During an extraordinary live interview with billionaire businessman Warren Buffett on CNBC-TV yesterday, he politely dismissed a barrage of ideologically-driven questions to present a very simple and practical assessment of the economy and the current political landscape.
The only problem was that he didn’t spell out a clear pathway to recovery, except to say generally that everything will “right itself” somewhere between five and 10 years out. Maybe there really isn’t one.
Speaking from his Omaha headquarters on the anniversary of Obama’s inauguration, Buffett conceded the depths of the crisis that hit the markets and the economy in October and September 2008, and credited Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke for extraordinary efforts to forestall a wholesale collapse at that time. He said he’d “vote twice,” if he could, for the re-confirmation of Bernanke a Federal Reserve chief.
With candid simplicity, he pin-pointed exactly the cause of the crisis, as out-of-control leveraging, the spiraling out of control of debt of the entire U.S. economy from individual households to the most elaborate hedge funds, and that the process of de-leveraging is painful and is far from over.
He said that as long as unemployment remains as high as it is, there will be no recovery and the political turmoil of the nature that led to the upset victory for the Republicans in Massachusetts Tuesday will only increase.
A “throw the bums out” mentality driving the vote Tuesday and driving down the president’s approval ratings on the first anniversary of his presidency is fueled by the double-digit unemployment crisis, with the official numbers masking the deeper problems associated with underemployment, total discouragement and the fear of the imminent loss of many more jobs.
As long as that’s the case, de-leveraging individual households will not drive an economic recovery. They will simply not expend the dollars at the levels needed for a traditional form of rebound.
Buffett added that exotic interpretations of the impact of government policies have nothing to do with the problem. He’d have no problem hiring people, he said, if the orders were there to demand it. “I am not going to hire people to just stand around,” he said. “But if the orders are coming in requiring me to step up production, then I will gladly hire people to meet that demand.”
But the Catch-22 lies in the fact that without the unemployment numbers coming down, there will be no orders for increasing production, therefore no incentive for hiring. Buffett noted that there need to be 100,000 new jobs a month just to keep the unemployment rate from continuing to rise.
Buffett offered no solution to break this cycle, except to stress there will be no quick recovery, putting that off five or 10 years.
While no recovery plan is on the horizon, on the other hand, there are indications that, from an employment perspective, things will soon be getting a lot worse, starting this spring as state and local governments face the impact of steep revenue shortfalls derived from the collapsed economy, especially the devaluation of commercial real estate, which will lead to huge numbers of new layoffs.
Federal stimulus efforts forestalled some of those layoffs a year ago, but there are no expectations that a similar intervention will occur this go-around, especially as Republicans are more emboldened with their recent victories in Virginia and Massachusetts.
The stock market, too, may be careening toward another nosedive, as it again begins to manifest the behavior known as the dreaded “Hindenburg Omen.” This column identified that “omen” in early July 2008, a couple months before the Fall 2008 meltdown began.
Having a more than 90 percent accuracy rate since 1975, the “Hindenburg Omen,” as I wrote on July 9, 2008, is “based on carefully-scrutinized market trends,” that reflect a “fundamental instability in the markets…a sort of wobble effect.”
This past week, with the Dow down over 100 points Friday, up over 100 points on Tuesday and down over 100 points yesterday, manifests the kind of “wobble effect” that may portend the much-feared “double dip” is looming.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]