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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

January 4, 2010 at 9:58 AM

The big markers to watch for recovery 2010

A day of soothing Seattle rain and anxiety about the year ahead in the economy. From stock indices to jobs, the decade passing was stagnant or worse. We’re fresh out of big bubbles, left to smaller ones such as the first-time house buyer credit and the carry trade. So what are the key macro markers for the year ahead?

1. The jobs market. Real relief won’t come until employers start hiring again and before they do that they’ll work through a backlog of part-timers and contract labor. And the recovery looks to be so weak that demand will remain slack. Slowing job losses are “good news,” unless you’re one of the six unemployed people already chasing a job. Until this situation improves, the economic and political scene will be highly volatile. So far, look for a jobless recovery.

2. Housing. This recovery seems iffy at best, driven by historic low interest rates, the tax credit for first-time buyers and other subsidies. The new year will tell if the fundamentals can firm up. In any event, we’re not going back to double-digit price increases and houses as consumer piggy banks.

3. Debt. Toxic “assets,” huge corporate debt, vast leveraged positions in the derivatives and private equity world — they’re still out there and have yet to be unwound. And they must be unwound for real recovery to begin. Meanwhile, China’s trade and currency actions make it difficult for America to repay its debt, even if we were of a mind to do so.

4. The carry trade. Big investors have been borrowing with virtual zero U.S. interest rates and the weak dollar to invest in much higher yielding stuff, such as commodities and equities. It’s been one big driver of the stock market (i.e., if the Dow is doing so well, why are most of us hurting?). It’s a risky game — especially because of the high leverage involved — and the biggest of the shadow bubbles now endangering recovery.

5. China. The Chinese economy continues to recover with an ongoing expansion in manufacturing. But it’s a risky recovery, especially fueled by big bank lending. Most Chinese export markets haven’t recovered. And the trillions in American debt and dollars held by China are as much a weakness as a strength.

6. We haven’t fixed much. Global imbalances remain, as well as their underlying causes such as China’s currency and protection racket. The too-big-to-fail banks have gotten bigger. Financial “re-regulation”? — what’s not to like, if you’re a banker… Washington has shown it will back the riskiest gambles of Wall Street — even if you can’t get health care or high-speed rail. And the underpinnings of the American economy remain too dependent on moving money around. Without fundamental reform, further shakeups are in order.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

The kind of a thug

Who would steal MOHAI’s clockworks

Should be doing time

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