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David Rosenberg: “It’s Time To Start Calling This For What It Is: A Modern Day Depression”

By now only the cream of the naive, Kool-Aid intoxicated crop believes that the US is not in either a deep recession, or, realistically, depression. For anyone who may still be on the fence, here is David Rosenberg’s latest letter which will seal any doubts for good. It will also make it clear what the fair value of the stock market is assuming QE3 fails, which it will, and the market reverts to trading to fair value as predicated by bond spreads. To wit: “If the Treasury market is correct in its implicit assumption of a renewed contraction in the economy, then we could well be talking about corporate earnings being closer to $75 in 2011 as opposed to the current consensus view of over $110. In other words, we may wake up to find out a year from now that whoever was buying the market today under an illusion of a forward multiple of 10x was actually buying the market with a 15x multiple.” And since we are in the throes of a deep depression and a 10x multiple is more than generous, applying that to $75 in S&P earnings, means that the fair value of the S&P is… we’ll leave that to our readers.

From Breakfast with Rosie, of Gluskin Sheff

We just came off the weakest recovery on record despite the massive amounts of stimulus that the U.S. government has delivered in so many ways. That the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note is down to 2% already speaks volumes because the last time we were at these levels was back in December 2008 when the downturn was already 12 months old. A period like the one we have endured over the past six months when bank shares are down 30% and the 10- year note yield is down 130 basis points has never in the past foreshadowed anything very good coming down the pike. If market rates are at Japanese levels, or at 1930s levels, then it’s time to start calling this for what it is: A modern day depression.

Look, that entire period from 1929-1941 saw several quarters of huge bungee-jump style GDP growth and countless tradable rallies in the stock market.

But that misses the point.

The point being that a depression, put simply, is a very long period of economic malaise and when the economy fails to respond in any meaningful or lasting way to government stimulus programs. A series of rolling recessions and modest recoveries over a multi-year period of general economic stagnation as the excesses from the prior asset and credit bubble are completely wrung out of the system. In baseball parlance, we are in the third inning of this current debt deleveraging ball game.

You know you’re in a depression when interest rates go to zero and there is no revival in credit-sensitive spending.

The economy is in a depression when the banks are sitting on nearly $2 trillion of cash and yet there is no lending going onto the private sector. It’s otherwise known as a ‘liquidity trap’.

Depressions usually are caused by a bursting of an asset bubble and a contraction in credit, whereas plain-vanilla recessions are typically caused by inflation and excessive manufacturing inventories. You tell me which fits the bill today.

When almost half of the ranks of the unemployed have been looking for a job fruitlessly for at least six months, you know you are in something much deeper than a garden-variety recession. True, we can’t see the soup lines; the soup lines are in the mail — 99 weeks of unemployment cheques for over 10 million jobless Americans. Don’t be lulled into the view that we are into anything remotely close to a normal economic cycle.

Basically, in a depression, secular changes take place. Attitudes towards debt, discretionary spending and homeownership are altered for many years, or at least until the scars from the traumatic experience with defaults and delinquencies fade away. That is why we saw existing home sales slide to 15- year lows and new home sales to record lows despite the fact that mortgage rates have tumbled to their lowest levels in modern history. There is no economic model that would tell you that declining mortgage rates should lead to lower home sales.

More fundamentally, in a recession, the economy is revived by government stimulus. In depressions, the economy is sustained by government stimulus. There is a very big difference between these two states.

In a recession, everything would be back to a new high nearly three years after the initial contraction in the economy. This time around, everything from organic personal income to employment to real GDP to home prices to corporate earnings to outstanding bank credit are still all below, to varying degrees, the levels prevailing in December 2007.

Let’s be clear: After all the monetary, fiscal and bailout stimulus, the economy should be roaring ahead, as would be the case if the economy were coming out of a normal garden-variety recession. The fact that there has been no sustained response to all these efforts by the government to turn things around is testament to the view that this is not actually a traditional recession at all, but something closely resembling a depression. That, my friends, is exactly what the bond market is signaling, with Treasury yields rapidly approaching Japanese levels. Just because the stock market embarked on a stimulus-led speculative two-year rally, which ended abruptly in April 2011— does not change that fact.

For all the chatter about whether the recession that started in December 2007 ended in mid-2009, here is what you should know about the historical record. The 1930s depression was not marked by declining quarterly GDP data every single quarter. In fact, the technical recessionary aspect to the initial period following the asset and credit shock goes from the third quarter of 1929 to the first quarter of 1933.

I can understand how emotional the debate can get over whether or not we have actually just stumbled along some post-recession recovery path or whether or not this is actually a depression in the sense of a downward trend in economic activity merely punctuated with noise that is influenced by recurring rounds of government intervention. The reality is that the Fed cut the funds rate to zero, as was the case in Japan, to little avail. Then the Fed tripled the size of its balance sheet— again with little sustained impetus to a broken financial system. Government deficits of nearly 10% relative to GDP, or double what FDR ever ran during the 1930s, have obviously fallen flat in terms of providing any lasting impact to the economy.

This is going to sound like a broken record but it took a decade of parabolic credit growth to get the U.S. economy into this deleveraging mess and there is clearly no painless “quick fix” towards bringing household debt into historical realignment with the level of assets and income to support the prevailing level of liabilities. We are talking about $5 trillion of excess debt that has to be extinguished either by paying it down or by walking away from it (or having it socialized). Look, we can understand the need to be optimistic, but it is essential that we recognize the type of market and economic backdrop we are in.

The markets are telling us something valuable when (after a period of unprecedented government bailouts, incursions and stimulus programs) the yield on the 5-year note is south of 1% and the 10-year is down to 2%. Instead of contemplating over how attractively priced equities must be in this environment, market strategists and commentators would bring a lot more to the table if they tried to decipher what the macro message is from this price action in the Treasury market. Conducting stock market valuation analysis based on unrealistic consensus earnings assumptions does nobody any good, especially when these estimates are in the process of being cut, and at a time when the Treasury market is telling us we are the precipice of another recession.

If the Treasury market is correct in its implicit assumption of a renewed contraction in the economy, then we could well be talking about corporate earnings being closer to $75 in 2011 as opposed to the current consensus view of over $110. In other words, we may wake up to find out a year from now that whoever was buying the market today under an illusion of a forward multiple of 10x was actually buying the market with a 15x multiple.

How’s that for a reality check?

This augers for capital preservation, defensive orientation in the equity market and a focus on income-yielding securities; something we’ve been advocating for some time

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