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On The Economy & BCA’s Forecasts For 2006

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
By Gary D. Halbert
January 3, 2006

IN THIS ISSUE:

1.  Under-Reported Economic Accomplishments In 2005

2.  Over-Hyped Fears About The “Inverted Yield Curve”

3.  The Bank Credit Analyst’s Latest Forecasts For 2006

4.  The Problems With BCA’s Optimistic Forecasts

5.  BCA On The Markets – Good News & Bad News

6.  BCA’s Most Surprising New Forecast  (Gold)

Introduction

Happy New Year to you!  The holidays went by so fast, at least for me.  In any event, it’s time to get back to the business of investing in this difficult and uncertain environment.  The big question is, where to make money in 2006.  To get a handle on that, we have to first get a read on the US economy.  So here we go. 

The US economy continues to surprise on the upside.  Despite eight interest rate hikes last year, despite oil prices as high as $70 and despite three hurricanes and a national disaster on the Gulf Coast, the US economy has continued to surge, with GDP growth of 4.1% (annual rate) in the 3Q.  Yet the media continue to downplay the robust economic growth.  The Wall Street Journal called it the “Rodney Dangerfield Economy” because it gets no respect. This week, we will look at some of the under-reported economic accomplishments we saw last year.

There is so much talk about the interest rate “yield curve” inverting in 2006, with short rates rising above long rates, and the implications that could have for the economy.  Historically, an inverted yield curve has led to recessions, and there are many (not just the gloom-and-doom crowd) who think a recession will unfold in the last half of this year as a result.  I disagree and will discuss this more in the pages which follow.

This week, I will also summarize the latest forecasts for the New Year from The Bank Credit Analyst.  As long-time readers know, I have been a continuous subscriber to BCA for almost 30 years, and I continue to believe that Martin Barnes and his team are among the most astute and accurate forecasters in the world.  In the last segment that follows, I will give you their latest thinking for 2006.  (Hint: they remain optimistic about the US economy.)

Significant Economic Accomplishments In 2005

I must admit that, like most other forecasters, I predicted a mild slowdown in the economy late last year following one of the worst national disasters in America’s history.  Yet the economy remained resilient despite the hurricanes, soaring oil and gas prices and the meticulous rate hikes by the Fed.  Despite the plunge in consumer confidence last fall, confidence soared in October and November.  Depending on which reports you read, holiday shopping was 5-10% higher than in 2004, despite widespread predictions of a slowdown.  One wonders how strong GDP would have been were it not for the impediments noted above.

In a well-written article last week, the editors at the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) addressed some of the many economic accomplishments of 2005.  Here are some excerpts:

Remember the 2004 debate over the ‘jobless recovery’ and ‘outsourcing’? Here’s the reality: The great American jobs machine has averaged a net increase of nearly 200,000 new jobs a month this year [2005].  Some 4.5 million more Americans are working today than in May of 2003, before the Bush investment tax cuts. The employment expansion in financial services, software design, medical technology and many other growth industries dwarfs the smaller job losses in the domestic auto industry.  
Even many of the widely publicized lost jobs at Delphi and General Motors are silently offset by the tens of thousands of Americans employed at new domestic plants built by multinational companies like Honda and Toyota of North America. This job growth has been accompanied from 2001 to 2005 with the best rate of labor productivity over any four-year period since the Labor Department started tracking this statistic. This productivity revolution augurs well for higher wages in 2006.
Critics of the U.S economic model charge that income gains for workers still have not caught up with the losses from the 2000-2001 high-tech collapse. Now they have. The Treasury Department reported last week that ‘real hourly wages are up 1.1% versus the previous business cycle peak in early 2001.’ Workers are now earning more per hour in real terms than they did at the height of the 1990s expansion.
The real gains for families have been in the value of their assets. In 2005 Americans owned an all-time high level of wealth (mostly housing and stocks), valued at $50 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Median household net worth is now estimated at more than $100,000. Rather than being overloaded with credit card bills, the truth is that Americans’ assets are rising in value faster than they are taking on debt.
It’s not just the idle rich who are getting richer. It’s the tens of millions in the middle class who could afford to visit malls this brisk Christmas shopping season and purchase cell phones, DVD players, $2,500 flat-panel HDTVs, $400 Xboxes, digital cameras, pink iPods and laptop computers. Hello? This isn’t the buying behavior of people who are feeling poorer.
Next, since the investment tax cuts of 2003 were one of the triggers for the surge in asset values, business investment, and job growth, extending the 15% capital gains and dividend tax rates should be Congress’s first order of business. Opponents of those lower rates will moan about ‘the deficit,’ but the truth is that those tax rates corresponded with a record $284 billion increase in tax revenues in Fiscal Year 2005 and a $100 billion decline in the budget deficit. We’d also like to see Republicans begin a campaign for a simplified and pro-growth tax reform, with New Europe's popular flat tax as a potential model.

You don’t hear much about these accomplishments in the media.  But the truth is, the Bush tax cuts have had a significant positive impact on the economy.  GDP rose only 1.6% in 2002 and 2.6% in 2003, but then leaped ahead by 4.2% in 2004, and GDP for all of 2005 should be close to 4%.  

As noted above, consumer spending during the holidays significantly eclipsed most expectations, many of which were for an actual decline in holiday spending as compared to 2004.  That didn’t happen, and consumer spending was in fact robust.  So, we enter 2006 on a strong economic note, and there are no signs of a recession in the near future.  Of course, as always, not everyone agrees as I will discuss below.

Over-Hyped Fears About The “Inverted Yield Curve”

So many investment writers and market analysts are increasingly focusing on the yield curve, especially given that some short-term interest rates edged slightly above certain long-term rates late last week.  On December 13, the Fed Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised the Fed Funds rate to 4.25%.  Most analysts expect the Fed to raise rates at least one more time, which would put the Fed Funds rate at 4.50% at the end of January, and very possibly twice, pushing the key rate to 4.75% by the end of March.

As of Friday, the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note was at 4.39%.  The concern, of course, is that the Fed goes too far in raising short-term rates, to the point that the Fed Funds rate climbs above the 10-year T-Note.   The majority of analysts I read expect the Fed to stop raising rates after the March FOMC meeting at the latest. 

If that is the case, and the Fed Funds rate goes to 4.75%, and the 10-year Treasury Note stays within its recent trading range, then the yield curve would be slightly inverted.  In fact, a case can be made that the yield curve is already beginning to invert.  On Friday, the yield on the 2-year Treasury Note was at 4.40% while the 10-year Note was at 4.39%.

Many analysts point to the past when recessions have been preceded by an inverted yield curve, and virtually guarantee that a recession will unfold if the Fed Funds rate rises above the 10-year T-Note later this year.  However, if we look back at the last several recessions, we find that things are much different today.  In the past, the yield curve typically inverted when Fed monetary policy was very tight and inflation was high and rising. 

That is not the case today.  Inflation is moderate to low and should remain that way for the coming year at least.  Unlike in past cycles of high inflation, when the Fed had to jack up short rates very aggressively, the Fed has been moving short rates up very slowly, in quarter point increments.  Most importantly, we should keep in mind that the Fed is merely trying to get short rates back to a “neutral” – rather than stimulative - level.

The point is, the economic, monetary and inflation environment today is not typical of those in which the yield curve inverted and a recession followed.   Even if the Fed Funds rate were to inch just above the 10-year Note rate in the next 3-6 months, I do not believe that occurrence, by itself, would lead to a recession, especially if short rates do not remain above the 10-year Note for an extended period.

Nevertheless, with each additional rate hike by the Fed, you are going to hear more analysts wringing their hands about a coming recession based on the yield curve.  I just want to alert you to that fact ahead of time.  For now, ignore these warnings, unless there are some unforeseen surprises in our future over the next several months.  I will keep you posted.

The Bank Credit Analyst’s Latest Forecasts For 2006

In the mid-1990s, BCA predicted that the US economy had entered a multi-year, technology-driven economic “long-wave upturn” which would last for many years, perhaps a decade or longer.  BCA defined their economic long-wave upturn as a period of relatively strong economic growth with only modest recessions along the way.  In short, they predicted that the US economy would surprise on the upside, and it repeatedly has over the last decade. 

As long-time clients and readers will remember, I questioned BCA’s long-wave forecast at the time as a result of our bulging federal budget deficits, trade deficits and the falling personal savings rate.  I even challenged Martin Barnes in 1995 in an interview that we reproduced and made available free to our clients.  BCA has addressed these concerns repeatedly over the last decade, but has stuck to its optimistic forecast, and they have been correct as usual.

As for 2006, BCA continues to believe that the US economy is still in the midst of a technology-driven long-wave upturn which could continue for several more years.  They continue to believe that economic growth cooled modestly in the 4Q of last year (although we don’t yet have data to confirm this), and that it will be below the 4% level in GDP again in the 1Q of this year.  But they believe that 2006 will be yet another year of very respectable economic growth (3-3½% in GDP).

Most importantly, the centerpiece of BCA’s latest forecast is their belief that inflation will remain low for the next year or longer.  If inflation remains low as they expect, then interest rates should remain low as well, and the economy should deliver solid growth, although probably not another year of 4% GDP.  In short, they expect another year of 3+% growth in GDP and no recession in 2006.

Martin Barnes and his fellow editors readily admit that if they are wrong about their forecast for continued low inflation, then most if not all of their specific market forecasts will be wrong as well.  They clearly recognize that another large spike in energy prices, for example, could cause inflation to rise well above their expectations.  Yet in their most likely scenario, the core rate of US inflation stays relatively low for the next several years, interest rates remain low and the US economy continues to grow.

The Problems With BCA’s Optimistic Forecast

Having been optimistic about the US economy for over a decade, I suspect that more than a few clients and readers must think that Martin Barnes and his team are eternal optimists and subscribers to the “perma-bull ” theory that so pervades Wall Street.  I must admit that it is tempting to doubt BCA’s latest rosy forecasts.

We all know that the federal budget deficits are record large; we all know that the national savings rate fell into negative territory in 2005; we all know that the trade deficit is off the charts; we all know that the only thing supporting the US dollar is massive foreign buying of greenbacks; and we all know that this period of borrow-and-spend prosperity will come to an ugly end at some point.

It is important to note that BCA fully agrees with everything in the paragraph just above.  They simply do not believe that the day of reckoning comes in 2006 and maybe not even in 2007, or even longer.

We all see the national debt piling up, and the fact that neither political party can restrain spending.  The signs continue to mount that the huge bull market in US real estate is leveling-off at best, and the housing boom has been a huge source of liquidity for US consumers, which are driving this economy (and in fact, the global economy).  We all know that foreigners will not continue to hold bulging amounts of US dollars forever.  As noted above, there will be a very ugly end at some point.

BCA simply argues that we are not there yet:

“Current trends in the U.S. trade balance cannot persist indefinitely, but they are likely to be sustained for quite some time.  Even if private capital flows into the dollar fall back from recent high levels, it is virtually certain that Asian central banks will step in to fill the breach, as they did between 2002 and 2004.  It is not in anybody’s interest for a dollar crisis to trigger a U.S. recession, and Asia would be especially hard hit.  That is why the region’s central banks are quite prepared to be the dollar buyers of last resort for the foreseeable future… It all comes to an end when it is no longer in the economic and/or political interests of Asian governments to sustain this arrangement.”

The emerging economies around the world, and especially in Asia, are reaping huge benefits by running large trade surpluses with the US.  America, meanwhile, can continue to borrow-and-spend precisely because these foreign countries are willing to be paid in US dollars and are content to hold growing amounts of our greenbacks, which for now remain the world’s “reserve currency.” 

This arrangement will come to an end at some point, and it will not be pretty, but BCA argues that such an end will not happen in 2006, and maybe not for several more years, barring some very negative surprise(s).

No doubt, many of you will disagree, but in the almost 30 years I have read BCA, it has rarely paid to disagree with them.

BCA On The Markets – Good News & Bad News

Up to this point, this summary of BCA’s latest forecasts has been quite encouraging – continued economic growth, low inflation and low interest rates.  But that’s where most of the good news ends.  Let’s start with stocks and bonds.

As they have for the last year or so, BCA suggests that US equities are likely to remain in a broad trading range with a mild upward bias in 2006.  BCA’s most encouraging advice is that because the US equity markets lagged many of the international markets in 2005, it is likely to “see some catch-up in the coming year.”

Let’s hope so!  The Dow Jones Industrial Index was actually fractionally lower in 2005; the S&P 500 Index gained only 3% for the year; and the Nasdaq Index was up only 1.4%.  While BCA is slightly more optimistic on equities in 2006, it looks to be another difficult and potentially frustrating year for most equity investors.

If correct, this continues to suggest active management strategies such as sector rotation and traditional market timing.  Several of the professionally managed equity programs I recommend significantly outperformed the major market indices in 2005.  Maybe it’s time you consider them.  (Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.)

As for bonds, BCA has a similar outlook – a continued trading range .  While the editors expect there to be some minor trends, up and down, in bond yields over the next year or two, they predict that “yields will be relatively modest by the standards of the past few decades.”  

Again, this forecast is based on BCA’s view that inflation will be mild for the next year or longer.  The editors go on to say, “… the conquest of inflation means that bonds have become a relatively boring asset class.”  Within that overall context, the editors believe that US and Australian bonds will perform the best in 2006.

In the area of foreign currencies and the US dollar, BCA has a similar mixed view for the next year.  While the editors continue to believe that the US dollar is in a long-term bear market, they are not compelled to reinstate short positions.  They were correct that the dollar would rebound in 2005.  They are not so certain about the dollar’s path in 2006 - possibly another trading range.  For now, they continue to prefer the Japanese yen and the Canadian dollar.

Next, we move on to the real estate market, which has been a bonanza for many investors in recent years.  As noted earlier, the signs continue to mount that we have seen a peak in real estate prices.  My advice late last year was to take some profits and lighten-up on any speculative real estate you owned, including real estate mutual funds.  I stand by that advice.

The big question now is whether real estate prices, including home prices, are in for a steep decline or rather just a modest correction.  BCA suggests the latter.  The editors believe that home prices will fall in the hottest markets, especially the coasts, but they do not see a major plunge in home prices on the national level.  They point to the pattern of home prices in Great Britain, which saw a similar boom but no major implosion in prices.  “House prices in the U.S. are likely to stagnate rather than collapse.”

As noted above, all of these forecasts are based on the assumption that no major negative surprises occur in 2006.  Obviously, the threat of terrorism remains a wild card.  Another huge spike in oil prices is also a wild card.  While the editors at BCA remain long-term bullish on oil and energy prices, and recommend buying on dips, they do not expect that energy prices will rise to the point of snuffing out the strong economy in 2006.

BCA’s Most Surprising New Forecast  

BCA has not been a big fan of gold since the mid-1970s when inflation was soaring.  In fact, BCA has mostly been bearish on gold since they recommended selling it in late 1979.  However, in December, the editors published a Special Report on gold in which they predicted that gold will rise to near $1,000 per ounce over the next several years.

Given their outlook for continued low inflation for at least the next several years, it no doubt comes as a surprise to many readers that they have taken such a bullish position on gold.  However, BCA’s latest bullish stance on gold is more in line with their predictions for other commodities over the last year or two.  In other words, they are bullish on gold more for supply and demand reasons than out of concern for inflation.

Frankly, I will be surprised if gold goes to $1,000 or even to the previous record high of $850, but as I said earlier, BCA is much more often right than wrong.  Gold hit a 25-year high in December, so I would not recommend chasing the market at this level.

Conclusions

There is indeed some very encouraging news on the US economy as discussed on pages 1 and 2, news that you are not likely to hear in the mainstream media.   While BCA predicts that the economy will slow marginally in 2006, to a 3-3½% rate in GDP growth, they see no recession in sight for at least the next year and probably longer.  And they see inflation remaining low for the next several years, which is the centerpiece of their optimistic outlook for the economy.

The yield curve is likely to invert slightly over the next 3-6 months, especially if the Fed raises short-term rates two more times.  However, if inflation remains low as BCA expects, they do not believe that a mildly inverted yield curve will lead to a recession as has been the case in the past.  Keep this in mind as you hear much more about the yield curves in the weeks and months ahead.

BCA predicts that equities and bonds will remain in a broad trading range again this year and suggests buying the dips and other active management strategies.  BCA believes that home prices on the national level are likely to slip modestly but not collapse.  The editors continue to believe that energy prices will rise over the next several years, but not by enough to send us into a recession.  Finally, the editors have become long-term bulls on gold.

Lastly, I must remind you that while BCA has been my single best source for economic and financial advice for almost 30 years, they are not perfect .  No one is.  With that said, I recommend BCA very highly.

I encourage you to visit their website at: www.bcaresearch.com and consider subscribing.

Best New Year’s regards,

Gary D. Halbert

SPECIAL ARTICLES

The Plague of Success (an excellent read for all)
http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson122905.html

Unleashing the CIA: Bush has done the right thing
http://gamma.unionleader.com/article.aspx?headline=Unleashing%2Bthe%2BCIA%3a%2BBush%2Bhas%2Bdone%2Bthe%2Bright%2Bthing&articleId=e4bcdae8-e5f2-46f9-952c-af2ddd2f1c67

Time for the President to call their bluff
http://www.townhall.com/print/print_story.php?sid=180703&loc=/opinion/columns/tonysnow/2005/12/30/180703.html

The Truth About The Lies About Iraq
http://www.aim.org/media_monitor/4256_0_2_0_C/


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Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, Halbert Wealth Management, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.

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