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Whose Morning Is It?
Commentary on the News
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Ed DeShields

Martin Treptow left his job in a small town barber shop in 1917 to go to France with the famed Rainbow Division.  Tragically, he was killed on the Western front trying to carry a message between battalions under heavy fire.  When his fellow soldiers collected his body, they found his diary.

On the cover under the heading, “My Pledge,” he had written these words:

“America must win this war. Therefore, I will work; I will save; I will sacrifice; I will endure; I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

The economic malaise we are facing today does not require the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow made.  However, millions of Americans are going it alone with their own personal sacrifice as they struggle through their own economic crisis that has eliminated their jobs.  

They, and all of us, are hoping for a new morning in America.  But who can claim this new morning and a recovery of our economic fortunes?

Depending on what side of the political aisle you might prefer, recent headlines have been touting a parade of positive statistics suggesting that the economy is on an accelerating upturn.  Stock market prices certainly seem to agree with that outlook. But where's the actual proof?

While there is optimism to be found for sure, there is a glut of new data across many key indicators that suggest the economy is still slowing down.  Federal income tax receipts, gasoline usage, internodal traffic are all down.  None of these hard data square with a decreasing unemployment rate or an economic 'recovery'.  Even Ben Bernanke himself says 8.3% employment understates the true level of weakness in the country's job market while the spin masters claim we’re making progress – albeit slowly.

But I’m not so sure. 

Take a look at just one of the most important economic indicators you’ve never heard of: the Baltic Dry Index.  It too, has been sinking -- down 33 days in a row to an all-time low.   

The Baltic provides a rare window into the volume of global trade—devoid of political and other agenda concerns.  It takes two years to build a new ship, and ships are too expensive to take out of circulation the way airlines park unneeded jets in deserts. So, marginal increases in demand can push the index higher quickly, and marginal demand decreases can cause the index to fall rapidly. In other words, small fleet changes and logistics matter.  

As evidence, on May 20, 2008, the index reached its record high level since its introduction in 1985, reaching 11,793 points.  Half a year later, on 5 December 2008, the index had dropped by 94%, to 663 points, the lowest since 1986 signaling economic danger ahead.

By the end of 2008, shippers had to slow the speed of their vessels in an effort to offset rising fuel prices.  Also, a lack of credit required to load cargoes for departure at ports further slowed shipments.  This created debt problems for future ship construction and spawned several major bankruptcies and implications for shipyards.  This, combined with the collapsing price of raw commodities, created a perfect storm for the world's economy.

For economic wonks, the Baltic Index measures the demand for shipping capacity versus the supply of ships available to carry dry goods around the world.  The demand for shipping varies with the amount of cargo that is being traded or moved in various markets (i.e. supply vs. demand) because the supply of cargo ships is both tight and inelastic.

Digging beneath the headlines and the profit takers, the most touted economic indicators—which serve as the foundation of important political and economic decisions—are often measured to serve narrow interests, and subjected to adjustments or revisions.

Payroll or employment numbers are often mere estimates but are, never the less, widely touted as proof positive that a recovery could be underway.  Consumer confidence measures nothing more than sentiment, often with no link to actual consumer behavior; gross national product figures are consistently revised, and so forth.

Unlike stock and bond markets, a real measure of economic activity must be devoid of speculative content, like tax receipts and truck traffic, each of which are measures of pure trade activity.

All this points to our politicians wanting their constituents to buy into their view of a “new morning in America” -- which is usually more a smoke and mirrors vision intended by those with an agenda. 

I believe President Reagan was correct when he said:

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” 

We're now in a Twilight Zone where indicators of economic weakness (lower gas prices, increase in refined petroleum exports, increased consumer borrowing) are being touted as signs of economic robustness.  So while I’m not completely bearish on the economy, I believe it’s going to be plenty of night remaining before we will actually see dawn.

About Ed DeShields

Last article: Is a Rational Energy Policy Ahead?

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