The US Is Winning The Recovery Race

Published in Investing Strategy on 14 May 2010

So is it worth investing Stateside?

After sweating over the troubles in Europe, it's a relief to turn to the US. 

While Athens burns, and Spain launches an austerity programme in the face of 40% youth unemployment, things look a little brighter over the pond.

In the US, GDP grew at an annual rate of 3.2% in the first quarter, the third straight quarterly gain, as the country pulls out of its longest and toughest recession since the 1930s. Clegg-Cam could do with some of that, not to mention Merkel, Sarkozy, Papandreou and Zapatero.

US GDP growth in the first three months was 0.8%, compared to 0.2% in Germany and the UK, 0.1% in Spain and France, and an 0.8% drop in Greece. Way to go, America.

So should your investment money be sailing across the sea to be with your Uncle Sam?

Sweet and greasy

Despite that promising GDP growth figure, the US recovery isn't going to be smooth. For every sweet slice of good news to savour, there's a greasy hunk of bad news to swallow.

GDP may be rising, but this has forced up its trade deficit, which climbed to a 15-month high in March to $40.4bn, mostly due to rising corporate and consumer demand sucking in extra imports (good news for the rest of us?).

The country's largest trade gap is with China, with a 2.4% deficit worth $16.9bn in March, so we can expect more threats to push China into devaluing its currency. Another worry is that US exporters may also catch contagion from the euro zone, which accounts for 15% of US exports.

Good news, bad news

On the plus side, the US created an extra 290,000 jobs in April. On the downside, unemployment rose from 9.7% to 9.9%, as more people registered as looking for work. In total, 15.3 million people are unemployed.

Housebuilding rose to a 16-month high in March, and applications for building permits are up. But repossessions hit an all-time high in April, up 45% on one year ago, according to RealtyTrac, as banks plough through their backlog of foreclosures.

Some cities are harder hit than others. In Las Vegas, one in every 60 homes is getting a repossession notice. Yet almost 60% of US cities saw house prices rise in the first quarter, according to the National Association of Realtors.

US consumers, who drove global growth before the credit crunch, are also edgy. After rising for three successive months, consumer spending fell 2% in April, partly thanks to rising gasoline prices.

That can-do spirit

So much for the figures. I've been talking to specialist US fund managers this week, and they tell me how impressed they are by the way US companies have tackled the recession head on, aggressively cutting costs and positioning themselves nicely for the upturn. 

The technology sector looks particularly attractive, where companies have strong balance sheets, and believe that having lived through the dot.com bust, they can survive current troubles as well. The names Apple and IBM cropped up, you won't be surprised to hear.

Even though US consumers are no longer splashing the cash, many companies are benefiting from the collapse of their competitors, including consumer electronics company Best Buy, and industrial distributor Wesco.

The next Greece?

Anybody looking for light relief from European woes shouldn't raise their hopes too high. The US faces plenty of headwinds, including a lack of domestic savings, mighty fiscal deficits and addiction to overseas borrowing.

The recovery has been fuelled by the government pumping hefty sums into the private sector, all borrowed from abroad. It can't last forever, and the question now is whether the US consumer will be able to take up the slack in time that (while being hit with tax rises). As Bank of England governer Mervyn King pointed out this week, the US faces many of the same problems as Greece.

And we only have to look at the grisly fiscal fate of California to wonder whether it will have the nerve to tackle these problems with the same aggressive can-do spirit that individual companies have tackled the downturn.

The US also faces longer-term challenges. Although its population is younger than old Europe, demographics aren't on its side, and despite President Barack Obama's recent success, healthcare costs still weigh heavily on the economy.

US and them

I've been lucky enough to be invested in the top-performing US unit trust over the past three years, Neptune US Opportunities, which grew 37% in that time. I'm happy. 

Threadneedle American Smaller Companies has done almost as well. I'm usually an investment trust fan, but both funds outperformed the leading investment trust, JP Morgan American (LSE: JAM), which grew 28%.

The US has been growing faster than Europe, but it still faces many of the same challenges. In a globally-interconnected world, there is no easy way out of this recession for anybody.

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Comments

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Luniversal 15 May 2010 , 2:42pm

A propos the 15m jobless, it's worth bearing in mind that America's state-based unemployment insurance and benefits are more rudimentary than Europe's. Many out of work don't bother to register and don't show on the stats.

Also many Americans habitually work two or three jobs-- holidays are miserable by EU standards-- but others have only one part-time gig now, so the country's capacity for work is underutilised.

But the USA's chief longer term demographic problem is too un-PC to be frankly discussed.

By around 2050 whites and other high-IQ, educated, self-disciplined ethnicities such as Jews, orientals and high-caste Indians will account for under half of a much larger population. This will put strain on an already underinvested infrastructure and social capital. There will be vast numbers of blacks and 'Latinos' (mostly mestizo Mexicans, many illegal immigrants and/or non-English speakers) seeking employment, competing among themselves for grunt work, maybe fighting over dwindling spoils and bearing down heavily on government aid programmes and racial quotas, which are subsidised by the more productive sections of society.

When will Atlas shrug?

Instead of pruning the US welfare state-- as Clinton tried to do with workfare, and as Europe is having to do now-- it has been expanded by costly schemes such as Bush Jr's No Child Left Behind (inner city schools) and Obamacare. Both political parties are courting the black and brown electorates: already a quarter of the nation, and soon to be half or more.

The retiring Comptroller, David M. Walker, warned in 2008 that the Federal government was heading pell-mell towards insolvency because these programmes, and the costs of the USA's overseas crusades, were unsustainable. Nobody has plotted an escape route.

bimber 17 May 2010 , 11:40am

Luniversal, what you say is not only non-PC, it is nonsense. Have you heard of Bernie Madoff? He's from one of those "high-IQ, educated, self-disciplined ethnicities" which you mention and he defrauded people out of billions. I expect we will hear more names from those "communities" over the next few years, in connection with financial fraud on an epic scale.

It is not a lack of self discipline and education that holds people of these and other ethnicities back, it is primarily a lack of capital. Folks in the groups you mention generally arrived in the US with some capital (whether it be money, skills or social connections). Others are not so lucky, and they also suffer lack of opportunity because of the racism that you so clearly demonstrate still exists. The problems you outline are real, but the first step to a solution is to stop assuming that some types of people are better (more able to learn, more suited to a particular job, less likely to steal etc) and that others types are undeserving. In other words, you should be PC.

When Atlas Shrugs everyone will have the same legal protection as a poorly capitalised Mexican immigrant. The minimum wage will be what these people can generate from their own capital -- nothing -- and the differential will be maintained for everyone else.

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