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December 07, 2010

Hard choices all the way around [Fritzworth]

William Gross has a disquieting article over at PIMCO that says our current economic problems are profoundly structural and are not going away anytime soon. He even provides his own summary points:

  • The global economy is suffering from a lack of aggregate demand. With insufficient demand, nations compete furiously for their share of the diminishing growth pie.

  • In the U.S. and Euroland, many policies only temporarily bolster consumption while failing to address the fundamental problem of developed economies: Job growth is moving inexorably to developing economies because they are more competitive.

  • Unless developed economies learn to compete the old-fashioned way – by making more goods and making them better – the smart money will continue to move offshore to Asia, Brazil and their developing economy counterparts, both in asset and in currency space.

We here in the US have spent the last 25 years or so talking about our transformation from a manufacturing economy to a "knowledge" economy. In retrospect, we appear to have been trying to make a virtue out of an inevitable trend. The problem is, consumers by and large don't buy "knowledge" -- they buy tangible things.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the article is that Gross's solution is for the US to become competitive in manufacturing again:

The constructive way is to stop making paper and start making things. Replace subprimes, and yes, Treasury bonds with American cars, steel, iPads, airplanes, corn – whatever the world wants that we can make better and/or cheaper. Learn how to compete again. Investments in infrastructure and 21st century education and research, as opposed to 20th century education are mandatory, as is a withdrawal from resource-draining foreign wars. It will be a tough way back, but it can be done with sacrifice and appropriate public policies that encourage innovation, education and national reconstruction, as opposed to Wall Street finance and Main Street consumption.

This solution ignores Gross's own analysis, which points out "By many estimates, Chinese labor works for 10% or less than its American counterparts." Furthermore, we have much stiffer quality, environmental, labor and workplace standards here in the United States, all of which increase the cost -- sometimes prohibitively -- of building things to be sold. Short of some truly miraculous breakthroughs in manufacturing technology -- and we're talking about pre-Star-Trek-type breakthroughs -- there is just no way we can rebuild our manufacturing base in such a way as to undercut China as China currently exists.

So while I disagree with some of Gross's solutions and conclusions, that is exactly why I believe his article is well worth reading in full: because it underscores the profoundly structural nature of the economic problems we face here in the West. To a large extent, we can consider the last 30 years to have been a "meta-bubble" in which we burned through a lot of different types of "credit" in building a lifestyle and a level of general public wealth at all levels (leftist naysayers notwithstanding) never before seen in the world.

That meta-bubble started deflating 10 years ago, with the tech crash of 2000. We have continued to pump up other bubbles (e.g., subprime loans, the great equity drawdown, the college education bubble, QE2) to maintain that lifestyle, but they all keep popping as well. We are a bit like the cartoon character falling from a plane who -- after two or three parachutes have failed -- keeps digging through his parachute pack, hoping to find something to stop the descent and coming up with increasingly improbably -- but inevitably useless -- objects.

And beneath our feet, the unforgiving ground rushes up ever faster. ..fritz..

P.S. OK, I probably shouldn't blog at 5 in the morning; I just get a bit too dark.
P.P.S. Did some minor edits to tighten up a few things.

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posted by Open Blogger at 07:26 AM

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