The quiet time precedes economic action

By John Cunniff
Tuesday July 31, 2001

This is one of those quiet periods before the action begins, or at least that is how the current economic lull is being viewed by some analysts. 

Investors are biding their time, waiting for the upturn they believe is in the works.  

Consumers aren’t especially active; though positive, confidence has been unchanged for three months, according to the University of Michigan. 

These are the summer doldrums. Though more action is probable, the Federal Reserve has largely completed its rate-cutting.  

Tax rebates are coming. Companies are slowly cleaning debris from their balance sheets. 

Measured by the Gross Domestic Product, the economy is napping. Second-quarter growth of just 0.7 percent was an eight-year low. Even inflation, only 1.7 percent in the second quarter,  

is nodding. 

President Bush probably echoed the feelings of millions when, during a recent meeting with Future Farmers of America, he described the economy as just “puttering along,” not as strong as it could be. 

Economists at consultant DRI-WEFA seem to agree. With monetary and fiscal stimuli now in place, they suggest “there is little to do except wait for the inventory correction to run its course and businesses to resume buying high-tech equipment and services.” 

In short, not much seems to be going on. But a great deal is. 

There is a widespread feeling that we Americans botched a good thing when we greedily expected more from an economy that was almost a decade old. 

Seen and better understood in retrospect, as most debacles are, there’s a pervasive feeling that a little restraint would have prolonged the great expansion, but that now we’ve learned our lesson. 

There is anticipation. You can read in the analyses of economists and in stock market commentary, and hear it at social gatherings.  

It’s there in Fed and White House statements. Optimism outscores pessimism 10 to 1. 

There’s a widespread belief that the great semiconductor and Internet world is destined to resume its growth, bringing with it even greater wonders, even if few dare to say when the resumption will begin. 

The comments have a common theme, that a downturn is nature’s remedy for excesses, and that rather than dwell on how terrible things are, plans should be made for the recovery that surely will follow. 

This is especially surprising in the wake of the great storm that scattered thousands of companies to the wind, that erased between $4 trillion and $5 trillion of stock valuations, and that decimated 401(k)s. 

Optimism hasn’t drowned. Plans are being made.  

The troops are assembling for the battle, including those whose wounds haven’t healed from the collapse of the semiconductor markets. 

For value oriented investors, a cyclical downturn in the semiconductor equipment industry is a great opportunity, says Mitali Prasad of David L. Babson & Co. 

“More investors are following this sector closely and nobody wants to miss the next move in these stocks — which they believe will be huge, as in the past,” he writes.  

“Those who bought in 1991 made up to 10 times on their investments by 1995, and even the brief rally in 1997 led to a tripling of these stocks’ prices.” 

The memories, it seems, are selective. What’s remembered by these investors, it appears, is not the lost equity but the lost opportunity. 


John Cunniff is a business analyst  

for The Associated Press