Coming Down to Earth

 

May 19, 2006

By: Paul Krugman

Um, wasn't the stock market supposed to bounce back after Wednesday's big drop?

We shouldn't read too much into a couple of days' movements in stock prices. But it seems that investors are suddenly feeling uneasy about the state of the economy. They should be; the puzzle is why they haven't been uneasy all along.

The rise in stock prices that began last fall was essentially based on the belief that the U.S. economy can defy gravity — that both individuals and the nation as a whole can spend more than their income, not on a temporary basis, but more or less indefinitely.

To be fair, for a while the data seemed to confirm that belief. In 2005, the trade deficit passed $700 billion, yet the dollar actually rose against the euro and the yen. Housing prices soared, yet houses kept selling. The price of gasoline neared $3 a gallon, yet consumers kept buying both gas and other items, even though they had to borrow to keep spending (the personal savings rate went negative for the first time since the 1930's).

Over the last few weeks, however, gravity seems to have started reasserting itself.

The dollar began falling about a month ago. So far it's down less than 10 percent against the euro and the yen, but there's a definite sense that foreign governments, in particular, are becoming less willing to keep the dollar strong by buying lots of U.S. debt.

The housing market seems to be weakening rapidly. As late as last October, the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo housing market index, a measure of builders' confidence, was still close to the high point it reached last summer. But on Monday the association announced that the index had fallen to its lowest level since 1995.

Finally, there are preliminary indications that consumers, hard-pressed by high gasoline prices, may be reaching their limit.

The National Retail Federation, reporting on a new survey, warns that "while consumers have seemed resilient in the face of higher energy costs, a tipping point may soon be in sight."

I can't resist pointing out that the Bush administration's response to the squeeze on working families has been, you guessed it, to accuse the news media of biased reporting.

On May 10 the White House issued a press release titled "Setting the Record Straight: The New York Times Continues to Ignore America's Economic Progress." The release attacked The Times for asserting that paychecks weren't keeping up with fixed costs like medical care and gasoline. The White House declared, "But average hourly earnings have risen 3.8 percent over the past 12 months, their largest increase in nearly five years."

On Wednesday Treasury Secretary John Snow repeated that boast before a House committee. However, Representative Barney Frank was ready. He asked whether the number was adjusted for inflation; after flailing about, Mr. Snow admitted, sheepishly, that it wasn't. In fact, nearly all of the wage increase was negated by higher prices.

Meanwhile, the return of economic gravity poses a definite threat to U.S. economic growth. After all, growth over the past three years was driven mainly by a housing boom and rapid growth in consumer spending. People were able to buy houses, even though housing prices rose much faster than incomes, because foreign purchases of U.S. debt kept interest rates low. People were able to keep spending, even though wages didn't keep up with inflation, because mortgage refinancing let them turn the rising value of their houses into ready cash.

As I summarized it awhile back, we became a nation in which people make a living by selling one another houses, and they pay for the houses with money borrowed from China.

Now that game seems to be coming to an end. We're going to have to find other ways to make a living — in particular, we're going to have to start selling goods and services, not just I.O.U.'s, to the rest of the world, and/or replace imports with domestic production. And adjusting to that new way of making a living will take time.

Will we have that time? Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, contends that what's happening in the housing market is "a very orderly and moderate kind of cooling." Maybe he's right. But if he isn't, the stock market drop of the last two days will be remembered as the start of a serious economic slowdown.

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