Since the end of the Great Recession in late 2009 our economy has experienced poor performance.  The bulk of the problem is simply slow growth.  Periodically, market instability has reared its ugly head and aggravated the problem.    For the past five years “headline volatility” and domestic shock ‘this’ and overseas crisis ‘that’ have frustrated investors and consumers alike.  Volatile prices and returns in financial, commodity, and resource markets periodically erased what little progress had been made over time.

Looking at VIX[1] volatility over the past 5 years, (takes you to Yahoo Finance, click on the 5y VIX graph option) we see a vivid account of the financial crisis turmoil starting in 2008.  We also see the slide in overall fluctuation during the recession (2009-10), and the sporadic instability throughout the sluggish recovery.  The question that comes to mind is whether we are on the verge of another volatility flare-up or if our respite during 2012 represents the beginning of a more reasonable pattern.

Compelling arguments can be made for both possibilities.  The pessimistic outlook is supported by a wide variety of disappointing factors.  The most recent Real GDP figure was a bust (preliminary 4Q 2012 at -0.1%), the unemployment rate has been stuck at the 7.8 to 7.9% level for the past 5 months, Congress can’t agree on fiscal discipline, and the international scene (consider the Eurozone economies, NW Africa fighting, Middle East unrest, N. Korea posturing, etc.) isn’t providing any growth assurances either.

The optimism or looked-for traction is not the glitzy, high-speed stuff but instead takes the form of modest-sized positive points that can be further built upon.  For instance, the recent dip in Real GDP is not of horrific proportions and may prove to be the product of transient uncertainty as the U.S. approached the year-end fiscal cliff.  We have, in fact, avoided a much-vaunted double-dip recession up to this point.  General inflation has also been very tame despite the tumult alluded to in the chart above.

Bright economic spots include the housing sector; both the financial and building components have reversed many negative trends and demonstrated repeated growth over a number of months.  Manufacturing has been spotty both geographically and over time but maintains growth prospects for the future.  Reorganizations domestically and higher labor costs abroad are just two factors supporting the assertion of “the stage being set” for U.S. growth.  Most bankruptcies reported recently involve firms that have been troubled long before the financial crisis and recession.  These zombie firms probably needed to die to make way for new ones that can get the job done right.

Energy production is another bright spot for the U.S.  With new oil and gas discoveries, in ten years the U.S. will be the largest oil producer in the world once again.  Our new-found energy wealth, along with our economic stability will help springboard additional investment in overall production capacity in the U.S.  How long will this take?  We can’t be sure but time is ticking away in terms of a valuable window of opportunity.  The longer Congress and the administration languish with “crisis-mode” policies instead of ones more compatible to recovery, the more likely we are to be distracted by adverse news headlines and suffer another bout of debilitating volatility.

© Steven T. Petty, Ph.D.  2/15/2013

[1] “VIX” is the ticker symbol for the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index.  The VIX Index shows the market’s expectation of 30-day volatility implied from a wide variety of S&P 500 Index options.  Through its S&P 500 exposureArticle Submission, the VIX provides a decent representation of overall price and return volatility in our various and sundry marketplaces.  Data obtained at:  http://www.cboe.com/