By: Joseph on Sabato 18 Maggio 2002 10:55
Se può essere d'aiuto, ecco l'ultima view dell'economista S.Roach dal Global Forum di Morgan Stanley:
Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t occur in the future. The odds of a double dip in the US economy are not nearly as low as you have been led to believe. While the incoming data in early 2002 have certainly broken against such a possibility, the analytics remain quite compelling, in my view. The case for the double dip rests on five key considerations.
The unrelenting squeeze on Corporate America is at the top of my list. At work are three macro pressures -- no pricing leverage, a legacy of bloated costs, and still-depressed profit margins. With GDP-based inflation running at a 0.35% annual rate over the past two quarters -- a 48-year low -- the risk of outright deflation can hardly be ruled out. Inasmuch as inflation typically recedes during the first four quarters of economic recovery, that risk is far from trivial; that’s especially the case with the US being subjected to the ongoing pressures of import price deflation -- nonpetroleum import prices are down 3.3% in the 12 months ending April 2002. On the cost side of the equation, considerable progress has been made in pruning the capacity overhang, especially for information technology. However, while the capital spending share of GDP has been cut to 11.1% in 1Q02 -- down from the 13.2% peak of 4Q00 -- it remains well above the 10% trough readings that were reached at the bottom of earlier secular downturns in business spending. Moreover, little progress has been made in pruning the excesses of labor costs; worker compensation currently stands at 55% of national income -- down 0.5 percentage point from its cyclical high six months ago, but still well above the 53% level hit in the trough of the last recession.
In a still weak demand climate, the twin pressures of limited pricing leverage and persistent cost bloat have left corporate profit margins quite depressed. Unit profits from current production (as measured in the national income accounts) stood at 0.090 in 4Q01 (latest data available) -- up 12.5% from the trough a quarter earlier but still down 30% from peak levels hit in the late 1990s. Barring a vigorous and sustained revival in final demand, pressures on corporate earning should persist. That suggests US businesses will remain fixated on cost cutting for some time to come. Inasmuch as corporate IT budgets have borne the brunt of such efforts thus far, the pendulum of cost cutting should now swing toward the long overdue pruning of labor costs. An overhang of managerial employment seems particularly vulnerable in that regard -- underscoring the distinct possibility of a structural increase in unemployment that would be strikingly reminiscent of that which occurred in the "jobless recovery" of the early 1990s.
A second element to the case for a double dip is a potential capitulation of the seemingly unflappable American consumer. Two considerations are key in this regard -- the first being a shock to job and income security brought about the white-collar headcount reductions sketched out above. While the over-extended American consumer looks especially precarious from the standpoints of saving, equity wealth effects, and debt-service ratios, these considerations pale in comparison with far more powerful income effects. To the extent that the focus of corporate cost cutting now shifts to headcount reductions that persist well into recovery -- precisely as was the case during the first 15 months of the recovery in the early 1990s -- then there is a compelling case for a protracted shortfall in consumer demand (see my 16 May dispatch in the Global Economic Forum, "Derailing the American Consumer"). A likely fallback in the purchases of consumer durables after the extraordinary buying binge of late 2001 -- up at a 39.4% annual rate in 4Q01 -- is yet another reason to be concerned about a potential relapse in consumer demand. The time-honored "stock adjustment model" of consumer durables would predict just such an outcome. In this framework, consumers have a clear notion of their desired (equilibrium) holdings (stock) of durables; when they overshoot this target -- as they did late last year -- a payback can then be expected. That was the basis for my initial call for a pullback in personal consumption, and I still stand by it. If history tells us one thing about double dips, it’s that they are invariably triggered by a relapse in consumer demand. That risk remains very real, in my view.
The "vulnerability factor" is a third element to the case for a double dip. The theory is quite simple in this respect. If GDP growth remains close to the "stall speed" -- a 1-2% pace, in my view -- then the economy lacks its normal cyclical cushion, and it doesn’t take much of a shock to trigger renewed recession. This is the same construct I used to predict the recession of 2001, and I believe it will be equally applicable looking ahead. There are two reasons to worry about a US economy that might be hovering at its stall speed beginning in the second half of 2002. First, there is no "pent-up demand" demand for consumer durables and homebuilding -- sectors that normally play key roles in sparking cyclical revival. In the typical recession quarter of the past (28 quarters over six recessions), these two sectors reduced annualized real GDP growth by 1.2 percentage points; by contrast, in the final three quarters of 2001, these two sectors added 1.2 percentage points to GDP growth. With the classic sources of pent-up demand having already been spent -- and with capital spending likely to be restrained by ongoing corporate cost cutting -- the prognosis for a vigorous rebound in final demand is dubious.
Demand is also likely to restrained by a second set of forces -- the structural headwinds stemming from the lingering excesses of the late 1990s. Recessions are supposed to purge the excesses that build up during the preceding boom. That has not been the case in what has so far turned out to be the shortest and mildest recession on record. The excesses of the late 1990s remain an enduring feature of the current climate -- rock-bottom personal saving rates, an overhang of excess capacity, record debt loads, and a massive current account deficit. These imbalances will only get worse in a vigorous recovery. By contrast, they can only be tempered by slow growth -- or by a double dip. For those two reasons -- a lack of pent-up demand and the ever-present excesses of the late 1990s -- there is good reason to believe that the US economy could well find itself back in stall-speed territory as soon as the second half of 2002. Operating at such a vulnerable growth pace would leave America wide open to any shock -- an all too frequent occurrence even under the best of circumstances.
The unique character of the latest recession is a fourth key reason to worry about the possibility of a double dip. Unlike recessions of the past, which were driven largely by adjustments on the demand side of the equation, this one was dominated by a contraction on the supply side. Over the final three quarters of 2001, business capital spending lowered annualized real GDP growth by 1.6 percentage points -- four times the recessionary norm of -0.4 percentage point. To the extent that this IT-driven collapse in business spending was very much a manifestation of America’s post-bubble shakeout, it seems reasonable to believe that this key sector will remain sluggish for some time to come. Economic theory and history are quite clear on one key characteristic of a supply-side recession induced by the popping of an asset bubble -- a lack of responsiveness to lower interest rates. Look no further than to Japan for a clear example of such a phenomenon. A similar outcome could well be in the offing in the United States. It’s three interest-rate-sensitive sectors -- consumer durables, homebuilding, and business capital spending -- that all seem likely to be surprisingly unresponsive to the recent aggressive easing of US monetary policy. The Fed could well be as close to "pushing on a string" as it has been since the 1930s.
A fifth reason to worry about the possibility of a double dip is historical precedent. I put less credence on this factor than I do on the other four. While we are all taught to challenge the notion that "this time is different," it is equally risky, in my view, to frame a forecast on the basis of mindless extrapolations from the past. Nevertheless, I do believe it pays to be mindful of the lessons of history. And in that regard, the record is perfectly clear -- five of the past six recessions have, in fact, contained a double dip. Moreover, there were actually triple dips in the cyclical downturns of the mid-1970s and early-1980s. The double dips of the past all have one thing in common -- they were triggered by a relapse on the demand front that occurred at just the moment when businesses had started lifting production in order to replenish depleted stocks. Needless to say, with industrial production now on the rise in the US -- four months of consecutive gains in early 2002 -- any relapse on the demand front would be especially problematic. And then, of course, history would end up having an uncanny knack of repeating itself.
I will be the first to concede that the case presented above does not make a clear distinction between an outright double dip and an anemic recovery. But, at a minimum, these considerations paint a picture of a US economy that could find it exceedingly difficult to fulfill the growth, earnings, Fed policy, and inflationary expectations that are currently embedded in financial markets. Yes, the data flow has broken very much against this call in early 2002. But I continue to believe that the analytics of the double dip remain quite compelling. To the extent that much of the incoming data may have been distorted by noise -- especially weather-related distortions and a post-9/11 sigh of relief -- the case for an imminent and marked slowdown in the US economy remains a distinct possibility. And such a relapse could well sow the seeds of a vulnerability, out of which the classic double dip is invariably borne. For a consensus that has now put this possibility completely to rest, that could come as the biggest shock of all.