The usual run of manufacturing surveys yesterday and overnight emboldened the Financial Times: “The global downturn appeared close to a bottom on Wednesday after manufacturing figures from across the world suggested the worldwide recession was running out of steam in all big economies”.
“The welcome news comes after nine months of the sharpest contraction in global manufacturing output since the second world war and a dramatic plunge in world trade as buyers of capital goods and consumer durables effectively went on strike.”
But they saved themselves with this qualifier: “But the and policymakers around the world fear that the coming upturn will be neither durable nor strong.”
Whew. In fact a leading US economist has conjured up another metaphor, drawn from both the playground and the alphabet to describe the path of the US economy — and therefore the rest of us — in the next year: we will “seesaw”.
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Martin Feldstein is a prominent Harvard economist and a member of the panel that defines US recessions. He’s forecast the US economy would have “a temporary and substantial recovery this year”, but would be falling into 2010. He told Bloomberg that the economy would “seesaw”. So now you know.
Janet Yellen, head of the San Francisco Fed said yesterday, that while she saw the slump easing, the Fed’s key interest rate could remain near zero for a couple of years based on the amount of slack now in the economy. The jobless rate is likely to continue climbing this year, and the moment the recession ends is “not the right time to take away the punchbowl”. She added that views circulating that the Fed risks triggering some kind of hyper-inflation by not rushing to raise interest rates are “misplaced”.
So no rate rise before 2011? Are conditions in the US really that bad?
Wall Street rose: it liked better than expected profit reports and forecasts from General Mills, plans by Kraft to build more factories in Russia and Goldman Sachs said Yum brands was tasty. Investors ignored the continuing mixed tone to the data, except for the slight up turn in manufacturing.
Early reports during the day were tinged with optimism about June car sales and Ford and Nissan did better than had been expected, as did luxury brands BMW, Lexus and Mercedes (They were all down, but not by as much as forecast and a bit better than May).
But by the time the figures had been reported, tallied and crunched it was after the market closed, and that was a good thing. The news was glum. US car sales last month actually fell from May’s annual rate and there was no advance at all.
Car sales failed to crack the 10 million annual rate forecast before the figures were released by analysts who ignored the impact of the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. So naturally GM fell short of analyst estimates, as did Toyota. The annual rate fell to 9.69 million cars and light trucks in June, from 9.9 million in May and 13.7 million in June 2008.
Autodata Corp, a tracking firm, said total sales fell 28%, to 859,847 vehicles, the 20th straight monthly decline.
So it was no wonder the big US car parts supplier, Lear Corp, went bust and filed for bankruptcy protection. It was the latest in around 20 car parts groups to have failed in the US, according to figures quoted by Bloomberg.
Jobless numbers (out tomorrow for June), look poor with a private group seeing over 400,000 jobs cut; pending sales of existing US houses rose, slightly, to be up for yet another month; but construction spending fell in May after rising in April and setting off speculation that the battered sector was rebounding. Its still down 11.6% in the year to May.
But mortgage applications crashed 19% last week, setting off fears the US housing sector will worsen in future months: higher interest rates and rising foreclosures are undermining efforts by the Fed and the Obama Administration to stem the slide in housing. If lending is weak, how will sales of new and existing homes and especially refinancings rise, as many analysts now seem to be tipping?
To this end the Administration announced that it will extend its efforts to include people whose homes are valued up to 25% less than the size of their mortgage: the previous limit was just 5%.
That tells us more about the depths of the problem at the centre of the continuing US bust, the housing sector, than do surveys of manufacturing activity, or the about to be released surveys of activity in the much larger service sectors in various economies.