The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) recorded another difficult week in autumn's first week, losing 675 points or about 6 percent to 10,771, as concern about the lingering European sovereign debt crisis and high U.S. unemployment had many market participants hitting the sell button.
Further, the mood among institutional investors -- the hedge fund, mutual fund, and investment funds that determine stock and asset prices -- is now one of limiting and managing losses rather than generating double-digit returns on equity.
In other words, investors are concerned that problems in Europe and a dearth of consumers in the U.S. will lead to tough even-more-meager 0.4 percent growth rate in the first quarter.
Those aforementioned troubles in Europe and the United States are more than enough to justify a large fiscal stimulus package, and there are other tell-tale signs, but first a little background:
Problem with First U.S. Fiscal Stimulus: Too Small
The major problem with the first $786 billion stimulus was that is was too small: given the amount wealth and income taken out of the U.S. economy by the financial crisis, the fiscal stimulus should have been at least $1.2 trillion to $1.3 trillion. In fact, about a third of fiscal stimulus was tax credits -- not actual spending injected in to the economy.
The reason it was too small? Conservatives in the Republican Party and selected moderates in the Democratic Party prevented a sufficient stimulus from being passed, and that, as Keynesian economics predicted, limited the economic recovery. But given the problems in Europe, low employment in the U.S., and the current economic slow-down, there's no time like the present to pass a large fiscal stimulus package, and here are 5 other statistics -- tell-tale signs why Congress should do so:
1 Gold. Investors/readers should note that the price of gold is falling. Gold went from being the classic inflation hedge, to becoming the so-called no-lose investment - good to hold if inflation intensifies or if asset prices for stocks and bonds plunged. But a cardinal rule of investing is that there are no no-lose investments and the moment that talk started marked the beginning of what is likley a gold bubble.
Gold is up more than 200 percent since December 2008 and technically its chart looks overheated, if not bubble-ish. Gold plunged another $81.80 Friday to $1.659 per ounce. Conclusion: Gold's price is signaling a slowing economy ahead. Further, gold price continues to decline along with other commodities, that would be a very bad sign for the U.S. and global economies.
2 Oil. The price of oil, the world's most vital commodity, is also signaling that the U.S. economy and much of the global economy are losing momentum. Oil hit a 2011 high at/near $115 per barrel in the spring, but has since stair-cased down to about $80, including a 66-cent decline Friday to $79.85.
The key level for investors to watch regarding oil? The $70 level. For several reasons, the price of oil cannot remain below $70 per barrel if the U.S. and global economies are growing at a healthy rate. Hence, if oil falls below $70 and stays below it over one, two, three months, that's a sign of very low demand for crude -- the lifeblood of commerce -- and most likely a U.S./global economic slowdown, or recession.
3 Stocks. Most investors do not need to be educated about this metric. The wealth effect -- or how wealthy American and global investors feel and their propensity to spend -- declines as stock markets decline. And lately, U.S. and global stock markets have not done too well: the Dow has plunged about 16 percent since pushing the 13,000-level in May.
Investors should also remember that the Dow Jones Industrial Average is a lead indicator -- not a current indicator. By lead indicator, that means the Dow is always projecting conditions out six to nine months, and by extension, the recent Dow swoon is forecasting an economic slowdown.
4. Housing. Another economic statistic that most U.S. investors (and home owners) are aware of: the U.S housing sector remains sluggish at best, with many major cities still in a housing recession. Existing home sales are running at a decent 5.03-million-unit annual pace, but there's still an 8.5-month supply of new homes on the market. Meanwhile, new homes are running at horribly-low 298,000-unit annual pace, with a 6.6.-month supply of homes on the market.
Conclusion: Until new homes sales return to the 400,000- to 500,000-level, housing, historically a driver of U.S. GDP growth, is not likely to contribute much to GDP. In fact, it may detract from GDP in 2011.
Institutional investors follow the homes sales statistics because home sales because historically, increases in home sales are strongly correlated with increased demand and an economic expansion. That's because housing activity does not operate in vacuum. When new homes are sold, homeowners tend to buy durables goods / big ticket items for the new home: furniture, appliances, home supplies, garden/landscape equipment etc. -- an uptrend in each of which is good news for the economy and bullish for the U.S. stock market.
5. U.S. job market. Another economic statistic that most U.S. investors know about. The United States is short a staggering 11 million jobs. Moreover, the total is much higher if you count both part-time employees seeking full-time positions, and discouraged, unemployed Americans, who technically are not counted in the official, base U.S. unemployment rate. Add those two groups in, and the U.S. is short about 14 million jobs.
Conclusion: Job growth is required for a self-sustaining expansion. Simply, U.S. job growth of 150,000 to 200,000 new jobs per month must occur to get the U.S. economy growing at an adequate pace (3 percent of more per year) and to lower the nation's unacceptable 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
The above five economic statistics -- gold, oil, stocks, housing, and jobs - all point to a slowing U.S. economy, and probably a global economic slowdown, as well.
The Problem Is Not 'Suppy' or 'Investment Capital'
Further, the problem in the United States is not investment capital or supply -- as supply-side economists and other conservatives assert: there's $55 trillion in investment capital, and corporations have about $2 trillion in their cash accounts alone.
Also, the problem is not efficiency: U.S. multi-national corporations are among the most productive organizations in the world -- so productive, in fact, that their rightsizing has, in part, caused the smaller U.S. workforce of the current era.
The problem, rather, as the above five statistics show -- is demand: there aren't enough customers.
Take a survey of local businesses in your section of the United States -- whether you're in Kansas City, Mo. or suburban San Diego, and odds are they'll cite a lack of traffic through their doors -- a lack of customers -- as their No. 1 problem.
Fiscal Stimulus: It Will Create Jobs
And that's why the United States needs a fiscal stimulus package: it will create many new jobs and help make-up for the demand hole that exists in the private sector.
Moreover, there's plenty of work that needs to be done and millions of talented, hard-working Americans who are willing to do it. Worthy projects include infrastructure rebuilding, hospital construction, school construction/upgrades, small grid/electric grid development, airport/rail/public transportation expansion, or even research to develop a next-generation car -- there are literally dozens of investments Congress can make to strengthen the economy today and better-prepare the U.S. for the 21st century economy.
What size should the fiscal stimulus be? A minimum of $500 billion. Preferably, more than $800 billion.
To be sure, the above investments are not cheap. But the social and economic costs of U.S./global recession will be far greater -- and the risk exists that social unrest will intensify, both in the U.S. and abroad - all the more reason for Congress to make the investments needed to get the U.S. economy moving again and get the American people back to work.