9/24/13 – Gratitudes for America

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA, CAIA, MAI

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This entry was posted on Sep 24, 2013 11:22:23 AM

and tagged Fiscal Cliff, Commentary

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As I mentioned yesterday, the countdown to fiscal meltdown is back on. Washington, DC, has once again formed a circular firing squad, busily loading weapons and aiming across the circle, oblivious to the fact that the guy on the other side is doing the same thing.

I don’t want to talk about that, though. There’s no real news today on the economic front, and the fact of the matter is that we’ll get through it. There may be damage, and there will certainly be drama, but the republic will still be standing a couple of months from now, when we’ll be fussing about something else.

Without minimizing the current situation at all, it is important to maintain perspective. As I’ve mentioned many times before, one of the best ways I have found to do that are my daily gratitudes. I’ve been doing them for years now, and I still find new things to be grateful for on a regular basis.

Today, though, rather than my personal gratitudes, I thought I’d put down a few related to being a U.S. citizen. We have a lot to be grateful for, despite our problems, and it is these strengths that will ultimately pull us through.

Gratitude #1: The energy revolution

I’m usually at least a month behind on my reading, sometimes more. One piece I recently got to was a Citigroup report on the U.S. energy revolution, “Energy 2020: Independence Day.”

I was familiar with the thesis behind it, as I’ve written about it before, but the detail and scope of the analysis really spoke to me. Let’s hit some highlights:

  • There have been multiple major gainers in production, with the U.S., Canada, and Iraq being the biggest.
  • Other suppliers are positioned for rapid growth as well.
  • Even as supply grows around the world, demand is trending down.
  • Prices should drop over the next decade.
  • The effects on the U.S. will likely be wide and immensely positive.

To the extent we have problems—and we do—there’s also an immense tailwind behind us here.

Gratitude #2: The dropping deficit

In a presentation I gave two years ago at the Commonwealth National Conference, I noted that the deficit was really the only competitive weakness the U.S. had with respect to other countries. Looking at the Congressional Budget Office’s figures, we’ve made substantial progress. Using the CBO’s baseline budget projections, the deficit dropped from 7 percent of GDP in 2012 to an estimated 4 percent in 2013, and it should fall further to the mid-2s through 2018. With growth expected to pick up past the mid-2s level in the next couple of years, this gives us a chance to start whittling away at the debt as a percentage of GDP. Not only can we stop digging the hole we’re in, we can actually start to fill it in.

Again, we’re still in a hole, and it will start to get deeper again as deficits climb after 2018, but at least the problem does not appear to get worse. If you look at other countries, we are very competitively positioned. The deficit is no longer a significant weakness.

Gratitude #3: Apple, Tesla, and American business

The only justification for free enterprise is that it works. No other system provides a higher level of average human well-being. There are certainly problems, but, as with democracy, you have to say it’s the worst solution except for all the others. I mentioned briefly the other day the triumph of the Internet, to the point we no longer see it at all, and the pending triumph of the new energy economy. What has driven this are largely American companies, although not, I have to add, all American research; many scientists and engineers come here from elsewhere. The fact that they do come—and succeed—here is another testament to the American business environment.

Another sector that usually comes in for a fair share of abuse is finance. Let’s take a closer look at this. Because of the financial sector, millions of Americans who couldn’t have otherwise were able to buy homes. Many of those people lost their homes, which is a tragedy, but many others are still owners, not renters. The same can be said for access to car loans, student loans, and credit cards. All have multiple downsides, of course, but they ultimately help the majority of the population manage their financial lives better than they could have even a decade ago. American business is a vastly underappreciated force for human betterment, here and abroad.

Gratitude #4: Canada and Mexico

If I had to pick two countries to have on our long borders, I could do much worse than Canada and Mexico. Both have oil, are politically stable, are nonthreatening in a military and social sense, and are poised to grow strongly over the next couple of decades, which should help North America as a whole and the U.S. in particular. When you consider the situation of Russia and China, which have each other as neighbors, or India, with China and Pakistan, it’s easy to see that the U.S. is very lucky in its geography.

I could go on for some time with these gratitudes, but you get the idea. While we certainly have challenges—and I devote most of this blog to focusing on them—in terms of the bigger picture, we have much to be grateful for. Keep this in mind during the drama of the next couple of weeks. This too will pass.

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