Americans know by now that in a globalized world, Greece's financial woes and China's scorching economy do not stay contained within their borders. Chances are your portfolio has recently lost a chunk of value precisely from the news coming from these distant regions.
Your understanding of global events and how they impact the domestic economy has never been more important. The U.S. has some real advantages and disadvantages that will impact the future performance of the American economy as whole and American companies specifically. The next few years will be rocky ones, and we'll be highly dependent on our ability to navigate the challenges ahead.
Dark Clouds On The Horizon
Greece accounts for less than 1% of U.S. exports, and many American companies don’t even bother doing business in the tiny nation of 11 million. Greece isn’t a very big part of European economic activity, either. But because French, German and British banks have made massive loans to Greece, economic problems in Greece have quickly morphed into financial problems for the rest of the EU. French banks, for example, may have to cut lending to French citizens, creating a very real possibility that problems in Greece will end up pushing the much larger French economy into recession. Extend that to the rest of the EU, and you're starting to talk about a real crisis.
The most dismal forecasts didn't play out (yet), but share prices fell worldwide on fears that the Greek crisis would spill over onto its similarly distressed peers, Spain, Portugal and Italy. The whole world is keeping a watchful eye on the entire southern fringe of the European continent, hoping it doesn't slide into bankruptcy.
With all the problems in the EU, the euro has plummeted -- good news for buyers of German cars, French wine or Spanish olive oil, but bad news for U.S. multi-nationals, most of which sell more goods in Europe than they produce there. Be prepared for many companies to tell you that second quarter sales and profits declined thanks to euro weakness.
In the midst of the economic crisis, the Obama administration vowed to make the U.S. much more competitive in global trade. The President correctly noted that a surge in exports is a sure-fire way to create jobs in our industrial heartland. Economists nodded in agreement, noting the dollar, which had been falling against the euro, would probably continue falling thanks to our persistent trade deficits. As the dollar fell, exports became more attractive, and the U.S. thought it found its path out of recession and persistent high unemployment.
The trouble now is the crisis in Greece and subsequent euro devaluation means the dollar is getting stronger, not weaker. And that makes U.S. factories less competitive. So now it looks like the export-led job creation we were all banking on will be hard to come by.
At the other extreme, China’s economic strength is also hemming in the U.S. economy. China is a voracious consumer of iron, copper, oil and many other commodities. As the Chinese economy keeps growing, it sucks in all these commodities and pushes up prices when supply fails to keep up with demand.
The U.S. has failed to capitalize on the recent boom in commodities even though it is reasonably rich in natural resources. Australia, Canada, Latin America, and even Africa have become global commodity exporters in addition to supplementing the Middle East’s role as the world's key energy supplier.
In the U.S. (and the rest of the world for that matter) raw materials are a key, if not the key cost of doing business. As companies spend more money on materials, they spend less on wage and salary increases. Since workers can't count on wage increases, they compensate by cutting spending. And because consumption makes up between 65 and 70% of the U.S. economy, decreasing consumption leads to slower economic growth. It's a vicious spiral.
U.S. exporters have been hit with the double-whammy of dollar strength and higher raw materials costs. And that makes many economists wonder how our country will ever be able to turn our massive trade deficit into a trade surplus. It’s like fighting with one arm tied behind your back.
The Silver Lining
If all this gloom and doom is discouraging, remember the U.S. has considerable strengths that, in most cases, can’t be replicated in other parts of the world. China may be able to make an IPad knock-off (the creatively named IPed), but it won't be able to manufacture a cheap knock-off of America's intellectual property protections.
Over many decades, the U.S. has developed a strong infrastructure of roads and transit systems, as well as world-class research and educational facilities. The lack of corruption and aforementioned intellectual property protections make it a destination for the world's brightest minds.
Thanks to talented, ambitious immigrants, the U.S. workforce continues to grow its population of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, the engines of tax revenue needed to support an aging population of Baby Boomers. Countries like China, Japan and many EU nations have rapidly aging workforces, and will soon be spending higher and higher proportions of their economic wealth on the aging and infirm.
Moreover, we are increasingly focused on industries that yield the highest profits. Apple Computer (Nasdaq: AAPL) makes its goods in Asia, but generates most if its profits here in the U.S. And that has translated into high-paying jobs for Apple employees and excellent returns for investors.
For all its faults, the U.S. is still one of the best places to invest, but as you're searching for opportunities, make sure you factor in global events; now, more than ever, the U.S. is just one piece of a larger global economy.