When I first came to the United States as a student in Chicago in 2004, I realized how little I knew of the contradictions within this country. From the outside, it is the wealthiest nation in the world, with the most powerful army on earth and often referred to as the land of excess and opportunity. But to many outside the US it is a little known fact that there are deep pockets of poverty, tucked away in patches of its urban and rural areas. More recently, while working on poverty reduction programs in South Asia at the World Bank, I found it ironic to see homeless persons sitting under the pristine cherry blossoms outside its shiny building in Washington DC. It made me think about the need to apply innovations and successes from ‘developing countries' right here.
Ray Boshara's recent article "Combating Poverty by Building Assets" in Pathways magazine sheds some light on this issue. Boshara calls for a ‘new era of thrift' to be ushered in a post recession America and he explicitly draws on experiences from other national contexts.
Signs point to toughening times for the microfinance industry. A recent article from the Economist has echoed my concerns that selling microcredit (as a concept or a product) will grow increasingly difficult as the global economy stumbles (or crashes and burns) on the heels of a debt-led recession in the United States. Not only in the concept politically less appetizing than it was back when Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, the capital fueling the industry is drying up. The similarities and differences between subprime lending that fueled the US recession and the "sub, sub, subprime" lending happening in developing countries through microfinance institutions have been debated and analyzed for over a year now. But only recently has the engine of seemingly-endless capital to MFIs around the world starting slowing, sputtering to slow chug in some instances.
The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) has done some math and reports that 14,000 Americans are losing their health insurance each day. More evidence, as if we needed it, that the recession is exacerbating what was already a crisis of the uninsured. CAPAF estimates that about 48 million Americans lack insurance now, with the number going up as the economy goes down.
The report points out that Medicaid and SCHIP have prevented many of the new jobless from losing insurance. The additional funds for Medicaid, SCHIP and COBRA subsidies in the economic stimulus legislation will also "absorb" some of the newly unemployed, blunting the growth of the ranks of the uninsured. But to tackle the problem instead of just slowing the bleeding, we need comprehensive health care reform that covers everyone and controls costs.
President-elect Obama's call for enormous new investment in national instructure has the potential, as Steve Coll recently noted, to both stimulate the economy in the short run and strengthen it for the long haul. But as the situation in California illustrates, the economy cannot get the full benefit of that infrastructure package unless the stimulus package also includes a large dose of direct aid to state budgets.
In every respect but one, California is ideally positioned to take advantage of Obama's infrastructure plans. With its congested freeways, crumbling levees, and burgeoning population, it has boundless infrastructure needs. It has existing voter authorization to issue tens of billions worth of state bonds to cover the state's share of cost for projects. It has a bountiful supply of workers, now idled by the collapse of housing construction, to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency or to repair schools and public buildings. It has a vigorous corps of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to spur a wave of green infrastructure investments, contributing new ideas and technologies to the effort.
It has everything to carry out an infrastructure stimulus program except cash.
With state revenues in free fall, governors are banging on the door of Congress, calling on lawmakers to put assistance to the states at the top of the list in the next economic stimulus package. In the ubiquitous media shorthand, the states want a “bailout.”
This shorthand, however, muddies the issue and the stakes here.
The number of workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell by 5,000 last week to 381,000, a smaller decrease than analysts had predicted. The four-week average of new claims, a less volatile measure, rose to 375,250 from 372,000, indicating that the U.S. labor market remains weak and far away from a recovery. Coming after last month's half percent spike in unemployment to 5.5%, these figures add further gloom to the current picture of the U.S economy and will put pressure on the Fed hold its target funds rate at 2% when it meets next week.
Snapshot asks, to what degree will falling consumer spending be exacerbated by labor market weakness?
Wall Street Journal - Jobless Claims Fall in Latest Week
Bloomberg - U.S. Initial Jobless Claims Fell to 381,000 Last Week
Reuters - Treasuries extend losses after jobless claims
Associated Press - Stocks trade mixed after dip in jobless claims
Housing prices continued their downward slide in April with a monthly decrease of 2.2%, a decline of 14.4% from last year's levels. In an unexpected twist, monthly home sales actually rose by 3.3%. Some optimists see this as an indication that the market is nearing its bottom and beginning to work its way through a massive glut of unsold homes as sellers cut their overvalued asking prices and buyers open their wallets to bargains. Others point to worsening consumer confidence and tighter lending requirements as evidence that April's sales figures were a statistical blip in a market that has much further to fall.
Snapshot asks, to what degree will further credit turmoil stop buyers from clearing the housing market?
Wall Street Journal - Home Sales Rise in Hard-Hit Areas
Bloomberg.com - U.S. Home-Price Index Fell 14.4% in March
Washington Post - Existing Home Sales Rise as Prices Plummet
New York Times - Home sales post unexpected April increase
Yahoo News - Home sales unexpectedly rise in April
A 0.2% overall decline in April retail sales masked divergent patterns in U.S. consumer spending. While auto spending decreased by 2.8%, spending on non-auto goods actually rose by 0.5%, a larger than expected increase. With consumer spending accounting for over 70% of the U.S. economy, some see this resiliency as a sign the economy may be closer to recovery than previously thought. Others say it's a statistical blip and expect continued contraction throughout 2008 as gas prices and inflation increase.
Snapshot asks, will high gas prices and weak auto sales further drag down consumers in 2008?
Some are questioning whether the US is in a recession. Job losses last week were less than expected at -20,000. Many expected between -75,000 and -80,000. The stock market has rallied and the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke through the 13,000 mark last week. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates by 25bp but two members of the FOMC dissented. Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, and Charles Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed, argued there was no need for a cut. Despite a blip of positive news, the prospects for the U.S. housing market and American consumer are likely to continue to drag on the economy. For a graphic representation of how damaged the US housing market is, see Ben S. Bernanke's Mortgage Delinquencies and Foreclosures.
Snapshot asks, if this recession is led by falling housing prices and damaged consumers, when will it be worst?
The Conference Board's consumer confidence index fell again to 62.3 from 65.9 in March. The index was dragged down by the present situation index, which measures consumers' assessment of current economic conditions. Housing data also weighed on the economic outlook. Home prices from the largest urban areas around the country fell 13.6% in February from prices a year earlier. Given the slowing consumer and the rapidly declining housing prices, economists fear a "negative feedback loop," in which consumers, hurt by deteriorating house prices and poor consumer credit conditions, buy less and damage corporate profits.
Snapshot asks, will the struggling consumer keep the U.S. in a prolonged recession?