The Stagflation Party

You know that guy who couldn't control himself once he got excited? The one who'd put a lampshade on his head before tossing the keg out the window of the dorm? The one who never stopped screaming "Wooooo!" even when everyone else was tired and just wanted to go to sleep?

Well, it seems he moved to Wall Street. Today, he heard the news that the party has not only ended, but that the cops might be busting heads. Yet he's still going "Wooooo!" The new stock highs we're approaching seem boring compared to the enthusiasm for certain companies. Look at what's happening at Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) or Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) . How about Netgear (Nasdaq: NTGR  ) and Cummins (NYSE: CMI  ) ? Mr. Market seems to believe all is well. I don't buy it.

But that's only because Wall Street's enthusiasm doesn't make much sense. The Department of Commerce today reported that the economy's growth slowed to a trickle. Worst in four years, the headlines say. And to make matters worse, inflation is heading up. That's what they used to call "stagflation," and it's the kind of thing that crippled the U.S. for years.

Not that the government wants you to know it. In fact, the headline news at the Department of Commerce's "economic news" page is a three-week old, now completely laughable piece of Bush Administration propaganda. "President Bush's pro-growth formula continues to produce positive results -- strong job creation, solid GDP growth ..." claims Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, when in fact the numbers tell an uglier truth. (Amazingly, nowhere on the page do the GDP numbers appear at all. Nor will you even find a link to them. You'll find them on a separate site, courtesy of your favorite search engine. Way to go, Mr. G.)

In fact, the GDP crawled forward only 1.3% in the first quarter, way below what economists expected, and about half of the 2.5% growth the economy achieved in Q4. The same release notes that the index of prices consumers paid for goods shows an increase of 3.6% for the quarter, as opposed to 0.2% in Q4. If you live in that fantasy world where gas and food prices don't matter (you know, the one politicians live in), then prices are still seemingly increasing at a 2.8% clip.

Headlines already pin the blame on the housing market, with some good reason. Wednesday's new-home sales numbers showed a 23.5% year-over-year drop for March (subject to a 7.9% margin of error). That means there's nearly eight months' worth of inventory on the market. The relative glut hasn't strangled builders like D.R. Horton (NYSE: DHI  ) and Beazer Homes (NYSE: BHZ  ) as much as we might expect, but epic bubbles don't always unravel quickly.

It does mean that Americans can't count on the old housing ATM anymore, which is troubling, because those Commerce Department numbers show, once again, that net savings is negative. So what happens when prices go up, the economy slows, and there's no more easy spending money?

The rest of the press is asleep out there, making the usual calls to economists to provide nonsensical, soothing soundbites like "the economy was taking a breather." But Fools ought to give more thought to the possibility that things aren't as great as everyone pretends -- and that someday, it might just have an effect on earnings and stock prices.

Comments? Bring them here.

Amazon.com is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. For solid, sensible picks to beat the market, tap the Foolish insights of David and Tom Gardner with a free 30-day trial subscription

At the time of publication, Seth Jayson had no positions in any company mentioned here. See his latest blog commentary here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.


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