Friday, September 4, 2009

2009 Update, Is Obama at Turning the Corner?, Mixed Economic Signals

2009 -- Still Looking Good for the GOP, But Small Reasons to Hope for the DEMS
Will the GOP sweep the New Jersey and Virginia governor races in 2009? It still looks likely, but perhaps slightly less likely than it did a few weeks ago -- especially in New Jersey.

Let's begin in Virginia. McDonnell still leads Deeds by 8 to 15%, depending on which poll you believe. Deeds has scarcely led at all since his come-from-behind win over the much better known Terry McAullife, leading only one poll (an early June Rasmussen poll.) The Real Clear Politics average shows McDonnell at +9.8%, my own sample-weighted methodology puts it at +9.0%. Either way, this one still seems to be a likely GOP pick-up, as Virginia does not historically turn left at the last minute.

In New Jersey, unpopular Gov. Jon Corzine (D) still trails upstart conservative Republican Chris Christie by 5-10% depending on your poll. The RCP average shows Christie +6.5%, my own methodology has Christie doing even better at +7.9%. But this actually shows a significant tightening, as Christie led by double digits throughout all of July and the first half of August. I see a familiar pattern that has played out many times in New Jersey over the past 20 years -- tax-angry voters initially favor the Republican outsider, then, on closer reflection, swing back to their natural blue tendencies. I'll rate this as lean GOP pick-up for now, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if I were calling this a pick 'em by October and projecting a close Corzine win by November.

All-in-all, the GOP has nothing but upside (they are fighting for two seats currently held by Democrats) and still seem poised to take at least one and possibly both of them. But the possibility of massive routs that would have an impact on national policy seems to be waning.

Stabilizing Obama
After almost two months of solid free-fall that cut Obama's approve minus disapprove from +28.3% on June 27th to a low of +8.7% on August 30th, the President's scores have been spiking int he past few days and sit at +11.7% as of September 3rd, a full 3 point improvement in 4 days. This has largely been driven by significant improvements in the Gallup (+9% in 4 days) and Rasmussen (+7% in 4 days) tracking polls, which show wildly divergent overall results (Rasmussen has Obama at -1% today, Gallup at +17%), but a similar trend. Whether this is just a blip, a stabilization or the beginning of a recovery in Obama's numbers remains to be seen. But he still hasn't crossed the 7.2% margin of his November victory...yet.

In his monthly totals, you can see just how big a toll the summer took on Obama's numbers. In 2 months, his monthly averages (which flatten out the spikes and dips) dropped by 14%. September has started slightly lower than August, but for the first time in a long time, the President's daily numbers are ahead of his monthly numbers, which would typically project an increase in his monthly numbers, at least in the short term.

Can We Be Recovering with Unemployment Spiking?
The BLS today announced that the unemployment rate in July had surged by 0.3% to (another) 26-year high of 9.7%. Include underemployed and workers who have given up and you have 16.8%.

So how can I be saying we are in recovery?

As I've said before, unemployment languishes for long after a recession ends (and make no mistake, I believe this one ended this summer.) It is likely the unemployment rate will reach low double digits before it starts declining, towards the end of the year. And the decline may be slow. We "only" lost a little over two hundred thousand jobs in July, which would typically equate to a 0.1% bump in unemployment. The rate went up more, because more of those "given up" workers who don't count in the official tally, have no re-entered the work force. Expect more of the same. But note the stock market actually rallied today on the news, which was slightly better than expected.

Protracted unemployment still poses a huge political issue for the President. The explanation above is not something that President Obama can easily give in a way that is accepted by people. As long as people are out of work and hurting, they won't feel the recession is over.

So, let's get moving on this stimulus!

Latest numbers from
Estimated Tax Cuts Paid Out: $62.5B (21.7%)
Spending Authorized: $217.0B (43.5%)
Spending Completed: $88.8B (17.8%)

$4.2 billion in stimulus spending happened last week, far above the average since the bill was passed. Still, at that pace, it would take 98 more weeks, almost two years at that pace, to complete spending. That won't be acceptable unless unemployment falls.

Inflation, Pfft
Among the dizzying theories about the end of the recession (is it V-shaped? Or W-shaped? or U-shaped? Or square-root shaped?), one that I don't buy at all is the theory that all this government spending and loose monetary policy will lead to massive inflation.

Inflation occurs when demand significantly outstrips supply of something. With unsold business inventories, house prices way off peak, oil at under $70/barrel and factories way under capacity, I can't see what that thing will be, at least for the next several years.

Sure, the Fed has to be careful to tap the brakes when the time comes...but that time is probably 18 months from now. Inflation risk is very small in the near-term.

Clearly the investing public things so too. The 10-year bond is yielding under 3.5% and the spread between 10-year and 30-year bonds is only 0.7%, implying very little investor fear about inflation, even over longer time horizons. TIPS, which pay a fixed rate over inflation, are yielding 1.8% plus CPI on a 10-year bond, meaning that the investing community has pegged 10-year inflation at a 1.7% rate (the spread between Treasuries and TIPS, which contain all the same risk-aspects, save for the inflation factor.) Hardly the late 70s and early 80s. Inflation may come out higher than that, but inflation under 5% is generally not an inhibitor of economic growth. And I'm not worried that the market is THAT wrong.

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