We seem to be heading towards an economic downturn equivalent to the Great Depression of the 1930s. This isn't a secret. The synthesis below is derived from: Lawrence Summers, Nouriel Roubini, Simon Johnson, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman to name just a few. This crisis is not happening quickly. It's more of a slow-motion train wreck -- Greece's crisis started in 2009. But that leaves a puzzle -- why is the American stock market not reacting to obvious warning signs?
Greece is in very deep trouble. Spain (the Euro's fourth largest economy) just needed a $125 billion bank bailout. The weaker economies (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) face severe credit crunches as local banks lose deposits (withdrawn because of credit concerns and fear of forced devaluations following a Euro exit).
Serious discussion is already taking place about the demise of the Euro, or even worse the break-up of the European common market -- in which case unemployment rates across Europe will exceed 20 percent. National incomes will decline sharply, resulting in large-scale corporate insolvencies, with the crisis spilling over into the U.S. and Asia.
Arguably, the Germans have a sufficiently healthy economy to avert the crisis. But they are reluctant to act -- without clear structural changes in the European Union/member states to prevent future problems. Amidst a crisis, it's difficult to make structural changes quickly. The Germans (with some legitimacy) fear that a bailout lacking agreement on structural changes will result in some combination of a larger financial disaster later, and/or the German economy permanently subsidizing some of the weaker economies.
Europe's economies provide little reason for optimism.
The U.S. faces a recession next year if the Budget Control Act takes effect, which is likely if Obama wins and partisan gridlock continues. House Speaker Boehner already announced that if Obama's re-elected, the GOP will treat us to another debt ceiling confrontation. If Romney wins, the Democrats (having learnt their lesson from the Republicans) would be as disruptive as possible. If the U.S. faces a major economic crisis triggered by the Euro's collapse, bipartisan consensus on how to resolve it is unlikely.
China's growth model may be reaching its limit. If the rest of the world's problem is too much ideology, China's is arguably the absence of any ideology except kleptocracy. China lacks a functioning legal system. Its officials are disciplined by shadowy communist party entities, rather than accountable to a transparent legal system. Nominally ruling in the name of the proletarian vanguard, China is governed by princelings and kleptocrats, with friction escalating among the kleptocrats.
Internationally, another regional war appears increasingly likely in the Middle East. The U.S. and/or Israel might have a military confrontation with Iran, over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Syrian situation has the potential to become a regional conflict (Syria, Iran and Russia fighting Syrian dissidents supported by some coalition of Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Turkey and other countries). A Middle Eastern war would lead to significant oil price increases, and trigger a global recession (at a minimum).
Compared to the financial crisis of 2008, governments everywhere are far more constrained by weaker balance sheets, loss of public trust and crisis fatigue.
I'm not saying everything listed above will go wrong (though if that happens, it would be a "global perfect storm"). However, even 1-2 of these plausible misfortunes would make 2013 a really bad year, and the world will have other challenges we cannot foresee (e.g., another nuclear accident, major earthquakes, etc.).
So why is the stock market trading as though all's well? The S&P 500 closed on June 15th at 1343. Based upon stock price divided by earnings (P/E ratio), the market now trades at about 21 times the prior 10 years' average earnings. The long-term 10 year P/E ratio is about 16, so today's premium over that long-term average is difficult to explain, considering the risks listed above. At the top of the bubble in October 2007, the S&P was at 1565. Currently, we're only about 15 percent below that peak, and (again) the market isn't reflecting the referenced risks.
Is it a case of short-term delusions, leading to later major stock market debacles? If so -- is it time to go short?
Or does the market know something we don't? Are the risks outlined above really not so bad? Is the market assuming losses will be paid by the government, so let's party like it's 2006? Or could it be that all investments at this stage have poor prospects -- so there's no place to hide?
Stay tuned: 2013 will be an interesting year!