Business

American gloom spooks investors

Jobs fair in Los Angeles
Image caption Jobs have become harder to find in the US

It was as if investors had spent all May worrying whether something was going seriously wrong with the global recovery, and then on 3 June their worst fears were confirmed.

The US admitted that the process of job creation had slowed to a crawl.

A crawl is probably a rather generous way of describing the 54,000 jobs that America managed to create.

It is generally thought that the country needs to create some 200,000 every month just to keep pace with the growing population, so it is worth casting a glance at the detail of these payroll and unemployment figures to get an idea of the mountain the US still has to climb.

There are just under 14 million people officially unemployed, 9.1% of the workforce.

As in most countries, the young are getting the thick end of the wedge. Unemployment among teenagers is 24%.

Then there are the 2.2 million individuals described as "marginally attached to the labour force".

They are not working, they want to work, have been looking for work over the last year, but because they have not searched for work in the last month don't get counted as unemployed.

So it is not unreasonable to estimate there are 16 million people in the US who want to work but cannot.

Huge inventory

Inextricably tangled up in unemployment is the issue of housing.

Average home prices slumped 5.1% in the first quarter of the year from the same period in 2010.

This comes from the latest report from the S&P Case-Shiller index, which has sunk down to 2006 levels.

The infamous double-dip recession that everyone worried about last year has now re-emerged in the announcement from David Blitzer, the chairman of the committee that puts this index together.

He said it was "marked by the confirmation of a double-dip in home prices across much of the nation".

Inventory in the market is still huge and the estimates on actual and pending foreclosures vary so wildly they make it impossible to predict the length of the slump.

So you can see why the US equity market is in a mood to sell.

'Defying reality'

The last week of May was the fifth straight fall for the Dow and the S&P 500, and that makes it the longest losing streak since mid 2004.

Image caption Plenty of houses for sale means prices remain low in the US

But there is an argument that investors have so far got off pretty lightly.

On 29 April, the Dow hit its highest level in just under three years, and there was a general feeling that it had gone as far as it was going to go and that a correction was due.

A correction can be anything between 5% and 20%.

Well, we have had about 5%.

Justin Urquhart Stewart, director of Seven Management, believes there is a good deal more to come.

"The US can't go on defying reality for ever," he says.

"The American market has been held up by cash, borrowing, merger and acquisition and historically good corporate results.

"But that simply cannot last, and the working out of the debt has to take place.

"The trigger point will come with a big company, someone the size of, say, Alcoa, issuing a profits warning."

Weaker dollar?

Paradoxically, things then might look up for American exporters.

They have had a pretty anaemic devaluation to help them sell overseas.

The dollar is certainly weaker than it was during the crisis - around 1.45 to the euro against 1.25.

Investors still treat the greenback as a safe haven currency and insist on buying it whenever things start to look especially bleak.

But another panic over the deficit and a downgrade of US Treasuries may force dollar/euro well beyond 1.50.

That will cause uncomfortable strains with the world's big holders of US Treasuries, notably China, and possibly the end of the dollar's position as the world's reserve currency.

Mr Urquhart Stewart thinks that after a 10 year debt-fuelled boom, America is in for a 10 year deleveraging - and we are only on year three.