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Danger signs for the U.S. economy

June 28, 2010

Monday's weak consumer spending data is the latest in a string of reports that has many Americans worried about a "double-dip" recession.

Then again, considering the unemployment rate has remained elevated, many Americans would be forgiven for thinking the recession that began in December 2007 still hasn't ended. Notably, that's the view of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the nation's official arbiter of economic expansion and contraction.

Among the signs suggesting the NBER is right to hold off in declaring the recession over:

Housing Rolling Over: Last week's housing numbers were horrific, especially the steep drop in new home sales. Still, Coldwell Banker CEO Jim Gillespie tried to put some lipstick on the proverbial pig on Tech Ticker last week.

Jobs Still Hard to Come By: Despite signs of recent progress, "there's no possibility to restore 8 million jobs lost in the Great Recession," a notably candid Vice President Joe Biden said Monday. Friday's jobs report is expected to show overall payrolls declined by 115,000 in June.

'Hair-Shirts' in Fashion, Worldwide: As discussed here, this weekend's G20 meeting shows that policymakers believe the time for fiscal austerity is at hand. From an economic point of view, the G20 confirms that the appeal of government spending (i.e. Keynesian economics) to combat the downturn is on the wane, replaced by a view that it's better to take the pain now and cut spending (i.e. Austrian economics).

Financial Market Distress: While the stock market's recent struggles grab most of the headlines, the real pain of late has been felt in the bond market. Excluding the panic levels of late 2008, the yield on the 10-year Treasury hit its lowest levels since 1962, last week. Meanwhile, the price of default insurance for Greece and other sovereign credits spiked higher and Bloomberg reports the percentage of corporate bonds considered in distress is at the highest in six months.

The Downside of Falling Rates

Of course, the market is not always right but the bond market is signaling that policymakers like Ben Bernanke are right to be much more worried about deflation and economic slowdown vs. inflation and the economy overheating.

A big concern for many is that the economy is sputtering despite the Fed's historically easy policies and the government's huge spending binge. The idea we've spent all this money with little (or nothing) to show for it has some observers worried America is heading down the same path as Japan, which is about to complete its second-straight "lost decade."

Of course, it was unrealistic to expect the economy to indefinitely continue its V-shaped rise from the depths of last year. Most recoveries are uneven so it's premature to say what's happening lately is proof positive the economy is rolling over, as Henry and I discuss in the accompanying video.

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