When will the sell-off start? World markets inexplicably bounced last night on the apparent ‘good news’ that the US economy contracted and the German slide was set to worsen. The Fed saw some sign of green shoots, but still pledged to keep interest rates as low as possible.

Wall Street rose more than 2% and European markets recorded similar rises. Oil, gold and copper were up and so was the Australian dollar. In fact, major US market measures reached their highest levels since February and January. Those nasty 11 and 12-year lows hit in late February and early March have now been forgotten and Wall Street sees itself as well on the way to a positive year.

The dark days of September to February are over. Give back the taxpayer’s money that saved our a-ses and let us make money again, unchecked and unhindered by rule, regulation or commonsense, the markets appear to be saying.

That’s despite the world’s biggest economy, the US, remaining deep in recession. Germany, the globe’s 4th biggest economy, moved deeper into the red with growth this year estimated to fall by a nasty 6% — the biggest drop since World War Two.

First quarter US economic growth contracted at an annual 6.1% in the March quarter, a mere 0.2% better than the 6.3% annual rate in the terrible December quarter.

It was worse than expected, with forecasters tipping a fall of around 4.9% (Reuters) or 4.7% (Bloomberg). They both got it very wrong.

Taking the December and March quarters together, the US has recorded its slowest growth in 51 years, since 1957-58. In fact, growth in the US economy has now fallen for three straight quarters for the first time since the slump in the first oil shock in 1974-1975.

And yet the markets rebounded because of a rise in consumer spending of 2.2%, and on comments from the Federal Reserve that the intensity of the slump was easing.

US investors seemingly ignored unemployment as the Labor Department reported that jobless rate in 109 American cities topped 10% in March, almost eight times the rate of a year earlier. Just 14 cities reported jobless rates of at least 10% last year, the Department said. And the March 2009 report said unemployment rates in all of the nation’s 372 metropolitan areas rose in March compared with the same month in the prior year.

That makes the estimate of a 2.2% rise in consumer spending rather suspect, as does this part of the GDP report: “Real gross domestic purchases — purchases by US residents of goods and services wherever produced — decreased 7.8 percent in the first quarter, compared with a decrease of 5.9 percent in the fourth.” So US consumers cut their spending on goods and services inside America in the quarter, yet consumer spending rose? Interesting.

But the thing that will impact markets very soon are rising interest rates — the big fall in rates engineered by the Fed on March 18 when it revealed that it would buy US Government and other debt to pump cash into the economy (so-called “quantitative easing”) has faded.

Yields on US Treasury notes and bonds have been rising for the past month, but this this week finally climbed back above the 3% level at which they were trading before the Federal Reserve started buying US debt last month.

That wasn’t the only bad news from the statisticians around the globe: the German Government forecast of a 6% plunge in its economy for 2009, more than twice the February forecast of a 2.25% drop and the biggest drop for the year was bad enough. Equally bad was the claim that this terrible weakening would suddenly produce a rise of 0.50% in 2010: the answer to this oddity is that the Government is facing Federal elections in September and needs a positive spin on growth to pitch to voters.

Germany’s latest grim forecasts were a good example for American investors about the lagging impact of rising unemployment. Unemployment which reached 3.4 million in March, (8.6%) will rise to an average 3.72 million this year and 4.62 million in 2010, regardless of any recovery.

Peter Fray

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