Looking Ahead to Q1 of 2009

Lyle Ellerbee

We’ve all heard the old adage, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” But exactly when can we expect things to lighten up? There’s so much paranoia and mistrust with a stock market in the tank and so many businesses already filing, or preparing to file, for bankruptcy, that while peering into the darkness, we see less than promising news for the first quarter of 2009.

Retailers will still be picking through the rubble of a disastrous holiday season. Some experts are predicting that we’ll witness the highest number of retail store bankruptcies in 35 years from small shops to entire malls and from electronics to apparel. Many predict that the future retail industry will be streamlined with fewer outlets, brands and even thinner profits.

More banks will fail as they’re unable to absorb vast write-downs from commercial loan losses and credit card defaults. This will be system wide across the banking industry and more regional banks will collapse. This is despite the fact banks are hording cash so they’ll have a buffer against their own potential losses. Citigroup has already received a Fed cash infusion of $25 billion and expects another $20 billion, but I don’t believe it’s going to be enough to get them out of the woods. So watch out for Citigroup and at least another major bank to be further nationalized.

It’s obvious that the auto industry won’t have any stellar earning news to report. In spite of the $6 billion of government aid, it remains to be seen whether or not GM and Chrysler will be able to land on their feet. Even with a $5 billion stake in the automaker’s financing arm, GMAC, I’m not holding my breath about this easing the credit crisis any time soon.

With consumption and demand low, I do not expect oil and other commodities to rebound in the first quarter. Crude oil prices, which saw wide fluctuations in 2008, will most likely remain volatile into 2009. According to forecasts from oil traders, economists and the International Energy Agency, expect to see oil trading in a range of $40 to $65 a barrel. Prices reached a record peak of $147.27 in July, 2008, but a global credit freeze and the recession plunged prices to below $50. Swings in prices may continue, but are expected to be less dramatic in 2009. We can expect poor earnings reports for most corporations in Q4, 2008 and I expect there will be further curtailing of capital expenditures across other industries. In fact, look for record bankruptcies to decimate many industry sectors besides construction, finance and retail. Reports started to emerge last week that the world’s third largest chemical company LyondellBasell Industries is considering filing for bankruptcy protection. Despite the dismal corporate earnings, I think we may see the market get a boost from the Obama inauguration on January 20, but it will be short lived. Consider the mess he has inherited: unemployment on the rise, housing prices on the decline, and GDP is expected to contract by 6% in Q4, though the exact numbers are still forthcoming, as are estimates for Q1 2009. Industrial production will most likely continue to slide and while an Obama administration stands for hope and change, it may take until late Q2 or Q3 before consumer confidence shows any signs of improvement.

The recession will continue not only in the U.S., but will permeate other major and developing countries causing further stagnation to the global economy. Expect to see further trade rifts such as the current one between the Chinese and the U.S. and the Mexican blockade of U.S. beef. This will result in short-term protectionism rather than open trade, a condition that could prevail until the economy rebounds around 2010.

In spite of all the gloom and doom and predictions of a prolonged recession, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York conducted a survey and found some surprising results the majority of Americans are optimistic about what is in store in 2009. Granted, those with the highest expectations for a brighter future were under the age of 45 and probably hadn’t lost a big chunk of their retirement savings. Sixty-four percent of those under 45 had an optimistic view compared with 52 percent for those 45 or older.

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