Saturday, June 5, 2010

Key Indicators of a New Depression

EuroPacificCapital -

With the mainstream media focusing on the country's leveling unemployment rate, improving retail sales, and nascent housing recovery, one might think that the US government has successfully navigated the economy through recession and growth has returned. But I will argue that a look under the proverbial hood reveals a very different picture. I believe the data shows that the US economy is badly damaged, and a modern-day depression has begun. In fact, just as World War I was originally called The Great War (and was retroactively renamed after World War II), Peter Schiff has said that one day the world will refer to the 1929-41 era as Great Depression I, and the current period as Great Depression II.

For starters, look at unemployment. During Great Depression I, unemployment broke 25%. If government statistics are taken at face value, the current unemployment rate is 9.9%, but a closer look reveals that the broadest measure of unemployment is currently at 20% - and rising. So, today's numbers are in the same ballpark as the '30s even though the federal government is using unprecedented measures to keep the economy afloat. Remember, in Great Depression I, FDR never ran a deficit nearly as large as President Obama's. Moreover, the Federal Reserve of the 1930s still had a gold standard with which to contend, while today's Fed has increased the monetary base with impunity. Yet even with all that intervention, unemployment figures still indicate that we have entered depression territory.

What is demoralizing to an unemployed person is not simply being let go, it is being unable to find a new job for an extended period of time. And this is where Great Depression II really rears its ugly head. According to the US federal government's own data, the median duration of unemployment is now over five months - and rising. This is the highest it's been since the BLS started compiling this statistic in 1965. As workers start to go this long without jobs, they eat into their savings. Eventually - and especially in a country with a savings rate as low as ours and debt as high as ours - they run out of cushion and hit the street. Formerly middle-class people have to make decisions never thought possible: do I eat in a shelter or go hungry in my home?

It's no surprise, then, that about 40 million people - or one out of every eight Americans - are receiving food stamps in Great Depression II. During the height of Great Depression I, the rate was just one out of thirty-five Americans. Even with the stimulus programs, Great Depression II is actually worse on this measure than Great Depression I - and the USDA estimates that the program could grow by another 50%. Soon, out of ten people you know, one may depend on federal assistance for daily survival.

Despite tax credits that have created a rush of purchases this spring, housing is in just as bad shape.

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