The Last Bear

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Personal conversions sometimes mark dramatic turns in history. Saul of Tarsus saw a vision so bright it left him blind. The next thing you know, he had changed his name and was pushing Christianity all over the world. According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire fell as a consequence. Then, on the advice of his mistress, Gabrielle, Henry IV became a Catholic, leading to the Edict of Nantes and its subsequent revocation.

Even in the world of finance, there are momentous conversions. As they say on Wall Street, a rally ends when the last bear gives up. An old friend had been a source of inspiration for tech bears for many years. He suddenly saw the light and gave up in 1999. Shares he had formerly scorned — often dotcoms with no revenue and no business plans — were suddenly added to his own portfolio. This also heralded a big change — the end of the tech bubble. Tech stocks collapsed. Most disappeared. Then, Stephen Roach became vaguely bullish in 2007, after a long period of doubt and misgivings.

Now it is Jim Grant who has changed his mind. A generation of investors has gotten used to Grant’s u201Cdoom is nighu201D warnings. Now, he says, it’s a boom that is nigh.

What is remarkable about the Grant conversion is that his vision gives off so little heat and light. His WSJ article shilly-shallies around; rehearses the history of previous recessions and comes to rest in front of a flickering match: “The deeper the slump, the zippier the recovery.”

Many were the sheep in Grant’s flock. They feel betrayed, as if their shepherd had gone over to the wolves. We take no personal offense. In the following few words we merely stoke up the fire.

We will not argue with Newton’s Third Law. For every action, there is a reaction. Every boom has a bust. And every busted bubble has a bounce. Even the Titanic’s stern rose, before she slipped below the waves.

First, we consult the facts. But facts are survivors. They will tell whatever tale their interrogators want to hear. As for opinions, after six months of a stock market rally, the once half empty glass has become half full. We predicted it ourselves. But we’ll let Robert Prechter say, u201CI told you so.u201D Even before the rally began, Prechter foretold its story:

“Regardless of extent, it should generate feelings of optimism. At its peak, the President’s popularity will be higher, the government will be taking credit for successfully bailing out the economy, the fed will appear to have saved the banking system and investors will be convinced that the bear market is behind us.”

As to Mr. Obama’s popularity, Prechter was wrong. But 4 out of 5 ain’t bad.

Grant’s brief tour of recession history seems to confirm his Newtonian position: the further an economy falls, the further up it rises to get back to normal. This downturn has clipped nearly 4% off America’s GDP, substantially more than any previous downturn since WWII. Therefore, it will come back strong.

Today’s slump in the United States hardly compares to the one of ’29—’33, which took 27% off the GDP. Then, in the ranks of the unemployed, stood one out of every four able-bodied workers, as opposed to just one out of every 10, according to today’s statistical legerdemain. Still, the depth of the drop did not prevent a vigorous bounce; on the contrary, it seemed to demand it. After ’33, the US economy grew by nearly 10% in each of the next four years.

In the slump of ’82, GDP sank at a 6.4% rate. Again, the reaction was nearly equal and opposite to the action. “Not until the third quarter of 1984,” says Grant, “did real quarterly GDP growth drop below 5%.”

Of course, even a US Congressman will bounce, if you push him down the Capitol steps. But not every one will get up again. In the ’33 example, the US economy, still youthful and vigorous, got up nicely. But then it fell again. By the end of the decade he was still on his back, with 15% unemployment and 2% deflation. Only later, after four years of world war, did the economy begin a sustained recovery.

Now it is 2009. The poor fellow is down again. The feds rushed to help him to his feet. They gave him a combined fiscal and monetary shot-in-the-arm seven times stronger — in terms of GDP — than the average postwar countercyclical stimulus. The juice opened his eyes. But he still staggers. He has put on some weight over the years; he now carries three times the debt/GDP as he had in ’82. His stocks are three times as expensive, in P/E terms, too. His bones are more brittle and his mind a little slower. What’s more, in ’82, he had been on a deleveraging diet for more than a decade. In ’09, he has just begun.

What will happen next, we don’t know. But if we turn bullish on this economy and urge you to buy stocks, it will surely be time to sell them.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis and the co-author with Lila Rajiva of Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (Wiley, 2007).

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