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The Catastrophist View

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THREAT NO. 5
That We Don’t See It Happening Because It’s a Slow-Motion Train Wreck

Last but not least, we can circle back to the Dow Jones Industrial Average making new highs in October—14,087.55 on October 1—offering hope that our equity portfolios will carry us through to the other side of whatever it is we’re on the wrong side of. Before addressing the fact that the equity market might just be clueless, there’s one last dollar-related point to make. The true value of a stock portfolio isn’t really its quoted worth in dollars—it’s what you could buy with that portfolio if you were to sell it.

Given that we as Americans don’t manufacture that much anymore (we’re a service economy!), we are largely talking about foreign-made goods, such as flat-screens from Korea or cars from Germany. Over time, if the dollar continues to slump, foreign manufacturers will raise prices to compensate for what they’re losing in the exchange rate. In that light, a Dow at 14,000 with the euro at $1.42 is really no different from a Dow at 13,000 with the euro at $1.33. (One reason the price of oil has risen so high is that it is quoted in dollars, and the sellers thereof have had to continually jack up the per-barrel price to maintain their own purchasing power at home and elsewhere.)

Still, a rising Dow is better than a falling Dow, and the bulls are piling into every rally. Which still doesn’t impress Jeremy Grantham, chairman of Boston-based money manager GMO, in the least. “The equity market is always slow to pick up on someone else’s crisis,” he says, referring to the turmoil in both the housing and fixed-income markets. “And so you’ve got a slow-motion train wreck that has to work itself through the system.”

How will it work itself through? Grantham points to the recent strength in profit margins, fueled by—you guessed it!—our plummeting savings rate, and says there’s nowhere to go but down. “If you start with an overpriced market and bring profit margins down, that’s more than enough to bring stock prices down,” he says. “It is the most certain mean-reversion in all of finance.” Grantham calculates that the U.S. stock market will have to fall by a full third before it gets to its “fair value.” At which point we will likely be in full-blown recession. And when that happens, Schiff says, we will see a country in downsizing mode, “selling the consumer goods we’ve been buying back to the Chinese. It will be one big, giant repossession.”

So assuming all this is true, that Schiff and his fellow doomsayers are right about the rotten core of the U.S. economy, how will this affect New York City? We’ve grown accustomed to the idea of our local economy, particularly the real-estate market, being inherently stronger than the nation’s and possibly immune to whatever woes strike the rest of America. Wall Street, after all, makes money on downs as well as ups, and the stampede of foreigners and foreign cash could, if anything, be aided by the weak dollar.

Last week, though, the argument against New York invincibility was implicitly made when Merrill Lynch announced a larger-than-expected write-down of $7.9 billion dollars in its third quarter alone, primarily due to losses in the credit markets. Numbers as large as that can paradoxically seem trivial due to the abstract nature of accounting—a “write-down” involves no movement of real-life cash, just a readjustment of some theoretical values—but here’s something nontrivial to consider: Merrill Lynch is one of the largest employers in New York City. While so far only a few Merrill bigwigs have been shown the door, it’s almost certain that a chunk of the company’s rank and file will soon follow. All told, New York–based financial companies had already announced more than 42,000 layoffs as of October, according to one study, and the pace could pick up through the end of the year. That’s people who won’t be bidding up new apartments, who won’t be going out to dinner five times a week, who won’t be testing the outer limits of their credit cards at Barneys. The downstream effects of this could be even more severe, as every Wall Street job is estimated to account for another 1.3 to 2 jobs, meaning that additional job losses could push 100,000.

Meanwhile, the public sector is feeling it, too. A recent report by Nicole Gelinas, published by the Manhattan Institute, forecast a budget deficit for New York City next year and predicted that Mayor Bloomberg, who enjoyed a string of budget surpluses until this year, will likely be forced to leave his successor with a double whammy: a deficit and a projected 50 percent increase in outstanding debt. Of course, the catastrophists could be dead wrong, as they have been for going on a decade now—but to them, it sure smells like the seventies all over again.


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