Economic analysis

Econowatch: April 2011

A monthly scorecard on the state of the economy in North America and beyond

If you tried to count the worries investors face today, you’d soon run out of fingers and toes. We’ve seen rising inflation, unrest across the oil-rich Arab world, a U.S. fiscal crisis and sovereign debt woes in Europe, any one of which might have kneecapped a lesser bull market. Not this one. Two years into the strongest rally ever, not even the prospect of nuclear fallout and the collapse of the world’s third-largest economy is cause for concern.

There are basically two ways to view what’s going on right now. One is that a fundamental disconnect has occurred between market sentiment and reality. In this scenario, investors have affixed blinders to obscure all that ails the economy. In other words, the markets are driven by momentum. When that momentum stalls, look out below.

The other possibility is that all these fears are overblown. Investors have learned from the stock market rout and correction of 2009 not to lose their heads at the first (or even umpteenth) sign of trouble. Instead, some argue there are real reasons to be optimistic: corporate profits are robust, manufacturing is on the upswing and gains in the U.S. job market are picking up speed.

The ultimate test of which scenario is behind the rally will come this year. Central banks are expected to tighten their monetary policies. Interest rates will rise and the virtual printing presses that created trillions of dollars in new money will shut down. With the end of easy money, investors will inevitably become more attuned to risk. Meanwhile, an important crutch that has helped prop up the recovery so far will be gone. If we’re fortunate, both markets and the economy will remain resilient. If not, we’ll look back and wonder why investors ignored so many obvious signs of trouble.


By the numbers

11 The percentage of homes in the U.S. now sitting vacant. In many vacation areas across the country, hit particularly hard by the downturn, vacancy rates are over 60 per cent.

50 The number of years of oil supply that may be left in the world, given current supplies and demand, notes a senior economist with HSBC.

428 The number of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchises in Canada owned by Prizm Income Fund, which has filed for court protection from creditors.

106,000 The number of high-tech jobs that will need to be filled in Canada in the next five years as the dot-com boom returns, notes an industry report.

$4.9 billion The amount U.S. hedge fund manager John Paulson earned in 2010 after betting big on the economic recovery.

Signs of the times: conspicuous consumers

Conspicuous consumers
*The U.S. housing market may be in brutal shape, but billionaire Russian investor Yuri Milner just plunked down US$100 million for a California mansion. Milner is an investor in Facebook, Groupon and game-maker Zynga. A sign of life in the housing sector, or just another oligarch with too much money to burn?

*Saks Fifth Avenue had to limit customers to six one-ounce packages of La Prairie’s latest skin care product. The price: $500 each. American consumers, it seems, are flooding back into the US$2.7-billion “prestige” skin care market. No sense looking like you just weathered a Great Recession.

*Subprime mortgage bonds—three words that would have sent investors screaming until recently—have been making a comeback. The bonds, which are backed by thousands of poor quality mortgages, have doubled in value to 60 cents on the dollar since early 2009, as investors have rediscovered their appetite for risk.

*President Barack Obama, an admitted “crackberry” addict, has been a boon to Research In Motion’s marketing campaign. But Obama told reporters he now has an iPad, too. Is that a bad omen as RIM readies to launch its PlayBook tablet?

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