Dear reader, if you are like me, you are baffled by the constant barrage of economic data telling us that 'things are good or bad or getting worse or getting better. If you are confident that you understand all the data you are either delusional or you are an economist. [Dear reader, that statement was meant as a joke. Of course, it is widely known that all economists are delusional.]
I will however simplify the process of understanding the global economy to one simple number that we can all easily understand and that we can all check every morning. This number represents all one need know before making any economic or investment decisions. Before I tell you the magical number that can predict the future I must preface my observation with a little background information.
If one studies any or all of the myriad data points relating to any or all statistics from around the world, such as GDP, the price of oil, inflation statistics, currency and market fluctuations, earning news, employment statistics etc., one is left, not with knowledge, but with a migraine. Let me say, for the record that no one, including economists, analysts, pundits, politicians, bankers, brokers and, of course, yours truly, are able to digest all this information, let alone draw any form of rational conclusion from the data. Information overload and systemic complexity has rendered any form of analysis irrelevant and inaccurate. [In deference to conspiracy theorists I will acknowledge that the accuracy of much of the data is also suspect.]
An example of this data overload and inaccuracy is found in the most revered of financial statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] monthly job report. It is not that the report is purposely inaccurate. The report goes to great lengths to ensure that all its assumption and methodology are clearly explained. [Well, clearly enough for 'government work', anyway.] Unfortunately no one has the time, ability or interest to read and interpret anything but the headline number. Underemployed individuals, the birth death/model [a process where the BLS simply guesses how many jobs were created by small business] and other factors render the report less than what it is purported to be, that is, an accurate tally of employment in the US. The number produced each month by the BLS is interesting to be sure, but it does not rise to the standard of actionable intelligence.
We have, I think reached the point that there are effectively no longer national economies there is only one global economy. The main effect of this change is that realistic analysis and commentary of a region's economy can only be done in a global context. Unfortunately the global economy is simply too complex a system to analyze in any meaningful way on a short term basis. Imagine the complexity and inherent inaccuracy if one tried to compile a Global Monthly Employment report.
How does one explain to a vintner in Spain who sells wine to China that his success is dependent on the workers in China making a good living selling I- phone's to the US at a reasonable cost as long as the cost of oil does not make the shipping cost prohibitive to all importers and exporters. How does one factor in the inflationary or deflationary impact of government money printing and artificially low interest rates. How does one factor in unrest in the Middle East as well as gridlock and animosity in Washington. How does one include currency manipulation and fluctuations in our conversation with the vintner? One does not analyze what these issues mean. One guesses what these issues mean. There is nothing wrong with guessing, but call it what it is. Economists should not hide behind statistical mayhem and pretend that their opinions are anything but a wild eyed guess. The economist's opinion is no more accurate or informed than the opinion of the Vintner in Spain. Economist's opinions are no more or less valid or more accurate or informed than the Small Business Owner on Main Street. Funnily enough although their opinions have equal weight, economists are paid ten times the wages offered on Main Street. But I digress.
Hubris prevents economists, politicians and analysts from appearing on television and saying, "That's a good question, but frankly it is so complicated now I really have no idea which way the economy is going. Anything I say is, at best a wild guess with a 10% chance of actually being accurate. There is no historical precedent for our current globally connected, interdependent, wired economy to base my analysis on.." It would not make very entertaining viewing or reading to have a series of experts state that opinion over and over again. I suspect it would not do much for Main St.'s confidence.
There is however, one number that does tell the complete story regarding the health of the global economy. It is the only number investors, economists, analysts and politicians need to know. The number is provided to us by 'The Economist' magazine. The number is The Economist's interactive overview of government debt across the planet
Government debt is, sadly, the life support system that our world depends upon. It is the oxygen, water and sustenance of the global economy. At 2:30 p.m. EST, September 25, 2012 the total debt was 48.9 trillion dollars. Currently this number is increasing at a rate $250,000,000 per hour. As long as this number continues to increase at this rate we will continue to enjoy this half hearted recovery/slow entry into another recession that exists today. However if the rate of increase of global debt were to slow appreciably or dare I say it, the total debt were to begin to decline, then one can be quite sure that a depression is coming. In that event, one should be reading Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath', rather than your favorite financial website. A decline in the rate of increase of government debt or a decrease in the aggregate of government debt would signal that all companies, workers or individuals who are recipients to some degree of the largesse of government [in other words, everyone] would be feeling the pinch. In one form or other, both the 99% and the 1% will feel the pain of government cutbacks. They will be united as both groups reduce their spending accordingly. The ripple effect of significantly reduced government spending does not ripple through the economy. It will be more akin to a Tsunami.
To imagine this scenario it is perhaps easier just to visualize life in Greece as it is today. Life in Greece is a process of layoffs, business closings, deteriorating service and a not so slow, slide, into the economics of a Third World country. [Actually it would be worse than Greece is today as there would be no bailouts for the world from the European Union.]
Dear reader, before you despair it is possible that one can interpret a decline on aggregate government debt to another factor. It is possible that by cooperating on a global scale by our politician's will foster an environment that encourages global growth on a huge scale. Our politicians will put their own re-election aside and in some cases their own regional interest for the greater good of the world at large. Americans will pay much for their goods as long as it helps the living conditions of Chinese workers. China will sacrifice some price advantage and risk higher unemployment to ensure that their companies do not pour raw sewage and chemicals into their waterways. Middle Eastern countries will come to an agreement that satisfies the disparate needs of all interested parties and an enduring peace will begin. This will lower the price of oil by $50 a barrel and provide further stimulus to the global economy. This scenario might happen.
However I would encourage your skepticism on the subject on global cooperation.
Dear reader, it is not that reduction of global debt is not a necessary and inevitable step on the road to a realignment and transformation of the global economy. It is that a prolonged reduction in global government debt will signal the end of money printing and low interest rates and the beginning of a long and very painful adjustment before any benefits will be noticed by Main Street. A reduction of global government debt will signal that that the "Can" we have been kicking down the road has reached the end of the road and can be kicked no further.
So each morning check the Global Government debt clock and then make your investment decisions. Be prepared to try and make your exit strategy one that will allow you to be at the head of the heard. [For details on the meaning of 'exit strategy' contact your Central Banker' where you will learn that there is actually no such thing as an exit strategy. ]
Spain, Greece, well OK all of Europe, California Illinois, well OK all of the United States, some banks in China, well OK all banks in China, are slowly coming apart at the seams. Like a tiny chip in your windshield that remains insignificant for months and then one morning morphs into a spider web of cracks on your windshield, global government debt is displaying, not so tiny cracks. A sudden frost will turn those cracks in the global economy into a spider web of financial difficulty that will reach out and touch all of us.
After you have checked the global debt clock in the morning and before you invest, there is only one question you need to ask yourself before you invest. The question, first asked by Inspector Callahan [Dirty Harry] is "Are you feeling lucky"?