The New Abnormal – Now and Then
Mohamed El-Erian, bond manager and CEO of PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Company, LLC) is known for patenting the terms “New Normal,” a period of slower growth, and subdued stock and bond market returns. Devin Leonard, a reporter from BusinessWeek, is probably closer to the truth when he describes our current financial situation as the “New Abnormal.” Accepting El-Erian description is tougher for me to accept than Leonard’s. Calling this economic environment the New Normal is like calling Fat Albert, “fat.” When roughly 15 million people are out of work, not receiving a steady paycheck, am I suppose to be surprised that consumer spending and confidence is sluggish?
Rather than a New Normal, I believe we are in the midst of an “Old Normal.” Unemployment reached 10.8% in 1982, and we recovered quite nicely, thank you, (the Dow Jones Industrial has climbed from a level about 800 in early 1982 to over 11,000 earlier in 2010). Sure, our economy carries its own distinct problems, but so did the economy of the early 1980s. For example:
- Inflation in the U.S. reached 14% in 1982 (core inflation today is < 1%) ;
- The Prime Rate exceeded 20%;
- Mexico experienced a major debt default;
- Wars broke out between the U.K./Falklands & Iran/Iraq;
- Chrysler got bailed out;
- Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated;
- Hyperinflation spread throughout South America (e.g., Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil)
As I’ve mentioned before, in recent decades we’ve survived wars, assassinations, currency crises, banking crises, Mad Cow disease, SARS, Bird Flu, and yes, even recessions – about two every decade on average. “We’ve had 11 recessions since World War II and we’ve had a perfect score — 11 recoveries,” famed investor Peter Lynch highlighted last year. Media squawkers and industry pundits constantly want you to believe “this time is different.” Economic cycles have an odd way of recurring, or as Mark Twain astutely noted, “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” I agree.
Certainly, each recession and bear market is going to have its own unique contributing factors, and right now we’re saddled with excessive debt (government and consumers), real estate is still in a lot of pain, and unemployment remains stubbornly high (9.5% in June). Offsetting these challenges is a global economy powered by 6 billion hungry consumers with an appetite of achieving a standard of living rivaling ours. Underpinning the surge in developing market growth is the expansion of democratic rule and an ever-sprawling extension of the technology revolution. In 1900, there were about 10 countries practicing democracy versus about 120 today. These political advancements, coupled with the internet, are flattening the world in a way that is creating both new competition and opportunities. The rising tide of emerging market demand for our leading edge technologies not only has the potential of elevating foreigners’ standard of living, but pushing our living standards higher as well.
With the United States economy representing roughly 25% of the globe’s total Gross Domestic Product (~5% of the global population), simple mathematics virtually assures emerging markets will continue to eat more of the global economic pie. In fact, many economists believe China will pass the U.S. over the next 15 years. As long as the pie grows, and the absolute size (not percentage) of our economy grows, we should be happy as a clam as our developing country brethren soak up more of our value-added goods and services.
On a shorter term basis, Leonard profiles several abnormal characteristics practiced by consumers. Here’s what he has to say about the “New Abnormal”:
“The new abnormal has given rise to a nation of schizophrenic consumers. They splurge on high-end discretionary items and cut back on brand-name toothpaste and shampoo. Companies like Apple, whose net income jumped 94 percent in its last quarter, and Starbucks, which is enjoying a 61 percent increase in operating income over the same time frame, are thriving. Mercedes-Benz is having a record sales year; deliveries of new vehicles in the U.S. rose 25 percent in the first six months of 2010. Lexus and BMW were also up. Though luxury-goods manufacturers like Hermýs [sic] and Burberry are looking primarily to Asia for growth, their recent earnings reports suggest stabilization and even modest improvement in the U.S.”
Beyond the fray of high-end products, the masses have found reasons to also splurge at the nation’s largest mall (The Mall of America), home to a massive amusement park and a 1.2 million gallon aquarium. So far this year, the mall has experienced a +9% increase in sales.
So while El-Erian calls for a “New Normal” to continue in the years to come, what might actually be happening is a return to an “Old Normal” with ordinary cyclical peaks and valleys. If this isn’t true, perhaps we will all revert to a “New Abnormal” mindset described by Devin Leonard. If so, I will see you at the Mercedes dealership in my Burberry suit, with $3 latte in hand.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Mercedes, BMW, Burberry, Hermy’s, SBUX, or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.