Tea Leaf: The ABCs of the U.S. economy

Published: Tuesday, June 14 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

This week's column is our semi-annual alphabetic view of the U.S. economy. Global ABCs will soon follow.

Anxiety — Tens of millions of people are anxious about their jobs, their home values, the costs of educating their kids, the costs of health care, their retirements and the perilous financial future of this nation. Any wonder consumer spending has slowed?

Budget deficits — These are averaging $1,400,000,000,000 annually in fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011, with $1 trillion deficits projected annually for as far as the eye can see. We add to the deficit by $160,000,000 every 60 minutes.

College — Yes, it is too expensive, but a sharp rise in average annual and lifetime earnings eases the pain. To quote Derek Bok, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Dollar — The trade-weighted value of the U.S. dollar has declined roughly 7 percent over the past year, making U.S. exports more competitive around the globe. Despite what the gold bugs constantly preach, the dollar will not stop being the world's primary currency anytime soon.

Energy — Greater use of abundant natural gas, better access to oil and gas in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and major progress in "clean burn" coal technology must be part of the equation in coming years, in addition to alternative sources.

Federal Reserve — Its key short-term interest rate has been at a historic low of 0 percent to 0.25 percent for 30 months, with no change expected anytime soon. Thirty-six of 38 national economists surveyed last week by The Associated Press (including yours truly) DO NOT want to see a third round of additional stimulus, known as QE3.

Global economy — Overall global growth is slowing as the three largest players, the U.S., China and Japan, have eased back. Inflation anxiety is more pronounced around the globe, led by higher oil and food prices.

Housing — Remember when home prices always went up, and used car prices always went down? Here's hoping U.S. home prices stabilize early next year.

Inflation — Financial markets are somewhat split as to whether inflation or deflation will be the fly in the ointment in coming years. Those fearing inflation see the Fed making some difficult monetary tightening decisions over the next 24 months.

Jobs — Solid employment gains in the private sector are the most desirable solution to economic growth, income and confidence challenges. Now, if the U.S. Congress would soon make some grown-up decisions about reducing future budget deficits … and then get out of the way.

Knowledge, and the ability to think — This is the key to individual success in an increasingly sophisticated economy. Ongoing education and training are now lifelong realities for many to be successful. Average annual earnings of a college graduate versus a high school graduate today? Seventy percent to 80 percent higher.

Limits, to government spending and to deficits — This is an important concept now hitting home across southern Europe, and sooner rather than later in the U.S. if we don't get a grip.

Manufacturing — Don't be surprised if rapidly rising global costs and more competitive U.S. costs lead to a surprising renaissance in U.S. manufacturing activity in coming years.

National debt — The gross national debt (quite descriptive actually) now exceeding $14,000,000,000,000, combined with budget deficits now exceeding $1 trillion annually, makes concrete moves toward fiscal sanity mandatory in the nation's capital.

Opportunity — Challenge breeds it.

Politics — Childish and boorish behavior on both sides of the aisle in Washington, D.C., is ridiculous, and all too typical. Is cooperation really that difficult?

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