every two or three?”

What does high unemployment in the U.S., including the psychology associated with the fear of job loss, do to a global economy that is built around the American consumer? It is not just defaults on sub-prime mortgages that threaten us over the long haul, or defaults on credit cards and regular mortgages that come with rising unemployment. It is the sustained practice of spending less and doing without by the American consumer that will really do us in for years to come.

David M. Smick, writing in the Washington Post this week, notes that as “ugly as the credit markets have been, (global) trade has been worse.” Exports of the world’s three biggest exporters, Germany, Japan and China, are down 33 percent from a year ago. With American imports down the same amount, two-way trade has contracted by $1.5 trillion.

“What happens if the U.S. consumer, the world’s consumer of last resort, pulls back permanently, as seems distinctly possible,” Smick wonders.

Combined with rising shipping costs, the world may be entering a “de-globalization” and it may soon be cheaper to relocate low-paying jobs from overseas back to the U.S. But low-paying jobs don’t translate into the spending boom that the global economy thinks it requires to avert a deep slide into a veritable dark age, or, as your broker calls it, the “New Normal!”