"During the sixties, new dwarf varieties, irrigation, fertilizer, and heavy duty pesticides tripled crop yields, unleashing a green revolution. But guess what? The world population has doubled from 3.5 to 7 billion since then, eating up surpluses, and is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Now we are running out of water in key areas like the American West and Northern India, droughts are hitting Africa and China, soil is exhausted, and global warming is shriveling yields. Water supplies are so polluted with toxic pesticide residues that rural cancer rates are soaring. Food reserves are now at 20 year lows. Rising emerging market standards of living are consuming more and better food, with Chinese pork production rising 45% from 1993 to 2005. The problem is that meat is an incredibly inefficient calorie transmission mechanism, creating demand for five times more grain than just eating the grain alone. I won’t even mention the strain the politically inspired ethanol and biofuel programs have placed on the food supply. It is possible that genetic engineering, sustainable farming, and smart irrigation could lead to a second green revolution, but the burden is on scientists to deliver. The net net of all of this is that food prices are going up, a lot."
Home sales in the U.S. have been artificially supported by the First-Time Buyer's Credit, which is due to expire at the end of next month. Because of the time necessary to process new mortgage applications, the window has already effectively closed. Look (above) at what happened to mortgage apps last week. According to survey data released this morning by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), its Market Composite Index, a measure of mortgage loan application volume, decreased 13.7 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis from one week earlier. Without the adjustment for the Columbus Day holiday, the index actually decreased 22.4 percent. Oops.
[update, one week later:]
Realtors, lenders, and builders will undoubtedly point to the latest kink in the data series as proof that the Buyer's Credit should be extended. The $8,000 credit essentially covers the down payment for a cash-strapped purchaser. But Rex Nutting at MarketWatch argues that the subsidy is wasteful. Of the million-plus claims that have been filed so far, as many as two-thirds have been for transactions that would have taken place anyway, with or without the credit. Subtract those out, and the real cost to the government of each additional sale under this program is $43,000. "The last thing we need in this country," says Nutting, "is more houses, or a temporary floor under prices or more government incentives to buy a home without putting any of your own money at risk." Actually, Rex, the very last thing we need in this country is more fraud. It is bad enough that banks are ripping off taxpayers; now taxpayers are ripping off each other. The $43K figure mentioned above does not capture the costs of weeding out fraudulent claims, which (as reported by the Wall Street Journalhere) could be one of every ten. In testimony to Congress, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration recommends that the Internal Revenue Service demand more thorough documentation before granting the credits. No credits before closing, no credits for second homes, no credits for 4-year-olds.
A handout meant to grow green shoots creates red tape instead. I know, hard to believe.
General Electric is a blue-chip "tell" for the U.S. economy as a whole. A more diversified company than 20th-century stalwart General Motors ("what's good for GM is good for the country"), GE has five major divisions, including Energy Infrastructure, Technology Infrastructure, NBC Universal, Capital Finance, and Consumer & Industrial. In 2007 the company pulled in revenues of $173 billion and netted $22.5 billion in profits. If GE is working, so is the U.S.
We now know from GE's third-quarter earnings, posted this morning, that good cheer alone will not turn the economy around. Remember, this was the quarter when GDP growth was supposed to turn positive, officially ending the recession. If that happens, it will be because of increased government spending, not because of recovery in the private sector. Q3 revenues at GE of $37.8 billion were down 20% from a year earlier and 3% from Q2.
The biggest drag came from G.E. Capital Services, the company's lending arm, accounting for one-third of total revenues. In 2007 GECS generated more than half of the company's profits, or roughly $3 billion each quarter. Those days are gone, as CEO Jeffrey Immelt revealed plans to shrink the balance sheet at GECS by 25%. [Memo to President Obama: contracting balance sheets in corporate America spell S-T-A-G-N-A-T-I-O-N.] Last quarter, GECS managed to break even only with the help of a $1 billion tax credit.
This bad news for the U.S. financial sector was compounded by Bank of America's announcement, also this morning, of a $2.2 billion loss in Q3 (after preferred dividends, some to Uncle Sam). (A page from BofA's financial summary documenting the relentless growth in nonperforming assets may be viewed here.) Citigroup yesterday announced a loss of $3.3 billion, despite underfunding its loan-loss reserve. Nonperforming loans are surging there, too.
The financial crisis is not over.
Bloomberg TV interviews Harvard prof Niall Ferguson here.