The US is in the grip of the political drama around the raising of the debt ceiling. Economists are worried that if politicians fail to come up with a satisfactory solution, the US will go back into recession even if they finally agree on raising the debt ceiling.
Most Americans do not realize that solving the debt ceiling problem isn’t really the main issue. The main issue that they have to face is that the US economy is designed for the wrong century, and that it is long due for a transition to a more ‘modern’ design. Officials try to avoid the inevitable by artificially propping up the economy, but it won’t work. The transition will come. And it will be much more painful than a mere ‘double dip recession’ – it will make the recession of 2008 look like ‘foreplay’.
Transitions are alright in economics – the market will be able to recover and adjust the distribution of goods and services to adapt to any changes in the patterns of use. However, some transitions take long, and this means that the economy will suffer till the transition is over and the market has made the necessary adjustments.
The US is in the midst of three transitions: that of its housing patterns, the use of resources, and the US dollar. And since the nature of all these transitions is that they take a long time, I believe the US “crisis” will last for some time.
The government will naturally act as if it is only a matter of pushing through certain programs, and then the economy will recover. Perhaps certain programs may result in short term growth or increased employment. But this will ultimately be quite futile, and the longer term trends will overpower these gains.
The economic crisis was caused by the housing bubble – specifically, the market for ‘sub-prime’ mortgages was oversold. And this problem continues to this day, with homeowners continuing to default on mortgages. However, this is only part of the problem. There is a creeping re-concentration of housing patterns in the US. People are not as willing as before to commute two hours or longer to work every day. This is partly due to the economic crisis – if you’re looking for a job, it is better to do so close to home. And, if your house is foreclosed, you would most likely move closer to the city for new and cheaper housing.
But the crisis only aggravates the problem, it did not cause it. Things like demographics (people getting older – and thus wanting to be nearer health care facilities) and the rising price of gasoline/diesel have a longer term effect on housing choices.
The movement of people from sprawling suburbs to smaller urban hubs means that many houses built in the suburbs will go unsold (or not rented) for a long time, and sometimes will only get sold at a very big discount. And the bad effect of this is that people won’t be that eager to buy houses in an area where house prices continue to go down. So, home building companies will lose money or even go bankrupt, until they completely shift their activities nearer urban hubs.
With the development of countries such as China and India (and of course, the rest of the world), there will be a squeeze to divide up all the resources needed. The days when Europe and America could get away with using 80% of the world’s resources are over; and this means that the resources of the world should be shared more equally. And, this means that the price of most resources will go up significantly.
The resource that Americans will really FEEL going up in price will be that of oil. From the crisis-level price of around $95/barrel, oil will surely go to $150/barrel by 2012. This is on the logic that if the world’s GDP returns to the pre-crisis level, so will the scarcity of oil, and this means that prices will return to pre-crisis levels. And that is only the beginning: beyond 2012, prices will rise even higher. Oil supply volatility may cause temporary peaks or dips in the price, but the overall trend is still for the price to rise.
For the American automobilist, this means that oil will return to highs of $5/gallon, or higher. This will need a permanent adjustment of living patterns. People will need to either commute less, ride trains or buses to work, or use smaller cars or hybrids. And since oil is used for making things like plastics and fertilizers, the prices for these will also rise, forcing people to change their consumption patterns.
The rise in the price of grain, particularly that of corn, will eventually spell the end of feeding grain to cows. At a certain point, the number of cows will be limited by the grass that they can eat. See High Corn Price Will Lead to Lower Beef Production Cheap meat will become a thing of the past.
Increased commodity prices will cause a move away from the throw-away economy. There will be a new emphasis on goods that last longer, and use less energy and other inputs.
The “Fall” of the US Dollar
The days of the US dollar as the international reserve currency are soon over. I would say that it would “fall” from this position sometime in this decade. And that the US economy will feel this change quite deeply. (see Two Years After the Fall )
The fall of the dollar finds its roots in the massive debts that the US has – almost 14.3 trillion dollars, to date. The Fed is even tried to stir up US inflation by ‘printing money’, or Quantitative Easing. And to make the problem worse, total US currency abroad totals $75 trillion. The resulting inflation and the high amount of debt will be the dollar’s undoing; at a certain point, countries will decide NOT to keep dollars as reserve anymore, and NOT to buy up US treasuries, and this will drive up the interest rates on these treasuries.
Already, the rating agencies are threatening to downgrade the rating for US Treasuries from AAA to AA. While this seems like a small step, it will be the first push down the hill for the dollar.
The strength of the US Dollar rests on the willingness of other countries to keep dollars in their foreign currency reserves. Dollars make up to 80% of Central Bank reserves of many countries. Historically, this has meant that the US could buy more from other countries than it sells to them. If Central Banks’ change their mind regarding the desirability of the US dollar as a reserve currency (especially as a result of a change in Treasuries’ ratings), this will result in a sharp drop in the value of the US dollar. And this point will happen sometime very soon.
After the Transition
After the decade of transition, the US will face a new period of sustained economic growth. The American people’s flexibility and the country’s huge resources are sure bases for it to build a new prosperity. Politicians should hurry the transition instead of trying to deny that it will happen. They should not be distracted by the call to ‘preserve jobs’ or to ‘preserve our way of life’.