We live in an ADHD society, where we expect we can pop a pill anytime there's a problem. Perhaps that's why politicians are never short of answers for how to cure our current economic funk, although at least during congressional or senate hearings, they sometimes seem woefully short of any financial acumen). The trouble is both political parties' ideas about how to cure our current plight are wrong. Flip on one of the cable news channels at all hours of the day and you'll find politicians and talking heads pontificating about simple answers to complex problems. On the right, we have tax cuts presented as the ideal fix for high joblessness. If only we extended the Bush tax cuts, cut payroll taxes, and cut corporate taxes, we are told, small businesses would have no uncertainty. They would start hiring people. Small business is the engine of job growth for America. But will a tax cut -- in this malaise -- really give business leaders the confidence to start hiring? I doubt it. How do you give business leaders confidence to hire? They'll only hire when they'll make more money than if they don't. They need to see consumers starting to buy again in greater numbers. But we know consumers are hunkering down and saving more, partly because business leaders aren't hiring. It's chicken-and-egg. How do you goose consumers to spend when businesses won't hire? Through tax cuts? Again, that alone is not going to change someone's outlook with the headwinds of uncertain housing prices, still elevated debt levels and a poor job market. So, on the left, we hear the chants for more stimulus. Actually, this chant is virtually only being made by Paul Krugman, as most left-leaning politicians are fearful to support the idea because they suspect the electorate will react negatively to the idea. Krugman had an interesting op-ed over the weekend in which he compared 2010 to 1938 and effectively showed how politicians then were guided by the polls and how wrong the public had been (now with hindsight). In 1938, like now, the majority of the public wanted tax cuts instead of increased government spending, yet that wasn't what got us out of the protracted economic depression. It took a World War -- and the massive stimulus it brought with it -- to bring the world out of its funk back then. Krugman uses that historical fact as support for his call for a gigantic stimulus now.
Yet, the political realities are such that we simply are not going to see stimulus at such a high level. If we get any stimulus at all in the coming years, it's likely to be a marginal amount which will do little to counter the continued trends of debt deleveraging, deflation, and forced austerity that will continue to push on governments, corporations, and consumers. In short, it's quite likely that none of the solutions offered by politicians will radically change the economic reality facing us. There's no pill we can pop to cure this debt hangover. The only solution is time. Carmen Reinhart, co-author of This Time It's Different, has said recently that it will likely take 10 years to come out of the multi-year debt binge and get back to normal economic growth levels and lower unemployment. I think she's right. That means we're only in the second or third year, depending on your start date. Pack a lunch. We're going to be here a while. The good news, says her co-author Ken Rogoff, is that the historical odds suggest we're unlikely to see economic growth crash through the floor. Instead, the greater likelihood is that we're in for a pancake recovery -- long and flat. That won't stop the politicians from continuing to offer solutions to fix the problem. The trouble is there are few good solutions, although there are many bad ones. Perhaps the best we can hope for from these politicians are fewer bad choices, instead of many good ones. We need to look at drastically cutting governmental spending. Social security, Medicaid, defense, and education spending (especially inefficient spending) will need to be hacked in the years to come. That's probably going to be more fertile ground for politicians on the right to focus, than on the tax side of the ledger. For many families out there, there is likely much greater economic pain ahead. Many jobs have been lost that are never coming back. Although some will push new skills training as a solution, geographic limitations and few job opportunities will make it difficult for many. The U-6 number of joblessness , which better reflects the actual numbers of Americans unable to work full-time in the labor market, will likely continue to rise and stay stubbornly high. British maverick hedge fund manger Hugh Hendry has suggested we might see a lost generation of workers in the U.S. (and other developed countries) who simply stay out of work until they die (as happened a generation ago in the UK). That's not a cheery sound bite you'll hear from a politician any time soon, but it might be right.
Only time will heal this economic hangover. What are the implications of that? Consumers and businesses must accept that and prepare for slow growth, so they will be able to survive over the long haul. Politicians must dramatically increase their financial and economic understanding and do no more harm than they already have. Investors, more than ever before, will have to truly generate alpha by finding individual companies (not indices) that are going to outperform despite the continued economic malaise. That's not a pessimistic view. It's realistic. One day, several years from now, we'll wake up and realize the worst is truly behind us, but it won't be in 2011 or 2012.