Analysis: The global economy’s 2020 hangover is far from over

Despite good news about Covid-19 vaccinations, a solid economic rebound and seemingly boundless optimism on Wall Street, we’re nowhere near out of the woods.

“There’s just as much uncertainty now, today, as there was in March 2020 as the pandemic was unfolding,” said Mike O’Rourke, chief market strategist at Jones Trading. The only difference, he says, is that investors now are swimming in easy money that’s allowed them to shrug off the grim headlines.

The Biden administration is doing what it can. On Wednesday, the White House announced a “90-day sprint” to unclog port congestion, shifting the Port of Los Angeles to a 24/7 schedule and leaning on the private sector to expand their overnight operations.

The White House announced a "90-day sprint" to unclog port congestion. But it can only do so much.
But the government can do only so much. The move to a 24/7 schedule is “low-hanging fruit,” said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the Consumer Brands Association. Ports overseas have been operating that way for months.

The problem goes much deeper than traffic jams. Truck drivers, for example, are in high demand just about everywhere. But so are trucks, which rely on computer chips, which are — you guessed it — backordered till the end of time.

The majority of financial executives expect the supply problems to last well into 2022, if not later, according to a survey released Thursday by Duke University.

Prices surging

All of this is driving up prices. You don’t need a Ph.D in economics to see that, and yet central bankers and economists are still calling price hikes “transitory.” The Federal Reserve has used the term so much, and for so long, it’s pretty much lost all meaning.

On Wednesday, the official word from the Fed was this: “The staff continued to expect that this year’s rise in inflation would prove to be transitory.” On the same day, the government published data showing the consumer price index soared 5.4% in September from a year earlier.

The Fed’s “transitory” line looks like very wishful thinking from the people whose job it is to keep inflation around 2%.

As if all of that weren’t hard enough on consumers: Winter is coming, and the world is facing an acute shortage of energy.

American households can expect to spend 54% more for propane, 43% more for home heating oil, 30% more for natural gas and 6% more for electric heating, the US Energy Information Administration said Wednesday.

The price spikes are even more dramatic in Europe, where wholesale electricity prices have increased by 200% compared to the 2019 average, according to the European Commission. Coal prices in China are at record highs and rolling blackouts to conserve energy have already begun.
The EU is facing a sharp spike in energy prices, driven by increased global demand.

And just to keep things interesting, US lawmakers are flirting with financial disaster.

President Biden on Friday signed a short-term debt ceiling suspension, averting an imminent default on US debt. But the Treasury says that deal will only get the country through December 3, setting up yet another showdown for Republicans and Democrats — just in time for the holidays!

It’s hard to overstate how devastating a default would be. Millions of job losses would undo all the gains the labor market has made since the pandemic hit; credit markets would seize up; paychecks to federal workers, Medicare benefits, military salaries and other payments would be halted.

“No one would be spared,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told CNN last month. “It would be such a self-imposed disaster that we wouldn’t recover from, all at a time when our role in the world is already being questioned.”

Wall Street’s blinders

In the face of so much risk, you might wonder why on Earth Wall Street seems so unbothered. Despite recent volatility, the S&P 500, the broadest measure of Wall Street, is up more than 18% so far this year.

Investors hate uncertainty, but they love easy money more.

“It’s $10 trillion of fiscal and monetary stimulus pumped into a $22 trillion economy,” said O’Rourke, the Jones Trading analyst. All of that cash has neutralized the signals investors might otherwise receive that trouble is afoot.

“There’s much liquidity, and everyone feels good about it that they’re ignoring those headlines, those risks, for the time being,” O’Rourke said. “But it’s unlikely they’ll ignore them forever.”

That’s because the Fed plans to start pumping the brakes on its easy-money policies, most likely next month.

Fear of missing out is another powerful sentiment keeping stock markets humming. Investors are well aware the party can’t last forever, so they’re going wild while they can.

We’re in a “massive equity bubble,” according to O’Rourke. And it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict what the breaking point will be.

-— CNN Business’ Matt Egan and Paul R. La Monica contributed reporting.

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