American economy blues: Everything you need to worry about

August 20, 2015, 8:10 PM UTC
Caterpillar To Shed 20,000 Jobs Worldwide As Profits Fall
CITY OF INDUSTRY, CA - JANUARY 26: Men walk near rows of Caterpillar products at Quinn Co. Caterpillar on January 26, 2009 in City of Industry, California. Under presser of a worsening economy, several industry giants announced today that they will lay off nearly 50,000 employees. The biggest international manufacturer of construction equipment, Caterpillar, will eliminate 20,000 jobs, about 18 percent of its workforce, after it announced its fourth-quarter profit dropped of 32%. In addition, Home Depot, Sprint Nextel Corp, Texas Instruments Inc., and Pfizer Inc. all announced thousands of layoffs today. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew—Getty Images

May I have your attention please?

I bring you terrible news.

Oil prices have plunged to the point where it hasn’t been this cheap to fill up your gas tank in over a decade. Businesses that count energy as an input cost will be forced to figure out what to do with the excess capital they’re not spending on fuel.

Speaking of excess capital, American corporations are struggling under the burden of enormous piles of cash they don’t have a use for. Each day they must choose between shrinking their floats or handing money back to shareholders in the form of record dividends.

Meanwhile, corporate profit margins are at risk now that companies are being pressured to pay the U.S. workforce a higher wage. These improved wages may result in greater consumption and demand for products and services, not to mention the spectre of revenue growth. Executives are horrified.

In the labor market, a shortage of skilled workers threatens America every day. Job openings are growing, quit rates are rising as people seek to improve their situation, and unemployment is declining. Growing companies are not able to hire the workers they need fast enough.


The housing market is similarly plagued. Building permits are on an annual run-rate of almost 30% growth this year. In major cities from coast to coast, buyers and renters are engaged in bidding wars and facing shortages of housing stock. This may force America’s construction companies to add more projects to their backlog and hire more people.

The news for those saving for retirement is equally dire. U.S. workers with 401(k) accounts have currently built up an average balance of $91,800 this spring. This puts them at great risk of temporary drawdowns at some unspecified point in the future. Those employees who’ve been contributing to a 401(k) for 10 years or more have an even bigger potential problem on their hands—they’ve got average balances of $251,600. U.S. workers are potentially exacerbating this looming threat, according to Fidelity, as 23% of them have hiked the amount they’re contributing over the last year.

American politicians all know that we are doomed, thanks to competition from China, which has both a cratering stock market and a sinking currency. It is clear that we will never be able to compete with our largest economic counterpart, thanks to their rapidly decelerating economic growth and declining ability to throw more debt at their malaise. This is clearly shaping up to be the Chinese Century. I have no idea how we’ll ever keep up.

Down in Washington, a devastating development is now underway. The Federal Reserve is considering its first rate hike in nine years. Unfortunately, the emergency conditions that have kept interest rates low are no longer present. We are pushing dangerously close to full employment and, lamentably, our banking system no longer requires an IV drip of artificial support. Overnight borrowing costs may skyrocket by one-quarter of 1% if things continue to improve.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of all this bad news. It is, perhaps, the worst time to be living and investing in America. I wish you all the best of luck.

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